Wednesday, 29 September 2010

what you've been missing

A little taste of what you've missed if you haven't directed your reader to this blog's new location:

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Should fans get a life? (or tell us a lot about public engagement?)

I have a guest post over at Matthew Nisbet's new Age of Engagement.

The blog had featured a post about modern fan culture and marketing. I couldn't help but fold this into some thoughts on science communication. Can an awareness of tensions and connections between fan culture and entertainment marketing have applications for work aiming to connect members of “the public” with scientific ideas and communities? I left a comment and Nisbet asked me to expand as a post.

It's something I've thought about a bit over the last few years. I discussed the notion of a rhetorical reference to a community of readers in my PhD, and discussed audience-to-audience interaction with students when teaching courses on science online and science's interactions with fiction. I also wrote an article a couple of years back about branding and children's literature which involved some study of social marketing. I should admit the blogpost was slightly hastily put together though, grabbing through some disparate ideas on something that there probably should be more research into. There's a load more I could say around the topic, I'm still working out how to put them together, and what would make the right case study. I'd love to hear further thoughts (or examples, from science and/ or fan culture), either here of over at the Big Think post itself.

Nisbet's been blogging about science communication for a while. His 'Framing Science' at scienceblogs is mentioned in my list of blog recommendations for prospective students last month). His new blog promises to maintain this interest, but take a broader look at communication, culture and public affairs, as well as reinvigorate his interest in the relationship between science and religion (see his introductory post for more details).

He's been setting up in his new home with a prestigious quantity of posts for the start of term. I've already been interested to read pieces reflecting upon the NYTimes article about peer review, and (re)framings of nuclear power. The Big Think site it is hosted on is sometimes known as the YouTube for ideas, and there are a fair number of videos in blogposts (which I'd say is a good thing, something and plan to experiment with myself in the next year).

So, go read my ramblings on fan culture and public engagement, let me know if you have any thoughts, and do add Nisbet's new blog to your list of regular reads.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Mechanical metaphors in kid's body books

This is the cover of Usborne's classic kid's book How Your Body Works. The book has been around in some form since 1975, so you might have seen it before. I'm interested in it for many reasons, but this blogpost is going to focus on the way it reflects an oft-used metaphor when it comes to explaining the human body, that of a machine.

Cover of How Your Body Works

Comparisons of the body to machine are sometimes seen in a negative light; endemic of a mechanistic worldview which is overly-reductive approach to something as complex and beautiful as the human body. 


Ok, a "yawn" is over-trivialising the anti-mechanist critique, but I want to argue that kid's body books employing robot metaphors are a bit more complicated than that (personally, I think you can say the same of Blake's Newton, but that's another story). My central point is that mechanical analogies provide a diverse set of cultural referents. Machines comes in a range of sizes, shapes and styles, and people use and think about them in a range of ways. Further, both machines and the way cultures have understood them has changed over time.

Perhaps a mechanical analogy allows some form of abstraction, providing some distance from specifics when handling issues like reproduction, infection and digestion. For example, the section outlining what happens when a blue robot loves an orange robot very much. 

how (robot) babies are made

Such abstraction may also provide an expository role. Yes, the human body is a lot more than, for example, a set of bellows (below), but the image filtered down the multitude of things going on inside a person's chest so we can learn about one thing at a time. Reduction for explanatory purposes isn't (necessarily) to say the world really is that simple.


Mechanical analogies for specific systems (e.g. lungs as bellows) is one thing, but when it becomes a matter of depicting the whole body, we start moving towards associations with robots. The metallic skeleton on the cover of the Usborne book isn't necessarily a robot, but there is something robot-like about him.

There are a wide range of cultural associations that might come with such allusions. Think of Dr Who, and robots are nearly always symbols of what is inhuman or a lost humanity (e.g. their nod-to-Metropolis Cybermen, or hide-behind-the-sofa Daleks). But think of Wall-E, or these smiling robot tshirts I spotted recently, or these robot cookies. Robots can be your friends. At the Science museum this week you can "meet Kaspar the friendly humanoid robot".

There's a nice study of robots in children's literature by Margaret Esmonde in this 1982 collection of essays on machines in science fiction. According to this study, the robot or cyborg is generally a benevolent character in children’s stories, often acting in loco parentis or as a reasonably sympathetic step-brother. Even where there are "bad" robots, they tend to be destroyed with the aid of "good" ones. Her only example otherwise being Dr Who. Interestingly,  such child characters tend to be boys - a robo-brother, not sister - though she does mention one, it is very much an exception to the rule. I also wonder if there is something to be said about the childlike representation of robots in not only fiction, but news stories (even research projects) too; that we take the sometimes limited abilities of robots as a reason to pat them on the head and go "aww".

The gender and generational points are just as an aside though, my main reason for mentioning Esmonde's study is that the robot of children's popular culture may well be a very sympathetic, even empathetic, character. Just because it is not human, doesn't mean it is inhuman. Esmonde describes a few fascinating case studies. For example, a picture book produced to illustrate the UN declaration on rights of the child: a little boy lives a secure and caring life under the love and protection provided by his robot guardian. ‘Nosey’ people intervene and separate them, so the robot returns, disguised as a human and takes the boy back and they live happily ever after.

Esmonde traces mechanical characters in children’s fiction back to  L. Frank Baum's Oz series. There is Tik-Tok, pictured, who you might know from the 1985 movie (see also this io9 piece on Pre-Golden Age SF Robots), and possibly the most straightforwardly mechanical man, the Tin Woodman, who everyone knows from the musical ("if I only had a heart"). Esmonde also discusses the lesser-known Chopfyt, a fascinating character made from cast-off "meat" parts of the two other men. She stresses these characters were all relatively ambiguous in their humanity, there isn't the humans vs robots distinction which is so often played out in Dr Who. She also argues that Baum is content to leave these questions unanswered. 

In my introduction I stressed that technologies and our cultural ideas about them have changed over time.  With this in mind, it's interesting to see a very Tik-Tok style robot re-used in Phillip Reeve's steampunk-ish Larklight books which self consciously re-uses old futuristic tropes of the robot to play with hopes, fears and other aesthetics surrounding them. Reeve is an extremely complex writer when it comes to images of technology, I haven't space to discuss it here, but there are some brief notes on him buried in this paper. Or just read his books (the Mortal Engines series too, and do it before they are all movies).

Getting back to non-fiction, let me introduce you to The Body Owner’s Handbook (Nick Arnold & Tony De Saulles, 2002). This is part of Scholastic’s Horrible Science series, and structured out under the narrative conceit an instruction manual for the human body. In some respects, this is quite straightforward body as machine stuff. As are later points in the text which refer to the digestive system as a ‘fuel storage tank and conveyor belt’ and a ‘body repair shop’ is used to discuss cell replacement (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 22, 28). It is quite self-aware about this, and seem to expect the audience to be as well. As mentioned in my post about poo books, in some respects make fun of the distance provided by the mechanistic imagery (whilst also applying the convenience of it).

However, I think The Body Owner’s Handbook is slightly different from How Your Body Works in the way it conceives of its technological metaphor. For a start, it combines it with a loose narrative of a childlike Frankenstein monster. I'm drawing a line under the Shelly comparisons now. It is fascinating and arguably key to understanding the book, but a whole other blogpost. Suffice to say this is a slightly more "meaty" approach to (bio)technology and a (post)modern critique.

Monsters aside, The Body Owner’s Handbook seems to be applying a machine metaphor rooted in consumer technology. As with a lot of the books in Horrible Science, the language and imagery is heavily influenced by advertising styles (though, it should be noted with their tongue firmly in cheek):
Looking for a new body? Why not choose the real McCoy – the one and only Human Body. It’s Planet Earth’s most advanced living machine! It’s built of the finest material to a tried and tested design that’s over two hundred thousand years old! (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 8)
This is a technology you would buy. It is not one that powers the "dark satanic mills". Neither is it one you'd build yourself. It is ready made, just for you. This is not a Fordist form of mass production where the mechanical body is available in any colour as long as it's black. This body is available in a variety of colours; "light brown, dark brown, pink, beige and yellow" (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 9).

In some respects such a contemporary consumer-tech model of the body allows for a connection with a sense of individualism: note the location of the apostrophe in the book’s title, it is body-owner singular. Yet, this note on race is emphasised by arguing that bodies are all the same underneath; the sense that everybody’s body is the same is very important to the scientific stories of the book. Perhaps this is the curtailed (and occasionally illusionary) individualism of interaction with branded technology. To some extent such identities come, to some degree, pre-packaged. Pink microscope anyone

Moreover, such pre-packaged advanced tech comes with a greater degree of ineviable black-boxing. There are right and wrong ways of interacting with its surface, but its internal workings are a relative mystery to users. As many writers on technology have argued - indeed many writers on post/ late modernity have argued - the quantity of specialisation that goes into producing much contemporary means they come with greater mystery. Personal computers make one of the nicest examples of this. In the early 1980s, many personal computer users not only programmed but actually made their own kit. By the early 1990s, even the professionals could only produce one small aspects. Perhaps then, mechanical metaphors no longer provide simplicity? (if they ever really did)

Significantly, The Body Owner’s Handbook warns: "The body isn’t designed to be opened by non-experts and this can result in serious body breakdowns" (p12). In some respects this is in some contrast to a line in one of the first Horrible Science books, also about the body:
[science] belongs to everybody, because everybody’s got a body – and you’ve got every right to know what’s going on in yours (Blood, Bones & Body Bits, 1996: 5).
That said, perhaps back in those golden years of hobbyist tech and meccano collections, when kids built their own crystal radios (grew their own computers, spewed out their own difference engine, etc etc), no one told them to "tinker" with their physiology. Or maybe they did (um, maybe let's not go too far with this tinkering analogy...). As The Body Owner's Handbook's use of Frankenstein reflects, biotech has always been a slightly different matter.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that they are only interesting as examples of what adults choose to produce for children. Personally, I think this is fascinating in itself, but it isn't necessarily a sign of what children themselves think. In the light of a spate of "wrong superheroes" stories last week, this is something to keep in mind. If you want to know what children think, ask them. Musing about the media presented to young people is interesting and worthwhile when understood on it's on terms, but it doesn't tell us what is going on in the heads of actual children.

My main point, however is that if we do want to think through some of the symbols involved in technologically informed explanations of bodies, is pays not be reductive/ simplistic about machines.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Myth of Scientific Literacy

Every now and again, the term "scientific literacy" gets wheeled out and I roll my eyes. This post is an attempt to explain why.

The argument for greater scientific literacy is that to meaningfully participate, appreciate and even survive our modern lives, we all need certain knowledge and skills about science and technology. Ok. But what will this look like exactly, how will you know what we all need to know in advance and how on earth do you expect to get people trained up? These are serious problems.

Back in the early 1990s, Jon Durant very usefully outlined out the three main types of scientific literacy. This is probably as good a place to start as any:
  • Knowing some science – For example, having A-level biology, or simply knowing the laws of thermodynamics, the boiling point of water, what surface tension is, that the Earth goes around the Sun, etc.
  • Knowing how science works – This is more a matter of knowing a little of the philosophy of science (e.g. ‘The Scientific Method’, a matter of studying the work of Popper, Lakatos or Bacon).
  • Knowing how science really works – In many respects this agrees with the previous point – that the public need tools to be able to judge science, but does not agree that science works to a singular method. This approach is often inspired by the social studies of science and stresses that scientists are human. It covers the political and institutional arrangement of science, including topics like peer review (including all the problems with this), a recent history of policy and ethical debates and the way funding is structured.
The problem with the first approach is what IB Cohen, writing in the 1950s, called "The fallacy of miscellaneous information": that a set of often unrelated nuggets of information pulled from the vast wealth of human knowledge is likely to be useful in everyday life (or that you'll remember it when it happens to be needed). That's not to say that these bits of knowledge aren't useful on occasion. Indeed, I remember my undergraduate science communication tutor telling us about how she drowned a spider in the toilet with a bit of basic knowledge of lipids and surface tension. However, it's unrealistic to list all the things a modern member of society might need to know at some point in their life, get everyone to learn them off in advance and then wash our hands of the whole business. This is especially problematic when it comes to science, as such information has the capacity to change (or at least develop). Instead, we all need access to useful information when it is needed. Note: by "access" I include tools and cultural inclination to go about finding and making meaning from such information (posting a document online doesn't count).

The second of Durant's approaches to scientific literacy might make more sense then, but there are problems here too. Firstly, there is what Cohen dubs "The fallacy of critical thinking". Science isn't necessarily a transferable skill. This is easily demonstrated by examining carefully the lives of scientists outside of the laboratory (or, to put it another way: "yeah, cos scientists are all sooo well organised outside of work, living super-rational evidence-based lives, all the time"). It would be lovely if we could provide a formula for well-lived lives, but people just aren't that consistent.

There is also the matter of whether you believe science works to a singular "scientific method". That in reality science isn't "a" way of thinking, but many; enacted under quite local conditions (which are influenced by ideas like those of Popper, Bacon et al, but "method" is only part of it). This is largely the thinking behind the third approach to scientific literacy: "how science really works". I have a problem with this too, one it shares with all three: it's too didactic. It replaces an idea that the public are deficit in scientific information with an idea that they are deficit in sociology of science. It is just as unrealistic (if not more so).

One of the neatest arguments against calls for scientific literacy is Jon Turney's 2003 response to Susan Greenfield. It has a particularly good ending:
Work to promote scientific literacy so everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute to the great debates about science, technology and the future? No. Invite them to participate, and really mean it, and they will find the motivation to become as scientifically literate as you, or rather they, please.
This echos a key problem many people have with the scientific literacy approach. It is too top-down. You might be able to talk about scientific literacy in an educational context (i.e. for children in compulsory education), but adults will simply feel patronised and so won't listen.

I'd also argue that a scientific literacy approach tackles the problem the wrong way around. It would be lovely if we could live in a world where "everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute", but you can't prepare for scientific controversies like that. Do we want to view each science story through the lens of older ones (cough, Simon Jenkins). Maybe prevention would be better than a cure, but I don't think it is possible in this context; medical metaphors perhaps being as inappropriate here as "literacy". Rather, let's provide structures where non-experts can learn about science as and when they become important to them. As Turney says, "Invite them".

Although I like Turney's piece a lot, I do also understand the frustration people feel when they see what they feel is a lack of scientific training. I was prompted to write this blogpost after recent comments made by Julian Huppert; that MPs to be required to take a crash course in basic scientific techniques (see also Liberal Conspiracy piece in support). Do we really want elected politicians to "become as scientifically literate as they please"? We might argue that MPs, like schoolkids, should just be told to turn up and listen. But as anyone who has worked in a school will tell you, compulsory attendance is only part of the battle.

Mark Henderson tweeted that he agreed with Huppert and the libcon piece that understanding methods of science would help politics. That it is the least understood thing about science outside science: most non-science graduates think of as body of facts, not as a way of thinking. Fair enough. But you have to believe these ideas, as well as understand them. This is one of the reasons why the UK science communication industry dropped the word "understanding" a while back, and why it is important to avoid confusing "understanding" with "appreciating" (or "knowing" with "liking", or "trusting" for that matter). Identifying what you think people should know about and actually getting them to (a) listen, (b) believe you and (c) apply it, are entirely different matters. As Huppert told the Independent, political leaders simply pay "lip service" to the importance of scientific proof. I worry that greater training in scientific literacy could simply provide a more extensive rhetoric. You want their hearts, not just their minds (or simply vocabulary).

I'd love it if there was a simple course we could send our elected officials on which would guarantee future science policy would be reliably high quality. Being educated in science (or even "about science") isn't going to do it. It's social connections that will. We need to keep our elected officials honest, constantly check they are applying the evidence we want them to, in the ways we want them to. And if the scientific community want to be listened to, they need to work to build connections. Get political and scientific communities overlapping, embed scientists in policy institutions (and vice versa), get MP's constituents onside to help foster the sorts of public pressure you want to see: build trust so scientists become people MPs want to be briefed by.

This, for me, is the true message of "understanding how science really works". That science is not only done by, but advocated by networks of human beings. Rather than training people up in the sociology of science (cough, Harry Collins), we should go out and do some "applied sociology": build those networks through action and debate.

This is just a brief sketch of the basic problems with scientific literacy (yes, this was the brief version). If you are interested in more, I can recommend the following. They are all a bit old. It is an old argument.
  • Bauer, Martin, Nick Allum & Steve Miller (2007) What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 16(1): 79-95.
  • Durant, Jon (1993) What is scientific literacy? in Jon Durant and Jane Gregory (eds) Science and Culture in Europe (Science Museum: London).
  • Einsiedel, Edna (2005) Editorial: Of Publics and Science, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 16(1): 5-6.
  • Gregory, Jane & Steve Miller (1998) Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility (New York & London: Plenum). See p. 16-17 for IB Cohen's "fallacies".
  • Millar, Robin (1996) Towards a science curriculum for public understanding, School Science Review, vol.77 no.280: 7-18.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Poo Books

I have a small collection of "poo books". For research reasons, obviously. Fancy a tour? Of course you would. Let the poo commence.

pile of poo

By "poo books" I mean books for children about either digestion processes of going to the toilet. Such books often use the word "poo". It is largely their term, not mine. These are not books about "shit", "crap", "faeces", "defecatory materials" or "excretionary waste products", but slightly less direct ways of talking about the same topic. Though equally we might call shit or faeces equally euphemistic (either because they choose to swear or because they rely on disinterested-sounding terminology). Indeed, in many ways poo books embrace the whole topic of what comes out of our bottoms with reasonable enthusiasm. This enthusaism is often self-consciously and proudly childish. As such, the "poo" in question is some respects half euphemism and half an expressive avoidance of euphemism.

Poo books for under 5's are often designed to provide information and reassurance about this stuff that comes out of our bottoms (whatever we want to call that). One of the most internationally famous of the poo-book genre is Everybody Poos (Frances Lincoln, 2002), or Everybody Poops in America. There is a sort of sequel on farting called The Gas We Pass. First published in Japan in the late 1970s, this is typical of the poo-book genre in that aims to normalise by treating it as something fun, even jokey.

different poo

In his 1992 book, Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction, John Stephens refers to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are as a case study in the presentation of "safe monsters" in children's literature. By giving comically grotesque forms to inner fears, Stephens argues, Sendak's illusions work to defeat the image of that fear (Stephens, 1992: 136). The 2001 Pixar movie Monsters Inc is probably a better example of this; arguably its whole plot is based around this idea.

I think we can apply Stephens’ analysis to a lot of poo-books (indeed, many comic health books in general); an aim to turn young people's fears about the workings of their body into "safe monsters". This bottom stuff can, after all, can be both painful and socially embarrassing. For all that we think of scatological humour as childish entertainment, like most children's literature, these books have a pedagogical and/ or moral aim of some sort. They aim to teach and to help their audience in some way. See also It Hurts When I Poop or, one of my personal favourites, the Moose with the Loose Poops (Hippocractic Press, 2009, pictured). Part of a "Dr Hippo" series (Hippo-cratic, see what they did...), it even comes with a pull-out medical guide for parents tucked into the back cover. Here we have mummy-moose comforting the ill protagonist:

moose with loose poops

Poo books for primary school age (i.e. those passed the toilet training stage) often utalise the apparent comedic value of poo as a hook talk about wider scientific processes. The Horrible Science series is one of the best examples of this approach. We can also see it in some of the medical titles of the larger and more famous parent-series Horrible Histories too, though do note these have different author/ illustrator teams and slightly different take on what "Horrible" might mean. Snot, puke, pus and blood are equally popular subject matter here, it's not all about the shit. I think the "safe monsters" analysis is still applicable here though, and although there aren't many poo-books for teenagers, there are perhaps comparisons to be made with titles like Diary of a Teenage Healthfreak.

Horrible Science are keen to show off the use of knowledge, alongside humour, as a way of defeating fears around health issues. At the same time, they continue to draw immense delight from references to poo etc, as well as lightly spoofing the same scientific approaches to studying it which they draw power from (complex beasts, the Horrible Science books). For example, Painful Poisons (2004) starts by stating that "lots of people think poison is a scary subject". It then goes through a goading, pantomime device of implying you don’t really want this, do you, parodying a patronising adult voice and playing to the idea that this is the secret stuff kids love to read about (pages 5-6), before concluding by emphasising that poisons are everywhere and although it is "easy to be scared" the best way to deal with poisons is with knowledge rather than fear (pages 143-4). You can see similar shifts - from fears "some people" hold and towards knowledge and a delight in the horrible nature of the scientific object - in Angry Animals (2005) and Chemical Chaos (1997).

In the example below (The Body Owners Handbook, Scholastic, 2002, page 23) is possibly my favourite: a cartoon rendering of the sorts of diagrams of the digestive system frequently reproduced in school textbooks and exam papers. There is the sound of "plop" (in a friendly, handwritten-style font) along with the childish, slightly twee "poo". This is juxtaposed with comical language which pokes fun at whilst simultaneously applying the conventions of talking indirectly about excretory matter in a scientific manner; "solid waste ejection pipe", "fuel storage tank" and "conveyor belt for waste processing".


American readers might be more familiar with the Grossology series; it similarly celebrates the gruesome in a sense of appealing to childishness, and applies this with scientific information to help liberate children from fears of their bodies. For example, the cover of Naked Grossology (the title on the body) promises: "Really gross things about your body, It's stinky, it's lumpy, its squishy, but hey, it's your body". I'm also a fan of Gooey, Chewy, Rumble, Plop, available on both sides of the Atlantic, which includes a beautifully realistic tongue on the cover as well as pop-up technology to give you a view down the gut.

Possibly my favourite of the poo books is Poo: A Natural History of the Unmentionable (Walker, 2005). I think it typifies the "half euphemistic" approach to poo in many of these books. It clearly relishes poo, and yet maintains some distance from the actual object (partly by cartoon illustration, partly through dry humour). The back cover is especially nice. I hippo declares "I like to spray it all over the place", a bird sitting on it's back: "I make houses out of it". The book contains a lot of detail, and it is worth knowing that the author, Nicola Davies is a zoologist who used to present the Really Wild Show. Note the "natural history" in the title (and white-coated characters on cover). Like Horrible Science, this is a step along from toilet training and seems to self-consciously play with the humour of the serious and detached way science might deal with "poo" just as much as any other humour in the subject.


Maybe it's not surprising I like this book. As with a lot of poo books, it seems to appeal to grown ups as well as children. I have a copy because it was a birthday present (a birthday in my mid-20s). Indeed, this article from the New York Times about the US publishers of Everybody Poos notes the books are popular with adults buying for other adults.

Arguably, this is true of a lot of children's books (see also point on the "impossiblity" of children's media and "generational drag" in latter half of this blogpost). The idea that children will like the yuk of poo and snot and pus is just an adult's idea of childishness, one that it is interesting to have seen shift slightly in the last century. As I argue in my PhD on Horrible Science, they seem to have roots in a rather Beano idea of childhood. In his 1989 book about working at the Beano, On Comedy: The "Beano" and Ideology, Leo Baxendale, creator of the Bash Street Kids and Minnie the Minx, talks of a desire to depict what he felt was a truer, "scruffier" and more anarchic image of children, in contrast to "soft" fairytale images he felt the Beano applied up until the 1950s. For Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, the social acceptability of the Horribles is largely due to the legacy of Roald Dahl who, according to Deary, made the use of horror and black comedy in children’s books acceptable (Deary, 1999: 97). Considering that historical background I thought it was interesting that the NYT article referenced criticisms that poo-books aren't very American. I've noticed that Grossology is a lot milder than Horrible Science (and the Horrible books have never really made it in the USA). Maybe, despite the various efforts of Warner Brothers, Nickleodeon and the Simpsons, the more anarchic image of childhood is still less acceptable in the USA.

A final point prompted by the Horrible Science books: we live in a multi-media age, and kids science books are, generally, a rather interactive form of "dead-tree" publishing. So, yes, finally, we have the mini-sub-genre of "hands-on" poo books. Obviously, such hands-on interaction is heavily mediated. They don't actively ask their readers to handle their faeces. For example, Horrible Science's Disgusting Digestion sticker book (Scholastic, 1998) includes a set of stickers of partially (and not so partially) digested food for you to place along their cross-section diagram of the gut.

Have you the stomach to read on?

It is worth noting that this is true of most so-called hands on interaction in kids science. Whatever their appeal to immediacy, most so-called "experiments" are mock-ups of demonstrations. It isn't just shit which science books for kids feel a need to fabricate. This is often for quite sensible educational and practical reasons, but worth baring in mind. I think I've saved the best till last. Because the book Farley Farts (2003) does actually fart, albeit annoying softly. Play this little video to hear it.

This post has been largely descriptive. If you're interested in slightly more academic analysis, I can recommend Mills, Alice (2006) ‘Harry Potter and the Terrors of the Toilet’, Children’s Literature in Education, vol 37(1), 1-13. I think Mills nails the differences between boys and girls toilets as dramatic sites in children's books: Girls toilets, she argues, are relatively private and thus places of solace, where characters go to escape on their own; Boy's bogs are more um, 'communal' and full of fighting, pain and suffering. The rest is a bit too psychoanalytic for my personal taste, but if you like a serving of Kristeva's idea of the abject with your literacy analysis (and/ or the odd bit of Harry Potter studies), it's a peach of a paper.

I'll leave you with a tip for anyone reading this post on the toilet, from the charming Liam goes Poo in the Toilet (2008, subtitle: A Story about Trouble with Toilet Training). Sage advice at any age, I'd say.

relax and push

Friday, 30 July 2010

Blogs a science communication student might like

A colleague asked me for a list of blogs that next year's science communication MSc students might like to read. I figured the only way to share this information was in a blogpost.

Warning: there is no such thing as a reading list of science blogs, you need to explore for yourself. These are just starting points.
Twitter is a good way of engaging with the science blogosphere. My "awesome science" list of people who write and/ or link to great science writing on the web should be a useful starting point. Twitter is also brilliant for discussing/ eavesdropping on debates about science in the media and policy, so I can recommend people on my science policy and science communication lists too. Please note, many of these accounts will tweet about other things too.

These links are really just the tip of the iceberg. Or, a small section of a big chunk of ice, as I'm not sure something iceberg-shaped is the appropriate metaphor. I should also add that I don't agree with everything these people blog/ tweet about. Not even close. They do, however, tend to write about topics a science communication student might be interested in. At the very least, they'll point you towards some new ideas and make you think.

Click on a few links here and see who they link to. See what entertains, educates or enrages you. Go, have a play.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Thinking outside the SpaceDino


This Dinosaur resides in Crystal Palace, not outer space

This extends my piece on Comment is Free.

Science minister David Willetts recently gave a speech to the Royal Institution. He was asked a question about how he would work effectively with schools and young people (another minister's brief). He started off well before putting his foot in his mouth with this little piece of laziness: “The two best ways of getting young people into science are space and dinosaurs".

It was a flippant point, but indicative of a flippancy which is somehow ok when it comes to "kids stuff" (and pisses me off). It could have been worse. Willetts could have put the space-dinos point the way he did in Portsmoth the previous month: "All the evidence suggest if you're going to get young people into those subjects they are the two most powerful things" (source: local newspaper report).

All the evidence? Really? Er, no. I checked. What "evidence" does exist is deeply flawed and/ or contradicts a love of space-dinos (for very brief discussion see the comment is free piece). It's a seriously under-researched area. There should be a lot more work in this area, and it should be a lot better. Interestingly, many of the CiF comments reflected a tendency in educational discourse to hold personal experience above research that aims to consider a broader range of people. For example: "Dinos and space worked for me". I'm sure they did, and I'm not seeking to devalue that personal experience in any way, but the world is bigger.

I should underline that I wrote this piece because the Guardian asked to respond to recent HESA data, and a perceived problem of attracting women in science. This is a knotty question, there are oodles of issues involved (as Sheril Kirshenbaum's recent blogpost reflects on). I wanted to stress that, in working through all these issues, we have to be careful of making broad statements about gender, age or science.

For example, Susan Greenfield says physics has a problem recruiting girls because girls “want to know about relationships” (yes, in that interview). Maybe she has a point, she's not the only one to say this (some history of debates around this documented in this reader). But “girls” are rather a large set of people to pin down. Educational researcher Heather Mendick found that apparently "hardness" of A-level maths could be part of the (many) appeals of the subject for girls as well as boys. Of course, Mendick’s study is of girls who have chosen to study maths, not the ones who had been put off. But we can’t ignore those already-interested either. That's really my point: if you're worried about inspiring the next generation of scientists, boys or girls, you need to listen to young people, in all their diversity. You can't just rely on your own experience, you have to let yourself be surprised by your audience.

Further, to pick up on the "generational issues": as I say in the CiF piece, a lot of children's media (be it books, tv, museums, school exams) can seem a generation or two behind. There is a long history of analysis of spotting this in literary/ media studies. Jacqueline Rose wrote the book on it. Her study of Peter Pan is subtitled "the impossibility of children's literature", arguing children's literature is produced and controlled by adults, so it reflects an adult's idea of the child (it's not "children's" at all, it belongs to the grownups). Personally, I much prefer David Buckingham's extension of Rose's idea. He applies the idea of "impossibility" to Timmy Mallett and argues that kids tv presenters who try to appear "down with the kids" as largely acting out a role of what they think children are and will like; a form of "generational drag". There's always a bit of "dressing up" involved.

So, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that projects like I'm a Scientist or SciCast are somehow simply bottom up, or (more ridiculous) a clean articulation of what children are "naturally" interested in. It's worth noting quite how connected to the school curriculum the SciCast films are (maybe that's a good thing though, a sign that aspects of the school science system are working, at least in places). Equally, we shouldn't write off these projects because of adult involvement either. Education is largely a matter of passing on ideas from one generation to another, but SciCast and I'm a Scientist involve young people as active participants in this, letting young people express their own interests. That's why I mentioned them on CiF. The question banks in I'm a Scientist and SciCast's films provide some rough idea of what aspects of science today's young people find exciting. In the absence of much more decent work in the field, they are one place to at least get some clue of what inspires young people.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Science on teh internets: an interview with Drs Mendel & Riesch

Having run a series of short interviews with UK-based science bloggers, I've also talked to a couple of colleagues who are developing research on the 'bad science' blogging community.

Jon Mendel is a geographer at Dundee with a background in studying networks, virtual war and security. Interested in how new media are functioning or not functioning in the case of science blogs and in the role and efficacy of networked forms here.

Hauke Riesch researches public understanding/engagement/involvement/awareness/whatever of science and risk at Cambridge, having previously written a PhD on philosophy in popular science books. Among other things. Next to everything social to do with risk and new technologies, he is interested in how scientists think about science, how they communicate it, and how they think about communicating it.

Firstly, can you give us some idea of the methodology you applied to your study?

We drew on our participation in and observation of the development of this community, from its establishment through to some of the interesting activism episodes in which the community participated.

We used an e-mail qualitative survey: we emailed a list of questions to established members of the community on their blogging activities and their thoughts about science blogging in general and this community in particular.

The paper you presented at the Science and Public conference started by noting there is a lot of hope surrounding science blogging - what do you think those hopes are?

Blogging in general has attracted a lot of hope about how it can democratise the public sphere: anyone can in principle get themselves and their ideas heard and the small army of potential fact-checkers and arguers can shed light on issues where we would previously have relied on a small and overworked group of professional journalists. However there may be barriers inherent within the very concept of blogging that prevent this - there is just so much out there that important contributions can easily be drowned out. These goals are quite neatly summarised and evaluated by Sunstein who concludes that they have not been realised at least to the extent that had been hoped.

In the context of blogging about science, similar hopes are often expressed: some argue that blogging can give individual scientists a voice for their views and opinions and therefore enable them to contribute directly to the national conversations about science and science policy. Related to that, science blogging is often seen as a way for scientists to free themselves from demands of publishers or journalists and others who usually control the flow of information between science and public, so that they can communicate their science directly to the public and allow the public to engage more easily with them. These ideas are also often linked to the free-access movement: Scientists are encouraged to blog directly about their science because ultimately the public pays for it and has a right to know about what science finds. Science blogging does give more people an outlet to write about science - allowing lots of good material to be placed online, though also lots which is less good.

The science bloggers with whom we have discussed our research are also interested in science blogging as offering opportunities for activism, engagement and the development of communities. Bloggers are seeking to use science blogging to engage with and challenge the main-stream media and various other actors.

What do you think are the limitations of these hopes?

As has been noted by some of the bloggers in this community, blogs have relatively small audiences compared to many mainstream media outlets. Blogs can also be left communicating with a relatively narrow audience, such as those already highly interested in science (although whether this is a problem is debatable: Racing Post isn't seen as a failure because of its relatively narrow audience). As things stand, we do not see convincing evidence that science blogs offer a replacement for the mainstream media - although they can be a useful supplement, partner and challenge to it (and some of the bloggers in this community would challenge the distinction between blogs and the mainstream media). Talk of the 'dead tree press' etc. seems, in this context, highly premature.

The efficacy of science blogs' activism is also unclear. Bloggers have been involved in some notable successes - for example, the Singh-BCA libel case - and have been able to organise effectively in order to offer strong challenges to much better-resourced opponents. On the other hand, some have questioned whether initiatives such as #scivote have been effective (and there are interesting links here between 'science activism' and people's broader political goals - some people are less than happy about having the Conservatives in government). We tried to intervene ourselves with regards to aspects of BIS's Science: So What? So Everything initiative (see e.g. coverage in Times Higher and a piece on the Times' science blog) but we now have FOIA responses which show how little impact academics and bloggers had with regards to some problematic aspects of the campaign. We are not sure what solutions there might be here.

We should emphasise that there is a fairly high degree of self-reflection in the community we studied and that bloggers are often quite critical themselves about the limitations of certain practices. We would want to avoid judging the successes/failures of this community in relation to overly-utopian hopes largely generated from outside of the community: there have been some notable achievements, although a small community of science bloggers seems unlikely to turn the science media into a 'dead tree press' in the immediate future.

Can you tell us a bit about who the sorts of people who blog about science are, or at least what the backgrounds and motivations of the bloggers you studied are?

We lack the knowledge to answer about people who blog about science generally: this is a large area that we haven't studied in enough depth, and many prominent bloggers are also anonymous. There is generally something of a lack of research on science blogs.

The community we studied has established norms on writing about science which emphasise accuracy, reliance on evidence and 'letting the facts speak for themselves'. In addition, there is a focus on getting things done: science blogging within the community is not just about writing, but also about campaigning on related causes - this activist element may be a distinguishing feature of this community of science bloggers. There is also an interesting approach to ideas of authority here: ideas of individual authority are largely rejected, but writing instead takes on a
kind of authority through being embedded in a network of blogs, comments, links and research.

Sneaky extra question I asked all the bloggers I interviewed: do you have a favourite blog? If so, what is it? (doesn't have to be a science one).

Mindhacks is excellent for its discussion of a broad range of mind/brain/society-related issues, while Jack of Kent's blog has been a very interesting piece of activism and is an excellent explanation of complex legal issues for laypersons. David Campbell's blog has some good, detailed discussion of issues around politics, geography and multimedia (including some excellent essays on new media/social media). It has also been great to see the development of the 'bad science' blogging community and of the blogs associated with it.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

UK science blogger interview: Imran Khan

Imran Khan is the Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), the UK's leading advocate for science and engineering policy. CaSE are supported by members from academia, industry, learned societies, and charities.

Imran himself comes from a background of science communication and policy, having written for the Guardian, New Scientist and World Health Organisation, produced for the BBC and the BMJ, and researched in the House of Commons. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford and Imperial College.

As part of its work, CaSE runs The Science Vote blog. It was originally called CaSE Notes, but was renamed and came to prominence during the 2010 General Election, when it had over 10,000 individual readers.

Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

The blog has a deliberately niche audience and content, focusing solely on science and engineering policy; whether that be funding, education, the role of Government and Parliament, or related issues. As well as CaSE staff, guest bloggers include science policy professionals, politicians, and working scientists and engineers.

The Science Vote exists to help us achieve our aims of being a voice for the science and engineering community, so our intended audience is fairly specific. The issues we cover are fairly geeky; the intricacies of science funding, speculation on which politicians are interested in the importance of science and engineering, and reviews of science policy events, for instance. We also tend to go into a lot of detail in terms of what we write.

That means that you often not only have to care about the issues we write on, but also be fairly au fait with the background in order to engage with the content. We're quite happy with that model, particularly as it lets us bring in extremely well-informed guest bloggers who don't necessarily have journalistic tendencies.

The S Word blog at does a brilliant job of exposing the big issues in science policy to a wider scientific audience, and obviously I contribute to that when I can. In comparison, The Science Vote is designed to be a resource for the science policy community and a tool for CaSE, rather than a clarion call.

Do you think there is an increasing appetite for coverage of policy issues in the science blogosphere?

Our readership definitely shot up during the election. Since then, it's dropped off, but is still far higher than anything we had before.

I think all the activity - everything from real-world science hustings to #scivote tweets - got people to twig that that you can't take science and engineering out of politics, or vice versa. If you do, we'll just get sidelined.

So now you have people who were already active in the science blogosphere extending their interest to science policy, because they're passionate about science and therefore recognise the importance of decent science policy.

And it's encouraging that activity levels now are fairly high. Before the election you had a fairly characterful set of Science spokesmen for the three big parties, and you also had the looming election, so science policy was bound to get a lot of attention.

Whereas now it looks like the Lib Dems won't have a formal science spokesman, and Labour don't have theirs yet. But in autumn we'll learn what the science budget will look like, as well as who Willetts' Labour shadow will be, so I'd imagine you'll see even more of an appetite later in the year.

Are there people or institutions in science policy you'd like to see start a blog? (and/ or topics you think should be covered more?)

I think it'd be very interesting to see a blog which takes a close look at the use and misuse of science in politics. Some debate in Parliament is excellent. But some of it is frighteningly bad, particularly when it betrays a lack of some very basic understanding of the nature of evidence. But I think you'd need to be fairly closely linked to Parliament to be able to keep an eye on what's going on there.

One of the subjects which our blog tries to raise the profile of is diversity in STEM. It's an appalling statistic that only one in ten engineering graduates are women, and we have similar problems with socio-economic and ethnic diversity. I think most of us would agree that there's a 'universality' about science that means it can bridge divides, but in many respects we're failing to. Though I'm not sure a dedicated 'diversity blog' is what I'm arguing for; diversity in STEM shouldn't be a balkanised issue, but one which you can weave into different aspects of science policy.

Finally, back to that #scivote hashtag. In terms of political campaigning around science, do you think microblogging (i.e. twitter) is more important than standard blogging, or that they play different/ supporting roles?

There's always a danger when you do anything via twitter that you think "Great, that's ticked off then", forgetting you're only dealing with a subset of the community. And although tweeting is useful in getting the word out and discussion, you can't really do policy analysis and argument in 140 characters. So you do need the standard blogging to underpin it.

Sneaky extra question: can you tell us your favourite blog(s)?

My favourite blogs are badscience, the S word, SciDevNet, engadget, mindhacks,, cynical-c, and strange maps. Plus a special mention for the Little Atoms podcast, even though it's not a blog.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

See also my list of (UK) science policy blogs on posterous.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

UK science blogger interview: Mun Keat Looi

Mun-Keat Looi is a Science Writer at the Wellcome Trust and one of the editors of the Trust's blog. The Wellcome Trust blog aims to tell some of the many stories about the wide variety of people, projects and events that the Trust funds. Everything and everybody from new PhD students to senior scientists, genetics to the impact of the environment on health, science, art, history, museums plays and films.

Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

Audience for us is a difficult one because we have so many! Our core audience is the people we fund (or are interested in obtaining funding from us), but even that can include artists, writers and filmmakers as well as scientists of different disciplines. Part of what we want to do is introduce people to the other things we fund, outside of their own fields, be it neuroscientists to genetics or sculptors to biochemistry. As a science writer I hope I write in a way that is interesting and accessible to any general reader, and this is something we try to reflect in the blog. Anybody from any background could be reading our posts, so we try not to assume any prior knowledge and just try to convey why we think something is interesting.

Do you have a favourite blogpost ? (as in one you've really enjoyed writing)

I have a few favourites -- it's hard to pick one as we have so many different kinds of posts. Some of them are more like feature articles, talking about things that just wouldn't fit anywhere else in our communications output. For example, I used 'overmatter' from a feature I wrote about synthetic biology to post about what it is like for students to be in the iGEM competition at MIT. That's proved reasonably popular, and I'd like to think it's been of use to people thinking about taking part in the competition.

On the more conventional side, I like the chance to cover some of the brilliant, if less newsworthy, papers from scientists that the Trust funds (those that aren't deemed 'worthy' enough for a press release or full news story). Some of the smaller studies we fund overseas, for example, or genetics studies that aren't headline-making. It's also nice to cover a paper in more depth than in the media -- I wrote one post about cognitive enhancing drugs that the researcher seemed pleased with. She felt the media coverage had distorted her findings and was relieved to have the chance to set the record straight.

Maybe my favourite post is nothing to do with science though. I like being more personal in blogging than in news or feature writing and I've written a few like this for the Wellcome Collection blog. Specifically a few from a China Symposium we ran, which I attended with my Dad and which very much influenced how I reported it afterwards! Blogging's allowed me to cover things and talk to people I wouldn't normally have had a chance to, which is
one of the reasons I value having the blogs as an outlet.

How do you feel blogging for an institution differs from independent or journalistic blogging?

Obviously you have to be a bit more careful about what you say - you're speaking on behalf of an organisation rather than yourself. Having said that, we have deliberately made the Trust blog a community one with 'real' people behind the posts rather than the anonymous news stories we have on our corporate site (and to some extent Twitter/Facebook). We wanted to put more of a personal face to the Trust as opposed to this big amorphous organisation (or hiding behind pictures of dear old Sir Henry Wellcome...).

In terms of what we do, our approach doesn't differ too much from the way a journalist or blogger might approach a story. All of the writers at the Trust have the same objective: to seek out interesting stories and report as objectively as possible (while being transparent about who we work for).

Where the affiliation pays off is, of course, access to many events, meetings, information and people that others may not have. By virtue of being at the Wellcome Trust there's tons of stuff going on that we have access to and could share with others interested in the same things.

Obviously we want to raise awareness of what the Trust does, but we're not the marketing team or the press office (though they do occasionally contribute). I think the way to raise awareness is to let the content (i.e. the people and projects we fund) speak for itself -- find interesting people and interesting stories and don't bang on about yourself all the time. We're lucky in that we've got a reasonable amount of license to say what we want on what we find interesting, so long as we stay sensible and relevant to the Trust's interests.

Do you feel you differ from blogs from corporate a institution? (or sponsored blogs for that matter?)

I've pondered a lot on how the blogging we do is similar or different to other 'corporate' blogs and other charities' blogs like CRUK, who have a more defined audience. The recent ScienceBlogs Pepsigate scandal raised a lot of questions. As many have said, it may have been different if PepsiCo were upfront about it being marketing from the start, or started a blog genuinely exploring the food science behind their products from a more independent perspective. Institution blogging is an interesting area and I hope to hear more people's thoughts on this at the event.

Finally, care to share your favourite blogs?

Not Exactly Rocket Science, Genetic Future, Cancer Research UK Science Blog, Times Science Blog (before the paywall), Wellcome Library Blog, Alice Bell (no, really*)

As for a non-science blog, it's Kirainet, which is one of several places I go to for amusing/ interesting/ geeky/ weirdo Japanese stuff. A good example of a blog which is pretty straightforward in terms of writing, but the content is so interesting it pretty much speaks for itself. I'd mention others, but am slightly afraid of giving away how much of a dork I really am....

* I paid him to say this.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

Monday, 12 July 2010

UK science blogger interview: Daniel MacArthur

After completing his PhD in 2008 in Australia, Daniel moved to the UK to take up a position at the Sanger Institute, the largest genomics research institute in the country. His day job revolves around the analysis of DNA sequence data from projects like the 1000 Genomes Project, and figuring out ways of using these torrents of data to help inform studies of human disease. His blog Genetic Future focuses on the personal genomics industry: companies offering to sell you information about your own genome, for purposes ranging from learning about your ancestors to predicting your risk of serious diseases.

First question: Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

This is something that has really evolved over time as I started to get to know my readers. Initially I had a very vague idea of potential readers - basically anyone interested in genetics, I suppose - but I found it very hard to write about the things I was interested in without implicitly requiring some kind of background knowledge from the reader. I also started to accumulate a great group of regular commenters with expertise in the field, a combination of self-educated genetic hobbyists and people with more formal training, and that's the level that I ended up pitching most of my posts.

I'm never sure if I've found the right balance, but it's certainly made it easier for me to write about the scientific and commercial aspects of genomics to not have to build in a huge amount of introductory material for every post.

Is there anything about your composition style, or choice of subject matter which you feel has changed over time? (as you have got to know your readers, or for other reasons).

Yes, absolutely. When I started the blog I initially focused on genetics more broadly, with an emphasis on the scientific issues. As time has gone on I've focused more and more on the commercial side of things, spending a lot of time discussing companies involved in direct-to-consumer genetic testing and DNA sequencing. To some extent this shift has been reader-driven, but mostly it's just a reflection of how my own interests have changed over the last couple of years.

Changing track a bit. You've written about some of the difficulties of scientists (live) blogging conferences. Do you feel there is a role for blogging in opening up business as well as science? Equally, do you feel especially constrained ever as a science blogger who focuses on commercial issues?

There's definitely a role for scientifically-literate bloggers in opening up the commercial world to public scrutiny. One scathing post from a blogger laying out the deficiencies of a company's genetic test can end up dominating Google search hits for that company's name, which then means potential consumers doing even the most superficial web research before buying can quickly get access to informed criticism. That's incredibly important in a field as complex as genetic testing, where most consumers aren't really in a position to make a fully informed decision - having independent, expert reviews out there on the internet can make it a lot easier for people to make the right choice.

That said, with power comes consequences. It's easy to forget that what you say as a blogger can have a major impact on the companies you write about: one bad review of a new sequencing technology could sometimes be enough to dissuade a key investor from buying in, for example. When that sort of money is at stake the consequences of mis-reporting are pretty serious, so I'm now always quite careful to make sure what I say about a company is carefully-phrased and well-justified. I don't always get that right when I'm writing in a hurry or if I'm particularly outraged by a dodgy product, but I try.

Can you imagine more corporate-based science blogging, in similar ways science charities like Cancer Research UK or the Wellcome Trust blog? (esp. the former, as their news blog works to act against google results of "bad" health news messages they would like to combat?)

There are already some quality corporate science blogs out there - a particularly good example in my field is The Spittoon, run by direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe. However, it's hard for corporate blogs to stay on-message without either being boring or looking like PR shills for their company. I'd definitely like to see more companies out there blogging, but if they do so they're going to have to learn to give their bloggers a reasonably long leash and be prepared to deal openly with controversy in the comments section. It's tough to get the balance right, but companies that do it well can get a lot of respect (and business) as a result; unfortunately, companies that get it wrong (as Pepsico did this week) can find themselves in a world of pain!

Finally, can you tell us your favourite blog? (it doesn't have to be a science blog)

I'm a nerd, so all of my favourite blogs are science blogs! It's very tough to pick a single winner, so I'll name three instead: for general science I'd have to say Ed Yong's Not Exactly Rocket Science, for my field of research I think John Hawks' excellent palaeoanthropology blog, and for personal genomics I have only good things to say about the Genomics Law Report.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

UK science blogger interview: Jennifer Rohn

Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London. In her spare time, she is also a novelist, freelance science writer and communicator, broadcaster, sci-lit-art pundit and editor of the science-culture webzine She has blogged at Mind The Gap on Nature Network since 2007. Jenny leaves reporting of the facts and figures of scientific research in the capable hands of her science blogger colleagues. Instead, she prefers to focus on issues of the scientific profession, using her blog to reveal what her day-to-day life in the lab is like – the good, the bad and the ugly.

So, starter question, do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

Because I am writing about my life as a scientist, I try to pitch it so that anyone can understand it. I am sure that a large portion of my audience currently consists of fellow scientists, given the Nature Network environment, but I do hope that as my blog becomes more well known, I will reach beyond that inner circle. On the other hand, it almost doesn’t matter if anyone is listening; I have kept a paper diary since I was a child, and for me blogging is an extension of that. Although I try to write in a way that will please other people, I ultimately do it because I love – and even need – to write for myself.

Can you remember what first inspired you to make the move from personal "paper diary" to blog?

I was actually a very late adopter of the whole Web 2.0 thing. I didn't really consider it until I was approached by Nature Network and asked if I would blog for them. At first, being pretty time-poor, I was against the idea of yet more writing commitments. But the more I thought about it, the more attractive the idea seemed. I do a lot of freelance writing, and one of the most frustrating things about it is, after taking great care to perfect exactly what you want to say, having to see your writing slashed and rearranged by editors and sub-editors, some of whom don't really share your sense of craft or style. It suddenly dawned on me that having a blog, I could be the master of my own literary domain. It was a great feeling of freedom!

You mentioned the "inner circle" of Nature Network. (a) What do you feel are the advantages of that community of readers/ other bloggers? (b) Do you have any ideas/ plans for ways other audiences might come to your blog?

I think the only way that the social internet is made bearable is by its propensity to consolidate into small communities; much like a real flesh-and-blood conference, beyond a critical mass of participants it all gets unwieldy and impersonal. It doesn't matter to me how many readers read my blog -- the more the merrier -- but when it comes to direct interactions, I would be much happier interacting with a close-knit group of a few dozen regular commenters rather than hundreds. The more comments a blog attracts, the higher it seems the chances of getting nasty. But if you have come to know your community, people behave much more like they would face-to-face: that is, with the normal codes of courtesy. Also, I like to respond to all comments personally, and if there were too many people it would be impossible.

I would like my blog to be more widely read, though. Recently there have been a few blogs that have touched a nerve and spread via Twitter -- my organization of "Spoof Simon Jenkins Monday", for example -- and this has really increased traffic my way, exposing my blog to people who wouldn't normally come across it. So Twitter has become an excellent way to amplify any important messages my blog may be sending out.

Do you think your experience as a blogger has had an impact on your approach to other writing?

Blogging has definitely honed my style. I've written a lot of fiction, and I've written a lot of science news, and blogging is somewhere in the middle: like news reporting, you need to capture your audience quickly and to be very brief (I really think a good blog post shouldn't be longer than 300-400 words), but like fiction, you want to express something elusive and emotional in the most original way you can. Blogging has helped me to experiment more with humor, which I find has helped with certain scenes I've been working on in my third novel. Above all, blogging has really exercised the basic craft: I can now knock off a fairly polished blog post in under fifteen minutes, and I find that writing everything else has also sped up accordingly. It's almost as if that part of my brain is just permanently primed and ready for action.

Finally, can you tell us your favourite blog?

My favorite blog is Confessions of a (former) lab rat, because it's got a righteous anger and rebellious edge that I wish I could muster. I'm always a little afraid of causing offence, but Confessions never shies away from being controversial or -- when the need arises -- even a bit rude.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

Interviews with science bloggers

On the run up to the science blogging event I'm chairing on Thursday, I thought I'd do a series of short interviews with four UK science bloggers who, in addition to our panel, reflect some key areas in the UK science blogosphere.

I've started off with the same question to all of them: do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog? Subsequent questions then flow from that answer and/ or the specific type of blogging they do. I've also asked each of them to share their favourite blogs.

I'll make their names into links when the interviews go live:
  • Jennifer Rohn, who keeps a "life in the lab" blog on Nature Network.
  • Daniel MacArthur, who blogs about the genetic testing industry on ScienceBlogs.
  • Mun Keat Looi, who writes on an institutional blog for the Wellcome Trust.
  • Imran Khan, who blogs about UK science policy as Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.
Additionally, I asked social scientists Hauke Riesch and Jon Mendel to tell me a bit about their research into the science blogging community.

If you're interesting in this sort of thing, I can also recommend this set of mini-interviews with psychology bloggers from British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. Also, a couple of recent science-related profiles from Normblog: Gimpy and Jack of Kent.

We released a few more tickets for the blogging event, so if you thought we'd sold out, there is still a chance to sign up.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The evidence "badger"

I've just realised that people will be coming here from my profile on Normblog. So here's a quick re-post from Flickr which at least includes a picture of a toy.

Evidence Badger

Meet the evidence badger. Ok, it's a cow.

This is a bit of an in-joke, which I apologise for. But explaining lets me raise a serious point. Badgers are a bit of a knotty issue for science/ agricultural policy. It's just going to get bigger with the new coalition government. I wanted to present the new Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Imran Khan, with a toy Badger as a joke-warning of the fuss that is to come. Sadly, the Early Learning Center on High Street Kensington had run out. So had the one in Hammersmith, and the King's Road branch was shut (cue jokes about culls of West London). So, I presented him with a cow instead.

In some respects a cow is more fitting than a badger, anyway. Badgers are only an issue because of bovine TB. Moreover, the shadow of "mad cow disease" still influences a lot of UK science policy. And there is more. As Imran himself pointed out, if we wanted to, we could trace MMR vaccinations back to cowpox. And then there's all the methane cows burp out, not to mention the GM soya so many are fed on, and foot and mouth... Clearly, cows are running rampant through UK science policy. You have been warned. The broader point though is that the presentation of evidence isn't necessarily the end of a science policy discussion.

Edited to add (6pm): Listening to Willetts' speech at the Royal Institution this morning, this final point is something I think we should bare in mind. Willetts said many things, one being:
as society becomes more diverse and cultural traditions increasingly fractured, I see the scientific way of thinking – empiricism – becoming more and more important for binding us together.
In some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with science, basking in the warm glow of Baconian inductivism. Bless. It'd be all very neat if we could just silence questions and solve our problems with bits of incontrovertible evidence. But science just doesn't work like that. The very "scientific way of thinking" Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate.

Please note, this isn't a criticism of "the scientific way of thinking", I just define it less narrowly than Willetts. Personally I think the capacity for (even encouragement of) debate is one of the good things about science. Long live the evidence badger, in all its troubled glory.

Added 11th Aug: looking back on the last couple of weeks, we're still obsessed.