ETA Mar. 11, 2013: I was notified by Rainer Becker that his participation was cancelled and the organizers took the project in another direction. Consequently, much of what follows is no longer relevant. However, Dr. Becker had a few questions for me which are answered here.
Before getting to part 2 of Dr. Becker’s interview, I’m including this abbreviated introduction for anyone who hasn’t had a chance to read part 1 yet. From the April 22, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,
How do sensational ideas become commonly accepted knowledge? How does a hypothesis turn into certainty? What are the ways and words that bring results of scientific experiments into textbooks and people’s minds, how are they “transferred” into these domains? Science philosopher Dr. Rainer Becker has recently started dealing with such questions. Over the next three years, Becker will accompany the work of Professor Dr. Frank Rösl’s department at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ), which studies cancer-causing viruses. He is one of three scientists in an interdisciplinary joint project which is funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with a total sum of approximately € 790,000.
In his future project, the philosopher [Becker] will study in real time, so to speak, how natural science data are being obtained, processed and communicated. As a “researcher of science”, he will observe the laboratory work from the perspective of the humanities and cultural science, he will do research in archives and will interview scientists.
In part 1, Dr. Becker discussed the interdisciplinary nature of the whole project and some of the theorists who’ve influenced his own work. Now on with part 2 of the interview about Dr. Becker’s project about how ideas become knowledge. ETA Mar.25.13: Photograph of Rainer Becker removed at his request.
5. I see mention of archives and scientists in the news release about your project and am wondering if you will be considering groups who are not scientists, e.g. clinical medical personal and/or patients as well. And if you do, how will you go about this?
A: Though the study will be more on knowledge (and according practices) and not so much ‘sociological’ in a broad sense, I already attended several formal and informal interviews with scientists (ranging from traditional to the point of focus group approaches in my own talks/seminars) – and, of course, non-scientists in the field, for example, as you mentioned, personal (so called ‚TA’s, also‚ simple workers’) and their special perspectives on the field.
Contact with patients though is a bit hard not least due to several concerns – at least of the institution I observe (and that at the same time formally is my employer) in my field, the DKFZ, do exist something called the ‘Krebsinformationsdienst’ – a phone-service for interested on the wide topics surrounding cancer. As I learned it is not a potential link to patients – because of privacy concerns. Though it would be a necessity – not at least a theoretical and practical one (you might recall Foucault’s topic of the ‘doublette’) – to talk with patients, it could become a little bit hard. I plan on talking to organized groups of concerned persons but have not done it yet. Also it could be interesting if scientists and patients could meet in a new way (not so much the ‘from bench to bedside’ way is done).
Another interesting field: All the concepts of ‘patient action groups’ etc. – they constituted a while back. All this groups and their relation to professionals surely changed the last 30 years: this could also be a field of inquiry. I’ll have to take a look. And: Surely I am highly interested to talk to patients, but its not so simple to get contacts…
6. How will the results be disseminated? I expect you will publish the study and present at conferences but are you planning other means of disseminating the information as well? e.g. a blog
A: Beside the publication of a study and presentation of the results first of all we are planning to do a book series – 8 to 14 books, a round 100 pages each (German-speakers might know the ‘Merve’-format: this is something we are thinking about); we have some titles yet, the first and second one is in the making. I progress writing on my first text for the first book in the series (on ‘strangeness’).
Blogs could be an option, but not yet – and if so, it would rather be a secondary option. Maybe – or relatively sure – we’ll open a internet-page with newest infos (with rss-feed).
7. Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: The last answer could also be my first Question: what do you do? what is your interest in a study like mine? What is your ‘mission’ (statement) – esp. of your blog? And what do you think: what significance do blogs have today in the field of science and its ‘communication’ (or ‘critique’ and each digital ‘companions’)?
Thank y0u, it’s an unexpected treat to be asked questions and very disconcerting as I’m not used to it. Plus, it’s hard work coming up with answers.
(a) What do you do?
I’m a writer who specializes in science and technology topics and for the last few years I’ve focused on nanotechnology. I suppose you could also call me an independent scholar as I’m not associated with an academic institution and I occasionally give presentations at academic conferences about nanotechnology, new media, writing, and storytelling.
(b) What is your interest in a study like mine?
It is a long and winding story, which I will cut down as best I can:
In the 1990s, I was working on contract for a large telecommunications company and had the privilege of working for them a few times over a number of years. The time between the contracts was broken up so there were periods of 6 months or more where I was working on contracts for other companies. I noticed when I’d return to the telecommunications company that people would tell me I was using the terminology incorrectly. At first, I thought I’d misremembered but it kept happening and eventually I realized that I had (more or less) preserved the terminology’s meaning while the people working for the company had continued to develop it.
This notion was borrowed from something I came across about 20 years ago. I was working towards my undergraduate communications degree and while working on a paper about linguistics and cultural issues I came across this notion about preserving/changing language and meaning over time in the context of immigrant communities. One of the more dramatic examples is in Quebec (where my mother is from) which hosts a population that has managed to preserve language and culture over a couple of centuries while the parent culture and language in France kept changing.
Also like most Francophones I’ve met, I’m always been interested in language and in my case that includes how words accrue meaning. My interest in your study is that the process of ideas becoming knowledge would seem to have a natural affinity with linguistics and communication, i. e., how words accrue meaning and how we communicate that meaning.
(c) What is your ‘mission’ (statement) – esp. of your blog?
My own mission statement or ‘raison d’être’, in its most general sense, is to assist communication between groups that don’t communicate well. Specifically, I am interested in taking science concepts and facilitating communication about them with and between various communities or cultural groups. Although sometimes I find that the communication is already taking place but it’s unrecognized as it’s occurring by means that are not privileged as ‘science communication’.
To this day, I’m not sure how I became so interested in nanotechnology which has been my focus for the last 3.5 years. I suspect it has to do both with the sound of the prefix ‘nano’ and its scale as scientists work directly with atoms and molecules. In high school, I used to fantasize that atoms were planets and that there were multiple universes existing at different scales and that the planet earth might really be an atom. As for those fantasies, I may have been influenced by Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ as well as science fiction television programmes that had people popping in and out of various time periods.
This blog is a way of expressing some of my ideas about science and technology, in this case nanotechnology, while noting and linking to the range of discussion that currently exists. I like to include pop culture (and, occasionally, high culture), business, science, philosophy and more because I view the process where words accrue meaning and/or meanings as one that requires communal engagement from a wide range of sectors. This blog has also allowed me to explore new ideas and connect with people of similar and new interests. Unexpectedly, I sometimes find myself engaged in a discovery of and discussion about Canadian science policy and another one on copyright, patents, and trademarks.
(d) And what do you think: what significance do blogs have today in the field of science and its ‘communication’ (or ‘critique’ and each digital ‘companions’)?
I have long been interested in the impact that new technology has on writing and thinking. (During that communications degree, I was forced to read Walter Ong’s book, Orality and Literacy, loathed it and dismissed it. In subsequent years, I have become haunted by it and the thesis that writing itself is a technology which affects thinking [the kinds of thoughts we have and the way in which we think them]. This also links to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but going into that will make this a much longer posting.) It seems to me that this too has an affinity with your study of ideas passing on into knowledge.
In any event, I ended up taking a master’s degree in Creative Writing and New Media (at De Montfort University in UK) where we discussed some of these ideas and more while exploring various media.As I learned, there are a number of discussions taking place about this technology and writing issues from a number of perspectives (I am getting to the science but it’s part of this larger movement).
What impact does using icons instead of words have on reading and writing? Are we using more visual data to communicate where words would have been used previously? (Note: I recently saw a visual data abstract for an article I was reading in a peer-reviewed science journal.) Are we gong to call this mashing together of words, visual, and auditory data transliteracy or multimodal discourse or something else? (The naming of things is important because while words can accrue and change meaning they also impose it.) Are the media which allow and encourage us to mash words, visual, and auditory data exerting influence on the science discussion and on the research itself? Those are some of questions that influence me and by extension this blog.
Given that I’m not particularly inclined to the technical, my own projects default to simpler technologies such as blogs and wikis while I keep an eye on more elaborate projects such as the math group that meets in 2nd Life (virtual reality) to play around with data in 12 dimensions, at least that’s their aim. There was also a nanotechnology project on 2nd Life’s Science Island. (I haven’t heard much about that one recently.)
Elsewhere on this blog, I have noted a science songs website (somewhere there’s one for medical songs) and that the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) ran a ‘Dancing with scientists’ contest in 2009 while the American Chemical Society (ACS) ran a couple of video contests that same year. One of the winning ACS videos was called, The Nano Song where you could learn about nanotechnology concepts from singing puppets. (It’s meant for adults and it does a pretty good job of explaining things.) YouTube hosts any number of science videos from business and academic institutions as well as from individuals.
As for where blogs (software) and ‘digital companions’ (hardware) belong in the science discourse, I’m going to make reference to two recent studies that have focused on the science discourse and the internet. The first suggests that people who learn about science concepts on the internet (e.g. reading blogs) tend to be better informed than people who learn about those concepts via traditional media such as newspapers and television. The second study suggests that Google may be affecting the online science discourse by nudging search strategies in particular directions. While the specific focus is nanotechnology, something about the larger science discourse can be inferred from the data.
If you’re interested in these studies, here are the references (I’ve copied these from my previous posts on these studies):
(1) Citation: Anderson, Ashley A.; Brossard, Dominique; Scheufele, Dietram A. The changing information environment for nanotechnology: online audiences and content. Journal of Nanoparticle Research (DOI 10.1007/s11051-010-9860-2) forthcoming May 2010 issue.
(2) Dietram Scheufele, member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s research team, posted more about this newest paper on his nanopublic blog (May 7, 2010—I’ve tried to provide the link to the individual posting but if this doesn’t work, you have the date). For anyone interested in reading the team’s paper (Narrowing the nano discourse?), Scheufele provides a link for seamless guest access (click on the post’s title) to the paper on the Science Direct website.
As for information about ‘digital companions’, I haven’t come across anything yet although I am curious about the impact these much smaller screens have and it seems to me that Twitter (a true child of mobile phones and digital companions) which forces concision is a likely area of future study for its impact on science discourse.
In any event, this blog allows me to gather and link information together in ways that stimulate my thinking and, hopefully, my readers’ thinking. The comments are hugely helpful in this process. The blog also acts as a repository and allows me to revisit my ideas months or even years later with fresh eyes.
Thank you for your time. [to Rainer]
Thank you for your interest! [from Rainer]