Sci-Comm: What is to be done?

Science communication has failed

Rearranging the furniture in the White House are a President who said climate change was a hoax, and a Vice-President who does not accept the theory of evolution. The rest of Trump’s cabinet is an equally deplorable bunch when it comes to science (or, indeed, anything else when it comes to being decent and humane).

I’m not blaming science communication for the election of Trump. But Trump’s Presidency is evidence that science communication has failed.

You might say that this has little to do with science communication, that Trump won the election on other issues but this only shows that science-based issues were not seen as important enough – also a failure.

And Brits should not be so smug either, with their vote for Brexit and their “had enough of experts”.

What we have clearly seen in recent months is that facts are not enough no matter how well they are communicated. The campaign to remain in the E.U. had all the facts, all the statistics, all the information. In contrast, the leave campaign was built on lies, half-truths and prejudices. The U.K. voted to leave.

Facts are not enough. Science communication is not enough. More is not enough.

How many years have we spent trying “to get the message across”? How many years of “ooooh”, “aaahhh”, “wow”…..applause? Failure.

I’m not suggesting that we stop trying to disseminate accurate science. Far from it. In this “post-truth” age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, the need for good science communication has never been more urgent.

What I am suggesting is that we need to change our approach, not just a better version, or an upgrade – a radical shift, not pimp my sci-comm.

What is to be done?1

If you think that science communication is the solution then you probably don’t understand the problem.

In a recent article for American Scientist Matthew Nisbett describes a “culture of complacency” in the scientific community and “a long-standing reticence to confront the profound, dire problems we now face.” More than that, he says, the very success of science and engineers has contributed to the deeper trends that brought Trump to the Presidency: in particular increased inequality and rapid technological change.

“Scientists and their organizations, therefore, have both a strategic and an ethical imperative to help society cope with the negative effects of globalization, forces that some of their advances and innovations have helped set in motion.”

Improving the communication of science will not help solve the problems that science helped to create. Communication tools and insights will remain as just “tactics”, says Nisbett, “if they are not applied and coordinated on behalf of a larger vision of social change.”

In short, science and technology might be seen as complicit in creating the distress and alienation that people are experiencing.

And here we face a fundamental question: is science communication an engine for social change or (albeit unwittingly) is it part of the machinery for social control?  If you think that is too harsh, how about science maintains the status quo and sci-comm supplies the “useful idiots”?

The more we congratulate ourselves about the effectiveness of our science communication, the greater the danger that we may blind ourselves to society’s deeper ailments. The more we allow science communication to maintain the status quo the more it becomes part of the problem.

We need to go beyond PE as PR, and outreach as a recruitment tool. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, the contextualisation of science has a part to play here and we should, perhaps, think also of the contextualisation of science communication. Who is it for? Who benefits?

As Jack Stilgoe has written we need to find new ways for the public to set the agenda. Public engagement around innovation is good at asking about how much or how fast, but is not so sophisticated in talking about what direction innovation should take. The goal, he says, “should be a renewed politics of science”.

“The politics of science are subtle. There are questions about the science need and the science we want; questions about uncertainty, evidence and burdens of proof; questions about ownership, access and control. We need to learn how to open up and debate these questions in public.”

We have been here before. There is a history of radicalism in science which Alice Bell asks us not to forget, and in the U.K. it might even be seen as a respectable radicalism. Nobel Prize winner Maurice Wilkins, for example, opened the inaugural meeting of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science in 1969.

BSSRS was not like other science campaigns, as Bell explains:

“…what distinguishes the BSSRS from other campaigns is that it was not simply a matter of scientists calling for more research funds or demands for their voice to be heard more in the media or public policy. Rather, they aimed to open up the politics of science to both scientific and public scrutiny so it might change and improve. They perceived a crisis in wider society and felt science could help, but also thought science as it was currently constructed was part of the problem, so would need to change to use its powers for good.”

And the idea of social responsibility is becoming mainstream. One development in Europe is the growing interest in Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)2. This is not a revolutionary movement (it is well-supported by the E.U.), but could have radical consequences if pursued ambitiously.

According to the E.U.:

“Responsible Research and Innovation means that societal actors work together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes, with the values, needs and expectations of European society.”

Public Engagement is only one of five “keys” or objectives, the others being

Gender Equality, Science Education, Ethics, and Open Access. Most important is a sixth key, Governance, which brings them all together. In this respect RRI is not just about improving the quality of science but changing the way that science is run and practiced – maybe even changing what we mean by “quality” and “excellence”.

But we need to do more than align science with the values of society (do we want our science aligned with the values of Trump, Farage, or le Pen?).

We need a vision of society – free, open, equal and inclusive – that science can help us create.


  1. Apologies to Lenin scholars for pinching the title from one of his pamphlets. There are, however, similarities in the need to shift from seeking gains within a system to making changes to the system. And Lenin, in turn, took the title from the very influential novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky.
  2. Von Schomberg is the usual reference for RRI. His definition is: “Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society).”

RRI projects include:

RRI Tools:





3G Science Communication

We now have 4G (or it is 5G?) phones. Maybe it’s time we moved on to 3G science communication.

The marketing exercise that often passes for science communication is clearly recognisable as a first generation model. Still running on the “deficit” operating system this 1G model was programmed to look for “effectiveness” and “right” answers. Some scientists had problems with reception but you could always turn up the volume.

Second generation science communication came with extra capacity for a “dialogue” between science and the public. The PEST operating system for 2G scicomm tried to introduce the “engagement” app, but many users found they were still stuck to the same old channel and some scientists complained of too much interference.

So are we ready for 3G scicomm?

I want to suggest a third generation model based on contextualized interactivity, a cultural approach which sees popular science not as an accumulation of information but as a struggle over meanings.

Elsewhere on this blog I have written about how an idea is not a thing and how the idea of “conceptual space” helps us to understand the ways in which ideas are used and their meanings negotiated. This is the operating system for 3G scicomm.

As I wrote in that post

Like urban space conceptual space is the result of design, history and use. It can be created, opened up, closed down. As urban space shapes what we do and how we live, so conceptual space shapes what we think and how we think it. In both cases we interact with the space and transform it for ourselves as it, in turn, transforms us.

We can draw out the analogy further:

  • closing down a space restricts what we can do there (e.g. prevent us asking certain questions)
  • use is not always as intended (e.g. note the variety of Darwinisms and popular appropriations of chaos theory or quantum physics)
  • people keep revisiting the same places/ideas or avoid other places/ideas (i.e. prefer not to think about….)
  • some places/ideas are functional and only visited when needed (e.g. is visiting science the same as going to the bathroom?)
  • some places/ideas are more permanent than others

 Key features of the new 3G scicomm are freedom of movement and easy access to coonceptual spaces. This not only opens up the conceptual environment but also enables more user-generated science.

However, scientists may find compatibility problems with earlier systems. The desire to make science more public may conflict with an equally strong desire to control the meanings of what is out in the public sphere.

To open up conceptual spaces means to lose control over them. The challenge for scientists is not just whether they are able to do this but whether they are willing.

PALEY, Reverend William (1743-1805)

William Paley was born in Peterborough in July 1743, the eldest child of William Paley and Elizabeth Clapham.  He died 25 May 1805 in Bishop Wearmouth.  His father was a minor canon at Peterborough and later headmaster at the grammar school in Giggleswick, West Yorkshire.  Educated at his father’s school and Christ’s College, Cambridge, Paley graduated as senior wrangler in 1763 and was elected a fellow in 1766.

Ordained in 1767, Paley enjoyed the patronage of the Bishop of Carlisle, receiving a number of rectories in Cumberland and Westmoreland and was eventually appointed Archdeacon of Carlisle in 1782.  In 1794 Paley was awarded a DD at Cambridge.  That same year, following the success of his Evidences of Christianity, he was rewarded with the valuable living of Bishop Wearmouth and appointment as sub dean at Lincoln.  He divided his time between the two until his death in 1805.  He was twice married and left four sons and four daughters.

Paley made no claims for originality in his books.  He was a writer of educational works and happy to use the published work of others.  However, the success of his simple, clear writing style has often meant that these popular accounts have attracted more attention (and criticism) than the more considered work he draws on.  This is certainly true of his Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the appearances of Nature (1802), the most important of his publications for the historian of science.

Paley’s Natural Theology is probably the clearest and most popular expression of the argument from design, one of the most persistent proofs for the existence of God.  From its opening analogy between God’s creation and a watch – in each case ‘there cannot be design without a designer; a contrivance without a contriver’ (Works, p. 437) – through to the steady accumulation of evidence for God’s unity, omnipotence and benevolence, the book is a delight to read.  Its logic and clarity were appreciated by Darwin who wrote in his autobiography that he was ‘charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation’ and thought it one of the few texts that was of any use to him during his studies at Cambridge (Darwin, p. 22).

Darwin’s theory of natural selection is often portrayed as destroying Paley’s vision of the world, but this underestimates the persistence of natural theology into the late-nineteenth century even though it may no longer have provided the common intellectual context for the debate about our place in nature.  Paley’s Natural Theology was already regarded as a classic by the early 1820s and throughout the century new editions kept it relevant enough to appeal to new audiences, popularizing science for a non-technical readership and showing that religion and science did not have to be in conflict.  An 1875 edition was edited by Frederick le Gros Clark and ‘revised to harmonise with modern science’.

‘It is a happy world after all’ wrote Paley (Works, p. 534). He quite literally lived in Eden (many of his livings were in the Eden valley in Cumberland) and by all accounts he seems to have been a very genial man.

Entry for William Paley in Bernard Lightman (ed.) Biographical Dictionary of Nineteenth Century British Scientists (Thoemmes Press, Bristol, 2004).



Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785).

Horae Paulinae (1790).

A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794).

Natural Theology (1802).

The Works of William Paley (1837, prefixed with a life of the author).


Further Reading

Nuovo, Victor L., ‘Paley’ in The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers, edited by John W. Yolton, John Vladimir Price and John Stephens (Bristol, 1999).

Darwin, Charles, ‘Autobiography of Charles Darwin’ (1929, Thinkers Library edition).

Fyfe, Aileen, ‘Publishing and the Classics: Paley’s “Natural Theology” and the nineteenth-century canon’, in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science vol. 33, (2002), pp. 733-55.

Nothing Left to Invent: Victorian visions of the future

In 1898 one correspondent to Cassell’s Saturday Journal felt able to write “We seem to be so up‑to‑date nowadays that I don’t see that there is really much else to be invented.”

And who could have argued with them? A surfeit of wonders, `latest improvements’, and `startling developments’ had brought a nation to expect a new advance on an almost daily basis. “…the times in which we live may well be called the `age of invention’”, reported one magazine. “Never before, it would seem, have men so ardently studied the secrets of nature, and turned the knowledge thus acquired to practical account. We have become so accustomed to hearing of new inventions that nowadays they hardly surprise us.”

At the end of the 19th century the mass media were filled with stories (and speculation) about flight, wireless telegraphy, X-Rays, radium, and the application of electricity to every aspect of modern life.  As presented in the mass-circulation magazines of the period, the Enlightenment’s hopes of achieving mastery over nature were finally being realised

In contrast to any fin de siecle  intellectual pessimism perhaps the greatest power of technology in the popular media was in the hope that it created. The language of hope contained the simple promise that the future would be better, and it should not be thought that this was a cynical, idle promise. One had only to look at the advances in technology made in the recent past, as the magazines took great pleasure in recording, to have hopes that similar advances were in store. A history of inexorable progress and a record of current triumphs gave technology impeccable credentials as a guarantor of better times to come.

We might dismiss this belief in Progress as blind faith, but the late‑Victorians had every reason to look forward to the new century. It was not so much that there were better times to come, but that they were inevitable. This vision came from layman and expert alike. Richard Kerr, FGS, FRAS, in Cassell’s Magazine, for example, concluded his article on wireless telegraphy contemplating the future:

In all this we have a wonderful instance of the power of the human mind over some of the hidden forms of energy that abound in Nature.

In fifty years time still greater things may be achieved. The mind is progressive, always expanding and being amplified, and does it not seem to indicate that it will continue to do so throughout eternity…

Progress is a marriage of the past with the future. If by its association with progress technology drew its authority and credibility by an appeal to the past, then it gained its seductive power from visions of the future. Cassell’s Saturday Journal, for example, linked past and future in its article on `Radium and its discoverers’.

The last few years have been rich in marvels, of which the x‑rays and wireless telegraphy are not the least. Remembering these things one would need a bold imagination to predict the scientific developments of the near future.

But predicting the future was the stuff of popular journalism and was a pastime commonly indulged in late-Victorian magazines, particularly the weeklies. Guided by a belief in progress and extrapolating from the past, what a wonderful picture they painted of times to come, ever onward and ever hopeful. Future generations, readers were told, would be able to take an aeroplane to the moon, cross the Atlantic in three days, travel in wagons along pneumatic tubes or on aerial railways, send pictures by telegraphy, make gold, eat pills as food, keep hearts beating with electricity, kill pain with anaesthetics, make the deaf hear, the blind see.

It is worth taking a closer look at these visions of the future, for in the common conflation of `will be’ with `ought to be’ they reveal the desires and fears of the age. “Prediction is in the air”, said Cassell’s Magazine.

 Men of science, above all others, have recently shown a disposition to assume the prophetic mantle. One informs us that man is becoming a toothless, toeless biped, all cerebellum, another that the microbe is the true sovereign of the world and will ultimately transform man into a new creature, another confidently asserts that we shall yet send telephonic messages to the planet Mars or see what is going on in Australia without leaving London, and so on ad infinitum.

In Tit‑Bits it was compulsory education that would lead the majority of the country to `seek brain rather than muscle work’, but it was technology that would enable this to happen

For a hundred years hence will not all labour be performed automatically or by machinery of some description?

Progress would be nothing less than exponential. In “Britain a hundred years hence: a peep into 1997” it proclaimed:

If the world lasts, far more wonderful changes and improvements will be effected in the coming than in the last century, for inventions, knowledge, and progress breed inventions, knowledge and progress.

In the last twenty years the `germ’ had been found for cholera, hydrophobia, tuberculosis, diptheria, anthrax and a host of other diseases which will “under really scientific hygiene, be utterly crushed out of existence”. With the perfection of surgery “death from ordinary injury will barely be possible”.

            Pearson’s Weekly, meanwhile, decided to devote a full page to see “How London will look in 1998”. Everything is run by electricity; nobody walks but transport is by bikes, cars, trams, airships, even roller skates; shopping is done over the telephone and there are telephones on every corner. Great and clever as we think ourselves”, it remarked, “what we have achieved in this century is but the shadow of the substance of the next”.

London 1998 for CMH exam

Note the emphasis on speed. Even the pedestrians are on roller skates. The future was to be faster.

            Working from an assumption about the inevitability of progress, for these Victorians the future was simply a magnification of the present – new technologies, but old social structures. For all the mechanical wizardry it was still a patriarchal world of upstairs-downstairs. They may have seen the coming age of the motor car, but there was little suggestion of the extent to which it would shape our lives, landscapes and cultures. They might have been able to envisage worldwide telegraphy, electrical brains and mechanical filing systems, but they had no conception at all of what life would be like with the internet. In short, by seeing the future simply as bigger, bolder, faster and brighter what they missed was the quality of change

            We need to understand science as part of culture if we wish to understand the quality of change that science and technology bring. Victorian visions of progress saw a future that was only quantitatively different from the present. Likewise, we may be able to “see” into the future, examine various indicators, extrapolate from current figures, trace out trends, but this will only show us ourselves writ large, missing the qualitative differences that ultimately affect our lives the most. It tells us little about what life will be like, the meanings we will give to things, the cultures that we will inhabit. When we try to consider the quality of life, the experience of the future, I can only predict that it will be nothing like we have ever imagined.

Note: This is an edited version of a paper I gave to the BAAS festival of science at the University of Leicester, 2002. The material used (together with much more) can be found in my book Media Science Before the Great War (1996)



The Meaning of [ ]

What does [  ] mean?

The top story in today’s online Guardian was built entirely on the use of square brackets in a document. This was taken as a sign of a widening split amongst EU contries, doubts about UK negotiations, worries in France that the UK is seeking extra protection for the City of London, and general trouble ahead for PM David Cameron.

All this from a piece of punctuation.

The Guardian had access to a leaked copy of the final draft of the plan for Britain’s renegotiated membership of the EU. As the paper explained:

In the drafts…..any mention of revising the treaty appears between square brackets – the device used in international negotiations to show there is no agreement on that issue.

It is that lack of agreement that is so significant. The brackets also highlight the areas of disagreement.

In other contexts and other circumstances square brackets could mean something entirely different. They might, for example, indicate the absence of text that is about to be inserted, an invitation to the reader to insert their own text, or highlight text that has a different origin (eg from an editor).

Of course, we are quite familiar with these different uses and generally read each one appropriately. What is fascinating about the Guardian story is how much significance is solely built upon the use of the square brackets rather than the text they context.

It is a striking example of how, even for the simplest of marks upon a page, there is no meaning without context.


A Manifesto for Teaching Engineers

Given the choice I much prefer a manifesto to a mission statement though I suppose they amount to much the same thing. Maybe it’s simply a preference for the radical over the corporatist. The Communist Mission Statement does not quite have the same ring to it.

I was prompted to write my own manifesto after coming across one for the teaching and learning of radical history put together by Richard Kennett (@kenradical). What struck me immedidately was how easy it would be to apply this to all kinds of subject area. Wherever you see the word “history” just drop in your own subject. It is a guide to teaching and learning not just History.

This was the starting point but I quickly discovered how well the format of a manifesto lends itself to reflecting upon one’s own practices and ideas. And here I think it does differ from a mission statement. Each may be a statement of idealised intent but a manifesto pushes you towards clarity whereas a mission statement is apt to lead you towards obfuscatory PR.

So, picking up on some of my own interests, shamelessly pinching ideas from other people and with a HT to @kenradical here is my

Manifesto for Teaching Engineering

  1. Be enquiry led. Problems and questions are the bread and butter of engineering
  2. We are all engineers. The aim of teaching is to make students better engineers
  3. Embrace making as creativity.
  4. Enrich the teaching/learning by working with academics, industry and the community. Make this the triple helix in the DNA of a course.
  5. Work with curious, unusual and rich problems. The triple helix will help you do this
  6. Context should be woven into every enquiry. Always ask, “Where are the people?” Whose problem? Whose solution? Who benefits?
  7. Acknowledge that problems have more than one solution many of which do not involve engineering at all.
  8. Be accessible and enjoyable for all.
  9. Leave students wanting to know more about engineering

Nine points? That doesn’t seem right. It should be more like the Ten Commandments (definitely more manifesto than mission statement). So, here is a tenth point:

10. Be prepared to break the rules (including any suggested in this manifesto)

Note that this is a manifesto for teaching engineering. A manifesto for engineers would be different, perhaps taking inspiration from the First Things First Manifesto for graphic designers. What would be interesting, however, would be to include a manifesto for engineers into the teaching of engineers. What kind of manifesto would student engineers put together? Now that would be very interesting to see.

Hmm, maybe manifesto writing should be part of every curriculum.

Living in the past: advice to a time traveller

When you become a time traveller it is important to remember that living in the past is not the same as reading about it. For one thing, you have to live every second of every day.

How easy it is in a novel or a history to skip a whole year simply by starting a fresh paragraph or turning the page. Even when you read every word in the book you are merely tiptoeing across the Heraclitan flood on selected stepping stones

But life in the past is living every heart beat in every minute, waiting patiently for the next day to dawn, the next season to turn; enduring each long, dull interlude between each fleeting sparkling moment.

There are consequences to this.

The time traveller needs to adjust their sense of perspective. It is often said that History is the collective memory of a society, but the great art of the historian is the art of forgetting – forgetting what comes next. Living in the past you have no idea of what is going to happen next except a general sense that next year will be much the same as this one. Fine details may be noticed from one generation to the next, but a peasant today will be a peasant tomorrow.

Living in the past is living in the present. To live in the past the time traveller must avoid foreboding based on historical hindsight, what might be called “hindboding”. The shadow of war in 1913 is not a shadow cast by 1914 but the accumulated fears built on 1912.

Living in the past is a long slow walk into the unknown; billions of steps taken by billions of people and the historical spotlight might pick out the faltering tread of one foot placed in front of another. To live in the past the time traveller must learn to walk again.

This is how the historian privileges one event over another. Living in the past is to appreciate the longue duree of a single day. No matter how complete, the historical past will always be the twinkle of sunlight on the surface of a very deep dark lake.

As a nerdy teenager I invented a game for myself and my nerdy friends. Using a pack of cards to generate dates randomly we would challenge each other on our historical knowledge. A dictionary of dates and events would help us check our answers. Turn the cards. What happened in 1162? 798? 1736? (We liked inventing games that were almost impossible to play!)

How we longed for an easy date, a 1066 or 1832 or 1945. These were dates which, for very good reasons, had been priviliged by historians. These were dates plucked from that dark lake and held up to the light; but living in the past those privileged dates were still filled with the slow, steady tick of the clock; and lives filled with the inexorable grind of the unprivileged years in between.

As 2015 becomes 2016 think of which (if either) will become priviliged in the future – and remember to turn the page slowly.