Uncertainty (again)

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.

9 thoughts on “Uncertainty (again)

  1. mcshanahan

    As always, Alice, thanks for the opportunity for a thoughtful pause in my day. I’m curious though if there was more to the education discussion than educating publics vs educating scientists. I wouldn’t see issues of risk and certainly as something resticted in importance to only one or the other.

    1. alice Post author

      I wonder if this is an England only issue? For various reasons teaching issues around uncertainty have been connected to teaching “how science works” which has also been connected with teaching “science for public understanding” which in turn has been connected to not teaching how to be a scientist, and somehow “not real science teaching”

      This, in my view, is not productive.

      It may well be local politics though. I see few intellectual reasons why we *should* have such divisions. Personally, I think we should teach everyone to understand uncertainty in science – whether they are going to be a scientist or not. But that’s the way the patterns largely sit in England at present.

      p.s. much of my MSc dissertation was on this – bit out of date now, but happy to chat about it more.

  2. mcshanahan

    Ok, that makes sense. Certainly that view exists here but I wouldn’t say it’s in the majority. The discussion in Canada (and I would say the US as well but I would say it with less certainty…) has been that teaching about the nature of science is important for all students. Historically (and into the 90s) I think the idea was tightly connected to public understanding and scientific literacy for citizenship but since then it has become a central part of most curricula. I wrote a little while ago about some materials I found from the 60s and 80s on the topic from the Alberta Teacher’s Association Science conference . Generally it’s an idea that many recognize as important. It’s in the implementation that things get more complicated.
    Very cool to hear that this was the topic of your MSc – I would definitely like to hear more about it.

    1. alice Post author

      I remember that blogpost – enjoyed it! For some reason the sci lit end of the curriculum seems to be placed in opposition to BS detector lobby – I think it’s to do with placement of sociologists in the debate, a sort of hang-over from the bloody science wars. There were also a few not very helpful statements by people like Harry Collins.

      MA dissertation was in sociology of education and looked at the politics behind the introduction of a course called “Science for Public Understanding” and general attempt to re-position sci ed in UK running off from the Beyond 2000 report. I interviewed a few of the educationalists involved to get a feel for how and why they’d tried to invoke curriculum change – and it covered a sort of (I’d argue unhelpfully constructed) dichotomy between training scientists and science for public understanding. Was back in 2004 though – but I might do a blogpost sometime in the new year thinking back on it.

      1. mcshanahan

        “Was back in 2004 though – but I might do a blogpost sometime in the new year thinking back on it.” Yes! – I think that would be really interesting.
        Thanks for providing that contextual information. I hadn’t quite realized how polarized the debate had remained in England. Aside from a very few exceptions, science education issues don’t even register in the general public discourse in Canada (something that of course has both positive and negative effects…)

  3. Alison

    Thinking back, I realise we didn’t really spend much time discussing what on earth we meant by ‘risk and uncertainty’ – is this about the confidence limits attached to particular results, or the fact that science is constantly evolving, or is it about discussing riskiness and tentative research findings? My gold-plated scientific evidence can be risky in someone else’s eyes: take the safety of the MMR vaccine, or the safety of eating GM soya, or the evidence for climate change. Evidence for experimental cancer treatments, though, can be highly uncertain.

    Perhaps explaining the process of drug discovery and commercialisation might communicate uncertainty quite well.

    It was a good discussion, although personally I’m frustrated by these round table exercises.

    1. alice Post author

      I guess we didn’t get into those meanings of risk and uncertainty. Beck does, I suppose, and there are bits of that in the Lords report. I’d also say risk and uncertainty is framed in a particular way in that report because of BSE (and Beck has framing from sociological ideas of modernity, as well as history of green movement). Drug discovery would provide a v different view, perhaps(?).

  4. Hilary Sutcliffe

    I have been wondering recently what the plethora of ‘science’ programmes on TV has done in terms of building understanding about science and its applications. You may not consider Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab a science programme, or Brian Cox quite as good as I do, but there have been many many programmes (it seems to me as a non-scientist!) exploring different areas of science, applications, people – I think many around the Royal Society’s anniversary. Though many are documentaries or daft stuff like the Blast Lab they still position science as a mainstream part of TV.

    I would be interested to know if they have had an effect on understanding of acceptance of science, but certainly see that ubiquitousness as an important component of getting science understood and to the massess.

  5. Pingback: links for 2010-12-15 « Science Training for Journalists

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