The Qualia of Science Communication

Run your fingers gently along a surface, maybe your sleeve or the table in front of you. What does it feel like? And what does that experience feel like? How do you understand it?

This is the essence of “qualia” ie those immediate, subjective experiential qualities of consciousness. It is the “raw” feel, not the cooked. A camera may “see” an image but what is the experience of seeing an image like? What is the difference between your experience of an image and that of the camera? Those experiential qualities might be called “qualia” The term comes from the Latin “qualis” which means “what kind of” or “what is it like”. The neutral plural is qualia.

There are difficulties with the idea of qualia as a way to understand consciousness, but I think the term can be a useful shorthand in helping to illustrate a problem and it is the problem that I am interested in. I use it here simply as a catchall for illustrative purposes not explanatory ones,

Equally, this post is not about consciousness but (ultimately) about science communication, Nevertheless, I think the two fields face similar problems – the problem of trying to open the black box of consciousness and, in scicomm, trying to open the black box of “the public”.

It is in this respect that we need to understand the “qualia” of science communication.

We get an idea of the problem in Nagel’s famous essay “What is it like to be a bat?” where he argues that the subjective nature of consciousness undermines any objective, reductionist attempt to explain it.

For Nagel, the subjectivity of experience is the bedrock of consciousness. “An organism has conscious mental states,” he says, “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism – something that it is like for the organism.” We can only understand bat consciousness with respect to what it means to be a bat and what it means for a bat.  In other words, we can understand your consciousness only by relating it to your subjective experience to you and what it is like for you.

The problem, in short, is how can we expect a third-person, objective approach (such as that provided by the behavioural sciences) to give an adequate account of first-person, subjective experiences? It will always fall short.

Similarly, we find the problem illustrated in John Searle’s famous thought experiment of the Chinese Room. This is a common reference point for current discussions about consciousness, computers and artificial intelligence, but it also serves our purposes equally well.

The set up is easy to understand. Inside a room is a person who has access to a vast library of symbols and instructions. Outside the room are experts in Chinese phllosophy.

The experts write questions in Chinese on slips of paper and pass them into the room. The person in the room examines the symbols and looks them up in his library of instructions. Following the instructions they then write out their own symbols on a slip of paper and pass it out to the experts.

The exchange of symbols produces an erudite discussion about the nature of reality in early Taoist writings, but the person in the room knows nothing about this. They know nothing about Taoism nor Chinese. They were simply following instructions (one might even say mindlessly following instructions).

Searle’s Chinese Room has been much argued over. Suffice it to say that it can be presented as an argument against a functionalist approach to understanding mind and consciousness. A functionalist might argue that all we have are inputs and outputs, and that is all that matters. If it performs the functions of being conscious then then it is conscious. If it looks like a mind, walks like a mind and quacks like a mind then it is a mind.

Not surprisingly, others (myself included) think there is something missing – even without making appeals to spooky, immaterial “mind stuff”. How can we say that the room (even as a system) understands Chinese philosophy?

The problem is highlighted even further if we see the slips of paper as physical stimuli and responses. If the slips of paper going in say such things as “hot surface” or “sharp nail”, then how can we say that the room feels pain? Squiggly symbols in (“sharp nail into foot”): squiggly symbols out (“ouch”). A physical reaction – such as saying “ouch” or retracting part of the room – does not change the nature of the problem.

In short, even with the appropriate behavioural response the functionalist account misses the first-person, raw feels – or to use our catchall shorthand, the “qualia”.

That is the problem.

I think there is a similar problem in functionalist approaches to science communication.

In the philosophy of mind functionalism sees cognitive processes in terms of what they do (similarly with behavioual psychology). My worry is that functionalism is dominant in the ways that people think about (and fund) science communication.

Let’s take a look at Broks’s Sci-comm Room.

In this case we can see the room as representing the public or a particular “public”. Outside the room is a group of scicomm experts (scholars and practitioners). Again we have the same procedure – squiggles in, squiggles out. Again the functionalist concern is ensuring that the squiggles out are appropriate for the squiggles in.

At a crude level we might want to measure the scientific literacy of the room and check that the squiggles out are the correct answers to the squiggles in. At a less crude level we might want to evaluate whether the squiggles out suggest appropriate behaviour or opinions.

With the Scicomm room we can even measure how effective the squiggles in have been. We can see what “impact” they might have had by examining the squiggles out before and after the squiggles in.

But it is still squiggles in and squiggles out.

As with the Chinese room a functionalist might argue that that is all we have and that is all we need. If the impact of the squiggles in is that they produce the desired set of squiggles out, then surely that is all that matters. If it performs the functions we want, then it is what we want. If it looks like a sciency duck, walks like a sciency duck and quacks like a sciency duck then it is a sciency duck.

But again, I think that even when the outcome is a set of appropriate behavioural responses the functionalist account misses the first-person, raw feels – the “qualia” of science communication.

No matter how well we measure and evaluate it will always be there – immediate and raw.

With a slight reworking of Nagel we might say that “A group has truly engaged with science (or assimilated or appropriated it) if and only if there is something that it is like for that group.”

And this is not just a difference between quantitative and qualitative approaches to evidence. To understand what is happening in the room we need more than the slips of paper coming out of it which are provided by surveys, questionnaires or focus groups. Even an interest in qualitative evidence (eg looking at opinions, attitudes etc) might still miss the sheer experiential quality of the evidence.

Does that make the “qualia” of scicomm impenetrable, even ineffable? Maybe. Should we, then, ignore it or dismiss it? Definitely not.

Think of the circumspect ways in which we get to understand each other and the world around us; the ways in which we understand other minds and other aspects of our common humanity; the raw feel of sunsets and scents, love and loss, presence and absence. We have centuries of literature, music and art; millenia of empathy, sharing and compassion.

For this I think we need a much greater involvement of the Humanities in scicomm. We need a much more cultural approach. The growing interest in the idea of science capital might be seen as a beginning (after all it does come from an earlier idea of cultural capital), but we need to understand science capital not simply in terms of a thing which people have or do not have (a kind of deficit model 2.1). We need to understand the experience of science capital; the subjective qualities of how it makes sense within its host culture.

Ironically, recognising the “qualia” of science communication may be the first step towards a more effective science communication.

7 thoughts on “The Qualia of Science Communication

  1. I really liked this post. I also think there is something missing in science communication, and that the focus is sometimes really wrong. But how would you qualia-fy science communication?

    1. First I have to repeat that word of caution I give in the post: in the philosophy of mind the idea of “qualia” has been seen as a “red herring”, a distraction. BUT I do think it is a useful shorthand for something we both recognise is missing and something which functionalism and behaviouralism fail to capture.

      Having said that, the question is, as you say, “what do we do?”

      The answer may be different for those who study “scicomm” and those who practice it (and we probably need a fresh term to replace “scicomm”).

      I think that recognising that there is something missing, that there is something wrong, is the first step.

      I think that recognising the valuable contribution that can be made by the Humanities is also an important step. And here I am less concerned about “Humanities and Social Sciences” since the social sciences are often the source of the behaviourialism. i would be more interested in the Humanities and the Creative Arts (which could contribute to both the study and practice of scicomm).

      For example, the kinds of approaches I am familiar with in cultural studies (ethnographies, discourse analysis etc) are too often dismissed as “anecdotal” or “colouring in” (to use the phrase of Brian Wynne). I think the same is probably true for your work on metaphors.

      In terms of practice, I have always liked the “by with for all” approach that can be found with museums and art galleries. Imagine if we had a “by with for all” approach to science communication with projects deeply embedded into communities, working directly with the lived experiences of those involved and producing its own “user-generated” scicomm. There is great work already being done (I have in mind those working in the areas of cultural exclusion and epistemic justice etc) but it always seems marginalised – nice stories but not the real thing with numbers.

      Maybe I am tilting at windmills or fighting straw men (or whatever metaphor your prefer!), but I think the problem is real and is perpetuated by current funding regimes (or maybe I’m just bitter because I don’t have a job!).

  2. Oh I so agree. We need a word for scicomm practice and a word for sciomm scholarship!!
    And yes, I think I could sort of see what you might say in terms of what to do. Instead of pouring science into people we have to let them discover it. That’s why I was once fascinated by the wonder room that one of my colleagues established for a short time.
    And yes, doing scicomm 1 and 2 this way might be colouring in but that’s better than colourless science ideas shouting furiously…, so to speak.

    1. I didn’t know about the Wonder Room. Thanks for the link. It sounds….wonderful.

      I think the key to all this is for the engagement to be open-ended rather than aiming to get a specific outcome or impact. With all the talk of “open science” maybe we should have “open engagement” ie not simply in terms of transparency and accessibility but principally in terms of being open to where it might take us. I suspect the lack of control would be too frightening for some.

      I think Bohm’s “dialogues” might be something like this but I have never participated in one.

  3. Oh I’d love open engagement – but it should include the meaning of unconstrained and unsurveilled – liberal arts open engagement – just looked up the etymology liberal arts… interesting: liberal, as distinct from servile or mechanical -that’ll do me…

  4. Yes. research is most often done “to” people/communities or “on” people/communities. It should be more “with” or “for”. I think something similar might be said for scicomm. Much better if it were open-ended engagement.

    I would love to work in a Liberal Arts environment (or Liberal Sciences).

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