Tag Archives: environmental science

Arming Mother Nature

Book review: Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism, Jacob Darwin Hamblin (OUP: 2013). This was first published on New Left Project.

When you look at recent cuts to environmental research – the Keeling Curve appealing for crowd-funding, for example, or the destruction of Canadian fisheries libraries – you might be forgiven for wondering how such work ever got funding in the first place. Environmental science challenges our current economic and political structures quite profoundly, and politicians the world over seem to be playing the toddler’s game of covering their eyes in hope it’ll go away by shutting down our systems for measuring it. You need to invest heavily in environmental research to render climate change visible, it’s not something you can spot by peeking out the window. How did anyone manage to get funding to even start looking?

According to Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s recent book, Arming Mother Nature, much contemporary environmental thought has political roots in the Cold War. Far from deep-green hippies, it was built by military and political elites who sought to control the planet, not save it. 20th century ecology was aways as much about war-mongering as tree-hugging.

The book’s early chapters are very much in the shadow of the atomic bomb. Hiroshima marked a change in the nature of war, of weaponry and relationships between science and the government. These changes were long in the making, that was partly how and why the bomb had been made itself, but they were ingrained by the fallout (political as well as physical) of Hiroshima. There is a longer history of chemical and biological weapons – both the development of them and questions about the ethics of their use – but the context of environmental science offers a slightly new frame. Biological and chemical weapons are seen as unusually ethically problematic because they turn the work of science – which could be applied to heal, protect and liberate us – to cause pain and suffering and achieve social control. But the atomic bomb turns the very fabric of our environment against its targets. It uses detailed physics to work deep across our bodies, into our soils and through our airs. It’s not a bullet from a machine, it’s a massive release of energy which is followed by a range of parts of our world working often slowly and invisibly against us. A divide between technology and nature is simplistic (bullets are made from the Earth too, as well as by people) but there are reasons why nuclear weapons feel more extreme.

In this context, Hamblin offers us a story of the growth of the idea of total war. Here, the whole environment could be considered as a weapons system, and scientific expertise on how the planet works would be used as inspiration. We think of ecology and its systems-based approach to viewing the world as something favoured by the hippies, but it can be applied to a variety of ends, including war.

One of the clearest examples of the sorts of weaponised ecology the book is about comes with a story riffing off Operation Plowshare (peaceful use of nukes). There had been an environmental impact audit of an idea to use thermonuclear explosions to excavate an artificial harbour in Alaska. It was decided it would impact too heavily on Eskimos’ diet, so the idea was scrapped, but the data collected inspired military thinking. Having traced radioactivity through the food chain, NATO scientists could now build more advanced models of ecological warfare. They knew Eskimos lived interdependently with seals, otter, fish, caribou and plankton. If the plankton were killed, the rest of the chain would drop out. ‘At best he would have to move,’ the group pointed out. ‘At worst he would die.’ This kind of thinking, they realised, could be tailored to other regions. A lethal rice-rust could make life in parts of Asia much more difficult, perhaps untenable. Further, weaponised ecology offered more insidious forms of biological coercion. You didn’t have to kill people as your goal, and that meant populations could be part of the prize. Getting rid of plankton, for example, would make the Eskimos’ entire food system collapse and force them to be entirely dependent on food supplied from outside the region. Toxic agents could be developed to target very specific links in ecological chains, with the aim of shaping a new interdependent web, forcing ecology to a new will, and with it forcing the people into newly disempowered positions.

In 1961, Kennedy approached the start of ‘Operation Ranch Hand,’ the codename for the US’s herbicide campaign in Vietnam. This was advanced environmental warfare, with immense ecological and chemical expertise going into developing agents that could target particular crops, deciding which plants would live and die in Vietnam. Monsanto and Dow did trials, but they also drew on a network of university scientists in the US and the UK, including Oxford plant physiologist Geoffrey Blackman. Interestingly, British researchers at Porton Down were keen to distance themselves from US offensive action, arguing that they were helping to develop ‘true defoliants’ – where the leaves fall but the plant doesn’t die – compared to the more destructive Agents Orange, Purple and Pink. This, apparently, stood on a more ecological footing (we have calls to ‘green the military’ today, lead-free bullets and the like). By 1967, the US Army knew its crop-killing schemes in Vietnam were having little effect on the food sources of soldiers. But scientists at RAND linked data on spraying with more on the Vietnamese soldiers’ rice rations, and concluded that this policy was primarily hurting civilians. The US Army rationalised this as helping to weaken ‘sympathisers’ but such a grand starvation campaign was unpopular, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science calling for the military to halt the spraying programme.

Another key point in this story is the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8. A project in science diplomacy, the idea was that science could be an apolitical means for collaboration between East and West, but behind the talk of peace, hope and understanding were some very canny political games. One of the outcomes of the IGY was the Antarctic Treaty, which established the space for cooperative scientific research, with freedom of scientific investigation and a ban on military activity on the continent. The text of the treaty is worth a read – there is something quite inspiring about it – but for all the rhetoric of peace and knowledge, it is very much a product of Cold War politics. It could play a colonising role; study on a bit of the Antarctic and you get to put your flag there, a point satirised by Punch at the time (even if isn’t populated, there are minerals you don’t want the other side getting their hands on). Much of the polar research looked ostensibly like studies in weather prediction, but was also detailed observation of spaces which could be a crucial future battleground. The scientists were happy to do military monitoring, knowing they could also do their own work around it. Indeed, we have knowledge of the hole in the ozone layer from Antarctic work, and that Keeling Curve has its roots in the IGY too. Moreover, as Hamblin describes, the buzzword of the IGY was ‘synoptic’ – literarily, and for many of the scientists, just a matter of viewing together – a word which was taken up by the military as a sense of vastness, the idea of ‘synoptic scale’ weapons which could dominate whole physical systems. As Hamblin puts it, ‘while the IGY was concerned with synoptic-scale measurement, NATO was concerned with synoptic-scale manipulation.’

In constructing ideas of environmental warfare, military planners also drew inspiration from the natural events earth sciences studied. There was a devastating earthquake in Chile in May 1960. Whole villages were swept away in 24-feet tsunamis, with quakes so powerful whole mountains disappeared and lakes appeared, all going on for several weeks. The New York Times described this as ‘tragic testimony that in this age of the conquest of the atom and of triumphs in outer space man is still helpless against the vast and still largely unpredictable forces that frequently go berserk in his immediate environment – hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes.’ NATO saw it quite differently. It gave them ideas. If this earthquake was equivalent to hundreds of nuclear bombs, why not find some way to bring such disasters into their arsenal? The idea of controlling the weather was particularly appealing, especially as they were increasingly aware of the impact humanity was already having on the upper atmosphere. Whereas weaponising the weather got into the popular press with jokes in the Financial Times about the 1975 British drought being a cunning Warsaw Pact plot, military analysts in the US had already pondered whether it’d be possible to punch a hole in the ozone layer to expose the Russians to fatal amounts of radiation. The most alarming of the more wildcat ideas was probably the one to melt the polar ice caps by exploding nuclear weapons on it, thus raising the global sea level. It was calculated it would take about a million tons of fissile material to melt enough to raise sea level by 30 feet, but it was, apparently, worth considering (just in case the Soviets were plotting the same).

The point I remain unconvinced by in Hamblin’s book is his continual reference to the idea of catastrophic thinking, which simply doesn’t cohere for me, and the idea that this still frames our thinking today. He uses the discussion of environmental warfare in Vietnam – and in particular how it was discussed publicly in the US – as setting some of the tone for environmental politics of the 1970s. Thus, Nixon’s environmentalism can be understood at least in part as part and parcel of his foreign policy. Hamblin also refers to how the American obsession with environmental warfare meant early 1970s discussions of the greenhouse effect were framed by nuclear war in diplomatic discussions, as a world-ending cataclysm, and how this frustrated scientists at the time. Finally, there is a neat story of two Al Gores. In 1951, Congressman Albert Gore advised Truman to ‘dehumanise’ a belt across the Korean peninsula by covering it with radioactive waste which would, he argued, deter Communist troops from crossing. From the 1990s onwards, his son framed environmental policy as a sort of new Cold War struggle; as if ignoring climate change was equivalent to going ‘soft’ on communism. Whereas many saw environmentalists as green on the outside but red in the core (‘watermelons’), Al Gore Jr. referred to a new Global Marshall Plan and a need for a Strategic Environment Initiative, echoing Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. For all that this is part of the story, it seems only partial. Perhaps if Hamblin had traced his story alongside one on the rise of neoliberalism, it might have had a stronger core, but I still feel it would only offer part of the picture.

That quibble aside, it’s a great book. One of the best I read in 2013. It offers an important, fascinating study of intertwined stories of nature, technology, science, war and peace, and offers a very different frame for considering the history of environmental science than is usually offered. If you want to take a lesson from it, simply remember that science is useful to politicians, and they know this. We’re increasingly invited to worry about a neoliberal war on science, but we should spare some concern for those in power who do profess a love of science too. Owen Paterson likes science when it serves him (genetically modified foods, for example), as do George Osborne and Vince Cable (new products for the arms industry, ever more inventive ways to extract fossil fuels). What science, to whose ends? Technologies of control, or of liberation? As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing concern, more than ever we need science and engineering managed by the people, for the people.

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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.

Debating climate science

I’m currently working on the pilot for an exciting new undergrad course at Imperial which uses science policy issues to challenge students to think about a range of areas of scientific research (not just their degree stream) and put this in some social, political, ethical, epistemological and cultural context. The topic we’ve picked for the pilot is climate change, so we kicked things off this week with a keynote lecture from Brian Hoskins (EDIT 31/1: listen to a podcast of the lecture) Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, and one of the most striking things he said was that he tries to avoid agreeing to take part in debates.

I don’t think he was necessarily against either scientific discussion or democratic engagement. It was more than he didn’t feel climate science could be communicated well via a structure which pits one extreme view up against another. He happened to use the example of the Today Programme putting Nigel Lawson up against a climate scientist and coincidentally, Lawson popped up on Today the following morning. This was a debate on shale gas and he was debating Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, not a Professor of Meteorology, but in many respects it’s a good example of the problem Sir Brian was flagging up. You can have a listen to the interview yourself on the BBC’s website. The interviewer didn’t challenge Lawson’s views as much as many would have wanted, but perhaps you agree that this is appropriate (the Daily Express seem to). Perhaps more straightforwardly, Today could have challenged Lawson on the motivations of his Global Warming Policy Foundation (see this report of a recent campaign on this, and an older post by Bob Ward). Which they did not. My personal position is that providing that sort of context, if not an outright challenge to Lawson, would be basic active journalism. I also think it makes him a slightly suspect choice, though I’m sure some people might say the same about Juniper.

The issue of “false balance” – where a marginal view is put up against scientific consensus as if they were equivalent – is something the BBC has been accused of before (recent BMJ editorial on this). Although it is also worth stressing that empirical research undertaken at Imperial College last year found that, if anything, the problem was lack of context, number and diversity of voices in science reports. Too often there simply weren’t enough people interviewed for balance to be an issue (old post from me when the report was published outlining this). With this in mind, I thought it was odd that although Today did also produce a longer package which gave more context and several other voices, this was broadcast over an hour before. Why not put this with the Lawson/ Juniper interview?

This isn’t just a UK issue (although it might be an English Language one). Earlier this week the Knight Science Journalism Tracker summed up US and Australian coverage of a similar story which they dubbed “the fracking duel“, noting the appeal of an apparent fight for the news business.

On the topic of how and if we can debate climate science, it’s probably worth reading Naomi Oreskes’ recent oped for the LA Times – “The verdict is in on climate change” – where she argues for leadership not debate when it comes to climate change, suggesting it’s unfair to expect the public to make up their own minds. You might also be interested in a recent interview with climate scientist Micheal Mann where he warns that “Scientists have to recognise that they are in a street fight”. I don’t think what Mann suggests is the same as the issue of being set up in a polarised debate, but his view is something to think about along side the others.

A version of this is cross-posted to the Imperial Horizon’s blog. Something I left off there, but worth flagging up is that I noticed Brian Hoskins’ name in the list of attendees at the ‘Chemistry Club’ exclusive networking events for corporate lobbyists (see Guardian datablog). At least when the Today Programme invite Nigel Lawson to debate a Fellow of the Royal Society, we can all listen in.

Britain, a nation of climate sceptics? Really?

Street art – or rather tree art – in Toronto.

The latest British Social Attitudes survey was released earlier this week. Cue much swapping of claims to know what the public really thinks, and how well this does or does not match government policy. The Prime Minister issued a short statement suggesting the results showed a “crucial shift in our society” and that people were “making it clear that they’d had enough of the [previous government’s] something for nothing culture”. Personally, I don’t think survey data like this makes anything clear. The public don’t speak in one voice, but many, complex and changing ones. You can’t read a singular view of the people off blocks of data like this, no matter how strong the methodology, how pretty the infographics or how tempting the political message. Still, such data is interesting, I’d even say important. It takes us out of anecdotes of people we met in the pub last week and our own small social circles and makes us think, as best as we can, about the country at large.

The chapter I was most interested in was the one on the environment. It’s entitled “a paler shade of green” and the central message isn’t exactly rosy for those who campaign on environmental issues. The Guardian ran with “Public support for tackling climate change declines dramatically” or, from the Daily Mail, “Rise of the climate change sceptics“. I agree the results include many items of concern for the environmental movement, and for science communication too. However, I’m really not convinced by the narrative of a rise in scepticism, especially the BSA’s own focus on the impact of Climategate. Such surveys can have a rhetorical power in themselves  (e.g. Cameron’s claim the people had spoken with him) so I think it’s important to check such narratives.

I guess the headline result is that 37% think many claims about environmental threats are exaggerated, which is up from 24% in 2000. I want to ask, however, whose claims? That is, have people stopped trusting the science, or do they just feel there is a lot of exaggeration and hype around environmental politics? Maybe it’s less a matter of the impact of Climategate, and more a bit of climate media fatigue. You might trust a scientist on the news, and yet still find a DECC advert annoying. For example, Attenborough’s calm concern in the latest Frozen Planet is rather different from exploding schoolchildren (or, for that matter, posing with huskies, or ads “made from recycled clips” or a host of other stunts). Personally, I don’t think we can take this data simply as a sign that sceptics are winning the climate communications war. It could be that too. We just don’t know.

The survey also considered whether people agreed more with these two statements: “We worry too much about the future of the environment and not enough about prices and jobs today” and “People worry too much about human progress harming the environment”* (p95). From this, the BSA report argues that the public are more sceptical that a threat exists. I’m not sure that follows. Maybe, but it’s a jump to cite scepticism. It could just be that people think we worry too much. Perhaps they just think there are other things to worry about. As the report itself suggests, the “financial pinch” of the recession may well be having an impact on the ways people make choices about the environment. Or, perhaps people agree that climate change is happening, just that there is nothing we can do. Again, this doesn’t mean climate sceptics aren’t winning the communications battle here, I just mean I don’t necessarily see that from the data. It all rather depends on how we unpack and then define denialism/ climate scepticism, and I don’t think the report does that very clearly (not that it necessarily should, but we need to keep that lack of definition in mind when reading the data).

(* I think the latter is a really interesting choice of statement – to me, there is something slightly 20th century about it. As technofixes become more part of public discourse, I wonder if it’ll be the right way of measuring things? I also thought it was interesting that they asked about impact of pollution on the British landscape – polluted rivers, etc. Climate change is maybe a slightly different story, a more esoteric question of satellite images, detailed debate between scientists and complex graphs, glaciers melting in largely unpopulated poles and stories of flooding in parts of the world we are not used to hearing news from. There is a strong link between environmental concerns and national identity in the UK and elsewhere, but climate change is a more global issue. But I digress…).

All that said, I did think data around whether people agreed with the statement “Every time we use coal or gas or oil we contribute to climate change” was something climate communications people should worry about. In 2000, 35% said this statement was definitely true, 46% said it was probably true and 12% said definitely/ probably not true. For 2010 the results change to 20%, 51% and 17% respectively. There were also marked drops in concerns over the impact of cars and agriculture. As the report says, this might be due to people thinking they’ve been partly solved by “cleaner” technologies; it’s harder to explain away the impact of coal/ gas/ oil on climate statement quite so easily though. If you want something cheering, maybe age will help though: the sharpest drop in people agreeing that climate change was dangerous came from people 55+. This was down 13% from 56% to 43% with over 55-64 bracket and down 19% from 47% to 28% with over 65’s, but only down 3% and 1 % respectively to 48% with 18-34s and 15-54s (p103). I’m not sure 48% agreement is a particularly good score though anyway.

Something else that sprung out at me was that 52% of the people who said they think the rise in the world’s temperature caused by climate change reduce the energy use in their home (p91). Perhaps what this highlights is not a communications challenge of convincing people of the science, but more of a behavioral one. The figure is 39% overall though, so it does seem that agreeing climate change is dangerous has clear impact. The report also notes an “ascension of recycling to a national social norm”, so maybe this is possible, given political will.

The report also notes a decrease in political activism (p95-6). Maybe this shows a failure of green groups to reach out of usual audiences? Or maybe the activism issue is a timing thing, as the data considers a period not too far from the election (and I think it was collected pre-forests). There is the economic downturn issue again: haven’t all donation-based groups suffered from drop in support? I also wonder if people who’d signed up for anti-airport protest because they don’t like noise would have necessarily have thought of it as an environmental issue? I don’t know. I do think it’s interesting though, and would be interested to know if the green movement is worried. It was interesting to look at how the data on concern over global warming mapped onto party political sympathies. ls green politics too tribal? Conservative supporters (38%) are less likely to show strong concern than those who lean towards Labour (49% – a decline compared to 2000 interestingly, unlike other parties) or the Lib Dems (55%) (p102).

One final thing that bugged me about this report was that it didn’t really examine how and where people got their information about the environment from, and yet still felt able to make loose connections between the timing of Climategate and the apparent rise in scepticism. From the final pages: “we conclude that media coverage may make a difference – not least ‘new’ media and the internet ‘blogosphere’ where unfounded opinion can sometimes be favoured over scientific fact” (p106). The impact of the media on people’s understanding, reasoning and framing of any issue, perhaps in particular ones including esoteric expertise like climate science, is incredibly complex, and the BSA report writers should have known better. They should certainly know better than to make loose comments about unfounded opinion on blogosphere (which is a large, diverse and porous area of activity). I also don’t see how they can look at a change over ten years and say it has to be something that happened in 2009, no matter how much media ink was spilled. To their credit they do also say it could also be matter of fatigue and refer to financial cost, etc. Personally, I’d like to see them acknowledge that they don’t know and call for investment in more research here.

Anyway, there is a lot more in the BSA report. Do please go and read it for yourself. My scepticism over some of its analysis aside, it is worth reading. I’m glad the government invests in social research like this (I wish they invested more). If you are interested in public attitudes and knowledge of science I can also recommend this excellent paper (paywalled journal, but you could try emailing one of the authors for a copy). It’s worth having a look at the Eurobarometer on attitudes to climate change (pdf, 2008) and some of Leo Barasi’s blogging on polling around Climategate, as well as recent studies from the USA. In terms of media effects science issues, this report from Cardiff (pdf, 2003) is old but still relevant (and free to access) and comes highly recommended.

EDIT (12/12/11): see also Leo Barasi’s take on this (where he stresses timing of survey, a point I’ve heard made about other chapters too), and a shorter version of my post on Liberal Conspiracy. EDIT 15/12/11: … and Adam Corner’s piece for New Scientist.

Public art in Washington DC – a fountain floods the sidewalk to reveal a map of the world (little raised edges protect coastlines).

Badger, badger, badger…

Remember those heady post-election days in summer 2010, when we were all getting used to the idea of not just a non-Labour government, but a coalition one at that? The press was awash with “what does this government mean for [insert special interest group here]?”.

Perhaps buoyed by pre-election activity to get “The Science Vote” out, the science press seemed especially keen on this sort of copy. Each publication focused on a different set of challenges. Science magazine mentioned badgers. A lot of people laughed. The weebles badger song was passed liberally around the scipolicy hashtag, along with the odd mention of mashed potatoes (cultural reference, if you don’t get it).

But badgers – or more specifically badger culling – is a serious and long-running science policy issue. Animals are killed: there’s the culling of the badgers on one side, but also the slaughter of cows with the bovine TB the badgers are thought to spread. This is understandably an emotive issue – moral and economic – for many. Badger culling is also a fascinating example of science policy actually trying an experiment, in an attempt to be as evidence-based as possible. Although this has helped give us more information, it hasn’t given firm advice one way or another and remains, inevitably, mixed in with further political, moral and cultural divides. As well as broader politics surrounding the meat and dairy industry, it is worth remembering the history of badger hunting (in the context of fox hunting). Here’s a badger fact for you: “Dachs” is the German word for badger, and dachshund dogs were originally bred to hunt badgers (though they aren’t called dachshunds in Germany).

So when I found myself co-running a science policy themed pub quiz last Monday, I did a round on badgers. Here are my questions if you want to play at home. I hope they give some of the flavour of the issue. Answers at the bottom, under the badger-badge picture.

1) 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2010 because of Bovine TB. How many millions of pounds a year does the government estimate Bovine TB cost the taxpayer?

2) One for the zoologists, though fans of Wind in the Willows might enjoy it too: Are badgers members of the weasel or skunk family?

3) Rupert the Bear’s best friend is called Bill Badger, in what town do they reside? (if you enjoy fictional badgers of British culture, I can recommend Bryan Talbot’s Grandville graphic novels)

4) It was Professor Lord John Krebs who, back in in the 1990s was the sci advisor responsible for the review which found badgers a “reservoir” for bovine TB and called for trail culls. Which party does he represent in the House of Lords?

5) Brian May is a high profile campaigner against the badger cull – do go see his site, and put the sound on – in what year did he submit his PhD to Imperial College? Bonus point if you know how many years after abandoning it to join Queen this was.

6) The website 38 Degrees have been running a “Rethink the Badger Cull” campaign, how many signatures do they have? As long as you are within 500 you can get a “right” on this.

7) The badger was the first wild mammal to be given legal protection in the UK – what year? Clue: two years before the first badger carcass riddled with bTB was found in a farm in Gloucestershire. [EDIT 3rd Jan 2012: See correction below]

1) £90m – I got this from a Defra press release from last summer, based on 2010 figures, but there are several press reports of £100 million (e.g. from the BBC and the Telegraph) so will accept that.

2) Weasel. Except for the stink badger, which reside in parts of South East Asia, which recent genetic evidence would suggest is not a badger at all.

3) Nutwood.

4) This is sort of a trick question – he is a crossbencher.

5. 2007, 36 years after leaving it to join Queen. I did my PhD at Imperial 2004-8 and did spot him on campus once.

6. Check for yourself. If you so wish, sign while you are there.

7. The 1973 Badger Act. Considering it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we saw laws against fox hunting, I think this is significant. Nerds might be interested to know there were also Badger Acts in 1991 and 1992. This piece by Patrick Barkham is good at giving some of the history of this.

Edit 3rd Jan 2012: a correction to question 7. As picked up by Angela Cassidy in comments, the Badger Act was two years AFTER the tuberculous badger was found. Moreover, as pointed out by environmental historian Rob Lambert in an email, protection of mammals started 60 years before that, with seals. The first wild mammal to be given Parliamentary legal protection in Britain was the Atlantic Grey Seal: The Grey Seals Protection Act (1914), Grey Seals Protection Act (1932) and the Conservation of Seals Act (1970, which also protected another British mammal species, the Common Seal).

I can also add a link to another Patrick Barkham piece on the apparent comeback of badger baiting (banned since 1835). Barkham’s piece from just after the culls were announced in mid December is also worth a read if you didn’t see it at the time.

Memories of kids’ environmental media

big old pile of dead tree media telling us to recycle

A small pile of dead trees.

I’m giving a short talk later this month about children’s science media and memory. I thought I’d pick up an idea I’ve been playing with for a while, and discuss memories of childhood and environmental media, and I’d like your help.

There’s loads of great material here. EDF Energy’s It’s Not Easy Being Green ad, “made entirely of recycled clips”, or the news of a Captain Planet movie in the making. Captain Planet is just one example of several green-tinged media products aimed at kids in the early 1990s. If you’re of the right age, you might also remember the Blue Peter Green BookUncle Jack or FernGully (great book on this, by the way). It goes back a lot further than this though. A strong thread of Romanticism has run through much of children’s fiction for centuries, often reflecting ideas about the natural world (see Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan on this). Mary Welsely’s The Sixth Seal (which scared the poo out of me as a kid) was first published in 1969. There is also a long history of non-fiction media on natural history aimed at kids which will, on occasion, overlap with environmental issues.

I often wonder if kid’s green media of previous era’s had any impact. I noticed Laurie Penny referenced childhood memories of FernGully and what she described as “traumatic colouring books full of sad baby seals and herons choking on plastic bags” (missed that one myself…) in a recent piece about a trip to the Arctic. In his book about children’s news media, David Buckingham cynically suggests a focus on environmental issues  is a way adults can put off taking action themselves: label it a kids issue and leave it for the next generation. I wonder if, now those kids have grown up, they are doing something. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they are just enjoying the nostalgia of the recycled clips on the EDF Energy ad.

Anyway, as a way of helping me think about this, I’d be interested in people’s memories of environmental media they encountered as children. On TV, books, films, in lessons at school, whatever. Whenever or wherever you experienced your childhood, and however you reacted to it. Do you remember the Blue Peter Green Book, FernGully, the Lorax, something else?  Did they worry you, bore you, inspire you, annoy you?

I’d love to hear your memories.  Do please leave them in the comments, and pass this post on to anyone you think might have something to share.

Uncertainty (again)

I’m blogging from the Science and Citizenship Conference. It’s being held partly to mark a ten year anniversary of the Lord’s report on Science and Society. Much of the programme was based on workshops considering key theme’s in the report. I took part on one about uncertainty and risk, and thought it was worth sharing my notes.

We started off with four key questions. Is it a new problem? To what extent are journalists to blame? To what extent are scientists to blame? What can we do to make it better? What can we all do to improve things?

We passed back and forth through various reasons why the issues of risk and uncertainty might be new, and then in turn why they are not. For example, I played the annoying “I once did a history of technology course” card that many of the fears about online media could be seen at the introduction of public libraries (the printing press, paperbacks…). Instead, I suggested maybe we have a growing intensification of activity and awareness around issues of rick and uncertainty.

In many ways, the things were were saying reflected ideas Ulrich Beck discussed in terms of ideas of the Risk Society, decades ago. As I grumbled a few months ago, the debate is an old one. That said, one of the reasons why Beck makes for an interesting example is his discussion of an increasing awareness not only of uncertainty, but the various contexts behind such uncertainty (which in turn can make us more uncertain as we seek new certainties, part of Beck’s notion that “modernity has become its own theme”).

We all seemed to agree that there was a lot of uncertainty in science and that this should be discussed openly with non scientists. We went through the various reasons why we might blame the media or scientists for not communicating such uncertainty, before critiquing ourselves to then defend both groups. For a while we seemed to pour blame on the education system, arguing that school science needs to think more about how to best prepare future-publics (rather than just training future-scientists). Though I agree school-science is important and could be improved, playing who’s to blame isn’t especially productive and  I’m not sure it’s realistic to pile too many expectations on the shoulders of an education system.

One participant mentioned a line from David Willetts – that in a society which is fragmented and uncertain, scientific evidence gives you something you can all agree on – and argued that this actually puts a huge pressure on science. It’s easy to say “yay, the science minister likes science”, but the scientific community should think about what they are are being offered here. When talking about who might be to blame, it was suggested that science holds some responsibility for being seduced into a political and media system where they are asked for certainty. That science from WW2 onwards might have seemed over-confident, but if so, it was because it sold a confidence back to people who (unfairly) asked it of them. It was also suggested that sensitivity over climate change denial is making things worse, with people defensive over the authority of science denying uncertainty. Again, it’s worth asking who’s hands are the scientific community playing to if they try to claim undeniable certainty?

(I don’t know, maybe climate change is another issue with it’s own context, and maybe working in a context with “merchants of doubt” means it’s necessary).

I’ve heard Willetts use that line too. As I argued at the time, in some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with the warm glow of science. I just don’t think science tends to work like that. The very “scientific way of thinking” Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate. I don’t think this is a criticism science, if anything it’s a celebration: the capacity for debate and sense that there is always a possible black swan around the corner is one of the things I like about science.

And solutions? There were the arguments about education. Perhaps predictably, “dialogue between journalists, scientists, members of the public and politicians” was mentioned, though, again predictably, we didn’t seem to have time to talk about how. Other suggestions included more standup maths shows, and citizen cyber-science. There was also some discussion of the advantages of citizen science projects in helping people feel ownership of science in some way – so science doesn’t seem like a project done by “those other people”. An interesting point was made with respect to work in Kenya; that science is sometimes seen as a Western thing and it’s been important to communicate that science can be African too. As one participant put it, this is perhaps “engagement through a sense of appropriation”.

For me this boiled down to another key word in that Lords report – trust. As Demos said back in 2004, an emphasis on risk and uncertainty is arguably a consequence of engagement happening too late in the process. If you want to build trust, you have to start early.