Category Archives: science

Vannevar Bush, science, the world’s brain and inventing the web

This was first published in the July edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read August’s piece on health data. See their new rates for educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).


The web’s origin story generally goes something like this: Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist working at CERN in the late 1990s, wanted to find a way to deal with increasing desire to share information across the intricate global network of scientists working on the project, and found a way to connect an earlier idea of his, for a hypertext database system, to the Internet.

There’s a lovely – though somewhat Romanticised – story of Berners-Lee being inspired the culture of the CERN canteen: All these clever people from all the world and different disciplines sitting together, exchanging their cleverness, the web was just a way of sharing that experience with everyone.

A bit of science funding PR often gets spun out of this. All that money on physics research at CERN? Don’t worry, because, aside from the fact that studying the universe is a fine aim for humanity in itself, we got the web out of it. OK. But we could have got the web from lots of scientists being brought together on another ambitious problem. And that’s where an earlier character in this origin story comes in: Vannevar Bush.

Bush is often credited in the history of the web in terms of his influence on the idea of hypertext via something called the Memex (more on this later). But he played a key role in creating the social context that CERN emerged from too, and I think he should get some of the credit for that too.

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor, public intellectual and, perhaps most importantly, administrator of mid 20th century America. Born in 1890, after studying science at university he worked for General Electric for a few years before moving to MIT to do a PhD in electrical engineering. Work in industry, academia and the military followed, and he eventually became Vice President and Dean of engineering at MIT in 1938.

He’d been aware of a lack of connection between science and the military during World War One so, as the US entered World War Two, worked hard to set up official federal systems for more strategic coordination of scientific energies. He became director of the newly established Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941, which included the initiation and administration of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project is significant not just in terms of the outcome of the Atomic bomb, but the way it brought together a large number of scientists from around the world and a range of subjects, to work on a strategic goal with an enormous budget, left a mark on the way we subsequently organised science.

The Manhattan Project wasn’t unprecedented, but it was a step in a set of changes to the way we organised science which led up to much more peace-time orientated projects such as CERN. The Manhattan Project did not cause some singular radical change in the development of science, but arguably it did accelerate shifts that were already taking place. Big Science is not simply a 20th century phenomenon any more than “scientists” only arrived in 1833 when William Whewell coined that term. Darwin’s correspondence (which you can read if you fancy getting lost down the rabbit hole of Victorian natural history) shows the degrees to which even seemingly “gentleman” individual science was highlight networked. Astronomy also offers case studies of multi-national networks of astronomers utilising large telescopes and in pay of industry and military stretching centuries. There’s a reason Brecht uses an astronomer to talk about the morality of 20th century science in his play A Life of Galileo. But there was something about the particular scale of the Manhattan Project and subsequent work. A physicist in early 20th C would know the handful of experts in their field, working directly with a few and corresponding with others, easily catching up with developments. In the early 21st, and I have a physicist friend who uses Ctrl Alt F to locate his name on papers.

Not everyone loved this change. The term Big Science was popularised by Alvin Weinberg, writing in the journal Science in 1961, complaining it was somewhat of a corruption of what science should and can be for society: “We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth; we use our Big Science to add to our country’s prestige, they used their churches for their cities’ prestige” he mourned.

That “Memex” thing is also part of the tensions surrounding this shift in how we made and connected expertise. Writing in The Atlantic in 1945, Bush reflected on the sheer quantity of information he came across on any day, and the diversity of ways in which this information might link to one another. He felt the “growing mountain of research” quite acutely, and felt quite bogged down by all the multitude of findings of various specialised branches of research:

The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

This is something many will identify with today. But it’s no surprise that someone coming out of Manhattan Project strategy felt it so acutely. As a way of dealing with this, Bush imagined a machine which allowed for the non-linear filing and retrieval of information. This is Bush’s idea:

[the reader] finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him. And his trails do not fade.

Recognise it? Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, and the Wikimedia Foundation both credit this idea. HG Wells had a similar idea with the “World Brain” in the late 1930s, though you can maybe see Wells’ socialism driving a slightly different concept and arguably it’s Bush’s Memex which had the most resonance.

Vannevar Bush lived through and was shaped by big science, but he also helped bolster its rise through the key role he played in the way 20th century science was run. We usually credit Tim Berners-Lee with the invention of the web. And so we should. But when people use the web as some sort of spin-off of the science done at CERN they are only telling half the story. If anything, the administration of science gave us the web, not science itself. We’d do well to recognise the impact the work such administrations have.

Modernity can be hard work: On Mansplaining

This was first published in the May edition of Popular Science UK. Register on their Facebook page to get 3 issues free.

Last summer, bits of the internet found a new word: Mansplained. You know when someone explains something to you, but you already know about it, and you feel a bit patronised? Maybe because you are even wearing a giant flashing badge with “I KNOW LOADS ABOUT THIS I HAVE SIX ZILLION NOBEL PRIZES IN IT” which they somehow manage not to see, too caught up in their own knowledge. That’s mansplaining. The word is a mix of the words explaining and man because it’s seen as something men are especially guilty of when it comes to their interactions with women’s expertise.

(If at this point you are feeling a bit patronised by me explaining mansplaining or just slightly annoyed by the idea that it’s a gender thing, I hear you, hope to get to that in a minute. Sorry. But it really is worth repeating this stuff, even if it makes you itch a bit)

As Lily Rothman put in her “cultural history of mansplaining” the word might have only really been thrown up since the summer, but the issue’s been around for a while. Its precise origins are hazy, but the term seems to have grown slowly on feminist blogosphere following a piece by Rebecca Solnit in 2008. Here Solnit describes a man telling her repeatedly about a “very important Muybridge book” even after people had (repeatedly) told him that she was the author. He just couldn’t believe that this woman in front of him was the author. A similar problem can be found again and again (and again and again…) when women suggest something to a group but are ignored with little more than polite nods, then a man says the exact same thing and suddenly it’s a great new idea. If you don’t recognise these examples – and the immense feeling of frustration that goes with them – you are either very lucky or haven’t been paying attention. You are also probably (and only probably) a white man.

The spectre of the mansplainer was quickly applied to political discourse, especially around the US presidential campaign, but it has on-going relevance to how we talk about science and technology. Tellingly, one of the ways the word grew to prominence was through a Tumblr called “academic men explain things to me”. I think both the advantages and disadvantages of the word reflect larger tensions surrounding how we relate to science and scientists, which is why I want to talk about it here.

In many ways, I like the word mansplain. It does what good words do: Names something. Naming lets you identify a phenomenon, talk about and discuss it. You can call it out and feel emboldened seeing others to do so. This is part of its attraction, but also part of its problem because the calling out can feel overly judgmental. The naming process also lets you focus on a particular issue. Again, this is part of the attraction, but again it’s problem, because it’s a bit reductive. The world is messier than simple words we put to it.

The Tumblr might be called “academic men explain things to me” but the truth is a lot of academic women do this too. Including me, all the time. I know. I try not to and it makes me cringe. But I do. And people outside academia do it too. Often it’s people of either gender doing it to people of colour. Or to those with a disability. Or to those a particular social class, age, or intellectual background. Prejudice is a multi-layered and complex thing. The focus on the man in mansplaining reflects a way in which diversity issues in science and technology are perhaps too often reduced to gender.

The tensions around mansplaining also reflect hang-ups we have dealing with expertise in this world of specialisms we’ve made for ourselves. I think one of the reasons it’s sparked recently, especially around social media, is because we increasingly bump into expertise without much context, and as a result see our prejudices laid out quite clearly. We can be shocked to see someone we didn’t know holding a confident opinion in 140 characters or a simple independent blog. WHAT DO THEY KNOW ANYWAY? Oh, quite a lot actually. I didn’t realise that. Whoops. Or, more often maybe, we discover that this new person knows about the world in a slightly different way from us, one we might disagree with but can still learn from.

Even before the emergence of the web the various silos of expertise were causing cultural tensions. We have a society increasingly fractured by specialists. This is often a good thing. Someone can spend time concentrating on knowing loads about, for example, biodiversity and bees thus freeing up someone else to be an expert in sewage management, brain surgery, 15th century art, Russian cartoons of the 1970s, whatever bit of the world we want to dig into. But then how can the bee expert talk to the rest of us? Or the polar bear geneticist learn from the poet? How do we know how or if to trust the brain surgeon? Modernity can be hard work.

The comedian Robin Ince wrote an eloquent blogpost recently on what he called “the fascism of knowing stuff”. He wanted to respond to the “gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal”, taking up a stand for expertise: “Though I have my own opinions on driving, I have decided to let others do it, as I have never taken a lesson. I do not consider myself oppressed by the driving majority.” I think he’s roughly three-quarters right. Or that he’s only right with the same reservation he includes himself near the end of the post; that we should not trust people simply because they look like experts.

I agree with Ince that we shouldn’t take expertise as oppression. Indeed, applying expertise can be very liberating. But we should still be able to ask questions about it. Complacently applied expertise isn’t going to help anyone. But there’s a difference between listening to someone and asking questions and blithely assuming you already know best. I also think that experts should put work into earning public trust, not assuming it, even if the odd “mansplainer” could be a bit more receptive to such expertise when offered too.

If the emergence of the word mansplain offers us anything, I think it’s that we could all do with listening to each other a bit more.

Playing in the archives of popular science

This was first published in the April edition of Popular Science UK. Visit their Facebook page to get 3 issues free.

magsA pile of 1970s science magazines. They smell amazing.

When I was an undergraduate, one of my favourite ways to procrastinate on the run up to essay deadlines was to get lost in the New Scientist archive hidden at the back of the library. I’d pick one almost at random, open it up, give it a good sniff and dip in and out of their pages to see what I’d find.

I’d try to spot the early rumblings of what would develop into larger stories or simply details that get lost in historical retrospection. The adverts! The amazing old magazine smell! The slightly bitchy reviews of books which went on to be classics! I learnt a lot of the details of history of science in its news-stories, and a lot about the rhetorics of science communication there too. Reading the stories outside of their original publishing context helped me focus on the storytelling aspects of them, considering the ways the language and images we use to discuss new science and technology has changed over time. You could also spot interesting changes in style, and the assumptions they seemed to be making about readers’ prior knowledge or interest.

I rarely work from libraries any more, most of what I need’s online. So now, when I want some pseudo-work procrastination I go to the Popular Science online archive. This doesn’t smell quite so good, and you can’t wander through it in the same way, but you can still potter around its old pages, even if hands don’t touch paper. Type a word in to the word frequency visualiser and see the distribution of its use over 140 years. Try any word. Science. Robot. Internet. Drone. Go, have a play. As with the Google Ngrams, you have to be careful not to analyses them too quickly, without fair thought about the very diverse and individual contexts and contingencies which construct any utterance of each word. Still, as with the Ngrams, these can be a great way into the detail.

There’s certainly a rich set of data to consider. Popular Science was founded in 1872 as a monthly publication largely aiming to help spread scientific knowledge. A fair bit of their content was a matter of re-publishing scientific articles from the UK. The audience was imagined as “the educated layman”; not fulltime scientists, but knowledgeable and interested nonetheless. It was maybe easier to read unmediated science back then. In comparison, the old science editor of the Guardian, Tim Radford, tells a story about ringing up the then editor of Nature (a publication that’s supposed to be readable by all scientists, not just within disciplines) to get help understanding a particularly tricky paper and being told that even he didn’t really get it. Science today has become an intently segmented business.

By the start of World War One, tensions in Popular Science’s initial model started to show. It merged with sever other popular technology magazines and, re-launching with a new editor, took a less-academic stance. Rather than long articles and the odd picture, it focused on shorter pieces and a greater reliance on images, aiming at people with a personal interest in science and technology, especially hobbyists who might be tinkering at home. As machines became more complex and expertise flowed down ever more narrow silos throughout the 20th century, you can arguably spot a greater focus on the various promises of consumer technologies rather than science-in-progress or hobbyist tinkering. It’s always been a varied magazine though.

The focus on the promise of technology might sometimes seem overhyped, especially when you look back and find glimpses of futures that were never realised. If you enjoy these kind of lost futures, I can recommend the Smithsonian Magazine’s Paleofuture blog with it’s tagline “the history of a future that never was”. Matt Novak, its author, invites us to think about the way various imaginings of the future provided by advertising materials, popular science and fiction function to create ideas of progress, some of which we do go on to make, as well as those we don’t. He uses history to show off the dreaming and decision making we all routinely make about technology, but don’t always notice at the time.

Paleofuture recently ran a great series on the Jetsons, weaving references to non-fiction and advertising to discuss the complex range of ways we continue to imagine futures. It’s got a couple of nice pieces, for example, on traveling through a pneumatic personal tube system, and what we might now call videophones. There are also prompts to consider the political and cultural context of the Jetsons vision of the future, and what that means about the ways in which we think technology should be put to use then, and now. One post starts with George Jetson complaining “Yesterday, I worked two full hours!” before outlining some of the long history of technology applied to offer click-button access to increased leisure time (as opposed to simply giving us more work). Another piece argues the Jetsons provides a rather conservative vision of the future, one where images technological future are used to enact and refine existing social structures rather than change them. A message which is as present in the semi-fictions of advertising and so-called non-fiction as it is in the Jetsons (divides around fiction always being slippery, but especially so when it comes to the future of technology).

If you want more, Googlebooks offers access to a host of other science and technology publications, some older even than Popular Science. There are several university archives too. I think my favourite is Virginia Commonwealth University’s collection of Preventive Maintenance Monthly. A US Army magazine founded during the Korean war after realising the ways soldiers were encountering problems with their increasingly complex equipment, it might not seem so exciting as the PopSci visualiser or smart analysis of the Jetsons. Except that “father of the graphic novel” Will Eisner was its artistic director from the magazine’s 1951 launch until 1971, and employed several other artists who went on to be stalwarts of comic book publishing. It’s visual approach to explaining how technology works, as well as the way they rhetorically use humour to warn about mistakes, is fascinating.

Finally, all this play in archives has made me worry, again, about the future of popular science publications like these. Perhaps the web’s ability to connect and provide for smaller audiences provides some hope: Crowd-funded startups like Matter, for example. Or maybe the expectation of free-to-read content will mean it’ll be down to philanthropists to support media, as with Aeon, or models which somehow manage to rely on advertising revenues (and to do so without compromising editorial independence?).

Or maybe we will just stop producing new content and sit getting lost in archives, endlessly reliving promises of futures long gone. Much as I think time spent with old images of the future can help us think more clearly about the future we want to build now, we also have to pay attention to how people are currently building our futures, today.

Climate change: a process, not an event

keeling curveThe Keeling Curve. It shows the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over time. Anyone who follows climate change will know it well. It’s called Keeling after a Charles D. Keeling, and it’s curved because it’s going up. Dr K began a regular measure of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back in 1958, from an observatory in Hawaii. Today, his son Ralph works on the same research project; a nice example of the long-roots of our multi-generational science of environmental change. The full graph shows the long sweep from 1958 – when it was around 317 parts per million – till today’s readings skirting around 400. That’s what graphs show: Change. They are stories in a way.

I share it because I want to stress the point that climate change – like the science that lets us witness it and politics that helps us do anything about it – is a process, not an event.

Events have their uses. I was at a conference last year where scientist Myles Allen argued events like the upcoming Fifth Assessment of the IPCC were more trouble than they’re worth; an interruption to more effective on-going processes of science, only offering opportunities for sceptics. In response, journalist Fiona Harvey argued such events might not obviously serve scientists, but they allowed her a chance to take stock of the developments in climate science and work out what was best discussed with her readers. I think she had a point.

There was the Energy Bill last week, for example. An event which may not have come to the conclusion everyone wanted, perhaps, but it still had outcomes we can build on. It was also a chance to publicise the issue and build momentum, even if we’re not up to speed yet. On an international level, there are events like COPs, or Rio +20 last year. Again, frustrating for many, but not without reasons to be cheerful too. It’s important that these events are recognised as part of a longer process and that we build in spaces for reflection and recovery after moments of political failure. For all that the post-Copenhagen slump was understandable, it took way too long to recover from, and there are going to be more like that. Action on climate change isn’t a series of battles building to summative liberation; it’s a long, hard slog.

Dramatic moments within the processes of environmental change can also provide useful anchors for social and cultural reaction; whether they are events we can easily witness like the recent floods in Central Europe (yes, you can talk about weather events, just do it well) or those we need scientific work to help us see (such as when we passed 400ppm on the Keeling Curve).

If you’re playing horizon scanning, there’s also the potentially disruptive role of new technology to consider. Geoengineering is a key concern here, especially the way the very idea of it can impact on current plans, regardless of whether it actually happens or not. Science studies people sometimes talk about the sociology of expectations, the ways in which ideas of the future are applied and managed to influence what we do today. I don’t want to imply techno-pessimism here. The idea of a simple technofix may be silly, but technology can help us fix things too. There are reasons to be hopeful about the power of innovation. Still, we have to be bold and clever and take control of it, which is another reason why events much be understood as part of a process, so we can join the process as early on as possible and play a role in the direction technology takes (“upstream” engagement if you will).

Climate campaigners would also be served by paying more attention to science as a social process. They could work harder to forge alliances with scientists, utilise science’s social and cultural capital, and play a role in helping scientists productively talk to each other (especially in terms of how Western scientists might help those in the developing world). I’d also like to see them critique research funding more, helping to open public debates over why, what and whose ends our R&D budget is aimed at. Environmental NGOs could play a powerful role in helping science stand up for itself here, as well as helping science improve by critiquing itself; both things the scientific community should welcome.

That said, climate change communications could leave the science alone more often too. Climate change as an issue, isn’t simply the science of tracking what’s happening in the natural world, it is something we’ve been trying to act on for decades (albeit not always that successfully). And yet, if you look up “what is climate change”, you typically get scientific explanations. Programmes like adopt a negotiator are all too rare. We need more of these, ones that talk to different audiences in different ways, but at least try to connect the public with the political infrastructure of climate change. It’s perhaps no surprise many feel politically disengaged with climate change when all they are offered are depoliticised inscriptions of science.

But back to that graph, because it is important, and the point it hit 400 ppm last month. If you’d been following its climb, the power of hitting that symbolic point was very dramatic. I certainly felt it. But you needed to have been following it, or the drama looked a bit silly. Symbols don’t mean anything if you can’t anchor the referent. If we want people to be there for the various events of climate change, you need to engage them with the process first. If you want to avoid being surprised by other people’s events, you need to be connected to their processes. If you want to be resilient in the face of political failure, you need to see it as part of a long game and build spaces for recovery along the way. Climate change is a long game; action on it needs to keep its eye on that.

The first appeared on Greenpeace’s Energy Desk blog.

How science works: follow the money

I’m mainly blogging at the Guardian at the moment. Today I posted a piece on the fossil fuel disinvestment campaign, which has been rolling through  US universities for a while.

In essence, disinvestment is the opposite of investment, inviting people to think about how their money’s being used when they’re not using it themselves. There’s a good Rolling Stone piece from last February if you want a catch-up on how the campaign has taken off in the US, or see the 350 website for more.

As I wrote on the Guardian piece, I suspect UK universities will take broader approach to the ways in which their campus might become “fossil free”, largely because they don’t tend to have such large endowments to invest.

The People and Planet site already has a reasonably impressive list of demands under simply “move their money” including changes in careers advice, a phase-out of fossil fuel research and to demand more research funding on renewables. Recent years have seen growing campaigns to “disarm” universities – e.g. Leeds – not only in terms of shares in arms manufactures, but careers fairs and the money they take for research, which is substantial, as funding from the oil industry can be too.

In some respects, this is less about universities disinvesting, and more the other way around. It’s about preventing particular industries from being able to profit from the resources universities hold; the people we train, the cultural authority we hold and, perhaps above all, the focus of the research we do.

I suspect we’ll see more of these campaigns in the future. In fact, the University of Oxford will see on Thursday. Its Earth Sciences department is launching a new partnership with Shell. Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, will be there. And activists are planning to meet him.


“I’m a scientist. I shall be my own Minister for Science”

Via a mate who’s just read the new Thatcher biography by Charles Moore. On Thatcher, scientific advice and “the weather”:

“Dr John Ashworth, the Chief Scientist, who worked within the Central Policy Review Staff, asked to see Mrs Thatcher shortly after she had arrived at No. 10. As he entered, the Prime Minister said: ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am your Chief  Scientist,’ Ashworth replied. ‘Oh,’ said Mrs Thatcher, ‘do I want one of those?’ He explained his work, mentioning that he was completing a report about the then almost unstudied subject of climate change. Mrs Thatcher stared at him: ‘Are you standing there and seriously telling me that my government should worry about the weather?’ She told Ashworth that she was not going to have a minister of science at all: ‘I’m a scientist. I shall be my own Minister for Science.'” (p426; CM’s source = interview with Ashworth).

“But… Mrs T quickly realized that… she needed experts” and Moore says in a footnote she was “much later… the first head of government to make a major speech on the subject of climate change”. So that is OK then.

Related: Margaret Thatcher, science advice and climate change (by me, earlier this month)

A Life of Galileo: What Brecht can teach us about the public ownership of science

HSBC Stratford upon Avon

This post first appeared on New Left Project.

The central tourist strip of Stratford-upon-Avon is not the sort of place you expect to find much Marxism. It’s all a bit Ye Olde Costa Coffee, Anne Hathaway fudge, postcards, postcards, postcards and pink fridge magnets quoting As You Like It. The most subversive it gets is a pile of Terry Deary’s Terrible Tudors in the front of Waterstone’s (i.e. not very).

But Bertolt Brecht’s A Life of Galileo is currently playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s Swan Theatre, and Roxana Silbert’s production of Mark Ravenhill’s new translation puts the themes of class struggle front and centre.

On the surface, it’s a play about the clash between science and religion, but the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts manages to miss the point by a heliocentric system or three when his review complains of a post-Dawkins boredom with such “hectoring atheism”. The point of the play isn’t to privilege scientific thinking over others, it’s a critique of the way science can be captured by particular interests, a tale not of a hero but a complex, flawed man who wants to give science and its power over it to people and (crucially) improve science by listening to the people too.

The play is very much a product of the late 1940s, re-written by Brecht in 1947 in the still-blazing light of Hiroshima. The Galileo portrayed here is far from heroic. He’s patronising, arrogant, manipulative and happy to sell his work to not only the church, but the military too, if it only gives him some time to quietly peruse the stars. (He’s also extremely dismissive of women, but that might be more the play itself than a deliberately crafted negative character trait). Even the basis for the moment of technological determinism often cited as an expression of Brecht’s Marxism in the play – the invention of the telescope – is the product of theft. The play may start with Galileo naked, but he makes no pretence at purity. As he exclaims to an old pupil in his final speech “Welcome to the gutter, brother in science”.

More to the point, the play is much more about the distribution of power than the doctrines of Catholicism. It’s the organised in organised religion that’s of importance here, and how this may be all-too-often enacted to perpetuate social inequality. The church’s role in the play is largely a symbol for hegemonic power, part of Brecht’s preoccupation with science for the few compared to science for the many. Galileo wants to publish his work in vernacular Italian instead of Latin (the court philosophers laugh “the argument will lose brilliance”) and argues for the worth of the knowledge and skills of his working class collaborators. Later, after Galileo is threatened with torture and renounces his earlier work as heresy, one of these workers turns to the others to complain: “He never paid you properly for your work. You couldn’t buy a pair of trousers or publish your own work.” Galileo was exploitative too, part of the character’s fashioning as an anti-hero.

In many ways, the science is there for symbolic purposes too. Galileo’s story is picked above any other case study of attempted rebellion not just because of his relationship with the church but because his work displaced the idea the Pope sat at the centre of the universe. The order of the heavens Galileo science speaks of is used to reflect upon orders on Earth, a metaphor which runs thickly throughout the play and was especially drawn out by the set design for the National Theatre’s 2006 production. There is much talk of being unsettled and the people not knowing their “place”, as this particular thread of the scientific revolution is used as an extended allegory for possible social ones.

There is, importantly, still the worry that scientists themselves will become too powerful and simply create new hierarchies based on their own claims to expertise. But I think Brecht’s keen to avoid the suggestion we replace religious authority with a technocratic one. This is why Galileo is shown up for exploiting his workers and we are continually told of the use of the worth of listening to people to make better science. When Galileo’s old pupil feels let down near the end of the play and exclaims angrily “Unhappy the land that has no heroes”. Galileo replies humbly “No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”. Our scientist is an anti-hero not just for dramatic reasons or historical accuracy, but because Brecht wants to argue for collective rather than individual agency when it comes to understanding our world and working out how to make it better. The rallying cry of this play is to build a science and technology for the people, by the people, not simply defer to experts.

Perhaps befitting the astronomy-based talk of a topsy-turvy world, this new RSC production is a highly carnivalesque affair. At the start of the second half, a singing monk strips to reveal a fat suit over a tuxedo, in which he dances in along with the rest of the chorus, also in playful fancy dress, bathed in a pink light which runs through the set’s blue graph paper backdrop. This street festival then turns into a ball, with Galileo in shiny shoes, his daughter in a gown to announce her engagement to a wealthy landowner and clerics in glittery animal masks. Throughout, the historical span of the play is connected with a chorus who set the scenes by sing into large microphones. Ian McDiarmid, playing Galileo, seems to dance around the stage as the boyish scientific excitement comes almost entirely from his hips.

One might be tempted to critique this as simply licensed carnival – moments of sanctioned freedom to distract you from everyday oppression – especially as you leave the theatre and return to central Stratford-upon-Avon, walking past the mosaic of Shakespeare’s face adorning the local HSBC on the way to the station, as well as the Anne Hathaway fudge, fridge magnets and collected works of Terry Deary. Or when you read that the RSC have announced a new partnership deal with BP. Indeed, the BP deal invites us to think about one of the plays key themes: the corrupting role of patronship. More relevent, perhaps, is the role of BP in university-based scientific research and or science education, which invite us to consider the ways in which the play’s are still relevant. As Galileo bitterly declares in his closing speech: “Surely the purpose of science is to ease human hardship. If scientists follow the orders of those in power, if they store up knowledge for the sake of storing it up, then science will be crippled and your new machines will bring new forms of oppression.”

The RSC production ends with a nice touch: a young scientist throws an apple at a small child, telling her to learn to use her eyes. Apples have iconic status in the history of knowledge. Newton told the story of his apple not just because it’s a fruit that falls, but because it echoed Adam’s loss of knowledge in Eden; Newton had now got it this knowledge back. There’s a crucial difference, however, between whether Newton and other scientists felt such knowledge was now theirs, or whether it was seen as something for the whole of humankind. (Apparently Newton also thought he was no coincidence he shared a birthday with Christ, make of that what you will). We should expect scientists to share their work and be public accountable, but non-scientists should be proactive in the processes of opening it up too: stand up for the public funding of science and actively go forth and ask questions of professional researchers and their managers so you might be part of their research. Work with scientists and put them to work because other people already are. Check they’re building machines for liberation, not opression.

Go on. Be inspired by the possibilities. Bite into that apple.

Why “scientific literacy” is silly, again.

scientific literacy klaxon

The prize of smugness for anyone who can correctly guess which event caused a friend to text me this last year.

I spent an evening earlier this month doing some public engagement about public engagement. Or, talking about scientific literacy in a pub in Bloomsbury as part of the regular “Big Ideas” debates. If you don’t mind the sound of a load of pub chairs moving around, here’s a podcast.

It’s pretty similar to the stuff I covered for the BBC last summer but with added Boris Johnson and much longer (and better) Q&As at the end. Especially good first question from a chap who works for a biomedical charity.

Science policy and social media

Up and Atom

ANNOUNCEMENT: I’m part of a new blog network at the Guardian, “Political Science“. I’ll keep this for more personal/ niche content though. My first post there considers the way the public (or forms of publicity) are used to help reform science in the All Trails campaign. It’s based on a short talk I gave at the STEPS conference at Sussex this week, the full text of which follows.

The Royal Institution is up for sale. There are many interesting things about the fuss this has caused. One of which is that Harry Kroto has taken to twitter. It seems like that’s what happens when scientists get angry these days.

Social media is increasingly playing a role in science policy campaigns: All Trials Registered, All Results Reported (or the more 140c friendly alltrails), the anti-anti-GM “Don’t Destroy Research” and Science is Vital being just a few notable examples.

It’s an interesting development which as scholars of the field we should look at in more detail. From a more normative point of view, we might also welcome it as a sign of a greater openness in lobbying around science; making it more scrutinizable, more accountable and possibly more able to learn from a broader, more diverse, set of perspectives. Still, there are questions to ask and criticisms to make. Just because there are small moments of openness doesn’t mean that the majority of power brokering in science is still, if not outright secret, rather esoteric. Openness can be rhetorically applied and we need to think about that. Moreover, hashtags have histories and hierarchies as much as anything else; there are cultures and contingencies to consider here, as any campaign located in a specific social context. (Arguably, one of the reasons we’ve seen it in the UK is the relatively grassroots structure of our sceptics movement, and the experience of Libel Reform is important too.) It’s also worth reflecting on the ways in which ideas of the public and publicity are being used here and how this is similar and different from the rhetorical use of, for example, public polling data or protests putting bodies out in the street.

It’s not exactly new. I dug out my notes for a talk I gave on the topic at 2010  Science Online London conference (read text version and comment thread on blogpost I wrote at the time). There had been a lot of social media activity around the election, largely coalescing around the twitter hashtag “scivote”. I stressed that, as a hashtag, offered a connection; a folksonomical collective and dynamic socially constructed way of classifying. It connected people to events, information, ideas, debates and, quite simply, other people. It let individuals develop knowledge and interest and fostered community. You weren’t just the one person in the lab who was feeling a bit grumpy about the government, you were part of something larger. You didn’t have to feel weird about being a bit political. Still, none these connections happened entirely online and we  have to remember how much of a role much less public work happens around these online campaigns. The Science is Vital campaign, for example, gradually gathered expertise and steam from a few tweets and blogpost, but it also built on the infrastructure, contacts, profile and expertise of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (amongst others). That’s not to say Science Is Vital had no impact, it arguably let the more traditional lobbyists express a constituency that cared about these issues. That’s powerful political rhetoric.

It’s striking that although many of the online science policy campaigns have a grassroots-y feel to the, they are promoting rather traditional top-down expressions of scientific expertise and reflecting, if not emphasizing preexisting power networks. In one of the various obits of the Rio +20 talks this summer, John Vidal claimed the end fossil fuel subsidies and save the Arctic campaigns were “eye-catching global bottom-up initiatives”. They weren’t.

(When someone says “bottom up” always ask “whose bottom?”)

These campaigns were more about enumerating the actors of public relations than diffusing political power. They expressed a public, they didn’t try to involve them. And I think that’s how we can the recent scientific community based campaigns too; they don’t seem to have any particular interest in finding new opinions, just show there are people who have the same opinion as them. They didn’t want new questions, just more people to sign up to their answers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we can have public campaigns as well as public debate – as long as we recognise what we are looking at.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that both Libel reform and Science is Vital picked up a lot of expertise along with the more passive clickativist support: Lawyers, lobbyists, designers, programmers. In that respect it’s a different from the slicker professionalised projects we’ve seen from environmental campaigners.

It also strikes me that All Trials is especially interesting because it’s about publicizing absence of evidence and saying a bit of the medical science is broken. It’s being open about problems, albeit in a rather tightly framed way. And I think there’s a lot of potential there. I’m just not sure I’ve seen it realised yet.

The Production of Nonknowledge

private public

UCL’s Science and Society reading group discussed an interesting paper on the production of non-knowledge, what science decides not to look at, why and how. It’s interesting because the growing literature on the sociology of ignorance – e.g. agnotology – often sees it as a problem, but as this paper points out, it’s a routine part of science. I thought I’d share my notes. You can download the paper here (pdf).

  • Kempner, J, Merz, JF, Bosk ,CL (2011) “Forbidden Knowledge: Public Controversy and the Production of Nonknowledge”, Sociological Forum, Vol. 26, No. 3: 475-500.

Historians and sociologists of science have long studied they ways in which the social world shapes the production of knowledge. But there’s a limited amount of work on what we don’t know. We might argue it’s hard to get an empirical grip on the absence of something, except that scientists are active producers of non-knowledge; they routinely make decisions about what not to do, and sociologists can track that. In many respects, a process of selection is endemic to scientific work. To quote Robert Merton, “scientific knowledge is specified ignorance” (Kempner et al, 2011: 477).

This paper is particularly focused on scientists’ understandings of what they call ‘‘forbidden knowledge” (too sensitive, dangerous, or taboo in some way) and the ways particular topics might become seen as such. They see such forbidden knowledge as a rather dynamic category, shaped by culture, political climate, and the interests of researchers and therefore decide it’s best to focus on how knowledge comes to be forbidden rather than consider one specific aspect of forbidden knowledge or another (Kempner et al, 2011: 479-80)

What they did: 41 interviews collected 2002-3 drawn from six subject areas picked because such work might involve forms of forbidden knowledge (microbiology, neuroscience, sociology, computer science, industrial⁄organizational psychology and multidisciplinary drug and alcohol studies). Kempner et al identified the 10 top-ranked universities in each discipline and from lists of faculty, randomly chose names and backups in case they did not respond or simply refused. 30-45 mins, mainly by phone but 3 in person. The interview consisted of four sections: they asked researchers to name a prominent example of forbidden knowledge in their field; respondents were then probed on these responses and asked to comment on their own experiences as well as the experiences of their colleagues; thirdly, they asked a series of closed specific questions about practices and experiences; and finally, the interview ended with attitudinal questions about what the respondent felt about scientific freedom and social and professional constraints they worked under.

In terms of the results, Kempner et al found researchers perceived science as responsible and “safe”, with scientists committed to openness and generally moral. The pursuit of knowledge was seen as worth in of itself and perhaps providing the social function of challenging social norms: ‘‘Truth and knowledge is always the most liberating thing, even though it’s often unpleasant and not what people want to hear’’; ‘‘Our job is not to defend the status quo, our job is to explore truth (Kempner et al, 2011: 484). Research subjects disagreed (70%) or disagreed somewhat (20%) that: ‘‘A journal editor should reject a paper if peer review concludes that the results would undermine or clash with societal norms’’ (Kempner et al, 2011: 486).

When pushed, most of the agreed there are legitimate constraints on the production of knowledge; restrictions which provide valuable and necessary protections to society. However, they were largely dismissive of constraints on science which they understood to be motivated by electoral politics, or, as one respondent remarked, are “just typical of American Yahoo politics”. Stem-cell research stood out as an example of overly restrictive limits and the Bush Jnr era America this research was conducted in may well have been a factor. Many respondents expressed a preference that scientists themselves should determine the no-go areas for research, not policymakers or some abstract notion of ‘‘publics’’ (Kempner et al, 2011: 486).

Most of the researchers were also to outline entire areas of research that they felt could/should not be conducted in their fields. Perhaps most tellingly, terms of areas which were already seen as no-go, they tended to do so by reporting stories about people who had broken norms through a series ‘‘cautionary tales’’ which amounted to a sort of gradually constructed collective memory of ‘‘what not to do’’ (Kempner et al, 2011: 486). It seemed that researchers often stumbled into forbidden territory through no intention of their own, only learning they’d hit upon some area of forbidden knowledge when legislators, news agencies, activist groups or institutional review board raised unanticipated objections.

All that said, according to this data, working scientists do not shy away from controversy. If anything, they are driven by it, as long as the controversy is within the community of working scientists, not those pesky policy makers or publics. (Kempner et al, 2001: 487). Drug and alcohol researchers in particular framed the division between these two worlds using an ‘‘us versus them’’ narrative (Kempner et al, 2001: 488). Still, there were internal forces of constraint mentioned too. More than a third of the respondents reported they or one of their colleagues chose not to pursue/ publish research because they knew it contravened accepted dogmas of their discipline in some way.

Overall, they concluded that “forbidden knowledge” was omnipresent in the research process, routine almost as scientific research often “requires that all working scientists learn to accept the bit so that they can properly march their paces” (Kempner et al, 2001: 494). Accepting forms of what might be called censorship is central to the everyday work of making knowledge. Kempner et al go as far to say they found it “puzzling that scientists could maintain an adherence to normative principles of free inquiry while prodigiously avoiding the production of forbidden knowledge” (Kempner et al, 2001: 496) which I found a bit unfair, or at least it’s not “puzzling” even though it’s worth pointing out and discussing. On a more normative level, as non-knowledge is such a routine part of science we should acknowledge this more. We should also perhaps try to heal that “them” vs “us” divide to build productive debate about science chooses what not to research (something I’m sure would actually liberate a lot of scientists, far from the image depicted in this paper’s interviews).