Wednesday 2 December 2015

Feeling the heat

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

While leaders of more than 190 nations are currently deliberating on climate action at the COP 21 summit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, millions of ordinary citizens have taken to the streets in cities and towns around the world to make sure their voices are heard. These citizens fully understand the implications of the science of climate change and they don’t want political leaders to drag their feet on taking urgent action to arrest and reverse the devastating impacts of climate change.

The effects of climate change are there for the world to see. The Indian Prime Minister and his entourage were in Paris this week when the southern city of Chennai (formerly Madras) in his country was deluged by the worst rains in over a hundred years, killing nearly 200 people, submerging homes, and cutting off power and transport links.  The havoc caused was so unusual that even the city’s venerable newspaper, The Hindu, couldn’t cover the disaster as it couldn’t bring its edition out for the first time since its inception in 1878. This calamity, exacerbated if not entirely caused by poor urban planning, ties in with the alternating bouts of heavy rainfall and drought in different parts of the world, stifling heat in temperate zones, and a spate of cyclones, tornadoes, and typhoons.

In an earlier blog, we had highlighted recent studies published in PUS that show the importance of emphasising local contexts and framing information that people can relate to in conceivable terms to get people to act on climate change. The increasing regularity of what are seen as unusual climate events have made it easier for people to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-induced climate change.

As social scientists and science communicators with a special interest in climate action, we (along with John Foran and Kum-Kum Bhavnani of the University of California, Santa Barbara) recently organised an international  symposium on ‘ClimateFutures’ at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in July this year to brainstorm innovative ideas to combat climate change.  The 19 of us, from 17 countries across six continents, had a range of perspectives to share but we were all united in centring the idea of justice in action that the world takes.

Following the symposium, John, Kum-Kum-Kum, and the two of us, along with most of the symposium participants, sent an open letter to the executive secretary of UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, and the President of COP21, Laurent Fabius, urging them to make sure the delegates “focus more sharply on the plight of those most vulnerable, e.g. who live in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Kiribati in the Pacific, the Philippines in Asia, and Cape Verde off the west coast of Africa, and who face the risk of being drowned or losing their freshwater resources as sea levels rise.”

We make the case for “an ambitious and legally binding treaty, one that is both effective and equitable” and call for a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that global temperatures rise no more than 1.5° Celsius,” and for developed nations to take greater responsibilities in mitigating climate change by way of setting aside substantial new funds for climate action as well as free technology transfer to poorer nations.

We also press the need to keep corporate lobbyists out of the frame of the COP process.

We hope international governments can demonstrate as much understanding of the science of climate change as the young people who are marching on the streets to protect the planet for the future.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Making sense of the global through the local

Way back in 1972, the meteorologist Edward Lorenz used an attractive rhetorical question to talk about unpredictability: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?  Lorenz’s exploration of the link between the aerial pyrotechnics of a tiny butterfly in the southern hemisphere and a violent vortex of powerful winds in the north may have been metaphorical.  But what he was getting at was that the atmosphere is sensitive enough for a disturbance in one part of the earth to have a cascading effect on the other.

Climate change is a case in point. Since the advent of industrialization, copious amounts of greenhouse gases emitted by the most industrially developed parts of the world (read rich nations) have had a devastating impact on the earth’s atmosphere but the consequences of these actions are being borne by the least developed  territories (read poor nations).  In other words, poor farmers in Bangladesh or Maldives or in one of the Pacific Islands are watching their fertile lands slip away into the saline depths of rising oceans because of decades of affluent, carbon-intensive lifestyles of those on another side of the world.

Yet, many people on this “right” side of the world are barely aware of the plight of their fellow earthlings, even less so about their own contributions to the sorry state of affairs. For them, it is a problem they have no part in. But what if the images from far-flung island nations are replaced by those of some of the most iconic American cities – New York or Boston or Miami? Well, these images don’t need to be computer-generated – it may well be a reality in our own lifetimes.

A study just published in the Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences warns that the “cultural legacy” of some of the best-known cities in the US is under threat of being submerged under rising sea levels. And these include New York City, Boston, New Orleans, and Miami. Indeed, the landmarks of these historic places could well become part of an underwater museum that no one will ever get to visit. But, as one of the study’s principal authors, Benjamin Strauss, told the Huffington Post, many of these “cities can be saved if people take swift action against carbon emissions.”

There is some hope that more people will pay heed to the long-ringing warning bells now that the threat is much more “local” than ever before. The influence of local events in changing perceptions cannot be underestimated.  And this is, by no means, limited to the affluent world.

In an article in the latest issue of PUS, Alex Lo of Griffith University, Australia, and C.Y. Jim of the University of Hong Kong, emphasise the importance of ‘localising’ climate change information for people to act pro-actively in climate mitigation actions. Their study found that “concerns about climate change increase with expectations about adverse weather events” in their own region. As “knowledge and/or experience of local weather events could enable people to readily comprehend the problem of climate change,” they say that “making the causal linkage explicit is crucial.” Clearly, climate action messages “tailored” for local contexts are important because “ordinary people tend to see global climate change as a distant probability or uncertainty that is geographically and/or temporally detached from their everyday life.”

The same issue of PUS also has an article by Adeniyi P. Asiyanbi on a Nigeria-based study which shows that “social situatedness, more than scientific facts, is the most important definer of overall engagement with climate change.” In fact, in echoing the findings of the Hong Kong-based study of Lo and Jim, Asiyanbi’s article makes a case for framing information about climate change which the targeted audience can relate to in concrete and easily conceivable terms.

The two studies are important not only for their practical recommendations for enhancing public understanding of climate science but also for empirical research in specific local contexts of Hong Kong and Nigeria.  As the journal's editor notes, the latest issue of PUS is particularly distinctive because it is the first issue in which all the articles featured are from outside the usual catchment areas of the US and Europe.  The issue also features research from China, India, Japan, Taiwan, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Saturday 5 September 2015

Knowledge, ignorance, and the spaces in-between

When the 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray said “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” he wasn’t, as urban myths often assume, suggesting that being ignorant bestows people with a sense of pleasure and contentment. He was merely reflecting back to his joyous time of learning at Eton College where he was once a student. Regardless of Gray’s much-quoted and misrepresented lines, ignorance tends to be characterised as an antonym of knowledge. 

The relationship between the two, however, is much more complex. Neither knowledge nor ignorance is absolute. After all, people with knowledge in certain areas may be ignorant in other areas. Knowledge is not synonymous with wisdom either as is evident in the many acts of folly committed by those with years of meticulous knowledge accumulation in centres of higher education. How else do we explain the endless spirals of mindless wars, environmental degradation, and corporate greed in the world? And what about the likes of religious fanatics, misogynists, and climate sceptics? Wouldn’t the label of ‘ignorant’ be much too benign for such politically regressive groups?

Indeed, it is politics that navigates the space between knowledge and ignorance. The politics of power drives scientific research on “defence” and the politics of business works on the commercialisation of ideas and knowledge generation. Both thrive on a discourse of ignorance to exploit a constructed climate of uncertainty about issues around security, health, and well-being. And then there is the ambiguous area of ideology as well. For example, are parents who refuse to vaccinate their children “ignorant” or just proponents of a particular ideology? For many, taking a ‘natural’ path to healthcare, which includes rejecting vaccinations, is an ideological position that assumes nature and the ‘natural’ stand in opposition to science.

The knowledge-ignorance dichotomy is particularly strong in the discourses of science and technology. The early 20th century philosopher of science Karl Popper believed that scientific knowledge was evolutionary. As he argued in All Life is Problem Solving, the advance of scientific knowledge stopped ignorance in its tracks. But he didn’t contend with the explicit politicization of science and technology which leads to people making judgements on science based on their own political affiliations. A recent special issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on “The Politics of Science: Political Values and the Production, Communication, and Reception of Scientific Knowledge” explores this interplay between science and politics in considerable depth. The special issue editors, Elizabeth Suhay and James Druckman, point out that debates over issues of science such as evolution, stem cell research, use of nuclear power, and fracking, are intensely political. As they point out in their introduction to the special issue, “A range of human values, including political and religious ones, influence the process of scientific discovery as well as the dissemination and public reception of scientific findings.”

In an article in this same special issue, Mathew Nisbet and Declan Fahy have called upon journalists in particular to draw on “expert knowledge” and “facilitate discussion” to not only bridge ideological divisions but also to get people to look more broadly at the interplay between technologies and policy options. Such a call is part of a growing campaign to foster stronger, structured, and succinct science communication to spread scientific knowledge to the masses.

Nisbet and Fahy’s piece is in fact the starting point for a thought-provoking commentary in Public Understanding of Science by Kristian H. Nielsen and Mads P. Sørensen (now available online ahead of print). These two scholars from Aarhus University of Denmark endorse Nisbet and Fahy’s call but go a step beyond to make a bold statement of their own. They say that alongside knowledge, science communicators need to pay a lot more attention to the idea of ignorance too.  Arguing that ignorance or “non-knowledge” is here to stay and is not something that will eventually go away, they “assert that different forms of ignorance not only are fundamental to processes of scientific knowledge production but also are virtuous to democratic deliberation”. They argue that focusing on how ignorance works in different settings can help “develop even more diverse and socially responsible practices within science communication.”

In discussing ignorance or non-knowledge in its many facets, Nielsen and Sorensen’s commentary makes critical distinctions among “known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns.” Getting a closer understanding of the contexts in which these four domains of knowledge/non-knowledge function is a nuanced way of seeing how society interacts with science and technology. In some ways, this quest runs parallel to the voyage of self-discovery depicted in the four quadrants of Joseph Luft and Harry Ingram’s self-awareness formulation, the Johari Window – the open self, the blind self, the hidden self, and the unknown self. 

Thursday 30 July 2015

Changing the communication on climate change

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

Aren’t the red flags around freak floods, unprecedented heat waves, long spells of severe drought, and increasing frequency of unseasonal, high-intensity typhoons, cyclones, hurricanes and tornadoes enough to warn us of the perils of climate change? What about the slow and steady rise of sea levels that are threatening the sheer existence of nations around the world ranging from the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Cape Verde in the Atlantic, and Kiribati in the Pacific?

Climate Change is real and scientists are near unanimous not only about its devastating effects on the planet we inhabit but also about its potential to create social and economic havoc with disastrous consequences for humanity. Yet, as we also know, nation states, especially the large and influential but fossil fuel-guzzling and polluting ones most responsible for anthropogenic climate change, are reluctant to take bold political steps to stem the tide. Year after year, the grand ritual of the United Nations-mandated Conference of the Parties (COP) yields very little in terms of tangible political change by the nations with the most clout.

The two of us were among 18 scholars and activists at an international symposium on Climate Futures: Re-imagining climate justice at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy, this month to try and find alternative pathways to move forward and do something to push the agenda for a just climate action that brought together issues of environmental and social justice. 

While the deliberations touched upon a number of issues, including on how to approach the COPs, there were some interesting discussions along the side-lines as well. One of these discussions revolved around the need to champion people with a strong environmental and social conscience and a willingness to lead, who can be actively involved at the COPs and other meetings of nation states. In democracies, as many of the influential countries indeed are, the only pragmatic way would be to get such people elected to the highest public offices. On paper, the solution seems simple – mobilise people to vote for people with such a conscience. In other words, get the people most concerned about climate change to go out and vote for candidates who reflect this concern, and target and inform those who seem less concerned with focused communication interventions. In practice, of course, the challenges to such actions are many. Yet, they are nevertheless important to include in the array of measures advocated by climate justice activists.

Social science researchers working in the area of science and technology already have a conceptual map that can be the foundation for such a communication intervention. In 2009, Anthony Leiserowitz and his colleagues outlined what they called “Global Warming’s Six Americas” in which they classified the US into six distinctly identifiable groups based on their attitudes towards climate change: the Alarmed, the Concerned, the Cautious, the Disengaged, the Doubtful, and the Dismissive. Studies involving such demographic categorisations on attitudes to climate change have subsequently been extended to India and Australia as well.

Now, there is a study, published in Public Understanding of Science, by Julia Metag, Tobias Füchslin and Mike S. Schäfer of the University of Zurich on ‘Globalwarming’s five Germanys: A typology of Germans’ views on climate change andpatterns of media use and information’ which adds to the scholarship in this area. This study is currently published online ahead of print. Metag, Füchslin and Schäfer note that Germany too has this demographic divide but, unlike, in the US, there is no category of the “dismissive”.

What is particularly interesting about the studies by Leiserowitz et al and Metag et al is that they identify a direct correlation between the characteristics of each of the categories and their use of communication channels such as the mass media and the internet. By and large, those most alarmed by climate change used the media most and sought for information across a variety of media channels while those in the other categories had a markedly lower use of the media with the last couple of categories relying mainly on family and friends for sources of information.

As Metag et al point out, these “results are relevant not only for the scientific study of attitudes toward climate change” but also “for communication campaigns to raise people’s awareness of and actions toward climate change”. For example, since the ‘Doubtful’ “do not look for information about climate change intentionally but come across it during their everyday, routine media use”, this group could be “confronted with information about climate change unexpectedly on television, as ‘by-catch’ while watching something else”. Similarly, the ‘Disengaged’ who “do not engage much in environmentally friendly behavior, perhaps due to their lower social status, especially their low income” could be  addressed with entertaining information that “stress inexpensive methods for changing behavior” through tabloids, their preferred media. See the article by Metag et al for further details.

Targeted communication campaigns on changing attitudes could work hand-in-hand with political initiatives to get political figures most likely to work on climate action elected to decision-making bodies and with other initiatives, such as grassroots community-level work, to create a momentum towards transformative change for climate justice.

Friday 1 May 2015

Science and sexism

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

It’s 25 years since the field of feminist science and technology studies (FSTS) was launched with the publication of The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution by environmental historian and philosopher of science Carolyn Merchant. It’s also the 20th anniversary of feminist scientist Evelyn Fox-Keller’s path-breaking Reflections on Gender and Science. Merchant, Keller and numerous other scholars including Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Anne Fausto-Sterling,  and Nancy Tuana (to name just a few) illuminated not only why gender and feminism were central to understanding the social construction of science, but also the inherent sexism in the practice and study of science. The critiques they offered ripped apart the cloak of objectivity that was wrapped around the pursuit of science, and laid bare the consequences of the value-laden gender divides for not only women scientists but also the academic realm of science itself.

We would have thought that the contributions of the burgeoning and exciting field of FSTS would have had some impact in changing the ways in which science researchers and practitioners looked at issues of gender and science. Yet, the challenge of eradicating sexism in science is as formidable as ever.

Our current blog has been sparked by the shocking news of an utterly sexist review received by two women researchers on a manuscript they submitted to a scientific journal.  Believe it or not, the two women co-authors, one a UK-based evolutionary geneticist and the other an Australia-based evolutionary biologist, were asked to “find one or two male biologists to work with” to make sure they didn’t drift “too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically-biased assumptions” (see Science magazine for a report on the incident). Wow! Is ‘objectivity’ the exclusive domain of men? Aren’t men ideologically-driven? In fact, doesn’t the review perfectly demonstrate just how ideological and profoundly sexist so-called “peer review” can be?

While social media as well as mainstream media are agog with the news, sexism continues to cast a shadow on the world of science. The ideological biases of a male-centric domain make it particularly difficult for women scientists to thrive and survive. A recent compilation of the discursive (and other) assaults on women in the world of science (See article in the Huffington Post) reveals how women face extraordinary psychological pressures of demeaning and belittling sexist statements such as “You are not smart enough to be a biologist” or “You are too pretty to be a physicist”. 

The systematic exclusion of women from the “boys’ networks” in the sciences and the derailment of careers and opportunities for women demonstrate how far we yet have to go.

Tuesday 31 March 2015

Giving some ideas a decent burial

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

One of us was talking to our colleague David McKie today about re-designing a course we teach and he said that one way of taking the course into the future was to facilitate the extinction of some ideas that we feel obliged to work with and generate fresh ways of thinking and communicating.

It’s during this conversation that David referred us to John Brockman’s just-released anthology This Idea Must Die:Scientific Theories that are Blocking Progress (New York: Harper Perennial). The volume is a collection of answers provided by well-known as well as not-so-well-known scientists, writers, and thinkers to Brockman’s question “What scientific idea is ready for retirement” on his popular digital discussion platform Edge.

We haven’t read this new book yet but going by the reviews, it looks like it is engaging and thought-provoking. Writing about the volume in a recent issue of New Scientist, Simon Ings says that “Some ideas cited in the book are so annoying that we would be better off without them, even though they are true. Take "brain plasticity". This was a real thing once upon a time, but the phrase spread promiscuously into so many corners of neuroscience that no one really knows what it means anymore.” Ings’s favourite response in the volume is from the “paleontologist Julia Clarke” who would like people “to stop asking her where feathered dinosaurs leave off and birds begin” because making sense of animal behaviour based on fossil data is far too complex than linear projections.

Last year, the Edge posted its annual question:
Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?
Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?  
A total of 175 responses came in and each of them is fascinating in its own right. Maria Popova’s review of the book on the Brain Pickings site goes over what she describes as a catalog of broken theories that hold us back from the conquest of Truth” and these range from IQ to the left brain vs. right brain divide; from human nature to romantic love. Popova chronicles in detail many of the responses that capture the interplay between philosophy and science and shows how public understanding of science is also inherently philosophical.

While on public understanding of science and a word we started this blog with – extinction, an article forthcoming in PUS focuses on whether extinction refers to a point of no return or whether scientists and the lay public alike cause confusion by misusing the term to mean different things in different contexts. For example, can there be such a thing as “local extinction”? Or, for that matter, can species declared extinct be resurrected?

The article by Brenda D. Smith-Patten, Eli S. Bridge, Priscilla H. C. Crawford, Daniel J. Hough, Jeffrey F. Kelly and Michael A. Patten of the University of Oklahoma, USA, argues that frequent misuse of the term has major consequences for systematic conservation action. A loose expression of ‘extinction’ such as conflating it with extirpation (disappearance of a species in a particular geographical area despite being in existence elsewhere), they say, “will result in the term failing to spark the sense of urgency needed for grass roots conservation action and policy change.” Also, there is a tendency to “trumpet rediscoveries or reversals of extinction” which are equally misplaced as they often refer to the sighting of species that had not been seen since being declared extinct.

Clearly, for the authors, extinction is irreversible. It is part of the biological processes of evolution. Living species do have a life span which depends to a large extent on physical and environmental contexts. But work in biology keeps progressing. Surely, ideas have a life span too and it should be fine for some to die out when they are no longer relevant.

Thursday 26 February 2015

Is Science fun or funny?

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

The hugely popular sitcom Big BangTheory is now in its eighth season. In so many ways, it’s like other hit television sitcoms – the joys and sorrows of human relationships, the art and science of human communication, the kindness and meanness of human behaviour, and the rationality and emotionality of human actions. Like Friends, another legendary sitcom, Big Bang Theory revolves around the lives and times of a group of friends and acquaintances.

The difference, however, is that the main characters of this show are scientifically inclined, including two physicists, an astrophysicist, a neuroscientist, a microbiologist, and an aerospace engineer. Their conversations among themselves as well as those with lay people are both thought-provoking and funny.  But inevitably, the conversations have science either in the foreground or in the background. Take a recent episode, for example, when two of the characters seeking to lead a dark matter research expedition in a salt mine are questioned by their friends who don’t believe they have the necessary attributes to withstand the difficult conditions. The characters go about proving their mettle by sweating it out in the extremely hot and narrow confines of a steam tunnel at their University. No matter how funny the dialogues or the settings are, the science in the sitcom is always accurate.

In an earlier blog, we talked about science and humour and how science comedy is indeed a current rage. So are humour and entertainment effective vehicles for science communication? Do they help broaden public understanding of science? Given that science has typically been perceived as a world of complex equations and theorems and abstract theories – in other words, an exclusive domain for nerds, the use of humour does help break down perceptual barriers. Teachers often use jokes and fun experiments to attract the attention of students to understand concepts. But they also run the risk of over-simplification and stereotyping of science and scientists.

In an article forthcoming in PUS (also referred to in an earlier blog), Hauke Riesch of Brunel University undertakes a critical review of the literature on humour and science communication. The article is aptly titled “Why did the proton cross the road?” The author draws on insights from the sociology of humour to take a deep look at the effects of humour on “the science-public relationship” and notes that these effects may not always be benign or helpful to the cause of public engagement”. Some obvious benefits notwithstanding, there are some pitfalls of using humour injudiciously. These pitfalls, Riesch says, include “fostering ingroup cohesion through insider jokes and the construction of reverse-dialogue re-appropriations of the geek stereotype or by excluding imagined outgroups through negative stereotyping”.

There has, of course, always been a fine line between making science fun and making fun of it in the context of public understanding of science. Now is the time for a meaningful conversation on whether science should be portrayed as 'fun' or 'funny' and whether losing sight of the line between fun and funny has an impact on public understanding of science.