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.

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9 thoughts on “Science and its spam filter

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Science and its spam filter « through the looking glass -- Topsy.com

  2. stleoscience

    Most diagrams of the scientific method leave out this important step: to publish or communicate scientific research. This is an important step, and like somebody said on twitter recently, ‘if it isn’t blogged it didn’t happen’. Jennifer Ouellette in her new book, ‘The Calculus Diaries’, tells a story of how Newton defended himself as the inventor of the calculus by finally sending proof in a letter to his rival, Leibniz, in the form of a Latin anagram. A similar thing happened to Darwin before he finally published his definitive book, ‘The Origin of the Species’. Some scientists have such bad writer’s block, and this in no way seems to hinder their research, up until it’s time to publish, and then it becomes a very painstaking effort, to say the least. I remember a time when most scientists didn’t know how to type. I belong to this group, myself, and it is only recently that twitter and blogging has taught me some verbal communication skills in a fluent, fun and happy way, in which you are instantly graded, and bounce back for the better.

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  3. Brendan

    Great post. I’m an outsider to the discipline — a taster of the smorgasbord — but I’m most enamored of the notion of flexible rigor. “Boundary objects” are fruitful subjects to ponder, analyze, juggle, and digest. The “cartographic approach” works because we cannot be conscious of that we cannot see, or imagine. And what’s a map without the abyssal voids beyond the boundaries, where it was once written that dragons there abound? Now we call it dark matter(s), a term which allows us to see and imagine it, albeit darkly.

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  4. Captain Skellett

    In Classical Studies and Mythology we often used to talk about liminal characters and settings. Some of the most interesting things are liminal. Sunsets are more interesting than noon, for example. Same with people and interdisciplinary studies. They can be difficult to deal with or understand, a gray area. As you said, the trick is to keep your eye on them, and an open mind. Ignore them at your peril.

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