Monday, 19 April 2010

Science is cool? Considering the "evidence"

I've just written a piece on Comment is Free responding to the "How Science Became Cool" feature they ran last Tuesday. This is the sweary bit I couldn't fit in (though with slightly less swearing than when I saw the headline they'd given it and read comment number 3...)

The piece for the Guardian runs through some of the evidence of science's public popularity. But research into science and the public doesn't just provide evidence, it also provides reflection. One basic tenet of such reflection being that the notion of "science" isn't nearly as uniform as is sometimes imagined (for developed theory and a set of historical examples, see this book). Another central tenet is that whether you like, agree and/ or believe in a piece science is largely cultural (classic study of this being Brian Wynne’s sheep farmers). Baring both these points in mind, we should not forget the tensions within the great big Venn diagram of groups which have connected to form the apparent "new" coolness of science.

I think the most illustrative example of this is last December's "Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People". Or, as it later became known for the post-Christmas TV transmission: Nerdstock. I remember hearing people say they much preferred the term Nerdstock, they would have loved to have gone but were put off by the word "Godless" in the title. And yet people wanting to express their atheism were arguably the fuel of the event. Similarly, within self-confessed science fans, there are those with more space-y interests and those who are rather more David Attenborough in their tastes, both sitting alongside each other with some degree of incomprehension. There are also the wades of commentators on the "How Science Became Cool" piece who wined "don't leave science to the cool kids, that's the last thing we want".

These are all tensions, territories and cultural identities we have to remember if considering the movement of science through popular culture. Moreover, I think that the more activist science communicators (i.e. those who want to change peoples minds) need to take seriously those who disagree or are not sure about particular ideas in science. I don't think it's helpful to write them off as anything as broad brush as "anti" the whole of science. This is not to say you have to agree with them, or even display any rhetorical sense of agreement. But you have to think about what precisely they don't like and why if you really want to convince them otherwise. As I wrote in the post about Shell and the Science Museum, throw your hands up in the air with incredulity at their stupidity if you like: see how far that gets you.

I worry that that with a celebration of aesthetics of science the response to "isn’t this cool" will be, from many, "er, no". There's the famous youtube clip of Richard Dawkins saying "Science is interesting, and if you don't like it, you can fuck off." That's great if you already agree with him. It's funny and the appeal to those who "can fuck off" helps emphasise a sense of bonded community by way of noting those aren't in it. But it only puts off those who disagree with you even more. As I've blogged before, I think science communication should say this is awesome because. It should earn and demonstrate wonderment, not assume it.

Of course, another central tenet of science communication research is you shouldn't assume a need to ram science down everyone's throat. Not everyone likes science, not everyone knows much science. And that's ok. Maybe the disinterested can fuck off then, though I can think of a fair few specific examples where I'd rather they didn't (personally, for me: science funding, climate change). It's a difference between liking or disliking that big old complex thing called "science" and having an opinion about a specific scientific issue which I think is the important point here.

I agree the science brand seems to be doing pretty well right now, but let's not get carried away about the novelty or reach of this. Moreover, don't let a sense of glitzy uniformity of a big old thing called "science" obscure the detail in its guts, be this good, bad, useful, pointless, ugly or beautiful. Don’t fuck off if you don’t happen find one or other aspect of it interesting, and please don’t get arrogant or cliquey enough to tell others to do so either.

EDIT 19:45 20th April: just in case you worry I'm quoting Dawkins out of context, he is repeating a New Scientist editor with the "can fuck off" line. There's great context provided in this longer video of the event, which I can heartily recommend anyway (ta Scott)


  1. I love the last two paragraphs - shame they got redpenned.

    "Say this is awesome because." - in which case, you're on the side of Neil Tyson in this clip, which puts Dawkins "Fuck off" in context:

  2. Scott: they didn't get redpenned. Or rather they did, but by me. Maybe I should have replaced the web2.0 paragraphs with them seeing as they were misrepresented.

    That Tyson pre-context to the quote is AMAZING "you're the professor for the public understanding of science, not professor for delivering truth to the public [...] it's the facts plus the sensitivity that creates impact"


  3. Nice!

    My favourite paragraph was the one on cultural identity. Do we really need science to be cool in order for the public to take an interest in it? Or rather, do we need nerds to be cool for science to be cool? I hope not.

    Cool doesn't last long. So if recognition by trendsetters and the people who follow them is a victory for science, it'll be a short lived one.

    I'm all for celebratory nerdship. But I never needed for it to be reforged as some badge of cool for permission to revel in it. Most genuine rank-and-file geeks are not just indifferent to 'cool', they actively despise it. The superficial and transient imperatives of cool's commercial arm, fashion, are (or least were) anathema to the qualities that geeks hold most dear: depth and permanence (or, rather, tradition).

    This isn't a judgement about nerds who want to be cool (or those who are cool who want to be nerds), but an observation of the dangers of branding science too narrowly. If we redefine science as a cultural brand for cool kids, or geeks, or atheists, or French intellectuals, we risk excluding large numbers of people from feeling they too are allowed to identify with it as a way of thinking.

    We're never going to convert the public to a monolith of cool, geeky, atheist, French intellectuals. And surely we don't want to.

  4. Dawkins didn't say '... fuck off' - he was quoting someone else. He was also putting it in the context of 'if you think I'm bad then listen to this!'.

    How you'd portrayed the quote is completely wrong, and should probably be rectified.

  5. It's t-e-n-e-t, pet, not "tenant".

  6. Anonymous - thanks for the spelling correction, I'll edit it.

    Scott's already provided the link to the vid with context, though I did already know he was re-quoting. What I said was "the famous youtube clip of Richard Dawkins saying..." which I think is accurate. I'll add an edit to the bottom though in case anyone else worries as you have.

  7. Ed,

    Great comment! Wish I could have put it so well. I agree, to be honest, I don't really like the words "nerd" and "geek" I've only used them as useful shorthand (a bit like "web2.0"...)

  8. I believe you mean "central tenet", not "central tenant".

    I would've expected better from a lecturer in science communication. Probably best to avoid use cliched phrases if you don't know exactly what they mean.

  9. Hi Anonymous!

    Thanks SOOO much for the spelling advice. I've tried to correct it, unless I've missed another instance where I can't find it.

    You might well expect more from "a lecturer in science communication" though I should stress I teach on the theoretical elements of the course - I don't pretend to tell anyone how to write.

    I'm also dyslexic. It's not a lack of understanding over meaning, it's a phonological processing issue. So, thanks. Crowd-edits of my blogposts are always appreciated as I need all the help I can get! (nb: I do actually mean that, not being sarcastic here).

    You are welcome to take my dyslexia as a sign of stupidity. I'll return the sentiment.

    Personally I expect a more substantiate point from someone who'd bother to leave a comment, though I suppose not from someone who remains anonymous.


  10. Would the former editor whom Dawkins attributes his quote to be Mike Kenward OBE?

  11. "That Tyson pre-context to the quote is AMAZING"

    Knew you'd love it. If only he'd swore when saying it, then the focus would be in the other direction.

  12. Chris - I would *love* to have a vid of the original utterance of that phrase :)

  13. Looks as though it wasn't Mike Kenward, after all, but one of his successors at New Scientist, Alun [sic] Anderson. So says
    Flickr contributor hellochris.

  14. Just wanted to say hi and that I'm glad you commented on my blog which led me to finding your wonderful blog! This is really interesting and I'm looking forward to exploring more (and yay for your knitting blog too! I think we have a lot in common :D )

  15. This is great achievement and great creativeness...