The latest edition of Index on Censorship’s magazine is devoted to questions of science. To launch it, they held a debate at Imperial College: Data Debate: Is transparency bad for science? (video embedded at bottom of this post).
I think it’s fair to say the event didn’t say much new (these things rarely do) but it was certainly lively, especially when George Monbiot and Onora O’Neill got into a bit of a spat around the idea of whether or not you should make data available to what O’Neill called “non-competent others” (loosely: people who do not know how to read this information). Monbiot disagreed, and I’m largely with him on this. Who decides competency? How? These are serious questions, and ones I cannot see answers to which don’t simply end up with a thinly-disguised version of our situation, where money or connections gets you access to science.
That said, I agree with O’Neill’s overarching concern that simply putting the data out there isn’t enough. As she put it in her introductory remarks: “transparency is a form of quasi-communication, not necessarily a form of communication”. As I put it in a piece for Comment is Free last year, information may well be “beautiful”, but on its own, it is inert. Opening data sets doesn’t necessarily unlock the craft of knowledge-making. Or, as a friend of mine once wisely remarked, open data is useless, dangerous even, without an open methodology too. To this I’d personally add that we also need open education too. I don’t take ideas of open education uncritically (that’s a whole other post) but this should be a larger part of the open access debate than it is.
At the Index debate, Monbiot said something else which I think is also key here:
Science has become incredibly specialised, to the extent that the person sitting next in the next door desk doesn’t really understand what you are doing. Even in the field within which I work – climate change – I’ll read the methodology and the results of a lot of the papers and I have to take it on trust because it is simply too complicated even for a comparative specialist journalist such as myself to understand the statistical analysis which has been done. But [at the same time] science says “don’t trust us” don’t trust anything except the evidence, don’t take our word for anything, but we have to, we have to trust what the scientists are telling us, and trust that they are telling it to us straight. Because actually we have no other means of understanding what is being put before us. And there is an inherent conflict, a paradox here, which somehow we need to engage with
Like it or not, the price we pay for all the benefits of specialisation in our society is a reliance upon trust and belief. This is a problem, because not trusting and not believing are at the heart of both science and democracy (two things I personally like).
We can’t all simply become educated enough to understand all the knowledge we rely upon. It’s one of the reasons I think simple calls for scientific literacy approaches the problem backwards (old rant on this) and prefer models of public engagement which stress discussion and debate between various stakeholders. It is also why, in a piece for Times Higher last year, Adam Corner and I argue Freedom of Information is not a silver bullet when it comes to opening science up to the public. This point was also made more recently in the ESRC magazine (pdf, p14) by social researchers whose work is of interest to the tobacco industry. I do believe in FoI, but it’s is only part of the story. As well as transparency – or perhaps above and beyond transparency – there is a lot of cultural work to be done (political, educational, diplomatic… all sorts).
None of this is easy. Note Monbiot simply says it’s a bit of a paradox and we need to think about the issue, but doesn’t offer an answer. It’s sometimes implied that Climategate gave some big shock to the scientific community, that they suddenly woke up to the need to be open. In reality many people in and around science had known this for years and had been working really hard to change things. It takes a lot of time to do this sort of social work, that’s all.
Or to put it another way, reflexive modernization is a bitch.
If you ‘like’ Index on Censorship on Facebook, you’ll be able to access a copy of their Science Issue for free (for a limited time). Not quite the #icanhazpdf hashtag as a way of using of social media to subvert traditional patterns of paywalls, but whether you think this is a good or bad thing is something for you to decide for yourself.