What is science news and who gets to decide?

Public art in Trafalgar Square. I think it’s something to do with Rio+20.

I was on the panel for the ABSW annual debate last night. Our topic was the rather broad question: What is science news and who gets to decide? This post is an extended version of my talk.

I think lots of things are science news, and lots of people should have a role in defining it. I’m not sure policing the conceptual boundaries here is all that helpful. It feels rather limiting, and I don’t think science news is something that should be limited. I think science news is something that should be allowed to be a bit out of control.

But I want to offer something provoke some debate, so: (a) it strikes me that environmental politics is increasingly part of science news, in ways which invite us to reflect upon the politics of science; (b) the scientific community shouldn’t be scared to work with environmental NGOs. I don’t think they should get to decide science news, but we should see them as a player. I don’t think science should treat these groups uncritically, but equally science shouldn’t be scared to be criticised either. When I say environmental NGOs I mean the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, though we might also include think tanks too, as well as what might be dubbed “non-traditional environmental NGOs” such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation or the Heartland Institute.

It can be tempting to cast groups like this as a bit of a problem when it comes to the public debate about science and technology. Lacking scientific expertise they sensationalise and polarise debate. Too quick to reject science (GMOs) whilst, at the same time, too keen to claim scientists know the incontrovertible truth when it suits their campaigns (climate change). The worst extremes of bad science, at once: both too credulous and too critical of science. I think that would be an oversimplification though.

It’s worth remembering that environmental NGOs are in many ways quite scientific creatures. Or at least we might see them as a product of science, often taking inspiration from science and technology’s ability to alert us to human impact on the planet (see, for example, the early history of the WWF). As a colleague put it recently, the green movement is unique amongst contemporary political ideologies in that it is so rooted in science. As a scientific creature, it’s maybe understandable then that it manages to be both overly strident and riddled with doubt. (That’s the scientific way, no?). Moreover, just because the green movement has critiqued aspects of science, doesn’t make it hostile or ignorant of the whole enterprise. Green campaigns are often less “anti-science” and more a hopeful attempt at harnessing the power of science and technology for maximum social good. We can have a fight over what we think counts as “social good” – just as we might fight over what counts as “science” or “progress” – but that’s politics, isn’t it? Indeed, I’d argue that’s the politics of science, and environmental NGOs are a key player in inviting us to discuss what science could and should be.

Sociologist Steven Yearley has a long-standing interest in the green movement’s relationship with science. As he notes in a 2008 essay for a slightly rare textbook, there are plenty of examples of environmental NGOs being a bit loose when it comes to science but they often depend on a lot of science too. With particular reference to anti GMO protests, he notes that campaigns are not always rooted in mainstream science: both in terms of making the sorts of claims scientists might laugh at, but also because they base some of their critique in economics and policy analysis, highly attuned to the ways in which, under close inspection, scientific expertise can soon loose its straightforward appeal. And yet, when it comes to issues like climate change, he notes the ways the same groups seem to feel obliged to suggest the public simply take the scientists’ word for it (see also Mike Hulme on this). As Yearley dryly puts it, this may lead to “rhetorical difficulties” when it comes to environmental NGOs’ use of science.

Personally, I suspect there is as much truth in the idea environmentalists are overly pro-science as any claims anyone is actually straightforwardly anti-science (i.e. not much, really). Moreover, I think we can turn these rhetorical difficulties in on itself a bit, or see it as a possible advantage for science communication. That power to scrutinise claims to scientific expertise, especially when it comes to political and economic interests, might have seemed annoying with GMOs, but can be a powerful resource for scientists interacting with aspects of the climate sceptic community. I think we can see this with work unravelling the interests of the GWPF, for example. That’s not to say science lacks expertise entirely here, or that this is the only place to get it. But it’s a place to get it. Critique is a central part of science, and I don’t think science communication should be scared if parts of it are a bit critical at times. The same, arguably, goes for odd moments of stridency and emotion.

There are other things the NGOs can provide too. They have expertise in lobbying and media relations, which again the scientific community has itself and can find elsewhere, but is worth engaging with. They can also flag up topics for public debate outside of the standard science news patterns of scholarly publishing (e.g. creating news events through protest). They can provide access to unusual places or people and work on investigations. They also have networks of supporters and some public trust and authority. This can all work a range of ways, especially in the ideologically charged world of environmental politics. Many people are turned off by a green label and some fo the topics environmental NGOs will want to flag up won’t necessarily make life comfortable for all scientists. Still, they are groups worth working with, just as members of scientific community might work with a range of newspapers and political parties. Environmental NGOs do not exist to serve the scientific community, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be understood as a player within it.

Mark Henderson ends his recent book on science and politics, “The Geek Manifesto“, with a chapter on green issues. Like Yearley, Henderson argues the green movement can be both too credulous and too antagonistic towards science. He argues that scientist members of environmental groups should stand up for scientific evidence and method from within, just as he councils scientist members of political parties to do. Ok, but I think they should take the chance to listen too. As with much of Henderson’s book, I found myself thinking yes, but if science is going to play with public policy it has to be willing to listen as well as teach, and possibly change in the process. I’m not saying FoE and the GWPF should fight it out over whether climate change is happening, but it might mean being open to thinking differently about how we organise, direct and apply science. (let’s not conflate science, a thing people do, with nature, the thing they look at). I think we all need to be open to conversations about how science and technology could be mobilised differently.

To end by bringing us back to the broader issue of science news in general, I think we can agree that the ease of self-publishing and increased opportunities for interactivity provided by online communication has disrupted traditional top down models of experts speaking to the public. It’s easier for all of us to listen to a load more voices. If you come to this noisy new world thinking you might learn something, well, you might just learn something.

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7 thoughts on “What is science news and who gets to decide?

  1. Paul Hutchings

    Interesting that this comes on the heels of the issues in the US (briefly covered by THE http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=419929&c=1) which appears to expand it out to an issue of ‘what is science and who gets to decide?’.
    One of the problems appears to be that there is a bizarre version of the Prisoners Dilemma going on where it is in interest groups best interests to stand their ground rather than work together and compromise – this then leads to the groups cherrypicking data, claiming science on ‘their side’, whilst ignoring compromise alternatives. It would be a horrible situation if modern science was secondary to who had the loudest voice or the best PR machine (or are we already in that situation?).

  2. Andrew Maynard

    Interesting piece Alice – thanks. It often seems that there is a naivity within the science community about NGO’s and a temptation to characature them based on glancing accounts from the media (I loose count of how many meetings I’ve been in where all NGOs are depicted as Greenpease-esque whaler-chasers). Yet the NGO community is incredibly diverse, and many of them in the environmental and health space are led by scientists, populated by scientists, and work closely with the science community. That said, because most NGOs are interested in making a difference rather than just presenting information, they often see science as a tool and a means to an end rather than the end itself, and this can lead to apparent credulity or criticality. This can be extremely fustrating at times, but makes more sense when seen in the light of utilizing science to enact social change. It also underpins the – often sophisticated – use of media by NGOs, where the story isn’t the science, but the science is used to drive the story. This doesn’t always make them right or easy to stomach. But it does make many groups worth listening to. And in my experience it makes them important partners in many cases.

    1. alice Post author

      “often see science as a tool and a means to an end rather than the end itself” I think this is often at the base of a lot of the problems, but i think it’s true that a lot of actors in sci com feel the same, for a variety of other reasons. I’m not sure why enviromental NGOs get such a hard time about it.

      Also very much with you on the diverse point…

  3. Pingback: Weekly List Bookmarks (weekly) | Eccentric Eclectica @ ToddSuomela.com

  4. Pingback: What is science news and who gets to decide? | through the looking glass « Secularity

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