"Public understanding of science" in America, 1945-1965

Bruce V Lewenstein, University of Pennsylvania


The 20 years after World War II (1945-1965) saw the rise of a formal, institutional concern with popular science, which came to be known as the "problem" of "public understanding of science." This dissertation traces the rise of that concern, and the reaction to it by four groups: commercial publishers, scientific societies, science writers, and government agencies. Although each group had its own reasons for responding, they came to a consensus: the term "public understanding of science" meant "public appreciation of and support for the benefits that science provides to society." The consensus developed because the groups shared common values, especially a moral commitment to the value of science in the modern world and a belief in the congruence of science with democracy. The thesis begins by examining two magazines created in the late 1940s, the short-lived Science Illustrated and the new Scientific American, to show that economic constraints dictated the response of commercial publishers to the public understanding of science problem. Next, a discussion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's renewed commitment to public understanding of science in the early 1950s shows the institutional revitalization that popular science provided to scientific societies. Public understanding of science also provided a route to professionalization for science writers during the 1950s (especially through the National Association of Science Writers and its offshoot, the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing). At government agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, "public education" proved an effective institutional rationale for public information activities. Finally, despite its institutional focus, the thesis acknowledges the special role of foundation executive Warren Weaver (1894-1978) in shaping public understanding of science programs during the postwar period. The thesis is based on extensive archival research, contemporary published materials, and interviews with participants. It is part of an emerging literature that treats popular science as an element of the history and sociology of science, rather than as a branch of journalism.

Subject Area

Science history|Journalism

Recommended Citation

Lewenstein, Bruce V, ""Public understanding of science" in America, 1945-1965" (1987). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI8804924.