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:
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
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.
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.
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.
- 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
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?