Science: weighing the public’s shit since 1666

A couple of weeks ago, I attended three lectures on science’s relationship with the public in the space of four days. Even for me, that’s a bit dense.

  • Simon Schaffer‘s Science Museum’s Centenary Talk on Science for the Public. Schaffer is Professor for the History of Science at Cambridge, and much of his talk was rooted in the 17th century.
  • Martin Rees‘ first Reith Lecture for the BBC, part of a series of talks by Rees (President of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal) on the theme ‘Scientific Horizons’, this focused on science’s relationship with the citizen.
  • A seminar from Brian Wynne hosted by my department at Imperial, reflecting on his now seminal sociological study of post-Chernobyl Cumbrian soil (e.g. this 1992 paper).

This blogpost was just going to be a write up of Schaffer’s talk, but they were so close together, I couldn’t help connecting the three. So this is largely historical, but with a bit of sociology and reflection from a senior scientist thrown in too, and some general thoughts on ignorance, knowledge and weighing up of public shit (both metaphorical and actual).

NB: I apologise, quite seriously, to anyone who objects to the word shit. It’s the only one that really lets me work the metaphor, so I’m keeping it, but I do apologise to those who dislike such terms.

Schaffer’s talk took place in a makeshift lecture theatre set up, very fittingly, outside the museum’s George III Gallery and Launch Pad interactive space. He started with a reference to Douglas Adams, specifically the imaginary labour saving device, “The Electric Monk”. Just as washing machine saves you the labour of scrubbing and wringing out clothes, the Electric Monk would solve one of the main problems of our time: the trouble of believing the incredible. We have all, allegedly, become doubting Thomases: we no longer trust people the we should. We are too incredulous to science. In an age of miracles and demons of science and technology, wouldn’t it be lovely if there was a machine to produce public belief?

Schaffer’s main point, however, was a warning against amnesia or nostalgia when thinking about science in society. He did not like the idea that we have “become a bit bolshie recently”. A particular target was a recent Guardian interview with James Lovelock:

“We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say”

Schaffer argued against a mythical time where we revered expertise in a way we no longer do. To hark back to a less cheeky age is, he argued, simply forgetful. It is lazy nostalgia, and wrong. For example, look to Gillray’s 1802 sketch of Humphry Davy at Royal Institution: plenty of fart jokes and satire here, but little deference. If anything, Schaffer went on, our problem today is a new proliferation of experts, there are so-called “experts” in anything and everything. We have lifestyle experts instead of DIY. We live in society that constantly defers.

Schaffer then went on to argue that in making science public, our culture has made very different publics for and with science. If you are ever in London, the difference between the George III Gallery and Launch Pad is indicative of this. He pointed us to the famous Joseph Wright painting “An Experiment on a bird in an air pump” (1768), which draws your attention not only to the eponymous experiment, but a variety of public reactions: revolution, amazement, caution, curiosity and disinterest. Thus, in some respects this painting is less a representation of a birds in air pump and more a representation of publics when science is done in front of them. He also mentioned a painting of a man who collected air pumps, a layman who choose to be represented surrounded by scientific apparatus. Here, Schaffer suggested, the aim was to imply this man should be trusted/ respected because he owned science. Perhaps, though in much smaller ways, some publics ‘patronise’ science in a similar way today too?

Another of Schaffer’s key points was the way in which the public are often articulated as quite passive participants in public-science. Schaffer’s example here was, in his own words “shit and eyes”. To start with the shit: In mid-17th century Florance, there was some debate over antimony versus rhubarb as a laxative. So the powers that be rounded up 50 members of the general public, locked them up and monitored them: measuring, weighing and recording their “outputs” in every way possible. On to the eyes, which are slightly less straightforward. Still in mid-17th century Florance, an aristocrat wanted to test Christiaan Huygens’ observations of Saturn. He collected a set of publics “men off the street” who were not familiar with astronomical theory, standing them at one end of a long gallery and placing a model of Saturn illuminated by moving lamps at the other (to simulate the sun). These lay participants were then asked to draw what they saw. These drawings looked like Huygens’ results, which helped convince people of its validity. Here, as with much medical testing, the ignorance of the observers was something which to be celebrated, it became part of a rigorous scientific method as the lay observers wouldn’t be as biased as “expert” scientists. Such an approach might be strong methodologically , but it does keep the public out of the loop somewhat. In the class structures of Schaffer’s 17th C Florence, it is more easily read as exploitative, but arguably, even today there is a thread of public science which requires lay participants remain ignorant, institutionalising a need for stupidity. There is, Schaffer suggested, a rhetoric of the celebration of ignorance which runs though much of the history of public science. It runs against a lot of other rhetorics of public science – those of the greater dissemination of knowledge and learning – but it is still there, and should be remembered.

Schaffer’s next example of public science was Sir Charles Vernon Boys, a physicist who taught H G Wells at Imperial. Boys was known for his bubble research, so at this point Schaffer stepped aside and gave the stage to one of the museum staff to do mini version of their “bubble show”, which culminated with putting Schaffer inside a giant bubble. Public science, Schaffer noted with a grin as he got out of the bubble, can be a lot of fun. He quickly moved to end on dark note though, showing us another image of bubble science, this time from a test at Los Alamos. Demonstration, he noted gravely, is a military term, it’s a representation to others of one’s own strength. Indeed, Schaffer had previously explored the theme of public experiments as a “trail of strength” (e.g. Otto von Guericke demonstrating the power of vacuums with teams of horses trying to separate hemispheres). The demonstration of science to the public can be a way of showing off science, or at least cleverness, as powerful: one man (the expert) with air pump against a team (the public). At times, Schaffer suggested, science for public can at times look a little like science against the public.

Schaffer’s cautionary conclusion: we should not let our ideas of science in society suffer from either amnesia or nostalgia. Science has been weighing up public shit since 1660, both metaphorically (i.e. repsonding to a lack of public deference) and literally (as the public are passive subjects for experiments). We need to remain aware of this, as a lot depends on public science in the 21st century. Further, with a nod to reality television and “some forms of democracy”, Schaffer warned that we should be careful of any celebration of ignorance. Whatever that ignorance is of, over-deference and lack of critique (a complacency over expertise) is not a productive form of science in public.

It was with these words still echoing in my ears that I took my seat at Martin Rees’ Reith Lecture on “Science and the Citizen”. This will be broadcast by BBC radio on the 1st of June, so you’ll be able to it for yourself. Reflecting Schaffer’s preoccupation with the 1660s (or rather, Rees’ preoccupation with the Royal Society’s 350th birthday), he started off by emphasising that the scientists of late 17th century London were important not just for being experimentalists, but doing so immersed in the practical agenda of their day. The classic example of this being the role Royal Society fellows played in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Rees then went on to argue that we ask more questions of science today. I didn’t feel that this was necessarily the lazy nostalgia Schaffer was getting at. It’s not a sudden cheekiness Rees was talking about, out that we have greater access to information to ask questions with. Moreover, unlike Lovelock, Rees largely argue that such scrutiny should be welcomed. Indeed, one of Rees’ final conclusions was in many respects similar to parts of Schaffer’s, that ignorance is an impediment to public engagement, whether in science or other areas. We shouldn’t let a desire to spread scientific knowlege obscure widespread ignorance in geography or finance. We should all try to know more and reflect on the use, worth and basis of the knowledge we have.

Brian Wynne, on the other hand, had a more diffuse sense of ignorance. It was ignorance of science, by scientists as well as publics. There was lots of ignorance going around his story: Farmers, Scientists, Politicians (groups that all pointed figures of ignorance at, and within, each other too). In particular, I was struck by a point Wynne made about a ‘lost’ bit of research, a Nature paper from the 1960s which could have been more constructively applied. The question had ceased to be active, so the research had ceased to be funded, and so, due to the practice-based nature of science, the research ceased to be used and was forgotten. All of this, I should emphasise wasn’t some sort of playful critique of science from outsider. Something worth remembering about Brian Wynne is that he has a PhD in materials science from Cambridge. In some respects, this showed in his talk, he spent quite a large chunk of time on the physical processes involved in his case study, there were a fair few graphs and one of his final points was summed up with an equation. However, he wove the more scientific knowledge of the natural world in with knowledge of cycles of farming business. I’d say, that was partly the point. Wynne was as equally strong on a diffuse sense of knowledge as he was on scientific ignorance. When he spoke to farmers in the 1980’s, he continually found them telling him about Windscale in 1957. Such a long cultural memory, Wynne underlined, is evidence based in its own way.

Back to Schaffer. One of his most interesting points was, inevitably, in the questions. He was asked about Einstein and way the uncertainties of “the new physics” had an impact on public confidence with scientific certainty. In response Schaffer argued that Einstein’s importance as icon of public science was less relativity, and more that he was the first to produce a paper where everyone was told “this is entirely true and yet most of you will never understand it”. This reflected a new relationship between science and the public for an age of specialisation and more extreme peaks of expertise (arguably, a seminal moment in our contemporary obsession with trust). This, perhaps, is the main reason we might need Adams’ Electric Monk. Maybe we already have them; we all have to believe quite so much in order to get through the day.

How much you believe the relationship between science and the public has or has not changed in the last 350 years, I think Schaffer’s points are still worth thinking about. Science has been “weighing public shit since 1660”, whether that’s because the public shout back at them or because so much research has been embedded in solving the practical concerns of the day (“blue skies” or not). Personally, I still hope for constructive debate between the various gaps and differences of knowledge and ignorance. I suspect there is a long history of productive collaboration if we look for it too. Still, the shit and the petty showing off (on all sides) is there, it runs deep and is likely to remain so. It’s worth keeping an eye out.

2 thoughts on “Science: weighing the public’s shit since 1666

  1. Nico

    Very interest post and a good summary Alice, thanks. Would you care to point out the mysterious Nature paper from the 1960s you mention? I work there and would love to give it a read.

  2. Alice

    Nico – sorry, no I didn't note it down. Lost forever more :) Brian Wynne would know though, I'm sure if you emailed him he'd give you the bibliographic info.


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