Popular Science in Times of Covid

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust scientists and science explainers into the public eye. Although we may think of their presence in the media as something new, popularization has in fact been part of science since there has been science. Today’s scientists who go on talk shows, record podcasts, or fight disinformation on Twitter are beholden to their forebears in many ways. This article explores the history of popular science in Germany since the nineteenth century and how it has lead to the present moment in science communication.

Die Covid-19-Pandemie hat Wissenschaftler*innen und wissenschaftliche Erklärungsansätze in den Fokus der Öffentlichkeit gerückt. Auch wenn wir ihre Präsenz in den Medien für etwas Neues halten, ist die Popularisierung tatsächlich ein Teil der Wissenschaft, seit es sie gibt. Die heutigen Wissenschaftler*innen, die in Talkshows auftreten, Podcasts aufnehmen oder auf Twitter gegen Desinformation ankämpfen, stehen in vielerlei Hinsicht in einer Traditionslinie mit ihren Vorfahren. Dieser Artikel erforscht die Geschichte der populären Wissenschaft in Deutschland seit dem 19. Jahrhundert und wie sie zum gegenwärtigen Moment der Wissenschaftskommunikation geführt hat.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2021.31

Nineteenth-Century Beginnings

For Justus von Liebig, who had vowed to himself to convince the public that “alles ist Chemie”—“everything is chemistry”—and therefore elevate the science of chemistry as a way of thinking for everything in modern life, the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung was a perfect venue.1 In 1841, when Liebig published the first of his popular essays meant to explain chemistry to the public, the paper’s print run was 10,000. In the heady intellectual climate of pre-revolutionary Germany, its readership figure was likely a multiple of that, and Liebig’s collected essays for the AZ, the Chemische Briefe, or “chemical letters,” better known as the Familiar Letters on Chemistry in their English translation, were reissued in dozens of iterations and in multiple languages over the next five decades.2

Liebig has been hailed as an important contributor to chemistry in its academic infancy as much as he has been criticized for being merely a popularizer with a knack for public relations. Both views have something to commend them. While Liebig’s work in chemistry was at times groundbreaking, he spent the latter part of his career expressly popularizing chemistry to the general public while also attempting to profit monetarily from these efforts.3

This Liebig is hardly the romantic model of a great scientist promulgated in the popular imagination. But he is not an aberration. Popularization has been part of science since there has been science. In that regard, today’s scientists who go on talk shows, present popular television programs, record podcasts, fight disinformation on Twitter, or even hire PR firms to create a spot for themselves and their studies in the limited limelight of our modern media society, are not a new phenomenon, but beholden to their forebears in many ways.

The Politics of Expertise

When we speak of science and its popularization, we must acknowledge that we are dealing with two always naturally interacting constituent pieces of a larger societal quest for knowledge, rather than simply the transmission of scientific production to the masses.4 In Liebig’s own Germany, popular science continued along the lines he had helped establish: scientists and other learned authors used outlets with reach—well-placed books, articles, lectures—in order to reveal to the public both the basics of, and new findings in, science. That public responded to these offers and used them to advance knowledge production in concerns both related and unrelated to the original intention of the popularizers. Science itself was political, and part of a political project of nationalization and democratization.5

While the public was invited to learn science, only the experts could teach it to the public. They pulled back the proverbial curtain and let engaged readers glimpse what they had been up to in their laboratories and studies. Their focus remained on divulging knowledge. Expert status of some kind continued to be a boon, a necessity even, for those purporting to speak for science also when the West German public sphere reconstituted itself after World War II.6

One of science’s most prominent presences on television screens across the Federal Republic was Heinz Haber. A German physicist captured by U.S. forces and brought to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip, Haber had been instrumental in the creation of what would become NASA, and later worked for the Walt Disney Company. He there served as the on-screen narrator for Our Friend the Atom, an entry in the Disneyland series of educational-promotional films the company created in the 1950s. The film, alternating live-action sequences with Disney’s signature animations, showcased the power and potential of atomic energy in a positive light.7

Picture: Wikipedia – Heinz Haber (left) and Wernher von Braun, 1954 – detail from a larger photograph accompanying the Wikipedia article Willy Ley.

Upon his return to Germany in 1958, Haber began a successful career as the country’s foremost “Fernsehprofessor,” or TV professor. He had seemingly taken to heart Walt Disney’s admonition to forget that he was a scientist, and instead to tell stories.8 Haber’s knowledge in his own field remained unquestioned, though his positions on issues within and without his expertise were not always popular. Notably, his opinion that nuclear power would be the savior technology in a world hurtling towards an ever more precarious climate crisis found many detractors in the post-Chernobyl 1980s. Haber managed to produce thirty books and uncounted hours of television across more than three decades. His lively way of communicating science to the public became the model on which scientists and science journalists (the distinction often being one of degree, not kind) on German television could and did build.9

Pandemic Explainers

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore a new crop of science explainers. Virologist Christian Drosten, whose Berlin laboratory developed the first test with which the novel coronavirus could be detected, was asked by media outlets to speak on his specific expertise, and has had an innate ability to connect with audiences.10 Others, like Drosten’s Bonn colleague Hendrick Streeck, initiator of an early study attempting to detect the spread of the virus in the populace, or Halle-Wittenberg virologist Alexander von Kekulé, bolstered their visibility with the help of public relations agencies, or through poignant recommendations on talk shows, set to ignite spirited debate.11

Chemist and science journalist Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, known best for her work as a presenter of television science programs, a 2019 bestselling book on chemistry as the basis for everything in modern life (Liebig might have appreciated both content and presentation), and her YouTube channel maiLab, had singular success with the most watched German-language video regarding the Covid pandemic. In her April 2, 2020 explainer “Corona geht gerade erst los” (“Corona is only just beginning”), she patiently detailed what viewers could likely expect from the coming months. For many, it marked the moment of realization that significant upheaval was ahead. Nguyen-Kim followed up on April 19 with a video detailing the communication strategies of Drosten, Streeck, and Kekulé (“Virologen-Vergleich” / “Comparison of Virologists”) and while she praised Drosten for neither overstepping his disciplinary bounds nor making unfounded recommendations, she found the latter two lacking.

Picture: YouTube
Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim in a screenshot from her video “Corona geht gerade erst los.”

Half a year later, she distilled the issues she found with the German Covid mediascape into a video titled “Corona hat meine Meinung geändert” (“Corona has changed my mind”, October 10, 2020). In it, she explained that she had changed her stance regarding the presence of scientists in the media: while she had assumed more academic experts appearing on broadcasts would be a net plus for public discourse, and thus for society, she no longer believed so. Without anyone to point out misinformation, the presence of some “black sheep”—academically trained scientists with the prestige of titles and expertise, but nonetheless spouting unqualified opinions—in the limelight was likely to increase the amount of low quality information, rather than curb it.

Objectivity Narratives

Nguyen-Kim’s realization moves the discourse about popular science onto a meta level. As a trained scientist herself, she calls out the incompatibility of scientific standards and review with the requirements of fast-moving mass media, in which conflict and simplifications are prized rather than disparaged. Science, with its built-in brakes and controls in the shape of thorough methodologies and peer review, ideally (if often not actually) foregrounds the accomplishments of many people working together to further a cause. Media in contrast usually only has time for one person to speak, who is, if not by ascription, then by assumption, its representative for “science” in the abstract. Every expert on their own, Nguyen-Kim contends, is “a human,” and humans have “emotions.” They are caught up within their worldview, and cannot by definition be entirely objective. While Nguyen-Kim, a natural scientist herself, here hews close to an ideal of scientific objectivity while realizing it can never be perfect, this ideal is brought to the breaking point by the presence of the “black sheep.”

This inverts a criticism long advanced by researchers of the linguistic strategies of (popularized) science: that science only pretends to objectivity, and by erasing the author from its narratives omits or falsifies the socio-cultural circumstances of its production.12 From opposite directions, both criticisms nonetheless converge in their condemnation of a blind acceptance of disembodied, supposedly objective scientific facts that are in truth only the pronouncements of one, perhaps not even a very conscientious, researcher. Imbued with an aura of infallibility almost by default, science explainers therefore carry significant responsibility not to abuse their visible expert position.

Conclusion: Who Gets to Speak for Science?

Explaining science to the public comes with a plethora of caveats. The nature of public-facing media makes it hard to spell them out every time they apply. Yet, we can look to the history of science and its popularization for pointers on how to behave responsibly within the media marketplace of ideas. To understand which limits and chances lie in communicating science well to the public—whether to help people make sense of a worldwide pandemic, or merely as a matter of academic practice—it is important to consider not only the science itself, and how it might be suitably simplified. We must also recognize that the messenger’s demeanor has repercussions on both the efficacy and the accuracy of any communication.

Who is cast in the role of messenger is a matter of some importance as well. The part usually falls to a well-established professor, typically white, professionally secure, and male. While this is a general issue in terms of societal representations of who can be imagined as a scientist, it is less problematic when the science that is popularly presented consists of a recognized consensus view that describes discoveries rather than prescribes courses of action. Where a fringe view is advanced by a credentialed scientist from a position of privilege and connected to explicit calls on viewers and governments to perform or avoid certain actions (as in the Covid pandemic has been the case with the wearing of masks, or the proposal to create natural herd immunity by letting the pandemic run its course unobstructed) this view gets additional traction from that expert’s status, exacerbating the problem.

A responsible public scientist, then, is someone who attempts to aggregate the best current, however tentative, factual consensus regarding a scientific issue, and while potentially advocating for a course of action rooted in their expertise, does this while cautioning that their field is potentially not the only one relevant to the problem at hand.


  1. Marika Blondel-Mégrelis, “Liebig or How to Popularize Chemistry,” HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 13, no. 1 (2007): 51.
  2. Blondel-Mégrelis, “Liebig or How to Popularize Chemistry,” 47–48.
  3. Pat Munday, “Politics by Other Means: Justus von Liebig and the German Translation of John Stuart Mill’s ‘Logic,’” The British Journal for the History of Science 31, no. 4 (1998): 411; Günther Klaus Judel, “Die Geschichte von Liebigs Fleischextrakt,” Spiegel der Forschung: Wissenschaftsmagazin 20, no. 1 (2003): 12, 17.
  4. Patricia A. Gwozdz, “Science Celebrities als Ikonen des Knowledge Gossip. Von Heinz Habers Walt Disney-Science zu Richard Dawkins Pop Science-Writing,” in Populäre Wissenschaftskulissen: Über Wissenschaftsformate in Populären Medienkulturen (transcript, 2017), 62–64, https://doi.org/10.14361/9783839432198-004.
  5. Andreas Daum gives a good impression of the many scientists who were engaged in this project, their motives, and the contexts in which they published: Andreas Daum, Wissenschaftspopularisierung im 19. Jahrhundert: Bürgerliche Kultur, naturwissenschaftliche Bildung und die deutsche Öffentlichkeit 1848–1914, erg. Auflage (Berlin; Boston: Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2018), https://doi.org/10.1515/9783486832501. Regarding Liebig himself, see esp. 437–440.
  6. For an overview of the role of public intellectuals until the late 1960s, see: Axel Schildt, Medien-Intellektuelle in der Bundesrepublik (Wallstein Verlag, 2020).
  7. Smith, David R., “They’re Following Our Script: Walt Disney’s Trip to Tomorrowland,” Future 5, no. 2 (1978): 57; Sabrina Mittermeier, A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks: Middle Class Kingdoms (Intellect, 2020), 50–53.
  8. “Gestorben: Heinz Haber,” Der Spiegel, no. 8 (1990): 272.
  9. Jörg Albrecht, “Wissenschaftsjournalismus: Was gedruckt wird und was nicht,” FAZ.NET, accessed December 20, 2020, https://www.faz.net/1.5499495.
  10. Kai Kupferschmidt, “How the Pandemic Made This Virologist an Unlikely Cult Figure,” Science | AAAS, April 28, 2020, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/04/how-pandemic-made-virologist-unlikely-cult-figure.
  11. Christian Parth, “Heinsberg-Studie: Drei Männer, ein Protokoll und viele Fragen,” Die Zeit, April 11, 2020, sec. Politik, https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2020-04/heinsberg-studie-hendrik-streeck-storymachine-armin-laschet; Jörg Blech, “Corona-Erklärer oder Blender? Anspruch und Wirklichkeit des Alexander Kekulé,” accessed December 20, 2020, https://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/medizin/alexander-kekule-corona-erklaerer-oder-blender-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000174544085.
  12. Cf. Gwozdz, “Science Celebrities als Ikonen des Knowledge Gossip. Von Heinz Habers Walt Disney-Science zu Richard Dawkins Pop Science-Writing,” 63.

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