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Renegotiating Expertise: a talk at ClimateX MIT

by warren |

I gave a talk today at MIT's ClimateX course, which is open to the public.

The speaker notes are a bit incoherent, but I hope to reformat them into a blog post or two. I'll include them here, but apologies if they're not very readable:

Renegotiating Expertise

Jeff Warren | Public Lab

is a community and a non-profit, democratizing science to address environmental issues that affect people.

We do what we call “Community Science” -- which involves supporting community knowledge production -- creating bridges & shared spaces between formal expertise and community needs.

In picture above,

I think folks often misunderstand what Public Lab is -- a friend once told me that it’s great that we’re helping the public to understand science. But that’s not it.


Public Lab is different because of our focus on the question of who, not what. We’re not teaching people about science, we’re trying to negotiate a new relationship between science parctice and the public. A more equitable and mutually beneficial relationship.

In our work to support communities facing pollution, Public Lab calls into question a lot of how expertise works today.

Who builds knowledge? Who is it for? Who asks the questions, and understands the answers?


We not only seek to make science’s findings accessible, but its methods, its tools, and who actually participates, and at what level.

This means both making more accessible “on-ramps” but also challenging what’s possible by leveraging peer production, open source, and the maker movement.


This includes balloon mapping, our oldest project...


And it often focuses on specific pollution sites that people want to investigate, where they live.


We also focus on making your own tools.

Our DIY Spectrometry project, our biggest.


People post their work at Public Lab to share it with others, and to ask for help.

These people may be scientists, but they’re just as likely to be educators, hobbyists, and the group we’re most interested in serving are those community groups who experience environmental problems first-hand.


Why Do It Yourself?

Why go beyond dissemination? In some ways, it’s because experts often have too narrow a conception of where the public could become involved. “Public dissemination of science” -- or data entry.

And of course, the cost barrier plays a role in Public Lab’s work -- cheap instrumentation democratizes knowledge production.

But to really answer that question, I think we need to take a few steps back and try to better understand how shared knowledge is produced -- and how expertise works.


Take a look at how expertise works today? How are projections or predictions made, why and when do people trust them?


Data and its interpretation increasingly drives decision making in our society. Important because...

& you can see how this could become a problem where it displaces the discursive mode of debate which is the foundation of our democracy,

not only because of possible biases -- bought science, or ideological issues.

But because of the most subjective parts of science -- the selection of problems and questions, and of course, the application of science’s findings.

So it’s concerning when people lose trust.

I found it interesting that FiveThirtyEight and other data-driven analysts are increasingly tuning their language about certainty.

“More probable than making a field goal” - not helpful for people like me who know nothing of football...


This kind of thing reflects on other narratives.

Now, I think it’s too easy to demonize experts when things go wrong. Much of complex knowledge is conveyed in rich, interactive modes (Bloomberg)


With such a wealth of data, and such persuasive communication of that data,

what’s broken about expertise? What we're all afraid of -- that climate science is ignored due to what Harry Collins calls

"downward discrimination" (?) expertise -- meta expertise, or mistrusting of expertise

What do we do about the widening gap between scientists and the public?

Public Lab: focus on problem definition * staying close to the real-world problems, and the people who know most about them

Collab as much in asking questions as in answering them


But really…


Limited ability to evaluate or test

Processes too big to see feedback loop in individual actions


This is one reason we focus on testability at PL. On building knowledge up from small, modular parts.

Can you build this? Do you get the same result?

Of course, this is challenging in climate science.


Environmental issues “affect someone else”

Already being lied to and hurt by industries and sometimes the scientists they employ

Other problems include the idea...

Story you might find surprising: Doing science on scientists

Testing the testers -- bucket brigade


So you might ask yourself…

What can I do as a scientist/technologist?


Some are saying that experts…

Recapped a number of themes Public Lab has championed over the past 6 years.


But for once, the comments section was… educational. This is part of the gap.



This perception of the gap being “not scientists’ problem”, and primarily one of a lack of education, is destructive.

Many in science are extraordinarily myopic -- even selfish -- about the role science, and scientists, play in society.


Educate yourself

Science studies. Science, Technology, and Society. Don’t be naive; understand how your field works, who it’s benefitted, and how it developed over time.


community science

civic science

citizen science Part of this is vocabulary. Why “community science”?

Part is ambiguity. Two citizen sciences: 95 and later by Rick Bonney and the Cornell Ornithology Lab


Harry Collins Sandra Harding Harry Collins: Are we all scientific experts now?

Sandra Harding: “Whose science? Whose knowledge?”, The Science Question in Feminism


The science of the lambs Looking at the history, we find that we used to revere scientists -- what Collins calls “wave 1” science studies. But mistrust of expertise has been around a while --

The science of the lambs: Chernobyl and the Cumbrian sheepfarmers: Collins and Trevor Pinch

Who asks the questions which science attempts to answer?

And, remembering Sandra Harding, lets not fool ourselves into thinking that scientific progress is a single path we're following to a single predetermined endpoint.


That science as practiced today is blind to a great deal of what happens outside the ivory tower.

Specifically when it comes to other forms of knowledge production.

But I’m NOT saying we should try to recognize climate denial -- which is really part of a parallel discussion on the influence of money on science and politics.

That it is not responsive enough to the needs of the vulnerable.

I’m talking about the lived experience of those who suffer from environmental problems, and the humble recognition of our own limits and unknowns.

Especially on critical questions of environmental harm.


  1. Recognize your unknowns & your needs

These observations are not meant as a condemnation, but as an opportunity. What Bonney’s “citizen science” recognizes is just one part of what the public has to contribute to science.

Those outside of science practice have a great deal to contribute, and scientists have a great deal to gain too.

Tell story of image

Collins: meta expertise: the ability to recognize expertises.

And that even within the sciences there are a diversity of methods of creating knowledge -- testing, observing, prototyping, experimenting, theorizing, critiquing. ```


Consider your language

So as we navigate these expertises, I think it’s prudent to


Are you speaking as an expert?

How do listeners know? do you rely on your title, your degree, to justify the credibility of your work?



I’m not a scholar of science studies; I have no formal science training.

Collins: deeper collaboration is limited by interactional expertise – blind test.

And this is hard to develop. But he notes that AIDS activists did so.

But I don’t think it’s a matter of dumbing things down. As earlier commenter said, scientists aren’t necessarily the best at communicating knowledge.

But that doesn’t mean that they’re off the hook, or that the burden is on everyone else.


So, one thing we think about in creating a space to exchange knowledge is what we call “Wiki tone” - NPOV

How get around this?

Narrative. Tell the story of your work. It’s history. Acknowledge its imperfections and doubts. leave openings in your work 38

At PL we celebrate questions as the heart of knowledge production

and we celebrate the acknowledgement and clear articulation of unknowns


Get closer

What does this mean?

A kind of honesty that comes from in-person work. Let me explain.


Outsider groups can challenge expertise more readily today.

Positive as well as negative. Limitations of science practice – capacity, budget, can’t “solve all problems” or contain all knowledge.

Makers. Hackers. But also environmental justice groups, doing their own monitoring and watchdogging.

They can organize and build knowledge in parallel. Groups taking their own aerial photography, or using Google Street View to investigate stormwater runoff issues.

Public Lab began by creating an independent record of the BP oil spill with balloon mapping.

And recently, we’re participating in EDGI, an effort to download and archive EPA data before the transition potentially cuts off access, or destroys data, as has happened after past transitions.

Which is why we need to build bridges. Between these groups. Alliances, not walls. `


Get closer to people. Get to know them personally. Learn what they know, learn what they need, even if you don’t always agree.

Don’t assume that information flows only one way.


What does science have to do with equality?

After writing this, I’m left with this question. I want to believe in that science, in its basic principles, is progressive. But I don’t know.

Sandra Harding doesn’t believe it is -- is bad science “science gone wrong” or “science as usual”? Collins says it’s important that we recognize and abhor bad actors in science -- that we know what “the right way” is.

Is it more inclusive as a profession? in its conclusions?

Or is the broader direction of science -- its questions, not it’s answers -- simply what we make of it?

boston talk presentation northeast climate mit expertise climatex


Thanks for posting these speaking notes Jeff, very informative!

Interesting quote from this NYTimes article:

Rather than marching on Washington and in other locations around the country, I suggest that my fellow scientists march into local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs and, privately, into the offices of elected officials. Make contact with that part of America that doesn’t know any scientists. Put a face on the debate. Help them understand what we do, and how we do it. Give them your email, or better yet, your phone number.

Not sure I agree that scientists shouldn't march, but I agree with this!

You might want to specify which scientists you think should be making more contact with the public. Do you mean the scientists who have been accused of being inept at helping society? Do you mean the scientists who are paid and controlled by corporations and federal governments? Do you mean the scientists who think their expertise is dramatically distinct from yours? Do you mean the scientists who can’t know the truth because of the experimenter’s regress? Do you mean the scientists who were unaware of obscure local knowledge?

Science is under attack by the public, and something should be done about it. One solution might be to change scientists. But maybe a more reasonable approach is to change the public. If people had a better understanding of how science worked and how nature worked, maybe they would be less susceptible to false claims about climate, vaccines, chemtrails, natural selection, and science itself.

Typical academic scientists spend most of their time teaching. Do you want them to do more? Doesn’t the real problem lie with the rest of the educational system? Maybe if students entered the workforce or started college with a basic understanding of how the natural world works and how science has figured all that out there would be less antagonism toward scientists. There are many times more educators than there are scientists, and the US federal and state education budgets dwarf their research budgets. Asking scientists to take up the slack for educators is naïve and counterproductive.

Instead of a public outcry against science, maybe we need a public movement to help educators understand and teach science. Maybe groups like Public Lab could direct more resources toward this goal. What has Public Lab done to dispel the notion that scientists are deserving of public scorn? What has Public Lab done to help the public understand how important science and scientists are to our future?


Hi, Chris!

Good questions on "which scientists" -- i got at this a bit in the talk itself, and your list is a good one.

Doesn’t the real problem lie with the rest of the educational system?

I don't think there's just one problem, and the subject of my talk was what can scientists do to participate in moving the right direction -- not to imply they're the only ones that have to do something. This is because I was speaking to a group of MIT scientists/technologists. Sorry this doesn't come through in my notes!

Certainly there's a great deal that I think should change about how science is taught, and I did get into that more in my talk. I think many at PL are recently shifting towards a more nuanced understanding of how education and PL's work relate. Check out this post, for example And I definitely don't think either the public or the science community have a lot to gain from denigrating one anothers' expertises.

(I also mentioned in my talk that the question of paid-for science is another topic I didn't have time to delve into, but have a lot of thoughts about.)

I think "teaching" doesn't quite cover the gamut of the kind of closer relationships I'm hoping for. And I think Public Lab has done a lot to explore a deeper engagement and cooperative relationship between those in both the science community and the broader public who are interested in building bridges. That's not to say we can't do a whole lot more, of course.

Thanks for your thoughtful response!

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