Category Archives: science

Hit the Fossil Fuel Industry Where it Hurts: Science

There was another one of those International Panel on Climate Change reports published last weekend. Having already outlined the physical science basis back in September (i.e. it is happening, yes, really, we triple-checked, sorry), and then a report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability at the end of last month (i.e. it’s going to get really shit), we had a third on mitigation (i.e. there’s stuff we can do to stop it being really, really, really shit).

WWF’s Leo Hickman summarised the reports neatly with the simple nugget: “Climate change is real. We are to blame. It will get worse if we fail to act. The solutions are available and affordable. But time is short.” If that’s still too long to digest, he also offers an extra-short version: “Please. Get. On. With. It.” And if you want it in the words of a scientist, here’s Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London: “We should stop wringing our hands and just get on with it.”

Even before this most recent intervention, after the adaption report, activist Bill McKibben, suggested that the time had come for scientists to strike: “At this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more. Work with what you’ve got. We’re a quarter-century ahead – when you deal with the trouble we’ve already described then we’ll tell you what’s coming next.”

I like this idea. But even if you could inspire climate scientists to down tools (good luck…) I suspect it would be a misplacement of our energies. As is often the case, people not listening to the science acts as a distraction from other aspects of the political debate, including what science itself is up to.

Desmond Tutu’s call last week for an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet was rousing, and it reminded me of something Hilary and Steven Rose wrote about Israel. Hit them where it hurts: Science.

The fossil fuel industry is often described as anti-science. Although undoubtably bits of the fossil fuel industry are what might be dubbed anti bits of science, they are also heavily dependant on other areas of it too. Public structures of science and engineering train staff for the oil and gas industry, they also help develop new techniques, provide cultural credibility and open social spaces within which to lobby. Too few climate campaigners appreciate the activity that goes on here, not nearly enough political activism and political light is shone on it. The industry itself knows it though, and so keeps aspects of science and engineering very close indeed.

Not for nothing did Shell sign a collaborative research framework with Cambridge, and a Memo of Understanding with the NERC. Not for nothing are EDF sponsoring the Cheltenham Science Festival. Not for nothing is the next President of Imperial a board director at Chevron. Not for nothing is the list of industrial sponsors at the Heriot-Watt Institute of Petroleum Engineering quite so long. Not for nothing does the National Centre for Universities and Business’ latest report devote several pages to BP. This is just the tip of the speedily melting iceberg though. For more, I can recommend the Knowledge and Power report 350.org, People and Planet and Platform put together last autumn (the bit after they talk about divestment, which really is only a small part of the story).

Just as Mariana Mazzucato tells us everything smart in the smart phone was funded by the state, a lot of the oil and gas industry is supported by publicly funded science. With the case of smart phones, we might ask why are we selling our work so short, but when it comes to fossil fuels, we might ask why are we giving it to them at all? One of the key ways in which the extractive industries are able to not only operate, but actively extend those operations is through their involvement in the structures of publicly funded science. If you want to act on climate change, it is worth considering this. Rather than beating people ever-more over the head with climate science and going off in a strop when they don’t listen, if we want action on climate change, we need to cut off the science and engineering the fossil fuel industry relies upon.

Unlocking the ties between science and fossil fuels involves remembering one simple point about science: It is a social system. This idea is sadly tarred with the idea that if something is socially constructed it is somehow not real. It’s fun for the odd philosophy seminar, but it’s also largely bollocks. Just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t also real. St. Paul’s was constructed by society, but it still hurts me if I kick it. Understanding science as a social system merely means reflecting on the fact that it is both directed by society and does more than just make research. It isn’t to deny science in anyway, only to want to make it work better.

Science as a social system has outputs other than just research. I don’t just mean spin-off products. It offers social situations for people to network. It offers events upon which we can pin larger social debate (IPCC reports, for example, or papers, conferences, festivals). It has a lot of cultural capital too. A recent study of public attitudes to science found 90% said they trusted scientists working for universities. That is very, very high (no wonder Centrica wanted academic scientists to do the talking for them). And it trains people. Because of the way science is constituted, with a lot of junior (cough, cheap, cough) researchers at the bottom, most PhD students won’t stay in academia. They’ll go elsewhere, including the oil and gas industry.

Another element of this social system to remember is that some bits of science are funded and others aren’t. Choices are made over what studies get done. Some science is designed to have particular applications, some is more curiosity-driven. This is ok. The problem is when limited set of people get to direct what we are doing so the social systems at work is run to serve a rather narrow interests. It’s not just how big the science budget is, it is what you do with it that counts. This is a problem Canadian scientists have learnt the hard way, as whole areas of environmental research have very strategically been cut. It is also why it is worrying when the NERC/ Shell memo of understanding includes agreements to ‘Influence academic behaviour by articulating Shell long-term research’ especially when NERC centres already contain references to extracting oil and gas from polar regions.

We’re crap at discussing any of this. It is too easily dominated by fantasyland complaints that ‘no one should interfere in science,’ ignoring the fact that many people already do. We have to recognise the politics here, because it is quietly happening under our noses. Last year’s BIS/ DECC oil and gas strategy is possibly the most brazen example of this. Aside from a bit where the government agrees to consider its role in improving public perception of the UK oil and gas industry (apparently we incorrectly perceive it as unsustainable and deflecting progress towards a greener UK economy, silly us), the strategy expresses much concern over the supply of skilled staff and R&D spend in the sector, with a clear expectation that the government should support industry here. But no one much critised the government about this strategy when it was published. I doubt many people knew it existed.

This week Caroline Lucas asked a parliamentary question about NERC’s oil and gas innovation programme. She didn’t get much of an answer, but these are the sorts of questions green activists – and scientists themselves – need to be asking more often. The oil and gas industry needs our science to operate. We don’t need to give it to them. Sorting this out is just one of those things we need to be getting on with.

This was first published on New Left Project.

We need to talk about the Conversation

There’s been some fuss over the possible death of Facebook, and whether such reports have been exaggerated. I’m not too interested in the story itself as much as what it shows us as a study in problems of science journalism. For me, it flags up larger questions about academic writing, and I’d be interested to know if others share these concerns.

Background: The BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, did a bit of debunking, and complained about journalists overhyping academic research in the process. It was noted that one of the “hyped” reports came from an academic involved in the research, writing on the Conversation, a site which aims to bring academic voices into the public sphere, promising content from academics themselves (tagline: “academic rigour, journalist flair”). Then the academic himself, Daniel Miller, wrote a longer post via the UCL network saying that a key passage had been re-written by a professional journalist and he regretted agreeing to the final text. Cellan-Jones dubbed this “ghosted” which is maybe the wrong word. As Miller notes, there are compromises academics have to make in sharing their work to larger and different audiences, and it can be hard to draw lines between inaccuracy and retelling. Also the line between ghostwriting and editing can be slippery.

Problem: Miller’s experience of the Conversation resonated with me. I’ve been worried about its approach for a while.

When the Conversation launched first in Australia and then moved to the UK, I was sceptical. I didn’t see the point of a space for just academics’ content. Indeed, I thought that was possibly even a slightly dangerous idea. Also, I wasn’t sure it was needed, especially in the UK. Many academics were blogging on their own or university owned sites already, or for media organisations. But I could also see the value in a space for those who wrote less regularly, including support from professional writers and, despite my misgivings, I think they’ve published some great pieces which might not have made it out of the ivory towers otherwise.

Then, a few months ago, one of their journalists emailed to ask if I had views on university league tables. I said I had opinions but nothing I’d actually researched, and also I was really busy that week but, because I was sympathetic to the topic, I’d give her a quote if she wanted to write something herself. I also didn’t see the point in me writing for the Conversation. I can publish directly to the Guardian site. It seemed silly to chase people like me, a bit cheeky of them even (and I’d previously told Conversation staff this). Still, I stayed late at work and emailed a quote. She replied with a full piece incorporating my few hundred words but really by her, expecting me to add a little more and sign off as if it was authored by me. They were great words. But they weren’t mine. What would I give other than the credibility of my academic affiliation, which meant very little anyway as its not even a topic I have done empirical work on. I was rather shocked by this, so said no.

But I felt crap that we’d both put time into this and didn’t want a fight with a writer I respect, so wrote my own piece as a replacement, staying up late at night to do so. This is the result. I included a bit by the Conversation writer (paragraph 5) because she’d put work into it, and it was good, and I felt rude ignoring it. But it felt very wrong and I regret it. Not, as in the case of Daniel Miller, because it was bad. Quite the opposite. It saddened me that the work of a professional science journalist was being ignored because people seemed to want the cache of an academic voice.

I felt pressured into co-writing something I didn’t want to write, and pressured into saying it was by me. I should have just stood up to them and said “this is dumb and dishonest.” Because it is.

I’ve spoken to several other UK academics about the site since, wondering if they’ve had similar problems. Most say their experiences have been positive; light editing and useful feedback about focus or questions readers might ask, exactly what the Conversation purports to do. But a few others have grumbled too. It’s hard to tell if they are just grumbling in the cliched precious academic way of “but but but of course my jargon-filled eight-page single-sentence rant was more accurate” but I’m not sure. I also think that even if so, the work of the professional writer should be made obvious. A press release from a university communications team, for example, might well re-write research, but it won’t pretend to be the academic themselves (quotes are routinely fabricated by press officers in many fields, but honestly I don’t like that either and I also think the full posts of the Conversation are another step). I also continue to worry about them chasing content from those of us who are already writing a lot in the media, or even have careers in journalism. Mark Lynas has written for them, for example (he’s a visiting fellow at Cornell) and that seems even weirder than when they’ve asked the Guardian science bloggers to write for them. Lynas doesn’t need the Conversation’s help, he’s a highly skilled and successful writer.

If the Conversation is doing journalism, they should acknowledge that and have co-author credits, or even pieces written entirely by their writers, and celebrate that. They don’t, because the idea is that it they offer unmediated academic voices. But unmediated academic voices are often the last thing anyone wants, and playing up to that bollocks isn’t doing anyone any favours.

It reminds me a bit of the fuss over Futurity. I worry that the Conversation seems to be more about offering a shine of academic credibility than meaningful interaction between academics and society at large. I’m all for editing academics (I’ve learnt a lot and had my prose improved by many editors myself) but by passing off the work of a professional journalist as written by academics you do both professions – and the public – a disservice.

I’d like to see the Conversation grow, but I want to see it do so honestly.

Ho ho ho? Making jokes about science

This first appeared in the December edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read the January edition, including a New Year’s piece from me on whether scientists have the future in their bones.

Happy holidays. Families congregate to catch up with each other, reflect on times passed and their hopes for the future, chat, eat, play games, offer gives, laugh and FIGHT. This is as true for groups of science as any other form of family.

Just before Thanksgiving, enter Joe Hanson of It’s OK to Be Smart show, with a special video featuring a dinner table of famous scientists from history. I’m going to have to describe it because it’s been taken offline (more on that in a moment). Featuring bobble-head dolls of Einstein, Tesla, Marie Curie, Darwin, Newton and Galileo and with a large turkey in the centre, they all laugh and joke, saying how pleased they are that their work has had so much impact on the world. Hanson points out that, for all that in many ways they have been mightily influential, there’s a long way to go.

Because, er, yeah, about the whole everyone believing in evolution thing, and um, we might get the whole third law of motion, but the public appreciation of the physical consequences of climate change could probably do with a bit more work.

It’s comedy, though rarely laugh-out-loud; light-hearted with comic fantasy of silly voices, anachronism and jokes about mixing up the movie Gravity with the physical force.

But on the holiday season fight. Because that’s the fun bit. I’m OK to be Smart is popular and held in respect by much of the scientific community, but as soon as it went live, there were complaints. Firstly, the scientists are it chooses to give thanks to are all white, there is only one woman and she starts off by saying she was just happy to have been included. Perhaps it’s traditional at Thanksgiving to whitewash history, but what kind of celebration of science only remembers those famous people our unequal society usually chooses to revere?

Further, Telsa’s played as crazy, a bit too crazy perhaps, with crazy played for laughs in a way that understandably aggravated people who’d like to see better treatment of mental illness. The silly accents were arguably a bit racist. And then there’s the way the Einstein character treats Curie. He starts off just by being a bit flirty, this moves to outright lecherous, as the others discuss science and history, with every cut to Einstein you seem him escalating his moves. Again, this is all played for laughs. It’s extreme and fantastical. It ends up with the bobble-head doll naked (the gentles pixelated out) “falling” on top of Curie. It’s a joke, yes, but it does look a lot like attempted rape. Many were appalled. Comments on the video’s Google + page were disappointed, shocked and angry.

In response, Hanson initially offered a not especially apologetic apology. The PBS ombudsman offered the excuse that it had ‘opened debate’ about women in science. As Emily Willingham pointed out, that debate was already quite open thank you very much, and if PBS and Hason had really been paying attention, they’d have realised how unhelpful, unimaginative and plain hurtful the video must have appeared. After further complaints, Hanson took the video down, with a fresh apology.

Two things are particularly interesting about this fuss. Firstly, it was a reasonably rare example of people arguing against a joke. It’s hard to say ‘no, that’s not funny’ and stand up against the premise of a joke. It’s one of the reasons feminists are often labeled ‘joyless’ or lacking a sense of humour. There’s a pressure to say anything goes in comedy, or at least it’s ‘just having a laugh, eh?’ Jokes act to articulate shared ideas, logic and attitudes. It is one of the reasons a shared joke between friends feels so special, and why you can feel so hurt or confused when you feel left out of one. Similarly, it’s hard when a joke falls flat. In many ways it was brave of Hanson to eventually take the video down. It’s always hard to say you think that, in retrospect, you were wrong, but perhaps especially true when it’s a matter of a joke.

Secondly, I find the whole video indicative of the way humour tends to be used to replicate the traditional structures of power in science, not buck them. There’s been a bit of a rise in science-related comedy in recent years, from the Science Museum’s Punk Science to the Infinite Monkey Cage. For all that we might imagine science to be a highly serious business, in many ways scientist and comedians are an obvious match.

A striking feature of comedy in modern Western societies is how much of it is based on the premise of some laughable imagined stupid Other person. Perhaps it is because so much of our lives is based on ideas of rationality we feel a need to laugh through the various anxieties we have about that. Or maybe we just need to feel superiorly rational. Whatever, science-based jokes offer a lot of material from which to build jokes about stupidity. George Bush’s dyslexia gags getting old? Try one about how there’s nothing in homeopathy.

As a result, the comedians largely side with scientists who can provide the knowledge. There are still a lot of jokes at the expense of scientists as a bit weird. The Big Bang Theory geek, for example. But in a way, that serves scientific authority too, painting them as a bit otherworldly, not really one of us and so hard to argue with. We don’t understand them which is why they are funny, but it’s also why they get to tell us what to do. Members of the scientific community may get angry at mad scientist serotypes, but in many ways, it offers them a lot of power.

I wonder if the web played a role in people standing up against the It’s OK to be Smart video. Those who felt offended by the joke could find others and collect together to feel less isolated, more justified in calling it out. This context of the web also reminded me the way Richard Dawkins has become a figure of fun online. Previously isolated quiet admissions that “I don’t really like Dawkins much” has flourished online to a whole sub-culture of people who regularly respond to everything his tweets with the in-joke of “your a dick” (a response to this). There’s even an online game. This is new, and feels significantly different from something like Monkey Cage.

I’m not sure if laughing at Dawkins is really much progress from homeopathy jokes made by educationally privileged people at the expense of the confused. But the comparison between the two, as with the controversy surrounding Hanson’s Thanksgiving video, can remind us that humour in science isn’t simply a matter of finding new audiences to talk about science to. As is often the case with science in popular culture, science comedy reflects a politics and should be politically aware. We should ask whose humour, about whom, disrupting what exactly, and why? Not simply how do we make more of it.

Science Museum: The best bits

This was first published in the November edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read current edition including a column from me on science comedy.

Science Museum electric cab

Science museums are fascinating bits of the world, full of the artefacts of old ideas of what the future might bring. A hodgepodge of moments in human discovery and invention. Some of these moments are long gone. Some are still with us. Some float back and forth into fashion or utility. Here are my top fifteen exhibits in the London Science Museum. Use them as a guide for your next visit, or as a virtual tour.

1. The Watson and Crick Double Helix

In some ways, the very idea of a science museum is a bit silly. How do you display the worlds of the very small, the very big, the very fast, the very slow or plain invisible which science manages to perceive through application of maths, theories, specialist equipment and years of measurement? You can put a law of motion a case. You can’t hang a theory on a wall.

So science museums get devious and, for example, the London museum wanted to display the great British discovery of DNA, and came up with the ingenious idea of using the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. The problem was that the people in the lab had, quite sensibly, taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was taken. So the museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them off and rebuilt it. So it is a mockup, albeit an official one. It’s also very beautiful, displayed almost as abstract art, perhaps with too little explanatory text.

2. 1926 Kelvinator Gas Fridge

The technology side to science museums – which arguably dominates – can be as hard to display as the science. Often, the same thing that makes a technology iconic is also why it’d be a bit weird to expect someone to visit it in a museum. You don’t need to go to Exhibition Road to see a mass-produced product like a biro or an iPhone or a Yale key. It’s in your pocket, or at least someone else’s near by.

One option is to display technological routes not taken. Which is the case of the ‘Kelvinator’ gas fridge, in the Secret Life of the Home gallery. The battle of gas versus electric fridges is a classic tale in the history of technology, one that helps explain why fridges hum, but also reflects the ways in which hype and the alignment of particular business interests can move us in one path over another.

3. Apollo 10

Another option for displaying technology is to go with firsts, and there are many in the museum’s flagship Making the Modern World gallery. It’s maybe not very patriotic to pick one of the American icons in a gallery full of the stars of British industry, but really how can any of them compete with a spaceship?

People got inside of this object and went on a trip around the moon. All the way back in 1969. It’s not futuristic, it isn’t fiction. It doesn’t even look very modern. If anything, it’s a bashed-in old idea of the future.

It will simultaneously make you feel powerful to be part of the human race, and incredibly humble. As all the best science museum exhibits should.

4. Hiroshima Bowl

Another problem with displaying technology is the sheer size of it. The museum has purpose-built galleries for fitting large objects, but even it struggles with planes and ships (largely going for bits of them or just models). Moreover, it’s not always the technology itself that’s of interest or importance, but the broader social context/ environmental impact around it.

With both of these issues in mind, how do you display an atomic bomb? There are many ways museums around the world have found to answer this problem but I really love the decision here, of a humble bowl found in Hiroshima after bombing in August 1945. You can see the sand fused to the sides of the porcelain.

A small exhibit, especially as it’s surrounded by the large machines of Making the Modern World, but possibly one of the more affecting.

5. Turbine blade

Hiding up against the side of a wall on the Wellcome Wing, a cynic might say it’s hard to spot because it’s part of a Shell-sponsored climate exhibition, and fossil fuel companies would rather we avoided talking about renewables. But equally we might argue there is something very pro-wind about how unobtrusive it is, considering turbines are often criticised as a blight.

It’s also interesting to see a turbine on display on a national gallery, considering the politics surrounding climate activists’ attempt to “gift” one to the Tate last year.

6. Handcuffs

These are easy to miss amongst the trains, trucks and spaceships, a rather anonymous pair of handcuffs makes up part of the “technology in everyday life” section of the Making the Modern World Gallery. Next to rollerskates, some bits of cutlery, a typewriter for the blind and a few bikes.

The handcuffs are noteworthy as an example of a technology of control; something the museum could make more of. I remember reading about an exhibition on plastic bullets put on in Brixton in the mid 1980s by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. It would be interesting to know why the Science Museum itself didn’t at the time, and if they would think of something similar today.

It’s also worth considering the particular take on the history of technology which keeps bikes on the side in a gallery where cars are given pride of place in the central thoroughfare. The last few times I’ve visited the museum, friends have remarked “why isn’t there a massive gallery filled with bikes?”

7. Iron baby

One of the many pieces of art dotted around the museum is a small statue of a newborn baby by Antony Gormley. You can found it snuggled away at the side of a case on first floor of the Wellcome Wing. According to museum mythology, when staff researched visitors’ reactions to it, girls would bend down and stroke the baby whereas boys kicked it. I don’t really care if that story is true, I just like it (I also find the exhibit very kickable).

8. Advertising on the stars

Hidden at the back of the George III gallery of 18th century science is a globe displaying charts of the stars mapped more earthly spaces. Above the Northern hemisphere you can see familiar characters of Greek astronomy; animals and heroes and the like. But bend down to the Southern hemisphere and you can see the makers of the globe were more puzzled as to what to put. So they used this map of the skies to chart pictures of the other products their company made; lab benches and other chemists’ equipment. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of ancient and more modern science, and also an early example of the connections between science and advertising.

9. A smile machine

The cases in the Who Am I Gallery are a treasure trove of ephemera and other interestingness relating to the broad and diverse science and technologies of being humans. See if you can find the Swearing Association Challenge Cup, a penis packer used during gender realignment, the freeze-dried mouse, the knitted telomeres, the white peacock and a smile machine.

The ‘smile machine’ is a slight misnomer, it’s actually an electrotherapy machine, but as the museum label points out, in the 1860s, physiologist Guillaume Duchenne used pulses from such devices to provoke twitches in patients’ faces to explore how we formed expressions, concluding truly happy smiles use the eyes as well as mouth.

10. Snuff boxes

Running alongside the big steam machines in the main front to the museum, and just before you get to Watt’s workshop are some of the more domestic sides to the Industrial Revolution. This includes a ‘Power, Products and Prosperity’ display which reflects, quite plainly, how much of this period was about the rise of shopping. A slightly uncritical display of consumer culture, arguably, but the cases are a real treasure trove of 19th century stuff and, as the museum label notes, this reflects new the power of the emerging middle classes: “Some saw it as a new democratisation of taste.” There’s a great collection of snuffboxes, including one shaped like a harp, as well as buttons, toys and a urinal next to a custard cup.

11. The building itself

Like many old purpose-built museums, the building itself is an exhibit, reflecting some history of how we have thought about science and technology.

It’s roughly split into three parts. The first from 1928, delayed because of WW1 but finally finding a permanent home for galleries which had been in and out of various prefabs since the Great Exhibition of 1851. The central galleries are an extension dating back to the 1950s, partly linked to the Festival of Britain. Finally there’s the Wellcome Wing, part of a swathe of science museum and galleries (or rebuilds of old ones) for the millennium.

It’s worth having a look around the outside of the museum too and exploring some of the history of South Kensington. What is now the Science Museum used to share space with what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, and there is still the odd marker to this in the V&A building. Look out for scientists’ names on the door of the garden, and the Science and Art corridor near the silver gallery.

When I take people to the museum, I also get them to look at the sponsors sign at the front too. A thanks to supporters but also a declaration of conflict of interest of sorts, and reflection of the groups who have an interest in the way we display science and technology (or at least those groups with money to spare).

12. A Victorian electric taxi cab

We might think of electric cars as futuristic, but the Science Museum has one from 1897. In some ways it is like the gas fridge, a route of technology we didn’t take, but it’s also a steampunkish reflection of how hopes for the future can return in new and different contexts, even seem a bit retro.

It’s currently on temporary display in the entrance to the Wellcome Wing. I sometimes wonder where they’ll put it when that exhibition ends. I’d like to see it moved into the Making the Modern World, disrupting that gallery’s chief narrative of linear progress. Because the history of technology isn’t linear, the Science Museum should know this better than most, but somehow still often perpetuate the myth.

13. Antarctic ice core

This is one of the few objects from the natural world in the Science Museum (their definition of science has always been “stuff that’s not in the Natural History Museum next door”). Hidden at the back of the climate gallery, it shows evidence of the scar on the planet made by those machines of the industrial revolution so proudly presented at the front of the museum. Beautifully – albeit depressingly – haunting.

14. Rotation Station

The hands-on Launch Pad takes a play-based approach to science education. This approach – and many of the blueprints for the gallery’s exhibitions – stems from San Francisco’s Exploratorium, although this itself drew inspiration from the London museum’s Children’s Galleries, first developed in the 1930s.

My favourite exhibit here is the Rotation Station. An attempt to explain the conservation of angular momentum, the visitor is invited to climb on, hang on and spin. If you stick your bum out as you spin you make a larger circle which it takes more energy to travel along: stand up straight and you go much faster.

It is an approach to explaining science which takes the idea very far out of any social context, and often criticised as such. But such decontextualization is both clear and reflects an approach to science. Also, the bum-controlled spinning is lots of fun. Best avoided when hungover though.

15. 1933 Electric door

Currently tucked in the middle of the Secret Life of the Home gallery is an electric door you press a button to open. Initially displayed to show off the wonder of new technology, the museum’s archives contain some great old black and white photos of school children playing with it with wide-eyed delight on their faces. For the last few decades, however, kids just stand there waiting for it to open, bemused that you have to press a button for a door to open. The exhibit itself hasn’t changed in any material sense, but changes in the world around it transforms it entirely. There is something incredibly beautiful about that, and it reflects the way the museum itself is part of the same history of science and technology it aims to collect.

Carbon pollution and other metaphors

This was my October column for Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read current edition including my virtual tour of the Science Museum.

There’s a new phrase on the block: “Carbon Pollution”. Barak Obama used it 30 times in a recent speech as he tried to draw more attention to role of carbon emissions. As Carbon Brief’s Ros Donald wrote: “It sounds made up, and it is.”

But just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it is not useful. All scientific terms are made up. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Just because it’s constructed by people doesn’t mean it’s either unreal or malign. It just means people fashioned it from the materials they found in the world, with all the good, bad and complex in-betweens which come with that.

Attaching human words onto the workings of the natural world will always be fraught and inevitably contain a fair bit of creativity. Scientific terms are always simplifications – whether they are also a deliberate spin – and to what degree you are comfortable with any particular simplification will vary depending on your position in and around it. They are simplifications of the detail of scientific understanding, which itself is a simplification of the actual reality out there. It’s one of the reasons science gives us so many of our new words, as scientists need to make new terms to cover the new things they’ve found. It is also why maths is often more useful, and scientific publication increasingly looks to new forms of visualisation (if you don’t know JOVE, you’ve been missing out).

There is a fantastical element to much language – especially when it comes to metaphor and analogy – but then science is always a bit fantastical. There is something fantastical about graphs too, indeed most inscriptions of scientific research as they pull out particular bits of the world in detail for us to examine. As our dim human forms scramble to comprehend the huge complexity of our universe we might as well use everything at our disposal, including this amazing thing called language.

As anyone who’s studied the atom in any way knows, at times it can feel like your teacher keeps going “so you know that thing we told you last year, well, about that…” It’s like film stars having special ways to pronounce their name depending on how close you are to them; each different twist on the reality acting as a shibboleth to the core of power. Except that the early simplifications – whilst also kind of lies – are an invitation for further study. If scientists offered their full view of what we should probably call ‘the artist formally known as the atom’ up front, they might alienate a lot of people. And it is, after all, still only their current idea with all the uncertainties and gaps any science has. There is a sort of honesty in the way chemistry teachers lie to their students. Nature is the ultimate annoying teacher pointing out that the thing you thought was true was merely a sketch of reality.

I think my favourite turn of scientific phrase is the start to Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, where is describes a large willow tree pumping seeds into the air with the line: “It is raining DNA outside”. It is a magical image, but hooks you in to wanting to know the reality and offers a way to help you start thinking about it. Dawkins is maybe better known for idea of “the selfish gene” is possibly better known because many felt that particular hook was problematic, offering a particular vision on life via the idea of the gene they took offense to.

It is interesting how some such simplifications of science are seen accepted and others contested. Another good example is the hole in the ozone layer. The actual origin is contested. Joe Farnam – aka the co-discover of this hole – told the British Library’s Aural History of Science project no-one quite owned up to coining the phrase, though it seemed to have appeared somewhere between a NASA press release and a piece in the Washington Post “they had a press release and the Washington correspondents must have asked some questions, someone said, well, it looks like a hole doesn’t it, or something [laughs]” (pdf of full transcript). According to Reiner Grundmann, Sherwood Rowland – another ‘co-discoverer – coined the metaphor, used first when talking to a student newspaper (See Transnational Environmental Policy: Reconstructing Ozone, p.206). Wherever it came from, the idea of a ‘hole’ to describe what was going on up there might be enough of a simplification that not everyone finds it accurate, and it may well have helped facilitate a particular political outcome, but perhaps because of both of those reasons, it seems to have stuck nonetheless.

I don’t want to suggest metaphor and analogy are always a good thing though. Take, for example, another example of complex and esoteric systems the public often feel confused by: finance. At a recent public lecture from Andy Haldane of the Bank of England, I was struck by the sheer weight of metaphors (yes, I know that is a metaphor). There were fat tails and short minds, logjams, dark sides, siren voices of boom and bust, lumpy outcomes and webs. At times it took a geographical turn, with cliff edges, cross-border flows, storms at sea and even some “sunny uplands” (of stability). It had medical moments too, with antidotes, myopia and a ‘pock-marked’ history.

It was kind of poetic, and one way of looking at this is to congratulate Haldane for his articulate explaining. The Richard Dawkins of economics perhaps. Another would be to argue he used such language to create a further barrier between him and his audience. If he really wanted public involvement he’d invite it; he’d show us the language and ideas of financial workers use so we could talk to them on their own terms. Instead, he just stood on a stage and spouted linguistically-produced pictures at us. Which were pretty, but left little space for audience agency (again, the Richard Dawkins of economics, perhaps).

None of this is simple. As Donald notes of “carbon pollution”, the term seems to be designed with a deliberate political end in mind, compared to climate change or global warming which we might see as having slightly more scientific ancestry (useful blogpost on the two from NASA). It was made to provoke action, not understanding. But scientific terms can be put to political work too. For example, the idea that ‘climate change’ sounds less threatening than ‘global warming’. I also suspect Obama’s application of carbon pollution reflects the increasing tendency of advocates for action on climate change – including scientists – to talk about using the atmosphere as a rubbish dump. The science and politics are rarely divisible, for all that it might suit some to imagine so.

As that wise old teacher Seymour Skinner once said, much science is half BF Skinner and PT Barnam. Linguistic play is part of the latter. As long as we can find ways of playing with words which involve listening and debate along with a strong respect for empiricism (“listening to nature”, if you will), not simply showmanship.

Everyday sexual harrassment in science

I posted a piece at the Guardian a few days ago on some sexual harassment allegations which had been effecting communities of science blogging. A lot of the debate on this has been done in public, and this is significant. Bloggers are supporting each other to feel strong enough to speak out but also simply make sense of a lot of it. There’s a lot of learning going on.

One of the things that has been amazing to watch is people calling out things that they’d previously labelled “a bit creepy” as THIS IS NOT OK.

We should be able to give a lecture without a colleague eyeing-up our legs. We should be able to bend down and tie our bloody shoelace on campus without someone making a comment about our bum. The gateways to particular people, jobs, ideas and spaces should not be guarded by questions of whether or not we are willing to entertain the idea of screwing someone in a position of power. We should be able to talk about stuff like this and call it out without being made to feel like some sort of sour killjoy.

To multiple men who stare at my breasts while I’m talking to them about work: Yes I can tell you are doing it, no it isn’t normal and yes it does really creep me out. It means I pretty much instantly lose a huge amount of respect for you but, no matter how strong I am and how much of an arse I know you to be, it always makes me doubt my own worth too. And the memory of quite how horrible it is – especially when it is someone who you have previously respected – can last for months. So stop. Other men manage not to so why the hell can’t you?

An American journalist who had spent time working in the UK remarked that a similar level of public discussion about specific perpetrators and more serious harassment couldn’t happen in the UK because of libel laws. He’s right, but we also have other networks of communication. Emails, meetings, networks of information and support.

It made me realise how long that sort of hidden support has been going on.

The threads of informal conversation at conferences where female academics share experiences or warn each other off. The way we so routinely go “oh, you have a meeting with [insert important man] that’s so exciting for you! Watch his wandering hands though, eh?” How, when a friend has suffered a particular “incident”, you instinctively check networks to see whether he has a reputation, because these networks exist. They are normal.

The way young female students are kept away from particular members of staff or work experience placements. The emails that quietly go round an institution warning women about getting in the lift with a particular invited speaker (who everyone knows is “problematic” but is oh so eminent). The way a postdoc or junior lecturer might be tasked with “keeping an eye” on someone at parties especially if there might be students there (because “professor x or y, he’s ok you know, unless he’s had a drink”).

There’s also the gossip which runs through male and mixed discussions too. This can trivialise issues, at worst blaming women but often just making it a joke so it’s harder to stand up to. These bits of gossip can be useful though, they give you warning.

I feel like we need to be better at recognising these systems. Because their very existence implicitly acknowledges the problem, and also sustains them. We support each other in these ways, but in doing so support the oppressors too.

I’ve often noticed men in science communication refer to students doing work experience placements or British Science Association Media Fellows as a “perk” of the summer months. I’ve never personally heard anyone in positions of responsibility say this, it’s normally just those around them, and it’s largely in terms of “eye candy” (though we all here stories and anyway such objectification is bad in itself). I also often think the men saying so do so largely from expectations about “banter”, they don’t necessarily mean it. And it’s a lot better than it used to be.

We all – men and women – know these sorts of attitudes exist and we act to protect each other accordingly. We rarely, however, call such behaviour out. Indeed when I have complained I’ve been laughed at for being a bit too serious/ misreading situations. I’m not sure how we get to the point where we can challenge bad behaviour more effectively, I don’t think simply talking about it will be the answer, but I think it will help.

Finally – and without diminishing the gendered nature of a lot of this – it is important because it’s not just something men do to women. It’s about power. There’s a lot of misuse of power that goes on in academia because it doesn’t get called out. Female academics and administrators who bully, including in some cases sexual harassment. Forms of racist, ableist, classist, bi/trans/homophobic oppression. The cases of sexual harassment are important in their own right, but they are also indicative of broader pathology which we need to address.

This post was edited slightly on Monday PM to better articulate the point about BSA fellows. I’m not entirely convinced it warranted it, but the last thing I want is more people’s sense of professionalism unnecessarily put into question.