I spent all day on Friday on business connected with my role in the Data Innovation Research Institute, attending an event to launch the new Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University. It was a fascinating day of discussions about all kinds of ethical, legal and political issues surrounding the “datafication” of society:
Our financial transactions, communications, movements, relationships, and interactions with government and corporations all increasingly generate data that are used to profile and sort groups and individuals. These processes can affect both individuals as well as entire communities that may be denied services and access to opportunities, or wrongfully targeted and exploited. In short, they impact on our ability to participate in society. The emergence of this data paradigm therefore introduces a particular set of power dynamics requiring investigation and critique.
As a scientist whose research is in an area (cosmology) which is extremely data-intensive, I have a fairly clear interpretation of the phrase “Big Data” and recognize the need for innovative methods to handle the scale and complexity of the data we use. This clarity comes largely from the fact that we are asking very well-defined questions which can be framed in quantitative terms within the framework of well-specified theoretical models. In this case, sophisticated algorithms can be constructed that extract meaningful information even when individual measurements are dominated by noise.
The use of “Big Data” in civic society is much more problematic because the questions being asked are often ill-posed and there is rarely any compelling underlying theory. A naive belief exists in some quarters that harvesting more and more data necessarily leads to an increase in relevant information. Instead there is a danger that algorithms simply encode false assumptions and produce unintended consequences, often with disastrous results for individuals. We heard plenty of examples of this on Friday.
Although it is clearly the case that personal data can be – and indeed is – deliberately used for nefarious purposes, I think there’s a parallel danger that we increasingly tend to believe that just because something is based on numerical calculations it somehow must be “scientific”. In reality, any attempt to extract information from quantitative data relies on assumptions. if those assumptions are wrong, then you get garbage out no matter what you put in. Some applications of “data science” – those that don’t recognize these limitations – are in fact extremely unscientific.
I mentioned in discussions on Friday that there is a considerable push in astrophysics and cosmology for open science, by which I mean that not only are the published results openly accessible, but all the data and analysis algorithms are published too. Not all branches of science work this way, and we’re very far indeed from a society that applies such standards to the use of personal data.
Anyway, after the day’s discussion we adjourned to the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies for a set of more formal presentations. The Head of School, Professor Stuart Allan introduced this session with some quotes from a book called Science for the Citizen, written by Lancelot Hogben in 1938. I haven’t read the book, but it looks fascinating and prescient. I have just ordered it and look forward to reading it. You can get the full-text free online here.
Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 1:
A MUCH abused writer of the nineteenth century said: up to the present philosophers have only interpreted the world, it is also necessary to change it. No statement more fittingly distinguishes the standpoint of humanistic philosophy from the scientific outlook. Science is organized workmanship. Its history is co-extensive with that of civilized living. It emerges so soon as the secret lore of the craftsman overflows the dam of oral tradition, demanding a permanent record of its own. It expands as the record becomes accessible to a widening personnel, gathering into itself and coordinating the fruits of new crafts. It languishes when the social incentive to new productive accomplishment is lacking, and when its custodians lose the will to share it with others. Its history, which is the history of the constructive achievements of mankind, is also the history of the democratization of positive knowledge. This book is written to tell the story of its growth as a record of human achievement, a story of the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind, disclosing as it unfolds new horizons of human wellbeing which lie before us, if we plan our new resources intelligently.
The phrase that struck me with particular force is “the democratization of positive knowledge”. That is what I believe science should do, but the closed culture of many fields of modern science makes it difficult to argue that’s what it actually does. Instead, there is an increasing tendency for scientific knowledge in many domains to be concentrated in a small number of people with access to the literature and the expertise needed to make sense of it.
In an increasingly technologically-driven society, the gap between the few in and the many out of the know poses a grave threat to our existence as an open and inclusive democracy. The public needs to be better informed about science (as well as a great many other things). Two areas need attention.
In fields such as my own there’s a widespread culture of working very hard at outreach. This overarching term includes trying to get people interested in science and encouraging more kids to take it seriously at school and college, but also engaging directly with members of the public and institutions that represent them. Not all scientists take the same attitude, though, and we must try harder. Moves are being made to give more recognition to public engagement, but a drastic improvement is necessary if our aim is to make our society genuinely democratic.
But the biggest issue we have to confront is education. The quality of science education must improve, especially in state schools where pupils sometimes don’t have appropriately qualified teachers and so are unable to learn, e.g. physics, properly. The less wealthy are becoming systematically disenfranchised through their lack of access to the education they need to understand the complex issues relating to life in an advanced technological society.
If we improve school education, we may well get more graduates in STEM areas too although this government’s cuts to Higher Education make that unlikely. More science graduates would be good for many reasons, but I don’t think the greatest problem facing the UK is the lack of qualified scientists – it’s that too few ordinary citizens have even a vague understanding of what science is and how it works. They are therefore unable to participate in an informed way in discussions of some of the most important issues facing us in the 21st century.
We can’t expect everyone to be a science expert, but we do need higher levels of basic scientific literacy throughout our society. Unless this happens we will be increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by the dark forces of global capitalism via the media they control. You can see it happening already.Follow @telescoper