Tag Archives: guardian

My favourite scientist

I’m not really someone who does “favourites”. When people ask my favourite colour, favourite t-shirt, or favourite food I tend to roll my eyes and point out that I’m not seven. But I do have a favourite scientist. His name is Frank Oppenheimer.

This is a bit embarrassing because, as a trained historian of science, I really should be above a “great man” view of our past. I know science doesn’t progress genius by genius. I know any greatness of science is (a) up for debate and (b) tends to come from long, iterative work done by largely anonymous groups, not starry individuals. I have to admit to finding the veneration of Darwin last year a bit weird. But I’ve thought Frank Oppenheimer was amazing ever since, as an undergraduate, I stumbled across a dusty book about him at the edge of the Science Museum library.

Really short version: Frank was J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s little brother. Like his brother, Frank was also a physicist and also worked on the Manhattan Project. Post-war, he was blackballed as a communist so went off to run a cattle ranch, later becoming a teacher before re-joining academia. After a brief sabbatical at UCL he dropped university life again and moved to San Fransisco to found the Exploratorium (now a model for science museums all over the world).

Short version: Go read my second piece for the Guardian science blog festival.

Medium-long version: Have a play at the Exploratorium’s history site.

Long version: Get hold of a copy of  KC Cole’s biography.

Let’s not build heroes here. Frank Oppenheimer didn’t save the world. In fact, we might even say that as someone involved in the Manhattan Project, he played a small part in the closest we’ve come to destroying it. It’s also worth emphasising that the guy wasn’t a saint, and that it’s not like the Exploratorium is the definitive word on how to do science education (personally, I love it, but I appreciate I’m a kinesthetic learner who likes physics). Plus, let’s not forget, he was a rich, white man of the 20th century who’s Dad left him a Van Gough. Still, I think he’s a fascinating chap.

Every now and again I pop into the Science Museum’s mini-Exploratorium, Launch Pad. I build an arch bridge. I mess about with some bubble mix. I remember all the similar exhibits I’ve played with in similar museums all over the world. And I remember that I have a favourite scientist. His name was Frank Oppenheimer.

On laughter and ridicule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking outside the SpaceDino

Grrr

This Dinosaur resides in Crystal Palace, not outer space

This extends my piece on Comment is Free.

Science minister David Willetts recently gave a speech to the Royal Institution. He was asked a question about how he would work effectively with schools and young people (another minister’s brief). He started off well before putting his foot in his mouth with this little piece of laziness: “The two best ways of getting young people into science are space and dinosaurs”.

It was a flippant point, but indicative of a flippancy which is somehow ok when it comes to “kids stuff” (and pisses me off). It could have been worse. Willetts could have put the space-dinos point the way he did in Portsmoth the previous month: “All the evidence suggest if you’re going to get young people into those subjects they are the two most powerful things” (source: local newspaper report).

All the evidence? Really? Er, no. I checked. What “evidence” does exist is deeply flawed and/ or contradicts a love of space-dinos (for very brief discussion see the comment is free piece). It’s a seriously under-researched area. There should be a lot more work in this area, and it should be a lot better. Interestingly, many of the CiF comments reflected a tendency in educational discourse to hold personal experience above research that aims to consider a broader range of people. For example: “Dinos and space worked for me”. I’m sure they did, and I’m not seeking to devalue that personal experience in any way, but the world is bigger.

I should underline that I wrote this piece because the Guardian asked to respond to recent HESA data, and a perceived problem of attracting women in science. This is a knotty question, there are oodles of issues involved (as Sheril Kirshenbaum’s recent blogpost reflects on). I wanted to stress that, in working through all these issues, we have to be careful of making broad statements about gender, age or science.

For example, Susan Greenfield says physics has a problem recruiting girls because girls “want to know about relationships” (yes, in that interview). Maybe she has a point, she’s not the only one to say this (some history of debates around this documented in this reader). But “girls” are rather a large set of people to pin down. Educational researcher Heather Mendick found that apparently “hardness” of A-level maths could be part of the (many) appeals of the subject for girls as well as boys. Of course, Mendick’s study is of girls who have chosen to study maths, not the ones who had been put off. But we can’t ignore those already-interested either. That’s really my point: if you’re worried about inspiring the next generation of scientists, boys or girls, you need to listen to young people, in all their diversity. You can’t just rely on your own experience, you have to let yourself be surprised by your audience.

Further, to pick up on the “generational issues”: as I say in the CiF piece, a lot of children’s media (be it books, tv, museums, school exams) can seem a generation or two behind. There is a long history of analysis of spotting this in literary/ media studies. Jacqueline Rose wrote the book on it. Her study of Peter Pan is subtitled “the impossibility of children’s literature”, arguing children’s literature is produced and controlled by adults, so it reflects an adult’s idea of the child (it’s not “children’s” at all, it belongs to the grownups). Personally, I much prefer David Buckingham’s extension of Rose’s idea. He applies the idea of “impossibility” to Timmy Mallett and argues that kids tv presenters who try to appear “down with the kids” as largely acting out a role of what they think children are and will like; a form of “generational drag”. There’s always a bit of “dressing up” involved.

So, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that projects like I’m a Scientist or SciCast are somehow simply bottom up, or (more ridiculous) a clean articulation of what children are “naturally” interested in. It’s worth noting quite how connected to the school curriculum the SciCast films are (maybe that’s a good thing though, a sign that aspects of the school science system are working, at least in places). Equally, we shouldn’t write off these projects because of adult involvement either. Education is largely a matter of passing on ideas from one generation to another, but SciCast and I’m a Scientist involve young people as active participants in this, letting young people express their own interests. That’s why I mentioned them on CiF. The question banks in I’m a Scientist and SciCast’s films provide some rough idea of what aspects of science today’s young people find exciting. In the absence of much more decent work in the field, they are one place to at least get some clue of what inspires young people.

Storm the Royal Society?

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

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

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

A couple of points worth expanding on:

1) Expertise

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

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

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

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

2) Monitorial citizenship.

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

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

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

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

Open data and public engagement (Comment is Free)

I have a piece on Comment is Free about open data and public engagement.

Their title “Citizen science still needs specialism”, with the sub-heading “The public can be involved in constructing knowledge. But some data sets are more easily offered for external use than others”. Both of which I do kind of say, but my point is more that simply opening data doesn’t really work as a public engagement strategy: the people who can use it aren’t exactly the public. That doesn’t in itself mean open data is a bad thing, but we do need to be aware of the specifics of how we expect such data to be used.

I have a larger p.s. to this piece, with some links to the academic work I drew on, but I won’t have time to post that till later this week.

Science is cool? Considering the "evidence"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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