Category Archives: media

We need to talk about the Conversation

There’s been some fuss over the possible death of Facebook, and whether such reports have been exaggerated. I’m not too interested in the story itself as much as what it shows us as a study in problems of science journalism. For me, it flags up larger questions about academic writing, and I’d be interested to know if others share these concerns.

Background: The BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, did a bit of debunking, and complained about journalists overhyping academic research in the process. It was noted that one of the “hyped” reports came from an academic involved in the research, writing on the Conversation, a site which aims to bring academic voices into the public sphere, promising content from academics themselves (tagline: “academic rigour, journalist flair”). Then the academic himself, Daniel Miller, wrote a longer post via the UCL network saying that a key passage had been re-written by a professional journalist and he regretted agreeing to the final text. Cellan-Jones dubbed this “ghosted” which is maybe the wrong word. As Miller notes, there are compromises academics have to make in sharing their work to larger and different audiences, and it can be hard to draw lines between inaccuracy and retelling. Also the line between ghostwriting and editing can be slippery.

Problem: Miller’s experience of the Conversation resonated with me. I’ve been worried about its approach for a while.

When the Conversation launched first in Australia and then moved to the UK, I was sceptical. I didn’t see the point of a space for just academics’ content. Indeed, I thought that was possibly even a slightly dangerous idea. Also, I wasn’t sure it was needed, especially in the UK. Many academics were blogging on their own or university owned sites already, or for media organisations. But I could also see the value in a space for those who wrote less regularly, including support from professional writers and, despite my misgivings, I think they’ve published some great pieces which might not have made it out of the ivory towers otherwise.

Then, a few months ago, one of their journalists emailed to ask if I had views on university league tables. I said I had opinions but nothing I’d actually researched, and also I was really busy that week but, because I was sympathetic to the topic, I’d give her a quote if she wanted to write something herself. I also didn’t see the point in me writing for the Conversation. I can publish directly to the Guardian site. It seemed silly to chase people like me, a bit cheeky of them even (and I’d previously told Conversation staff this). Still, I stayed late at work and emailed a quote. She replied with a full piece incorporating my few hundred words but really by her, expecting me to add a little more and sign off as if it was authored by me. They were great words. But they weren’t mine. What would I give other than the credibility of my academic affiliation, which meant very little anyway as its not even a topic I have done empirical work on. I was rather shocked by this, so said no.

But I felt crap that we’d both put time into this and didn’t want a fight with a writer I respect, so wrote my own piece as a replacement, staying up late at night to do so. This is the result. I included a bit by the Conversation writer (paragraph 5) because she’d put work into it, and it was good, and I felt rude ignoring it. But it felt very wrong and I regret it. Not, as in the case of Daniel Miller, because it was bad. Quite the opposite. It saddened me that the work of a professional science journalist was being ignored because people seemed to want the cache of an academic voice.

I felt pressured into co-writing something I didn’t want to write, and pressured into saying it was by me. I should have just stood up to them and said “this is dumb and dishonest.” Because it is.

I’ve spoken to several other UK academics about the site since, wondering if they’ve had similar problems. Most say their experiences have been positive; light editing and useful feedback about focus or questions readers might ask, exactly what the Conversation purports to do. But a few others have grumbled too. It’s hard to tell if they are just grumbling in the cliched precious academic way of “but but but of course my jargon-filled eight-page single-sentence rant was more accurate” but I’m not sure. I also think that even if so, the work of the professional writer should be made obvious. A press release from a university communications team, for example, might well re-write research, but it won’t pretend to be the academic themselves (quotes are routinely fabricated by press officers in many fields, but honestly I don’t like that either and I also think the full posts of the Conversation are another step). I also continue to worry about them chasing content from those of us who are already writing a lot in the media, or even have careers in journalism. Mark Lynas has written for them, for example (he’s a visiting fellow at Cornell) and that seems even weirder than when they’ve asked the Guardian science bloggers to write for them. Lynas doesn’t need the Conversation’s help, he’s a highly skilled and successful writer.

If the Conversation is doing journalism, they should acknowledge that and have co-author credits, or even pieces written entirely by their writers, and celebrate that. They don’t, because the idea is that it they offer unmediated academic voices. But unmediated academic voices are often the last thing anyone wants, and playing up to that bollocks isn’t doing anyone any favours.

It reminds me a bit of the fuss over Futurity. I worry that the Conversation seems to be more about offering a shine of academic credibility than meaningful interaction between academics and society at large. I’m all for editing academics (I’ve learnt a lot and had my prose improved by many editors myself) but by passing off the work of a professional journalist as written by academics you do both professions – and the public – a disservice.

I’d like to see the Conversation grow, but I want to see it do so honestly.

Engagement with climate science

liable to flooding

I was a speaker at yesterday’s Royal Meteorological Society’s meeting on Communicating Climate Science. I was asked to talk about models of science communication in the light of their new report on climate science , the public and the media, in particular the shift from top-down to more discursive approaches. I also took the opportunity to question the applicability of these models a little. What follows is roughly a script of my talk, but with links.

I’ll start with a potted history of science communication, it’s the sort of history professionals tell themselves about themselves, so read with some caution, even though it’s pretty illustrative. Once upon a time, around the end of the mid 1980s, scientists in the UK and America (and a few other places, science is an international business after all) decided the public had stopped listening to science, and that this was dangerous. Science had grown immensely over the middle of the 20th century,  developing multiple strands and a mass of complex, specialist knowledge, but in doing so it had left many behind. There was a gap between what scientists knew and what the rest of the world understood. If only the public knew more science! And the media were better at delivering this information! Something. Must. Be. Done.

They kicked up all sorts of fuss and, in the UK, forming a sort of movement for the Public Understanding of Science (PUS), with a Royal Society report (“the Bodmer report”), a multi-institution committee (CoPUS), a journal, a set of courses, a load of general fuss and worry, etc etc. Soon after, however, a load of educationalists, historians and sociologists (many of whom had been working on this stuff for years) started pick holes in the more simplistic end of this argument, complaining that the PUS approach was not only ineffectual, but might be considered anti-democratic, even morally repugnant and non-scientific even too. They set up their own ‘critical PUS’ camp in opposition and pointed fingers at Bodmer et al for being a bit “deficit model” (i.e. seeing the problem as being a matter of a deficiency on the part of the public). The book “Misunderstanding Science” is the classic text of this sort of approach, but maybe not the easiest of reads.

There are three main problems with the deficit model:

  1. It’s unrealistic. You can’t black-box science, media and public. I mean, what does “the public” even mean? Moreover, we cannot imagine that the media will take this science and happily and simply pass it on to their readers who, in turn, will happily swallow it all. Such an idea is based on a really naïve ‘transmitter-receiver’ view of media effects (if you’ve never read David Gauntlett’s essay on what’s wrong with the media effects model, do).
  2. It’s patronising. It assumes the public are stupid and journalists are just information carriers, both of which is likely to alienate both groups.
  3. It’s limiting. Science policy issues aren’t just about the science. That doesn’t mean science shouldn’t have a role. A large one. But there are other things to be woven in too, and there are times when criticism of the scientific community is both entirely justified and highly productive (even if there are times where criticism is not only misplaced but dangerously over-emphasised). Journalists should ask questions and contextualize what scientists say. As should the public at large (and they should be asking questions and contextualising what the journalists say too).

These criticisms, along with the experience of GMOs and BSE, had a lot of impact in the UK. By 2000, the House of Lords report on Science and Society formally stated there was a “new mood for dialogue” replacing the older, slightly naive, top-down approach.

And that’s what the term “engagement” is meant to symbolise, for a lot of people: A shift from simplistic top-down approaches to a more nuanced one that appreciates not only that sharing science with the general public is a hard thing to do, but that public debate on science and technology is just that, a debate. The problem of science communication was now understood as not merely a matter of how to clearly transmit information, but how to have good, clever conversations about expertise in society. Changing scientific discourse as it travels into the public realm was not necessary seen as a distortion, but a matter of course. Scientists should listen as well as talk; communication is something you take part in, not simply deliver.

PUS and the deficit model became the bogeymen of UK sci com, with people actively booing references to it at conferences and snidely whispering criticism of unpopular colleagues as “a bit deficit”. Arguably, some people just took the language of this shift without actually understanding the ideas behind them though. There is a lot of science communication that talks as if it moved on from the deficit model but is really quite simply about shouting “but science is awesome” at the general public. Moreover, it sometimes looks like we’ve simply replaced the presumed deficit of knowledge with one of trust (i.e. the public don’t trust scientists enough, see Alan Irwin’s essay for this OU reader). Such a view often argues that scientists need to earn public trust, and might suggest discussion as a way to go about it, but it still based in a rather technocratic attitude that the world will be saved if only everyone just listened to the scientists.

Which brings me to this new report on the public, media and climate science. Because in places it seems, well, a bit deficit model, a bit preoccupied by getting the message across. It looks at context, and is meant to be rooted in what the public think and want, and many of its results are useful and interesting. But its central notion of communication, for me, seemed to be pretty linear and just a bit naive about how the media works. It’s all still about how we can give science to people, not how we might have conversations which connect science with a range of other topics. It says we need more “engagement”, but it’s not really what I’d call engagement.

But maybe they’re right to. Maybe we shouldn’t assume the public want to be engaged any more than that they don’t. We might also ask if a shift to debating science is dangerous when applied to climate, considering what is at stake and the keenness of some to ignore, even dismantle quite certain and useful science in this area. Maybe climate science simply doesn’t have the luxury to be so open? As Naomi Oreskes argued in an LA Times op-ed last January, perhaps we need leadership here. Debate just confuses people and delays action. Oreskes has thought about this. She is also coming from thoughtful empirical studies in the history and sociology of science understanding that sharing expertise isn’t simple. Just as Wynne et al said the deficit model is too simple, so can a simplistic call to engage.

As I’ve noted before, in some contrast to Oreskes, much of the discussion post-Rio+20 was that leaders had failed us, but there is hope in the grass roots activism of civil society. E.g. Mary Robinson. I like the rhetoric here, but I worry still. It’s the kind of world I want, but I’m not sure it’s possible, or it’s happening. To fuel my cynicism, in another obit for Rio+20, John Vidal cited “two-catching global bottom-up initiatives” – one the save the Arctic campaign, and another to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies – as having emerged at Rio and “reasons to be cheerful”. I call bollocks, at least about the bottom-up. These were projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They are downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame – sign a scroll, use a hashtag, follow a celebrity – more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. Which isn’t to say there are wrong, but call a spade a spade.

Whenever I see any climate communication I feel an echo of Steve Yearley’s argument that the green movement enjoys the language of mass participation but only when it comes on their own terms (his essay here) and that similar critique can very easily be applied to the scientific community, or politicians, or industry, or anyone involved in the debate. So the question still remains, can we have open public engagement on climate change?

I don’t know.

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.

Has blogging changed science writing?

Badges made for our housewarming last year. Bonus points if you get the ref.

There is an oft-made joke that the answers to questions posed by news headlines are always, when take time to consider them, a simple ‘no’. With that in mind, here’s a question headlining my essay in the latest edition of the Journal Of Science Communication: Has blogging changed science writing?

You can download the full paper on the JCom website. Spoiler warning: I think the answer is no. Or at least not much. Drawing on basic tenets of the social studies of technology, I argue there have always been more options than action when it comes to innovation in science writing, most of which we haven’t taken up. It hasn’t changed nearly as much as it could have, and we don’t know yet how much it will change. The future, as ever, is up for debate. We should think carefully about the science media we want, not what we’re given or simply left with.

As I finish the article, I don’t claim to know though. The thing I personally enjoy most about science blogging is that it seems to have make it slightly more socially acceptable to finish with questions. Of course, this has yet to weave its way through to journal design, so if you do have an answer, you might want to use the comments space here, as there isn’t one on JCom.

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.