Monthly Archives: October 2011

Social scientists and trust in science

I’ll be talking at a Social Science Week event next Monday which asks how social scientists and government might work together to strengthen public trust in scientific evidence?

Times Higher Magazine are partnering, and asked me to write a short piece on the topic for this week’s edition. I briefly ask why social scientists would want to be “used” in such a way, as well as what exactly they might provide:

It is clear that scientists simply saying that they know best is not enough for social or political action – take vaccines, climate change, nutrition, drugs policy (pharmaceutical or otherwise), energy, badger culling, or even – to be retro for a moment – mad cow disease, for example. To have impact, the public must believe the science, not just have it delivered to them. Belief is a social process, and this is where experts on the social can have a powerful role to play.

I wanted to stress that some of us have been at this a while (see this short bibliography, and this overview/ introduction might also be useful). Moreover, the role of social scientists doing such work isn’t just to work out the most efficient method by which science might be passed on to the public. Social researchers working in this areas will take a good long hard look at science as well as this thing we call ‘the public’, and sometimes they will deliver up uncomfortable messages. They are not PR officers, and this is precisely what makes them so powerful (not that there is necessarily anything wrong with science PR…). If science wants public trust, it will have to earn it, and it may have to change itself a bit in the process, or at least be willing to listen to what others have to say (it might also learn and improve from this too…).

Still, a form of this argument could be applied back to social scientists too, who are perhaps not always as trusted as they could be themselves. Perhaps the social researchers should take a leaf out of the natural scientists’ book and try to improve their image slightly. As I conclude:

So my message to social scientists is: ask not just what you can do for science, but also what scientists might do for you. I’d invite any natural scientists listening in to see social critique as a useful part of scientific work too. Everyone in the academy should challenge themselves to consider how the many threads of scholarship can best work together to serve the public good.

I believe the event on Monday is fully booked, but apparently it’ll be recorded in some way (EDIT 10/11: here it is, on YouTube). I’ll probably say something similar to the Times Higher piece, but if you’d like to help me refine my views do please comment here – I’m very open to changing my mind on this.

S#*@ scientists say

A lot of scientists and science writers I follow online seem to be sharing a table outlining terms which have, apparently, different meanings for scientists and the public, as if it was some sort of incredibly useful resource.

Physics Today, October 2011, pp51.

It popped up on one of the American Geophysical Union blogs as well as Southern Fried Science who has extended the conversation with a googledoc. Then it got Boing-ed. I think the table has been taken a little out of context, lifted from a pay-walled article in the American Institue of Physics’ magazine, Physics Today. None of the people passing around this table seem to care about the basis for this advice. How did they learn that this was a meaning the public would take from a word? How did they test the ‘better choice’? This sort of questioning was my first reaction to the chart, and frankly I’ve been a bit shocked by the uncritical attitude approach other people have taken to it.

So, I dug out the article and although it covers a lot of what might easily be described as probably quite sensible media training advice, that is really all it is. It is based on the experience of the authors, which I’m happy to agree is pretty decent experience, but is still rather partial, not to mention unsystematic. That doesn’t mean the debate prompted by the table hasn’t been useful. I’m not disputing the idea that scientists use different language from other people. But scientists often use different language from one another too, or at least, one specialist will have a different set of terms from another. Moreover, it’s plain silly to assume all members of the public (whatever ‘the public’ is…) take the same meaning in all contexts. To take, for example, the 6th word on that list: ‘uncertainty’ won’t necessarily mean ‘ignorance’ to everyone without scientific training, all of the time. Let’s not be reductive about language, please.

I’m all for people reflecting on the multiple meanings of words associated with science, and for people sharing advice and experiences to help come up with a ‘better choice’. By all means think about terms, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is anything other than a bit of useful blah, please don’t take any of this as set in stone and please, please, PLEASE don’t generalise about the whole of science and the whole of the public as some sort of simple and discernible binary. Otherwise I’ll just start stabbing things. As that Physics Today argues (if you read it, not just blogposts…) climate change communication is worth doing well. Precisely because I agree with this, I want to stress that it is important that we keep in mind the specific context of our various utterances on science, and avoid the lure of too-easy generations.

Personally, I think we should be investing in detailed and rigorous social science on this issue. Although I do think a bit of general chatter is useful (if you are interested, do go and play with that googledoc), I also think it is worth more than that. It’s worth being clever about this. It’s worth being precise. It’s worth being evidence-based.

Who speaks for the trees?

Kapoor landscape Anish Kapoor sculpture in Kensington Gardens earlier this year.

I want to use this post to argue for the idea of the communication of science as a sort of public advocacy for natural objects.

That probably sounds more complex than it should. In many ways, all I mean is that I think we can think of people who share scientific ideas as telling stories about nature. I think hearing stories about nature is important. Science looks at things we wouldn’t otherwise see, and in ways we wouldn’t normally try; it shows us something new about the world. As some sociologists of science might put it, science’s networks of ideas, machines, methods and prior knowledge ‘transcribe’ new views of nature for us. Science uncovers stuff. That’s why we invest in it. These new views can also be politically important, or personally useful. Glaciers make for a good example. Or the impact of particular drugs on bits of our bodies.

Take glaciers: I’ve never touched or smelt one. I’ve seen them, but only ever mediated through photographs or film. I trust that they exist, though maybe that’s terribly credulous of me. I also trust things like the BBC’s Frozen Planet or Nature News’ special on the Arctic (though maybe less unquestioningly). I also appreciate them because I think it’s important to know about these big, cold, possibly-slightly-melty objects so many miles away from me because I also believe that I inhabit a world within which they also exist and am willing to believe that my actions may have an impact on them and they, one day, may impact upon me too. I like that reports like this keep me informed with information, but also because they remind me to think about objects like glaciers because, honestly, I’m a busy girl-about-town liable to get distracted by a passing pigeon/ NHS policy/ knitting patten. So, when Suzanne Goldenberg writes something like ‘It’s an odd sensation to watch a glacier die‘ she speaks up for the existence of the glacier and reminds me to think about it. Writers about more abstract science bring even less tangible natural objects to attention, as well as telling us about them: holes in the ozone layer, neurons, genes, quasicrystals. In a way, they bring them into public existence.

(People who communicate social science do similar work too, showing us stuff I suppose is there right in front of us, but without experts to take time, methods and sometimes even equipment to study, we wouldn’t necessarily notice. Isotype‘s visualizations of society en mass, as opposed to via individual perception, provide some good examples of this).

This might sound like a rather old fashioned view of science writing. Maybe it is. But it’s not born from a desire to go back to a golden age. The slightly clunky phrase ‘public advocacy of natural objects’ is deliberate, as I don’t come to this innocently assuming that science just tells you stuff to listen to. I am aware of the layers of belief involved here, and the degrees of uncertainty. I also think coping with a bit of belief and uncertainty is necessary to understand, predict and cope with life in the complex world we inhabit. I think science provides a point of view on the world which for all it’s faults aims to be the best which humans have, and can be a view worth sharing. As such, we might see some aspects of science communication as a form of public argument. It’s rhetoric (and that’s ok). I’d expect an advocate to go in ready to debate, ready to answer and provoke questions, not simply present a view, and to say a bit about how they know, as well as what. Maybe ‘advocate’ is the wrong word though: too political, more the role for campaigners? (Or maybe science communication should accept a campaigning role?).

I should probably say something as to why I’d bother even suggesting this idea in the first place. For a while, I’ve been a bit frustrated by rather dichotomous way many people tend to think about science communication: deficit or dialogue (read this ‘where now’ bit in this post if you want to know what that jargon means). I don’t want to argue against the critique of the deficit model or necessarily against public dialogue, much of which I see as A Good Thing. Neither do I want to retreat to an idea that before we have public engagement we must have public understanding (quite the opposite, if anything). I just think it’s limiting as a way of thinking. It also feels a bit like a 20th Century fight, and that we shouldn’t always be trying to foster debate about science.

(and yes, I have read Latour’s ‘From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern‘. I appreciate much of the above is not new)

Anyway, happy to admit this is a half-baked idea dreamt up on a bus ride to the pub which is probably totally wrong-headed. I’d love to hear what other people think though, I’m interested to know if I’m wrong in an interesting way.

Memories of kids’ environmental media

big old pile of dead tree media telling us to recycle

A small pile of dead trees.

I’m giving a short talk later this month about children’s science media and memory. I thought I’d pick up an idea I’ve been playing with for a while, and discuss memories of childhood and environmental media, and I’d like your help.

There’s loads of great material here. EDF Energy’s It’s Not Easy Being Green ad, “made entirely of recycled clips”, or the news of a Captain Planet movie in the making. Captain Planet is just one example of several green-tinged media products aimed at kids in the early 1990s. If you’re of the right age, you might also remember the Blue Peter Green BookUncle Jack or FernGully (great book on this, by the way). It goes back a lot further than this though. A strong thread of Romanticism has run through much of children’s fiction for centuries, often reflecting ideas about the natural world (see Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan on this). Mary Welsely’s The Sixth Seal (which scared the poo out of me as a kid) was first published in 1969. There is also a long history of non-fiction media on natural history aimed at kids which will, on occasion, overlap with environmental issues.

I often wonder if kid’s green media of previous era’s had any impact. I noticed Laurie Penny referenced childhood memories of FernGully and what she described as “traumatic colouring books full of sad baby seals and herons choking on plastic bags” (missed that one myself…) in a recent piece about a trip to the Arctic. In his book about children’s news media, David Buckingham cynically suggests a focus on environmental issues  is a way adults can put off taking action themselves: label it a kids issue and leave it for the next generation. I wonder if, now those kids have grown up, they are doing something. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they are just enjoying the nostalgia of the recycled clips on the EDF Energy ad.

Anyway, as a way of helping me think about this, I’d be interested in people’s memories of environmental media they encountered as children. On TV, books, films, in lessons at school, whatever. Whenever or wherever you experienced your childhood, and however you reacted to it. Do you remember the Blue Peter Green Book, FernGully, the Lorax, something else?  Did they worry you, bore you, inspire you, annoy you?

I’d love to hear your memories.  Do please leave them in the comments, and pass this post on to anyone you think might have something to share.