Category Archives: events

Being noisy about science

Here’s the podcast for an event on the sounds of science I chaired at Charles Darwin House last week.

The inspiration for the event was mainly just that I like making a noise. I also like listening to podcasts and I quite like science too. Moreover, I think that the noises made by and about science bring out some of the texture of scientific work, and let us reflect upon the stories we tell about science (things I think are worth doing).

Our panellists covered audio-storytelling about science from polished BBC documentaries about instruction manuals (really, it’s great: go listen) to slightly rawer clips of spaceships launching (listen, put the sound up and watch your room shake). We also had an oral history of engineering, podcasts on Swine Flu for doctors to listen to in the bath and a bit of electronic music fashioned from the sounds of Tottenham Court Road.

For me, the best bit came near the end when the audience started sharing memories of sounds made in the course of scientific work. Someone mentioned the way biochemists learn the art of recognising the right sound of a centrifuge when preparing cultures. One audience member mentioned the noise of telescopes (and you can hear this lovely Guardian podcast for some more on this), another shared her aural memories of working in anesthetics (there is a documentary in the sounds of surgery, I’m sure). A historian shared an amazing story about an artist he’d met who’d done some work on atomic weapon research sites, where she wasn’t allowed to take photos or write anything down but was (surprisingly?) allowed to record sounds. So she’d recorded the sound of the centrifuge which still gave a strong sense of place. I also remembered some stories of the history of atomic science, when it shifted from looking for particles to listening to traces of them, and young scientists would be employed because they had good ears rather than eyes and early radio enthusiasts had helped develop the technical kit required to do this research (this is only a sketchy memory of a talk from Jeff Hughes I once heard, sorry if I’ve got it wrong).

I’ve been listening out to sounds around me ever since; thinking about ones I take for granted, finding new ones.

EDITED TO ADD: via David Pantalony, on twitter, a great STS paper on listening to laboratories (pdf)

Identifying arguments in climate science

George Bush used to say, in his generous way, that the science [of climate change] is uncertain. But it’s an almost content free statement because science is about uncertainty.

Lord Oxburgh FRS, Imperial College, 30th January 2012.

That quote comes from a debate on climate science in the mass media we held at Imperial last week, part of the pilot science in context course I’m working on. You can find a podcast of the debate at the college media site.

Oxburgh chaired the event, with a panel comprising of Louise Gray (Environment Correspondent, Telegraph), James Randerson (Environment and Science News Editor, Guardian), James Painter (Reuters Institute, University of Oxford) and Joe Smith (Open University), along with questions from our undergraduates.

A couple of students and tutors later told me they felt the panelists were too similar, that there wasn’t enough ‘debate’ and they’d have liked to see a climate sceptic. I take that point, but also disagree with it. There was, if you listen carefully, a fair bit of diversity within the discussion. It wasn’t one side vs. the other, and just because the panellists tended to be polite and smile and nod at each other didn’t mean they were all coming from the same position.

It’s worth reflecting on how we identify a ‘debate’ here. Debates do not always have to be a battle of two opposing views. Personally, I’d say that’s often the least productive sort of debate you can have. They can also just be a group of people playing with a particular issue; a matter of chatting to gradually identify problems and reflect on possible answers. Indeed, this question of how we structure and spot the debate within climate science was a key topic of this particular event, as it was in our previous class, with Brian Hoskins.

James Painter started things off by stressing there are many types of uncertainty involved in the public discussion of climate change, including many types of scepticism: ‘there are many ways you can question and be uncertain about climate science’. Drawing on his Poles Apart report, he suggested four types: people who are sceptical that global warming is happening, those who a sceptical that it is due to human action, those who are sceptical about aspects of climate change’s impact and people who are sceptical about specific policies.

James Randerson followed with a different track, noting the stretch of the issue with reference to an extraordinary letter to the Guardian from the medical community, calling for more transparently on climate lobbyists. Louise Gray offered another topical case study: the diversity of coverage of a recent UK government report on the impacts of climate change to the UK: the Guardian focused on the burden to poor where as the Telegraph noted possible opportunities for the tourist industry (you can google for yourself to see what the Mail said). As Gray argued, newspapers will have different frames for how they read climate news based on the editors’ ideas of their customers, a point underlined by Joe Smith later when he stressed the way we all bring our own cultural ‘baggage’ to climate change debates, and plugging Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

For his presentation, Joe Smith argued that in many ways climate science makes for a rubbish story in the mass media. There is simply too much of a consensus: too many of the experts agree, what really is there to report? He said he used to think the consensus on climate change was a good thing, but it does make it unreportably dull, which is why the contrarian views get pulled in, to liven it up. There isn’t enough of an edge, maybe we need more of an edge? Gray echoed this in discussion, saying we should pay attention to more of the ‘dodgy things’ going on around climate change – subsidies, inefficiencies of NGOs – that the real stories are less about sceptic vs non-sceptic and more about who is doing the right thing, how and when. Randerson and Oxburgh seemed slightly more cautious of Smith’s call for more arguments, laughing ‘careful what you wish for’ and noting the ways a stronger sense of disagreement plays in the US and Australia. I wonder if that misses Smith and Gray’s point though, which to me was more of a call to open up the political edginess of climate change policy. It was about the disagreements at the end of Painter’s typology of sceptics: debate over what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening or why.

For me, this was summed up in a comment from Gray near the end of the evening: ‘there’s a lot of heat and fire around a few sceptical people, but maybe that is the wrong focus’.

Maybe you disagree though.

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

Science and its spam filter

Yesterday, I was part of a panel entitled ‘Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries?’ at the Science Online conference. You can see an abstract for the panel over on Marie-Claire’s Shanahan’s blog (scroll down to second half of post).

My talk spoke in quite general terms about science and social boundaries. I did this using an analogy I’ve stolen from David Dobbs; a spam filter.

Cast your mind back to the ‘Great Arsenic Bug Saga of 2010’. If you can’t recall the details, I can recommend Ed Yong’s link-filled timeline of the story. In terms of the point I want to make, all you need to know is that some scientists criticised a paper by a team of NASA astrobiologists. Some of these critiques were voiced on blogs. When asked about the critique, a spokesperson from NASA was reported as saying ‘the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers’. Instead, they’d keep to ‘scientific publications’.

David Dobbs blogged about this statement from NASA, suggesting it was a call to ‘pre-Enlightenment thinking’. Later, he told the Guardian Science podcast:

I got a lot of reactions saying ‘you can’t just open this process to everyone or there’ll be a rabble, you’ll spend all your time arguing with anti-science people and so on’. Well, you’re trying to have a spam filter here, right? You’re trying to draw a circle within which trolls can’t come in and dominate the conversation. I guess to an extent that makes sense, but you don’t want to draw a circle that boxes out legitimate scientists like Rosie Redfield.

I love this analogy. In some respects, science has always had a spam filter. On one side there’s a commitment to free debate, on the other side there is frustration with those who are seen as at best time-wasting and at worst, mendacious. Science has always sought to break, or at least not be limited by, social boundaries. At the same time science has always needed these boundaries to, and benefited from them.

Another analogy which can help us think about this issue is that of a map. This one I’ve stolen from sociologist/ historian Thomas Gieryn. In his book The Cultural Boundaries of Science, he argues that rather there being one, singular essential criteria for what makes something scientific, this thing we call science is the consequence of many different declaration of boundaries which, over time, have helped define what science is and what it is not. To quote Gieryn in more lyrical mode:

Mount Science, located just above the town of Reason in the State of Knowledge, which is adjacent to the States of Fine Prospect and Improvement, across the Sea of Intemperance from the State of Plenty, all this on the other side of the Demarcation Mountains from the towns of Darkness, Crazyville, and Prejudice, and the islands of Deaf, Blind and Folly (Gieryn, 1999: 6. See also pages 8-9 for actual map)

A Gieryn stresses, this is ‘not idle play with Venn diagrams’ (Gieryn, 1999, 12). Just as a map provides a traveler with physical directions, such ‘cultural cartography’ for science is used as shorthand when faced with a range of practical decisions (e.g. do we get a flu vaccine; is a hybrid car worthwhile?). Modern society is rooted in the advantages of specialist knowledge. We can’t all be specialists in everything, so we have to rely on trust, something Gieryn’s metaphorical map aims to capture.

Gieryn talks about ‘boundary work’; the active process of producing symbolic boundaries which our location in cultural space. We all do this all the time, and it’s not always intentional, neither is it necessarily malign. Educational researcher Basil Bernstein also wrote about the importance of symbolic boundaries back in the 1970s: the positioning of furniture in a classroom to emphasise the authority of a teacher, curriculum divides between subjects, the use of language or cultural references which some children understand but may be lost on others (Bernstein talks about this in terms of social class and the perpetuation of social inequalities through education).

One of the things I like most about the cartographic approach is that maps articulate shared space as well as boundaries. I think it’s worth emphasising that community and exclusion can be  two sides of the same coin. Jargon and in-jokes are nice examples here.  Jargon can provide precision for those who understand, just as it confuses those who do not.  An in-joke makes you feel left out if you are on the outside of it, but can be a lovely expression of friendship if you understand it.  Most importantly though, in-jokes and jargon are good examples of types of boundaries we can put up without realising it.

Keeping to communities we already know is tempting. It’s sometimes said that the various long tails of online communication allow us to surround ourselves with people who agree with us: self-curated bubbles of cozy agreement. This can be useful. It lets us network with others who have similar tastes, interests or worries, allowing us to share skills and information, to build movements (see also my London Science Online talk on ‘the science vote’). Interaction in niche groups can also be rather limiting. In his great book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins compares this to ‘choosing to live in red states and blue states’ (yep, sorry, another geographical metaphor, Jenkins, 2006: 249). Jenkins goes on to argue that we tend to join web communities for recreational interests rather than political ones. So, by hanging out at, say, a knitting blog, you might engage in discussion with someone of a different political viewpoint from yourself, a different religious one, or cultural, generational, professional.

We might argue that the science is one of these recreational interests, and so still suffers from people opting in or out of it. I honestly don’t know how this effects science blog readership. I suspect it varies. I’d like to stress, however, that one of the great things about Gieryn’s cartographic approach is that it helps us view this thing we call ‘science’ as rather heterogeneous in itself. Science isn’t a bubble, it’s a field teeming with diversity.

Moreover, science in all its diversity looks at a load of different topics, in a load of different ways, for a load of different reasons, many of which will have some non-scientific link to peoples lives (or at least non-obviously-scientific link). Another term I can offer you from sociology/ history of science: ‘boundary objects’. This refers to items of shared space that several different groups can – simultaneously – use, spend time with, be attracted to, and find meaning in. Locating this sort of shared space is something I suspect a lot of science writers aim for, or at least science writers who want to draw new audiences into science. Star and Greisemer, who’s paper on Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology I take this term from, note the active work that often has to go into making something shareable. For example, they suggest libraries as an example of spaces built to deal with problems of heterogeneity: ordered piles, indexed in a standardized fashion so that people with a host of agendas can use or borrow from the pile for their own purposes without having to negotiate differences in purpose. Boundary objects do not always simply offer themselves nakedly, and I think that’s an important point.

Star and Greisemer also reflect on the problems of working in shared spaces. They refer to people who have feet in two cultures and stress that managing multiple identities can be volatile and confusing. Such people may resolve these problems by denying one side of their identity, oscillating between worlds, or by forming a new social world composed of others like themselves (Star & Giesemer, 1989: 411-412). None of this is easy.

Boundaries are an unavoidable part of social life. They are useful, and they are limiting. We need to be as clever as possible about them: to keep an open and enquiring mind about who might be on the other side of a boundary; to be careful of accidentally building them and inadvertently seeming standoffish or snobby. We all have spam filters, and we’ve all nearly missed some great email or blog comment because of them. The trick is to keep an eye on them.

The brain: the new weather?

What’s with the brain these days? This was the question Steve Woolgar started off a conference on Neurosociety, held at the Saïd Business School late last term (see also my post on STS and the Bernalian nightmare).

Why do we increasingly seem to feel the need to explain, plan and sell with reference to research to neuroscience, or at least with allusions to such research? Why do we ask questions of what we can know, what we must do and what we may hope couched in terms of various transcriptions of the brain? Are we living in a neurosociety, or at least moving towards one?


Drinks for sale at my local corner shop

It seems that neuro is the prefix of the day, perhaps interchangeable with ‘e’ or ‘information’, or similar hype over the idea we are living in ‘the era of the gene’. Or perhaps, neurosociety could be a development of such previous technoscientific epochs: arguably, much discussion of the brain stems from worries about digital culture, and is couched in genetic terms. Whether we see ourselves through the brain, our genes, or the technology we use, the central object we take as a figure of human behaviour seems to have changed slightly over time. Is the heart next?

(Perhaps illuminatingly, no one seemed to reflect on the prefixes of ‘big’ or ‘no such thing as’ for the word society. We largely stuck to science and technology framings)

Jonathan Rownson of the RSA was one of the many speakers to argue that the brain has become an object that brings people together, it functions as a social device to get people together to talk. In STS terms we might, very loosely, call it a ‘boundary object’. As Rownson put it: you ask people about their psychology, their behaviour, and they feel defensive but ‘the brain animates people, the brain interests people’. Is the brain, Rownson asked, the new weather?

Rownson also mentioned what I felt was the most interesting theme of the conference: that of social reflexivity. We are aware of our own condition more than ever before, and use this understanding to self-analyse. As Umberto Eco might put it, we are ‘non-innocent’ about culture, including neuro-themed culture. We no longer see the brain naively. We know we cannot simply say ‘as neuroscientists would say’. We know it is not so simple. We are not so unquestioning of science these days (if we ever were).

Who this ‘we’ might be exactly is ambiguous though, there was a fair amount of talk at the conference about the pervasiveness of ‘neuromyths’ and the need for some active mythbusting around neuroscience.

There was some connected discussion of what STS scholars can offer our understanding of neurosociety, and whether they should retain some ethnographic distance from neuroscientists. This debate included the idea that scientists themselves are insufficiently sceptical of their own work. This is an arguably unfair prejudice of many STS schoars which I suspect has its roots in a loose application of Kuhn’s idea of normal science. In contrast, Nikolas Rose argued that from his perspective of someone who has been studying the field very closely for several years, neuroscientists are incredibly critical of their own work, as well as the ways in which aspects or images of neuroscience are applied/ alluded to commercially or in popular culture. As Rose put it, ‘if anything, the further away from researchers you get, the less reflexive you get’.

It’s all to easy to assume some other people blindly believe what they are told, be these people ‘the public’, ‘scientists’, ‘humanities graduates’, ‘the media’, ‘politicians’, women, children, the working class or another social group. But, as Dorothy Nelkin and Celeste Condit argued over the reality of ‘the DNA Mystique’ in the mid ’90s, we should be careful of assuming a lack of critical faculties in others (just as we should be careful of assuming too many in ourselves).

Thinking broadly about this non-innocence view of the brain, if and wherever such non-innocence might exist: perhaps it is simply the moment in late modernity our move to neurosociety has occurred within. Maybe we live in non-innocent times no matter what we are looking at. Or perhaps the brain is a topic which invites reflexivity: we cannot help thinking about what makes us think. More pragmatically, I wonder if the historical associations between some areas of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience are worth noting. Perhaps this frames knowledge and debate on the issue in more questioning ways that discussion of genetics or computing ever did.

Or maybe it really isn’t all that more reflexive than other issues. We might argue that there has always been a mix of credulity and criticism about science and technology, in various places, in a variety of ways. No one ever really took a gene’s eye view? Technological determinism was always a strawman argument?

The conference website should be updated with audio with some of the keynotes soon.

For my part in aiming to learn more about conversations surrounding neurosociety, I have started a small research project on bloggers (details of how you can help).