More than the echo, part 5: user-generated science

Thirty years ago I called it the “zero option”. Today I think of it as “more than the echo”.

In the early days of my PhD research I settled upon a particular modus operandi: to look for science in what was popular, not popularity in what was science. It seemed like a useful guiding principle, reversing what I saw as the traditional perspective on popular science. To understand popular science, I argued, we need to understand the popular culture of which it is part (ie in which it is produced, consumed and circulated).

This immediately raised the question: what if I looked for science in what was popular (in my case looking at Victorian/Edwardian mass media) and there was nothing there? This was what I called the “zero option”. [Historical footnote: this was the early-80s when the zero option was proposed during nuclear arms talks.]

A related question was would I recognise the science if I saw it? Indeed, what would count as science in the first place? Even a new PhD student still wet behind the ears could see that these were more than methodological questions.

Boldly going where no-one had gone before would I have to paraphrase the apocryphal line from Star Trek: “It’s science, Jim, but not as we know it”.

This is probably one of the reasons why I have always preferred the term “popular science” to that of “science communication”. To me the phrase “science communication” presupposes that there is something called science and that it is communicated. It is too linear even if there is supposed to be a two-way dialogue. Shout louder or shout louder and listen for the echo.

“Popular science” however is, for me, a much more open concept. It carries with it the possibility not only for a science that is popularised (ie via science communication) but also for a science that is generated at a popular level.

In the early-nineteenth century, for example, popular science was much more inclusive and participatory than what we understand it to be now. Popular publications emphasized the universal accessibility of science and encouraged readers to take up scientific activities in a “Republic of Science” open to all [see Pyenson]. We can see such “low science” in the artisan botanists who claimed their right to participate in science not simply as interested members of the public but through their activities as botanists [see Secord].

The early-nineteenth century also shows how popular science is inextricably linked to politics. On the one hand we have radical street literature with its reductionist, materialist and evolutionary science being wielded as a weapon against church and state [see Desmond]. On the other hand, we have Mechanics’ Institutes, conceived as an instrument of social control in which science education would help make the working class “more docile, less troublesome and more accepting of the emerging structure of industrial society” [see Shapin and Barnes]

The Mechanics’ Institutes failed, say Shapin and Barnes, because those who were supposed to attend were able to “sniff ideology and reject it”. Similarly, amongst radical artisans there was a widespread belief that “the upper classes had hijacked science and incorporated it into the apparatus of class enslavement” [see Desmond]

The public are still pretty good at sniffing things out and detecting bullshit. John Gummer might force feed a burger to his daughter, but the public were well able to sniff out the connections between government and the food industry. Are people really “anti-science” or are they expressing more subtle anxieties about trust and accountability, about modernity, capitalism and the state? [see earlier post] All in it together? Nah, they’re in it for themselves.

Maybe we can also see PUS and PEST as modern equivalents of the Mechanics’ Institutes but now helping to make the public less troublesome and more accepting of a post-industrial society. (I shall save a more detailed comparison for a later post. Meanwhile, a good analysis of the managerialist discourse can be found in this piece by Pieczka and Escobar.)

And maybe we shall see a return to that ideal of a Republic of Science. Not just through the growth of Open Access or the unpaid labour of citizen science, but a popular science from the public. To some extent we can see this already with the growth of blogs, wikis, tweets, and facebook. The spread of user-generated content opens up the possibility for a new world of user-generated science.

This is a challenge that scientists may be unwilling to face. So long as science communication is seen as information transfer the public can be identified as the problem, but as science is opened up to the public so it becomes easier to see how scientists lose control over the meanings that the public construct. The situation becomes even more problematic for scientists as user-generated content increases the public’s capacity to produce its own “science” in the first place.

However, user-generated science would be (is?) more than just the comments on mainstream science production, more than what is often dismissed as “the bottom half of the internet”. It would be the science that arises from the conditions of everyday life. We should, therefore, not be surprised if we find it to be a raw, messy, political form of experiential expertise.

It’s science Jim, but not as we know it.

For science policy this would mean starting with the public to develop the science rather than starting with the science to develop the public (ie the policy version of my research principle). For science communication it means recognising that popular science is produced, consumed and circulated by the culture in which it is embedded. It means recognising the material conditions and tactical practices of everyday life

In each case it is not simply a question of shouting louder or listening to see how much is bounced back. To understand popular science we need to understand more than the echo.


An interesting account of some forms of user-generated science can be found in the “critical citizen science” proposed by by Dan McQuillan. Presented in two Storify dialogues McQullian explains that “Starting from the technical conditions of daily life, critical citizen science will come to question the nature of science itself.” The two dialogues (part 1 and part 2) are well worth reading and include several useful links to follow.

Nancy Mendoza also looks at user-generated science in this blogpost for the British Science Association: “A New Democracy in Science: citizen journalists, hackerspaces and community-driven research”

The Particle Decelerator blog has an interesting commentary on  McQuillan’s dialogues including the comment (from Justin Pickard) that far from needing to be “written up properly” it is a “Storify-version STS”. In other words “It is written up properly”. This is perhaps a good indication of how new media (especially new social media) can be closely allied to new forms of popular science (ie not just new pathways for science communication).


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