Intimacy and fidelity: situating social media

Human societies are made in media. Gesture and speech, before writing, the printing press and the internet, have not just been vehicles through which we talk about people and stuff; they have fundamentally shaped what societies are and what they can possibly be.

Each successive development in the long train of communications technologies, from the development of speech through to the invention of the internet, has gradually transformed our ability to connect with other people and imagine our community. As writing begat the advanced agricultural society, so too the printing press begat the nation.

In what follows I seek to situate social media in this socio-economic history so that we can begin to think about what it means for academic work and science communication, and society more broadly. Continue reading

Geoengineering: in what possible world?

Geoengineering – the deliberate attempt to manipulate large scale elements of the Earth’s climate system to reduce the impact of climate change – has recently started to build momentum in scientific, policy and popular discussions.

Proposed geoengineering techniques have typically focused on enhancing carbon sequestration (either directly, by capturing carbon dioxide emissions, or indirectly, by stimulating oceanic phytoplankton blooms), or managing solar radiation (via the release of stratospheric sulphur aerosols, or cloud reflectivity enhancement).

The science of this is (to me at least!) fascinating, and can indeed contribute much to our understanding of the complexity of the planetary climate. For that reason I at least partly agree with those (such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson) who support such research.

Yet the question that must be asked here is a science communication one – could such projects ever truly gain enough public support to get off the ground? Would mass popular consent ever exist for the release of stratospheric sulfate aerosols to create a global dimming effect? Given the complexity and scale of the issue, should we even try to have a public dialogue on such options? Continue reading

A Science section in the Canberra Times? But Why?

An opinion piece by Rod Lamberts and I, published in the Canberra Times 16 April 2010:

Last week Sarah McKenzie wrote in these pages (Science needs a simpler voice – April 5) that she looked forward to the day when she could read a dedicated science section in the Canberra Times. We stand shoulder to shoulder with McKenzie in calling for greater public awareness of and engagement with science; as McKenzie mentioned, the last year or so has been replete with “a number of high profile, climate-change-denying columnists peddling anti-scientific messages”. We agree that there is much that needs to be done to facilitate better communication between scientists and the public, particularly on issues of wide social importance.

Yet as much as there’s a clear need for better communication between scientists and the public, continued emphasis on preaching to the converted – and that’s exactly what a dedicated science section in the Canberra Times would do – is going to do precious little to get the heathens into church.

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GM Crops in Australia: A Failure in Science Communication?

Guest post by Chris Bryant

I was interested in Martin Rees’ comment, reported in Guy Micklethwait’s recent post, to the effect that the scientists of genetically modified crops entered the fray too late to have any impact. I followed the debate at the time with great interest.

The move against GM foods had been so severe in the UK that on 23 May 2002, Prime Minister Blair decided to address the Royal Society.  He said it was time to end the air of suspicion and mistrust – and the ignorance – with which the public sometimes viewed the work of cutting edge scientists. He promised to break down the anti-science fashion in Britain and claimed he would never give way to misguided protesters who stood in the way of medical and economic advances.  And this is where he got into trouble with both the scientists and the science communicators.

On 24 May, 2002, The Times newspaper reported that

the Prime Minister is privately furious at the actions of protesters which have resulted in work being held up on research into genetically modified foods, and at disruption that could threaten a neurological research project in Cambridge aimed at helping sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease. He is angry over the regular description of GM foods as ‘Frankenstein foods’, and at the way science was blamed for the BSE emergency. ‘BSE was not caused by bad science but by bad practices’.


Blair’s problem, and that of his Government, was that he defined science in terms of politics and the economy. The address caused great outrage on the Internet, with reputable scientists pointing out that because they had misgivings about GM foods they were not anti-science. Continue reading

What Makes a Good Science Communicator?

Guest post by Chris Bryant

I have been pondering this question for a long time and it is especially apposite now, when we are surrounded by science communicators of all levels of competence.  The best and most effective one I ever encountered in my discipline was Sidnie Milana Manton FRS (the photo was taken towards the end of her life).

I met her in my first week in the Zoology Department at  King’s College London in 1955. She was a tall, spare, distant woman with greying hair and steel-rimmed glasses, and a high-pitched raspy voice that tended to become querulous with rage. It was not until I was assigned to her tutorial group in second year that I overcame the sense of awe I felt towards her and began to appreciate the outstanding quality of her mind.

She was an invertebrate biologist of great intellectual breadth. A major influence in her own career was a Royal Society expedition to the Barrier Reef in the 1920s. The collections she made then filled half the College museum and a good proportion of the London Natural History one as well. The less important material was trotted out for undergraduates to mishandle. In our final exam we had to dissect sea hares that she had collected on the Reef, more than thirty years previously. Most of their innards were, by then, liquid but she made no concessions. She remarked, of the finished work of one student, that it looked as if he had done it with his teeth.

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Martin Rees addresses the Australian Academy of Science

Guest post by Guy Micklethwait

Recently Lord Martin Rees, a University of Cambridge professor and president of the Royal Society, gave a talk at the Australian Academy of Science. The Shine Dome was filled to capacity, as he spoke about the role of science in facing the upcoming world challenges over the next 50 years. He made some interesting points about science communication:

First: that research was only one part of the role of scientists; the other part was communicating their research to the public, to other scientists and to politicians. He felt this was important because he wanted policy makers to get the best possible advice – based on high quality science.

Second: “The GM [genetically modified] crops debate went wrong in the UK because scientists came in too late.” Ongoing protests to industry had already polarised the argument and British public opinion had become anti-GM before scientists had joined the discussion. He said that in the UK they didn’t want this to happen with nanotechnology, so they were making sure that scientists were involved in that discussion right from the start.

Third: that it is important to engage with the public at a conceptual level without too much detail, so that they can become aware of the issues. He said that everyone had a right to participate in public debates about controversial scientific developments such as nuclear power and designer babies, but that “citizens all need at least a feel for science and a realistic attitude to risk.”

A member of the audience pointed out that as a member of the House of Lords, he was a politician as well as a scientist, and asked him whether he thought more scientists should become involved in politics. He replied that as a rule, he didn’t think scientists would make good politicians, but rather they should concentrate on communicating their science to the existing politicians.

Scientists: anti-political and arrogant?

The climate change movement may well be correct in their argument that every year counts in changing global processes. But in past years that has served as an excuse for not building the slow and remorseless mass campaign, deploying all the campaigning skills and rhetoric of older progressive campaigns (much of which, in style anyway, is being used by the anti-climate-change group). It has to abandon the idea that truth somehow communicates itself.

It’s fitting that this argument – by Crikey columnist and person-who-my-wife-accuses-me-of-having-a-man-crush-on Guy Rundle – came almost simultaneously with a recent national policy forum held by Universities Australia at Parliament House. Entitled ‘Climate Change: Bridging Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy‘, the forum was yet another in a series of disappointing events that singularly failed to bridge any gaps between science and society and between science and policy.

There were, of course, excellent speakers talking about excellent science in the forum; skilled presenters who could talk about the evidence for climate change and the great multiplicity of its effects. Anthony Hogan talked of some fascinating work the National Centre for Population Health and Epidemiology at ANU are doing on the mental health impacts of climate change; Jenny McAlister of the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water talked of how action is being taken in NSW government policy; Amanda Lynch of Geography and Environment at Monash University spoke intelligently on the scope for action that is available to us.

Yet despite what was on the whole interesting, excellent science, the forum gave the overall impression of what Rundle described in his eerily synchronous column as ‘elitist arrogance’:

… the great flaw in the climate change movement has been an elitist arrogance that is, at its worst, anti-political. Some of that is due to the asocial political naivete of scientists — ‘I mean, it’s obvious, why are these people being so stupid’ — some of it is due to the technocratic spirit of the age, whereby something is seen as a mere technical problem to be fixed, and some of it is due to the fact that the abstract/systemic nature of climate change ideas are most easily accepted by people trained in abstract-systemic thinking.

In essence, the forum was dominated by the idea of scientists asserting their priorities, devoid of any semblance of listening to the issues faced by politicians, journalists, or the public at large.  It was asserted, for example, that science should take the dominant lead in the policy formation process; that other sectors of society (journalists, politicians, the public) were obliged to accept and respect the knowledge of scientists. It was argued that the most important thing at hand was defending the place of science in society; it was argued that the public should respect the wonders of the peer review system.

Don’t get me wrong – I heard a lot of interesting and useful ideas at the forum. But I’m on the team. If we want to build a solution to the effects of climate change, then we’re going to have to stop preaching to the choir. Indeed, we’re going to have to stop preaching and start listening. We need to be open and transparent about how science is done, and we need to engage with everyone that will be affected by climate change in ways that matter to them.

Have a read Guy Rundle’s column. There’s a lot there we can use.

Images by flickr user Gora Gray and Snap Man, used under a Creative Commons license.

The bigger picture: where is the all disciplines conference for Australia?

What is the role of big interdisciplinary conferences? What do events like the recently held annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) provide?

If they are of value, should we reinvigorate something like this in Australia?

A recent Nature editorial has discussed general science conferences, arguing that these conferences allow researchers from various backgrounds – as well as policy-makers, stakeholders and citizens – to come together to discuss issues of broad public import that cut across disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, the editorial suggests that “for researchers wishing to enhance their awareness of the bigger issues and of other disciplines,” these meetings are a gift.

Australia doesn’t presently have such a forum. Yet it used to, and it should have one again.

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The return of PUS!?

Guest post by Rod Lamberts

Is the public understanding of science movement is coming back?  More frighteningly, is it making its comeback tour in Australia?  It seems that more and more the cry for “public scientific literacy” is being dusted off and re-asserted.  And in venues that I would never have expected.

At the recent Australian Science Communicators National Conference, a call came from the floor decrying the lack of surveys looking into public science literacy in Australia.  On the ANZAAS website, other such ‘new literacists’ call for the enhancement of science understanding among the Australian public.  They assert – resuscitating  thoroughly debunked, 30 year old UK/European thinking – that a lot of the apparent public aversion to science is just a lack of understanding. The direct implication being that if we somehow teach people more science, they will accept science and scientists more readily.

Well, we don’t need a public literacy survey because we already know what we will find. ‘The public’ will not know whether hot air rises or cold air falls, and they will be unlikely to be able to accurately explain why there are seasons. This is old news, it tells us nothing. And there’s no point in arbitrarily acting to raise public science literacy either, because (a) it doesn’t work, and (b) even if it did, years of evidence demonstrates that understanding does not automagically lead to acceptance or agreement. That’s called the deficit model folks, and it’s been getting kicked to bits in the science communication literature and beyond for decades.

Both these positions privilege science knowledge above other knowledge, and uncritically, if implicitly, suggest science should be a priority for everyone because it is intrinsically valuable.

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Movie Misconceptions about Physics

Guest post by Guy Micklethwait

American professor Sidney Perkowitz has recently stated that science fiction movies should be allowed only one major transgression of the laws of physics. He has won backing from a number of his peers after creating a set of guidelines for Hollywood. Perkowitz comments, “I am not offended if they make one big scientific blunder in a given film … You can have things move faster than the speed of light if you want. But after that I would like things developed in a coherent way.”

I disagree. A film that contains a lot of bad physics allows the audience to realise that this is a science fiction film and they are then in a position to question all the physics in the film. Yet, if you had a film that was full of good physics but had just one violation of the laws of physics buried in the middle – as Perkowitz desires – the risk is that the audience might not think the film was science fiction, which might then create a misconception about physics for them. Sci-fi movies have been particularly effective in the past at blurring the distinction between fact and fiction,[1] and that is not a bad thing if it is clear that you are watching a science fiction movie.

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