Social Scientist for the Day?

This week I attended what was probably my first serious social sciences/STS (variously Science and Technology Studies or Science, Technology and Society) conference in my life. I was only able to attend the first day and I came away not quite sure what I felt about the experience. It was certainly interesting, but was I any the wiser? The conference (Circling the Square) was organised by the Nottingham STS Priority Group headed up by Reiner Grundmann. Its aims were stated as twofold:

  • To explore the opportunities and challenges involved with the development of policy-relevant evidence.
  • To foster a much-needed conversation between researchers, decision makers, journalists, and engaged citizens.

These are laudable if sweeping aims. I won’t discuss those parts I saw relevant to the first aim here since my own small part was to serve on a panel designed to fit into the second. (If you’re interested Philip Moriarty has discussed this part of the day here.) Under the banner of ‘A Good News Story from Science? Researchers facing the Media‘ I shared a platform with emeritus scientist and ace-blogger David Colquhoun, Felicity Mellor (who leads on the science communication course at Imperial)and science writer Jon Turney. Personally I took that session title at face value, wanting to stress the positives of interacting with the media, as well as some of the pitfalls. However our session was preceded by an excellent if somewhat downbeat keynote lecture on the state of science journalism from Andrew Williams which had something of a dampening effect on the debate with our panel. If I had been a young researcher wondering whether to dip my toe into the waters of science communication, I might well have felt discouraged (another attendee’s write up can be found here).

Andrew Williams has done some illuminating research on the triangle between individual researchers, an institution’s Press Office (however designated but the body that puts out an institutional press release) and the media, mainly as represented through print or mainstream TV/radio rather than simply an online presence. He identified a number of faults in this operation which can have the effect of leading to excessive hype verging on dishonesty or the exclusion of those caveats which the research warrants. Interestingly his findings demonstrate no correlation (he can’t comment on causation) either between exaggerated claims and the take-up of a story, or the inclusion of caveats and a corresponding lack of take-up. This, particularly if he can proceed to demonstrate causation as the next stage of his study aims to do, should reassure individuals drafting press releases to stick to what they can honestly say without either overegging their findings or avoiding the mention of any limitations or underlying assumptions.

Another facet of this researcher-media interface that Williams has been exploring was the process known as ‘churnalism’, the rehashing of press releases with little original input from the journalist concerned. In this way there is no external scrutiny or tensioning of any ‘spin’ the initiator of the story puts out. In large part he believed that this was down to the way the workload of journalists has increased and the consequent lack of time they have to reflect or investigate further any claims made. Certainly this is a view I have heard expressed with dismay by senior science journalists, in one case remarking that they feared his ilk were a dying breed (as exemplified in the loss of Susan Watts as science editor for Newsnight, for example).

What I thought was unfortunate was that the sum effect of all his interesting and informative studies meant that it was easy to take away the message that the system was broke and there was no way to fix it. I don’t think this was his intent, but he left us with no optimistic message that if we (at least the ‘we’ that are researchers; I can’t speak for journalists or press officers) recognized the failings we could do better. We could (and should) write our press releases so that they aren’t just sexy but also accurate and truthful. Of course much research will never be of the kind from which a press release will spring fully armed, but there are so many ways of communicating science that don’t simply stem from the publication of a paper in a glamour journal that most researchers should be able to communicate their science sometime, some place. That aspect didn’t get aired in Williams’ talk.

I tried to put this more optimistic view across when we got to the panel discussion, but not before David Colquhoun had had an opportunity to blast said glamour journals (I think he wanted to ‘ban’ both Nature Publishing Group and Elsevier – I think HEFCE too for all the distortions their emphasis on impact is causing, but as I wasn’t taking notes at this point I can’t be 100% sure on this front. I’m surprised he didn’t include Science, Cell and PNAS too but perhaps he didn’t want the list to be too destructive.) However it wasn’t just the glamour journals he wanted to damn, he was strongly of the view that researchers had only themselves to blame for signing off inaccurate, hyped up and incautious/injudicious press releases which they then found themselves having to defend. From his perspective, the buck stopped firmly at the researcher’s feet.

Felicity Mellor, focussing on her analysis of science reporting on the BBC, reinforced much of what Andrew Williams said only concentrating on the specifics of what her study found. Jon Turney reflected on how things have changed, and not always for the better, over his career. Again, I don’t believe it was his intention but by highlighting the disappearance of science journalists with the time to find their own stories not prompted by HEI’s press releases or challenge what these might say by finding counter opinions, the impression I was left with was of a rather poor state of affairs.

So, as I say, it was left to me to try to say that it isn’t all gloom and doom, there are lots of opportunities to communicate your science in ways of your choosing and, particularly if you seek out media training, to tell your stories in the way you want without getting doorstepped or misquoted. Declaring myself an interested party, I also spoke up for online opportunities to spread the word through blogs such as the Guardian Science blogs.To my mind places like these blogs provide great opportunities not just to avoid the fate of churnalism, but also to tell those continuing stories that aren’t arising from some fancy publication that week but reflect more on the interesting tales of ongoing science – this is still science that matters both to the public and the researcher. These also provide a chance to write about the process of doing science (or, as one of the questioners put it, to demonstrate that most scientific results are subsequently shown to be wrong, or at least inaccurate), thereby providing a way for those who don’t practice science get some feel for what we actually do day by day.

To be the optimist, despite being the amateur communicator amongst that bunch of professionals, felt a slightly strange place to be. It tended to confirm what one of the social scientists said to me, that there was a clear fault line between the social scientists and the scientists. To bridge that gulf was one of the aims of the meeting, and I suppose you can only do that when you have its measure. Day 1 of the conference perhaps exposed its magnitude. It would be nice to believe that by day 3 there was some skeletal structure able to reach from one side to the other. But I won’t be there to see it because I will be presenting at another and very different interdisciplinary meeting on women’s historical experiences in science, where historians, archivists and scientists will get together. Two conferences in one week so different from my normal fare: an embarras de richesses indeed.

Note added 25-5-14

Just to bring together the blogposts (that I know about) regarding this conference.

  • Philip Moriarty (one of the organisers) was first off the mark where a very interesting comment stream developed. He later followed up with this.
  • Also on OT Sylvia McLain has written of her frustration with some disparagement between the different communities.
  • Another of the organisers Brigitte Nerlich wrote of her own slightly puzzled response to some of the debates here. She has also written a summary of the various responses .
  • Some of the interactions have also been discussed here.
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20 Responses to Social Scientist for the Day?

  1. “To explore the opportunities and challenges involved with the development of policy-relevant evidence.”

    This is the kind of language that I find very confusing, and typical of what I hear when speaking with policy and ethics types – what Genome Canada has seen fit to call GE3LS (with a superscript “3”) – Genomics, Ethics, Environment, Economics, and Legal issues. Similar to ELSI in the US, its goals and aims are laudable, but I frequently find the language framing the issues almost impenetrable. That in itself I find a real barrier to engaging in this kind of effort… so perhaps some very basic introductory symposia to help bridge between policy and basic science would be helpful?

  2. Bill Harvey says:

    Just read this and up pops:

    Jon Winokur ‏@AdviceToWriters 27m
    Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.

    retweeted by Edward Tufte, another hero.

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    Churnalism is everywhere, even on a “professional” social network like LinkedIn. Ideally this sort of network should give its members an opportunity to identify really novel ideas and improve the S/N for the reader; what happens in practice is that groups become dominated by representatives of commercial journals (not the peer-reviewed kind) who just recycle the press releases that they have already published and provide no added value whatsoever.

  4. Thanks for such a great write up of the day, Athene, and for your considered response to my talk.
    I think that’s pretty accurate, although I’d have needed another 40 minutes to even begin talking about what we do about such persistent and difficult problems. I agree with you about the importance of training, but not as a panacea.
    I guess I do think that anything individual scientists do on their own can’t begin to alter some of the more structural problems there are with the news industry (which determine the workload problems, churnalism issue, etc), or with the ways in which (ever faster-privatising) Universities encourage researchers to engage with the news media.
    That’s not to say there are no answers, and it’s not to say that we can’t do anything on our own, either. Individually we all (I think) still have power over what goes in press releases about our research, and we can be rigorous about checking them and not accepting elision or inaccuracy.
    Collectively, we can do much more. I even think there’s room for optimism.
    I’m hoping that the next phase of our InSciOut project at Cardiff (which like the PR study I cited in the talk is led by Petroc Sumner and others: will further test these findings about science PR distortion. If our correlational findings are confirmed, we can then use this knowledge to work in partnership with research organisations and press offices to ensure we don’t do this any more.
    So why the room for optimism? If this were all down to the press distorting science, there’s very little we could do about it. If, on the other hand, some (or even a lot) of the blame lies with Universities, then we can work with our own institutions collectively to find answers.

  5. Reiner Grundmann says:

    Dear Athene

    many thanks for your participation and contribution, and the write up on this blog. You do raise two important issues which need further discussion, one about interdisciplinarity, the other about the science/social science divide.

    You link them in the following way: “there was a clear fault line between the social scientists and the scientists. To bridge that gulf was one of the aims of the meeting, and I suppose you can only do that when you have its measure. Day 1 of the conference perhaps exposed its magnitude. It would be nice to believe that by day 3 there was some skeletal structure able to reach from one side to the other”

    I was smiling as I saw the title of your next blog comment “What can you do in a minute?” which seemed to be the adequate reply. Interdisciplinary work is a very hard thing to do, some think it is impossible. It certainly needs time to develop for those who are optimistic (and count me in, otherwise I would not spend time and energy in trying).

    I also think that social science is not different in kind from the sciences, in that it collects data for interpretation. There may not be the same ‘scientific method’ across this divide, but the variation in the method can be observed in many different science fields alone. So when it comes to social science knowledge (or evidence), for example about the science media interface, we should listen to what the evidence is. It looks like a category error to say ‘but I miss the optimism here’. How would you react if some social scientist made such a comment on your scientific work? Would you not expect first and foremost an enagagement with the content of your findings?

    In my panel contribution I tried to show how a sociological approach to the conference theme might look like, by postulating specific roles for researchers, politicians, journalists, and NGOs. It is not a matter of pessimism v optimism but what can be realistically expected from these different roles. They are conflicted, yet sometimes overlapping. However, it is far from clear that more overlap is better. We do know of hybrid roles like science advocacy, science journalism, or science policy advising, even researchers becoming open supporters of campaigning groups or industry projects. But extending the overlap is not a solution as the danger arises that science gets ‘encircled’.

    I guess some of the uncomfortable feeling scientists experience comes from the fact that STS studies scientific practices, and therefore scientists. And you may not like the results. It would be cheap to dismiss the knowledge as ‘unscientific’. If it is based on evidence scientists should engage with the evidence, and the methodology. There are legitimate issues to be raised about the use of jargon and needless obscure language, as discussed on the Making Science Public blog and Philip Moriarty’s blog in the past days.

    But thanks again for your engagement and I hope we can keep the conversation going.

  6. Reiner
    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think, however, you are attributing statements to me or more globally than I intended in my post. First of all, it was not me who made the comment about the gulf between the different communities but one of your very own STS and social science colleagues. I merely reflected what they said because I did feel, not so much in my own session but in the debate involving Chris Tyler, Sheila Jasanoff, Beth Taylor and Daniele Fanelli, that there was some truth in that. However I probably sit more on the STS side of this than you might expect, as you will see if you read my comment on Philip Moriarty’s post. I felt at the time both he and Beth were perhaps verging on the simplistic in their belief that science is inherently neutral and would accept Sheila’s position more readily.

    Furthermore, as a committed interdisciplinarian – as you will see if you read further back in my blog – even if simply within the science I do, I know one has to be in it for the long haul. I was merely hoping that by day 3 the structure of the meeting might permit a clearer meeting of minds and disciplines than that first debate provided.

    As for the optimism versus pessimism, it was the debate about communicating science that made me so pessimistic. I suspect this was because of the focus on print and broadcast media rather than online resources. In many ways, as for instance in the post-publication dialogues that David Colquhoun was so eloquent about, we live in a golden age for the exchange of information and ideas, including those of a scientific bent. I did not mean to imply I was pessimistic about the endeavour to get different communities together as I’m all in favour of it. We can all learn from each other even if we agree to disagree. Nevertheless, I found the message that ‘science journalism is dead and buried’ that seemed to come from the other members of my panel as well as Andrew Williams very dispiriting.

    Finally, to return to the fault lines between communities, I was very sorry not to be able to stay for the full meeting (as I indicate, this is because I was attending another very multidisciplinary meeting to which I was committed before I received the Nottingham invitation). Nevertheless, if Sylvia McLain’s write up of day 2 is accurate there seems to have been some fairly unhelpful discussions or at least comments tossed around. I don’t know if you would agree with her take on things; I’d be interested to know. As it happens the email I received immediately after the notification of your comment on my blog was from Harry Collins responding to the review I wrote earlier this year (which was pretty positive) about his most recent book. In this email he says ‘it was when science became the plaything of the humanities that science studies became anti-science — in my view fed by two-cultures animosity.’ Whatever you think of Collins’ statement or his overall position, however much you may feel two-cultures language is overblown and overused, if scientists are publicly accused of being self-indulgent or asking the wrong questions, as Sylvia says they were during the meeting, it is hardly going to move dialogue forward.

    So, as I read (as I was this morning) a book like Mark Erickson’s Science, Culture and Society, which keeps making comments implying scientists believe in a hierarchy with science as ‘better’, I get cross. I think this too is two-cultures language and profoundly unhelpful. As a scientist I don’t presume to invent a hierarchy, merely enjoy what I do and try to share it with others. If these others prefer to expend their energy in disciplines that leave me cold so be it. But as long as insults about better and worse are banded about, by either side, we aren’t going to move the dialogue forward.

    • Hi, Athene.

      Thank you for your valuable contributions to this debate and for your positivity at the “Circling the Square” conference. I note that you’ve linked to my blog posts at Making Science Public and physicsfocus — thanks also for this.

      Just one additional point re. the question of the neutrality of science (because I’ve already discussed this at length here ):

      As you have no doubt also encountered, there is a huge amount of general scepticism amongst physicists about the value of STS and, indeed, sociology in general. Scientists already questioning the value of STS are not going to be encouraged when they read statements such as the following:

      “… who should define what counts as good science when all scientific claims incorporate social factors and are subject to negotiation?”

      (From the description of The Fifth Branch:Science Advisers as Policymakers, Sheila Jasanoff).

      The uncompromising assertion that all scientific claims incorporate social factors — and there were clear messages along these lines during the Circling… conference — will not help to bring together the social sciences and the physics/chemistry/biology/materials science/engineering etc… communities.

      I obviously agree entirely with you that the interplay of science, politics, media, and public perception is far from simple to understand. But at the heart of science is a very, very simple message — we should aim to be as disinterested as possible. (More at Making Science Public).


  7. Reiner Grundmann says:

    Sorry if I have misrepresented your views. I agree with most of what you are saying in the above reply, especially with regard to the mutual accusations across a two-culture divide. We need to get beyond the stereotypes. However, there are some role expectations that one can reasonably have, such as “journalists want a good news story” or “scientists want to establish reliable knowledge”. But the research ecosystem is changing and there are institutional incentives to publish in high impact journals, quickly, or to show impact on policy making. Some researchers are giving in to the pressures which often leads to accusations of over-hyping or dishonesty. This does not mean that this is the norm, but a danger. How much has changed is a matter for empirical research. Some speakers at Circling the Square were convinced that the answer is clear (things a re getting worse) which leaves you ‘dispirited’. If they are right, this applies not only you, I guess.

    With regard to CP Snow and Collins I cannot go into much detail here (if you are interested in detail, have a look at this co-authored piece). Suffice it to say that Snow reckons the poor have greater chances to enter the sciences (in contrast to the elite reproducing humanities). This may have to do with the more elaborate language games in the latter (see the debate about ‘jargon’). Collins is confused about the role of expertise in contemporary society in that he over emphasises the role of scientific expertise. Nico Stehr and I have developed an alternative concept of expertise.

  8. I’m not disagreeing there are pressures for individuals to give in to over-hyping. I just feel this doesn’t mean either that is how it has to be or how it always is. That is the spirit of optimism in which I’d like to operate and to see the community moving towards.

    If you read my review of the latest Collins book you will see that I actually feel that Collins has changed his attitude towards scientific expertise towards one I think is more reasonable. I will look at the links you provide. I certainly don’t subscribe to everything he has written! I’d still be interested to know whether you felt that were too many accusations at the meeting.

  9. Brigitte says:

    My own feelings about the meeting are mixed, but on the whole positive. I think the meeting was rather unique in bringing natural scientists and social scientists together, including many young scientists. We all talked to each other, which was GREAT. My discussions with the younger cohort of PhD physicists, chemists, biologists etc. in the breaks demonstrated to me that they were really interested and wanted to know more about what’s going on at the interface between science and politics and were intrigued by the social science on offer. I was really pleased to see that, especially as this conference threw them in at the deep end. Some of people I spoke to were slightly taken aback by some of the rather old-fashioned stereotypes of natural science and scientists that seemed to circulate at the conference. On the other hand I also overheard some muttered thoughts about social scientists and social science (hot air, strange language) coming from natural scientists. So there is still work to be done. As Phil has proposed in emails, we should make this type of conference a regular event and continue the conversations started last week. Conversations are the only way to reveal and overcome misunderstandings and create mutual understanding. Some of these conversations are already happening underneath the blog posts written after the conference, which is great.

  10. Reiner Grundmann says:

    “I’d still be interested to know whether you felt that were too many accusations at the meeting.”

    Well it all depends on what one expects. I see this as a start of a conversation so it is inevitable that stereotypes are banded about. I actually prefer this frank style compared to a polite agreement which is totally superficial. As has been famously put by researchers doing work on interdisciplinary practice, the first stage is always about ‘singing the old songs’. I’d be disappointed if we are still at it in, let’s say, two years time.

  11. By no means did all participants (on either side) uniformly stereotype one another … But it’s a bit weird to sit in a talk where people are talking about a group you belong to explicitly and saying things like ‘when scientists communicate they are being self-indulgent … I wasn’t there for the last talks so perhaps some natural scientist stood up and said the same kind of things about all social scientist … I hope not because that isn’t a happy position to be in ..

    But it’s not just in this conference … This happens to me on twitter and in blogs. I have been told all sorts of things I am a scientist ‘am’ … Condescending, elitist, mean-spirited, stupid and sometimes when I try to defend my position I am ‘overly defensive’

    I am sure the same thing happens the other way around to but I am not a social scientist so perhaps wouldn’t know,

    What I find hard about this is not that people say this to me, it is Twitter after all where people say all sorts of things, but echoing Athene, is the negativity of this. And the fact that calling someone self-indulgent and elitist isn’t going to exactly help build bridges …. So what is the goal then? Is the goal just to get scientists in a room with social scientists so we can talk about how pathetic the other group is ? I think moving towards positive answers is the way to go and this definitely was happening with many of the participants but by no means all …

    It all just left me feeling a bit moribund about the whole thing – we have a long way to go – and that is going to take efforts from both sides of the circle (or square)

    • Laurence Cox says:

      I suggest that you deal with social scientist types who make this type of criticism by suggesting that what they are offering is a subjective view and that if they want to convince you of their objectivity they should cite the evidence that they based their views on.

    • Reiner Grundmann says:

      You are right that the stereotyping was not uniformly coming from one side. Several scientists made some very critical remarks about scientists’ practices and the way science works in a changing research environment (the comment about ‘self-indulgence’ was made exclusively about climate scientists’ efforts to fight ‘climate deniers’). And yes, there were also very critical remarks from scientists about the social sciences. This is inevitable, at least at the beginning of a conversation.

      Once one adopts a binary observation scheme (science/social science) one will find evidence for the binary. While this was not the aim of Circling the square it should not come as a surprise that it happened. The conference had wider aims, looking at the interface between research (all kinds of research, not only science, or social science) and media, politics, and civil society. How we as researchers come to understand this process, and how other other parts in society perceive our role is the real issue.

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