Monthly Archives: June 2010

A quick note on jargon

I posted a note on science communication jargon on posterous last week (mainly a four page jargon buster I came across…). I still think posterous is the best place for it, but I’ll link to it here, and also re-post a bit of my commentary.

There are a lot of advantages in the professionalisation of Science Communication. I like some of its jargon. I use a lot of it myself, several times a day. Some reflect names of institutions we mention so often an acronym is almost like a nickname (SOB, Society of Biology), some reflect ideas and historical shifts in approach the field has decided to take (e.g. a move from PUS to PD*).

Still, it’s also necessary to keep it open, and involve the range of other experts who do active science communication work (e.g. professional scientists who also do a fair bit of public communications). Sophia Collins has already made this point very clearly though, go read her post on the need for such a mix. So, we might joke that a field such as science communication relies on so much jargon, but the more serious point is that science communicators need to be careful because the field contains way more than professionals.

Moreover, I suspect that if we forced ourselves to rely on what we mean, rather than buzzwords we think other members of our gang will understand, we’d communicate within the profession more effectively too. Just think of “engagement”; an incredibly broad collection of different understandings (including, I’d argue, misunderstandings). Some call this an “umbrella term”, other’s might say “woolly” or even “meaningless in its multitude of meanings”.

Sometimes jargon can get in the way of precision as much as it allows it.

* Brief translation: the shift from talking down to a public perceived as ignorant (a need for PUS = Public Understanding of Science) and towards more interactive, dialogue-based models of communication which listen as well as educate (PD = Public Dialogue).

UK Science Blogging "Talkfest"

Beck Smith of the Biochemistry Society and I would like to invite you to our Science Blogging Talkfest, Charles Darwin House, WC1N, 15th July. Registration is free, and online.

We’ll start at 6pm with drinks, chat and cake over registration. From 7-8:30pm, we’ll move into the lecture theatre for the debate. Then I thought we might go to the pub.

As several people have already pointed out, our panel is entirely made up of bloggers: Petra Boynton, Jon Butterworth, Mark Henderson, Alok Jha, Andy Lewis, Ed Yong. This is something we’re actually quite proud of.

I’ve noticed that a lot of debates around this issue have got stuck in questions of blogging vs “traditional” journalism, which missed out on the chance to talk about blogging as something real, something that is happening (has been happening for a while) and is both exciting and problematic in its right. This isn’t necessarily a big old love-in, it is a chance to grow. Neither is this to say that blogging vs. journalism isn’t a debate still worth having. You go off and have it if you’re interested. We want to talk about blogging. And we have cake.

Maybe we are “limiting” the scope of the debate slightly by framing it with a panel of bloggers. But there is only a limited amount of things any group of people can say in a few hours. I quite strongly believe that far from stifling a debate on blogging, this focus will encourage something more meaningful.

As Alok Jha tweeted: the strength of the project is that there’ll be no time wasted on definitions, more sharing of constructive ideas. I also happen to think there are a host of in-fights, debates, differences, mis-understandings and discontinuities within science blogosphere which get glossed over when it is put in a position where it has to defend itself.

We’ll be asking the audience for questions on the day, but I’d really like hear some in advance too. Please put them in the comments below (or email me). I should also stress that we want audience members to comment on questions, and answer them too. This isn’t going to be an event where we all sit waiting for the panellists to impart their great wisdom, I’m planning on drawing on the knowledge and ideas of the audience too.

You can reserve a place here. Do come, and let me know any questions in advance.

Storm the Royal Society?

This weekend, I had a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site about open data and public engagement. I wanted to emphasise that a simple opening up of scientific data doesn’t work as a public engagement strategy. The people who can such data sets aren’t necessarily “the public”.

Not that an entity called “the public” necessarily exists anywhere much outside of rhetoric (but maybe that’s an another issue). My point is that simply allowing access to data doesn’t on its own open science up, or it only opens it up to a small number of people already pretty close to scientific work. I don’t think that this in itself means open data is a bad thing in terms of making science more publicly accountable. We do, however, need to think in detail about how we expect such data to be used (anywhere really, but for me, specifically when it hits a “public sphere”), especially its reach.

Even if we could get around all the pragmatic and ideological issues surrounding open access (and I’m so not getting into that hear), it doesn’t necessarily mean we’d all know what to do with it. Information, on its own, it is inert. It is what you do with it that counts. Opening data sets doesn’t necessarily unlock the craft of knowledge-making. Neither, in the context of climategate my CiF post was inspired by, does it make the craft of scientific work all that more “transparent.”

A couple of points worth expanding on:

1) Expertise

As Kieron Flanagan noted on Twitter, my comment is free piece had more than a whiff of Harry Collins about it. Harry Collins is a sociologist of science who focuses on expertise. An expert on expertise, if you will. He is keen to argue that expertise is “real”, that experts are people with special skills which often require large amounts of tacit knowledge, that is in some respects a craft. He also argues that expertise is distributed, and that we can distinguish between “interactional expertise”, where you might be able to “talk the talk” of an area of expertise and the “contributory expertise” of active practitioners of a field.

Some of Collins’ writing can be a bit dense, especially if you’re not used to a sociological approach to jargon, but a lot of his recent work on expertise is available online (so it is accessible in as much as you can download the papers, if not necessarily accessible conceptually). If you find Collins hard, or simply bothered to wade through, I guess it underlines my point that it can take time to understand the sort of complex ideas we generate today, and not everyone has time to learn the tactic skills and knowledge required to develop such understanding. This piece from Physics World (pdf) might help if you’re struggling for an introduction.

I don’t want to suggest I’m a fully paid up member of the Harry Collins fanclub. To provide full context, my CiF piece was inspired by an event at the Royal Institution, where Adam Corner had cited an interview he had done with Collins. I repeated the basic ideas on expertise articulated via Corner in the CiF piece because it helped me make a point about not being naive when it comes to how contemporary science works. Indeed, I said publicly at the Royal Institution event that I think it’s important to note that Collins’ approach to expertise is not an uncontroversial one, especially when it comes to thinking about science in public.

So, for a slightly different take on expertise in public, I can suggest these three reports from Demos: Public Value of Science, See-through Science and the Received Wisdom. If you want something a bit more scholarly, try Irwin & Micheal’s Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge. Or for more climate-specific points, I enjoyed Irwin’s Sociology and the Environment, and there is always his classic book, Citizen Science. The Demos reports are great starters though, and make substantive points in their own right. Accessible in more ways than one (influential and usable too).

2) Monitorial citizenship.

This is an interesting idea. My reference to it has already inspired one blogpost. If you want to read more, see Michael Shudson’s (2003) essay ‘Click Here for Democracy: A History and Critique of an Information-Based Model of Citizenship’ (chapter four of this book). Or, a more easily found overview of the idea can also be found in Henry Jenkins’ (2008) Convergence Culture, a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in online communication, especially around politics.

To give a brief summary here, Shudson argues our notion of an informed citizen is anachronistically rooted in the context of the last “information revolution”, that of the early 20th century. Then, idea that a voter should learn as much as possible is base on a time where access to information was opening up (mass-media, literacy rates, emancipation), but was nowhere near as open. Now we simply have more data than we can deal with: we are promised with everything, but in reality we can only manage a bit. Should citizens “follow everything about everything?”. Are those who don’t delinquent? “Or, in contrast, could they be judged exemplary if they know a lot about one thing and serve as sentries patrolling a segment (but not all) of the public interest’s perimeter?” (Shudson, 2003: 56). This is where the idea of “monitorial citizenship” emerges (think pencil monitors in school). Here, we each have bits of information, we are each knowledgeable in some particular issues, operating in a self-consciously large and diverse context of mutual trust and shared resources.

This idea is not without its problems, least if all how you get to be a monitor. Let’s still with the pencil monitor analogy: a teacher might pick such a person at random, but equally all sorts if classroom politics might be involved in such a decision. (I’m sure we all have childhood memories of injustice where Timmy got to hand out the new exercise books just because he’s the teacher’s pet). Pencils aside, many science bloggers have at least one if not three degrees in subject, and although each case is individual, all sorts of injustices when it comes to access to that sort of education. They were lucky to have got there, and probably had to put in a fair bit of hard graft too. Perhaps monitorial citizenship is another idea which relies on a more equal education system than we currently have. Still, I like it, it’s awareness of the distribution and necessary diversities of expertise is something I think is worth thinking about.

To sum up these two points, I’ll repeat my conclusion to the CiF piece, that I doubt a one-size-fit-all model will work when it comes to increasing public trust in science (climate science or otherwise). Although the idea of storming the Royal Society to take back science for the people might seem appealing, I fear it’d be a rather blunt weapon. If you really want action on science’s relationships with society, I suspect we’d be better served if we “act local”. By local, I should stress, I don’t necessarily mean physical space, I mean local in terms of specific issues or shared cultures. We must remember the sheer size and diversity of “this thing we call science”: its experts, its ideas, evidence, methods, materials, sites, equipments and its publics. For all that I think science should be shared as far as possibly, it only by small groups of people incrementally doing small things that I imagine much will get done.

Open data and public engagement (Comment is Free)

I have a piece on Comment is Free about open data and public engagement.

Their title “Citizen science still needs specialism”, with the sub-heading “The public can be involved in constructing knowledge. But some data sets are more easily offered for external use than others”. Both of which I do kind of say, but my point is more that simply opening data doesn’t really work as a public engagement strategy: the people who can use it aren’t exactly the public. That doesn’t in itself mean open data is a bad thing, but we do need to be aware of the specifics of how we expect such data to be used.

I have a larger p.s. to this piece, with some links to the academic work I drew on, but I won’t have time to post that till later this week.

CSI: the children’s toy

I attended a conference on Forensics in Culture last week. The very first slide in the very first paper was of some children’s edu-tainment toys inspired by CSI. E.g.: this facial reconstruction kit. The speaker implied a sense of surprise that children would be playing with forensics in such a way. I thought it was a bit weird too. I suspect this amazon reviewer speaks for many:

those eyes, man! Those EYES! [...] it will be staring at you, waiting to make its move, plotting your demise – or at least that’s what it feels like. Maybe if the head didn’t have such an accusatory look on its face (“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?”) [...] “Merry Christmas Timmy! Here’s your CSI Facial Reconstruction head. Now you can reconstruct the ruined face of the victim of a violent and gruesome murder!”

When did forensics become entertainment? Moreover, when did it become so domesticated it could be packaged into a childrens’ toy? It’s about death and crime. The slide of this toy was met with several laughs at the conference. For me, however, it was the lack of humour embodied by the product itself which interested me.

It reminded me a bit of The Planet Science Whodunit, a forensic education event for teenagers I worked on back in 2003. The premise was that someone had stolen a guitar from boy-band Busted. Schoolchildren could sign up for kits to do some forensics-inspired activities to “solve” the crime. There were prizes; we had a panel of celebrity suspects; it was all played for fun. Although in many respects this project was inspired by CSI, we were careful to limit any references to traumatic crime. It was lighthearted. Indeed, one of the criticisms that could be leveled at this project was that it trivalised issues surrounding crime.

Another comparison with the CSI toy is the style applied by Horrible Science (major UK brand of science books for 7-11’s, I did my PhD on them). Perhaps the best example of their approach to blood and guts is the covers of Blood, Bones and Body Bits (1995, and 2008). Here, Horrible Science wraps its dismembered bodies, blood and viscera in a comic book form.


It’s ok somehow because it’s “just for fun”. Blood and guts take center stage here, but in a very comic way. It knows “those eyes, man! Those EYES!” are following you, it camps it up deliberately. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t expect you to either. It’s childish and Bugs-Bunny like, it’s surreal and so slightly unreal through it’s comic qualities. This is an example of what I described in my thesis as Horrible Science’s “ironic bloodthirsty pose”, something you can see applied across the series, to lesser and greater degrees than in the Horrible Histories, depending on topic. It is one of the many ways in which the series are “Science as Pantomime” (title I gave my thesis).

I took “ironic bloodthirsty pose” from David Buckingham’s great book on children and television, where he listens to children explain what they like about watching horror. One of the points Buckingham makes from these conversations is the appeal of a sense of adulthood in watching horror. For all their slightly childish joking, in some respects what the young people relished was the seriousness of it all, it helped them create distance from an idea of a trivial silly little kid. I remember feeling that the Whodunit idea was a bit more grownup than other Planet Science projects I’d worked on, the allusions to forensics were a key part of that, even framed as a joke.

You can find some more discussion of such ambivalences in Martin Barker’s excellent history of a campaign in 1960s Britain against horror comics. I’ve blogged on this before: why the Horrible books might be illegal. As I mention there, Horrible Histories author Terry Deary has argued that his approach wouldn’t have been possible if Roald Dahl hadn’t already brought about an acceptability of the grotesque in British children’s literature. Or, for slightly different analysis, Jane Kenway and Elizabeth Bullen, in their book Consuming Childhood, also talk about the way contemporary children’s media tries to make children “aspirational”, to want to act more grownup, as a sort of marketing strategy (see also this and this on such late 20th century shifts in style of address in children’s media).

So, considered from the perspective of the comic-gore of Horrible Science, the CSI facial reconstruction kit seems odd that it doesn’t frame itself in humour jokes (though we may laugh at it). Maybe, conversely, the seriousness allows for the gruesome-ness in a US context, where edu-tainment media tends not to have comic-gore and irreverence of Britain’s Horrible books? A rather straightforward example of forensic science lending a form of legitimacy, even in kids’ media?

That said, it looks as if the company who make these toys has gone bust, so maybe everyone had the WTF reaction of the “those eyes, man! Those EYES!” comment on Amazon.

Should science engage?

Gregory and Miller start their 1998 introduction to Science Communication, Science in Public, with the “new commandment from on high: Thou shalt communicate”. Twelve years on, we might re-articulate this as “Thou shalt engage” but Gregory and Miller’s tongue in cheek questioning of an enterprise we generally assume is A Good Thing is worth retaining. This is not to say public engagement with science and technology (PEST) is a bad thing, just that it’s a big topic and worth thinking about what we mean before we blithely go about doing it. I also wonder if recent events, such as climate-gate or the economic downturn, have changed our attitudes to science communication policy in the UK.

I was prompted to ask this at the Science Communication Conference last week. Specifically, I was struck by the difference between Jacquie Burgess’ talk, and a similar one she gave at the first of these conferences, back in 2002. I wrote a report on the event for CoPUS, and still remember her presentation in 2002 quite vividly (pdf here).

In 2002, Burgess was a Professor in the Geography Department at UCL, a world expert on the environment and society, she spoke calmly, authoritatively and with a refreshing amount of cynicism. She complained that the results of so many public consultations end up left sitting on a desk somewhere, that she (and moreover, the public stakeholders) were fed up with being involved in processes which go nowhere. Engagement sometimes feels like a lot of talk with little outcomes. She also said this:

“in the rather touchy-feely overcrowded field of public participation there are few processes that genuinely seek arguments”.

I remember feeling inspired by that statement, and it is one that has stayed with me. I am not sure it works in all contexts, sometimes a bit of agreement is better than an argumentative stance. Still, there is a place for a bit of a friendly squabble too.

At the 2010 event, Burgess is still a world authority on the environment and society, now Professor of Environmental Risk at the UEA. But she looked scared, quiet and nervous. Haunted almost. It could just have been the bad lighting at in the lecture theatre, but her whole message was different. She complained about the emotive state of public debate over climate change, especially in the blogosphere, which she likened to play-ground bullying (the mainstream press were criticised too though). Most surprisingly for me, she suggested that climate science, or at least parts of it, should lay low for a bit. They shouldn’t engage with the deniers (or “agnostics”, or anyone), but hide out for a while, keep out of sight until everything had calmed down. Even when the time had come for engagement, she suggested it might be best to avoid the internet, and instead spend time re-engaging with nature (she mentioned the Eden Project, Tim Smit had just addressed the conference). No actively seeking arguments now, it was positively “touchy-feely”.

A fair few people rolled their eyes at some of Burgess’ points, but I doubt they came from anything other than thoughtful reflection. I wouldn’t I agree with a distinction between internet and engagement with the natural environment. I’m drafting this on my laptop sitting in Gordon Square; if Wellcome’s wifi signal stretched this far, I’d use the web to check what type of flower is growing next to me. (NB: I very much doubt Professor Burgess applies naive nature/ culture/ technology divisions). Still, the UEA and it’s “climategate” is, perhaps, a special case. Maybe laying low for a bit is wise. Or, maybe because it’s such a special case there is even more reason to find a way to engage with various publics (argumentatively or otherwise). I don’t know. It is worth thinking about though.

To add a couple of other lines of caution over the worth of engagement, a lot of PEST work could be critiqued in the same way we criticise more old fashioned “top-down” science communication, that it acts to keep the public in their place. It may explicitly exist to connect people, but its very existence only acts to emphasise their differences. This in itself isn’t necessarily a worry, scientists and non-scientists are, afterall, different cultural groups. A more pressing concern perhaps, especially when the results of dialogue projects just end up on desks, that they act simply as a form of rhetorical hand-wave toward public participation. I was interested to read in the news this week that Brian Wynne had resigned from the steering committee of a government-commissioned public dialogue on GM Food, complaining it was little more than propaganda for the food industry. Perhaps the PEST project is just a way of making the public feel like they’ve done something so they don’t bother politicians by seeking out real social change. I should note that a colleague of mine, Sarah Davies, has written persuasively about what she calls “non-policy dialogue” in sites like the Dana Center. Again, I don’t know but I think the more cynical questions are at least worth asking.

There is also the very simple question of whether scientists are better off working on the science. Either leave science communication to the professionals, or perhaps simply don’t bother, if the public don’t want to talk or listen to scientists, why poke at them to “engage”? Perhaps we could all use our energies more efficiently. Recently, in a blogpost reacting to Martin Rees’ first Reith Lecture, Micheal Brooks suggested that the Royal Society should shift their emphasis from public communication and towards politics: forget fellowship placements for scientists to spend time working in media outlets, embed them in Whitehall instead. Young scientists should gain experience of politics and think about developing careers and influence there. I’m not sure I agree with the either/ or distinction here (in fact I disagree quite strongly) but it is an interesting point, and it is worth noting that the Economics and Social Research Council is very active in this area.

I have no answer to the question of whether engagement is a good idea or not. I suspect there are many different answers for many different contexts. I’d be interested to know what other people think. Have experiences of climategate or years of not-much-actual-action on PEST projects caused UK science communication to start to turn its back on the enterprise? If not, then at least are there times and places where/when science shouldn’t engage, and what are they?