Category Archives: sociology

Science Communication 101 bibliography

A couple of months ago, a colleague asked me to post an introductory bibliography for science communication studies. I was slightly wary, because the literature in the field is rather scattered and can be a bit dense in places. Moreover, I don’t like the idea that you need to have read any particular source to understand science communication. I do think they can help, but you can learn about the topic in a range of ways. The idea of a science communication ‘canon’ is silly.

Still, inspired by a recent set of History of Psychology bibliographies and a great one at the Science and Democracy Network, I thought it might be useful. I’ve tried to give sources which are accessible: both in terms of being easy to read and being easy to find (and as much as possible, free to download).

Let me know if I’ve missed something you think is amazing and want to share with others. I should also say upfront that this is quite UK centric.

  • Science in Public, by Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. This textbook is comprehensive, clear and ever so slightly cynical (in a good way). Annoyingly, it is also about 15 years old. It looks a bit dated in places and I wish they’d do an update, but most of the content still stands up and it’s still the first book I’d recommend.
  • These two recent books from the OU on Science Communication in an Information Age are designed as introductions and are pretty good (even if they don’t really get to grips with what they mean by information age…).  I especially like the essays by Alan Irwin, Robert Doubleday, Jack Stilgoe, James Wilsdon, Sarah Davies and Felicity Mellor.
  • See Through Science by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis, published by Demos. This is free, downloadable, clearly written and reasonably short. It’s the manifesto for ‘upstream’ science communication, but’s also a great introduction to ideas in public participation in science. I tell students to read it to help revise for exams. Other Demos publications The Public Value of Science and The Received Wisdom are recommended.
  • Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change provides a very clear run through the social studies of science which are relevant to science communication. Its focus is environmental science, but much of it is more broadly applicable. I can similarly recommend Steven Epstein’s  Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge as a book on a reasonably specific topic which manages to introduce a load of key ideas along the way.
  • The 2000 House of Lords Report on Science and Society. Yes, a Lords report that is totally readable and incredibly influential. For real. The government recently tried to update this with a series of more specific reports, and the one on trust is worth a read (though most of the others dated quite quickly). This recent study of scientists talking about public engagement from LSE’s BIOS Centre will also help bring things up to date.
  • If you want the classics, you should read Misunderstanding Science? from Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne. It’s worth listening to Wynne’s interview in the CBC “How to Think About Science” podcasts for a bit more context. Irwin’s Citizen Science is also worth a read. These will help explain why people bitch about a so-called ‘deficit model’. Stephen Hiltgartner’s paper on the ‘Dominant View’, is also useful for understanding a shift from talking down to the public about science and instead attempting to inspire conversations between science and society.
  • Peter Broks’ Understanding Popular Science is good for the long view, including some clear introductions to areas of social theory (or at least notions of ‘modernity’ etc). Don’t be put off by the title, it is about science communication in general (by which I mean it includes what some people prefer to call ‘engagement’ rather than ‘popular science’). If you like your social theory with a more sociological smell, try Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge by Alan Irwin and Mike Michael.
  • Oh yeah, I edited a book once. I forgot about that. You should totally read that. Ok, don’t. It’s really rare, but the introduction, which you can download for free, is probably quite useful. My essay in that book – on the way we frame children’s relationships with science – is also free to download.
  • There is an Encyclopedia of Science Communication. Obviously it is BRILLIANT because I wrote two of the entries. It is also huge, heavy and £220. So… um, see if your local university library has a copy.
  • If you are interested in studies of what the public think/ know about science you really should try to get hold of Bauer et al’s ‘What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research’. It introduces all the main approaches and publications in this area, with brilliant clarity and fair context.
  • If you are interested in science in the news media, Stuart Allan’s Media, Risk and Science is a nice clear introductory textbook. I can also recommend this report from the University of Cardiff. It’s nothing especially shocking and starting to show its age, but I’ve found myself sharing it loads over the last couple of years as a great introduction to basic media analysis of science. Dorothy Nelkin’s Selling Science is another classic, and Martin Bauer’s longitudinal analysis of 20th century British science news is fascinating. There are loads of other great books on the topic, but they are quite rare.
  • If it’s popular science writing you are interested in, then have a read of some of Jon Turney’s essays on the topic. Elizabeth Leane’s Reading Popular Physics is also worth a look, and for a historical view, it’s hard to beat Fyfe and Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace (it’s not just about books either).
  • When it comes to ‘new-ish media’, science bloggers are a reflexive bunch and what they write about themselves is often worth a look. It doesn’t always have the same depth or breadth of view as you’d expect from academic research, but their subjective experience can be useful and interesting too. Ed Yong’s journalism category is certainly worth keeping a eye on. Alternatively, Brian Trench has some neat overviews of science online in these three books.

As with any list of introductory texts, it’s a bit vanilla in places. If you want the juicy bits, follow up the interesting sounding references in bibliographies. Or, for more up to date and detailed work, have a dig around the field’s main two journals: Public Understanding of Science and Science Communication. You might also find Science as Culture, the Social Studies of Science, and Science, Technology and Human Values useful. There is also the Journal of Science Communication – a fair amount of it is just masters’ dissertations, but these can be interesting and it’s open access.

Science and its spam filter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The brain: the new weather?

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

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

Drinks for sale at my local corner shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STS and the Bernalian nightmare

blue corners

Steve Fuller gave a seminar on philosophy of science to our MSc students last week. Always good for a provocative one-liner, at one point Steve described 21st century science and technology studies (STS) as “the poster child for neoliberal knowledge production”.

These words haunted me for the following two days, as I attended an STS conference on “Neurosociety“. It was held at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, where much of STS at Oxford is based. Many other STS scholars across Europe similarly work in business schools, or at the very least have some sort of reference to “innovation” in the branding of their degrees, something Fuller made a slight dig about.

Saying STS has simply sold out by hanging-out with business types is both unfair and simplistic. However, there are questions to be asked here, especially about who STS serves, and how. I remembered a seminar I attended last year given by Jane Gregory (linked to this paper) where she argued much of the STS influenced “Public Engagement” movement had ended up being used as a way to sell novel products to the UK public (which wasn’t necessarily its initial aim). There are also ongoing questions about the ways in which STS ideas are used by climate change deniers, alternative medicine advocates or proponents of intelligent design.

One of the most entertaining papers at the Neurosociety conference was from Andy Balmer. His PhD looked at contemporary lie detection technologies. He suggested that in some respects, his work could amount to a form of market research; he wasn’t doing history and sociology as much as checking out competitors. Could he, armed with such knowlege, use STS to build the perfect lie detector? His paper’s joke, for those who are familiar with the work of Bruno Latour, suggested the commodification of the black box, complete with a range of attachments: headphones, a timer and, for the “deluxe model” a webcam and wifi. Everyone chuckled and someone suggested the black box might seem insulting, or at least limiting, to  consumers: why not sell them in a range of colours? Still I don’t think STS scholars should just laugh off the ways in which their ideas might be used. Maybe the commercialisation of STS is a good thing. Perhaps it is an important way in which it can have “impact”, as the people most interested in how technologies succeed or fail to sell are those who want to sell  technology. However, there are other ways STS might make their work meaningful to others (and find new meaning through such interactions) and other ways to funding such work too.

There was also a fair amount of talk at the conference about the ways in which neuroscience serves neoliberalism, with some debate over whether neuroscience itself critiques such a link sufficiently. I found quite a bit of this discussion a bit loose. As Will Davies asked in a question, is it neoliberalism people are talking about here, or just  liberalism, or even simply “that which happens to be around in the west today”. This debate could do with a bit more precision. There was also, I felt, slight smugness (and short-sightedness?) over STS’s ability to provide such a critique and an apparent inability of neuroscience to do such work itself. As Nikolas Rose argued at the end of the conference, the idea that neuroscientists are not critical about their field does not hold true at all.

I still think STS-ers can still provide some service here; I’m not arguing that science is simply “self-correcting”. Indeed, I think precisely because neuroscience is such a self-critical area, they would be interested in any (productive) critiques STS had to offer, and have much to offer STS in return.

One of Fuller’s other lines to our MSc students was the image of contemporary science as a sort of “Bernalian nightmare” (as in a nightmare for JD Bernal) where science had become fragmented to serve the various interests of the tobacco industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the agricultural industry, etc. In doing so, it has perhaps lost a coherent sense of what it means to be scientific. A Bernalian dream, rather than nightmare, would see scientists working together to develop a sense of global sense of science, to keep it ‘pure’ in some way. We could, perhaps, say similar things of science studies which is increasingly located, or at least funded alongside scientific research, with scholars embedded in large-scale projects (e.g. at the LHC, or in genomics).

As I wrote a couple of months ago, I’m quite happy with the idea of science communication studies having a rather fragmented existence. It doesn’t mean scholars can’t hold an independent position, or that people within science communication studies can’t come together to share and argue about the things they study. I’m just not sure they need a coherent sense of self. Moreover, I think they work best when they work with a diverse set of stakeholders. This is something I’ve said about science for years, and I’m happy to apply it to STS too (indeed, it was studying STS that convinced me of this, along with the importance of reflexivity).

Maybe I read too much Dorothy Nelkin at a formative age, I just prefer the “critical friend” model.

The picture at the top of this p0st, in case you are wondering, is of an administration building at Imperial College, taken from a walkway underneath it, looking up.

The known unknowns

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

at conference

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Krebs talks badgers

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

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

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

Maybe tomorrow will surprise me.

The discipline of science communication

The latest edition of the Journal of Science Communication is up, and I’m in it.

I was asked to discuss the question ‘does science communication deserve special attention as an academic discipline?’ Read my contribution, and you’ll see I don’t really answer the question. Or rather I answer with a simple negative and then, um… spin that out for a few pages with a long list of references. Susanna Hornig Priest’s contribution is much better. Read that instead.

Something Hornig Priest refers to is the difference between inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary work (or, the difference between connecting disciplines and mixing them). I think this sort of awareness of discipline is something shared by everyone involved in science communication. As I argue in my contribution, for me science communication is less a community of researchers, and more a space where we deal with the fact such communities of research exist. It is a consequence of the spaces left between fragmented expertise, a weird by-product of modernity. So, I refused to answer JCom’s question properly not just out of petulance, but because I feel more like someone who works in the spaces between academic disciplines than one desiring of building their own.

This middle ground is not always an easy place to reside, but an awareness of this unease is part of how I think science communication scholars can be useful; as we examine, reflect, debate and help others manage the clashes between communities of knowledge. As such, I think it necessarily involves a fair bit of both multi and inter-disciplinary work, as well as a strong awareness (I’d personally add, involvement) with practitioners and audiences. This does also mean you spend most of your life ignorant of most of what you are looking at. You feel constantly stupid (but in exchange you get to see loads of different amazing things).

It’s not for everyone and nor should it be, but it’s where I work.

On laughter and ridicule

I have a post about science and humour as part of the the Guardian’s science blogging festival. Go read, and have a look at some of the other blogposts while you are there.

The interactions between science and comedy is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. I did some work on humour in popular science discourse as part of my PhD. I’ve given papers about it at the LSE and University of Manchester. Somewhere on my hard-drive have a draft journal article (email me at college if you’re interested in the bibliography).

As I say in the Guardian post, I think we need to remember the ways in which humour reflects communities of shared understanding. A premise of a joke could be thought of as the basis of a question: do you understand it, do you agree with it? If so, laugh. If not, you scowl/ are left confused. The processes of making, sharing and accepting jokes is both divisive and inclusive, bringing people together as well as demonstrating where they don’t connect. I don’t think we can escape this; we just need to be aware of it.

On this topic, I can recommend the first chapter of Giselinde Kuipers’ book (pdf). The whole book is good, but that’s the free bit. Also, this study of jokes told amongst mathematicians (pdf) makes a great example of jokes within a science-ish community.

The piece is also an invitation  to take a critical approach to humour. To stand up proudly sour-faced in front of a joke you disagree with. In this I am partly following Micheal Billig’s approach to humour. Billig argues we must go against an unthinking celebration of humour: “The critic has to examine the idea that the world might be changed by warm-heartedness, lots of hugging and a little more laughter” (Billig, 2004: 11). In doing so, “We might appear anti-humour, but there are worse crimes” (Billig, 2004: 9). It’s a  bit like a call to remain sceptical of humour. Personally I think an anti-humour approach is slightly grim, I’d rather celebrate jokes I like than just beat down the ones I don’t, which is why I included (admittedly awful) jokes in that post, and why I asked for examples of favourite jokes at the end. But I do also think we should retain some scepticism over comedy.

Jokes are a way of expressing opinion, and we don’t all agree on everything. A good laugh can be brilliant. So can a clever joke. It can make you happy and it can make you think. It can also be deeply offensive and make you cry. Just because it’s a joke doesn’t excuse the latter two reactions.

… and yes I have seen this xkcd and I do think it’s funny (because I recognise it), but I’m really not saying this to be superior. I hope that’s clear because the main reason I care about this issue is that I’d love an escape from one-upmanship when it comes to public debate about science and technology.

Storm the Royal Society?

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

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

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

A couple of points worth expanding on:

1) Expertise

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

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

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

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

2) Monitorial citizenship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science is cool? Considering the "evidence"

I’ve just written a piece on Comment is Free responding to the “How Science Became Cool” feature they ran last Tuesday. This is the sweary bit I couldn’t fit in (though with slightly less swearing than when I saw the headline they’d given it and read comment number 3…)

The piece for the Guardian runs through some of the evidence of science’s public popularity. But research into science and the public doesn’t just provide evidence, it also provides reflection. One basic tenet of such reflection being that the notion of “science” isn’t nearly as uniform as is sometimes imagined (for developed theory and a set of historical examples, see this book). Another central tenet is that whether you like, agree and/ or believe in a piece science is largely cultural (classic study of this being Brian Wynne’s sheep farmers). Baring both these points in mind, we should not forget the tensions within the great big Venn diagram of groups which have connected to form the apparent “new” coolness of science.

I think the most illustrative example of this is last December’s “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People“. Or, as it later became known for the post-Christmas TV transmission: Nerdstock. I remember hearing people say they much preferred the term Nerdstock, they would have loved to have gone but were put off by the word “Godless” in the title. And yet people wanting to express their atheism were arguably the fuel of the event. Similarly, within self-confessed science fans, there are those with more space-y interests and those who are rather more David Attenborough in their tastes, both sitting alongside each other with some degree of incomprehension. There are also the wades of commentators on the “How Science Became Cool” piece who wined “don’t leave science to the cool kids, that’s the last thing we want”.

These are all tensions, territories and cultural identities we have to remember if considering the movement of science through popular culture. Moreover, I think that the more activist science communicators (i.e. those who want to change peoples minds) need to take seriously those who disagree or are not sure about particular ideas in science. I don’t think it’s helpful to write them off as anything as broad brush as “anti” the whole of science. This is not to say you have to agree with them, or even display any rhetorical sense of agreement. But you have to think about what precisely they don’t like and why if you really want to convince them otherwise. As I wrote in the post about Shell and the Science Museum, throw your hands up in the air with incredulity at their stupidity if you like: see how far that gets you.

I worry that that with a celebration of aesthetics of science the response to “isn’t this cool” will be, from many, “er, no”. There’s the famous youtube clip of Richard Dawkins saying “Science is interesting, and if you don’t like it, you can fuck off.” That’s great if you already agree with him. It’s funny and the appeal to those who “can fuck off” helps emphasise a sense of bonded community by way of noting those aren’t in it. But it only puts off those who disagree with you even more. As I’ve blogged before, I think science communication should say this is awesome because. It should earn and demonstrate wonderment, not assume it.

Of course, another central tenet of science communication research is you shouldn’t assume a need to ram science down everyone’s throat. Not everyone likes science, not everyone knows much science. And that’s ok. Maybe the disinterested can fuck off then, though I can think of a fair few specific examples where I’d rather they didn’t (personally, for me: science funding, climate change). It’s a difference between liking or disliking that big old complex thing called “science” and having an opinion about a specific scientific issue which I think is the important point here.

I agree the science brand seems to be doing pretty well right now, but let’s not get carried away about the novelty or reach of this. Moreover, don’t let a sense of glitzy uniformity of a big old thing called “science” obscure the detail in its guts, be this good, bad, useful, pointless, ugly or beautiful. Don’t fuck off if you don’t happen find one or other aspect of it interesting, and please don’t get arrogant or cliquey enough to tell others to do so either.

EDIT 19:45 20th April: just in case you worry I’m quoting Dawkins out of context, he is repeating a New Scientist editor with the “can fuck off” line. There’s great context provided in this longer video of the event, which I can heartily recommend anyway (ta Scott)