Book review: The Burning Question

The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke (London, 2013: Profile Books). This review first appeared on New Left Project

We used to worry we might run out of oil or gas. That’s one of the reasons why we talk of ‘peak oil’ and refer to various energy choices with the word ‘renewables’ and non-renewables, rather than focus on low or high carbon. But this is a relatively old frame for the problem. Now we’re more aware of the problem that we might actually try to burn the oil and gas we have. Moreover, new or improved technologies such as fracking mean we can access materials we’d previously thought unobtainable, or at least too expensive to bother extracting. And we can’t burn them. Or we can’t burn them if we care about climate change.

You might be forgiven for forgetting this, seeing as how little climate change gets mentioned in media coverage of energy. But it’s a key issue; many would argue the key issue.

So, now, instead of ‘peak oil’ we increasingly hear the term ‘stranded assets’ to talk about fossil fuel reserves we could use in as much as they are there for the burning, but we shouldn’t if we want to avoid even more global warming than we’re currently set towards. We are probably going to have to get used to talking about this because it looks like it’s going to dominate a lot of the debate about taking action on climate change. Just as action on CFCs was mobalised around the then new idea of a ‘hole in the Ozone layer’ in the 1980s, ‘keep it in the ground’ has become a mantra of aspects of the green movement in recent months. Bill McKibben’s article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math became a viral hit last summer, with a wave of campus activism of following it.

It is also what Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke’s new book The Burning Question is about. An explanation of a slightly different concept of ‘peak’ oil, and how we should consider fossil fuels as stranded assets. As their sub-title puts it ‘We can’t bun half the world’ soil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?’

The book has received a host of warm reviews and comes baring endorsements from George Monbiot, Kevin Anderson and Al Gore. It even made the list of books MP like to tell people they are reading over the summer, heartening maybe considering most of the other titles were simply about other politicians. I can recommend it too. Berners-Lee and Clarke provide a great overview of why this stranded assets issue is both important and so intractable a problem. It reflects a mature and evidence-based approach to energy policy. It has some strong, explanatory prose and is refreshingly short, with a tightly plotted, clear structure. Titles like this could all too easily be one of those great tomes you feel you should read but, textbook-like, really can’t be bothered to get much beyond the first chapter. But something about the coherent, lively prose and the sense of urgency sitting in the background keeps you going. I should also add that this book isn’t hectoring. It’s passionate and urges action, but any more strident campaigning is largely left offstage.

Berners-Lee and Clarke give their readers a host of useful metaphors and some clear graphs, both of which are simplifications in their own ways – giving particular lenses on the larger issue – but both incredibly useful too. In a field whose discourse often places contingencies and uncertainty above all else, it was refreshing to read such clear prose. Some may well find the book too simple and clear in places, and it is worth remembering that most ‘simplification’ tend to include some personal take on the issue. Such personal takes might not be bad – indeed, they can reflect a lot of prior thought – but not everyone will agree what the essential points are. The book offers the idea of reframing peak fossil fuel for climate change I started with, as well as an image of saving energy as like ‘squeezing a balloon’ to explain the often esoteric ‘Jevons paradox’, repeating Myles Allen to talk about ‘loading the climate dice to flood, or that if we talk about being addicted to fossil fuels, we should start looking at the dealers, not users (a line I’ve since seen Naomi Klein use in talks). These are all great explanations, but they won’t please all.

Still, Berners-Lee and Clark are very open about the complexity, reflecting a sense of climate as a multi-layered ‘perfect storm of money and power, science and politics, technology and the human mind’. The book offers you the big picture and then if you want detail, look to the endnotes. They leave the various ends untied for you to unravel if you so wish. We maybe spend too much time thinking about how intractable climate change and energy policy are. Yes, it is complex, but lots of things are complex. It’s also riddled with a lot of uncertainty, but again so are many other things. A strong sense of the complexities and uncertainties at play are crucial for scientists to help them think about new ways to learn more but is not exactly useful for getting things done. Clarity is rarely scientific. It washes over all the contingencies and possibilities of thorough work. But if it’s not your job (or simply favourite hobby) to work through the details of the issue, they become a barrier for involvement. Where as simplified versions of many other areas of science and technology are readily available as introductions for non-experts, there is somewhat of a dearth of explanatory materials for climate change. All in all, I felt this book is welcome as a contribution towards filling that gap.

One of the reasons it isn’t hectoring in its style is arguably because it doesn’t really advocate any strong suggestions. For all that the book is subtitled “We can’t burn half the worlds, oil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?” but that question was left rather unresolved. It offers frames and questions and information which may well help us towards better conversations to deal with this question, but it is a long way from providing some itself. I also finished the book unsatisfied that they didn’t seem to want to dig into deeper political issues or really challenge the systems at play.

They do ask us to think about ownership of resources and the book ends with an answer to the question “What can I do?” which I’m personally quite strongly behind. Namely, rather than just small individual actions at home like recycling, remember you are part of a global social system which runs the larger infrastructures at fault and put pressure on politicians and business leaders to change.

Many of us feel that we’re too insignificant to make a difference, but the social and political ripple effects of our efforts may be more powerful than we’d expect. After all, human society is every bit as much a complex system as the climate itself. Everyone is influenced by everyone else. And most of us are only a few degrees of separation from someone in a prominent role. Every helpful action or comment lubricates every other; every unhelpful action is a brake on progress

Nice sentiment. But this point is a scant three pages long. It may well be all that point needs – say it, then put the book down and get on with it – but I’d have liked a bit more reflection on how power is expressed and might be unpacked to run throughout the book, and think this conclusion could well have been extended with some examples.

The discussion of stranded assets – which comes largely via the Carbon Tracker Initiative – frames the debate very much within financial systems. This is useful, and helps open a new and important area of activism. At the very least, it focuses public attention on a form of social infrastructure which all too often gets to fester away unnoticed. Similarly, McKibben likes to juxtapose the difference between the huge challenge of changing the financial system with the even bigger one of changing nature. This is an important juxtaposition, I think; one that has sat behind much environment politics for decades and is only likely to become more obvious in years to come as we debate it more in the context of new technologies such as geoengineering and more philosophical frames like the anthropocene. Why should money, not nature, be the limiting factor? Money is just something we made up to help us make society run more smoothly. Why should we let this make-believe tool rule us to the extent we endanger our planet? When did we get more scared of this thing we made up called economics than the planet we were born to?

Still, there is something about the emphasis on the idea of stranded assets that leaves me uneasy. I don’t think we should necessarily give in to seeing the planet in such a way. Moreover, I don’t think the issue is as simple as that. People sometimes talk about a new industrial revolution – a green one – which will transform the way we live to a more sustainable future. It’s another one of those simple analogies which can be very useful. But as ever, beware of the spin on reality it takes. Because it’d have to be a very different form of industrial revolution from previous ones. No one will make gazillions of pounds from find new technologies we didn’t realise we wanted/ needed. It’s not about making markets. If anything, it’s about closing them. And that’s a hard sell (so hard we use the word ‘sell’ as a way to even talk about it). Because it is not just about changing finance rather than the planet, it’ll require a host of cultural and social changes too, and the rarefied graphs of Much of the Burning Question, like McKibben’s insistence that we just need to ‘do the math’, is in danger of loosing a sense of that, even if they also offer some really important starting points.

The Burning Question offers a very clear introduction to questions of energy and climate change but, as with any expression of clarity, it’s a slight spin on things. If you think it’s the way we do capitalism which is at heart of the climate change problem, you’ll probably enjoy its more normative points. However, if you have larger economic questions and more revolutionary aims in terms of the sorts of changes required (for more than just the climate) you’ll probably find its prescription a bit of a sticking-plaster. Much I’d recommend this book, I can see why politicians felt comfortable being seen to read this book: It doesn’t really challenge them much.

The words ‘social mobility’

I edited this out something I’m writing because it wasn’t relevant there, but it sums up something that has bugged me for years, so I thought I’d share it on its own.

We might imagine the mobility of ‘social mobility’ as simply a matter of moving about. But we all know politicians who use this phrase are talking about moving up. Moreover, they mean moving ‘up’ some concept of a class ladder or economic pyramid or their metaphorical ilk.

As such, it is mobility which relies on the existence of people staying below to be superior to. It is, by its nature, progress at the expense of others and with every use, perpetuates the idea that hierarchies are both natural and something to aspire to. Great for those few who rise and gain the power to be noticed, but less so for everyone else who tend to be, ever so conveniently, forgotten.

So, usually, when hear the words ‘social mobility’, I think it is an odd idea of equality which sells itself on the promise of inequality. And I don’t like it.

The incredible adventures of Professor Branestawm

This is an edited version of a paper just published in Knowledges in Publics, edited by Lorraine and Simone Locke.

cartoon of Branestawm

Professor Branestawm meets his childhood self, W Heath Robinson, 1933

The incredible adventures of Professor Branestawm: the maturing image of science in 20th century juvenile literature

This essay examines some ways in which images of children or the childlike are used in the construction of the scientist, and does so through the study of a series of books of the mid-20th century; Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories (1931-1983). The character of Branstawm, I argue, was clearly constructed as childlike from the start – perhaps as an attempt to appeal to young readers – and yet as the decades move on the character shifts slightly to a presentation which, if not overtly “adult” looses the more childish aspects and is juxtaposed in opposition to children. The maturation of Branestawm is not offered to suggest science “came of age” in the latter half of the 20th century. Although this is tempting, it is also highly simplistic. Rather, it is an opportunity to explore some of the ways images of the childlike can act on cultural constructions of the scientist. I start with a brief discussion to images of children and science before introducing the case study. I then outline the ways I see Branestawm as a childish (and not-childish) character, before making some more analytical points about how this helps endow the scientist end of the character with some particularly powerful aspects of imagery surrounding the child.

Imagining children and scientists

There are several ways in which aspects of the childlike may intersect with the various qualities generally associated with the scientist. It may appear controversial to call a scientist ‘childlike’: as if it was a criticism, or a form of dismissal. Yet such a link may also endow the image of the scientist with a rather special social status. A child-like science might be seen as trivial, silly and under-developed, but it can also be innocent and innately knowledgeable of nature. I have discussed this in more detail elsewhere (Bell, 2008a) but it is worth sketching a few upfront here. We might endow our ideas of the child and scientists in ways which make them appear very separate social identities. For example, we might imagine children as stupid, or at least naïve, in comparison to the wisdom of science. Such a figuring may then have an impact on the way we imagine the relationship between the two groups, seeing young people as necessarily recipients of scientific knowledge, in need of education to interact with science to be ‘full’ members of society or, for the select few, specific technical training in order to become, after time, scientists themselves. In contrast, however, we might equally see children as inherently good and connected to nature and juxtapose such imagery to depict science as corrupt and corrupting. This trope is arguably dominant in late 20th C children’s science fiction and fantasy, as discussed by Jacqueline Rose (1994), Noga Applebuam (2005, 2006), Perry Nodleman (1985). There are also ways in which imaginings of the child and scientists might be seen as similar; such as the idea that children are “little scientists” or, conversely, that scientists take a positively childish approach to interaction with nature, mixing scientific charactersitics of disinterestedness or curiosity with a sense of childish wonder and naivety (which will largely be the focus on this essay).

It’s important to stress that at am I not trying to suggest children are one thing or another. Rather, I accept that our ideas of the child are generally multiple, and often ambiguously applied (not unlike our ideas of science). In many respects, this essay is less concerned with real children, and more interested in the ways our imaginings of children get replicated and reconfigured elsewhere. To assist us in reflecting on the multiple nature of the child in culture, it is worth quoting a rather long passage from sociologist of childhood, Chris Jenks:

pure, bestial, innocent, corrupt, charged with potential, tabula rasa, or even as we view our adult selves […] whether their forms of language, games and conventions are alternative to our own, imitations or crude precursors of our own now outgrown, or simply transitory impenetrable trivia which are amusing to witness and recollect; weather they are constrained and we have achieved freedom, or we have assumed constraint and they are truly free – all these considerations, and more, continue to exercise our theorising about the child in social life’ (Jenks, 2005: 2).

We can see this in Rousseau and other Romantics, as well as in 19th and 20th century developments of developmental psychology, but we should not imagine such theorising of the child is merely a matter of work in ivory towers. It is important to note that when Jenks refers to ‘theorising’, he not only means academic work, but the quite prosaic theorising which we all do as part of everyday social life. We all theorise the child as part of social interaction. We draw on others’ ideas and/ or construct our own based on practical experience and personal moral/ political beliefs. Children, unlike other social groups such as those based around professions (i.e. the scientist) or issues of race, class, gender or sexuality has a rather odd status, because we were all one. The child is, in its own way, extremely familiar. Yet it is also quite strange; ‘he or she inhabits our world and yet seems to answer to another; he or she is essentially of ourselves and yet appears to display a systematically different order of being’ (Jenks, 2005: 2-3, See also Hunt, 1994, for introduction to politics of child/ adult relationships in children’s literature).

Similarly, the scientists we are talking about here are very much the ‘imaginary’ ones of fictional depiction. As many sociologists of science have argued, what counts as ‘science’ is a confused, often contradictory notion which is strategically applied depending on context, rather than the consequence of an inherent ‘demarcation criterion’ (See Gieryn, 1995, for critique of this). In terms of the literary representations of the scientist, we might argue there are right and wrong ways to depict the scientist, and complain about incorrect and/ or overly negative portrayals (e.g. Lambourne, 1999). We could, however, acknowledge that there are a range of identities a scientist in culture might have, and a range of reasons why authors would wish to accentuate one or another of these. Taking this latter approach, tracking fictional scientists can become a way of working through the diversity of ways different people at different times have chosen to think about science in society. Rosalind Haynes (1994) seminal study of the scientist in Western literature suggests literary scientists can be sorted into six ‘stereotypes’. Although somewhat reductive, her typology is useful at least as a heuristic and reflects the ways in which scientist characters have in places become cultural tropes, repeated through culture as sketches and allusions. Haynes’ types range from alchemists driven to pursue an arcane intellectual goal that carries suggestions of ideological evil to more romantic depictions of an ‘unfeeling scientist’ where characters renege on human relationships only in the cause of science. Most important for this study is her sketch of the ‘Stupid Virtuoso’, a character out of touch with the society and so preoccupied with the trivialities of his private world of science, he ignores social responsibilities. This has similarities to romantic images of the unfeeling scientist, albeit slightly less heroically presented, and often comical.

None of this is to argue that images of children and scientists remain purely as ‘make-believe’. The fictional, even the fantastical, not only reflects reality (Hunt & Lenz, 2001, Hume, 1984), but may have a constructive impact on the doing, making and selling of science. Although scientists may find fiction worrying, seeking to correct its mistakes (Kirby, 2003a) or put their own work at distance (Mellor, 2003) they may also find it a useful resource either in the construction of ideas (Kirby, 2003b) or rhetorical positioning (Mellor, 2003, 2007). As Megan Prelinger (2010) has shown in terms of discourses of the space race, allusions to science fiction also feature in advertisements for the recruitment of scientists, thereby playing a possible role in the construction at least some areas of science and engineering. Most interesting for this paper’s purposes, literary researcher Elizabeth Leane (2007) applies Haynes’ typology to those images of scientists constructed auto-biographically in non-fiction ‘popular science’ books by scientists, a loose application of Jurdant’s (1993) idea of popular science writing as the ‘autobiography’ of science.

My argument, however, will be that all incarnations of Branestawm are, at once, both childlike and anti-childlike. If we wish to put this in a theoretical framework, I suggest Thomas Gieryn’s ‘cartographic metaphor’ for the boundaries of science (1995, 1999). This considers the cultural entity we call ‘science’ as analogous to a country on a map, its boarders defined through processes of boundary disputes and diplomatic treaties. The particular advantage of such ‘cultural cartography’ (compared to other frameworks for boundary analysis, see Lamont & Virag, 2002, for some examples) is that maps not only show us where two bounded groups are separated, they also declare shared space; demonstrating simultaneously similarity and distinction. It also reflects, although in a very different context, Ian Mitroff’s (1974) description of scientists’ dynamic alternation between ‘norms’ and ‘counter-norms’ of science, as well as what Simon Locke (2005) calls the ‘ambivalences’ of many cultural images of science. As we shall see, Branestawm, and I believe many more ‘real world’ scientists, negotiate the child/science boundary to take advantage of both positive qualities of childishness as well as the advantages of appearing distinctly ‘mature’.

Introducing Branestawm

The first of Hunter’s Branestawm books, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, was published in 1933. It comprised of a collection of stories based on those initially read on the BBC Home Service’s Children’s Hour. They were written by Norman Hunter, who had previously worked in advertising and as a stage magician, as well as serving in World War One in his late teens and is sometimes known as ‘Hunter, teller of tales’. Indeed, he is sometimes referred to as such in bibliographic databases, and the British Library copy of the 1933 edition has ‘teller of tales’ sketched in on pencil in the frontispiece (not by me). The book was illustrated by W. Heath Robinson, who by this time was already famous for his images of fantastic and humorous inventions. The Incredible Adventures were followed in 1937 with Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt. After a break of several decades, during which the writer lived in South Africa, Hunter returned to writing for children, and published fourteen more Branestawm books from 1970 to 1983 (he died in 1995). Although all the Branestawm stories were written by Hunter, a new illustrator was brought in for the 1937 collection, and many different artists have worked with the character over the years. Heath Robinson is possibly the most well known, with his images re-used in several subsequent editions (1939, 1946, 1993) and arguably a strong influence on the later artists.

Prof Branestawm and Colonel Dedshott swap clothesProfessor Branestawm swaps clothes with Colonel Dedshott, W Heath Robinson, 1933

Hunter’s stories centre on the character of ‘Professor Branestawm’, a scientist (or engineer, his specialism is ambiguous) who lives in a small English village. Typically the books contain a series of short stories, each of which describe Branestawm inventing something or trying to go about some form of social life, such as attending a party or returning a library book. Either he gets terribly confused himself or he will confuse other people (often both). In most cases, the invention goes wrong and causes some form of havoc and/ or even structural damage. The inventions are in many ways quite magical and are often anthropomorphized; in that respect the books are openly fantastical. It is worth remembering Hunter’s work as a conjurer here, and that the 1976 spin off activity book, Professor Branestawm’s Do-It-Yourself Handbook, includes several instructions for ‘science experiments’ which are largely magic tricks (although this is a long-standing trope in such books, see, for example, Secord, 2002). They might blow up a building or take over the house. In the 1970 collection, The Peculiar Triumph of Professor Branestawm we, unusually, find inventions which do work, although not in the way they were supposed to. However, interestingly, these were ‘invented’ by child readers, who won a competition run by the publisher to design a machine to be featured in one of the stories.

The key feature of the Branestawm character, and basis for much of the humor of the books, is that he is a social outsider, someone the readers (and other characters) should take some amused bewilderment towards. He is, for many of his fans, the epitome of the absent-minded professor. As Branestawm himself reflects at one point: ‘How strange we professors are, to be sure’ (1933: 173). He finds it hard to communicate with people, and often has conversations at cross-purposes (1933: 130). He walks into a swimming pool because he is thinking too much about finding a library (1933: 88) and continually forgets where he is. When he discovers the library, he tries to buy a bun there, thinking it is a bakery (1933: 29). He finds social life difficult, cumbersome and confusing and often feels out of place and lost. The playfulness of this stereotype is very explicit: in one story, he ends up inadvertently doing an impersonation of himself at the seaside, where people think he is a comic pretending to be an absent minded professor (1933: 203). He has a housekeeper, Mrs Flittersnoop and a best friend, Colonel Deadshott, but generally chooses to be left alone to work with his ‘inventions’.

The books have been translated into several languages, including Polish, Swedish, Italian, German and Thai[i]. There was a later BBC radio adaptation in 2001, and a television series in the late 1960s. One study of books used in British schools in the 1970s stated it was one of the top 20 books read allowed in primary schools, alongside the Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, various works by Dahl and beating the Just William stories (Poole, 1986). They are still in print in the UK, although this is arguably largely due to the nostalgic tendencies of children’s publishing, and the books are less common today. Their attitude to race, gender and class would have kept them off school bookshelves from the 1980s onwards. In places, however, Branestawm appears to continue to resonate in British cultural imagery of the scientist; people will still refer to academics as having ‘Professor Branestawm hair’ as if it was an example everyone will know. Christopher Frayling suggests that the shorthand sketches children compose when asked to draw a picture of a scientist may come from computers, comics, cartoons, films or the cover of Professor Branestawm books (Frayling, 1005: 221) Arguably, it is strange that Frayling refers broadly to each media except for books where a very specific, rather out-dated example is given. However this only shows the power and apparent universality of the Branestawm image in particular cultures, which Frayling appears to belong[ii].

Variable Childishness of Professor Branstawm.

I believe the original 1933 Branestawm to be quite overtly constructed as childlike, both in Hunter’s text and Robinson’s illustrations. Yet, Branestawm’s childishness is variable across the twentieth century. As with any long-standing character (Dr Who, Superman, Tom Swift) the cultural referents used to construct the character and stories changed over time depending on the context, although Branstawm retained the same author, albeit changes in illustrator and editors. One of the more overt examples of how shifts in the public views of science had an impact on these changes in the book is that the James Adams’ illustrations of 1937 edition are much more heavily influenced by images of Freud, as a hairier, bearded Branestawm is shown in a neatly drawn pinstriped suit. As I will argue, the character – more in text than illustration – seems to ‘mature’ somewhat when Hunter returns to writing about him in 1970, becoming less and less childlike throughout the decade, before reaching a sort of ‘2nd childhood’ in the 1980s incarnations. This section will provide a sketch of some of the more childlike aspects of the (generally early) Branestawm, sometimes in comparison with (later) more apparently ‘mature, forms of the character.

To start with Branestawm’s childishness, for all his occasional seriousness in the face of social events such as parties, Branestawm has a clearly presented sense of fun. When the fair visits town, he is desperate to go (1933: 69 onwards). There are also childlike references to eating too much trifle and ginger beer (1933: 86); at bedtime he drinks cocoa and falls out of bed (1933: 169). His lack of social understanding also leads to quite childlike concerns, and he takes things to the extreme. For example, at the end of a fancy-dress party where the Professor and Colonel have gone as each other, people do not believe the had changed back from fancy-dress: ‘So they very nearly had to live in each others’ houses for the rest of their lives’ (1933: 154). The early illustrations show both Branestawm and the Colonel as reasonably short compared to other characters, and they often crouch over slightly, without the more confident posture of an adult. In one illustration Branestawm is shown wearing a ‘trouser elevator contraption’ (1933: 3), a set of braces attached to a fishing rod mechanism, which stops baggy clothes, falling down. This also has the effect of bunching the trousers around his bottom, making him look as if he is wearing a nappy. In the Heath Robinson images of Branestawm, he is often shown wearing clothes which are too big for him; as if he were playing at fancy dress, not quite grown into adult roles. The picture in the 1933 frontispiece shows Branestawm’s tie worn back to front, which is there as a symbol of the lack of care he gives to his clothes (a function of his absent minded-ness) but is also reminiscent of an untidy schoolboy. On some occasions the childlike is, perhaps oddly, constructed through references to symbols of old age. For example, he is depicted as balding. A baldhead is in many ways a symbol of old age, however, it is also has the effect of making the character look as if he hadn’t grown any hair yet. We are also told he has a large head explicitly because he is so brainy (1933: 7) but again, a large forehead is a rather baby-like characteristic. Interestingly, this is perhaps most overtly underlined when we see an image of Branstawm compared to himself as a baby. The Professor invents a potion that brings images to life, but his housekeeper accidentally pours it over a photo album, and facilities of Branstawm through the ages run amok throughout the house. One image shows Branestawm tacking aback by himself as a baby (1933: 121). The baby sits serenely on the floor on the left hand side of the page, grabbing his feet. The Professor mirrors this posture; while falling back in alarm, he bends his body in the middle in a direct reflection of the baby’s movement out to touch his toes. Although the professor is much taller than the baby, and clothed, the differences largely end there. They are both generally hairless. Significantly the baby’s hair is the course and frizzy type, characteristic of ageing, rather than light and soft curls. Further, the baby has glasses, despite overtly being much too young to wear them. This, to me, seems like a clear example of ‘ambivalence’ around child/ adult boundaries with respect to a scientist character, drawing similarity and difference at once. I also think it shows that Heath Robinson picked up on the same cues in the text as I spotted.

The 1930s Branestawm is seemingly terrified of people. Characters from the rest of the village, when we see them, are shown to like him, but generally he hides from social life, with the exception of one friend, Colonel Deadshott. Such anti-social behaviour is also in some ways quite childlike, reflecting a child’s lack of socialization or shyness. The distinction being that an absent minded professor is innocent of society by choice or inclination; for a child it may be more temporal, but effects are similar. Branestawm’s lack of socialisation is also symbolised through references to his odd approach to clothes, language and food. Again, these could be seen as childlike, having not learnt. They are humourous because they are incongruous to what might be expected as normal, but there are also ways in which they figure the character as cute, almost useless in a childlike way (underlined by the housekeeper character, there to take care of him). They also make him slightly inhuman though, almost alien. On food, he would have breakfast overnight so he could start earlier the next morning on an important job (1933: 15). With clothes, as well as the fancy-fress and trouser contraption incidents mentioned earlier, he is referred to as making notes on his shirt cuffs (1933: 16) and at one point inadvertently puts on a ladies bonnet (illust., 1933: 48). Hunter obviously enjoyed linguistic play, and although notes like “He had very few friends because people found it so very difficult to talk to him” (1933: 1) are perhaps a nod to scientific jargon, the language used by the character is more a matter of being vague and imprecise, suggesting a lack of familiarity with language rather than having developed his own advanced form of it: (saying “thingummy” and “whateveritis” (1933: 3). Perhaps most significant, people are indulgent, or at least tolerant of his odd behaviour – Deadshott pretends to understand him (1933:4). In one incident he blows a man’s house up. The professor offers to build him a new one. “But the clock-man said he’d rather invent his own house, thank you all the same” (1933: 66).

In the 1930s Branestawm hid away in his own private space of the home, and in the 1970s we see him out and about, interacting in more public spaces of libraries, school and parks. In the 1980s, we see a sort of synthesis of the two locations; the public world is brought into the home. It is thus a very domestic setting, but one at home and familiar with the outside world. In 1980s, he becomes much more explicitly affable and loveably foolish again, he has parties with jelly and ice-cream (1983b) and writes letters (1981b) although interacts with the world in a familiar way, not as terrified as he was in the early books, he generally stays at home (pleased when guests go home, producing a machine because he doesn’t like writing thank yous). He doesn’t want people around, although this rime around it doesn’t seem as if it’s because he is scared of others, more that he’s learnt they are annoying. In the 1970 book, there are also several encounters with children, emphasising the distinction between the two social roles, and with less of the juxtaposition performed to also show similarity we saw in the 1933 Heath Robinson illustrations. As Branestawm moves into the 1970s, the central characters of these books are now ones for the children to laugh at and look at from afar, not play at being. They are funny because they are odd to the children, not odd like the children.

Where as the 1930s inventions tend to be based in Branestawm’s home, designed to solve problems on running the house, in the 1970s, inventions are on a larger scale, working for public good of whole village, not just himself, based in the outdoors, in the centre of social life (parks, shopping streets, school). In the 1974 book, Professor Branestawm’s Great Revolution, the last story reveals what the revolution of the title is, the professor is asked to design a revolving restaurant. He also lectures at an institute for science and other scientist characters are brought in. There are references to the links between science and the military, as well as commercial culture. There is a greater sense of specialization. In first book it is not clear what he was a professor of; he invented machines, with the suggestion that he was an engineer, but he also had books on languages. Post war, he is more explicitly fashioned as a scientist/ technologist when he goes abroad it is not to anthropologically study the people, but to learn more of their inventions (1970: 37). Looking at the language, the Professor also discusses the science in slightly more detail, suggesting a rather more ‘adult’ vocabulary (compared with the thingummy and whatiscalled’s of the first book). There is even a rival Professor, Gasket Basket, who he gets into an inventing competition with, but uses underhand methods, employing “rascals” to steal Branestawm’s invention. Inventions in 1980s books return to rather more domestic settings (1981ab, 1982ab, 1983ab).

Professor Branestawm looks upProfessor Branestawm’s Trouser Elevator, W Heath Robinson, 1933

The Rhetoric of the childish scientist

There is a sense that the inability to interact with society is a necessary consequence for scientific achievement, and by that vein, also socially acceptable:

For although the Professor was so clever, or perhaps because he was so clever, he was very absent-minded. He was so busy thinking of wonderful things like new diseases or new moons that he simply hadn’t the time to think of ordinary things like old spectacles (Incredible Adventures, 1933: 1)

This is very similar to what Rosalind Haynes (1994) calls the ‘stupid virtuoso’, and arguably pre-dates the more Victorian image of childhood present in the book. Certainly, an absent minded professor is not unique to these books. However, there are ways in which stupid virtuoso characters can be endowed with aspects of childishness, and worth reflecting on this to deconstruct them, and consider the ways they may influence our ideas about children’s relationships with science (and vice versa). From a study of Richard Feynman’s popular writing, she argues that behind anecdotes of asking for lemon and cream in your tea, or asking a servant to dance lies a notion of ‘the wise fool’. As Leane puts it, ‘the boy who saw the emperor’s nakedness’. These stories are applied to show how the scientist can debunk unnecessarily or cruel social practices and find the efficient, true and (morally) right way ahead (Leane, 2007: 151). She does not reflect on it being a boy (rather than a person of any age) which manages to see the ‘nakedness. Yet, this unconscious reference to youth is significant, as we see the idea of the innocent child intersecting with notions of the scientist as either ‘disinterested’ (Merton, 1973) or a ‘modest witness’ of nature (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985).

Linked to this idea of innocence is a strong sense of simple-ness in the image of Branestawm, which I would also sits within some of the figuring of him as a childish character (whilst at the same time not being dependent on it). For example, again from the start of the first book:

Professor Branestawm, like all great men, had simple tastes. He wore simple trousers with two simple legs. His coat was simply fastened with safety pins because the buttons had simply fallen off. His head was simply bald and it simply shone like anything whenever the light caught it. (1933:1)

This equating an idea of simplicity to both science and greatness, which reflects cultural ideas of the scientist as humble, as well as more philosophical points such as Occam’s razor. It also implies we need not question him; he just is. Yet, interestingly, behind the appearance of simplicity lies a more complex sense of magic, as the character also plays up to the idea of the scientist as having an intuitive or hidden ability to work nature. E.g. in the description of one of his inventions (pretty standard for many throughout the whole series, until the 1980s):

Blue and yellow smoke shot out from every part of the machine. Wheels whizzed. Levers clicked. Little bits of stuff went buzzing up and down and round and round. And far beneath them the landscape rushed by quicker and quicker until at last they could see nothing but a grey haze all round them (1933: 4-5)

Similarly, from 1981: “Suddenly he had an idea. Right out of nowhere it came. Like catching measles, only nicer” (1981b: 5). It’s maybe worth remembering Hunter as a stage conjurer who fancied himself the fancy-dress of the mad scientist; an odd reflection of JBS Haldane, perhaps, who in his Mr Leakey stories (1937) adopts the costume of a magic man, but equally uses a children’s book to play with ideas of the scientist as magician. As Haynes’ history of fictional scientists shows, this idea of scientist as magic man has a long history; if anything it is an especially old form of the character. However, it’s also worth noting that this an almost magical connection between the child and nature is a very common theme in children’s literature too. As Rose puts it, the child is “constantly set up as the site of a lost truth” (Rose, 1994: 43). Applebaum (2006) has argued that such nature-child connections are used to distance children from science, and critique the latter in many science fiction books written for young people. However, I think Branestawm is an example of the ways in which the two can be combined, endowing the scientist character with the various positive characteristics of the child mysteriously in nature (for other examples of this, see also Bell, 2008ab).

Branestawm makes a messBranestawm makes a mess, W Heath Robinson, 1933


Concluding points

This essay has considered some of the ways in which an image of the child might be woven into those of a scientist. I hope this helps us consider some of the detail of our cultural construction of scientists, in particular their rhetorical appeal. Oddly perhaps, the childlike can endow the image of the scientist with a rather unthreatening and intuitive association with natural knowledge, even if childlike scientists will also have to work to distance themselves from other images of youth such as the more pathological notions of ignorance, triviality or thoughtlessness. As Elizabeth Leane’s (2007) discussion of constructed public face of Richard Feynmen suggests, there is a rhetorical appeal to such constructions, as childlike imagery may provide powerful symbols of an apparent link to truth and/ or purity of purpose. Leane’s study also shows how these fictional representations make spill into non-fictional ones. Branestawm is not part of a concerted public relations campaign for science, but such images can be extended elsewhere to be.

It would be a neat piece of analysis to argue that between the differences in age-based allusions of Branestawm are reflective of the emergence of ‘Big Science’ as a form of coming of age, but that would be too simple. To some extent this analysis is ahistorical anyway. Or rather, cross-historical. Not because what Branestawm depicts is in any way universal, but because children’s literature is so often carried across time. Due to the nostalgic tendencies of children’s book production and dissemination (i.e. that it is made by the generation before its audience, and parents often give books of their youth to their children), what Branestawm said about science then is largely what it says now. Branestawm is interesting today not only as an expression of science in the mid 20th century, but of one that both looked back nostalgically at the time and is still resonant in its nostalgia today; either through various recycling of post modern culture or more directly, as readers of the 1970s give it to their children, who give it to theirs. Instead, the variability and contingency of Branestawm’s symbolic childishness perhaps provides an extra analytical point. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Scientist characters became more central to public life, but at the same time would emphasise their special qualities to appear distinct. If I was to hazard any broad statement about the sweep of time the books reflect, it is that images of science became, perhaps, more ambivalent, drawing on the childlike images of the past and adding in new. The most recent edition of the 1933 book (which is the most long-lived) I could find was over a decade ago, but there are e-book versions, BBC last re-broadcast a reading of the stories in March 2011 and an online bookshop listing suggests a “Vintage” edition will be published again in 2013. So he may yet return, perhaps re-fashioned by a new author, illustrator or production team.

References:

  • Applebaum, Noga (2006) ‘The Myth of the Innocent Child: the Interplay Between Nature, Humanity and Technology in Contemporary Children’s Science Fiction’, The Journal of Children’s Literature Studies, vol3, issue 2, July 2006.
  • Applebaum, Noga (2005) ‘Electronic Texts and Adolescent Agency: Computers and the Internet in Contemporary Children’s Fiction’, in Reynolds, Kimberly (ed) Modern Children’s Literature. (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave).
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  • Bell, Alice (2008b) Science as Pantomime: Explorations in Contemporary Children’s Non-Fiction Books, PhD thesis, Imperial College London.
  • Frayling, Christopher (2005) Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Scientist and the Cinema (Reaktion Books, London).
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  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Robinson, W Heath (illustrator) (1939) Stories of Professor Branestawm (selections of first two books) (EJ Arnold & Son, Leeds)
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  • Hunter, N (writer) Robinson, W Heath (illustrator) (1993) The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (Puffin, London)
  • Jenks, Chris (2005) Childhood, 2nd edition. (Oxford: Routledge).
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  • Lamont, Michele & Virag Molnar (2002) ‘The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences’, Annual Review of Sociology 28:167-95.
  • Leane, Elizabeth (2007) Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies (Hampshire: Ashgate)
  • Locke, Simon (2005) ‘Fantastically Reasonable: Ambivalence in the Representation of Science and Technology in Super-hero Comics’, Public Understanding of Science, vol 14 (1): 25-46.
  • Mellor, Felicity (2007) ‘Colliding Worlds: Asteroid Research and the Legitimatization of War in Space’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 37(4): 499-531.
  • Mellor, Felicity (2003) ‘Between Fact and Fiction: demarcating science from non-science in popular physics books’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 33, no4: 509-538.
  • Merton, Robert (1973) The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, edited with an introduction by Norman W Storer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • Mitroff, Ian I. (1974). Norms and counter-norms in a select group of Apollo Moon scientists: A case study in the ambivalence of scientists. American Sociological Review, 39, 579-595.
  • Nodleman, Perry (1985) ‘Out There In Children’s Science Fiction: Forward into the Past’, Science Fiction Studies, vol 12: 285-295.
  • Poole, Roger (1986) ‘The Books Teachers Use’, Children’s Literature in Education, vol 17(3) 159-180.
  • Prelinger, Megan (2010) Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962 (New York: Blast Books).
  • Rose, Jacqueline (1994) The Case of Peter Pan, 2nd edition. (Basingstoke: Macmillan).
  • Secord, James A (2002) ‘Portraits of Science: Quick and Magical Shaper of Science’, Science, 6th September 2002, vol. 297 (5587): 1648-1649.
  • Shapin, Steven & Schaffer, Simon (1985) Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and The Experimental Life (Princeton UP: Princeton)


Acknowledgements:
This work was carried out as part of doctoral research (AHRC grant no: 05/116470) at the Science Communication Group, Imperial College. Drafts of this paper were presented at several conferences. My thanks to the organisers of these events, as well as all attendees for their attention, suggestions and questions.


[i] My thanks to the ‘academic discussion of children’s literature – uk’ listserv for assistance in tracking down Branestawm in translation.

[ii] It should be noted that here Frayling is discussing a set of drawings produced by 7-11 year olds in the South West of England in summer 2003. An argument for the resonance of Branestawm in the subjects of the 1983 UK study he is replicating might be more convincing.

Carbon pollution and other metaphors

This was my October column for Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read current edition including my virtual tour of the Science Museum.

There’s a new phrase on the block: “Carbon Pollution”. Barak Obama used it 30 times in a recent speech as he tried to draw more attention to role of carbon emissions. As Carbon Brief’s Ros Donald wrote: “It sounds made up, and it is.”

But just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it is not useful. All scientific terms are made up. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Just because it’s constructed by people doesn’t mean it’s either unreal or malign. It just means people fashioned it from the materials they found in the world, with all the good, bad and complex in-betweens which come with that.

Attaching human words onto the workings of the natural world will always be fraught and inevitably contain a fair bit of creativity. Scientific terms are always simplifications – whether they are also a deliberate spin – and to what degree you are comfortable with any particular simplification will vary depending on your position in and around it. They are simplifications of the detail of scientific understanding, which itself is a simplification of the actual reality out there. It’s one of the reasons science gives us so many of our new words, as scientists need to make new terms to cover the new things they’ve found. It is also why maths is often more useful, and scientific publication increasingly looks to new forms of visualisation (if you don’t know JOVE, you’ve been missing out).

There is a fantastical element to much language – especially when it comes to metaphor and analogy – but then science is always a bit fantastical. There is something fantastical about graphs too, indeed most inscriptions of scientific research as they pull out particular bits of the world in detail for us to examine. As our dim human forms scramble to comprehend the huge complexity of our universe we might as well use everything at our disposal, including this amazing thing called language.

As anyone who’s studied the atom in any way knows, at times it can feel like your teacher keeps going “so you know that thing we told you last year, well, about that…” It’s like film stars having special ways to pronounce their name depending on how close you are to them; each different twist on the reality acting as a shibboleth to the core of power. Except that the early simplifications – whilst also kind of lies – are an invitation for further study. If scientists offered their full view of what we should probably call ‘the artist formally known as the atom’ up front, they might alienate a lot of people. And it is, after all, still only their current idea with all the uncertainties and gaps any science has. There is a sort of honesty in the way chemistry teachers lie to their students. Nature is the ultimate annoying teacher pointing out that the thing you thought was true was merely a sketch of reality.

I think my favourite turn of scientific phrase is the start to Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, where is describes a large willow tree pumping seeds into the air with the line: “It is raining DNA outside”. It is a magical image, but hooks you in to wanting to know the reality and offers a way to help you start thinking about it. Dawkins is maybe better known for idea of “the selfish gene” is possibly better known because many felt that particular hook was problematic, offering a particular vision on life via the idea of the gene they took offense to.

It is interesting how some such simplifications of science are seen accepted and others contested. Another good example is the hole in the ozone layer. The actual origin is contested. Joe Farnam – aka the co-discover of this hole – told the British Library’s Aural History of Science project no-one quite owned up to coining the phrase, though it seemed to have appeared somewhere between a NASA press release and a piece in the Washington Post “they had a press release and the Washington correspondents must have asked some questions, someone said, well, it looks like a hole doesn’t it, or something [laughs]” (pdf of full transcript). According to Reiner Grundmann, Sherwood Rowland – another ‘co-discoverer – coined the metaphor, used first when talking to a student newspaper (See Transnational Environmental Policy: Reconstructing Ozone, p.206). Wherever it came from, the idea of a ‘hole’ to describe what was going on up there might be enough of a simplification that not everyone finds it accurate, and it may well have helped facilitate a particular political outcome, but perhaps because of both of those reasons, it seems to have stuck nonetheless.

I don’t want to suggest metaphor and analogy are always a good thing though. Take, for example, another example of complex and esoteric systems the public often feel confused by: finance. At a recent public lecture from Andy Haldane of the Bank of England, I was struck by the sheer weight of metaphors (yes, I know that is a metaphor). There were fat tails and short minds, logjams, dark sides, siren voices of boom and bust, lumpy outcomes and webs. At times it took a geographical turn, with cliff edges, cross-border flows, storms at sea and even some “sunny uplands” (of stability). It had medical moments too, with antidotes, myopia and a ‘pock-marked’ history.

It was kind of poetic, and one way of looking at this is to congratulate Haldane for his articulate explaining. The Richard Dawkins of economics perhaps. Another would be to argue he used such language to create a further barrier between him and his audience. If he really wanted public involvement he’d invite it; he’d show us the language and ideas of financial workers use so we could talk to them on their own terms. Instead, he just stood on a stage and spouted linguistically-produced pictures at us. Which were pretty, but left little space for audience agency (again, the Richard Dawkins of economics, perhaps).

None of this is simple. As Donald notes of “carbon pollution”, the term seems to be designed with a deliberate political end in mind, compared to climate change or global warming which we might see as having slightly more scientific ancestry (useful blogpost on the two from NASA). It was made to provoke action, not understanding. But scientific terms can be put to political work too. For example, the idea that ‘climate change’ sounds less threatening than ‘global warming’. I also suspect Obama’s application of carbon pollution reflects the increasing tendency of advocates for action on climate change – including scientists – to talk about using the atmosphere as a rubbish dump. The science and politics are rarely divisible, for all that it might suit some to imagine so.

As that wise old teacher Seymour Skinner once said, much science is half BF Skinner and PT Barnam. Linguistic play is part of the latter. As long as we can find ways of playing with words which involve listening and debate along with a strong respect for empiricism (“listening to nature”, if you will), not simply showmanship.

Everyday sexual harrassment in science

I posted a piece at the Guardian a few days ago on some sexual harassment allegations which had been effecting communities of science blogging. A lot of the debate on this has been done in public, and this is significant. Bloggers are supporting each other to feel strong enough to speak out but also simply make sense of a lot of it. There’s a lot of learning going on.

One of the things that has been amazing to watch is people calling out things that they’d previously labelled “a bit creepy” as THIS IS NOT OK.

We should be able to give a lecture without a colleague eyeing-up our legs. We should be able to bend down and tie our bloody shoelace on campus without someone making a comment about our bum. The gateways to particular people, jobs, ideas and spaces should not be guarded by questions of whether or not we are willing to entertain the idea of screwing someone in a position of power. We should be able to talk about stuff like this and call it out without being made to feel like some sort of sour killjoy.

To multiple men who stare at my breasts while I’m talking to them about work: Yes I can tell you are doing it, no it isn’t normal and yes it does really creep me out. It means I pretty much instantly lose a huge amount of respect for you but, no matter how strong I am and how much of an arse I know you to be, it always makes me doubt my own worth too. And the memory of quite how horrible it is – especially when it is someone who you have previously respected – can last for months. So stop. Other men manage not to so why the hell can’t you?

An American journalist who had spent time working in the UK remarked that a similar level of public discussion about specific perpetrators and more serious harassment couldn’t happen in the UK because of libel laws. He’s right, but we also have other networks of communication. Emails, meetings, networks of information and support.

It made me realise how long that sort of hidden support has been going on.

The threads of informal conversation at conferences where female academics share experiences or warn each other off. The way we so routinely go “oh, you have a meeting with [insert important man] that’s so exciting for you! Watch his wandering hands though, eh?” How, when a friend has suffered a particular “incident”, you instinctively check networks to see whether he has a reputation, because these networks exist. They are normal.

The way young female students are kept away from particular members of staff or work experience placements. The emails that quietly go round an institution warning women about getting in the lift with a particular invited speaker (who everyone knows is “problematic” but is oh so eminent). The way a postdoc or junior lecturer might be tasked with “keeping an eye” on someone at parties especially if there might be students there (because “professor x or y, he’s ok you know, unless he’s had a drink”).

There’s also the gossip which runs through male and mixed discussions too. This can trivialise issues, at worst blaming women but often just making it a joke so it’s harder to stand up to. These bits of gossip can be useful though, they give you warning.

I feel like we need to be better at recognising these systems. Because their very existence implicitly acknowledges the problem, and also sustains them. We support each other in these ways, but in doing so support the oppressors too.

I’ve often noticed men in science communication refer to students doing work experience placements or British Science Association Media Fellows as a “perk” of the summer months. I’ve never personally heard anyone in positions of responsibility say this, it’s normally just those around them, and it’s largely in terms of “eye candy” (though we all here stories and anyway such objectification is bad in itself). I also often think the men saying so do so largely from expectations about “banter”, they don’t necessarily mean it. And it’s a lot better than it used to be.

We all – men and women – know these sorts of attitudes exist and we act to protect each other accordingly. We rarely, however, call such behaviour out. Indeed when I have complained I’ve been laughed at for being a bit too serious/ misreading situations. I’m not sure how we get to the point where we can challenge bad behaviour more effectively, I don’t think simply talking about it will be the answer, but I think it will help.

Finally – and without diminishing the gendered nature of a lot of this – it is important because it’s not just something men do to women. It’s about power. There’s a lot of misuse of power that goes on in academia because it doesn’t get called out. Female academics and administrators who bully, including in some cases sexual harassment. Forms of racist, ableist, classist, bi/trans/homophobic oppression. The cases of sexual harassment are important in their own right, but they are also indicative of broader pathology which we need to address.

This post was edited slightly on Monday PM to better articulate the point about BSA fellows. I’m not entirely convinced it warranted it, but the last thing I want is more people’s sense of professionalism unnecessarily put into question.

Science Says So. Sorta

This was my September column for Popular Science UK (subscribe to read current edition) and so written before the fuss over the IPCC report. I think it’s still relevant though.

“Gravity exists. The Earth is round. Climate change is happening. Science says so.” Or rather Obama’s twitter account says so. Those last three words were collected together as #ScienceSaysSo to be precise; a tag which not only passed around virtually, but soon ended up on placards.

Science itself was somewhat co-opted into a bit of political campaigning on climate change here. Because unlike the PR staff supporting the President of the United States, science rarely speaks in one voice. It’s naïve, if not disingenuous, to suggest it might.

We get nodes of agreement which will sometimes coalesce into ideas we’ve decided it is either silly or dangerous to bother to argue against. But few scientists are arrogant enough to really think they unquestionably know. There’s always disagreement and uncertainty; that’s the lifeblood of good science. This can make scientists frustrating to work with for politicians, journalists or anyone else who wants a ‘straight’ answer. But science doesn’t tend to deal in truths, but rather hypothesis which aim ever closer to a description of reality.

Indeed one of the things science (or at least a key scientific institution) says is “nullius in verba.” Latin for “Take nobody’s word for it”, this is the motto of the Royal Society, right there in a very pretty stained glass window in their HQ. They named a minor planet after it too. If we’re playing slogans, rather than #ScienceSaysSo, our most august scientific institutions would rather suggest we avoid listening to dogma.

None of this is to suggest anything goes and you shouldn’t listen to what scientists say. On the climate issue, for example, the clearest introduction I’ve seen talks very openly about different areas of where there are different amounts of uncertainty; points where they are quite confident and others where they are less so. There is, for example, very little uncertainty that climate change due to increased greenhouse gases is happening and that, in future, it is very likely to have significant impacts for human life. But there are many uncertainties when it comes to the size and details of such impacts. Combining climate modelling with knowledge of effects already observed can powerfully improve our predictions, but they are still predictions even if they are the best we have. Its fair to characterise science – in as much as we can ever talk about it as a whole – as thinking climate change is happening.

I can understand people like Obama’s PR team want to simply shout “but we just KNOW this can we all move on already?”

It’s also worth noting that in many ways the whole “nullius” thing is a bit out-dated. Because modern science is a large, team enterprise. One expert needs to rely on the knowledge of several others in order to have time to concentrate of their own little bit of the world. As Isaac Newton is often quoted as saying, his insight was only gained by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Modern science, for all that draws on an origin myth of having a look for yourself, runs on trust.

Just as disagreement and uncertainty are the lifeblood of good science, so is believing other people and drawing on their expertise as a useful resource, because if we had to had to learn everything for ourselves we’d never get anything done. Most people who self-identify as sceptics openly admit to targeting their scepticism in some way.

The Royal Society knows this. Their website explains the motto as “an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment”. It just means claims should be testable backed up with empirical evidence.

There was an approach to science education popular briefly in the 1970s called “discovery learning”. Loosely, this was based on the idea that children should be allowed to discover nature for themselves, it’s wrong to indoctrinate them with the beliefs of the previous generation and it’s a more powerful learning experience if they can uncover it for themselves. Except, as many educational researchers pointed out, this only works in as much as one believes that scientific research is as simple as an hour spent playing around in a classroom.

Ethnographers who studied what went on in such classrooms soon saw teachers heavily orchestrating what were called “experiments” but were really nearer demonstrations; setting up particular outcomes and accommodating results which did not fit scientific censuses. Because the teachers knew years of detailed scientific study applying more rigorous techniques and equipment were more reliable than what their students were doing, they explained away anomalies.

That’s not to say young people can’t be involved in real science-in-the-making (e.g. recent papers on bees and elephants) but let’s not be naïve about how much they have to take for granted, or simply bracket off, in order to do so.

Precisely because empiricism is so powerful, we shouldn’t use it naively. To return to the climate example, earlier this year Boris Johnson implied he knew global warming wasn’t happening because, as “an empiricist”, he could see the snow with his own eyes. In response, several senior scientists calmly pointed out that they shared this interest in precisely what was going on with our weather and climate and that is why they try to apply slightly more effort, knowledge and techniques than simply looking out the window.

This is as true for us as citizens living in a modern society as it is for a working scientist, school student or London Mayor. You can’t simply re-create all the scientific and technological expertise we rely for yourselves. Or you could, but your life would be a lot less comfortable. To take the various benefits of science and technology, we have to be open to trust other people.

So, in a way, Obama’s PR team are fair to suggest we listen that #ScienceSaysSo. Science says things to itself, and the wider world, and it’s good that we can benefit from its expertise by listening.

Except trust breaks down and has to be earned. Simply reasserting respect my authoritah – Eric Cartman dressed in a labcoat – is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. It’s also, all too often, totally valid. Politicians refer quite loosely to scientific evidence all the time, and even scientific institutions are not above briefing a particular slant on an issue which concerned citizens might find useful to unpick (e.g. on fracking). The scepticism over BSE may have spilled over into framings of MMR in ways which were dangerous and arguably quite misapplied, but that doesn’t mean scepticism over what the politicians were saying on the science of BSE was a bad idea, just that we should have taken a more nuanced view on MMR. Just because scepticism can be misplaced and even deliberately exploited doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing.

It is, annoyingly, up to us to decide what scientific advice and which sceptics we find the most compelling; respecting evidence but also that it’s not, on it’s own, enough to make a decision. This is hard. But then modern life is hard.

Oh, and Mr President, the Earth isn’t round either. Science has been known to say that too. Sorry.

Occupy RCUK! Or why science funding matters

This first appeared on the Greenpeace EnergyDesk.

Compared to Canada and Australia, Brits might be forgiven for feeling a bit relaxed about the relatively pro-science stance our government seems to take (the odd “flat earth love-in” notwithstanding).

But beware politicians who come baring science scented rhetoric, or at least be ready to ask which bits of science they are so keen on, put to what ends. Because it’s not just the size of the science budget that matters, it’s what you do with it.

See, for example, yesterday’s report from Scientists for Global Responsibility; on how research is being directed towards developing aggressive weapons rather than talking the roots of conflict. Or the University of Manchester’s £64 million deal with BP last year, to explore “Advanced Materials.” Advanced materials which are especially useful for squeezing those hard-to-extract fossil fuels out the ground. Or the big smiles from Cameron and Cable at the Big Bang Fair last spring, as they ushered our nation’s youth towards careers with Shell and BAE Systems, Or when the Natural Environment Research Council, our official body for environmental science, decided to celebrate its ability to help “de-risk”  the activities of oil companies in the polar regions. Whose hopes for our collective future do those bits of science serve? Whose pockets?

Many important debates about how we might best apply scientific energies get obscured by arguments about the need for “pure” research. But put down the spherical physicist (imaginary ideal case that doesn’t exist in real world) because large chunks of science are already being directed. And so they should be.

The idea that at least some scientific work should be focused towards key social challenges informs how we organise science the world over, and has done for as long as we’ve been doing science on a large scale. This doesn’t mean we tell scientists what to find. It just means that, because we believe in science’s power as an engine for change, we think about which direction we point in in. The idea that science should be directed really isn’t – on a policy level – controversial at all. The question is who gets to direct it.

For example, the environmental sciences body NERC has, as its number one strategic goal, “enabling society to respond urgently to global climate change and the increasing pressures on natural resources”. Dealing with climate change is their moonshot; NERC are our people who keep an eye on these things. I for one am glad we invest in some brains on that issue.

Considering this expressed goal, we might be a bit taken aback by a call for expressions of interest to run a new Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas research which was quietly offered with a very short deadline a few weeks back. A cynic might argue they wanted it to slip out reasonably unnoticed over the summer. We might even possibly wonder if it was delayed so as not to coincide with the Balcolme protests. Because it is a bit suspicious.

Before you get too angry, there is also a DTC in wind funded through the EPSRC (engineering council). But this new centre does seem a bit odd, especially coming from NERC. It’d perhaps be simplistic to say they are using public money to run PhDs in fracking. But they are kind of using public money to do PhDs in fracking. When the BP materials centre was announced last year, the Nature news blog mused that that, as corporate labs wither, industries were looking to campuses to fill their research needs. Similarly, this new centre from NERC does feel a bit like someone, somewhere is taking the piss.

PhDs are important. That’s why research councils are strategising at the level of organising doctorial training centres. DTCs are controversial across academia for this reason – strategy is easily a code for cuts – and there was some fuss when NERC said they’d bring them in. PhDs are a key part of scientific labour in that they do a lot of the actual research, but they also train and make new scientists, so a centre for training like this is designed help encourage more work in an area and strengthen it as a long-term academic field. They are a way to plan the future of science, and with it a way to plan the future of our planet.

It would be understandable if other NERC funded scientists, not to mention the British public at large, asked questions. Who decided this was a good idea? As I’ve argued before, the governance of the research councils are far from open, and that’s a failing in terms of both doing good science and democratic accountability. It’ll be interesting to see the results of the Platform/ People and Planet work on the fossil fuel industry’s involvement in UK universities, but I suspect one of the most interesting results will be what they haven’t been able to find out about.

Unpicking the politics of science funding gets harder still as public research does more and more work with industry (see George Monbiot’s “monstrous proposal”). This issue of collaboration connects to another issue in the structure of science funding we should all be paying a lot more attention to; the move to collaborative funding where it is easier to access public funds if you can also bring some resources from industry. There are lots of advantages to this, but if over-applied, it limits us to research which serves the status quo rather than disrupts it.

Science is one of the places we can find hope when it comes to dealing with climate change. But it’s also, potentially a source of a lot of damage too. Protest camps at sites for possible exploration – as we saw at Balcombe – perhaps show activism moving further upstream than equivalent targets at power stations or airports. But a really forward-thinking protester might want to consider occupying Research Councils UK.