Monthly Archives: January 2011

Studying the politics of online science

This ‘women science blogging revolution‘ has really been amazing to watch unfold. From Kate Clancy’s initial call to arms to Christie Wilcox’s forthright ‘Bring it‘ (as well as David Dobbs ‘Sister, you kicked some ass’ and Stephanie Zvan’s ‘But…’), and much, much more.

I thought I’d contribute by sharing a bit of recent empirical research about women, science and online media:

  • Mendick, H. and Moreau, M. (2010). Monitoring the presence and representation of  women in SET occupations in UK based online media. Bradford: The UKRC.

You can download the report and read it yourself, or here are my notes.


What they did

Mendick and Moreau considered the representation of women on eight ‘SET’ (science, engineering and technology) websites: New Scientist, Bad Science, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, Neuroskeptic, Science: So What, Watt’s Up With That and RichardDawkins.net. They also monitored SET content across eight more general sites: the BBC, Channel 4, Sky, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter.

Yes, they did include Watt’s Up With That in a list of science sites. Personally, I think it gives an interesting bit of context and flavour to the study. It doesn’t legitimse the site. Remember, they are looking at gender, not truth claims. That said, I did think it was odd they didn’t reflect more on its slightly different status (if only because I think that’s interesting sociologically).

Additionally, they interviewed six ‘web authors’ (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 8. See also Appendix 4), and carried out group interviews with 32 young ‘web users’ (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 8-9. See also Appendix 5). The researchers note that they find any distinction between writers and users problematic with respects to online media, stressing a blurring of boundaries around such roles and explictly distancing themselves from the attitude to online science media taken by a report on Science the Media published by the UK government last year (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 4-6).


What they found

I’m going to focus on the results from their analysis of web content, as this post is already quite long and I want to leave space to also discuss their methodology. Do read the full report yourself if you are interested – it’s quite accessibly written.

Their results suggest online science informational content is male dominated in that far more men than women are present. On some websites, they found no SET women. All of the 14 people in SET identified on the sampled pages of the RichardDawkins.net website were men, and so were all 29 of those mentioned on the sampled pages of the Channel 4 website (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 11).

They found less hyperlinking of women’s than men’s names (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 7). Personally, I’d have really liked some detail as to how they came up with this, and what constituted ‘hyperlinking of women’s names’ precisely. It’s potentially an interesting finding, but I can’t quite get a grip on what they are saying.

They also note that when women did appear, they were often peripheral to the main story, or ‘subject to muting’ (i.e. seen but not heard). They also noted many instances where women were pictured but remain anonymous, as if there are used to illustrate a piece – for ‘ornamental’ purposes – and give the example of the wikipedia entry on scientists, which includes a picture a women as an example, but stress she is anonymous (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 12).

Echoing findings of earlier research on science in the media (e.g. the Bimbo or Boffin paper), they noted that women, when represented, tended to be associated with ‘feminine’ attributes and activities, demonstrating empathy with children and animals, etc. They also noted a clustering in specific fields. For example, in the pages they’d sampled of the Guardian, they found seven mentions of women scientists compared with twenty-eight of men, and three of the these women were in a single article, about Jane Goodall (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 12-13).

The women presented were often discussed in terms of appearance, personality, sexuality and personal circumstances, again echoing previous research. They also noted that women scientists, when present, tended to be younger than the men, and there was a striking lack of ethnic diversity (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 14).

There were also some interesting hints about women having a particularly hard time when it came to sceptical communities, women are more likely to be associated with dishonesty, or at least foolishness. This was both in the Bad Science end of this, and what might be seen as ‘pseudo-scepticism’ of Watts Up With That (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 17-18).

One site they did seem to quite like was Science: So What (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 19).


What I thought

I’m going to be quite critical of this research. It’s not actively bad, it just seems to lack depth and precision. I suspect Mendick and Moreau were doing their best with low resources and an overly-broad brief. I also think that we are still feeling our way in terms of working out how to study online science media, and so can learn something from such a critique.

Problem number one: it’s a small study, and yet a ginormous topic. I’d much rather they had looked at less, but made more of it. At times I felt like I was reading a cursory glance at online science. Problem number two: the methodological script seemed a bit stuck in the print era. I felt the study lacked a feel for the variety of routes people take through online science. It lacked a sense of online science’s communities and cliques, its cultures and sub-cultures, its history and its people. It lacked context. Most of all, it lacked a sense of what I think sits at the center of online communication: the link.

It tries to look at too much, too quickly. We’re told that of the blog entries sampled from Bad Science, three out of four of the women mentioned were associated with ‘bad science’, compared to 12 out of 27 of the men . They follow up this a note that Goldacre has appeared on television critiquing Greenfield,­ a clip of which is on his site (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 17-18). OK, but ‘bad’ needs unpacking here, as does the gendered nature of the area Goldacre takes aim at. As for Susan Greenfield, she is a very complex character when it comes to the politics of science and gender (one I’d say it is dangerous to treat representations of simplistically). Moreover, this is a very small sample, without much feel for the broader media context the Bad Science blog works within, including not only other platforms for Ben Goldacre’s voice but comment threads, forums and a whole community of other ‘bad science bloggers’ (and their relationships with each other). NB: I think there are interesting and important discussions to have about gender and sceptic communities, which is precisely why discussion of this needs to be done well.

I also got a bit annoyed at the analysis of the wikipedia entry on scientists (they note the image of a scientist is of a woman, but that she is anonymous). OK, it’s an example of a nameless woman, but the culture of anonymity around the idea of a scientist is important to remember here. There is a gender politics to this, but that needs to be brought out, as do the new ways in which cultures of the web may disrupt or change this politics (personally, I’d start quoting this fascinating statement on Holfordwatch whilst reaching for my copy of Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium).

In fact, I was surprised not to see issues of identifying gender within anon/ pseudonymous identities come up. To me, this flagged up a lack of attention on of forums that many of the sites they looked at contained. Indeed, the relative lack of attention the report played to conversations between people was, I thought, especially odd considering a key finding of one of the rare bits of research that has been done on young people and science online is that they go to the web to talk to each other, rather then to be fed content (admittedly, this study is a bit old, but I was surprised not to see it referenced).

The approach to twitter was, I thought, especially weak. It boiled down to a keyword search for Ada Lovelace, Susan Greenfield, Alice Roberts on one side, and Charles Babbage, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Winston on the other. I guess it could generate some data to then have a play with, but they don’t seem do anything with it, and I remain unconvinced that it’s the best first step anyway. Keywords just don’t capture twitter. Trending terms, maybe (maybe).

The report needed to reflect something of the routes people take through online science. Their use of focus groups does capture this up to a point, but it really was very small and, for me, called out to be supplemented with more ethnographic work. The hyperlink disrupts the basis for a traditional content analysis, news-sharing and link curation sites,  folksonomies, etc even more so. You can’t treat twitter like a pile of paper to search for the existence of particular words within: it’s too complex a social system. We need to consider the time people dwell online, and how they interact with each other there.

To conclude, It’s always easy to say what people haven’t done and point a finger with ‘it’s more complicated than that’. My argument is that this study spreads itself too thin. Maybe it’s best to think of it as a first sketch towards later work that will learn how to capture the richness of the subject matter. To make a practical suggestion, the iterative research methodology applied by the Cardiff study, which applied feedback from research subjects along the way, strikes me as extremely applicable to studying online media.

I want to reiterate that I suspect the researchers were working with an overly-broad brief and simply weren’t given the resources to meet it. If we want to understand the cultures and politics of science online – and I think we should – we need to fund people with the time and resources to have a proper look.

Funding science communication

science museum sign

This is a picture of a large plaque at the front of London’s Science Museum. It’s thanking their various sponsors. Most museums have them. It’s as normal as a gift shop and a cafe.

I photographed it because I wanted to think of such signs not just as a vote of thanks, or as the design piece this museum seems to want to re-articulate theirs as, but as a sort of declaration of conflict of interest. In many respects, I think’s what it is. I also think this is why we should be pleased the museum has tried to make theirs into an arresting aesthetic object.

Museum sponsorship has a long and often controversial history. I wrote about it last year with respect to Shell and the Science Museum’s climate science gallery (see also follow up post on similar controversies at the Smithsonian). Today on the Guardian’s culture cuts blog, Tony Hill, Director of Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry has a post reflecting on the impact to his institution. He notes that retail, catering and conferencing will become ever more important, as will sponsorship.

They also hope to increase the average donation per visitor from the current 3.5p per head to 50p. I’ve noticed that the London Science Museum, as well giving its wall of thanks a polish,  has filled its entrance hall with a load of  ‘keep science free’ signs asking for donations. I think it’s interesting that the Science Museum are playing on the rhetoric of keep Science free. Not the Science Museum, or scientific heritage, or scientific education, or buttons that are cool to press.

I agree that the museum’s work is part of science, even if it’s funded from the Department of Culture rather than the science budget. I made a similar point in a piece I wrote for January’s Chemistry World:

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from UK science after the government’s autumn 2010 spending review. Indeed, it was a largely grateful audience that met science minister David Willetts when, in the week after the spending review, he joined a panel for a ‘Science question time’ event at the Royal Institution (RI) in London. Sceptical, as scientists are wont to be, but relieved that cuts were not nearly as deep as expected, nor as deep as they will fall elsewhere. Near the end of the evening however, a hand went up from the back of the Faraday Theatre. Writer and astronomer Colin Stuart asked: what about other cuts to other areas, museums for example, how will those affect UK science? Stuart has a crucial point here: we should be careful of applying too narrow a definition of science funding.

Questions about where money might (or might not) come from concern people in lots of different areas involved in the sharing of science with broader society, not just museums. In book-publishing and journalism as much as publicly funded work. Sponsorship is an option for some, it’s also getting harder to find (it’s not like print journalism are riding high on advertising revenue right now). Increasingly, academics are asked to do communications work as part of their day-to-day work as a researcher. I think there are good reasons for asking researchers to do this, but I also think we need to give academics time and support to do such work. Time and support that costs money.

I also think that we shouldn’t force all academics to do public communication, and there is a role for professionals here too, but that’s a whole other (and frankly, slightly tedious) discussion, probably best left for a bit of ranting in the pub.

Simple scribes


This week, the Guardian’s science blog published Tim Radford’s Manifesto for the Simple Scribe. It’s a lovely set of tips for better writing which has been passed around the UK science writing community since it was first written in the mid-1990s.

I was really sceptical it’d appeal to a broader audience. I was wrong. As soon as it was posted, it spread quickly on twitter and facebook; spread with warmth and across the globe. I’ve seen tweets about it in several different languages. It’s currently the most-read piece on the Guardian science pages, even beating the story about the astronaut falling off his bicycle.

Ian Sample asked a great question when he shared a link to the manifesto: this was written last century, what would you change? This is my attempt at starting an answer. I’d be interested to know what others think.


Interaction

Martin Robbins suggested twitter ‘nukes’ point one (that you’ll never meet your reader). I think Robbins is right to draw our attention to a change in read/ writer relationships, but I’m not sure nuke is quite the word. It’s only a small percentage of readers a writer is likely to interact with.  The loud ones, the bored, the ones with an axe to grind or, more positively, those that feel some relationship with the author or community of other commentators. Yes, it’s easier to do this and twitter lets you talk to them. You can also watch people sharing your work, using sites like topsy.com. This is more than was available a few years ago, but it’s no where near comprehensive. It’s also a development of structures for relationships with readers that were already in place: It’s worth remembering that Radford was letters editor before he moved to the science desk.

The manifesto was published on the run-up to a Q&A with Radford we held at Imperial on wednesday. A member of the audience there asked him how he felt about readers comments when his writing ends up on the web. Radford said he’d found himself ‘depressed, but also profoundly impressed’ by these.  On the one side there were those commentators  who react to some key word like ‘climate’ and ignore what you’ve written, ranting off about something else entirely. But then he had also witnessed experts on a topic find each other through comments and develop ideas mentioned in a piece, making something new from their interaction. I thought it was fascinating that both of these examples were a matter of readers interacting really without the need for the writer.

Maybe that’s a function of an old-media writer, one that is slightly unaccustomed to building a relationship with readers through comment threads. I suspect a similar list written today would include some tips on how to work productively with the people formerly known as the audience.  But I also think it’s partly a matter of working for a mass-media brand, and there are practical difference between the crowded space of the Guardian and a cozy personal blog. I’m not entirely sure it’s appropriate, or possible, to expect one to try to be the other. I know I teach differently in a large lecture theatre, compared to a small seminar room (or a meeting in my office with one or two students). I’m not sure we can expect writers to meet their readers, especially when writing online, as texts may become all the more open. Or at least we can’t expect them to meet all of them. To allow the illusionary interactive feel of twitter con us into thinking we have would be silly. 


Linking

The manifesto doesn’t really talk about linking, a point made critically in the blog’s comments. If anything Radford makes a point of stressing linearity for clear writing (though he does mention putting ‘twiddly bits’ in, see point 10). I think linking is part of the art of being a writer in the 21st century. I think it is something writers have to think carefully about, take time over, will get better at over time, and will develop their own distinctive style for. I suspect it is a skill which the wise old writers of the future will be keen to share tips about, and in that respect this manifesto shows itself up as a bit 20th century.


Long tails

For me, the biggest difference between today and the 1990s is the way the online communication means it easier to get away with writing for rather niche audiences (a small percentage of the WHOLE INTERNET still being a fair quantity). Much of this manifesto reads like tips for sharing science to as broad an audience as possible. It’s classic mass-media communication. Today, a writer for the Guardian might want to speak to as many people as possible, but the many bloggers who will have lapped up Radford’s advice won’t necessarily feel the same way.

I suppose niche writing has always existed though, just as I think there is an ongoing market for writing which aims to share a piece of science with as many people in the world as possible. Indeed, one might argue that because niche communication now increasingly happens in relatively public spaces of the web, there is a need to make it digestible to diverse audiences. Similarly, we might argue that as science becomes increasingly specialised, all science should be easier to understand outside the small community of peers which produced it (and that goes for the composition of journal articles as much as anything else).

Another question we might ask is whether this desire to talk share science with a mass audience ever really held true, even back in the 1990s? When I posted a link to it on twitter, I did so with the quote: ‘No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand’. Mariette DiChristina, the editor in chief of Scientific American, re-posted this with the comment ‘Except some SciAm readers, who will!’. She has a point. I’ve heard complaints along these lines too. Indeed, we could see some in the comments to Radford’s piece, many incorrectly conflating ‘easy to understand’ with patronising the audience. I suppose it’s a slightly utopian statement in some respects, a challenge (see also point 4, on journalism never being self-important).


Finally

And that, in the end, is my answer to Sample’s question. Yes, these tips are a decade and a half old, but it’s a manifesto. As such, it’s a statement of desire born out of an awareness of what is understood as some key problems. It is a statement of hope, not matters of fact. Our tools for science writing may have changed slightly, and I do think this has an impact on what we expect of it, as well as the relationships between scientists, writers and readers. But I don’t think our ideals for science writing have really changed that much.

Science and its spam filter

Yesterday, I was part of a panel entitled ‘Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries?’ at the Science Online conference. You can see an abstract for the panel over on Marie-Claire’s Shanahan’s blog (scroll down to second half of post).

My talk spoke in quite general terms about science and social boundaries. I did this using an analogy I’ve stolen from David Dobbs; a spam filter.

Cast your mind back to the ‘Great Arsenic Bug Saga of 2010’. If you can’t recall the details, I can recommend Ed Yong’s link-filled timeline of the story. In terms of the point I want to make, all you need to know is that some scientists criticised a paper by a team of NASA astrobiologists. Some of these critiques were voiced on blogs. When asked about the critique, a spokesperson from NASA was reported as saying ‘the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers’. Instead, they’d keep to ‘scientific publications’.

David Dobbs blogged about this statement from NASA, suggesting it was a call to ‘pre-Enlightenment thinking’. Later, he told the Guardian Science podcast:

I got a lot of reactions saying ‘you can’t just open this process to everyone or there’ll be a rabble, you’ll spend all your time arguing with anti-science people and so on’. Well, you’re trying to have a spam filter here, right? You’re trying to draw a circle within which trolls can’t come in and dominate the conversation. I guess to an extent that makes sense, but you don’t want to draw a circle that boxes out legitimate scientists like Rosie Redfield.

I love this analogy. In some respects, science has always had a spam filter. On one side there’s a commitment to free debate, on the other side there is frustration with those who are seen as at best time-wasting and at worst, mendacious. Science has always sought to break, or at least not be limited by, social boundaries. At the same time science has always needed these boundaries to, and benefited from them.

Another analogy which can help us think about this issue is that of a map. This one I’ve stolen from sociologist/ historian Thomas Gieryn. In his book The Cultural Boundaries of Science, he argues that rather there being one, singular essential criteria for what makes something scientific, this thing we call science is the consequence of many different declaration of boundaries which, over time, have helped define what science is and what it is not. To quote Gieryn in more lyrical mode:

Mount Science, located just above the town of Reason in the State of Knowledge, which is adjacent to the States of Fine Prospect and Improvement, across the Sea of Intemperance from the State of Plenty, all this on the other side of the Demarcation Mountains from the towns of Darkness, Crazyville, and Prejudice, and the islands of Deaf, Blind and Folly (Gieryn, 1999: 6. See also pages 8-9 for actual map)

A Gieryn stresses, this is ‘not idle play with Venn diagrams’ (Gieryn, 1999, 12). Just as a map provides a traveler with physical directions, such ‘cultural cartography’ for science is used as shorthand when faced with a range of practical decisions (e.g. do we get a flu vaccine; is a hybrid car worthwhile?). Modern society is rooted in the advantages of specialist knowledge. We can’t all be specialists in everything, so we have to rely on trust, something Gieryn’s metaphorical map aims to capture.

Gieryn talks about ‘boundary work'; the active process of producing symbolic boundaries which our location in cultural space. We all do this all the time, and it’s not always intentional, neither is it necessarily malign. Educational researcher Basil Bernstein also wrote about the importance of symbolic boundaries back in the 1970s: the positioning of furniture in a classroom to emphasise the authority of a teacher, curriculum divides between subjects, the use of language or cultural references which some children understand but may be lost on others (Bernstein talks about this in terms of social class and the perpetuation of social inequalities through education).

One of the things I like most about the cartographic approach is that maps articulate shared space as well as boundaries. I think it’s worth emphasising that community and exclusion can be  two sides of the same coin. Jargon and in-jokes are nice examples here.  Jargon can provide precision for those who understand, just as it confuses those who do not.  An in-joke makes you feel left out if you are on the outside of it, but can be a lovely expression of friendship if you understand it.  Most importantly though, in-jokes and jargon are good examples of types of boundaries we can put up without realising it.

Keeping to communities we already know is tempting. It’s sometimes said that the various long tails of online communication allow us to surround ourselves with people who agree with us: self-curated bubbles of cozy agreement. This can be useful. It lets us network with others who have similar tastes, interests or worries, allowing us to share skills and information, to build movements (see also my London Science Online talk on ‘the science vote’). Interaction in niche groups can also be rather limiting. In his great book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins compares this to ‘choosing to live in red states and blue states’ (yep, sorry, another geographical metaphor, Jenkins, 2006: 249). Jenkins goes on to argue that we tend to join web communities for recreational interests rather than political ones. So, by hanging out at, say, a knitting blog, you might engage in discussion with someone of a different political viewpoint from yourself, a different religious one, or cultural, generational, professional.

We might argue that the science is one of these recreational interests, and so still suffers from people opting in or out of it. I honestly don’t know how this effects science blog readership. I suspect it varies. I’d like to stress, however, that one of the great things about Gieryn’s cartographic approach is that it helps us view this thing we call ‘science’ as rather heterogeneous in itself. Science isn’t a bubble, it’s a field teeming with diversity.

Moreover, science in all its diversity looks at a load of different topics, in a load of different ways, for a load of different reasons, many of which will have some non-scientific link to peoples lives (or at least non-obviously-scientific link). Another term I can offer you from sociology/ history of science: ‘boundary objects’. This refers to items of shared space that several different groups can – simultaneously – use, spend time with, be attracted to, and find meaning in. Locating this sort of shared space is something I suspect a lot of science writers aim for, or at least science writers who want to draw new audiences into science. Star and Greisemer, who’s paper on Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology I take this term from, note the active work that often has to go into making something shareable. For example, they suggest libraries as an example of spaces built to deal with problems of heterogeneity: ordered piles, indexed in a standardized fashion so that people with a host of agendas can use or borrow from the pile for their own purposes without having to negotiate differences in purpose. Boundary objects do not always simply offer themselves nakedly, and I think that’s an important point.

Star and Greisemer also reflect on the problems of working in shared spaces. They refer to people who have feet in two cultures and stress that managing multiple identities can be volatile and confusing. Such people may resolve these problems by denying one side of their identity, oscillating between worlds, or by forming a new social world composed of others like themselves (Star & Giesemer, 1989: 411-412). None of this is easy.

Boundaries are an unavoidable part of social life. They are useful, and they are limiting. We need to be as clever as possible about them: to keep an open and enquiring mind about who might be on the other side of a boundary; to be careful of accidentally building them and inadvertently seeming standoffish or snobby. We all have spam filters, and we’ve all nearly missed some great email or blog comment because of them. The trick is to keep an eye on them.

The mysterious colour blue

walking into the atmosphere gallery
I have a piece on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories science blog today on the Science Museum’s new gallery on climate science, Atmosphere.

As with the whole of the Wellcome Wing it sits within, Atmosphere is very blue. There isn’t a huge amount more I can say about the place, but here are some photos from my phone while I was visiting. I do think the gallery is exceedingly pretty, but I did leave feeling none the wiser (note: by “wiser” I mean I left without new questions to ask, as well as without new answers).

back wall of wellcome wing
That Atmosphere provided more of an aesthetic experience than an education one isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe one of the ways in which museums work is by being slightly abstractly and beautifully inspiring, to encourage to you go away and learn more elsewhere, or simply reflect on what you already know. That said, I didn’t feel all that inspired either. Maybe I’m not the target audience.

In the Guardian post I posed some of the questions I think the museum must have faced in developing this gallery:

Should museums aim to teach their audiences, or offer space for self-directed learning and debate?

Should publicly funded science communication avoid taking sides on controversial topics, or work as advocates for a scientific view?

Should climate science present a united front to the public, or reflect diversity and uncertainties within the scientific community?

I could probably also add: “Should museums provide largely written content, or simply connect you to books/ websites elsewhere and concentrate on making use of space and objects?” I don’t have any definitive answers to these questions, but maybe you have a opinion on them?

ceiling of atmosphere gallery

entrance of atmosphere gallery

On Crystal Palace Park

I work in South Kensington, an area of London which has been heavily influenced by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Colleges of Art and Music, Imperial College, the Royal Albert Hall and the Science Museum all have roots in the Great Exhibition.

This isn’t the only part of London to have been shaped by the Exhibition though. Several miles away, so far South you are almost in Kent, is a part of town often known as Crystal Palace because, in 1854, the main building of the Great Exhibition (commonly known as “the Crystal Palace”) was moved there. This relocated Crystal Palace was extended in its new site and hosted concerts as well as public exhibitions and, after World War 1, was the first site of the Imperial War Museum (now housed further North, in the old “Bedlam” asylum by Elephant and Castle). The palace burnt down in 1936, but the ruins remain in Crystal Palace Park.

from the ruins of the Crystal Palace

The blaze that took down the palace was immense, and still talked about in the area. I remember my Grandfather telling me he could see the fire several miles away in West Norwood.

All that is left really are a couple of statues, and a few flights of stone stairs. These stairs are wide, expansive and impressive, but then there is nothing above them. The main structure’s simply gone. As with many ruins, however, standing amongst them you can really imagine what the original structure might have been like.

Steps of Crystal Palace 2
There is something very modern about these ruins, at least compared to Roman or Crusader ones I’ve visited (ruins from London’s Blitz having been largely built over). It might be the BBC mast that dominates the skyline to the North, or the buildings fo the 1960’s  sports stadium to the South. Or it could be simply that they are very modern. In many respects the Great Exhibition was a declaration of a certain type of mid-19th century British modernity and its various scattered remains reflect this.

A statue of Joseph Paxton the designer of the palace sits just next to the ruins. I think he looks suitably proud of himself, as well as suitably sad that they are no longer there.

Joseph Paxton

The other amazing legacy of the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace Park are the dinosaurs. These were built in the 1840s by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkin, commissioned by Richard Owen. It was Owen who coined the term dinosaur (or  “Dinosauria” at least) and was the driving force behind the establishment of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, situated next to the institutions left over from the Great Exhibition (although unlike the V&A and Science Museum, not so directly linked to it).

There is an amazing and oft-repeated story about a dinner party held inside one the iguanodon statues on New Year’s Eve in 1853. So the story goes, this was only possible because at the time many paleontologists belied that iguanodon’s stood on all fours. If the iguanodon stood on two legs, they wouldn’t have had the space to fit quite so many people for dinner.

dinosaur!

I love that the Great Exhibition, an iconic statement about the future and the nature of progress, would be connected with some as ancient as dinosaurs. Of course, the study of Natural History was one of the ways mid 19th century people articulated a modern scientific view of the world, but there is something fascinating about the juxtaposition of eras in the park. These dinosaurs also invite reflection upon the ways in which our understanding of Natural History (as well as human history) changes over time. They are quite different from the dinosaurs of the Jurassic Park films, and yet they both took the best scientific advice available at the time.

dinosaur!

I think my favourite Crystal Palace dinosaurs are the crocodile-ish ones. There is something quite Quentin Blake about them, like something out of a Roald Dahl kids book. The kids book link is, I think important. The shift to South London lends a rather different tone to the science, industrial design and technology associated with the Great Exhibition.  Yes, kids run around the museums of South Kensington screaming about ice cream, but there is something much more domesticated about this suburban parkland space. Even if the dinosaurs can look quite dramatic in the evening winter sunshine.

dinosaur!

Check out the teeth

dinosaur!

dinosaur!

There are a host of books on the history of the Great Exhibition, and Victorian paleontology. My favourite in terms of the latter is Deborah Cadbury’s The Dinosaur Hunters, a truly gripping piece of non-fiction. Or for a fictional take on the spirit of modernity embodied in the Great Exhibition, the film Steamboy is very entertaining. In terms of online resources, you can watch this lovely video about the dinosaurs, or read this great blogpost about their history (which includes a picture of the part inside the iguanodon).  I can also recommend this BBC podcast about the Great Exhibition, and the wikipedia entry on the palace is pretty good.

EDIT (12th Jan): if you visit for youself, you might like the Darwin and the Dinosaurs audio trail.

The brain: the new weather?

What’s with the brain these days? This was the question Steve Woolgar started off a conference on Neurosociety, held at the Saïd Business School late last term (see also my post on STS and the Bernalian nightmare).

Why do we increasingly seem to feel the need to explain, plan and sell with reference to research to neuroscience, or at least with allusions to such research? Why do we ask questions of what we can know, what we must do and what we may hope couched in terms of various transcriptions of the brain? Are we living in a neurosociety, or at least moving towards one?


Drinks for sale at my local corner shop

It seems that neuro is the prefix of the day, perhaps interchangeable with ‘e’ or ‘information’, or similar hype over the idea we are living in ‘the era of the gene’. Or perhaps, neurosociety could be a development of such previous technoscientific epochs: arguably, much discussion of the brain stems from worries about digital culture, and is couched in genetic terms. Whether we see ourselves through the brain, our genes, or the technology we use, the central object we take as a figure of human behaviour seems to have changed slightly over time. Is the heart next?

(Perhaps illuminatingly, no one seemed to reflect on the prefixes of ‘big’ or ‘no such thing as’ for the word society. We largely stuck to science and technology framings)

Jonathan Rownson of the RSA was one of the many speakers to argue that the brain has become an object that brings people together, it functions as a social device to get people together to talk. In STS terms we might, very loosely, call it a ‘boundary object’. As Rownson put it: you ask people about their psychology, their behaviour, and they feel defensive but ‘the brain animates people, the brain interests people’. Is the brain, Rownson asked, the new weather?

Rownson also mentioned what I felt was the most interesting theme of the conference: that of social reflexivity. We are aware of our own condition more than ever before, and use this understanding to self-analyse. As Umberto Eco might put it, we are ‘non-innocent’ about culture, including neuro-themed culture. We no longer see the brain naively. We know we cannot simply say ‘as neuroscientists would say’. We know it is not so simple. We are not so unquestioning of science these days (if we ever were).

Who this ‘we’ might be exactly is ambiguous though, there was a fair amount of talk at the conference about the pervasiveness of ‘neuromyths’ and the need for some active mythbusting around neuroscience.

There was some connected discussion of what STS scholars can offer our understanding of neurosociety, and whether they should retain some ethnographic distance from neuroscientists. This debate included the idea that scientists themselves are insufficiently sceptical of their own work. This is an arguably unfair prejudice of many STS schoars which I suspect has its roots in a loose application of Kuhn’s idea of normal science. In contrast, Nikolas Rose argued that from his perspective of someone who has been studying the field very closely for several years, neuroscientists are incredibly critical of their own work, as well as the ways in which aspects or images of neuroscience are applied/ alluded to commercially or in popular culture. As Rose put it, ‘if anything, the further away from researchers you get, the less reflexive you get’.

It’s all to easy to assume some other people blindly believe what they are told, be these people ‘the public’, ‘scientists’, ‘humanities graduates’, ‘the media’, ‘politicians’, women, children, the working class or another social group. But, as Dorothy Nelkin and Celeste Condit argued over the reality of ‘the DNA Mystique’ in the mid ’90s, we should be careful of assuming a lack of critical faculties in others (just as we should be careful of assuming too many in ourselves).

Thinking broadly about this non-innocence view of the brain, if and wherever such non-innocence might exist: perhaps it is simply the moment in late modernity our move to neurosociety has occurred within. Maybe we live in non-innocent times no matter what we are looking at. Or perhaps the brain is a topic which invites reflexivity: we cannot help thinking about what makes us think. More pragmatically, I wonder if the historical associations between some areas of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience are worth noting. Perhaps this frames knowledge and debate on the issue in more questioning ways that discussion of genetics or computing ever did.

Or maybe it really isn’t all that more reflexive than other issues. We might argue that there has always been a mix of credulity and criticism about science and technology, in various places, in a variety of ways. No one ever really took a gene’s eye view? Technological determinism was always a strawman argument?

The conference website should be updated with audio with some of the keynotes soon.

For my part in aiming to learn more about conversations surrounding neurosociety, I have started a small research project on bloggers (details of how you can help).