Category Archives: environmentalscience

Identifying arguments in climate science

George Bush used to say, in his generous way, that the science [of climate change] is uncertain. But it’s an almost content free statement because science is about uncertainty.

Lord Oxburgh FRS, Imperial College, 30th January 2012.

That quote comes from a debate on climate science in the mass media we held at Imperial last week, part of the pilot science in context course I’m working on. You can find a podcast of the debate at the college media site.

Oxburgh chaired the event, with a panel comprising of Louise Gray (Environment Correspondent, Telegraph), James Randerson (Environment and Science News Editor, Guardian), James Painter (Reuters Institute, University of Oxford) and Joe Smith (Open University), along with questions from our undergraduates.

A couple of students and tutors later told me they felt the panelists were too similar, that there wasn’t enough ‘debate’ and they’d have liked to see a climate sceptic. I take that point, but also disagree with it. There was, if you listen carefully, a fair bit of diversity within the discussion. It wasn’t one side vs. the other, and just because the panellists tended to be polite and smile and nod at each other didn’t mean they were all coming from the same position.

It’s worth reflecting on how we identify a ‘debate’ here. Debates do not always have to be a battle of two opposing views. Personally, I’d say that’s often the least productive sort of debate you can have. They can also just be a group of people playing with a particular issue; a matter of chatting to gradually identify problems and reflect on possible answers. Indeed, this question of how we structure and spot the debate within climate science was a key topic of this particular event, as it was in our previous class, with Brian Hoskins.

James Painter started things off by stressing there are many types of uncertainty involved in the public discussion of climate change, including many types of scepticism: ‘there are many ways you can question and be uncertain about climate science’. Drawing on his Poles Apart report, he suggested four types: people who are sceptical that global warming is happening, those who a sceptical that it is due to human action, those who are sceptical about aspects of climate change’s impact and people who are sceptical about specific policies.

James Randerson followed with a different track, noting the stretch of the issue with reference to an extraordinary letter to the Guardian from the medical community, calling for more transparently on climate lobbyists. Louise Gray offered another topical case study: the diversity of coverage of a recent UK government report on the impacts of climate change to the UK: the Guardian focused on the burden to poor where as the Telegraph noted possible opportunities for the tourist industry (you can google for yourself to see what the Mail said). As Gray argued, newspapers will have different frames for how they read climate news based on the editors’ ideas of their customers, a point underlined by Joe Smith later when he stressed the way we all bring our own cultural ‘baggage’ to climate change debates, and plugging Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

For his presentation, Joe Smith argued that in many ways climate science makes for a rubbish story in the mass media. There is simply too much of a consensus: too many of the experts agree, what really is there to report? He said he used to think the consensus on climate change was a good thing, but it does make it unreportably dull, which is why the contrarian views get pulled in, to liven it up. There isn’t enough of an edge, maybe we need more of an edge? Gray echoed this in discussion, saying we should pay attention to more of the ‘dodgy things’ going on around climate change - subsidies, inefficiencies of NGOs – that the real stories are less about sceptic vs non-sceptic and more about who is doing the right thing, how and when. Randerson and Oxburgh seemed slightly more cautious of Smith’s call for more arguments, laughing ‘careful what you wish for’ and noting the ways a stronger sense of disagreement plays in the US and Australia. I wonder if that misses Smith and Gray’s point though, which to me was more of a call to open up the political edginess of climate change policy. It was about the disagreements at the end of Painter’s typology of sceptics: debate over what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening or why.

For me, this was summed up in a comment from Gray near the end of the evening: ‘there’s a lot of heat and fire around a few sceptical people, but maybe that is the wrong focus’.

Maybe you disagree though.

For fracks sake

“Who even invented that word fracking anyway? I bet it was an environmentalist.”

Anthony Giddens, 17th January 2012

Anthony Giddens doesn’t seem to like the word fracking. At a debate on shale gas at the Policy Network earlier this week he wrapped his mouth around it as if the very sound produced a bad smell right there under his nose. It sounds ever so slightly like a rude word you see (I know. Naughty) which leads to punning headlines which sensationalises debate.

I disagree with this as necessarily a problem though. In fact, I’m all for punning headlines when it comes to very esoteric debates like shale gas. Yeah, you could see it as a distraction from real* issues. Or you could see it as an invitation. This thing that sometimes gets called “sensationalism” is not necessarily a bad thing.

The crucial issue for me was that Giddens expressed this distaste for the word fracking while sitting in a small, not especially full room in the centre of Westminster; a small room in the shadow of Big Ben, above an ecclesiastical outfitters and nestled behind one of the UK’s most exclusive private schools. There were at least two members of the House of Lords there. Possibly more (I’m not very good at peer-spotting). There were certainly a lot of suits. Apparently it was an open event, although an academic from the LSE also told me it was invite only and although it may not have been intensionally closed, it did feel a tad elitist. I felt scared emailing to ask if I could go, and slightly out of place when I arrived. And I work for two of top universities in the country. I even used to work in those offices, above J Whipple and Sons ecclesiastical outfitters, back when it was rented by NESTA. I should feel reasonably at home there.

I should make it clear that I don’t want energy policy dictated by punning headline. I do want people who make the decisions on these issues to take the time to be expert, probably for them to understand it better than I do and talk about things I don’t have time to learn how to understand. I like that people sit in small rooms in Westminster being a bit geeky. But I do not want them to be disdainful of popular debate while they do so. In fact, I’d want them to spend time thinking about how to open the debate up as much as possible. Punning headlines being part of that.

Let’s take, for example the Fracking Song which includes this little beauty of a lyric: “What the frack is going on with all this fracking going on, I think we need some facts to come to light…” (complete a slight emphasis on facts to assonate with frack). The song accompanies a short animated video which is offered as an introduction to the issue, something it’s makers describe as an “explainer”. They stress that an explainer is not meant to take the place of the detailed investigation, it’s just a starting point. It’s a lovely bit of video; really makes you feel like you understand an issue and are able and want to know more. It is also, I should underline still a framing of the issue, a starting point from a particular position. For all that the word explainer may sound comfortingly straightforward, logical and educational, it is still a version of the more complex events going on. It is still a take on the topic, a story, form of spin even. That lovely feeling where you think you understand an issue is produced because it’s such a great piece of rhetoric. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing, just that it’s rhetoric. Lots of things are rhetoric. Including all the debate from Giddens et al I heard on shale gas (not fracking) at the Policy Network. One person’s “sensationalism” is another’s “hit the nail on the head”.

So, let’s talk about fracking. And if Giddens thinks this is the wrong way into a debate about shale gas he should join in and help enrich public debate, not turn his nose up at it.

* Whatever the “real” issues are. Personally, I think the focus of these issues is up for debate, which is part of the point. Incidentally, I don’t think it was an environmental campaigner who coined the term fracking, it’s been an industrial process for several decades. But even if it was I’m not entirely sure what the problem is.

EDITED TO ADD: years ago, when I was an undergrad studying science in the mass media I wrote an essay on the politics of sensationalism and remember reading this paper (paywall, sorry). Not sure I agreed with it then, or now, but people reading this might find it interesting.

Britain, a nation of climate sceptics? Really?

Street art – or rather tree art – in Toronto.

The latest British Social Attitudes survey was released earlier this week. Cue much swapping of claims to know what the public really thinks, and how well this does or does not match government policy. The Prime Minister issued a short statement suggesting the results showed a “crucial shift in our society” and that people were “making it clear that they’d had enough of the [previous government's] something for nothing culture”. Personally, I don’t think survey data like this makes anything clear. The public don’t speak in one voice, but many, complex and changing ones. You can’t read a singular view of the people off blocks of data like this, no matter how strong the methodology, how pretty the infographics or how tempting the political message. Still, such data is interesting, I’d even say important. It takes us out of anecdotes of people we met in the pub last week and our own small social circles and makes us think, as best as we can, about the country at large.

The chapter I was most interested in was the one on the environment. It’s entitled “a paler shade of green” and the central message isn’t exactly rosy for those who campaign on environmental issues. The Guardian ran with “Public support for tackling climate change declines dramatically” or, from the Daily Mail, “Rise of the climate change sceptics“. I agree the results include many items of concern for the environmental movement, and for science communication too. However, I’m really not convinced by the narrative of a rise in scepticism, especially the BSA’s own focus on the impact of Climategate. Such surveys can have a rhetorical power in themselves  (e.g. Cameron’s claim the people had spoken with him) so I think it’s important to check such narratives.

I guess the headline result is that 37% think many claims about environmental threats are exaggerated, which is up from 24% in 2000. I want to ask, however, whose claims? That is, have people stopped trusting the science, or do they just feel there is a lot of exaggeration and hype around environmental politics? Maybe it’s less a matter of the impact of Climategate, and more a bit of climate media fatigue. You might trust a scientist on the news, and yet still find a DECC advert annoying. For example, Attenborough’s calm concern in the latest Frozen Planet is rather different from exploding schoolchildren (or, for that matter, posing with huskies, or ads “made from recycled clips” or a host of other stunts). Personally, I don’t think we can take this data simply as a sign that sceptics are winning the climate communications war. It could be that too. We just don’t know.

The survey also considered whether people agreed more with these two statements: “We worry too much about the future of the environment and not enough about prices and jobs today” and “People worry too much about human progress harming the environment”* (p95). From this, the BSA report argues that the public are more sceptical that a threat exists. I’m not sure that follows. Maybe, but it’s a jump to cite scepticism. It could just be that people think we worry too much. Perhaps they just think there are other things to worry about. As the report itself suggests, the “financial pinch” of the recession may well be having an impact on the ways people make choices about the environment. Or, perhaps people agree that climate change is happening, just that there is nothing we can do. Again, this doesn’t mean climate sceptics aren’t winning the communications battle here, I just mean I don’t necessarily see that from the data. It all rather depends on how we unpack and then define denialism/ climate scepticism, and I don’t think the report does that very clearly (not that it necessarily should, but we need to keep that lack of definition in mind when reading the data).

(* I think the latter is a really interesting choice of statement – to me, there is something slightly 20th century about it. As technofixes become more part of public discourse, I wonder if it’ll be the right way of measuring things? I also thought it was interesting that they asked about impact of pollution on the British landscape – polluted rivers, etc. Climate change is maybe a slightly different story, a more esoteric question of satellite images, detailed debate between scientists and complex graphs, glaciers melting in largely unpopulated poles and stories of flooding in parts of the world we are not used to hearing news from. There is a strong link between environmental concerns and national identity in the UK and elsewhere, but climate change is a more global issue. But I digress…).

All that said, I did think data around whether people agreed with the statement “Every time we use coal or gas or oil we contribute to climate change” was something climate communications people should worry about. In 2000, 35% said this statement was definitely true, 46% said it was probably true and 12% said definitely/ probably not true. For 2010 the results change to 20%, 51% and 17% respectively. There were also marked drops in concerns over the impact of cars and agriculture. As the report says, this might be due to people thinking they’ve been partly solved by “cleaner” technologies; it’s harder to explain away the impact of coal/ gas/ oil on climate statement quite so easily though. If you want something cheering, maybe age will help though: the sharpest drop in people agreeing that climate change was dangerous came from people 55+. This was down 13% from 56% to 43% with over 55-64 bracket and down 19% from 47% to 28% with over 65′s, but only down 3% and 1 % respectively to 48% with 18-34s and 15-54s (p103). I’m not sure 48% agreement is a particularly good score though anyway.

Something else that sprung out at me was that 52% of the people who said they think the rise in the world’s temperature caused by climate change reduce the energy use in their home (p91). Perhaps what this highlights is not a communications challenge of convincing people of the science, but more of a behavioral one. The figure is 39% overall though, so it does seem that agreeing climate change is dangerous has clear impact. The report also notes an “ascension of recycling to a national social norm”, so maybe this is possible, given political will.

The report also notes a decrease in political activism (p95-6). Maybe this shows a failure of green groups to reach out of usual audiences? Or maybe the activism issue is a timing thing, as the data considers a period not too far from the election (and I think it was collected pre-forests). There is the economic downturn issue again: haven’t all donation-based groups suffered from drop in support? I also wonder if people who’d signed up for anti-airport protest because they don’t like noise would have necessarily have thought of it as an environmental issue? I don’t know. I do think it’s interesting though, and would be interested to know if the green movement is worried. It was interesting to look at how the data on concern over global warming mapped onto party political sympathies. ls green politics too tribal? Conservative supporters (38%) are less likely to show strong concern than those who lean towards Labour (49% – a decline compared to 2000 interestingly, unlike other parties) or the Lib Dems (55%) (p102).

One final thing that bugged me about this report was that it didn’t really examine how and where people got their information about the environment from, and yet still felt able to make loose connections between the timing of Climategate and the apparent rise in scepticism. From the final pages: “we conclude that media coverage may make a difference – not least ‘new’ media and the internet ‘blogosphere’ where unfounded opinion can sometimes be favoured over scientific fact” (p106). The impact of the media on people’s understanding, reasoning and framing of any issue, perhaps in particular ones including esoteric expertise like climate science, is incredibly complex, and the BSA report writers should have known better. They should certainly know better than to make loose comments about unfounded opinion on blogosphere (which is a large, diverse and porous area of activity). I also don’t see how they can look at a change over ten years and say it has to be something that happened in 2009, no matter how much media ink was spilled. To their credit they do also say it could also be matter of fatigue and refer to financial cost, etc. Personally, I’d like to see them acknowledge that they don’t know and call for investment in more research here.

Anyway, there is a lot more in the BSA report. Do please go and read it for yourself. My scepticism over some of its analysis aside, it is worth reading. I’m glad the government invests in social research like this (I wish they invested more). If you are interested in public attitudes and knowledge of science I can also recommend this excellent paper (paywalled journal, but you could try emailing one of the authors for a copy). It’s worth having a look at the Eurobarometer on attitudes to climate change (pdf, 2008) and some of Leo Barasi’s blogging on polling around Climategate, as well as recent studies from the USA. In terms of media effects science issues, this report from Cardiff (pdf, 2003) is old but still relevant (and free to access) and comes highly recommended.

EDIT (12/12/11): see also Leo Barasi’s take on this (where he stresses timing of survey, a point I’ve heard made about other chapters too), and a shorter version of my post on Liberal Conspiracy. EDIT 15/12/11: … and Adam Corner’s piece for New Scientist.

Public art in Washington DC – a fountain floods the sidewalk to reveal a map of the world (little raised edges protect coastlines).

Badger, badger, badger…

Remember those heady post-election days in summer 2010, when we were all getting used to the idea of not just a non-Labour government, but a coalition one at that? The press was awash with “what does this government mean for [insert special interest group here]?”.

Perhaps buoyed by pre-election activity to get “The Science Vote” out, the science press seemed especially keen on this sort of copy. Each publication focused on a different set of challenges. Science magazine mentioned badgers. A lot of people laughed. The weebles badger song was passed liberally around the scipolicy hashtag, along with the odd mention of mashed potatoes (cultural reference, if you don’t get it).

But badgers – or more specifically badger culling – is a serious and long-running science policy issue. Animals are killed: there’s the culling of the badgers on one side, but also the slaughter of cows with the bovine TB the badgers are thought to spread. This is understandably an emotive issue – moral and economic – for many. Badger culling is also a fascinating example of science policy actually trying an experiment, in an attempt to be as evidence-based as possible. Although this has helped give us more information, it hasn’t given firm advice one way or another and remains, inevitably, mixed in with further political, moral and cultural divides. As well as broader politics surrounding the meat and dairy industry, it is worth remembering the history of badger hunting (in the context of fox hunting). Here’s a badger fact for you: “Dachs” is the German word for badger, and dachshund dogs were originally bred to hunt badgers (though they aren’t called dachshunds in Germany).

So when I found myself co-running a science policy themed pub quiz last Monday, I did a round on badgers. Here are my questions if you want to play at home. I hope they give some of the flavour of the issue. Answers at the bottom, under the badger-badge picture.

1) 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2010 because of Bovine TB. How many millions of pounds a year does the government estimate Bovine TB cost the taxpayer?

2) One for the zoologists, though fans of Wind in the Willows might enjoy it too: Are badgers members of the weasel or skunk family?

3) Rupert the Bear’s best friend is called Bill Badger, in what town do they reside? (if you enjoy fictional badgers of British culture, I can recommend Bryan Talbot’s Grandville graphic novels)

4) It was Professor Lord John Krebs who, back in in the 1990s was the sci advisor responsible for the review which found badgers a “reservoir” for bovine TB and called for trail culls. Which party does he represent in the House of Lords?

5) Brian May is a high profile campaigner against the badger cull – do go see his site, and put the sound on – in what year did he submit his PhD to Imperial College? Bonus point if you know how many years after abandoning it to join Queen this was.

6) The website 38 Degrees have been running a “Rethink the Badger Cull” campaign, how many signatures do they have? As long as you are within 500 you can get a “right” on this.

7) The badger was the first wild mammal to be given legal protection in the UK – what year? Clue: two years before the first badger carcass riddled with bTB was found in a farm in Gloucestershire. [EDIT 3rd Jan 2012: See correction below]

1) £90m – I got this from a Defra press release from last summer, based on 2010 figures, but there are several press reports of £100 million (e.g. from the BBC and the Telegraph) so will accept that.

2) Weasel. Except for the stink badger, which reside in parts of South East Asia, which recent genetic evidence would suggest is not a badger at all.

3) Nutwood.

4) This is sort of a trick question – he is a crossbencher.

5. 2007, 36 years after leaving it to join Queen. I did my PhD at Imperial 2004-8 and did spot him on campus once.

6. Check for yourself. If you so wish, sign while you are there.

7. The 1973 Badger Act. Considering it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we saw laws against fox hunting, I think this is significant. Nerds might be interested to know there were also Badger Acts in 1991 and 1992. This piece by Patrick Barkham is good at giving some of the history of this.

Edit 3rd Jan 2012: a correction to question 7. As picked up by Angela Cassidy in comments, the Badger Act was two years AFTER the tuberculous badger was found. Moreover, as pointed out by environmental historian Rob Lambert in an email, protection of mammals started 60 years before that, with seals. The first wild mammal to be given Parliamentary legal protection in Britain was the Atlantic Grey Seal: The Grey Seals Protection Act (1914), Grey Seals Protection Act (1932) and the Conservation of Seals Act (1970, which also protected another British mammal species, the Common Seal).

I can also add a link to another Patrick Barkham piece on the apparent comeback of badger baiting (banned since 1835). Barkham’s piece from just after the culls were announced in mid December is also worth a read if you didn’t see it at the time.

Memories of kids’ environmental media

big old pile of dead tree media telling us to recycle

A small pile of dead trees.

I’m giving a short talk later this month about children’s science media and memory. I thought I’d pick up an idea I’ve been playing with for a while, and discuss memories of childhood and environmental media, and I’d like your help.

There’s loads of great material here. EDF Energy’s It’s Not Easy Being Green ad, “made entirely of recycled clips”, or the news of a Captain Planet movie in the making. Captain Planet is just one example of several green-tinged media products aimed at kids in the early 1990s. If you’re of the right age, you might also remember the Blue Peter Green BookUncle Jack or FernGully (great book on this, by the way). It goes back a lot further than this though. A strong thread of Romanticism has run through much of children’s fiction for centuries, often reflecting ideas about the natural world (see Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan on this). Mary Welsely’s The Sixth Seal (which scared the poo out of me as a kid) was first published in 1969. There is also a long history of non-fiction media on natural history aimed at kids which will, on occasion, overlap with environmental issues.

I often wonder if kid’s green media of previous era’s had any impact. I noticed Laurie Penny referenced childhood memories of FernGully and what she described as “traumatic colouring books full of sad baby seals and herons choking on plastic bags” (missed that one myself…) in a recent piece about a trip to the Arctic. In his book about children’s news media, David Buckingham cynically suggests a focus on environmental issues  is a way adults can put off taking action themselves: label it a kids issue and leave it for the next generation. I wonder if, now those kids have grown up, they are doing something. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they are just enjoying the nostalgia of the recycled clips on the EDF Energy ad.

Anyway, as a way of helping me think about this, I’d be interested in people’s memories of environmental media they encountered as children. On TV, books, films, in lessons at school, whatever. Whenever or wherever you experienced your childhood, and however you reacted to it. Do you remember the Blue Peter Green Book, FernGully, the Lorax, something else?  Did they worry you, bore you, inspire you, annoy you?

I’d love to hear your memories.  Do please leave them in the comments, and pass this post on to anyone you think might have something to share.

Science and hobbies

What I did on my holiday

Sitting with some science on Brighton beach.

I co-run a regular event with the Biochemical Society exploring science online. Last week, we had one on science and hobbies, a combination that doesn’t need the web to come about, but is arguably facilitated by it. I know the word ‘hobby’ seemed a bit off-puttingly folksy for some, but I wanted to capture the difference between doing or talking about science for a living, and doing/ talking about science in one’s spare time. Fully aware that this divide isn’t clear cut, I thought the topic would generate debate. I think it did. You can listen to a podcast of the full event, but here are my three ‘take home’ questions from the debate.

What counts as value in citizen science? One of the audience members gave the example of a crowd-sourced citizen research project run by their university, where they realised that it would have been cheaper just to employ a single professional to do the work, largely because it all had to be checked by an expert anyway. One response was that this argument relies largely on the idea that the outcome being funded is purely research. If it is engagement too (and you count citizen involvement as engagement, not just free labour), then maybe it’s a false comparison.

Do we need to consider the ethics of citizen science? In many ways, this follows on from above. If a citizen research project could have just employed a professional academic, are they robbing someone of a job? One of the reasons science became professionalised was to allow people who were not independently wealthy make a living from it. We have seen similar tensions around journalism and music. We might equally ask whether citizen science projects like those run by the Zooniverse simply exploit their members for free labour (this piece on research and the Mechanical Turk is interesting). On the other side, however, it was argued why not let the public volunteer to give something to science, especially if by giving some of their time rather than just money via taxes, they learn something about the science and built relationships with each other and the scientific community in the process? Further, maybe such citizen research frees up a postdoc to do something more interesting, especially if greater public engagement leads to public support for science meaning they find it easier to keep public funding and therefore jobs in science (big ‘if’ though…). I don’t think we settled on answers either way here, but they are all good questions to keep asking. I also think we should find further ethical questions on this topic.

Does doing science as a hobby encourage or discourage social engagement? Again, this is complex question. While discussing garage-based biohackers, it was argued that this removes science from its broader social context. Not only the large networks of professional science, but what many of them are working for; it’s science for the individual, not a public good. Is hobbiest science anti-social? I thought this point was really interesting, and reminded me of Jack Stilgoe’s thoughtful post on science and the Big Society, where he stressed science as a ‘team sport’. On the other hand, a chance to have some individual relationship with science could be an invite to communities both within and around science. Indeed, the word communities was mentioned a lot. This is partly because it’s buzzword de jour in science communication, but it also reflects the ways in which many hobbies connect people to others with a similar interest (see also David Gauntlett’s ‘Making is Connecting’). As one of the attendees of the event said to me the following day, maybe instead of ‘hobbies’ we could have thought of ‘science and alternative social networks’. I also think it’s really significant that OPAL is part funded by the lottery because it works with deprived groups: it is science for social work, as well as research and public all the various possible meanings and uses of ‘public engagement with science’.

As usual at these events, we ended with more questions than answers. I’d love to hear any more thoughts on this – do leave a comment if you have further ideas, questions or even answers.

Uncertainty (again)

I’m blogging from the Science and Citizenship Conference. It’s being held partly to mark a ten year anniversary of the Lord’s report on Science and Society. Much of the programme was based on workshops considering key theme’s in the report. I took part on one about uncertainty and risk, and thought it was worth sharing my notes.

We started off with four key questions. Is it a new problem? To what extent are journalists to blame? To what extent are scientists to blame? What can we do to make it better? What can we all do to improve things?

We passed back and forth through various reasons why the issues of risk and uncertainty might be new, and then in turn why they are not. For example, I played the annoying “I once did a history of technology course” card that many of the fears about online media could be seen at the introduction of public libraries (the printing press, paperbacks…). Instead, I suggested maybe we have a growing intensification of activity and awareness around issues of rick and uncertainty.

In many ways, the things were were saying reflected ideas Ulrich Beck discussed in terms of ideas of the Risk Society, decades ago. As I grumbled a few months ago, the debate is an old one. That said, one of the reasons why Beck makes for an interesting example is his discussion of an increasing awareness not only of uncertainty, but the various contexts behind such uncertainty (which in turn can make us more uncertain as we seek new certainties, part of Beck’s notion that “modernity has become its own theme”).

We all seemed to agree that there was a lot of uncertainty in science and that this should be discussed openly with non scientists. We went through the various reasons why we might blame the media or scientists for not communicating such uncertainty, before critiquing ourselves to then defend both groups. For a while we seemed to pour blame on the education system, arguing that school science needs to think more about how to best prepare future-publics (rather than just training future-scientists). Though I agree school-science is important and could be improved, playing who’s to blame isn’t especially productive and  I’m not sure it’s realistic to pile too many expectations on the shoulders of an education system.

One participant mentioned a line from David Willetts – that in a society which is fragmented and uncertain, scientific evidence gives you something you can all agree on – and argued that this actually puts a huge pressure on science. It’s easy to say “yay, the science minister likes science”, but the scientific community should think about what they are are being offered here. When talking about who might be to blame, it was suggested that science holds some responsibility for being seduced into a political and media system where they are asked for certainty. That science from WW2 onwards might have seemed over-confident, but if so, it was because it sold a confidence back to people who (unfairly) asked it of them. It was also suggested that sensitivity over climate change denial is making things worse, with people defensive over the authority of science denying uncertainty. Again, it’s worth asking who’s hands are the scientific community playing to if they try to claim undeniable certainty?

(I don’t know, maybe climate change is another issue with it’s own context, and maybe working in a context with “merchants of doubt” means it’s necessary).

I’ve heard Willetts use that line too. As I argued at the time, in some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with the warm glow of science. I just don’t think science tends to work like that. The very “scientific way of thinking” Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate. I don’t think this is a criticism science, if anything it’s a celebration: the capacity for debate and sense that there is always a possible black swan around the corner is one of the things I like about science.

And solutions? There were the arguments about education. Perhaps predictably, “dialogue between journalists, scientists, members of the public and politicians” was mentioned, though, again predictably, we didn’t seem to have time to talk about how. Other suggestions included more standup maths shows, and citizen cyber-science. There was also some discussion of the advantages of citizen science projects in helping people feel ownership of science in some way – so science doesn’t seem like a project done by “those other people”. An interesting point was made with respect to work in Kenya; that science is sometimes seen as a Western thing and it’s been important to communicate that science can be African too. As one participant put it, this is perhaps “engagement through a sense of appropriation”.

For me this boiled down to another key word in that Lords report – trust. As Demos said back in 2004, an emphasis on risk and uncertainty is arguably a consequence of engagement happening too late in the process. If you want to build trust, you have to start early.

Children, adults and climate change media

retro moment! (Blue Peter Green Book)

The picture above is of the BBC Blue Peter Green Book. Published in 1990, following the introduction of a Blue Peter green badge in 1988. Sponsored by Sainsbury’s, it also has a forward by Lord Sainsbury, who went on to become science minister for the Labour Government. I have a copy of this book* which I have used when teaching children and the green movement, and dusted it off my bookshelf last week when I had an email from Leo Hickman at the Guardian asking me asking about the new Green Santa show from cITV (trailer here).

Go read Hickman’s piece about this on the Guardian Environment blog, which uses the Green Santa programme to talk about the ‘volatile cocktail’ of combining children and climate change in some breadth. I’m quoted in the piece and added some notes in the comments thread, but thought it was collecting these thoughts here too.

Hickman suggests Green Santa could be the first time children’s TV in the UK has explicitly constructed an entire series around the issue of anthropogenic global warming. Maybe. There is  Captain Planet, but that’s American. I have some memory of a whole series of Nina and the Neurons on climate change issues last year (?) There’s also Uncle Jack from the early 1990s, but I can’t remember the details of (any?) science in this. Blue Peter‘s move to green issues in the late 1980s is worth noting, even if it was only a part of their content. There really was a bit of a wave of this around the early ’90s (great book on the subject by David Gauntlett).

Indeed, I wonder if the slightly ironic tone of the Green Santa trailer reflects the way in which a climate message has become a well-trodden ground in children’s media. It’s one of the ways I find Green Santa‘s tone very different from the more earnest Captain Planet (which because of the fictional element, we might otherwise compare it to). Chris Ryan’s Code Red series and Saci Lloyd’s Carbon Diaries as. These both start with protagonists bored by green stuff which is largely seen as a boring old worry of their parents and then, through their involvement in a new crisis, they can re-discover the issue for their own generation.

I also wonder about the role of nostalgia here. I think EDF Energy’s “it’s not easy being green” advert (‘made entirely of recycled clips’) is really interesting, especially as the girl speaking in it must be at least 30 by now. Nostalgia has run through the green movement since its origins, but this is generally nostalgia for some sort of (imaginary?) pre-modern age before we starting polluting everything. Nostalgia for something that is quite explicitly modern (even ‘late modern’) such as advertising or earlier iterations of an organised green movement is slightly different. Re-prints of children’s green books from previous generations are also significant here (e.g. 2009 version of the Lorax, below) suggesting a multi-generational culture at work here.

A potentially key difference about the 21st century examples: I’ve read some media analysis from the 1990s cynically arguing that directing environmental campaigns at children is just a way of putting the issue off for another generation to deal with. Today, I think increasingly we see children targeted as a way to get adults to think about global warming. The Observer ran a magazine cover story last year on children pestering their parents on environmental issues. We might argue that the DECC’s Bedtime Stories campaign is indicative of this adults-via-kids approach too (albeit an allusion to kids, rather than aiming at kids directly). According to the DECC, this was based on research on how to appeal to adults (though we might ask questions about this).

I’d love someone (me, given time and resources) to do some deeper research into this. The ethics, sociology and psychology of kids and climate change, including thinking about the role of children and childhood in adults’ lives. All fascinating stuff.

* I don’t, however, have a Blue Peter badge, green or otherwise. Yes, this is something I’m slightly bitter about.

The lorax loves trees

Science and FOI

Adam Corner and I have a piece It’s on Freedom of Information and science in the Times Higher this week. In fact, we’re the cover story. You can read it online, though the THE’s art work for the piece is a treat, worth the price alone (and the layout in the THE always makes more sense in print). You can also see Phil Batty’s leader on the topic, stressing that the academy is in the truth business so should embrace FoI.

Adam specialises in how the public treat climate science (see his posts for the Guardian) and our focus is climate science. As he pitched the idea to me, when it came to “climategate” it was often said that science was “asleep at the wheel” when FoI came calling, but maybe we could turn that question around and instead ask, was FoI legislation ready for science?

The answer, as ever, seems to be somewhere in the middle. Or at least, if FoI wasn’t ready for science, then we can argue that some fault lies with the scientific institutions, who could have played a more active role in the consultations over FoI in the late 1990s (i.e. they could have helped make the legislation reflect their needs better).

One of our key points is that science is a lot more than just the sort of ‘information’ you might be able to ‘make free’. To quote our piece:

The sort of knowledge that can be easily extracted using FoI requests is far-reaching but also inherently limited to information that is explicit. Numbers, calculations, reference lists – and, of course, emails – can all be placed squarely in the public domain. With enough of this type of explicit information, some aspects of the scientific process can be recreated. If you have someone’s raw data, you know the calculations they made and you can see their results, you are in a position to confirm or challenge their conclusions. But to what extent does this fully capture scientific knowledge?

Though we did also get and interesting comment from Jon Mendel, who argued FoI requests can throw up really interesting context you wouldn’t otherwise get. For example, everyday discussions between those working on a policy which Mendel suggests might provide a more “bottom-up perspective on how decisions are made and policies develop”. I thought that was interesting, though I’m not sure how broadly applicable it is (and I know climate researchers have views on the relevance of their emails…). I’d be interested to know about other peoples experiences of FoI – I have one blogged here.

If you have any other comments on the piece you’d rather discuss here than on the THE site, please feel free to (e.g. do you agree with our our conclusion that public engagement is the way forward? Or agree, but wish to elaborate on how?).

The known unknowns

I’m blogging from Cambridge; at the “Challenging Models in the Face of Uncertainty” conference. The focus is unknowns: be they known, unknown, guessed, forecast, imagined or experienced. I’ve heard Donald Rumsfield quoted rather a lot. There has also been  the odd reference how stupid we all are, the problems of a God’s-eye-view and, least we forget, black swans.

at conference

This morning started with a talk from Johan Rockström on his Planetary Boundaries framework. He quoted Ban Ki-moon line, that “Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss”, adding that we are accelerating as if we were on a clear highway, driving in easy daylight conditions when, really Rockström argued, we’re on a dirt track, in the middle of the night. What science can/ should do, he suggested, is turn the headlights on en route to this abyss. Rockström’s talk was very clear, with some neat little twists on diagrams and the odd metaphorical flourish.

Steve Rayner, in the audience, picked up on this and asked Rockström to reflect on his own ways of signaling authority when transforming his work into a talk for non-expert audiences. Rockström’s response was largely to list names of colleagues and more detailed work. In other words, Rockström didn’t answer Rayner’s question: he simply re-articulated the symbols of authority he’d been asked to reflect upon. Rayner wasn’t suggesting Rockström didn’t have an empirical basis to his work (or that his work was wrong), just that when communicating this work outside of science, Rockström inevitably relies upon rhetoric, and it’d be useful for him to reflect on this role as a rhetorician. But he didn’t, and this was just left as a question.

The second talk was from Melissa Leach. She emphasised the multiple narratives surrounding the sorts of issues discussed at this conference, be they connected to climate change, the spread of disease, GMOs, ash-clouds, nanotechnology, or some other novel technology. She argued that we have a tendency to close down or re-articulate narratives of ignorance, ambiguity, uncertainty and surprise and instead move to ones of “risk”. The sense of control and order risk-framed narratives provide is sometimes very helpful, but it can also be deluded, and shut down possible pathways to useful action. Leach argued that we must open up politics to pay due attention to multiple narratives; to question dominance and authority, to increase the ideas and evidence available to us.

Ok, but how do you do this? For example, we might argue that the internet provides a great opportunity for the presentation of such a multiplicity of narratives and, moreover, an opportunity for such narratives to productively learn from/ change each other. At times it does just that. And yet, science blogging can also be deeply tribal, climate blogging especially so (and, I’d argue, considering its history, understandably so).

This evening, was a public lecture from Lord Krebs, on the complex interface between evidence, policy-making and uncertainty. He outlined three key tensions in this interface, each illustrated with examples. 1) Scientists disagree with each other, e.g. over bystander effect and pesticides. 2) Scientists sometimes just don’t know, even when they develop elaborate experiments to find out, e.g. with badger culling. 3) Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the science says, the politicians will be swayed by other issues, e.g. alcohol. I enjoyed Krebs’ talk. He had some really neat examples and there were some good discussion in the Q&A. Still, I left uninspired and unenlightened.

Lord Krebs talks badgers

Today, I’ve heard a lot of very old and (to me at least) very familiar talk about issues in science communication. I’ve seen a bit of new data and collected some new jargon, but I’m yet to come across any new ideas. I’ve been told that people believe what they want to believe, that science and the perception of it is culturally embedded, that the so-called experts are often as misleading and as likely to mislead as the so-called public, that science and politics make uneasy bedfellows and, of course, that it’s all terribly, terribly complicated.

But I knew that. I knew that ten years ago. I want something new.

Maybe I’m being unfair on this conference. I admit I’m tired and in need of a holiday. Also,  interdisciplinary events are always very difficult to pull off, and it is only half way through.

Maybe tomorrow will surprise me.