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Nevertheless, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and of public awareness - if not understanding - of it had created a belief that the advance of science would in some unspecified manner automatically generate economic benefits.

  • What do you think "it" refers to?
  • Can you help me to explain grammar rules behind using "-if not understanding- of it"

This is the context:

Until late in the nineteenth century, only a few industries could use scientific techniques or care about using them. The list expanded noticeably after 1870, but even then much of what passed for the application of science was "engineering science" rather than basic science.

Nevertheless, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and of public awareness - if not understanding - of it had created a belief that the advance of science would in some unspecified manner automatically generate economic benefits.

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  • 2
    "It" fairly unambiguously refers to "scientific knowledge".
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 4, 2020 at 23:36
  • - Can you help me to explain grammar rules behind using "-if not understanding- of it"
    – KellyC
    Jul 4, 2020 at 23:46
  • "- if not understanding -" is a "parenthetical" and can be deleted without changing the basic meaning and syntax of the sentence.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 5, 2020 at 0:03
  • 1
    This is from a TOEFL test.
    – Xanne
    Jul 5, 2020 at 6:36

2 Answers 2

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My belief is that "understanding" (preceded by "if not...") can only be opposed to, or contrasted with, "public awareness": semanticaly speaking, knowledge involves understanding, while awareness does not.

Nevertheless, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and of public awareness - if not understanding - of it had created a belief that the advance of science would in some unspecified manner automatically generate economic benefits.

"it" then refers to "scientific knowledge": people were aware that scientific knowledge had increased and, even if they did not understand what that scientific knowledge consisted of, they imagined it would generate economic development.

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rapid expanse of scientific knowledge

Preceding refers to the increase in scientific knowledge -- perhaps because there were more scientists and/or scientists were successful at making discoveries more rapidly.

of public awareness of it

above refers to the public (i.e., non-scientists) becoming aware that scientific knowledge was expanding reapidly-- so it refers to "the fact that scientific knowledge was expanding rapidly"

if not understanding of it

above is saying that the public was understanding the new scientific knowledge -- the "it" above refers to the "scientific knowledge."

So the sentence is grammatically incorrect because "it" refers to two different things. Here's a construction in which it refers to only one thing, viz., "scientific knowledge":

... the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and of the public's awareness of its expanse - if not their understanding of it -- had created a belief that ...

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