Monthly Archives: February 2010

Notes from Moving forwards or in circles? Science communication and scientific governance in an age of innovation

Notes from Moving forwards or in circles? Science communication and scientific governance in an age of innovation

I thought this was an interesting chapter as it highlighted the pro’s and cons of various models of communication which I will try to summarise;

The Deficit Model

The public has a deficit of science information which is filled by the science community who decide what the public should know

Example; BSE and the governments campaign of reassurance

Pro’s; Its easy, if it works then public understanding and opinion should be easy to control/manage/manipulate.  It acknowledges the authority of the scientists.

Cons; Leads to a lack of trust

Two way communication model (if there is an official name for this model then I have missed it)

An open two way communication between the publics (many and overlapping) and the sciences.

Involve public discussion & debate in the early stages of development

Can be difficult when the many do not understand or know of the basic facts (eg nanotechnology)

Involve public discussion & debate in the later stages.

Greater clarification of terms and choices

The article also cites the Phillips report (Phillips, Lord, Bridgeman, J. and Ferguson-Smith, M. (2000). The BSE Inquiry: the Report. HMSO, London.) into the BSE inquiry adn its following points which the article claims have become central to science communication;

• Trust can only be generated by openness.

• Openness requires recognition of uncertainty, where it exists.

• The public should be trusted to respond rationally to openness.

• Scientific investigation of risk should be open and transparent.

• The advice and reasoning of advisory committees should be made public.

I wonder if the recent case of the East Anglia scientists who withheld information disproves the suggestion that these points have become central to science communication, or does the fact that this lack of openness has come to light and been exposed prove the point that these points are now true and anyone trying to conduct science communication by the old deficit model will be exposed?

Solving the DNA Structure

I have just watched 3 video clips entitled ‘solving the DNA Structure’ which are made up of extracts of the 1974 Horizon programme ‘Race for the Double Helix’ and clips from Life Story (1987) which dramatises the story of the discovery of the double helix.

The metaphor of a race towards solving the problem of the dna structure which is used throughout these clips reflects the metaphor used by Derbyshire’s article ‘War veteran fights ex-hippie over book of life’ which discusses the process of genome mapping.  I would say that this metaphor of a race is a useful one.  The nature of science means that the same, or similar scientific discoveries are made around the same time by different scientists. This race metaphor is repeated throughout scientific reporting;

The Race for Habitable Worlds and Life in the Universe

The race for the first heart transplant.

Race quickens for the first human clone – Elsevier

The Race to Build the Atomic Bomb

I guess the importance of this for the scientists depends on the personalities of the scientists involved, and what drives them.  The selfless pursuit of science or the financial and reputational rewards that go with being the first.

In their article published in Nature (1953) Watson and Crick manage to convay an impressive amount of information in just over a single page.  They introduce the piece, they explain why they dispute existing theories, they propose their theory is some detail alongside their reasoning’s, they propose further work to support their finding and make reference to the importance of their findings.  They also identify and thank those who have supported them.   In contrast the section from Watsons (1968) book The Double Helix, includes a personal narrative of the thought process identifying how he came to the conclusion that DNA was a template to RNA and in turn protein structure and why he felt it was so important to determine the DNA structure.

‘Is the scientific paper a fraud?’

.In the article ‘Is the scientific paper a fraud?’ (1999), Sir Peter Medawar criticizes the traditional structure of scientific papers, claiming the introduction, previous work, methods, results and discussion is misleading as it does not accurately represent the thought processes which the scientist goes through in order to decide which experiments they chose to catty out and why. The clinical formulae of the these published papers do not capture the motivation of scientists who Sir Peter describes “adventures of the mind”.  He also criticises the introduction and previous work sections as describing the general field of work and grudgingly, or not, acknowledging the work of others that have led “ dimly groped towards the fundamental truths that you are now about to expound”.

I personally disagree with the article. There are many types of media which can be used to describe the excitement and emotion of new scientific discovery’s, but I believe an article in a scientific journal should be cold and clinical listing the methods, results and conclusion in a  without such emotion.  The scientific facts and data are the story, not the scientist.  And I think the introduction and previous work should give the reader an understanding of why the scientific investigation was carried out

Public displays of exciting science

The clip from the BBC2 documentary “windscale :Britains Biggest Nuclear Disaster” shows how atomic science was viewed as a mysterious but wonderful persuite and the scientists given titles such as Boffins, the atom men, the atomics and Britain’s atom age heroes.

The 2008 TED talk by “Rock-star physicist” Brian Cox also portrays the science as an exciting and wonderful pursuit but unlike the first clip, the TED video tries to remove the mystery of science by trying to explain, in as much detail as possible what they are doing.

Do these examples accurately represent science?

I think this a complicated question.  I don’t doubt that the scientists in both clips are genuinely excited and optimistic about their work, along with their colleges working in exciting cutting edge science, but this does not represent all science and all scientists in the same way that those involved with designing and maintaining formulae one winning sports cars do not represent all mechanics.  In the same way that scientists should be aware that there are many different types of ‘publics’ there should also be an awareness of the many different types of sciences and scientists.

playing the media game?

In an article entitled Finding and projecting the voice of science and engineering , Bob Ward highlights how the media are more concerned about being impartial than accurate on scientific issues such as global warming.  This can lead to theories which are not believed by the majority of the scientific community being given significant coverage within mainstream media.  He goes on to say that any disagreements within the scientific community which around these issues are exaggerated by the ‘sceptics’ to discredit the generally held consensus.

Bob suggests scientists play the media game by getting involved in public debates and employing a number of media savvy methods including;

·         Using key phrases or sound bites

·         Making use of friendly journalists

·         Responding rapidly to events

·         Rebutting the opposition

.         Mounting media campaigns

I agree with some of this to some extent.  I believe a rapid response to events can be important and opportunities should be taken to address the opponents.  I also believe that Bob misses out on some of the key issues and some of his comments could lead to counterproductive actions.

It might seem obvious to some but the article doesn’t explain why pubic opinion is so important.  In a paper on the IPCC website entitled “The role of the IPCC and Key elements of the IPCC assessment process” there are several references to policy makers and governments but no reference to the public .  This could suggest that they do not believe that they do not have a role in communicating with the public or being part of public debate.  This view was recently reinforced by  Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC who refused to apologise for misleading information which was included within an IPCC report as he felt that would be a populist thing to do;

“I don’t do too many populist things, that’s why I’m so unpopular with a certain section of society,” he said.

The suggestion of focusing on friendly journalists and the implied suggestion of downplaying any disagreements within the scientific community could be seen as a motive for scientists to abuse the peer review process and boycott media outlets that provide a voice to critics.  These allegations were recently made against scientists involved in climate change research.

For me the main point that has come out of the recent climategate scandal is that scientists should be completely open, honest and transparent about their work, including anything which contradicts their main findings.  If they do not then they will probably be found out by the media and they will discredit themselves and their work.

Inconvenient swindles or a great truth?

Image from

For this activity I looked at how some newspapers reported ontwo films about climate change.

An Inconvenient Truth is a 2006 documentary film, directed by Davis Guggenheim, about former United States Vice President Al Gore‘s campaign to educate citizens about global warming via a comprehensive slide show that, by his own estimate, he has given more than a thousand times. (Description taken from Wikipedia)

The Daily Mail- September 15 2006- Chris Tookey
Chris summarises his film review with the phrase “Self-promoting documentary by Al Gore” .  The review mostly consists of criticising Al gore as a patronising hypocritical politician. The content is said to be “far from convincing”

The Observer- Philip French- 2006
“Every man woman and child in the country should see this film” is how Philip says he feels about this movie. He refers to Al Gore as a politician by highlighting how much better he would have been than the then current prime minister George Bush. Philip claims the moral issues are delivered with “authority, wit and style”

The Great Global Warming Swindle is a documentary film that argues against the scientific consensus that global warming is “very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas concentrations”.[1] It has been described by both its original broadcaster Channel 4 and the British regulator Ofcom as “a polemic“. (Description taken from Wikipedia)

The Sun Newspaper- Opinion piece by Jeremy Clarkson. (March 17, 2007 Saturday)
Jeremy was a fan of this show which confirmed his view “I’m not a scientist but I read enough scientific literature to know that the whole global warming theory is bonkers.”

He describes the scientists in the program as ‘real ones’ as opposed to those that were bribed by Margret Thatcher to say that burning fossil fuels will kill the planet.  He claims the media and politicians had their own reasons for perpetuating the myth of climate change as well as the “hippies and communists”.

The Independent- Dominic Lawson March 2nd 2007
This article starts with a quick recap of Al Gore and the Inconvenient truth and then highlights controversies surrounding the film made by Martin Durkin before he made the great global warming swindle. However in his review of the great global warming swindle, Dominic admits that the arguments are convincing.

Reflecting on these articles it seems that the film makers are the story more than the scientific content. In the case of Al Gore it is easy to see how the issue can be seen as part of his political agenda. But even the independent journalist who was a fan of the movie seemed more impressed with Al Gore than the content “There is nothing essentially new in the picture”   Jeremy Clarkson in the Sun seemed ecstatic that The great global warming swindle  found scientists that confirmed what he as a none scientist knew for years.  Maybe this highlights a larger truth that media sources will happily support scientific proof as long as it supports a preconceived opinion.  The independent seemed sceptical of the film maker but admitted to finding the science convincing.  This is the only hint in any of the reports that scientific findings may have influenced the opinion of the reporter.

An ofcom review of the great global warming Swindle felt some individuals were misrepresented and there were concerns over how some of the facts were (or were not) presented.  However is did not feel that “ this led to the audience being materially misled” for me this gives the impression that as long as no one deliberately lies, you don’t have to tell the truth, the Whole truth and nothing but the truth.  It also shows that stories which are believed by a relatively small number in the scientific community may well get as much or a greater amount of air-time as more widely believed stories.


Last night I went through the introduction chapters of the 2 books that accompany the course with the aim of finding a topic that particularly interested me.  Although they were only short paragraphs It took me some time to get through them, partly because there were some big words i had to look up (Concomitant? polysemic? dialogic?) and partly because I needed to reread and think about what each paragraph meant before deciding how interested I was in each topic.  There were several topics which interested me including the Peer review process, which is in a few news stories at the moment.  How ever the one I have decided to concentrate on at the moment is the concepts of audiencehood and democratic citizenship in relation to science.   From what I have read in the introduction, this covers areas of web 2.0 and its collaborative potential.  I think it might lead on from my previous work looking at sites such as Wikipedia.

Today I went through some of the advanced search activities recommended by the course. I was reluctant at first as I thought I was fairly confident at researching after my last 3 courses, but I found it useful as it covered specific science based databases and covered issues which haven’t been as important on previous courses, such as filtering for peer reviewed content. It also looked at useing referencing systems such as endnote.  Although I find referencing a real chore I have always preferred to avid these automated systems, mainly because I find them more hassle than their worth.  For example there is always at least one reference that doesn’t quite fit the system. I remember asking a while ago “How do you Harvard reference a tweet?”