I’m blogging from the Science and Citizenship Conference. It’s being held partly to mark a ten year anniversary of the Lord’s report on Science and Society. Much of the programme was based on workshops considering key theme’s in the report. I took part on one about uncertainty and risk, and thought it was worth sharing my notes.
We started off with four key questions. Is it a new problem? To what extent are journalists to blame? To what extent are scientists to blame? What can we do to make it better? What can we all do to improve things?
We passed back and forth through various reasons why the issues of risk and uncertainty might be new, and then in turn why they are not. For example, I played the annoying “I once did a history of technology course” card that many of the fears about online media could be seen at the introduction of public libraries (the printing press, paperbacks…). Instead, I suggested maybe we have a growing intensification of activity and awareness around issues of rick and uncertainty.
In many ways, the things were were saying reflected ideas Ulrich Beck discussed in terms of ideas of the Risk Society, decades ago. As I grumbled a few months ago, the debate is an old one. That said, one of the reasons why Beck makes for an interesting example is his discussion of an increasing awareness not only of uncertainty, but the various contexts behind such uncertainty (which in turn can make us more uncertain as we seek new certainties, part of Beck’s notion that “modernity has become its own theme”).
We all seemed to agree that there was a lot of uncertainty in science and that this should be discussed openly with non scientists. We went through the various reasons why we might blame the media or scientists for not communicating such uncertainty, before critiquing ourselves to then defend both groups. For a while we seemed to pour blame on the education system, arguing that school science needs to think more about how to best prepare future-publics (rather than just training future-scientists). Though I agree school-science is important and could be improved, playing who’s to blame isn’t especially productive and I’m not sure it’s realistic to pile too many expectations on the shoulders of an education system.
One participant mentioned a line from David Willetts – that in a society which is fragmented and uncertain, scientific evidence gives you something you can all agree on – and argued that this actually puts a huge pressure on science. It’s easy to say “yay, the science minister likes science”, but the scientific community should think about what they are are being offered here. When talking about who might be to blame, it was suggested that science holds some responsibility for being seduced into a political and media system where they are asked for certainty. That science from WW2 onwards might have seemed over-confident, but if so, it was because it sold a confidence back to people who (unfairly) asked it of them. It was also suggested that sensitivity over climate change denial is making things worse, with people defensive over the authority of science denying uncertainty. Again, it’s worth asking who’s hands are the scientific community playing to if they try to claim undeniable certainty?
(I don’t know, maybe climate change is another issue with it’s own context, and maybe working in a context with “merchants of doubt” means it’s necessary).
I’ve heard Willetts use that line too. As I argued at the time, in some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with the warm glow of science. I just don’t think science tends to work like that. The very “scientific way of thinking” Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate. I don’t think this is a criticism science, if anything it’s a celebration: the capacity for debate and sense that there is always a possible black swan around the corner is one of the things I like about science.
And solutions? There were the arguments about education. Perhaps predictably, “dialogue between journalists, scientists, members of the public and politicians” was mentioned, though, again predictably, we didn’t seem to have time to talk about how. Other suggestions included more standup maths shows, and citizen cyber-science. There was also some discussion of the advantages of citizen science projects in helping people feel ownership of science in some way – so science doesn’t seem like a project done by “those other people”. An interesting point was made with respect to work in Kenya; that science is sometimes seen as a Western thing and it’s been important to communicate that science can be African too. As one participant put it, this is perhaps “engagement through a sense of appropriation”.
For me this boiled down to another key word in that Lords report – trust. As Demos said back in 2004, an emphasis on risk and uncertainty is arguably a consequence of engagement happening too late in the process. If you want to build trust, you have to start early.