Category Archives: times

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.

Science blogs (Eureka)

Hidden behind the fuss over the Science 100 in last week’s Times Eureka magazine, I picked six science blogs for them. I thought it was worth re-posting it here, with a couple of added notes.

  • Mind Hacks. Thoughtful critique of neuroscience issues, plus various brain-themed cultural detritus Vaughan’s found down the back of the internet.
  • SciCurious. Another in the army of brain-bloggers. The 3rd person style isn’t for everyone, but Sci’s funny, clever and writes with irreverent curiosity.

Along with Mindhacks and SciCurious, I could easily added Neuroanthropology, Neuron Culture, The Frontal Cortex, Neurophilosophy and Neurotribes in this “army”. I wasn’t really that into neuroscience (and associated fields) until recently, but this community of imaginative, thoughtful and skilled writers has pulled me in.

  • Gimpyblog’s posterous. I don’t always agree with Gimpy, but his posterous notes are generally thought provoking, always well written and often make me laugh.

I picked the posterous over the blog because he writes more about policy and media there, which I’m personally more interested in. But it’s worth noting the freshness of the posterous posts too. I could say similar about Ben Goldacre –  his posterous can be a lot more interesting than the polished columns on his blog. Ben headlines the posterous as things “not clever enough” for his main blog, but there is something about seeing clever-ness in action (even when it means the author’s got something slightly wrong).

  • Exquisite Life. ­ One for UK science policy anoraks, from Research Fortnight. I especially enjoy their annotated versions of political speeches. Is gradually building community of commenters.

On the point about commenters, I really wish the Royal Society policy blog had a comment button. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a desire to comment there myself (which might say something about the style of writing) but it’d be nice to know I could if I wanted to, and I’m sure they’d get some authoritative and interesting commentators. Comment spaces are also an opportunity for readers to talk to each other, reflecting blogging as a dynamic and broad discussion. It’s kind of sad the RS blogs don’t have them.

  • Wellome Library. I love science blogs for the same reason I love libraries: ­ piles of interconnected knowledge just inviting you get lost within. Visit this blog, but visit the library too.

I really like the idea of libraries blogging. I wish more did. I’d love to see some less polished blogging – “ooo we just found this”, or “a visitor’s reading this” as well as the more essayistic pieces (perhaps using twitter or posterous, or just working more loosely on a standard blog platform). I’d also like to underline how wonderful the Wellcome Library as a place and a blog is. Really, can’t recommend it enough.

  • Not So Humble Pie. A cooking blog, but one that is famous for its science-themed cookies, I added this as an example of how science pops up across the blogosphere (see also).

I should stress this isn’t a list of “top” science blogs, it’s a list of  blogs I put together as a group to share with Eureka readers. For example, I’ve missed The Bubble Chamber, Laelaps, Atlantic Tech, Soft Machines, Wonderland, STS Observatory, The Guardian’s Notes and Theories, the Times’ Eureka Daily and Not Exactly Rocket Science (and that’s just tip of the iceberg…).

Scientific “importance”

The Times’ have just published a list of the “100 most important people in British science”. I was one of the judges. It’s online behind the Times paywall, or you can buy a paper copy (added 11:35am: or read it on the UCL STS blog).

Times

I hope people disagree with it. I disagree with most of it all of it the very idea of it. But that’s why these lists are put together: the fun of disagreeing with them.

I want people to disagree with it because I want people to think about where “importance” sits in science (and whether you’re happy with that). If you are surprised by the position of someone or another, don’t just think “stupid Times”; remember this person must have been recommended by someone. The Times surveyed a load of scientific institutions, not just the judges. You are probably disagreeing with the idea that this person has influence as much as anything else (though there are a fair few people on the list I’m still unconvinced by…).

Obviously, the whole exercise is very silly. Is someone important if they are very influential in one particular part of science? Or only if they have impact on lots of different parts of science, or if they make science meaningful outside the scientific community? If this last choice: where precisely? Westminster? Fleet St? Somewhere more imaginative? In the end, we took a broad approach; reflecting the range of people in science and a variety of ways they might have influence (which, of course, made comparisons all the more difficult).

For me, however, the biggest problem was ascribing power to specific people.

For example, the first draft of the list had a glaring gap when it came to school science. There were a few scientists who do work with schools, but no one who worked full time on the issue. We struggled. As I told the Times:

When it comes to school-science, it is especially difficult to identify powerful individuals (rather than groups). Each teacher has the capacity for immense power, but only for a small number of people. Individual teachers aren’t famous, but that’s because they garner their power by treating their students as individuals. We could have anonymous listings for “the teaching profession”, “school technicians everywhere”, “anyone who has ever run an after-school science club”, and, because influence is not always positive in education, “really boring science teachers who alienate their students”.

We could say the same for a lot of science communication: that it’s at its most powerful when working face-to-face. Yes, the big name scientist-popularisers on the television and/or bestseller bookshelves reach millions of people and so have  influence, but so do the multitude of smaller-scale interactions. Arguably the “long tail” of the web is only increasing this fragmentation of science’s “publics”. We might say similar things about the role of public-to-public science communication. Headlines are flashy, but maybe it’s word of mouth that really constructs science’s importance.

Of course, this problem of individualising power is true when thinking about scientific research too. Much of contemporary science is modeled on networks of individuals, not superstars. As Martin Rees says in this video interview (£wall) on the Times site:

Most scientists are anonymous. A few, a fairly arbitrary number get well known and I think my heroes are really those who work hard and produce most of the science without getting any public recognition. Just as we have the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, then I think we should acknowledge scientists who are unknown, but are the ones that do most of the groundwork of the subject.

This point is underlined by Ben Miller’s Eureka column, where he reflects on only having heard of a handful of the 100 names on the list.

We should also remember that a fair bit of work in science happens under deliberate anonymity, not just the quiet lab-bench graft Rees is talking about. Indeed, at one point we thought about adding an entry for unidentifiable GCHQ scientists and, more simply, “peer reviewers”. In the end though, as with “boring science teachers”, the Times stuck to identifiable names.

Perhaps this difficulty in identifying individuals in science shows up the central foolishness of such a list. Still, I learnt a lot (and laughed a lot) from the playing with this list, and I hope you do too. Have a read of it. Think about why you disagree and how, and use this as a chance to reflect upon the often unnoticed networks of influence running through, across, and out of the scientific community. Think about where power really sits in science, and whether you’re ok with the current state of affairs.

inside Eureka

Added 11:40am: See also Athene Donald’s blogpost about the experience of judging the list.

A tale of two science ministers

This year’s Reith Lecturer is the current President of the Royal Society, Professor Martin Rees, who was chosen as part of the BBC’s year of science and the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary. The lectures are being recorded across the country this month, ready for broadcast in the first week of June. I’ve been to both the London recordings. More significantly, so has the Science Minister. However, as these recordings were six days apart, the science minister in question has been an entirely different man: first Paul Drayson, now David Willets. I play a bit of compare and contrast over at the Times’ science blog (as this is now paywalled, I’ve pasted it below).

A thread I didn’t pick up on there is the mention (by Rees and repeated by Willets) of the importance of big science to inspire the young. As I’ve said before, I find statements like this a bit problematic. There is loads of anecdotal evidence to suggest that projects like Apollo inspired people to go into scientific careers. I wouldn’t deny that. But, as someone who researches, teaches and generally chats about children and science for a living, I hear almost as many anecdotes to the contrary, or at least citing other inspirations. These anecdotes seem to be articulated slightly less publicly, sometimes even whispered, but they are no less significant.

I’d love someone to look at this properly. To systematically investigate today‘s children about what inspires them in science and take their interests and disinterests seriously.

Big science projects are exceedingly expensive. That’s part of the point. I don’t deny their scientific value (or at least I’m not qualified to do so) but in such a period of “tough times” for science funding I’m not sure a loose claim to inspiring the young is enough. It sounds good but, to me, lacks depth. We might even say it’s rather pointless, seeing at the new government has kept the old one’s division of education and science. Unless Gove wants to fund the LHC? It seems like an all too easy rhetorical appeal to wonder and the assumed good and importance of children. Again, I’m not necessarily denying that science is wonderful or saying that children aren’t important (though I do make my students try to think through these ideas, at least as an intellectual exercise), but let’s investigate the issue before building policy on it.

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This year’s Reith Lecturer is the current President of the Royal Society, Professor Martin Rees, who was chosen as part of the BBC’s year of science and the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary. The lectures are being recorded across the country this month, ready for broadcast in the first week of June. I’ve been to both the London recordings. More significantly, so has the Science Minister. However, as these recordings were six days apart, the science minister in question has been an entirely different man.

Last Tuesday was the first lecture in the series, “Science and the Citizen”, recorded at Broadcasting House. Last Tuesday, you might remember, was quite a day in UK politics. We arrived at the BBC to rumours and uncertainty over coalition negotiations, and left to news that David Cameron was now our new Prime Minister.

During the election campaign, there had been some gossip on the apparent disappearance of the Labour Science Minister, Lord Drayson. It had been suggested he was keeping his head down, hoping to stay on in his post, whoever won. So it was with interest that I spotted Drayson in the audience at Broadcasting House. Surely he’d be in Westminster if he wanted a post in the new government? Indeed, he posted on Twitter later that attending the lecture has been his last event as Science Minister, “a perfect ending”.

There was a fair bit of debate over who might be the next Science Minister in the pub that evening. A few days later, we knew the answer: not Afriyie, Teather, Clark or Drayson, but “two brains” Willetts.

Many eyes were on David Willetts at the Royal Society last night, where he was in the audience for the third Reith lecture, entitled “What we’ll never know”. The topic of funding came up in questions and the BBC team were quick to get a roaming microphone over to him. Willetts calmly responded that “everyone understands times are getting tougher” before moving to a more optimistic stance, asking us to remember Thatcher’s line on the expense of the Large Hadron Collider: “yes, but isn’t it interesting?”.

Sue Lawley very smoothly quipped back: “So, David Willetts, does this government find science ‘interesting’?” Willetts took a moment to pause before answering, again very calmly. As people often say of Willetts, he sounded thoughtful. He reiterated a point made by Rees about the importance of inspiring young people with big science. He then credited Lord Rees for making a very good case before repeating, somewhat dryly, “times are tough”.

Oh, how the audience, largely made up of scientists, laughed. Hollowly. The general air of incredulity flowed neatly on, as this little exchanged was quickly followed by a question from Rupert Sheldrake. It all felt very 1980s.

On the bus home I compared “Science and the Citizen”, “What we’ll never know”, and how the two ministers had worked the two events. Drayson using Twitter to publicly thank the Reith lectures, soon followed by another comment thanking everyone in the science community for their advice, support and criticism. Willetts calmly repeating comments about tough times.

The Times Higher have been running a campaign to get Willetts on Twitter, asking their followers for reasons why the new minister should sign up. Lord Drayson joined in: “So I can ask him difficult questions DIRECTLY like @DrEvanHarris & #scivote used to ask me!”.

This is, undoubtedly, largely the difference between a minister leaving and another coming into a very difficult job. Physics funding in particular remaining an especially tricky issue. Still, it will interesting to see how Willetts chooses to engage with the scientific community, especially as Drayson’s time in office as been a period where UK science seems to have become increasingly politicised.

The Royal Institution, the Bodmer report, and the future of science communication

My guest post over on the Times Science blog, pasted below:

Professor Colin Blakemore has seen the future of UK science communication: it the Bodmer report. That’s Sir Walter Bodmer’s report on the Public Understanding of Science, of 1985.

It’s rather esoteric, and Blakemore’s reference to it in The Times on Wednesday took me by surprise. Though in a tangential way I maybe owe it my job, it’s been gathering dust in the archives of the Royal Society for a few years now.

I should stress that I think Professor Blakemore is entirely right that re-invention is the only way for the Royal Institution (RI), but recourse to 1985 isn’t the way to get there. In particular, I worry about the image, propagated by some, of the RI’s long history up against a Greenfield sense of modern realities. It seems out of date to me: playing 19th against 20th centuries (when we’re well into the 21st).

It worries me in the same way the juxtaposition of greybeards verses miniskirts does. It allows Baroness Greenfield to be painted as new and fresh, battling against an old guard. This is not how she is viewed in end of the scientific community I inhabit, where Greenfield has herself long stood as emblematic of an old guard. It would be exceedingly unladylike of me to repeat the various tweets that circulated after The Times posted its interview with her online today. Suffice to say, she isn’t just a figure of fun: the things she says about science in society make a lot of people very angry.

1985 was a long time ago. I was in nursery school when the Bodmer report was published; I’m now a lecturer in Imperial College’s Science Communication Group. One of the reasons degrees such as ours exist is the decades of debate over the meanings and appropriate attitudes of science communication that have followed the Bodmer report.

Science communication has changed. It has turned itself on its head in places, and at least tried to move “upstream”. As some recent LSE research demonstrates, Sir Walter himself uses a very different vocabulary. I remember, in 2003, reading Jon Turney’s now classic rant against ideas of so-called scientific literacy: “How Greenfield Got it Wrong”. Even then, it read a little as if Turney was having to explain very slowly to someone who has not quite caught up with the 1990s.

Professional navel gazing aside, we have all been through the National Curriculum, BSE, the 1997 election, Lords Sainsbury and Drayson, Frankenfoods, Wikipedia, Climategate and Brian Cox. I wouldn’t be as complacent as to suggest the rest of the UK science communication industry has been doing nothing but sterling work whilst the RI looked the other way, but today’s science does sit in a different social, cultural and political context from 1985.

As I left the RI after the special general meeting on Monday, I saw the looks on the faces of the staff (note: many under 35, many female). They looked pleased. Moreover, they looked excited. Over the last few months, the phrase “what’s the RI for exactly?” has been repeated a lot. Not least by me. However I now think a better approach is be to start from the position that it exists, and then think of all the great things we could do with it.

Whatever the RI staff decide, there was a heartening sense of freedom and imagination breaking through all the fear, gossip and backbiting of Monday night. I imagine the financial problem will remain a cloud for sometime still, but I for one am really looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.