Triangulating the history of science communication: Faraday, Marcet and Smart

Brigitte Nerlich
University of Nottingham

The 19th century was a time of monumental change in science, industry and also communication. In this blog post I shall poke around in one very small corner of all the revolutionary things that happened during that century. I shall focus on the overlapping lives and works of three people, Michael Faraday (1801-1867), scientist and science communicator, Jane Marcet (1769-1858), author of popular books on science and economics, and Benjamin Humphrey Smart (1786?–1872), elocutionist, grammarian and philosopher of language.

Marcet knew Faraday, Faraday knew Smart, but Smart and Marcet didn’t know each other, as far as I can make out. However, looking at what they did, together and apart, affords us some interesting insights into the history of early science communication and possibly some lessons for future science communication.

Michael Faraday giving a Christmas lecture

Marcet and Faraday

Jane Marcet, like quite a few other (privileged) women of her time, went to listen to lectures on chemistry given by Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) at the Royal Institution (“probably Davy’s series on General chemistry which started in 1803”). She realised that she couldn’t quite follow what he said and what he demonstrated, as she, like so many other women (in fact, anybody who didn’t have access to education), did not quite have the requisite background knowledge and education.

Marcet therefore decided to write a book about chemistry to provide such background knowledge for other women, indeed for anybody who suffered from such a ‘deficit’; and to share her excitement of learning chemistry. She wrote her book in the lively form of ‘conversations’, a literary form used, for example, in Fontenelle‘s famous Conversations on the Plurality of the Worlds (1686).

Unlike previous writers, however, Marcet based her conversations on her personal and practical experience, that is to say, the conversations and experiments she carried out together with her husband, who had more solid background knowledge in chemistry. Her Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Especially for the Female Sex were published anonymously in 1805. They also encouraged people to try their own experiments and contained a number of useful illustrations.

Faraday began working as an apprentice bookbinder in 1804 at the age of 14. Having no formal education, he took every opportunity he could to read some of the books that came his way. At the age of 19 he came across Marcet’s book which reinforced his burgeoning interest in chemistry.

Inspired by Marcet and other scientific readings, in “1812, he was eager to learn as much science as possible, and he managed to gain entrance to Humphry Davy’s lectures: the same lectures that had inspired Marcet to write her book!”. By some accident of life, Faraday was hired as Davy’s assistant and later, from 1825 onwards, gave the now famous Christmas lectures for young people at the Royal Institution, including, in 1848, six lectures on The Chemical History of the Candle. These lectures were, in part, inspired by Marcet, and, in a nice twist of science communication, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) promptly serialised them “as short stories in his magazine Household Words”.

Faraday and Marcet corresponded throughout their lives, indeed engaged in literary dialogue, and Faraday provided Marcet with information that enabled her to regularly update her book with the latest scientific knowledge. Strangely, although both of them lived in London, they only met once in strange circumstances in Switzerland.

Faraday and Smart

How does Smart fit in? We know less about Smart and Faraday than we know about Marcet and Faraday, but a recent article by Finnegan (2017) has shed some light on this relationship and I shall quote from it extensively. Smart “resided in London, and employed himself in teaching elocution. On 4 Feb. 1850 he was elected a member of the Athenæum Club“, seconded by Faraday. They had known each other for a long time.

As Finnegan points out, in “1818 Faraday attended Smart’s lectures on elocution, delivered in the Royal Institution. In the years that followed, Faraday cultivated his oratorical skills by taking private instruction from Smart. Faraday also paid Smart to attend his lectures to review the merits and demerits of his verbal delivery, a practice he continued until at least 1835 […]. Faraday also attended to Smart’s advice on posture and gesture” (p. 196).

The right combination of speech and gesture is important, as, according to Smart, it enables “auditors to experience emotions that expanded the cultural connotations of scientific speech beyond technical aspects encoded in logical and lucid argumentation” (p. 197).

“In this sense, Faraday’s lectures, with their particular prosodic properties and accompanying gestures, offered an embodiment in sound and movement of the characteristics of speech at once scientific and stimulating” (p. 198).

Faraday’s lectures and experiments, inspired by Marcet’s popular science books (based themselves on conversations and dialogue) and Smart’s rhetorical coaching, became more than just spectacles. They were based on quite deeply researched principles of ‘science communication’, rooted in with Smart’s philosophy of language and rhetoric.

In his famous book An Outline of Sematology (Smart, 1831; see Nerlich, 1992), Smart argued that language is not just an instrument for the representation of thought; it is instead a rhetorical instrument. “[A]s a rhetorical instrument, language is, in truth, much more used to explore the minds of those who are addressed, than to represent, by an expression of correspondent unity, the thought of the speaker; – rather to put other minds into a certain posture or train of thinking, than pretending to convey at once what the speaker thinks.” (Smart, 1831: 184) That’s what Faraday did for science – put his listeners in a train of thinking, rather than just transmitting, in a linear way, his own thoughts to them.

Science communication triangulated

Smart (theoretically) and Faraday (practically) developed what one might call nowadays ‘audience centred science communication’, as opposed to a speaker just transmitting thoughts to a hearer. This was also the ethos of Marcet’s ‘conversations’, literary conversations transformed into “the form of dialogue” (Conversations on Chemistry, Preface) by being grounded in real conversations.

But going beyond Smart and Faraday, Marcet didn’t only excel as a science communicator, she also, argues Forget, “engaged in the work of the knowledge broker – facilitating the creation, sharing and use of […] knowledge. She created and maintained social and intellectual networks between and among scientists and the larger public”.

Marcet and many other 19th-century science ‘intermediaries’, many of them women, established successful flows of give and take, of mixing and matching between science and popular culture and between scientists and the general public. Not only that, they also appreciated, exploited and reinforced the links between reason and emotion, mind and feelings, thus making science communication more than just the representation and transmission of thoughts or facts. However, they did this with a very deep respect for facts, a respect they shared with Faraday and others!

As Helen Stark has pointed out: “In her preface to the Conversations on Political Economy, Marcet argues that the “colloquial form” is an appropriate format for the content of her book because the dialogue illustrates the questions that are ‘likely to arise in the mind of an intelligent young person, fluctuating between the impulse of her heart and the progress of her reason, and naturally imbued with all the prejudice and popular feelings of uninformed benevolence”.

This mirrors Smart’s insistence on bringing reason and emotion together through rhetoric and gestures when communicating (science). Indeed, he praised the use of tropes, figures of speech, and metaphors which are, according to him, “essential parts of the original structure of language; and however they may sometimes serve the purpose of falsehood, they are, on most occasions, indispensable to the effective communication of truth. It is only by [these] expedients that mind can unfold itself to mind; – language is made up of them; there is no such thing as an express and direct image of thought.” (Smart, 1831: 214)

This stands in direct opposition to long-held views about metaphor obstructing the revelation and transmission of truth, held for example by early members of the Royal Society. Thomas Sprat (1635-1713) and John Locke (1632-1704) would probably be slightly aghast at seeing a scientist working together with a rhetorician for the advancement of science!

Conclusion

For Faraday the science of effective speech was essential for effective speech about science.” For Marcet the practice of real conversation was essential for the effective popularisation of science. For Smart a thorough understanding of rhetoric grounded in a new philosophy of language was essential for effective communication, including science communication.

In his 2016 dissertation on “Darwin, Huxley, and the 19th-century rhetoric of science”, which is well worth reading, Jeffrey Thomas Wright, points out: “Science did not only recently become a relevant topic for rhetoricians. It was of interest to them back in the Victorian era and before. Moreover, the rhetoricians’ views of science were of interest to the scientists, themselves. In this respect, the rhetoric of science was more powerful than it is today—even though the field did not exist as a separate discipline.” (p. 117) Wright refers here, for example, to Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) appreciation of Smart’s work, in particular his insights into how metaphors and analogies work in science and science writing.

I think it is worth reinvigorating exchanges between experts in science and experts in rhetoric – and it would be great if these could happen on the basis of mutual appreciation, respect and understanding, unencumbered by highly theoretical debates about ‘science communication’ and the so-called ‘deficit model’.

The so-called ‘deficit model’(see Gregory and Miller, 2000), as postulated by social scientists reflecting on science communication, is said to be based on a misconception attributed to science communicators, namely that they assume that the general public doesn’t understand science and needs to be educated about it, or that it doesn’t know enough about science and needs to know more – a deficit needs to be filled.

Another aspect of the ‘deficit model’ is assumed to be that science communicators think that once knowledge is established, trust in science will follow. This linear ‘model’ has been described and then criticised by social scientists and led to the development of newer models of public engagement, interaction and dialogue, based on appreciating the general public’s existing knowledge.

I wonder whether it might be a good idea to think about all this again in light of this short glimpse of the history of science communication. Marcet tried to fill a perceived deficit in people’s (especially women’s) knowledge about chemistry so that once that deficit was filled, they could go out and enjoy and appreciate lectures on chemistry. Faraday was only too happy to fill his gaps in learning and education by reading any book about science he could get hold of, even ones written for women. He was also glad to fill gaps in his knowledge of communication by working with a communication expert.

Filling knowledge or information deficits in a sensitive and respectful way does not belittle people, it empowers them. It does not have to be paternalistic. Indeed, engaging in knowledge or information deficit filling is immensely important in a modern society where democratic dialogue is, or should be, encouraged and should be based on facts and evidence. As David Dickson so memorably said in 2005: “The process of democratic dialogue over science and technology-based issues is critical to the effective functioning of modern societies. But providing reliable information in an accessible way — in other words, filling the relevant ‘knowledge deficit’ — is an essential prerequisite of both healthy dialogue and effective decision-making.” I think Marcet, Faraday and Smart would have agreed with that.

Epilogue

I was putting the finishing touches to this blog post when I came across this paragraph in a twitter ‘thread’ by the actor and science communicator Stephen McGann. He told his readers that he grew up in a working-class context: “To know something was liberation – a growth of self that gave a life dignity. One of the worst insults on those streets was to be an ‘ignoramus’ – someone who gloried in their own lack of knowledge. This wasn’t a slight on those who *couldn’t* know, but those who chose not to.” How do we get back to this sort of culture, a culture in which science communication is not a contested activity but a generally valued one and were glorying in ones own lack of knowledge was generally frowned upon?

References

Ball, P. (2018). The marvellous Mrs Marcet. Chemistry World.

Comyn, S. (2016). Political economy and the language of feeling: Rereading Jane Marcet. Blog post on The History of Emotions Blog.

Dickson, D. (2005). The case for a ‘deficit model’ of science communication. SciDev. net, 27.

Finnegan, D. A. (2017). Finding a scientific voice: Performing science, space and speech in the 19th century. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 42(2), 192-205.

Forget, E. L. (n.d.). Jane Marcet and the scholarship of popularisation.

Gregory, J. and Miller, S. (1998). Science in Public: Communication, culture, and credibility. London: Plenum Press

Ings, S. (2018). New expectations. New Scientist 238, 3182, p. 43.

Nerlich, B. (1992). Semantic Theories in Europe, 1830 1930: From etymology to contextuality. Amsterdam: John Benjamin.

Nerlich, B. (2017). Digging for the roots of the deficit model. Making Science Public Blog.

Rossotti, H. (2007). The woman that inspired Faraday. Chemistry World: 58–61.

Skulls in the Stars Blog (2014). Blog post: Jane Marcet educates Michael Faraday.

Stark, H. (2016). Political economy and the language of feeling: Rereading Jane Marcet. Blog post for The History of Emotions Blog.

Williams, L. P. (1960). Michael Faraday’s Education in Science. Isis, 51(4), 515-530.

Wright, J. T. (2016). Darwin, Huxley, and the Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric of Science. Thesis.

How to cite this post

Nerlich, Brigitte. 2018. Triangulating the history of science communication: Faraday, Marcet and Smart. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2018/10/16/triangulating-history-scicomm/

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Posted in 19th century, History

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