Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Storm the Royal Society?

This weekend, I had a piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free site about open data and public engagement. I wanted to emphasise that a simple opening up of scientific data doesn't work as a public engagement strategy. The people who can such data sets aren't necessarily "the public".

Not that an entity called "the public" necessarily exists anywhere much outside of rhetoric (but maybe that's an another issue). My point is that simply allowing access to data doesn't on its own open science up, or it only opens it up to a small number of people already pretty close to scientific work. I don't think that this in itself means open data is a bad thing in terms of making science more publicly accountable. We do, however, need to think in detail about how we expect such data to be used (anywhere really, but for me, specifically when it hits a "public sphere"), especially its reach.

Even if we could get around all the pragmatic and ideological issues surrounding open access (and I'm so not getting into that hear), it doesn't necessarily mean we'd all know what to do with it. Information, on its own, it is inert. It is what you do with it that counts. Opening data sets doesn't necessarily unlock the craft of knowledge-making. Neither, in the context of climategate my CiF post was inspired by, does it make the craft of scientific work all that more "transparent."

A couple of points worth expanding on:

1) Expertise

As Kieron Flanagan noted on Twitter, my comment is free piece had more than a whiff of Harry Collins about it. Harry Collins is a sociologist of science who focuses on expertise. An expert on expertise, if you will. He is keen to argue that expertise is "real", that experts are people with special skills which often require large amounts of tacit knowledge, that is in some respects a craft. He also argues that expertise is distributed, and that we can distinguish between "interactional expertise", where you might be able to "talk the talk" of an area of expertise and the "contributory expertise" of active practitioners of a field.

Some of Collins' writing can be a bit dense, especially if you're not used to a sociological approach to jargon, but a lot of his recent work on expertise is available online (so it is accessible in as much as you can download the papers, if not necessarily accessible conceptually). If you find Collins hard, or simply bothered to wade through, I guess it underlines my point that it can take time to understand the sort of complex ideas we generate today, and not everyone has time to learn the tactic skills and knowledge required to develop such understanding. This piece from Physics World (pdf) might help if you're struggling for an introduction.

I don't want to suggest I'm a fully paid up member of the Harry Collins fanclub. To provide full context, my CiF piece was inspired by an event at the Royal Institution, where Adam Corner had cited an interview he had done with Collins. I repeated the basic ideas on expertise articulated via Corner in the CiF piece because it helped me make a point about not being naive when it comes to how contemporary science works. Indeed, I said publicly at the Royal Institution event that I think it's important to note that Collins' approach to expertise is not an uncontroversial one, especially when it comes to thinking about science in public.

So, for a slightly different take on expertise in public, I can suggest these three reports from Demos: Public Value of Science, See-through Science and the Received Wisdom. If you want something a bit more scholarly, try Irwin & Micheal's Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge. Or for more climate-specific points, I enjoyed Irwin's Sociology and the Environment, and there is always his classic book, Citizen Science. The Demos reports are great starters though, and make substantive points in their own right. Accessible in more ways than one (influential and usable too).

2) Monitorial citizenship.

This is an interesting idea. My reference to it has already inspired one blogpost. If you want to read more, see Michael Shudson's (2003) essay ‘Click Here for Democracy: A History and Critique of an Information-Based Model of Citizenship’ (chapter four of this book). Or, a more easily found overview of the idea can also be found in Henry Jenkins' (2008) Convergence Culture, a book I'd recommend to anyone interested in online communication, especially around politics.

To give a brief summary here, Shudson argues our notion of an informed citizen is anachronistically rooted in the context of the last “information revolution”, that of the early 20th century. Then, idea that a voter should learn as much as possible is base on a time where access to information was opening up (mass-media, literacy rates, emancipation), but was nowhere near as open. Now we simply have more data than we can deal with: we are promised with everything, but in reality we can only manage a bit. Should citizens “follow everything about everything?”. Are those who don’t delinquent? “Or, in contrast, could they be judged exemplary if they know a lot about one thing and serve as sentries patrolling a segment (but not all) of the public interest’s perimeter?” (Shudson, 2003: 56). This is where the idea of “monitorial citizenship” emerges (think pencil monitors in school). Here, we each have bits of information, we are each knowledgeable in some particular issues, operating in a self-consciously large and diverse context of mutual trust and shared resources.

This idea is not without its problems, least if all how you get to be a monitor. Let's still with the pencil monitor analogy: a teacher might pick such a person at random, but equally all sorts if classroom politics might be involved in such a decision. (I'm sure we all have childhood memories of injustice where Timmy got to hand out the new exercise books just because he's the teacher's pet). Pencils aside, many science bloggers have at least one if not three degrees in subject, and although each case is individual, all sorts of injustices when it comes to access to that sort of education. They were lucky to have got there, and probably had to put in a fair bit of hard graft too. Perhaps monitorial citizenship is another idea which relies on a more equal education system than we currently have. Still, I like it, it's awareness of the distribution and necessary diversities of expertise is something I think is worth thinking about.

To sum up these two points, I'll repeat my conclusion to the CiF piece, that I doubt a one-size-fit-all model will work when it comes to increasing public trust in science (climate science or otherwise). Although the idea of storming the Royal Society to take back science for the people might seem appealing, I fear it'd be a rather blunt weapon. If you really want action on science's relationships with society, I suspect we'd be better served if we "act local". By local, I should stress, I don't necessarily mean physical space, I mean local in terms of specific issues or shared cultures. We must remember the sheer size and diversity of "this thing we call science": its experts, its ideas, evidence, methods, materials, sites, equipments and its publics. For all that I think science should be shared as far as possibly, it only by small groups of people incrementally doing small things that I imagine much will get done.

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