Tag Archives: brains

Book Review: Genes, Cells and Brains

  • Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (2013) Genes, Cells and Brains: the Promethean promises of the new biology (London: Verso). This review first appeared in Red Pepper.

Hilary and Steven Rose’s new book is about the politics of biology, but it’s also about themselves. The Roses are professors of sociology (her) and neurobiology (him), both with long-standing and vocal commitment to the left. They’re married, as the book quickly informs you with a touching reference to their meeting in a New Left Club on Oxford St. Such anecdotes reflect not just ways in which the personal is political but that the history of biology is both of these things too.

As junior academics in the 1960s, they received an extra £50 a year to their salaries for each of their children. This was due to the influence of William Beverage who, as a keen eugenicist, wanted to encourage such bright young academics to breed. This story warns us to beware of simplistic hero-building, but also that ideologies, bodies, science and administration wrap together in the Roses’ life history, just as their book argues such matrixes of technoscience effect us all.

The book is also about the large and important abstract entities of its title – genes, cells and brains – and the institutions, people, ideologies, offices, publications and above all, money that not only helps bring such entities into human understanding but direct what we do with them. It is a book critical, pointed and clear in explanations of the political economy of modern biology, and how this is significant not only for our understanding of how the world works, but how we imagine ourselves in it and how we choose to engineer it, including engineering ourselves.

The spectre of reductive materialism haunts this book, as one might expect from a Marxist take on biology. This is a reading I have never quite got behind. It is, itself, just too reductive. I remain unconvinced Victorian ideologies that influenced early Darwinian concepts of evolution really explain that much about the politics of biology today. There is nothing ‘inherent’ in the sociology of science. Humans are just not so mechanically simple. Still, the Roses offer several useful lines of critique. There’s a neat passage on the ‘outsourcing of ethics’ through the structures and uses of specialist bioethicists. They raise a sceptical eyebrow at Lord Sainsbury’s £11 million worth of donations to Labour and oh-so-generous refusal to take a salary when he did, finally, get the job of science minister he so coveted. They also note the influence of the Wellcome Trust as “the ten-thousand-pound gorilla in the genomics room”, not only significantly bankrolling their own science but lobbying the government to follow their lead too. They could probably be more critical of the Trust, which may have done an enormous amount of good, but is not be above questioning. As Stella Creasy’s asked, should they invest in Wonga?

In some respects the Roses paint a picture of a society that sleepwalked into significant and dangerous changes to the life sciences. Science journalism is partly held accountable, failing in its role as 4th estate with an over-reliance on churnalism. There’s also a finger pointed at the architects of the new left for simply not paying enough attention to science. I’d personally cast some blame at the sociology of science for a lack of public engagement, although these issues are complex, and the forces that have aimed to narrow, ‘outsource’ and obfuscate public debate on the politics of science to rather neoliberal ends have been a strong force to reckon with.

In some ways, I was left with a sense the Roses feel it’s too late to save science for the people. There’s a tempting whiff of truth to such pessimism, but I’m personally more hopeful. For all it’s socialism, the story told by the Roses seem rather preoccupied by big names. Arguably this is appropriate for a book about science, which is a highly hierarchical business dominated by loud personalities, for all its occasional posturing to be otherwise. But I suspect more social history/ ethnographically inspired empirical work talking to the middle-ranking workers of science would have pulled out a slightly different picture. More normatively, I think it’s through the building of horizontal networks between such workers that we’ll see positive change.

The book also felt slightly tired, and a bit dated in places. It’s all a bit old-new left. What about the newer-new lefts, the ones that write blogposts not books, that build and break networks online, that flirt with sceptics in the pub, make internet memes to parody Dawkins and are increasingly more worried by environmental sciences than biology? Where do these new monsters of technoscience fit into the scheme of science in society? Are there ways they might occupy scientific spaces, reclaim areas of knowledge and the very notion of techno-utopianism? Might they break the institutionalised nature of much so-called citizen science and public engagement, ignore the publication relations messages of groups like the Science Media Centre, agree and disagree in equal measure with Ben Goldacre and make new social movements for the 21st century all their own? I think they might. Or at least I think they have potential.

If you’re interested in science in society (and you should be, because those who are hold the keys to our futures), read this book. But don’t be taken in too deeply by its neater stories, and certainly don’t let it depress you too much. Let it make you angry enough to want to learn from more than just the good Professors Rose.

Paper on brain bloggers

A bit of brain-y street art, Shoreditch, London.

A while ago, I started some research into people who blog about the brain, in particular the ways they see their audiences  Sadly, changes in jobs meant I didn’t have time to develop that particular research interest (and I mean sadly, because this study only strengthened my belief that science bloggers are fascinating, for all sorts of reasons). However, I wrote up my preliminary notes for the Canadian Journal of Media Studies, and you can read it here (download pdf, no paywall).

The abstract follows, though please note (ht to Bora Zivkovic) the disjunction between speed of changes in science blogging and the slowness of scholarly publishing means some of the links don’t currently work. A bit of googling should get you round this, as usually it’s a case that blogs have moved but individual posts have kept the same titles and datestamp.

“ScienceBlogs is a high school clique, Nature Network is a private club”: Imagining the audiences of online science.

This paper is the result of preliminary research on science bloggers, with a focus on how science bloggers view their audiences, the community they sit within and their personal social identity within that. It starts with some broad background on science blogging, in particular the ways in which science bloggers seem to congregate around networks, their concerns over seeming exclusive, and they ways they may actively attempt to either maintain or blur boundaries around the social identity of scientist, journalist and blogger. I then move onto more detailed work on people who blog about the brain, offering some rough work-in-progress results of a small survey study. From this early analysis, it seems that an idea of an audience is important to many science bloggers, although they are not necessarily all that sure of the specific make up of this audience. Moreover, it seems that science bloggers see their audiences not simply as a recipient of scientific knowledge, but a potential resource, and as blogging as being part of an ongoing diverse conversation. As this is the first stage of analysis, I finish with some notes on how I see the next stage of this work.

Imagining the communities of online science

As a researcher of science writing and science writers, I’m interested in the ideas science bloggers have about the communities they are part of.

Bloggers being a reflexive lot, I have a growing collection of posts which discuss some of the issues involved here. Still, I want to go beyond the limited perspective provided by simply pointing and clicking through the blogs I already read, and see if I can generate something new. I decided to focus on people who blog about something to do with the brain. I choose the brain because it seemed like an area where there is a lot of interest in interdisciplinary work, as well as being one with a fair bit of sometimes contentious popular interest. I thought I might find elements of what might be called ‘bad science blogging’ and outreach work,  as well as researchers talking about their work in quite technical ways. I thought I might see overlaps in communities and cultural identities, and that this would be interesting.

My first main step was a very rough survey. The aim of this was just to increase the perspective; to introduce me to new blogs and bloggers, and get some ideas for how to frame interview questions at later stages of the work. I posted a set of questions a bit before Christmas, and have spent time over the last few months considering the results, including some of the new sides to blogging (both content they generate, and ideas about them one might hold) it has led me to. This is where I am now, and my next step will be to interview a smaller number of bloggers.

Having posted the call openly, I feel some responsibility to report back. Some of the responses were even posted publicly (in the comment thread, or on blogger’s sites). However, others were not only emailed to me, but also marked with as private. Moreover, I don’t want to go into detail about the results of this survey because it really is a rough look at the field. It is designed to help me do rigorous research, rather than be rigorous research in itself. It is not representative of science blogging, or even those who blog on the brain. It didn’t set out to be.

So here’s a compromise: a bit of an overview of what I’ve found which COMES WITH HUGE HEALTH WARNINGS (add your own red flashing lights here).

I emailed several bloggers I knew of in advance to ‘seed’ the project.  It was posted on my blog, and I posted a link to this on twitter. It was re-tweeted, and a few other bloggers linked to it too. I was taking a sort of ‘snowball’ approach, drawing on the connectivity of online communication to help see what I picked up. I was purposely vague with the notion of brain bloggers. I wanted to see who it attracted.

I received 47 responses in total. Some were academics, and there were a few science students who described themselves as scientists in training. Some were probably best described as patient bloggers; with a disease or injury relating to the brain. Some were journalists, some were skeptics and some I can only describe as ‘other’. A few were several of those categories at once. Some wanted to note they weren’t one of those identities; a few stated emphatically that they weren’t scientists and one wanted to stress that he wasn’t a skeptic. Very few had any formal training in science communication or journalism, though several had experience of some sort of professional writing outside of their blog. Very few said they were paid to blog, (this was true of the academics even if they also said they saw it as outreach).

I asked if they felt if they fitted into any particular community, network or genre of science blogging. The response to this seemed rather unsure, with a lot of question marks after answers. Interestingly, some also spoke about the importance of independence from any network too. One said they didn’t have time to read other blogs, which I was personally surprised by, and makes me want to learn more about bloggers blog-reading habits. Those who were on a network would talk about that, others mentioned the theme or subject area of their blog (e.g. ‘neuro’ or ‘genetics’), though many listed more than one. When I asked what this community gave them, the response was mainly ideas, sometimes access of paywalled papers and a way of making or keeping up with friends/ gaining emotional support. Networks seem to be seen to provide extra visibility, as well as technical support.

The reasons for blogging were really diverse. Some by accident. Some for fun and curiosity about the medium. Some because they were frustrated with peer review in academic publications or the (comparable?) limitations of writing for the mainstream media. Some wanted to tip a toe into professional writing, some wanted to promote a particular idea. I think my favourite was the one that said they started as a tribute to Darwin’s 200th birthday (anyone who has fallen down the rabbit hole that is the Darwin Correspondence Project will appreciate this).

The question after this was ‘what keeps you blogging’ – these answers were similar (some said ‘as above’) but they were more likely to stress the impact their blogging had had on others, or feedback they had received and that they learnt from the experience. Other topics that were stressed here were enjoyment, that they kept on finding things to share, and there was a sense of getting into the habit. I really think the notion of a community came out in these answers.

When I asked if they had a sense of size of their audience, what was most interesting was the variety of ways people answered the question. Some quoted web metrics, some said they thought only their friends read it, and clearly felt their readers were just those who left a comment or tweeted about it. Others felt there was probably some unknown audience, but that this was pretty much unknown. Some implied curiosity over this, one said he’d like to do the sort of reader survey Ed Yong does. When I asked about attitude to the commentators, the response was largely positive. A few seemed to boarder on the ‘I tolerate them’ end of things though, and bad comments did come through when I asked about disadvantages.

What’s next? Based on these results as well as my broader reading and research interests, for the next stage, I want to focus on just scientists who blog. I may later talk to those who come from a professional journalist route, and I’m really interested in student bloggers. The patient bloggers were fascinating, but I suspect this is something for someone with more expertise in the sociology of health to do. Obviously, part of the point of why this area is interesting is that we can’t necessarily divide these identities too clearly. Still, for the sake of having perimeters, scientists bloggers seem the most interesting.

Anyway, this is work in progress, so for all the red flashing health warning, as I continue to refine my research queries, I’d be interested to know what people think. Do these results, such as they are, match your own experience and expectations?

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).

Brain bloggers

I’m currently doing some research on brain bloggers. The first stage is a rather basic survey (below). This is open from today until Monday the 10th of January.

By ‘brain bloggers’ I mean bloggers who write about the stuff that goes in people’s heads, whatever we think this stuff is. Such bloggers might focus on neurology or psychology, or another field entirely. It might be the history, anthropology or commercial applications of these fields. It might come under ‘research blogging’, journalism, ‘public engagement’ or some form of political activism (or several of these at once, or something else entirely). This focus might be exclusively brain-y, or brain-ish issues might be topics they occasionally blog about in the course of other work.

I’m being deliberately vague here, hence words like ‘stuff’, so I can, as much as possible, get definitions from the results rather than my own initial prejudices. At this early exploratory stage, I’m also employing a ‘snowball’ method for finding people. I’ve emailed this survey to a few people, but have asked them to pass it on too, and thought it’d be worth pasting it up publicly too.

So, brainy bloggers, can you help a researcher out? Fill in the survey and/ or pass it on.

EDIT (30th Dec, 2010): I should provide a bit more context to the research. I should have done this earlier, and will email it out with other notes to all respondents I have address for after the cut off date of the 10th. I research science writing and science writers, and am interested in blogging as part of this. I think the brain and mind blogosphere(s) are potentially a really interesting case study (as much as blogosphere works as a meaningful term…). The idea of this survey is to get a better feel for the area than I can on my own. I eventually want to do a small number of more detailed interviews with bloggers (probably over Skype). The survey will frame this, but any research papers emerging from the project may mention some details from the survey itself, especially as I have been getting such a great response. Please do ask if you have any other questions: brainblogging@gmail.com.

EDIT (13th May, 2011): update here.


Please email responses to brainblogging@gmail.com. You are welcome to post your response openly to your blog if you want, though please send me the link.

Please feel free to leave any blank if you feel the question is intrusive or you simply don’t have anything to say on the subject. This will not invalidate the response.

If you want to answer a particular question anonymously, please note that next to the answer (otherwise it may be quoted next to your blog’s name).

Your answers can be as long or as short as you like and may contain URLs if you feel you have answered a similar question elsewhere.

Blog URL:

What do you blog about?

Do you feel as if you fit into any particular community, network or genre if science blogging? (e.g. neuroscience, bad science, ex-sbling)

If so, what does that community give you?

Are you paid to blog?

What do you do professionally (other than blog)?

How long have you been blogging at this site?

Have/ do you blogged elsewhere? When? Where?

Would you describe yourself as a scientist, or as a member of the scientific community? Do you have any formal/ informal training in science? (if so, what area?)

Do you have any formal training in journalism, science communication, or similar?

Do you write in other platforms? (e.g. in a print magazine?)

Can you remember why you started blogging?

What keeps you blogging?

Do you have any idea of the size or character if your audience? How?

What’s your attitude to/ relationship with people who comment on your blog?

What do you think are the advantages of blogging? What are its disadvantages/ limitations?

Do you tell people you know offline that you’re a blogger? (e.g. your grandmother, your boss)

Is there anything else you want to tell me about I haven’t asked?

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.