Tag Archives: web

Troll Below? Science policy below the line.

troll

Some streetart on a bridge in Dublin

I have an essay in James Wilsdon and Rob Doubleday’s collection: “Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall” (downloadable for free). It’s an invitation for the various greats and goods of science policy to not only use social media to promote their ideas but to “go below the line” and listen to the public there too. I know such listening is problematic – I’m not about to try to rehearse all the problems here, they exist and are generally very specific to the people and cases involved – but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

There’s a shorter version on our Guardian blog, or here’s a preview of the full thing:

We should ask what we want openness to mean online, what forms we want to invest in, and how this should be organised. There is a lot more to open science than simply open access. Indeed, a preoccupation with the latter as a solution to social ills may well be a way of avoiding dealing with the former. Further, how we choose to finance and manage forms of open access is far from straightforward. Whilst politicians, scientists, publishers and learned societies argue it out, the #icanhazpdf hashtag is gradually whittling away at current publishing models (used so people looking for paywalled papers can find those with institutional log-ins who are willing to be generous on their library’s behalf). Scientists may feel persecuted by activists, especially if they engage in debates over climate change, alternative medicine or animal rights. They may also feel that when work flows into ‘social media’, even more of their private lives are being taken over by work. Online interaction can be tiring.

A related issue is whether the public can be trusted with science in the open. One might, for example, feel pleased when the Science Media Centre manages to keep a story out of the press (as when I heard senior scientists cheer in the case of a story about GMO food last year). Alternatively, one could follow the lead of the Cancer Research UK news blog which accepts that stories they don’t agree with will get published, but uses the more open spaces of the web to put extra context out there, hoping those who care will find it. One recent piece of research argues that the ‘incivil’ tone of web comments can derail evidence-based public debate on science, technology and especially environmental and health issues. For all that I can personally relate to this (having uncomfortably found myself being incivil myself, as well as at the receiving end of incivility), such calls for polite behavior online leave me uneasy. Complaints about ‘tone’ are too easily used to quell dissent. Words like ‘troll’ can become a proxy for what is, at best, disagreement, and worst, class hatred.

It is now 18 years since Bruce Lewenstein suggested a ‘web model’ as an alternative to top-down ideas of science communication in his study of the cold fusion controversy. This networked view seems almost too obvious today, as gross a simplification as the deficit model. But it contains an important message that is increasingly hard to ignore: the simple messiness of scientific discourse. Although neater debate has its uses, especially in policymaking, that doesn’t mean we should aim to tidy it all up. This mess is how we build capacity for more coherent exchanges, build trust, learn and digest. It is also where people can show dissent and support for science, both of which are important. We should be wary of being too spooked by the incivility or apparent lack of expertise online. As science policy debate bleeds onto social media, we shouldn’t be scared to take a dip below the line, and take some time to look and listen. You never know what we might find.

For personal reasons – and partly to make a slightly tongue in cheek point – comments are closed for this entry.

Playing games with science

When you are angry, how do you respond? Do you (a) vent it there and then, (b) read, (c) work out (d) tell yourself there are way more important things to get annoyed about than a bloody Find Your Spirit Animal Facebook app from Greenpeace (which the above screen shot is from) and wonder off to do something more useful, but still let it bug you for months and months so eventually you combine it with a load of other petty grumps and write a ranty column about it?

I choose (d). If you have an iPad and live in the UK you can read it in Popular Science UK magazine. If not, it’ll be up on their blog soon, and I’ll edit in a link here when it is.

It’s not the silliness of the idea of a spirit animal which annoys me, it’s the lack of attempt to engage audiences with any knowledge about the animals this app is meant to be promoting the preservation of. I don’t want to pick on Greenpeace though, it’s not like they are alone in applying a rather limited approach to digital “interactivity” (perhaps better call it “activity”, interactivity requires space to listen). Have a go at Energy Ninjas and Richie’s World Of Adventure, for example. A recent Greenpeace campaign even neatly parodied how patronising this sort of content can be, with Angry Bergs. Plus, we’ve been rather bluntly “gamifing” science for a while, way before the web: This one’s from 1804.

I’m tempted to argue that we shouldn’t turn science into games because the rules are always up for debate; we should be discussing and unpicking those rules instead. But that’s a bit simplistic. I think there are ways games can be used well in science communication, and are (the Pop Sci column references some more inspiring examples). Still, I want to see them taken more seriously as a medium for sharing, doing and exploring science. I want to see games that work to connect players with data and invite get them to do creative things with it; games that listen as well as educate. I want to see more ambition and more respect for audiences.

Science, a people thing

On friday, the European Commission released a teaser video for its new campaign to recruit young women into science. As their press release says, they were concerned that stereotypical images of science were putting girls off studying the subject and wanted to show science as “a girl thing”.

Shall we just say they didn’t handle it very well? See, for example, coverage of outrage at Wired UK, the TelegraphNaturethe Washington Post and New Statesman. It’s hard to describe how bad this is. Watch it for yourself:

As many people pointed out, they simply replaced some stereotypes about science with a few other more, rather painful ones, surrounding gender. I think they’re still working from a rather narrow view of science too and this is annoying because both “science” and “girl” are categories that should be kept open for interpretation. Science isn’t a girl thing. Or a boy thing. Or a white thing. Or a posh thing. Or an old people thing. Or an atheist thing. Or a geek thing. At it’s best, as Deb Blum says, science is a people thing.

A short video trying to present the whole of science to all European young women was always doomed to crapness. Rather than getting PR people to sit in a room and guess what girls think is cool (or even asking a few thousand and then coming up with a bland composite / generalised idea) the EU should treat young people and scientists as individuals and invite groups of them to talk to each other. As I’ve argued before, the I’m a Scientist project is a great example of this, showing a broad range of everyday researchers and the day to day frustrations and excitements of scientific life. I also like the way I’m a Scientist aims to give some degree of agency to young people. Just because science education is about sharing the expertise of previous generations with the next doesn’t mean kids have to be simply spoken down to. Science might be a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants, but that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss which giants’ work we want to build on, or know where we’re going to take any of this.

So, if you feel the need to wash your eyes out with soap after watching the science girl thing vid, try watching these instead. See how young people can be the people doing science, communicating it to others and challenging sci/ tech policy:

  1. How a 15 year old became involved in cancer research (winner of the 2011 Google Science Fair).
  2. Three girls get excited by the Leidenfrost effect (winner of the 2010 IoP Best SciCast Physics film).
  3. An 11 year old’s short film about shale gas (winner of a “Have Your Say on Sustainability” contest, she then went to Brussells to address MEPs on the topic).

The lazy sexism of the science girl thing video was annoying, but really I filed it with my (depressingly large) set of examples of crass science communication projects which patronise young people. Stop trying to find ways to repackage science and instead invite people to be part of it. Let them find out what they think is inspiring for themselves. If it would relinquish some control, grown up science might even learn something from young people.

Being noisy about science

Here’s the podcast for an event on the sounds of science I chaired at Charles Darwin House last week.

The inspiration for the event was mainly just that I like making a noise. I also like listening to podcasts and I quite like science too. Moreover, I think that the noises made by and about science bring out some of the texture of scientific work, and let us reflect upon the stories we tell about science (things I think are worth doing).

Our panellists covered audio-storytelling about science from polished BBC documentaries about instruction manuals (really, it’s great: go listen) to slightly rawer clips of spaceships launching (listen, put the sound up and watch your room shake). We also had an oral history of engineering, podcasts on Swine Flu for doctors to listen to in the bath and a bit of electronic music fashioned from the sounds of Tottenham Court Road.

For me, the best bit came near the end when the audience started sharing memories of sounds made in the course of scientific work. Someone mentioned the way biochemists learn the art of recognising the right sound of a centrifuge when preparing cultures. One audience member mentioned the noise of telescopes (and you can hear this lovely Guardian podcast for some more on this), another shared her aural memories of working in anesthetics (there is a documentary in the sounds of surgery, I’m sure). A historian shared an amazing story about an artist he’d met who’d done some work on atomic weapon research sites, where she wasn’t allowed to take photos or write anything down but was (surprisingly?) allowed to record sounds. So she’d recorded the sound of the centrifuge which still gave a strong sense of place. I also remembered some stories of the history of atomic science, when it shifted from looking for particles to listening to traces of them, and young scientists would be employed because they had good ears rather than eyes and early radio enthusiasts had helped develop the technical kit required to do this research (this is only a sketchy memory of a talk from Jeff Hughes I once heard, sorry if I’ve got it wrong).

I’ve been listening out to sounds around me ever since; thinking about ones I take for granted, finding new ones.

EDITED TO ADD: via David Pantalony, on twitter, a great STS paper on listening to laboratories (pdf)

Context context context

Context context context. It’s what the mainstream media’s reporting on science always lacks, isn’t it? It’s the oft-repeated line ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that’ which media critics such as myself can grump about from the cosiness of their ivory tower. Context context context: Easy to say, but hard to provide?

Context context context: Easy to say. For example, our content analysis for the BBC Trust’s review of impartiality and accuracy in science coverage (blogged about earlier this week) highlighted quite hand-waving descriptions of scientists’ roles and work, with a reliance on phrases such as ‘scientists have found’ and ‘experts say’. We also noted little exploration of experimental design, and that it was very rare that the funder of research was referred to. We worried that many reports relied on a single viewpoint or paraphrased alternative views, and the lack of explicit reference as to whether or not a contributor was involved in the research being reported (i.e. independence was hard to judge).

Context context context: Hard to provide? A journalist can easily, and quite fairly, reply to calls for more context with the argument that readers do not care. Of course the big wide world is more complex than depicted in the mass media, but a large part of a journalist’s job is to simplify this world, and that inevitably means losing some context. Personally, I think there are still ways journalists might rethink the traditional patterns for telling stories, and I expect professional journalists of the calibre working at the BBC to be imaginative and thoughtful about what parts of stories they choose to provide (and I know the good ones do, and that they are constrained in a lot of their work too).

One of the things we coded for in the study was if a piece pointed the audience to other information: the chance for people to find out more if they wanted to. This didn’t have to be online links, but would often be. We noticed it was rare that the broadcast news items ever explicitly directed viewers to the BBC website for further information about science items. In the online news, there were automatically generated links to other BBC reports on similar topics, but only 21 items (16%) included links to other BBC reports within the body of the text. However, almost 90% of online news items included at least one link to the source of the story, such as the laboratory where the research was carried out or the journal where it was published, but 70 items (54%) included no links to other external sources. So, over half of online news items the reader is not offered opportunities to find further information relevant to a science story other than that provided by the source.

Blogs in particular offer the opportunity of linking to other sources and, by enabling journalists to “show their working”, may help make visible the process of reporting too. Some of the BBC reporters’ blogs we looked at made use of this, particularly those of Jonathan Amos and Richard Black, but only one of Tom Feilden’s blogposts in our sample period contained any in-text links to sites other than the Today programme. Blogs also allow journalists to post longer quotes from sources than the edited versions included in broadcast reports, include links to other sources of information that the journalist has used to build their story, or track unfolding stories (as with the Guardian’s Science Story Tracker). However, we found few examples of this type of usage in the BBC blogs we looked at.

Like much of the content we looked at, blogs were more likely to mention benefits of scientific research than risks (eleven of the 27 unique postings cited benefits compared to just two mentioning risks). It seemed to us that as with a lot of the online science content (and science content overall), the blogs located science as a ‘good-news’ story where science provides benefits to society and is rarely the source of any risks. As with any of this, you may well be able to dig up an example or three to argue that the BBC blogs are ‘anti-science’ in some way (and this singular examples may well be very important, perhaps even because they are singular) but looking at our sample as a whole, this was not the picture we saw.

We saw a range of ways of using the blogging form amongst the science and technology reporters that blog for the BBC. Some reporters took the chance to contextualise news stories they have reported on (Richard Black), or to offer a more personal take on a story (Fergus Walsh). Others would trail upcoming items (Susan Watts), to summarise/ repeat a news item in another site, or describe related research (Tom Feilden, Jonathan Amos). Potentially, adopting a personal voice raises issues with respect to the BBC’s impartiality (there are editorial guidelines on this), although we found no evidence in the blogs we looked that it had actually compromised impartiality in action. If anything blogs can also offer a space to address questions of impartiality and accuracy when they arise though. We found a lovely example of this from Rory Cellan-Jones, where he reflected on an report for the BBC One News at Ten, saying he should have been he should have taken a more sceptical tone, and also took the chance to quote at length the scientist’s defence of the research.

You can find more details of this study in the full report (opens as pdf) especially pages 33-38.

As I’ve written before, the placing of a link is a rhetorical and, as such, creative process. Thinking about what you’ll link to, how and when (and when not to) is a challenge I personally adore when I write, and one of the many reasons I find writing online more professionally fulfilling than print. It really doesn’t seem to be used enough though, or thought about as much as it could be either (n.b. this is a general grumble, broader and looser than the BBC Trust study).

So, I guess for now I’ll keep banging on about ‘context, context, context’, knowing it’s hard for journalists to provide it but hoping they continue to try to be as imaginative and proactive as possible in facilitating connections between the information that is out there and those members of their audience who are interested to find out more.

Towards a multigenerational debate about science

Last week, I was supposed to be one of the speakers at the World Conference of Science Journalists, part of a session on reaching younger audiences. For various reasons (some including ambulances…) I didn’t actually get to give my talk. This post is a linked-up version of what I would have said. The images are screengrabs from an old website, Planet Jemma, which is discussed near the end.

One of the rare bits of research on young people and online science media was conducted back in 2004 by some communication researchers in Florida, published as Attracting Teen Surfers to Science Web Sites in the Public Understanding of Science journal. I know it’s old work, but it’s their attitude I’m interested in here, not the primary data. They concluded that attracting teens to science websites can be difficult because when teenagers do go online, they do so for social interaction and entertainment, not to be educated. They seem to be a little disturbed by this, or at least see it as a problem to be managed.

I don’t think they should be disturbed though. I think they should be excited.

Let me give some background. In recent years, much of the discussion about the public communication of science and technology has focused on what we might broadly see as a shift from a top-down model to a more distributive approach; models which stress the need for scientists to listen to the public, and the role of public-to-public communication in the construction of ideas about science. Many science communication professionals now see their job as facilitating conversations, not providing ready-made polished stories (see this post for more on that).

It is rare, however, that we see this approach followed through when it comes to work with young people. The idea of ‘discovery learning’ was briefly popular in the late 20th century (put kids in a classroom with a load of science kit, let them discover it for themselves). However, as many educational researchers pointed out, this is rather naive: it only works if we actually believe scientific research comes from such uncomplicated, quick interaction with physical entities. In reality, science teachers accommodated students’ results that did not fit the expected outcome. They were demonstrations, not experiments; activities wrapped up in a rhetoric of discovery. Additionally, when young people are asked to debate science policy issues or ethics in class – as we see increasingly English science curriculum – this is seen as a rehearsal for democratic engagement in later life; the kids aren’t going to be listened to as kids.

This shift from providing polished stories to facilitating conversations isn’t unique to science communication. Developments in media technology and cultures surrounding these have led to changes in the way journalists consider the people formally known as the audience; changes I do not need to repeat here. There is also a specific debate within children’s media about the history and politics of adult-to-child narration. It should be remembered that so call-ed ‘children’s media’ is usually given to young people, not produced by them. Even writers aiming at a ‘child-centered’ approach will draw on memories of their childhood which may well be out of date and framed by adult worries. David Buckingham, riffing off Jacqueline Rose, talks about a form of generational drag; adults acting as if they were children, based on an adult conception of what a child is.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing science across generations. Indeed, we might think of science as a generational activity, and the lengthy time frames of science is something I think we need to acknowledge. But we should also be aware of when exactly younger people are asked to speak rather than being spoken for, how much freedom they have, and how often they are listened to.

I will now briefly introduce a few examples of UK science communication websites aimed at young people, before offering two conclutions.

First up: SciCast. Here, children are invited to make short films about science and share them. There is a competition for the best ones every year, and they have a big Oscars-style awards do (finalists announced last week). There are some gems on the site: do go and have look. Let’s not pretend it is unmediated kid-to-kid communication though. Kids are drawing on the ideas of adult scientists, some of which are long dead too. They are also using adult-made media technology, and I’m sure some videos were lead by parents or teachers. It’s also a competition, judged by adults, so kids work to their idea of adult expectations. But I don’t think it pretends to be adult free either. Indeed, the project invites adult professionals to leave feedback, and gives feedback itself, because they see this as a productive part of the process.

Secondly: I’m A Scientist Get Me Out of Here. Scientists are put in zones with four others, each zone is matched to a set of schools. The scientists introduce themselves with a profile, and then the school students ask them questions. It runs for a bit over a week, and adopts the loose structure of reality TV show; the scientists get voted off daily so they compete to give good answers. Here the kids do not produce content, but rather lead it with their questions (and the content is sometimes slightly scrappy forum post answers from scientists, not carefully constructed literary prose). The questions are diverse – about the scientists as people as well as factual – as are the scientists who are everyday working researchers rather than the super-star presenters you might see on TV, and the project is proud of the way it communicates a sense of how science really works. Another key point to stress about I’m a Scientist is that the questions are not always resolved: a lot of scientists simply reply with ‘I don’t know’ (see this post and comment thread for some discussion, as well as this video made by one of the contestants).

SciCast and I’m a Scientist are unusual though. Most science media for young people is made for them, not by them. Moreover, although some may offer forms of interaction, it is worth questioning whether this is interactivity or, more simply, ‘activity’. So here’s my third example: Energy Ninjas, a science computer game developed for use on gallery at the Science Museum, which you can also play online. It has a loose narrative, though you have some control over the order. You move around a city, pick a site to enter and watch the Energy Ninjas chastise people for their carbon consumption. Where you choose to click will have some impact on your route through the game, but it won’t impact on the structure of the game itself, or even change the outcome of any loose story it contains. What you as player choose to click on certainly doesn’t get fed into science, or science policy.  It’s reasonably standard as the genre of these mini-science games go. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we should be aware of the limits of user involvement here.

Finally: Planet Jemma. It’s from 2003 and not online anymore (edit: a demo version is now up), but I think it’s fascinating and so worth sharing with you, so I’ve included some screengrabs the developers had archived, and there are some reviews online (this is interesting, and do see the comment thread includes response from developer). There’s also a Guardian article about it. This tells a story of Jemma a physics student in her early months at university, though emails sent to you as if you were an old friend from back home. You learn a bit of the science she is learning, but also about her life at university. The emails you get relate to where you’ve clicked on an associated website which includes videos and photo stories. Think of it as database-driven personalised narrative. This is a very good example of adult writers aping kid-to-kid discussion (see earlier point about ‘generational drag’). However, I should stress this was 2003. I’m sure the developers would have loved to have brought more of the actual teenage audience into making the story rather than just being the recipients and characters in it, something which is simply easier to do now. I’d love to see a project of this level of imagination and narrative complexity run today, but with the various technological and cultural resources we now have available.

Conclusion one: We should be honest about generational issues at play here. Don’t pretend to be providing a child’s voice when it’s an adult’s one, be aware of how adults are framing, possibly curtailing, children’s interactions with science (and why – they may have reasons for doing so). We should also be honest about the age of scientific content discussed with and by young people. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with young people talking about old ideas, or using old ways to demonstrate them (in some ways, it’s quite exciting that people back in the 18thC did similar tricks to demonstrate science that we o today), but I do think we should be honest about this long history, even aim to explicitly pull it out. Moreover, rather than looking at communication patterns as just top-down or side-to-side, maybe we need to think about co-constructed multi-generational media; both in the construction of content, and its audiences.

Conclusion two: there are a host of projects getting kids to work with scientists, even to be involved in the scientific research. Why not get kids doing science journalism, with science journalists, too? Why not get science journalists doing ‘outreach’? Yes, there is SciCast and some projects to get schoolkids scienceblogging. My mother told be me about a science radio project in North London in the ’80s. But why not more of this? Moreover, why not include the more probing critical work of professional journalism? Kids can do more than explainers. I think this would have a number of educational benefits. Moreover, just as scientists doing outreach is sometimes (cynically) seen as serving the scientific community as a form of promotion for their profession, maybe is science journalism is under threat as a profession, maybe doing outreach could help promote youselves? And, just as scientists often say they learn a lot from working with young people, maybe science journalists could learn something too.

You want to reach young audiences? Stop thinking about them as ‘audiences’, and involve them.

Avoiding the magic fact machine

It was Universities Week last week – a campaign to highlight the impact of higher education institutions on UK individuals, communities, culture and businesses.

One of the projects rolled out for the event was the web-based ‘FactShare Generator‘. If you happen to like car-crash science communication, go and have a play. Otherwise, I don’t want to dwell on it. It is suffice to say UNIVERSITIES ARE NOT BLOODY MAGIC FACT MACHINES, and that it made me angry enough to write a piece for Comment is Free, where I tried to take the more positive track of celebrating a project I do like: I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here.

UCLA picture of a man made of stone, in a university. It is SYMBOLIC.

I’m a Scientist probably sounds terrible. It’s not. It pitches teenagers’ questions against groups of scientists (amazingly diverse, cheeky, surreal questions too). Importantly, the contestants aren’t the super-star scientists you see on TV. They are everyday workers, and because the questions are not just factual queries, but about the scientists’ lives, the project provides a sense of science on a day-to-day level. Most of all, it’s striking how often scientists reply with “I don’t know”. It’s not in a dismissive way. If anything, it’s said with excitement. Not knowing is a source of inspiration for a lot of scientists.

This point about being able to say “I don’t know” is, I think, really important, and I was pleased to see it pulled out in the comment thread. However, also in the comments Scott Keir posed a challenge:

What I haven’t seen on I’m a Scientist yet (though I will keep looking), are the researchers answering a question and then saying, “and what do you think?” In some ways, that’s a similar model to the magic fact machine – the researchers have the answers. So contestants, if you’re reading this, please try asking what the questioner and other students reading it think too. I’m prepared to bet that sometimes, it’s the students that will have the better answers.

I know a few of contestants took on this challenge (see also this response from one of the mods). Still, it’s a good challenge, and a continual one.

I’d add a smaller challenge of my own: contestants should try to be imaginative in the resources they send students to with links. Or find ways of encouraging students to find resources for themselves. There’s a lot of linking to Wikipedia. When I worked on a science website for schoolkids back in 2001-3, I’d always challenge myself to link to something other than the BBC. I knew that if someone was interested and googled, they’d find and trust the BBC link anyway. As a writer, I wanted to be able to give them something else. Obviously, I link to the BBC if it was a really good page worth sharing, but I always have a good dig first. I now instigate the same personal rule with Wikipedia.

The challenges raised by I’m a Scientist aren’t just for the contestants though. Reading through some of the blogposts written by contestants – Tom Crick, posted yesterday, Paula Salgado and Stephen Curry from last year –  I’m struck by how much work it involves. This is on top of all the other things they have to do as professional scientists. They are all also keen to say quite how much they’ve learnt and how much they feel they’ve contributed. There’s a great comment under Tom’s post from another contestant, saying how much she learns from the other scientists in her zone, and I love the bit in Paula’s piece about how emotionally invested she became in the experience, and why. So, yet again, the question is how can we find (more) ways to make this sort of work part of a scientist’s job, not just an add-on?

Moreover, what other projects can we run that open up universities to outside questions? What other projects might be able replicate the sort of discursive work I’m a Scientist (at its best) provides, but for people other than schoolkids? What other projects might invite the public to learn from universities, and also allow universities to learn from the experience too? Brightclub? Cafe Scientifique? Something a bit more subversive…?

Whether you have an answer, or just another question, do let me know what you think.