Masterclass for ASPAC Emerging Leaders

Early in August 2020, I ran two workshops as part of a three-day masterclass for emerging leaders at ASPAC, the Asia Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centres.

39 participants from across the Asia Pacific joined me for a day exploring the future environment for the region’s science and technology centres, and the use of design tools to create effective strategies.

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Working together across the timezones, we produced mini-scenarios to explore uncertainties which might prove challenging or opportune in the future, and explored ways to structure and test our thinking when it came to new initatives for ASPAC and its member institutions.

Maria Isabel Garcia, Executive Director, ASPAC:

“In August 2020, we asked Matt to conduct two workshops as part of a masterclass for 40 emerging leaders in our Asia-Pacific network of science centres. The two workshops were ‘reimagining the future of science engagement’ and ‘redesigning science centres’, respectively.

Matt laid out very clearly and very generously how the participants were going to reimagine and redesign. The workshop was supremely engaging and Matt’s approach strongly motivated the participants to follow the process. The breakouts which were prompted by Matt’s questions allowed for heightened collaboration!

The “tributes” from Masterclass participants showed that they overwhelmingly felt  Matt’s workshop made them push boundaries that they had not even previously acknowledged, or were afraid to cross. This was especially relevant during this pandemic and will be for a long, long time, if not forever. We have more courage now among our emerging leaders.”

You can read more about working online with me, as ASPAC did, here.

Post-normal science in the time of COVID-19: Discussion with Jerome Ravetz

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been speaking and exchanging e-mails with the philosopher of science Jerome Ravetz, one of the originators of the notion of Post-Normal Science. This is an approach to science which addresses the wider social context in which scientists and their institutions operate, intended to serve in situations where high-stakes decisions must be made and the environment is characterised by deep uncertainty.

JerryRavetz
Jerry Ravetz, by Wikipedia user Saltean – CC BY-SA 4.0

Given that definition, what could be more “post-normal” than our experience of 2020? Jerome and I had a long chat which covered the pandemic and our response to it, warring traditions of folk and elite science, philosophy, gender, science fiction, truth & reconciliation, and electoral politics.

You can read the full transcript of our chat as a PDF download here, but some extended highlights appear below.

Matt:
So, what does an exponent of post-normal science make of the current pandemic?

Jerry:
For a while, the uncertainties and complexities diagnosed by the post-normal science approach have been coming in from the margins, until right now they’re almost in the mainstream of thought and discussion. Once that happens, it will open new possibilities – and new problems. Read more

Getting Your Head Around Post-Normal Science

Something of a long read on the blog today. I first came across Jerome Ravetz’s work in his 2011 piece on feral futures co-written with Rafael Ramírez in the journal Futures. In that piece, the authors argue that complex, uncertain issues such as environmental disasters can be made worse by conventional risk-based thinking. I think through some of the ways in which this is important for us to consider in 2020 in this blog, “Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming.

I find Ravetz’s approach thought-provoking, pragmatic, and deeply relevant to the present moment. It attends to questions of uncertainty and emphasises that science itself is situated within complex social, political, cultural, and economic contexts. Especially when we find ourselves being told that, for example, decisions on quarantine and lockdown measures are being “guided by the science” under contested circumstances, it’s worth getting your head around the idea of “post-normal science.”

Today, I want to go through some of the key points articulated in Ravetz’s 2006 No-Nonsense Guide to Science and the updated 2020 version of his landmark 1993 essay with Silvio O. Funtowicz, “Science for the Post-Normal Age“. Check those texts out, if you want to go deeper.

Defenders of the Truth
Climate Marchers, by Wikipedia user Mark Dixon CC BY-SA 2.0

Post-normal science is a way of rethinking science for situations – and eras – in which facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, and decisions are urgent. It recognises that the social and political dimensions of science cannot be sidelined, isolated, or ignored.

The increasingly complex systems of today’s world are threatened by environmental catastrophe, pollution, and other incidents, like the COVID-19 outbreak, which are exacerbated by the technologies sustaining our way of life.

Science must therefore find new ways to cope with contradiction, uncertainty, and an ever-wider political conversation featuring a wide range of perspectives. It must now address the problems of a global system which itself was based on science.

Why “post-normal”?
Read more

ASPAC 2019: Australia on the front lines of human crisis

Is Australia on the front lines of the 21st century human crisis?

Societies and cultures live there which have, for thousands of years, considered that the land itself has spirit and agency.

On the same land, Australia has built prosperity from the extractive industries, using technology to remove resources from the ground in a way which has global impact.

How can these values be reconciled? What part do science and technology centres have to play in the debate about our sustainable future?

My keynote for the ASPAC 2019 science and technology centres conference was covered in the Brisbane Times.

Preparing for Worlds We Didn’t See Coming @ ASPAC 2019

Queensland Museum & Science Centre
Queensland Museum & Science Centre by Wikipedia user GordonMakryllos – CC BY-SA 4.0

“A long time ago, when I was a child, I went to a Science Centre. Back then, there was nothing like it – a truly hands-on space of adventure and learning, in an age when most museums kept their exhibits under glass.

“On most of the Science Centre exhibits, you turned a crank, hoped to see something awesome happen – then read the didactic to see what you were supposed to have learned.

“Pedagogy has moved on, but so has the world. What happens when you “turn the crank” of science and causality breaks down? What happens when social and natural systems collapse, public trust fractures, and old worldviews reveal their blind spots?

“What would the ‘Post-Normal Science Centre’ look like?”

Next month, I’ll be speaking as the opening keynote at this year’s Asia Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centres Conference – ASPAC 2019.

Wondrous Strange at Ann Arbor District Libraries

I’m just back from a week delivering training and community engagement for Ann Arbor District Libraries, an acclaimed public library service in Michigan, USA.

The micro-residency culminated in an all-ages half-day event called “Wondrous Strange”, blending play, history, prophecy, technology, art, craft, science fiction, time travel, and storytelling.

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Wondrous Strange was an opportunity for the Ann Arbor community to venture into an imagined world blending fact and fiction, and to create their own shared stories and experiences stretching from recorded history into the distant future.

More on my Michigan visit soon, but for now here’s a short video from last Sunday’s session.

Artists Ettamodern & Scribbletronics visit University of Southern Queensland

As part of this week’s Astronomy Festival at the University of Southern Queensland, we’re joined by Melbourne artists Wendy Catling and Peter Miller, aka Ettamodern and Scribbletronics.

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Wendy is an artist, designer and teacher who employs light to create works on paper and fabric – particularly blueprint-style ‘cyanotypes’. Her prints are held in the collections of Warrnambool Art Gallery, the Australian National Gallery, and private owners.

Peter is a composer, sound designer, and audio-visual artist whose work includes sound design for films The Ring and Rango and additional design for Mad Max: Fury Road, as well as a sound installation in the Qantas first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.

I’ve previously worked with Ettamodern and Scribbletronics on the Time Travel Detectives roleplay, which was built around two of Peter’s digital artworks. This children’s event blended steampunk adventure, optical illusions, and tablet technology to help kids explore Australia’s past and the scientific method.

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On this visit, Wendy and Peter will join USQ staff, students, and the wider community to explore new opportunities to work at the meeting point of art, science, and community engagement. Find out more at the University of Southern Queensland’s website.

New Marvels, New Lenses: A Podcast

What can relatively young disciplines like information science and the allied health professions tell us about society and pop culture?

This weekend I hosted a podcast featuring scientist-turned-literary-editor Yen-Rong Wong, librarian Rachel Merrick, and occupational therapist Amelia DiTommaso, all based in Brisbane, Australia.

On the eve of a new exhibition at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, these three creative professionals got together to explore Marvel’s superhero movies through new lenses informed by their expertise and experience.

Focusing on Doctor Strange (2016), the discussion embraced magic, mystery, science, history, identity, culture, politics, heroism, and lots of laughter.

From the history of Australian censorship to the dark side of healthcare, challenges in identity and representation, plus the arcane mysteries of  “readers’ advisory”, listen now for a mind-expanding journey.

Cheese, Drugs, and Moonshots: A Science March special for @kylastephan

Kyla Stephan who writes the marvellous Library Ghost blog knitted me a hat for today’s Science March in Brisbane.

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There are rightly some questions to be asked about the march organisers’ approach to diversity and inclusion, but I also thought it was important to show up and be counted in the name of all people who are curious about the world and revise their beliefs in the face of evidence.

In return for my hat, I had to find Kyla an interesting science story.

So here are a few words about drug dosage and cheesy moonshots.

What are the physics of highly compressed cheese and why does it matter?

My favourite science show-off moment was at a conference on Science and Storytelling at the University of Cardiff some years ago.

I was interested in how medics and health workers used storytelling in science, and one of my favourite projects was by an information scientist called Harold Thimbleby (PDF download).

He pointed out that in Europe, about 120,000 hospital deaths per year are caused by drug calculation errors – that’s more people than die in car accidents.

Not all of those errors can be blamed on the staff, however. The automatic pumps which dispense drugs through IVs etc are often difficult to program, and although they look like calculators, they are not.

An example:

A “simple” drug calculation is: how many mL/hr should an infusion pump be set to in order to give a patient 5250mg of fluorouracil over 4 days at a concentration of 45.57 mg/mL?

The simplest correct calculation using a basic calculator is: [AC][MRC][MRC]4 × 24 [MPLUS][AC]5250 ÷ 45.57 ÷[MRC] =

After getting all those key presses right, you then have to go through another round of button presses on the pump, without making any mistakes. All as just one task in your busy day at the hospital.

Professor Thimbleby developed a prototype smartphone app which asked you what the drug calculation was, and the type of pump you were using, and then guided you through the key presses step by step.

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This reduced human error and created opportunities for the user to check and double check throughout the process.

What has all that got to do with a moon made of cheese?

Almost offhandedly, during his talk, Professor Thimbleby spoke of the certainty with which we know the moon isn’t made of cheese. He compared this scientific certainty to the world of storytelling, where we can still indulge that fantasy.

Even without visiting the moon, we can tell it isn’t made of cheese because of its albedo – the fraction of solar energy which it reflects back into space.

Different materials have different reflectivity: for example, ice and snow have a high albedo and cause most of the sunlight hitting them to reflect back into space.

We can work out the albedo of cheese and observe the brightness of the moon to confirm that it is, sadly, not made from dairy products.

But – but but but – what if the moon were made of cheese? How could we indulge that fantasy while maintaining the rigour of critical and scientific thinking?

Do we need to imagine a cheese-moon which is the same size or the same mass?

If the latter, the moon would have to be a lot larger. Nocturnal animals and the science of astronomy would be affected by the larger moon in our sky, with its much higher albedo.

What’s more, a moon sized piece of cheese would be denser and hotter at its centre owing to gravitational compression.

Would there be volcanos of molten cheese? At extreme high pressures, does cheese maintain its integrity, or break down into its component parts? Would the massive internal pressure cause it to explode?

I love that scientists can begin to explore these hypothetical situations without even having to leave the comfort of their armchair – or in our case, the post-march pub.

I love that there is a happy borderland where science and science fiction meet, and valuably so – because they are, ultimately, both spaces of wonder.

Professor Thimbleby made his cheesy digression and showed the value of thinking carefully and critically, reasoning from available evidence – but his work also demonstrates that you could save lives just by paying close attention to technology and human interaction.

He didn’t need to be in the ward to come up with a way to avoid deaths from drug miscalculation, and he didn’t need to land on the moon to work out what it was made of.

How cool is that? Read more

Curiosity vs The Post-Truth World

Among my weekend reads was Tim Harford’s Financial Times piece “The Problem with Facts“.

We’re big Harford fans around these parts, not just for his podcast More or Less but also his book Messy, which I’ve been inflicting on various colleagues and friends around Australia.

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In the FT piece, Harford takes us back from the fake news and false claims of political debate in the age of Trump and Brexit to the history of “doubt manufacture” in the 20th century, and the tobacco industry’s attempts to blur the links between smoking and cancer.

He examines the limits of fact-checking as a response or a rebuke to those who cloud public discourse with lies.

He tells us that scientific literacy is not necessarily the answer, that it “can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science.”

Harford goes on to outline a paper “Scientific Curiosity and Political Information Processing” by Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Those authors argue that it is worth exploring further whether a person’s curiosity about science can counteract our tendency to view the world through the lens of political bias.

Their initial findings prompt them to explore whether

individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.

As Harford puts it, “Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.”

All of this is great news for those of us working at the odd intersection of knowledge and culture, where communities meet institutions like galleries, museums, libraries, universities, and healthcare providers.

I’ve been worrying for a while now, even with events as warm and cuddly as the annual Fun Palace celebrations of art and science, about the times we choose to take scientific claims on faith.

I worry too about what part libraries have to play in the battle against fake news and egregiously false claims in the media. Is the library a trusted dispenser of facts and information? A repository of the truth? Or, rather, a safe place for you to indulge your curiosity, to wander as you see fit through all the contested claims and different visions of human knowledge and culture?

Harford’s take on that research paper returns us to the notion of each individual’s curiosity and exploration as the basis of scientific endeavour and the quest for truth. It returns us not to blind faith in science or reliance on fact checkers, but a sense that we must always actively challenge and revise our beliefs.

It reminds me why, in the last few years, we’ve allowed kids to sketch time-travelling creepy crawlies from a steampunk world to encourage scientific observation; why we spent last week in the Aussie town of Bundaberg to help rural writers speculate  about the future of society; why we’ve been training health professionals using far-fetched and fantastic case studies like the Immortal Sock Monkey. It’s because these activities each became a matter of curiosity and wonder, rather than a mere transfer of facts from a person in authority. Curiosity and wonder might just be the best antiseptic for the spread of fake news.

If the formal research into scientific curiosity proves fruitful, it could guide and nuance our attempts to encourage  a world where people are free to learn, explore, create, and play as they wish to, not just in accordance with curriculums and constraints.

It wouldn’t just be about science, either. For isn’t art, too, a matter of curiosity about materials, expression, and representation? And don’t those of us who find ourselves on colonised lands need, as Columbia anthropologist Beth Povinelli has been arguing, to become more curious, too, about Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the world?

This is a difficult moment for those of us who value the truth in public life and wish to push back against those who maliciously sow doubt and deliberate misinformation. But Tim Harford’s article reminds us that there are ways forward for those of us unwilling to embrace a post-truth world  – and that, wonderfully, those ways might even be incredibly exciting, incredibly adventurous, and incredibly good fun.