Category Archives: geekculture

Unraveling the politics of Geek Chic

Adam Corner and I have co-authored a piece for the Times Higher this week on so-called ‘Geek Chic’ and what, if anything, this means for universities.

'home' earrings

I like to pin computer keys into my ears and handknit necklaces.

We wrote it a while back and didn’t think it’d be especially topical. Then A-level results came out last week, along with some figures showing that, for the first time since 2002, physics is back in the top ten most popular A-level subjects. Further, applications for physics degrees were up 17% on last year; astronomy up 40%. Writing on the BBC website, Pallab Ghosh suggested this was an example of not only geek chic, a “Brian Cox effect” even.

(Yeah yeah, geek chic is all very 2006. Dr Corner, the THE, the BBC and I are all way behind the times. Spare me your hipster-isms. I live in Hoxton: I’ve heard them)

If feeling especially cynical, we might note that the “Brian Cox effect” is a story the BBC would be particularly pleased to promote. Although I do think the apparent rise in the popularity of physics is worth noting, we should be careful of taking these stats at face value, and of ascribing singular explanations. Personally, I like the Institute of Physics’ line of we don’t really know: “To be honest with you we don’t really understand that. We’re delighted, but we can’t quite put our finger on why that is” (Tajinder Panesor, quoted by Ghosh).

In particular, that stat on the rise in astronomy applications left me with a lot of questions: how many students are we talking about here, has someone started a new astronomy course recently, has there been an increase in the astronomy content of the school curriculum in the last few years, are there more astronomy clubs in schools, could Galaxy Zoo be credited in some way…? (many of these seem answerable – any readers of this blog help me out?).

Several people have noted that teachers and parents remain key influences on young people’s career and further/higher education choices, for all that celebs might make for a neat story. Others have also mentioned the possible role of the Stimulating Physics network, and it’s maybe also worth noting work aimed at developing school teachers’ professional skills, science museums and visitor centres, and public engagement activities. Over the last twenty five years (especially the last ten) the UK has invested a lot of resources on promoting science to young people; inside of schools and out of them. Cultural change is slow, and often happens through long threads of small, interpersonal projects you wouldn’t see on TV. Arguably, this is especially true when it comes educational change. We should remember that university applications are many years in the making, relying on GCSE grades and A-level choices. Brian Cox’s BBC show was only broadcast in March last year. It may well have ignited some previously laid kindling though, it’d be interesting to know more. Actually talking to teenagers about their attitudes to science and technology isn’t, I think, done enough.

Moreover, looking at the evidence we do have, I think we should remember that there are still some clear challenges. The Campaign for Science and Engineering warned against complacency over the “good news” for science in A-levels, stressing inequalities in gender and school type. From their analysis, it looks like the gender gap in science and maths is widening, not narrowing. Although more are girls taking physics, maths, and chemistry, those increases are, if we look in detail, outstripped by the number of boys taking them. Physics, for instance, saw nearly two thousand more entries this year, but only a tenth of those were girls.

CaSE also note that although independent schools account for just 13.4% of all A-levels taken, they provide for 29% of further maths, 18.1% of maths, 17.9% of chemistry, 19.1% of physics, and 14.8% of biology A-level students. I think this is really important. In putting together the THE piece, one of the things that stuck out for me was a reference to a ‘Geeks vs Chavs’ parties. We used this reference to reflect upon quite what a middle class movement a sense of geek chic might be, and suggest that it is perhaps “less of a celebration of the underdog and more simply a way of those traditionally in power finding new ways to assert themselves”. There is a politics to be unwoven here, ignoring it does no one any favours.

At an event on higher education policy last night I asked what the we could do to stop science becoming a space only for the middle classes? I didn’t really get an answer. That isn’t a criticism of the debate’s panelists; I don’t think there are simple answers here. Still, it is a question we should keep asking ourselves.

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

The nerds are on the march

A version of this post initially appeared on the Times’ Eureka blog

GeekCalProduct-14

The ballad of Simon Singh and his altercation with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has been told many times before (for example). What I want to focus on here is the way the case inspired scientists, skeptics and bloggers to become involved in a movement to change the law. Or, to put it another way, how libel reform ‘got its geek on’.

Why was it that, sitting in the pub last April, when someone joked about the idea of a calendar of geeks, the first response was “yep, it could raise money for libel!” When did libel reform become the charity of choice for UK science?

The BCA vs Singh case provided a clarion call for those who care about science to start worrying about libel. As Singh himself notes in Greg Foots’ great video, this is not the only time someone’s found talking about science can lands them in court. Indeed, a new story about Peter Wilmshurst broke just after I sent this to the Times.

In many ways, the English libel laws go against a certain ideal of science: a need for free and open debate. It is an ideal shared by much of journalism. In the words of the Times science reporter Hannah Devlin: “English libel laws are undermining the basic tenants of science: that there isn’t any question you can’t ask and there isn’t any hypothesis that can’t be challenged. It is important that we can do these things in journalism as well as in the practise of science”.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that scientists and science writers are so worried about the issue. Groups such as Sense About Science and the Association of British Science Writers joined the campaign, the latter organising a debate about science journalism and libel law at City University last year (watch the video). Events like this helped promote feelings many in science and science writing felt already, got them talking to one another and helped to foster a sense of a movement.

There was also the work of intersecting ‘geek’ communities of skeptics and bloggers, both with their own history of commitment to ideals of free debate. As Ben Goldacre wrote last April, the scale of online activism during the BCA vs Singh case, often from skeptics,  was “unprecedented”, a point echoed by Nick Cohen, proclaiming after a visit to a skeptics meeting that “the nerds are on the march”. Still, as David Allen Green says, we should maintain perspective. We shouldn’t reduce the story of BCA vs Singh to simply a triumph of the geeks, many other characters, groups and events played their role too.

For me, the key point is the way the libel reform movement has folded into the relationship between science and politics. In the run up to the 2010 election, it was noticeable how libel reform was often packaged alongside science issues. So much so, that when the Guardian asked each of the main parties questions relating to the ‘science vote’, they included libel but not education. That the Guardian should suffer what might be seen as somewhat of a lack of perspective here is testament to how important the cause has become to the UK scientific community.

When that pub idea of a Geek Calendar somehow became real and we held a photoshoot with Evan Harris in quad of the British Medical Association, he echoed the same comments he made in judging the Times’ Eureka 100, declaring Singh his “geek hero”. As Harris put it, Singh’s case has not only “turned geeks on to libel reform”, his articulate handling of the events has helped cultivate political expression in the UK scientific community. Indeed, Singh spoke alongside Harris at the recent Science is Vital rally.

That may be one of the legacies of ‘geekifying’ the libel reform movement. It is not just that scientists, technophiles and skeptics played a role in lobbying for change in the law, but that the campaign itself has played a role in the broader politicisation of UK science. Crucially, the libel reform movement demonstrates a politicisation of science that cares deeply about their work relates to the world outside the laboratory, and are ready to work with a range of people and institutions in trying to achieve its aims.

A lot has been made of what geeks have done for libel reform. Maybe in years to come we’ll also think of what libel reform gave the geeks. Either way, there’s still some distance to go yet.

Do sign the libel reform petition. You can also buy a Geek Calendar online (or, for a limited time, at the Wellcome Collection bookshop).

A brief postscript on nomenclature: I’ve never really liked the word geek. I find it a bit affectatious. Still, it captures a range of characters well enough and many do self-identify using the term. As I tried to say in the Guardian last week, the recent ‘reclaiming’ of geek and nerd perhaps reflects a sense of 21st century celebration of niche interests, something I think is probably a good thing, or at least an inevitable part of social life in late modernity.

Should fans get a life? (or tell us a lot about public engagement?)

I have a guest post over at Matthew Nisbet’s new Age of Engagement.

The blog had featured a post about modern fan culture and marketing. I couldn’t help but fold this into some thoughts on science communication. Can an awareness of tensions and connections between fan culture and entertainment marketing have applications for work aiming to connect members of “the public” with scientific ideas and communities? I left a comment and Nisbet asked me to expand as a post.

It’s something I’ve thought about a bit over the last few years. I discussed the notion of a rhetorical reference to a community of readers in my PhD, and discussed audience-to-audience interaction with students when teaching courses on science online and science’s interactions with fiction. I also wrote an article a couple of years back about branding and children’s literature which involved some study of social marketing. I should admit the blogpost was slightly hastily put together though, grabbing through some disparate ideas on something that there probably should be more research into. There’s a load more I could say around the topic, I’m still working out how to put them together, and what would make the right case study. I’d love to hear further thoughts (or examples, from science and/ or fan culture), either here of over at the Big Think post itself.

Nisbet’s been blogging about science communication for a while. His ‘Framing Science’ at scienceblogs is mentioned in my list of blog recommendations for prospective students last month). His new blog promises to maintain this interest, but take a broader look at communication, culture and public affairs, as well as reinvigorate his interest in the relationship between science and religion (see his introductory post for more details).

He’s been setting up in his new home with a prestigious quantity of posts for the start of term. I’ve already been interested to read pieces reflecting upon the NYTimes article about peer review, and (re)framings of nuclear power. The Big Think site it is hosted on is sometimes known as the YouTube for ideas, and there are a fair number of videos in blogposts (which I’d say is a good thing, something and plan to experiment with myself in the next year).

So, go read my ramblings on fan culture and public engagement, let me know if you have any thoughts, and do add Nisbet’s new blog to your list of regular reads.

Science is cool? Considering the "evidence"

I’ve just written a piece on Comment is Free responding to the “How Science Became Cool” feature they ran last Tuesday. This is the sweary bit I couldn’t fit in (though with slightly less swearing than when I saw the headline they’d given it and read comment number 3…)

The piece for the Guardian runs through some of the evidence of science’s public popularity. But research into science and the public doesn’t just provide evidence, it also provides reflection. One basic tenet of such reflection being that the notion of “science” isn’t nearly as uniform as is sometimes imagined (for developed theory and a set of historical examples, see this book). Another central tenet is that whether you like, agree and/ or believe in a piece science is largely cultural (classic study of this being Brian Wynne’s sheep farmers). Baring both these points in mind, we should not forget the tensions within the great big Venn diagram of groups which have connected to form the apparent “new” coolness of science.

I think the most illustrative example of this is last December’s “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People“. Or, as it later became known for the post-Christmas TV transmission: Nerdstock. I remember hearing people say they much preferred the term Nerdstock, they would have loved to have gone but were put off by the word “Godless” in the title. And yet people wanting to express their atheism were arguably the fuel of the event. Similarly, within self-confessed science fans, there are those with more space-y interests and those who are rather more David Attenborough in their tastes, both sitting alongside each other with some degree of incomprehension. There are also the wades of commentators on the “How Science Became Cool” piece who wined “don’t leave science to the cool kids, that’s the last thing we want”.

These are all tensions, territories and cultural identities we have to remember if considering the movement of science through popular culture. Moreover, I think that the more activist science communicators (i.e. those who want to change peoples minds) need to take seriously those who disagree or are not sure about particular ideas in science. I don’t think it’s helpful to write them off as anything as broad brush as “anti” the whole of science. This is not to say you have to agree with them, or even display any rhetorical sense of agreement. But you have to think about what precisely they don’t like and why if you really want to convince them otherwise. As I wrote in the post about Shell and the Science Museum, throw your hands up in the air with incredulity at their stupidity if you like: see how far that gets you.

I worry that that with a celebration of aesthetics of science the response to “isn’t this cool” will be, from many, “er, no”. There’s the famous youtube clip of Richard Dawkins saying “Science is interesting, and if you don’t like it, you can fuck off.” That’s great if you already agree with him. It’s funny and the appeal to those who “can fuck off” helps emphasise a sense of bonded community by way of noting those aren’t in it. But it only puts off those who disagree with you even more. As I’ve blogged before, I think science communication should say this is awesome because. It should earn and demonstrate wonderment, not assume it.

Of course, another central tenet of science communication research is you shouldn’t assume a need to ram science down everyone’s throat. Not everyone likes science, not everyone knows much science. And that’s ok. Maybe the disinterested can fuck off then, though I can think of a fair few specific examples where I’d rather they didn’t (personally, for me: science funding, climate change). It’s a difference between liking or disliking that big old complex thing called “science” and having an opinion about a specific scientific issue which I think is the important point here.

I agree the science brand seems to be doing pretty well right now, but let’s not get carried away about the novelty or reach of this. Moreover, don’t let a sense of glitzy uniformity of a big old thing called “science” obscure the detail in its guts, be this good, bad, useful, pointless, ugly or beautiful. Don’t fuck off if you don’t happen find one or other aspect of it interesting, and please don’t get arrogant or cliquey enough to tell others to do so either.

EDIT 19:45 20th April: just in case you worry I’m quoting Dawkins out of context, he is repeating a New Scientist editor with the “can fuck off” line. There’s great context provided in this longer video of the event, which I can heartily recommend anyway (ta Scott)