Monthly Archives: October 2010

Anti-quackery underpants

Something ticked off the lifetime to-do list: I have managed to get the words “anti-quackery underpants” into a scholarly publication. An encyclopedia. This encyclopedia. It’s page 586 of volume two, if you’re interested, part of the entry on Popular Science Media.

anti-quack underpants

It’s these underpants I’m referring to; the ones sold via I noticed recently that SciCurious has just gone into merchandise too, including underwear. This is just a funny and recent example, my broader point is that the popularisation of science exists across a range of platforms and is something (at least some) people like to buy.

The term “popular science” is a bit weird. We might take it quite strictly as a category of contemporary bookselling (i.e. the sign above Dawkins and Hawkin at Waterstone’s), but historically the term means a lot more than that. It has a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with both scholarly and popular media, and in a way, is quite explicitly neither. As such, it can be quite slippery to pin down, but as I attempt to define it in the encyclopedia entry, popular science is:

science to be consumed in our free time, largely for personal rather than professional reasons. It is science for fun: to experience the wonders of nature, learn more about an issue which is important to you, on a friend’s recommendation, or simply because a piece of promotional material caught your eye.

The underpants example help demonstrate the way in which popular science may exist on a range of media platforms, but also how inter-connected popular science media is. It spins-off from one format to another (and has done for centuries): blog to book, magazine to blog, museum to magazine, book to toy, live show to toy, toy to museum, museum to book, documentary to live show, book to documentary, documentary to book, live show to book, book to blog, blog to underpants.

I also wanted to use the underpants to emphasise that popular science as something audiences enthusiastically buy into. People queue round the block for science, they sell out the Royal Albert Hall, they sign petitions because of it. Ok, so we might argue that it’s still a very limited group that do such queuing/ buying/ signing, but science has its fans. Again, this has been going on for centuries. I think this is important to remember this. Scholars in the field often conceive of popular science as if it exists largely to let science show off; that it only invites non-scientists to play so as to reinforce a boundary between those clever professional scientists and everyone else. Read thus, one would wonder why the audiences of popular science would bother. And they clearly do bother. And they come back, again and again. And they buy branded pants (and calendars – the weridos). We might argue that popular science does still patronise it’s audience through it’s very existence, but audiences seem to feel they are getting something out of it too

(For the academically minded, I’m referring to the slight difference between Hilgartner’s take on the subject and Fyfe and Lightman‘s. Personally I both apply and take some scepticism to each of those approaches, and in addition like to fold in Bourdieu’s approach to cultural consumption).

My encyclopedia entry is nothing especially profound. It’s a basic primer. If you are interested in the topic, the entry’s list of recommended readings includes:

I also wrote the Communicating Science to Children entry. Obviously, everyone should read that too because <irony> it’s seminal stuff </irony> but I’m aware this encyclopedia is a couple of hundred quid (it’s very much a publication for libraries). I have a paper from 2008 on a similar topic you can download for free (pdf).

The piece on children doesn’t mention underpants, though you can read my blogpost on poo and kids’ books or purchase pro-MMR bibs along with the anti-quack pants from the Bad Science store.


Engaging audiences: rethinking “difference”

Steam power

I’m blogging from the Co-Curation and the Public History of Science & Technology conference at the Science Museum (picture is of an exhibit)

Saturday’s programme started with a “provocation” (or keynote talk) entitled “New Ways to engage people” from Andrew Pekarik of the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis.

Pekarik is an exceedingly smooth speaker. He rolled off lines about the need to not only “see difference” in audiences but also “be that difference”: to embody such difference within the curatiorial team. To “See it, be it, and then use it too”. To use this difference in content, but also use it in determining display. Moreover, they need to follow this all up by testing the difference. That such testing should be about checking a team’s work, but also a way to identify new differences. As Pekarik concluded, this should become a continual cycle; one that is more important than any step individually.

All lovely sounding stuff, but what do we mean by “difference” here? What of the many possible differences are they looking for?

Answer: between “people people”, “object people” and those who are more “ideas people”. Pekarik noted most curators aren’t really “people people”, they are drawn to the job precisely because they like books and objects, and talked enthusiastically about a process of bringing in “people people” from other areas of the museum. For me, such a categorisation of “people, object or ideas” “people” didn’t ring true. Moreover, it seemed like a distraction from more important differences (class, ethnicity, gender, age).

A couple of senior Science Museum staff picked up on this in questions. One suggested that these three categories are just a 1st step which ends with 2.7 million forms of difference (i.e. as in 2.7 unique visitors). Another flagged up the difference between those who like hands-on experiences at museum. She also raised concern over Pekarik’s starting point of asking people about their most meaningful museum experience. What about people who never have museum experiences? How do you capture those who don’t already like you?

We didn’t have time for my question, but I wanted to ask whether he was still worried about class, race, age, gender, etc. Would he, for example, think about putting children in a curatorial board? I don’t necessarily mean to argue that we should categorise difference in such a way. Indeed, we might argue that limiting ourselves through these sorts of (equally reductive?) audience categories. Maybe another way of conceiving of diversity of audience is useful. It’s also worth underlining points several people made on twitter: however we choose to think about difference, identity (a) is always fluid and multiplicitous and (b) can be changed by the experience of visiting a museum (indeed, people might go to museums to be changed).

I’m sure that interesting work has come out of Pekarik’s sense of difference, and I love his point about the need to consider this as an ongoing process. Still, I worried that it’s a bit too abstract, a bit too devoid of social context (though maybe he’d say I’m just being too much of a “people person”…). Personally, I felt more comfortable with the notion of “community curation” discussed later by Karen Fort from the National Museum of the American Indian. I suspect this sort of approach captures the social and cultural diversity museums I’m worrying about and, in the process, will probably end up covering the differences Pekarik was playing with too. Similarly,  we heard about some very open and exploratory ways of involving audiences today – Denver Community Museum, Wellcome’s Things and London ReCut – I suspect there are all sorts of “differences” captured by these too. Also relevant, I think, was Nina Simon’s challenge to think about how a busy museum could, in a web2.0 sense, help make a museum better (not just break exhibits). Projects like these seemed like genuine attempts to involve more viewpoints than just those already held by a museum. In contrast, Pekarik seemed to be working from a point of view where the museum retained the power to frame and articulate its audiences.

Maybe he’s right to though. Maybe we want museums to talk to their idea of us rather than integrate audiences in the very fabric of their production. Maybe I’m just stuck in the 1980s with a focus on Big Social Issues like class. Or, maybe when it comes to communication projects, we need to think about what we have in common rather than what sets us apart; areas of similarity, not difference. (Maybe that’s just another distraction).

ADDED 25/10. At the end of the final day, Elizabeth Anionwu from the Dana Centre’s African-Caribbean Focus Group argued she shouldn’t have to be there: the  museum shouldn’t have to go to a special focus group for that sort of perspective, it should it be part of conversations happening already. It should be woven into the infrastructure of the museum.

I couldn’t agree more. I heard the line “but the Science Museum is this great big oil tanker of an institution, it takes ages to change” three times over the course of the weekend. I also heard complaints that I heard 10 years ago when I first started working there. And complaints about problems from the 80s I only learnt about in my history of science degree. It’s time to decommission that bloody oil tanker. The museum is, at least in part, its staff. The crowdsourced grass-roots innovative bottom-up change people were banging on about at the conference applies within the institution too. Don’t like it? Do something.

Science blogs (Eureka)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific “importance”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

inside Eureka

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