Category Archives: environmentalscience

Children, adults and climate change media

retro moment! (Blue Peter Green Book)

The picture above is of the BBC Blue Peter Green Book. Published in 1990, following the introduction of a Blue Peter green badge in 1988. Sponsored by Sainsbury’s, it also has a forward by Lord Sainsbury, who went on to become science minister for the Labour Government. I have a copy of this book* which I have used when teaching children and the green movement, and dusted it off my bookshelf last week when I had an email from Leo Hickman at the Guardian asking me asking about the new Green Santa show from cITV (trailer here).

Go read Hickman’s piece about this on the Guardian Environment blog, which uses the Green Santa programme to talk about the ‘volatile cocktail’ of combining children and climate change in some breadth. I’m quoted in the piece and added some notes in the comments thread, but thought it was collecting these thoughts here too.

Hickman suggests Green Santa could be the first time children’s TV in the UK has explicitly constructed an entire series around the issue of anthropogenic global warming. Maybe. There is  Captain Planet, but that’s American. I have some memory of a whole series of Nina and the Neurons on climate change issues last year (?) There’s also Uncle Jack from the early 1990s, but I can’t remember the details of (any?) science in this. Blue Peter‘s move to green issues in the late 1980s is worth noting, even if it was only a part of their content. There really was a bit of a wave of this around the early ’90s (great book on the subject by David Gauntlett).

Indeed, I wonder if the slightly ironic tone of the Green Santa trailer reflects the way in which a climate message has become a well-trodden ground in children’s media. It’s one of the ways I find Green Santa‘s tone very different from the more earnest Captain Planet (which because of the fictional element, we might otherwise compare it to). Chris Ryan’s Code Red series and Saci Lloyd’s Carbon Diaries as. These both start with protagonists bored by green stuff which is largely seen as a boring old worry of their parents and then, through their involvement in a new crisis, they can re-discover the issue for their own generation.

I also wonder about the role of nostalgia here. I think EDF Energy’s “it’s not easy being green” advert (‘made entirely of recycled clips’) is really interesting, especially as the girl speaking in it must be at least 30 by now. Nostalgia has run through the green movement since its origins, but this is generally nostalgia for some sort of (imaginary?) pre-modern age before we starting polluting everything. Nostalgia for something that is quite explicitly modern (even ‘late modern’) such as advertising or earlier iterations of an organised green movement is slightly different. Re-prints of children’s green books from previous generations are also significant here (e.g. 2009 version of the Lorax, below) suggesting a multi-generational culture at work here.

A potentially key difference about the 21st century examples: I’ve read some media analysis from the 1990s cynically arguing that directing environmental campaigns at children is just a way of putting the issue off for another generation to deal with. Today, I think increasingly we see children targeted as a way to get adults to think about global warming. The Observer ran a magazine cover story last year on children pestering their parents on environmental issues. We might argue that the DECC’s Bedtime Stories campaign is indicative of this adults-via-kids approach too (albeit an allusion to kids, rather than aiming at kids directly). According to the DECC, this was based on research on how to appeal to adults (though we might ask questions about this).

I’d love someone (me, given time and resources) to do some deeper research into this. The ethics, sociology and psychology of kids and climate change, including thinking about the role of children and childhood in adults’ lives. All fascinating stuff.

* I don’t, however, have a Blue Peter badge, green or otherwise. Yes, this is something I’m slightly bitter about.

The lorax loves trees

Science and FOI

Adam Corner and I have a piece It’s on Freedom of Information and science in the Times Higher this week. In fact, we’re the cover story. You can read it online, though the THE’s art work for the piece is a treat, worth the price alone (and the layout in the THE always makes more sense in print). You can also see Phil Batty’s leader on the topic, stressing that the academy is in the truth business so should embrace FoI.

Adam specialises in how the public treat climate science (see his posts for the Guardian) and our focus is climate science. As he pitched the idea to me, when it came to “climategate” it was often said that science was “asleep at the wheel” when FoI came calling, but maybe we could turn that question around and instead ask, was FoI legislation ready for science?

The answer, as ever, seems to be somewhere in the middle. Or at least, if FoI wasn’t ready for science, then we can argue that some fault lies with the scientific institutions, who could have played a more active role in the consultations over FoI in the late 1990s (i.e. they could have helped make the legislation reflect their needs better).

One of our key points is that science is a lot more than just the sort of ‘information’ you might be able to ‘make free’. To quote our piece:

The sort of knowledge that can be easily extracted using FoI requests is far-reaching but also inherently limited to information that is explicit. Numbers, calculations, reference lists – and, of course, emails – can all be placed squarely in the public domain. With enough of this type of explicit information, some aspects of the scientific process can be recreated. If you have someone’s raw data, you know the calculations they made and you can see their results, you are in a position to confirm or challenge their conclusions. But to what extent does this fully capture scientific knowledge?

Though we did also get and interesting comment from Jon Mendel, who argued FoI requests can throw up really interesting context you wouldn’t otherwise get. For example, everyday discussions between those working on a policy which Mendel suggests might provide a more “bottom-up perspective on how decisions are made and policies develop”. I thought that was interesting, though I’m not sure how broadly applicable it is (and I know climate researchers have views on the relevance of their emails…). I’d be interested to know about other peoples experiences of FoI – I have one blogged here.

If you have any other comments on the piece you’d rather discuss here than on the THE site, please feel free to (e.g. do you agree with our our conclusion that public engagement is the way forward? Or agree, but wish to elaborate on how?).

The known unknowns

I’m blogging from Cambridge; at the “Challenging Models in the Face of Uncertainty” conference. The focus is unknowns: be they known, unknown, guessed, forecast, imagined or experienced. I’ve heard Donald Rumsfield quoted rather a lot. There has also been  the odd reference how stupid we all are, the problems of a God’s-eye-view and, least we forget, black swans.

at conference

This morning started with a talk from Johan Rockström on his Planetary Boundaries framework. He quoted Ban Ki-moon line, that “Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss”, adding that we are accelerating as if we were on a clear highway, driving in easy daylight conditions when, really Rockström argued, we’re on a dirt track, in the middle of the night. What science can/ should do, he suggested, is turn the headlights on en route to this abyss. Rockström’s talk was very clear, with some neat little twists on diagrams and the odd metaphorical flourish.

Steve Rayner, in the audience, picked up on this and asked Rockström to reflect on his own ways of signaling authority when transforming his work into a talk for non-expert audiences. Rockström’s response was largely to list names of colleagues and more detailed work. In other words, Rockström didn’t answer Rayner’s question: he simply re-articulated the symbols of authority he’d been asked to reflect upon. Rayner wasn’t suggesting Rockström didn’t have an empirical basis to his work (or that his work was wrong), just that when communicating this work outside of science, Rockström inevitably relies upon rhetoric, and it’d be useful for him to reflect on this role as a rhetorician. But he didn’t, and this was just left as a question.

The second talk was from Melissa Leach. She emphasised the multiple narratives surrounding the sorts of issues discussed at this conference, be they connected to climate change, the spread of disease, GMOs, ash-clouds, nanotechnology, or some other novel technology. She argued that we have a tendency to close down or re-articulate narratives of ignorance, ambiguity, uncertainty and surprise and instead move to ones of “risk”. The sense of control and order risk-framed narratives provide is sometimes very helpful, but it can also be deluded, and shut down possible pathways to useful action. Leach argued that we must open up politics to pay due attention to multiple narratives; to question dominance and authority, to increase the ideas and evidence available to us.

Ok, but how do you do this? For example, we might argue that the internet provides a great opportunity for the presentation of such a multiplicity of narratives and, moreover, an opportunity for such narratives to productively learn from/ change each other. At times it does just that. And yet, science blogging can also be deeply tribal, climate blogging especially so (and, I’d argue, considering its history, understandably so).

This evening, was a public lecture from Lord Krebs, on the complex interface between evidence, policy-making and uncertainty. He outlined three key tensions in this interface, each illustrated with examples. 1) Scientists disagree with each other, e.g. over bystander effect and pesticides. 2) Scientists sometimes just don’t know, even when they develop elaborate experiments to find out, e.g. with badger culling. 3) Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the science says, the politicians will be swayed by other issues, e.g. alcohol. I enjoyed Krebs’ talk. He had some really neat examples and there were some good discussion in the Q&A. Still, I left uninspired and unenlightened.

Lord Krebs talks badgers

Today, I’ve heard a lot of very old and (to me at least) very familiar talk about issues in science communication. I’ve seen a bit of new data and collected some new jargon, but I’m yet to come across any new ideas. I’ve been told that people believe what they want to believe, that science and the perception of it is culturally embedded, that the so-called experts are often as misleading and as likely to mislead as the so-called public, that science and politics make uneasy bedfellows and, of course, that it’s all terribly, terribly complicated.

But I knew that. I knew that ten years ago. I want something new.

Maybe I’m being unfair on this conference. I admit I’m tired and in need of a holiday. Also,  interdisciplinary events are always very difficult to pull off, and it is only half way through.

Maybe tomorrow will surprise me.

Storm the Royal Society?

This weekend, I had a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site about open data and public engagement. I wanted to emphasise that a simple opening up of scientific data doesn’t work as a public engagement strategy. The people who can such data sets aren’t necessarily “the public”.

Not that an entity called “the public” necessarily exists anywhere much outside of rhetoric (but maybe that’s an another issue). My point is that simply allowing access to data doesn’t on its own open science up, or it only opens it up to a small number of people already pretty close to scientific work. I don’t think that this in itself means open data is a bad thing in terms of making science more publicly accountable. We do, however, need to think in detail about how we expect such data to be used (anywhere really, but for me, specifically when it hits a “public sphere”), especially its reach.

Even if we could get around all the pragmatic and ideological issues surrounding open access (and I’m so not getting into that hear), it doesn’t necessarily mean we’d all know what to do with it. Information, on its own, it is inert. It is what you do with it that counts. Opening data sets doesn’t necessarily unlock the craft of knowledge-making. Neither, in the context of climategate my CiF post was inspired by, does it make the craft of scientific work all that more “transparent.”

A couple of points worth expanding on:

1) Expertise

As Kieron Flanagan noted on Twitter, my comment is free piece had more than a whiff of Harry Collins about it. Harry Collins is a sociologist of science who focuses on expertise. An expert on expertise, if you will. He is keen to argue that expertise is “real”, that experts are people with special skills which often require large amounts of tacit knowledge, that is in some respects a craft. He also argues that expertise is distributed, and that we can distinguish between “interactional expertise”, where you might be able to “talk the talk” of an area of expertise and the “contributory expertise” of active practitioners of a field.

Some of Collins’ writing can be a bit dense, especially if you’re not used to a sociological approach to jargon, but a lot of his recent work on expertise is available online (so it is accessible in as much as you can download the papers, if not necessarily accessible conceptually). If you find Collins hard, or simply bothered to wade through, I guess it underlines my point that it can take time to understand the sort of complex ideas we generate today, and not everyone has time to learn the tactic skills and knowledge required to develop such understanding. This piece from Physics World (pdf) might help if you’re struggling for an introduction.

I don’t want to suggest I’m a fully paid up member of the Harry Collins fanclub. To provide full context, my CiF piece was inspired by an event at the Royal Institution, where Adam Corner had cited an interview he had done with Collins. I repeated the basic ideas on expertise articulated via Corner in the CiF piece because it helped me make a point about not being naive when it comes to how contemporary science works. Indeed, I said publicly at the Royal Institution event that I think it’s important to note that Collins’ approach to expertise is not an uncontroversial one, especially when it comes to thinking about science in public.

So, for a slightly different take on expertise in public, I can suggest these three reports from Demos: Public Value of Science, See-through Science and the Received Wisdom. If you want something a bit more scholarly, try Irwin & Micheal’s Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge. Or for more climate-specific points, I enjoyed Irwin’s Sociology and the Environment, and there is always his classic book, Citizen Science. The Demos reports are great starters though, and make substantive points in their own right. Accessible in more ways than one (influential and usable too).

2) Monitorial citizenship.

This is an interesting idea. My reference to it has already inspired one blogpost. If you want to read more, see Michael Shudson’s (2003) essay ‘Click Here for Democracy: A History and Critique of an Information-Based Model of Citizenship’ (chapter four of this book). Or, a more easily found overview of the idea can also be found in Henry Jenkins’ (2008) Convergence Culture, a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in online communication, especially around politics.

To give a brief summary here, Shudson argues our notion of an informed citizen is anachronistically rooted in the context of the last “information revolution”, that of the early 20th century. Then, idea that a voter should learn as much as possible is base on a time where access to information was opening up (mass-media, literacy rates, emancipation), but was nowhere near as open. Now we simply have more data than we can deal with: we are promised with everything, but in reality we can only manage a bit. Should citizens “follow everything about everything?”. Are those who don’t delinquent? “Or, in contrast, could they be judged exemplary if they know a lot about one thing and serve as sentries patrolling a segment (but not all) of the public interest’s perimeter?” (Shudson, 2003: 56). This is where the idea of “monitorial citizenship” emerges (think pencil monitors in school). Here, we each have bits of information, we are each knowledgeable in some particular issues, operating in a self-consciously large and diverse context of mutual trust and shared resources.

This idea is not without its problems, least if all how you get to be a monitor. Let’s still with the pencil monitor analogy: a teacher might pick such a person at random, but equally all sorts if classroom politics might be involved in such a decision. (I’m sure we all have childhood memories of injustice where Timmy got to hand out the new exercise books just because he’s the teacher’s pet). Pencils aside, many science bloggers have at least one if not three degrees in subject, and although each case is individual, all sorts of injustices when it comes to access to that sort of education. They were lucky to have got there, and probably had to put in a fair bit of hard graft too. Perhaps monitorial citizenship is another idea which relies on a more equal education system than we currently have. Still, I like it, it’s awareness of the distribution and necessary diversities of expertise is something I think is worth thinking about.

To sum up these two points, I’ll repeat my conclusion to the CiF piece, that I doubt a one-size-fit-all model will work when it comes to increasing public trust in science (climate science or otherwise). Although the idea of storming the Royal Society to take back science for the people might seem appealing, I fear it’d be a rather blunt weapon. If you really want action on science’s relationships with society, I suspect we’d be better served if we “act local”. By local, I should stress, I don’t necessarily mean physical space, I mean local in terms of specific issues or shared cultures. We must remember the sheer size and diversity of “this thing we call science”: its experts, its ideas, evidence, methods, materials, sites, equipments and its publics. For all that I think science should be shared as far as possibly, it only by small groups of people incrementally doing small things that I imagine much will get done.

Should science engage?

Gregory and Miller start their 1998 introduction to Science Communication, Science in Public, with the “new commandment from on high: Thou shalt communicate”. Twelve years on, we might re-articulate this as “Thou shalt engage” but Gregory and Miller’s tongue in cheek questioning of an enterprise we generally assume is A Good Thing is worth retaining. This is not to say public engagement with science and technology (PEST) is a bad thing, just that it’s a big topic and worth thinking about what we mean before we blithely go about doing it. I also wonder if recent events, such as climate-gate or the economic downturn, have changed our attitudes to science communication policy in the UK.

I was prompted to ask this at the Science Communication Conference last week. Specifically, I was struck by the difference between Jacquie Burgess’ talk, and a similar one she gave at the first of these conferences, back in 2002. I wrote a report on the event for CoPUS, and still remember her presentation in 2002 quite vividly (pdf here).

In 2002, Burgess was a Professor in the Geography Department at UCL, a world expert on the environment and society, she spoke calmly, authoritatively and with a refreshing amount of cynicism. She complained that the results of so many public consultations end up left sitting on a desk somewhere, that she (and moreover, the public stakeholders) were fed up with being involved in processes which go nowhere. Engagement sometimes feels like a lot of talk with little outcomes. She also said this:

“in the rather touchy-feely overcrowded field of public participation there are few processes that genuinely seek arguments”.

I remember feeling inspired by that statement, and it is one that has stayed with me. I am not sure it works in all contexts, sometimes a bit of agreement is better than an argumentative stance. Still, there is a place for a bit of a friendly squabble too.

At the 2010 event, Burgess is still a world authority on the environment and society, now Professor of Environmental Risk at the UEA. But she looked scared, quiet and nervous. Haunted almost. It could just have been the bad lighting at in the lecture theatre, but her whole message was different. She complained about the emotive state of public debate over climate change, especially in the blogosphere, which she likened to play-ground bullying (the mainstream press were criticised too though). Most surprisingly for me, she suggested that climate science, or at least parts of it, should lay low for a bit. They shouldn’t engage with the deniers (or “agnostics”, or anyone), but hide out for a while, keep out of sight until everything had calmed down. Even when the time had come for engagement, she suggested it might be best to avoid the internet, and instead spend time re-engaging with nature (she mentioned the Eden Project, Tim Smit had just addressed the conference). No actively seeking arguments now, it was positively “touchy-feely”.

A fair few people rolled their eyes at some of Burgess’ points, but I doubt they came from anything other than thoughtful reflection. I wouldn’t I agree with a distinction between internet and engagement with the natural environment. I’m drafting this on my laptop sitting in Gordon Square; if Wellcome’s wifi signal stretched this far, I’d use the web to check what type of flower is growing next to me. (NB: I very much doubt Professor Burgess applies naive nature/ culture/ technology divisions). Still, the UEA and it’s “climategate” is, perhaps, a special case. Maybe laying low for a bit is wise. Or, maybe because it’s such a special case there is even more reason to find a way to engage with various publics (argumentatively or otherwise). I don’t know. It is worth thinking about though.

To add a couple of other lines of caution over the worth of engagement, a lot of PEST work could be critiqued in the same way we criticise more old fashioned “top-down” science communication, that it acts to keep the public in their place. It may explicitly exist to connect people, but its very existence only acts to emphasise their differences. This in itself isn’t necessarily a worry, scientists and non-scientists are, afterall, different cultural groups. A more pressing concern perhaps, especially when the results of dialogue projects just end up on desks, that they act simply as a form of rhetorical hand-wave toward public participation. I was interested to read in the news this week that Brian Wynne had resigned from the steering committee of a government-commissioned public dialogue on GM Food, complaining it was little more than propaganda for the food industry. Perhaps the PEST project is just a way of making the public feel like they’ve done something so they don’t bother politicians by seeking out real social change. I should note that a colleague of mine, Sarah Davies, has written persuasively about what she calls “non-policy dialogue” in sites like the Dana Center. Again, I don’t know but I think the more cynical questions are at least worth asking.

There is also the very simple question of whether scientists are better off working on the science. Either leave science communication to the professionals, or perhaps simply don’t bother, if the public don’t want to talk or listen to scientists, why poke at them to “engage”? Perhaps we could all use our energies more efficiently. Recently, in a blogpost reacting to Martin Rees’ first Reith Lecture, Micheal Brooks suggested that the Royal Society should shift their emphasis from public communication and towards politics: forget fellowship placements for scientists to spend time working in media outlets, embed them in Whitehall instead. Young scientists should gain experience of politics and think about developing careers and influence there. I’m not sure I agree with the either/ or distinction here (in fact I disagree quite strongly) but it is an interesting point, and it is worth noting that the Economics and Social Research Council is very active in this area.

I have no answer to the question of whether engagement is a good idea or not. I suspect there are many different answers for many different contexts. I’d be interested to know what other people think. Have experiences of climategate or years of not-much-actual-action on PEST projects caused UK science communication to start to turn its back on the enterprise? If not, then at least are there times and places where/when science shouldn’t engage, and what are they?

Sociology of science, for scientists (with a note on going up bottoms)

Yesterday, in the middle of a twitter-debate about Steve Fuller, I was asked a question by Edmund Harriss: “Do you have book suggestions for scientists who want to understand science better through modern science studies?”

I gave a slightly rubbish answer at the time. It was a good question and deserved better, and this is my attempt at one.

Before I start, I should note that although I use a lot of sociology of science, my expertise is studies of science when it gets outside the scientific community. I’ve read Laboratory Life, but it’s my copy of Science in Public that is falling to pieces. My everyday work considers science as it exists in popular books, education, museums, the web, the telly, etc. If in my ignorance I’ve missed something brilliant, please do share it in the comments.

The first response is simply to say “it really depends on the scientist”. This isn’t just a cop-out. If my experience of the field has taught me anything, it’s that generalising about the big whole thing we call, for convenience, “science” is just plain silly. Generalising about “scientists” doubly-so. It’ll depend on individual taste, of course, but the larger point is that some of the best sociology of science focuses on very specific case studies. Still, there are a few general publications in this area:

  • Collins and Pinch’s Golem books (on science, technology and medicine). These are written specifically as accessible introductions to the social studies of science and feature a set of neatly written case studies. Personally, I find the attitude that you “need to know” their content to be “scientifically literate” somewhat patronising, but they are a good read if you are interested to know more.
  • The CBC series “How to Think About Science” (podcasts). This was my initial response to the question, and I’d stick by it. Though, as I said at the time, they are a mixed bunch and worth listening to sceptically. I should also note it is focused on ways to think about science, though there are some discussions of empirical reserach into science too.
  • An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, Sergio Sismondo. In some respects this is an undergrad introduction book (which will either appeal, or grate. It’s very clear though).
  • Making Sense of Science, Steven Yearley. Again, a bit of a textbook, but pitched a bit higher than Sismondo, with an emphasis on policy. It isn’t the most gripping read, but clear with some super case studies. For a slightly more cultural studies approach, see also Science, Culture and Society by Mark Erickson.
  • Science in Society, Massimiano Bucchi. Probably the shortest of these recent intro guides, but it covers all the key points. Some people find Bucchi’s style hard to follow, personally I think it’s very fluid in this text.
  • If it’s philosophy you really want, Alan Chalmer’s What is This Thing Called Science? is justifiably the one everyone suggests. If you’d like a more empirically-based answer to the “what is science” question, try Thomas Gieryn’s Cultural Boundaries of Science with its well throughout theoretical discussion and set of historical case studies.

Those are all very broad general sources though, trying to say things about science as a whole (even Gieryn, who’s book is largely a treatise on why you can’t easily do this). A few more specific works:

  • Firstly, I can recommend a couple of recent Nature articles about sociologists studying scientists at the LHC and biology.
  • My boss will kill me if I don’t mention his biology book, Thinking About Biology (more philosophy than sociology, but recommended, and not just because it’s by my boss).
  • If you are interested in environmental science, I think Mike Hulme’s recent Why We Disagree About Climate Change provides a very clear run through the social studies of the subject. I also really like Alan Irwin’s Sociology and the Environment, but it’s a bit heavier going.
  • I’ve generally avoided history of science here, because that’s a whole other long list (plus, much more accessible literature) but it’s worth mentioning the Revolutions in Science series.
  • If you are interested in science’s relationships with the public (especially policy), it’s worth having a look at the think-tank Demos. Their reports aren’t academic papers, but they do apply academic ideas and research and they are much easier to read than most sociology articles. They are also free to download. The classic is probably See Through Science, but The Public Value of Science and The Received Wisdom are heartily recommended.
  • If you have access to a decent academic library, have a browse of journals like the Social Studies of Science, Isis, Science as Culture, or Science, Technology and Human Values to see if any of the articles look interesting. Some will be hard to understand without an advanced degree in the subject, some will probably be, frankly, a bit crap, but they are probably worth a glance.
  • ADDED 2/7/10: Steven Epstein’s (1996) Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Simply, a really good case study. You’ll learn a lot about the history of AIDS, but also about the politics of knowledge in contemporary life. (I was reminded of it by this page of “science and democracy” book recommendations. All the others are worth a read).

Finally, I would like to defend what it sometimes seen as the crazy postmodern end of science studies. I read the Epistemological Chicken debate, where sociologists played a game of trying to out-relativist each other (and then discussed, at length, whether this was a good idea). I’ve even read the paper Trevor Pinch co-authored with himself (probably best not to ask about this). Both took a lot of concentration and prior-reading, and I doubt it’s worth the bother for most people. They aren’t going to be to everyone’s taste, but that doesn’t mean they are worthless. In fact I’d say my life and, moreover, my understanding of science, was enhanced from the experience. There are many other comparable life and science-understanding enhancing experiences available, and no on needs these specific ones. If you’re pressed for time, there are better ones. My point is that this is one of them. Moreover, my mind was not ruined by reading such works. I didn’t suddenly start to hate or distrust science (if anything, I like and trust it more). I’m not a climate denier, I don’t believe in homeopathy, I don’t stare at dogs. This is a larger issue topic than this blogpost though. If you’re interested, try chapter seven of Alan Irwin’s Sociology and the Environment, mentioned above. For now, I’ll just say yep, that Pinch and Pinch paper probably marks the point where science studies did disappear up it’s own bottom, but there are some absolutely fascinating things to be studied up bottoms for those willing to take a look.

museum sponsorship, climate change and the Smithonian


This video comes via a Treehugger piece on the Smithsonian’s new human origins gallery. That’s the new David H Koch Hall of Human Origins, as in “coal empire billionaire” David Koch who sponsored the gallery. The complaint made by Treehugger, Joseph Romm (the guy in the video) and some others being, simply, that this gallery’s depiction of human evolution is being used to peddle some rather unscientific ideas about climate change. Specifically, how much the climate has changed since the industrial revolution, and the ways humans have/might adapt to such change. To get an idea of their argument, just watch the video of Dr Romm at the exhibition.

Last week I blogged about Shell’s sponsorship of a climate change gallery at the London Science Museum, so thought it was worth flagging up this controversy from over the pond too. I don’t pretend to know nearly as much about the Smithsonian. Still, whether Treehugger et at are being fair or not, the controversy is interesting in itself. Googling from a desk in South London (e.g. see also write up in USA today, and the review and curator Q&A in the Washington post) it does look scarily as if the Smithsonian have managed to avoid having to even pay lip-service to Intelligent Design, only to have their story of evolution hijacked to relay a rather marginal approach to climate change science. It was also interesting to find this Washington Post story, from 2007, suggesting the Smithsonian had previously toned down an exhibition on climate change, fearing anger from Bush administration.

Whilst on the topic, I think it’s also worth flagging up this report in Nature on the rise in philanthropically-funded climate change work. They refer to a range of activities, including supporting academic research. Whether you prefer your climate science and climate science communication funded by charities or by the tax payer (and so, we might hope, also accountable to the tax payers) is an important question, one that probably reflects your own personal politics. Like many members of the British science community, I’m thankful for the existence of the Wellcome Trust but I’m also very thankful that the Wellcome Trust happens to be quite so awesome (for “awesome” read “run largely by people who happen to agree with me”).

The Nature news piece and Smithsonian controversy might seem very American concerns, but as the bulk of state-sponsored science communication in the UK goes into pre-election purdah, they are matters for us Brits to mull over too. As Christine Ottery has just blogged in terms of investigative science journalism “Heigh-ho: here’s to the future, here’s to new funding models”. If we don’t want people like Shell or Koch or the government bankrolling such work, who do we want to pay for it? Who will we trust, why, and how are we going to make this work?

Thanks to Scott Keir for the tip-off on this story.