Posted by: Kash Farooq | December 23, 2012

Is the sci-comm movement bad for science?

Robin Ince, Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Adam Rutherford pointing at things

Robin Ince, Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Adam Rutherford pointing at things. Image retrieved from this Tumblr:

I thought of the title of this blog post before deciding what to write. I’m led to believe that having a provocative title results in hits and Retweets. ;)

Anyway, we all know Dr*T‘s Theory #1, right?

Any tabloid heading that starts ‘Is this….’, ‘Could this be…’ etc. can be safely answered ‘No’

OK, so I’m not a tabloid, but I think that the theory still holds for blog posts.

I thought of the title after reading “Why the Geek movement is bad for science“. I’m not going to discuss this post – however, I’d highly recommend you skip that blog post and instead read Martin Robbins‘ superb paragraph by paragraph response: “Is the Geek Movement bad for science?“.

Seriously, stop what you are doing and read Martin’s post. And did you notice the question in the title? Therefore, the answer must be “no”.

The only thing I’ll say is that I thought the original blog post that sparked all this off was a bit “quote mine-y” and “straw man-y”. I’ll leave it at that. If you know what these terms mean, you’ll be able to find examples in the blog post.

The G-word

I self-identify as a “science geek”. I like the word “geek”. I don’t recall joining any “Geek movement”, but still, I call myself a geek.

But there does seem to be a bit of backlash against the use of this word. The first time I saw this backlash was in an article at The Telegraph: Alice Roberts hits out at science ‘geeks’.

I think the word “geek” is a “reclaimed” word – it used to be an insult. Now it isn’t.

And personally I use it to describe anyone who is passionate about any subject. I call my foodie friends “food geeks”. I call my wine expert friends “wine geeks”. I call my real ale loving friends “beer geeks”. They don’t get offended….or at least they don’t appear to be offended…

I certainly don’t restrict the word geek to just science or computing. If you use the majority of your spare time to read about (or participate in) a particular area – i.e. it is your hobby – you are a geek. Be proud! I use most of my spare time to read about science and study physics. I’m definitely a science geek.

The S-word

This backlash against a particular label is not a new phenomenon. There was a similar backlash to the word “skeptic”. I’ve actually started being more careful when I use the word “skeptic”. Purely because people who have never heard of Skepticism or Skeptics In The Pub think of the other type of skeptic: evolution skeptic, climate change skeptic. (I prefer to refer to these people as deniers.)

[This was highlighted to me when I went to a fascinating talk by David Penney about fossils in amber. (I recommend this book, by the way – stunning, beautiful images.)

After the talk I approached David to get his contact details – I thought the talk would be great for the Skeptics In The Pub crowd. I asked him if he’d heard of Skeptics In The Pub. He hadn’t. And when I suggested his talk would be good for such an event….well, let’s say he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. Perhaps he thought he was going to get a grilling from a bunch of evolution deniers?! That reminds me….I must get in touch with David and try to explain!]

However, I don’t think this applies to the word “geek”. As I said above, I feel geek is a reclaimed word that is losing its effect as an insult and now is used more to describe someone’s hobby.

And finally…Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince

I’ll add my support to Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince – I love what they do. They’ve done more to popularise science in the last few years than anyone I can think of. I’ve been to a lot of Robin’s various gigs, and to each gig I’ve taken people with me that aren’t science geeks. And they’ve loved the shows. They’ve been entertained and they have discovered that science isn’t boring. One of my friends picked up a Marcus Chown book after one of the gigs!

Didn’t Carl Sagan get criticised for spending more time publicising and promoting science than doing science?

We need people like that.

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  1. Thanks, I thought that was clear and fairly unarguable. What I thought was particularly interesting was that Brian Cox’s response (which I hadn’t seen before; thanks for linking to that) to the original @HCDayantis article was considerably more measured and thoughtful than some of the Twitter borderline-trolls who’ve been defending him.

    In my view, almost any self-proclaimed “movement”, such as “The Geek Movement” or “The Skeptic Movement” can be bad for science (or any discipline requiring intellectual flexibility) if it leads to tribalism and knee-jerk defensiveness. That’s been apparent at times in this debate. Maybe it’s just me, but if anyone says “I’m a geek” or “I’m a skeptic”, to me it just sounds rather arrogant. My experience of self-proclaimed “geeks”, from “wine geeks” to “science geeks”, is that they can be dismissive of anyone who does not share precisely their views on their chosen passion. Why label yourself in this way at all?

    • I completely agree with this. Prof. Cox was the paragon of politeness in his response, much unlike many of his fans (including his wife!).

      • Can I ask if you added the clarification at the top of your post after or before Brian Cox’s and Mark Henderson’s comments. I ask, because when I first read your post I found it quite unpleasant and quite insulting to Cox and Ince. It has, however, generated lots of debate (which is good) and you appear to have softened your position (which shows willingness to engage and to modify one’s views as discussion evolve). One could argue that writing a provocative post is a good way of getting a discussion started, but it’s not that surprising that some respond in similarly provocative/unpleasant fashion.

    • As I pointed out in my blog post that’s linked above. The Geek Movement that is refered to by Dayantis is something he made up. As a Geek and a Skeptic his amalgamation of Geekdom and the Skeptic movement is something I find telling of some manner of intellectual lazyness on his part.

  2. I would tend to agree with what you’ve written. I read the Cox and Ince piece soon after it was first published and found it quite good. I thought what they were trying to say was, at least, reasonable. I was then quite surprised by all the criticism. Having read most of the criticism, however, it seems, at best, pedantic, and, at worst, quite unpleasant.

  3. I have to say having read some of the discussions regarding the Ince/Cox article, it is far too academic in nature. There are many scientists out there participating in outreach and knowledge transfer who would recognise nothing in the debates that raged last week. They just get on with communicating their work to others and engaging with the pubic and policy makers. Navel-gazing and bitter arguments on points of philosophy will not encourage them further, if they paid any interest in the first place.

  4. Just for completeness sake (and in case Kash felt left out) posting this here also:

    One of the oft repeated things you hear from science communication types is that there are multiple publics and that each of these needs to be interacted in different ways.

    Yet a grassroots movement doing a form of science communication is derided and dismissed as putting a monolithic public off science. Ignoring a rather glaringly obvious thing: SitP and the Geek events so derided in posts such as this are, in the main, run by volunteer members of the public. They are representative of and meet the demands of one aspect of the publics need for science communication.

    It seems somewhat hypocritical for a discipline supposedly sensitive to and concerned with engaging multiple publics and audiences to turn to one section, one audience, one public and tell them they are doing it wrong.

  5. The idea that science and scientists deserve special treatment in politics is often what leads to the temptation to exploit that specialness for political gain, which ultimately works against science being afforded special treatment. In this manner, calls for a “geek revolution” can have a hard time avoiding the slippery slope of scientific authoritarianism. Henderson doesn’t engage these issues, and thus avoids stepping on that slope. But it is there, nonetheless.

  6. […] down is the guy’s misuse of the geek label, I had a brief twitter exchange with the writer of another blog post about this and Martin in which my gut call was confirmed……they used the term geek as a […]

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