Tag Archives: engagement

John Hayes MP and the bourgeois

Goveart

Gove-themed streetart, Brighton.

Our energy minister John Hayes seems to enjoy the word “bourgeois”. I don’t blame him, it’s a fun word to say.

Back in October, he described the idea of onshore wind farms as “a bourgeois left article of faith based on some academic perspective”, arguing that “We need to understand communities’ genuine desire” instead “These things are about the people and I am the people’s minister” (as the Telegraph said, this seemed odd from a Tory minister). I heard him make similar claims to be on the side of the real people in a lecture at Imperial College later that month too. Yesterday he used it again, this time while dismissing David King’s perspective on clearing rainforest for biofuels as “detached, bourgeois views” (from 2hr 40 mins in). Within hours, this line had made it into Hayes’ Wikipedia entry, nestled between references to his low Stonewall rating and membership of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.

If Hayes is going to apply the language of class war, we might as well run with it, especially as his perspective reminds me slightly of Soviet agricultural policy. I’m not being facetious. It’s also where I find some worth – as well as the ultimate poverty – of Hayes’ perspective. Let me explain.

Soviet agricultural policy is fascinating stuff. Short version: There is a long-standing Marxist issue with reductionist and determinist nature of genetics (and honestly, Francis Galton was a bit of a dick). A chap called Trofim Lysenko offered an alternative, and ended up dominating Soviet biology and agricultural policy to the extent that dissenters would be sent to the Gulags. Aside from a more socialist view of how nature worked and should be managed, he also offered a character of a self-taught, plain-speaking “barefoot scientist” of the people. It was worked in contrast to an idea of isolated lab-based ivory tower academics apparently more interested in animals and chemicals in bottles than people (good In Our Time on Lysenkosim). It was an attractive message. Even though if was also largely wrong, with disastrous consequences to boot.

In the same way, Hayes’ claim to be for the people sounds attractive too. Many scientists today, even David King, do seem distant and bourgeois. Hayes has a point in that, even if I think it’s ultimately used to disempower the public voice and be anything but as egalitarian as he implies. Who exactly are the publics against wind power? (they prefer it to a shale gas well, at least). And the landgrabs issue behind much of the biofuels story this week? All about inequality.

The last few decades have seen a lot of good work on public engagement with UK science. However, this challenge is huge, especially in the more politically charged issues like climate. It amounts to a quantity of work which frankly we haven’t come close to scratching the surface of investing in enough. Also, at the same time as all the increased public engagement work’s been going on, science education has managed to alienate many members of the general public. There are fees, etc, limiting access to universities but there are deeper problems too. The school-science curriculum is still largely designed to prepare people for A-level then undergraduate science, even though most people won’t take it that far. It’s also (oddly perhaps) influenced by the lobbies who want to keep a distinct identity for chemistry, biology and physics, meaning multidisciplinary, political topics like climate science don’t get the attention they deserve. There have been movements to try to design a science curriculum more focused on making educated publics, not scientists. But the scientific lobby largely manages to undermine it. Interestingly, one of the first UK politicians to really push for this “school science for the people” was Thatcher, Hayes’ Tory class war around science isn’t exactly new.

In recent years, the science lobby has also been actively arguing for “triple science” GCSE as the gold standard for those who want to do science at the top universities. Except there aren’t enough science teachers to go round, so this puts certain schools at an advantage. Tories seem to love triple science. The cynic in me says it’s because they know it keeps the proles out. Science used to be seen as a field open to working class kids – especially compared to classics or literature – but increasingly, it’s not the case. Access to scientific careers is a public relations issue in many ways, because if science is see as something “people like me” wouldn’t do, it’s culturally distant. Simply having friends and family who work in particular fields is one of the most powerful forms of engagement there is.

School science is the only time everyone learns together. We should do it better, and the scientific community need to take a good, hard look at themselves and think about how the choices they make in constructing themselves – or at least their undergrads – may further social inequality. And how this can come back to kick them in the bum when they get called bourgeois.

On the Today Programme, Hayes claimed to be talking about pragmatics: “my principle concern is to keep the lights on, and if the lights went off it’d be no good saying it was for the right reason, energy security is fundamental. It’s all very well having these kind of detached, bourgeois views but I have to deal with the practicalities”. In comparison, King had just been asked if saving the rainforest was a hippie-ish concern to save orangutans. He replied very calmly: “never mind the orangutans, it’s about the oxygen that we breathe, we’re talking about something quite serious”.

Precisely because the desire to breathe isn’t “bourgeois” it’s important scientists work harder to keep the public onside.

Pseudo Tory revolutionary art, Brighton

Playing games with science

When you are angry, how do you respond? Do you (a) vent it there and then, (b) read, (c) work out (d) tell yourself there are way more important things to get annoyed about than a bloody Find Your Spirit Animal Facebook app from Greenpeace (which the above screen shot is from) and wonder off to do something more useful, but still let it bug you for months and months so eventually you combine it with a load of other petty grumps and write a ranty column about it?

I choose (d). If you have an iPad and live in the UK you can read it in Popular Science UK magazine. If not, it’ll be up on their blog soon, and I’ll edit in a link here when it is.

It’s not the silliness of the idea of a spirit animal which annoys me, it’s the lack of attempt to engage audiences with any knowledge about the animals this app is meant to be promoting the preservation of. I don’t want to pick on Greenpeace though, it’s not like they are alone in applying a rather limited approach to digital “interactivity” (perhaps better call it “activity”, interactivity requires space to listen). Have a go at Energy Ninjas and Richie’s World Of Adventure, for example. A recent Greenpeace campaign even neatly parodied how patronising this sort of content can be, with Angry Bergs. Plus, we’ve been rather bluntly “gamifing” science for a while, way before the web: This one’s from 1804.

I’m tempted to argue that we shouldn’t turn science into games because the rules are always up for debate; we should be discussing and unpicking those rules instead. But that’s a bit simplistic. I think there are ways games can be used well in science communication, and are (the Pop Sci column references some more inspiring examples). Still, I want to see them taken more seriously as a medium for sharing, doing and exploring science. I want to see games that work to connect players with data and invite get them to do creative things with it; games that listen as well as educate. I want to see more ambition and more respect for audiences.

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.

Engagement with climate science

liable to flooding

I was a speaker at yesterday’s Royal Meteorological Society’s meeting on Communicating Climate Science. I was asked to talk about models of science communication in the light of their new report on climate science , the public and the media, in particular the shift from top-down to more discursive approaches. I also took the opportunity to question the applicability of these models a little. What follows is roughly a script of my talk, but with links.

I’ll start with a potted history of science communication, it’s the sort of history professionals tell themselves about themselves, so read with some caution, even though it’s pretty illustrative. Once upon a time, around the end of the mid 1980s, scientists in the UK and America (and a few other places, science is an international business after all) decided the public had stopped listening to science, and that this was dangerous. Science had grown immensely over the middle of the 20th century,  developing multiple strands and a mass of complex, specialist knowledge, but in doing so it had left many behind. There was a gap between what scientists knew and what the rest of the world understood. If only the public knew more science! And the media were better at delivering this information! Something. Must. Be. Done.

They kicked up all sorts of fuss and, in the UK, forming a sort of movement for the Public Understanding of Science (PUS), with a Royal Society report (“the Bodmer report”), a multi-institution committee (CoPUS), a journal, a set of courses, a load of general fuss and worry, etc etc. Soon after, however, a load of educationalists, historians and sociologists (many of whom had been working on this stuff for years) started pick holes in the more simplistic end of this argument, complaining that the PUS approach was not only ineffectual, but might be considered anti-democratic, even morally repugnant and non-scientific even too. They set up their own ‘critical PUS’ camp in opposition and pointed fingers at Bodmer et al for being a bit “deficit model” (i.e. seeing the problem as being a matter of a deficiency on the part of the public). The book “Misunderstanding Science” is the classic text of this sort of approach, but maybe not the easiest of reads.

There are three main problems with the deficit model:

  1. It’s unrealistic. You can’t black-box science, media and public. I mean, what does “the public” even mean? Moreover, we cannot imagine that the media will take this science and happily and simply pass it on to their readers who, in turn, will happily swallow it all. Such an idea is based on a really naïve ‘transmitter-receiver’ view of media effects (if you’ve never read David Gauntlett’s essay on what’s wrong with the media effects model, do).
  2. It’s patronising. It assumes the public are stupid and journalists are just information carriers, both of which is likely to alienate both groups.
  3. It’s limiting. Science policy issues aren’t just about the science. That doesn’t mean science shouldn’t have a role. A large one. But there are other things to be woven in too, and there are times when criticism of the scientific community is both entirely justified and highly productive (even if there are times where criticism is not only misplaced but dangerously over-emphasised). Journalists should ask questions and contextualize what scientists say. As should the public at large (and they should be asking questions and contextualising what the journalists say too).

These criticisms, along with the experience of GMOs and BSE, had a lot of impact in the UK. By 2000, the House of Lords report on Science and Society formally stated there was a “new mood for dialogue” replacing the older, slightly naive, top-down approach.

And that’s what the term “engagement” is meant to symbolise, for a lot of people: A shift from simplistic top-down approaches to a more nuanced one that appreciates not only that sharing science with the general public is a hard thing to do, but that public debate on science and technology is just that, a debate. The problem of science communication was now understood as not merely a matter of how to clearly transmit information, but how to have good, clever conversations about expertise in society. Changing scientific discourse as it travels into the public realm was not necessary seen as a distortion, but a matter of course. Scientists should listen as well as talk; communication is something you take part in, not simply deliver.

PUS and the deficit model became the bogeymen of UK sci com, with people actively booing references to it at conferences and snidely whispering criticism of unpopular colleagues as “a bit deficit”. Arguably, some people just took the language of this shift without actually understanding the ideas behind them though. There is a lot of science communication that talks as if it moved on from the deficit model but is really quite simply about shouting “but science is awesome” at the general public. Moreover, it sometimes looks like we’ve simply replaced the presumed deficit of knowledge with one of trust (i.e. the public don’t trust scientists enough, see Alan Irwin’s essay for this OU reader). Such a view often argues that scientists need to earn public trust, and might suggest discussion as a way to go about it, but it still based in a rather technocratic attitude that the world will be saved if only everyone just listened to the scientists.

Which brings me to this new report on the public, media and climate science. Because in places it seems, well, a bit deficit model, a bit preoccupied by getting the message across. It looks at context, and is meant to be rooted in what the public think and want, and many of its results are useful and interesting. But its central notion of communication, for me, seemed to be pretty linear and just a bit naive about how the media works. It’s all still about how we can give science to people, not how we might have conversations which connect science with a range of other topics. It says we need more “engagement”, but it’s not really what I’d call engagement.

But maybe they’re right to. Maybe we shouldn’t assume the public want to be engaged any more than that they don’t. We might also ask if a shift to debating science is dangerous when applied to climate, considering what is at stake and the keenness of some to ignore, even dismantle quite certain and useful science in this area. Maybe climate science simply doesn’t have the luxury to be so open? As Naomi Oreskes argued in an LA Times op-ed last January, perhaps we need leadership here. Debate just confuses people and delays action. Oreskes has thought about this. She is also coming from thoughtful empirical studies in the history and sociology of science understanding that sharing expertise isn’t simple. Just as Wynne et al said the deficit model is too simple, so can a simplistic call to engage.

As I’ve noted before, in some contrast to Oreskes, much of the discussion post-Rio+20 was that leaders had failed us, but there is hope in the grass roots activism of civil society. E.g. Mary Robinson. I like the rhetoric here, but I worry still. It’s the kind of world I want, but I’m not sure it’s possible, or it’s happening. To fuel my cynicism, in another obit for Rio+20, John Vidal cited “two-catching global bottom-up initiatives” – one the save the Arctic campaign, and another to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies – as having emerged at Rio and “reasons to be cheerful”. I call bollocks, at least about the bottom-up. These were projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They are downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame – sign a scroll, use a hashtag, follow a celebrity – more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. Which isn’t to say there are wrong, but call a spade a spade.

Whenever I see any climate communication I feel an echo of Steve Yearley’s argument that the green movement enjoys the language of mass participation but only when it comes on their own terms (his essay here) and that similar critique can very easily be applied to the scientific community, or politicians, or industry, or anyone involved in the debate. So the question still remains, can we have open public engagement on climate change?

I don’t know.

Questioning academics

"intellectruism"

A table at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre coffee shop. No, I don’t know what it means either. 

The latest episode of Brain Train is up – the podcast I work on where we get academics to quiz other academics – this time with autism researcher Johanna Finneman interviewing philosopher Nina Power. I think my favourite bit is where Power stands up for the right of philosophers to be “a little bit annoying”. As much as I am a philosopher (and I’d say I’m roughly 15% philosopher, albeit a self-hating one most of the time) I very much ascribe to that.

The format’s designed so each episode an academic interviews another about their work, then in the next episode the interviewee becomes the interviewer (and the expert becomes the novice) and so on. At the end of each episode we also ask the interviewee (the expert) what questions they have for their own field. These are Power’s, for philosophy, but I think they could be directed to about any group of the academy.

A political question [first]: how do we get philosophers at Russell Group Universities to defend those philosophy departments at non-Russell Group universities that are being closed? I’d like to see solidarity across my subject, because it’s my feeling that if you love and care about the subject, you would want to see more of it, everywhere, not less of it. And not trying to sort of keep it to yourself  and you know, get all the research money which they get already and you sit by while philosophy departments left right and centre get closed. So that’s a political question […]

I guess the question you’re [Johanna started with] asking me: How do we get philosophy out there? How do we critically but clearly state what we think is important about philosophy? […] How do we make the link between the critical questions that people have all the time to the older and ongoing philosophical questions in a non-patronising way, in a way that doesn’t kind of, I don’t know, but nor does it reduce to a self-help model of philosophy, this kind of popular philosophy that is, I think, anti-philosophical in lots of ways.

NERC’s great “de” risking strategy

Every time I walk past these posters outside BIS a bit of me dies.

On Sunday afternoon someone forwarded me a story from the Guardian saying top UK environmental scientists were being told to use their skills to help “de-risk” oil firms drilling in polar regions. I was a bit shocked. And sceptical. Reading a bit further, the drilling thing is a bit of a jump, but there is still a fair bit to be concerned about.

It’s the final bullet point in point 19, page four of this document (pdf) though it’s worth reading in the section (or whole document) in full, as well as extra reporting from the Guardian’s Terry Macalister, especially the claim that Duncan Wingham, (NERC’s chief executive) feels under pressure to ensure they’re providing value to the UK economy.

I was fuming, and had a bit of a rant on Comment Is Free. To summarise my three main objections: 1) They hope to “de” risk? Oh, please. 2) Stop with the creeping privatization already. 3) The spirit of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty is kinda lovely. We should extend, not erode, it.

The defensive claim that NERC scientists are pressured to demonstrate value for the UK economy especially irked me. It’s just plain unimaginative. There are a variety of ways science might support the economy, it does not necessarily mean supporting the oil industry. Moreover, there are a variety ways to show value, not just to the economy. Academics often complain about “the impact agenda” (there was the mock funeral for British science thing, and then the arts and humanities and the big society fuss), but working to ensure your research has impact is a lot more than listening to what the more powerful industries want of you. Or at least it should be. The idea that “demonstrating impact” is simply a matter of crawling up to oil, arms and car manufactures might be a myth some people would like propagate, but it doesn’t have to be the case (this is the official line, if you’re interested).

As I’ve argued before, I worry we’re sleepwalking into a position where more and more of the innovation process is captured by rather narrow interests of a few powerful industries. I wish academics would reach out to the public more, I suspect they’d find a more diverse set of ideas about their work.

Honestly, I think this story is a case of a single badly written document. But it’s worrying such naivety exists and people at NERC feel this way. As a friend wrote on Facebook: “No wonder our politicians don’t try to interfere with the research councils, they’re perfectly capable of interfering with themselves” (though I do wonder a bit about the pressure they are under here, I would like to know more).

 

Clarification: there’s a line in the first paragraph of that CiF post that’s incorrect. I say the document in question is NERC’s submission to a recent government consultation on merging research centres, when it’s their own consultation It was a last minute edit from something that was more accurate but confusing if you didn’t know the context. I should have replaced it with something better though, for which I apologise.

Oh, Canada. Oh, Rio.

Rio 1992, by Alice Bell aged 11. No idea why I still have this, somehow got filed with my swimming certificates.

I have a post on Comment is Free arguing this week’s protests by scientists in Canada are not just a local issue, but of global concern. Modern science is a global enterprise: people from all over the world have studied at the Experimental Lakes Area (currently threatened with closure). It’s also a global concern because the biggest tensions seem to surround environmental issues with global impact: the Experimental Lakes Area is where where the first evidence for acid rain came from. Plus, there are multinational industries and NGOs involved, and that’s without delving into any intersections with defence policy (cough, polar hawk purchases, cough). We can’t pretend Canadian science is simply a Canadian matter any more than we can divorce the natural world from political decisions.

I also wanted to stress a need for democratic engagement. These protestors held banners proclaiming “No science, no truth, no evidence, no democracy”. They did so partly because they worry corporate interests are clouding public debate, especially around energy policy (see, for example, Robin McKie on this back in February) and want to offer science as a way out of corrupted discourse. Still, it’s important scientists bring the public with them when they make proclamations like this; share their ideas and show how the public value science. Otherwise they’re just demanding people listen to them, and I’m not sure how democratic that is.

Thinking about that question of democracy made me reflect back on the Rio +20 summit last month. Reading the various requiems for these talks, the key message seems to be that our leaders have failed us but there is hope in public activism. Mary Robinson has some strong words on the topic. Even the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need look beyond governments. Part of me is really inspired by statements like that. Part of me’s still cynical.

I dug out Naomi Oreskes’ LA Times oped from January, where she argues the need for leadership on climate issues. I didn’t like it when I first read it. She seemed to give in to a top down approach to science in society which just doesn’t sit well with me. Re-reading it now I want to shout “ha, well look at your leaders now, ner-ner-ner-ner”. But I take her point sharing esoteric expertise isn’t that simple. It’s also hard (impossible?) to do public engagement at the scale of global population.

John Vidal cites the emergence of “eye catching bottom up initiatives” as some reasons to be cheerful after Rio+20. I’m really not sure his examples are the best ones. I think they are projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They look like rather downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame, more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. I felt echos of Steve Yearley’s argument (e.g. 2008) that the green movement enjoys the rhetoric of mass participation but only on their own terms. Maybe that’s ok, they are campaigns after all, but lets not kid ourselves into imaging we’ve found a new type of politics. Yet.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being grumpy.