Tag Archives: science

Genetically Modified Boundaries

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Mahony

When prominent environmentalist Mark Lynas recently announced that he no longer opposes the genetic modification of agricultural crops, a decades-long debate about the risks, benefits, uncertainties and politics of biotechnology returned to our news stands. Lynas’ speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January made the news worldwide, as the former guerilla activist of the anti-GM movement announced his regret at the harm done to technological progress by the protests of his one-time colleagues.

Researchers in geography and science and technology studies (STS) are united by, amongst other things, their interest in boundaries. In a recently-published commentary in Area, Helen Pallett and I seek to explore this disciplinary confluence to try and make sense of the recent evolution of the GM debate. We were inspired to the task by last year’s protests around a field of experimental wheat at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. We drew attention to what we see as four interesting (and overlapping) boundary issues in the GM debate:

  • The distinctions made between reason or rationality and unreason or irrationality;
  • the inclusion or exclusion of certain voices from a debate often cast as being solely about science;
  • the boundaries between different spaces of public engagement which may have different norms and styles of debate; and
  • the material territories of the laboratories and fields of experimental crops, which were threatened with transgression last year by the Rothamsted protests.

We thought it was important to shift academic analysis of such controversies away from discussion of an abstract public debate at the national level to consider more deeply the material elements and multiple spaces of debate and contestation. What was also interesting to us is how these very different sorts of boundaries and spaces interact with and map onto each other; so the territory of Rothamsted’s wheat field came to symbolise, for a short time, the protected space some actors saw as necessary for science to function, out of reach of society’s interference.

We could equally have written a piece like this in response to the Lynas story – reflecting for example on the ways rhetorical boundaries were drawn between cool-headed scientific rationality and emotive, irrational protest. Lynas’ interview in the Guardian could itself be read as an insight into the constellation of powers which constitute contemporary modes of environmental governance.  Science, the state, private corporations, social movements, high-profile media figures – all of these actors make an appearance in Lynas’ story, as we hear how one individual has navigated the contested boundaries which separate them from one another. All four elements of our sketchy typology of boundary issues likewise make an appearance in the media coverage of Lynas’ conversion. Real-world events like these provide occasions for geographers to engage with other disciplines and academic traditions like STS and environmental sociology, which have their own analytic tools for making sense of boundaries, whether material, rhetorical, or both. In research on complex issues like GM, disciplinary boundaries too can be subject to some rethinking.

books_icon Martin Mahony and Helen Pallett, 2013, Boundaries, Territory and Public Controversy: The GM debate Re-materialisedArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12014


 Martin Lynas: Truth, treachery and GM foodThe Guardian

globe42 Anti-GM activists urged not to trash wheat fieldThe Guardian

Communicating Science: Applying Local Lessons on a Global Scale?

By Daniel Schillereff

L'aquila earthquake damage - Kremlin.ru [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What do Hurricane Sandy, the earthquake in Aquila, Italy in 2011, the earthquake of British Columbia last week and climate science have in common? They have all prompted intense debate centred on the effectiveness of scientists at communicating science. A piece in The Guardian is one recent example. In particular, how can uncertainty in model projections or predictions be succinctly but accurately explained in a manner accessible to all who may be impacted by the event?

Recent commentary in the Financial Times on the Aquila earthquake criminal charges highlights the three-way relationship which exists between those who produce knowledge, those who disseminate that knowledge to others and those who desire that knowledge to be outlined to them in a non-complex, straightforward manner. In the broadest sense, these end-users are normally assumed to be the scientists, the media and the public, respectively. However, the on-going difficulties communicating climate science and the other examples mentioned in this post suggest this relationship is failing to function in an ideal manner. Of graver concern is the possibility that scientists will be unwilling to discuss or disclose their findings in the future due to risk of persecution; is a new approach required?

Although its scope is much narrower, the novel approach outlined by Lane et al., 2011 in their Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers paper, ‘Doing Flood Risk Science Differently…’ could act as a model for improved communication of science and subsequent mitigation strategies being implemented in the future on a wider scale. Their case study of flood risk around Pickering, Yorkshire, highlighted the deep understanding of local residents of the hydrological and geomorphological triggers of flood events and Lane et al. emphasise their knowledge directly contributed to a more holistic and effective model of the local flood regime. They suggest local people for whom flooding is a serious hazard should be encouraged and supported to produce knowledge as opposed to being simply involved in a focus group discussing knowledge previously generated by scientists. Provided each user group is willing to invest the necessary effort, this approach appears both sensible and practical specifically due to continued user involvement in each step of the scientific process.

 S N Lane, N Odoni, C Landstrom, S J Whatmore, N Ward, S Bradley, 2011, Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific methodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 15-36.

  Poor information obscures emergency warningsThe Guardian, 01 November 2012

Jailing the seismic seven will cause tremors beyond ItalyFinancial Times, 24 October 2012

Content Alert: New Articles (11th May 2012)

The following Early View articles are now available on Wiley Online Library.

Original Articles

Migration, urban growth and commuting distance in Toronto’s commuter shed
Jeffrey J Axisa, K Bruce Newbold and Darren M Scott
Article first published online: 8 MAY 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01097.x

Original Articles

Mobile ‘green’ design knowledge: institutions, bricolage and the relational production of embedded sustainable building designs
James Faulconbridge
Article first published online: 27 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00523.x

Creating and destroying diaspora strategies: New Zealand’s emigration policies re-examined
Alan Gamlen
Article first published online: 27 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00522.x

The demographic impacts of the Irish famine: towards a greater geographical understanding
A Stewart Fotheringham, Mary H Kelly and Martin Charlton
Article first published online: 27 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00517.x

Transnational religious networks: sexuality and the changing power geometries of the Anglican Communion
Gill Valentine, Robert M Vanderbeck, Joanna Sadgrove, Johan Andersson and Kevin Ward
Article first published online: 25 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00507.x

Geographies of transition and the separation of lower and higher attaining pupils in the move from primary to secondary school in London
Richard Harris
Article first published online: 23 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.519.x

Rethinking governance and value in commodity chains through global recycling networks
Mike Crang, Alex Hughes, Nicky Gregson, Lucy Norris and Farid Ahamed
Article first published online: 23 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00515.x

The ‘missing middle’: class and urban governance in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies
Charlotte Lemanski and Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal
Article first published online: 20 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00514.x

Science, scientific instruments and questions of method in nineteenth-century British geography
Charles W J Withers
Article first published online: 20 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00513.x

Genome geographies: mapping national ancestry and diversity in human population genetics
Catherine Nash
Article first published online: 18 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00512.x

Militant tropicality: war, revolution and the reconfiguration of ‘the tropics’c.1940–c.1975
Daniel Clayton
Article first published online: 18 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00510.x

Beginners and equals: political subjectivity in Arendt and Rancière
Mustafa Dikeç
Article first published online: 13 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00508.x

Scaling up by law? Canadian labour law, the nation-state and the case of the British Columbia Health Employees Union
Tod D Rutherford
Article first published online: 13 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00506.x

Religion, science and geography

I-Hsien Porter

Adi Holzer, "Die Taufe"Earlier this month, it was announced that the astronomer Martin Rees had been awarded the Templeton Prize. Administered by the Templeton Foundation, the prize rewards a person who has made “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.

Critics of the Templeton Foundation warn against placing religion on a par with science, arguing that the two are “incompatible.”

However, as a geographer, I’m interested in seeking to understand the world around us. To this end, I believe that science and religion are both important forms of knowledge. Religion cannot explain the complex mechanisms of climate change. Nor can ‘rational’ science can fully understand the social, cultural, emotional and spiritual complexities of people around the world; our actions are often apparently irrational.

A quick search for ‘religion’ through the geographical journals linked on the right of this page returns dozens of articles. In one paper in Area, Benedikt Korf discusses an idea of “spiritual geographies” – engaging with religion, rather than treating religion as an object for scientific study.

Korf argues that, in research, much is to be gained from engaging with both science and religion. Such an approach offers a broader understanding of how we humans interact with our world. It also provides a useful context in which to critique the motivations for our research; for example, whether geographers should be seeking to actively change some of the situations we encounter.

Science is not without its own uncertainties and assumptions. So to frame science as superior to religion is itself an act of belief. I don’t intend to argue that religion is a viable alternative on its own. However, as geographers, much is to be gained from listening to both, as forms of knowledge and a means to understanding our world.

The Guardian (6th April 2011) ‘Martin Rees wins controversial £1m Templeton Prize’

Korf, B. (2006) ‘Geography and Benedict XVI’, Area 38 (3) 326-329

Does Father Christmas exist?

I-Hsien Porter

A Japanese representation of Father ChristmasSanta Claus, Saint Nicholas, Christkind… many European cultures make reference to some sort of personification of Christmas. In England on Christmas Eve, Father Christmas travels on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, delivering presents to children.

At first glance, such a story must be fictional, since it conflicts with our existing ideas of what is possible. Flying reindeer and a man capable of visiting every child in the country is impossible. However, in a 2002 paper in Area, Richard Huggett argues the need for scientific hypotheses that challenge our existing understanding of the world.

Huggett cites the theory of continental drift, or plate tectonics, which received a dismissive response from established scientists when it was first introduced. It was only forty years later, in the 1960s, that geological evidence of spreading sea-floors was collected and continental drift theory was widely accepted.

The level of uncertainty or proof that we require before accepting a hypothesis is perhaps a decision for wider society. Of course, without sceptics there would be less of a drive for scientific rigour. However, that shouldn’t deter geographers from seeking alternative perspectives with which to understand the world.

R J Huggett (2002) Cranks, conventionalists and geomorphology. Area 34 (2): 182-189

A History of Santa Claus and Father Christmas

Can we ‘prove’ climate change?

I-Hsien Porter

A view of flooding in Pakistan, taken from a helicopter near Ghazi, August 2010.

Referring to the ongoing heatwave in Russia and floods in Pakistan, a broadsheet newspaper recently printed an article with the headline “Disasters ‘prove that global warming is happening’.” The article was reproduced on the internet, with the more cautious title “global warming could be the cause.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agrees that extreme events like these are consistent with climate trends. However, global warming refers to long term climatic trends over periods of decades. Heatwaves and flooding, however extreme, are short term weather events. They do no more to ‘prove’ global warming than heavy snowfall across the UK in January ‘disproves’ it.

Extreme events have always happened. What we’re concerned about are long term trends in climate, which might make these sorts of events more common. But we can’t wait around for these trends to play out over decades before concluding that we have observed ‘proof’: by then it will be far too late to mitigate any damage already caused. So what constitutes scientific proof?

In a paper in Area, Greg O’Hare reviewed the uncertainties in climate science, ranging from measurement errors in data collection to simplifications introduced into computer models. The world’s climate system is complex and our knowledge and ability to measure it is incomplete. Scientists can only draw interpretations about climate change from the available evidence, albeit using increasingly sophisticated techniques such as computer models. Linking observations with the process of climate change is, therefore, an uncertain business.

Scientific research is inherently uncertain (if we were sure, there would be no point to research). While scientists can do their best to quantify and reduce uncertainty, the level of uncertainty that we are willing to accept when making decisions is a question for policy makers and wider society.

“Pakistan floods: Climate change experts say global warming could be the cause”, The Daily Telegraph, 10th August 2010.

O’Hare, G. (2000) “Reviewing the uncertainties in climate change science.” Area 32 (4): 357-368

The Pressure for a Certain Science

By Kate Botterill

A columnist for The Times this week raised the matter of uncertainty in science and called for the Government and the public to rebuild confidence in scientific findings that acknowledge limitations.

In his article, David Spiegelhalter discusses statistical probability, reasonable uncertainty and trust in numbers in his article, reflecting that ‘it would be nice to think that scientists could be upfront about uncertainty and not feel they have to put everything into precise numbers’.

He gives examples of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which stated a ‘very high confidence’ in the anthropogenic causes of global warming but warns that such judgements have been ignored in the ‘increasingly polarised arguments’ on climate change.

In a critique of US media representations of climate science Maxwell Boykoff (2007) writes for ‘Transactions’ about the need for ‘reframing’ the debate about climate change. Using analyses of US media sources and interviews with climate scientists and environmental journalists between 1995 and 2006, Boykoff argues that the media portrayal of the climate change debate at this time was one of contention rather than consensus.

He suggests that such media framing was due to a mix of socio-political and economic power relations and micro-processes of journalistic professionalism. While dissenters of climate change effectively captured media attention to question scientific findings and discredit the evidence through its ‘uncertainty’, scientists responded ineffectively to media demands on accuracy . Boykoff suggests that ‘for journalists and policy actors, these issues of caution, probability and uncertainty are all difficult to translate smoothly into crisp, unequivocal commentary’, with each actor observing different norms of knowledge production. These interactions between the ‘scientific community’ and the public, through policy and media, is the subject for discussion at the Royal Society today in a debate on ‘Handling Uncertainty in Science’.

Read David Spiegelhalter’s article in The Times here

Read Boykoff, M.T.  (2007) From convergence to contention: Unites States mass media representations of anthropogenic climate change science.        Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 32: 477-489 here

Listen to Lord Krebs, keynote speaker at the Royal Society, talking on the Today Programme on Radio 4 here

Watch Brian Hoskins interview on climate change and uncertainty on The Economist website here