dan mcquillan

lecturer in creative & social computing

Dec 23, 2015

Citizen Science and Standpoint Epistemology

This was a talk I gave at the seminar 'The Activist, the Academic and Digital Media' at Goldsmiths on 15.12.15. It describes participatory citizen science as the mobilisation of feminist and postcolonial critiques of science, using the concrete example of 'Science for Change Kosovo'.

The theme of this seminar is 'The Activist, the Academic and Digital Media', but as an activist friend of mine said recently "There's more people researching us, than there is 'us' actually doing stuff". She can't even access the papers written about her project because they're locked behind paywalls. There are times when academia can seem a bit like fracking: a fenced-off, extractive activity that drills sideways under other people's lives to extract value. On the other hand, although I've been an activist as well as an academic, I wouldn't unnecessarily valorize activism. The urgency to act can obscure complexity and put a low value on reflection, and the cocktail of personal commitment and external repression can result in an elitist culture. So, do we really want to develop the category of activist-academic? It seems to me like this could become a double-exclusion, and I don't think it's the hybrid I'm looking for. I'll talk instead about the relationship between theory and practice, the relationship between those things and our digital environment. I'm going to look at science which is, after all, the hegemonic hard man of theory and methodology. I want to start by questioning the idea of objectivity, a concept core to science but which also permeates a lot of academic frameworks. Just to be clear, I'm certainly not interested in dumping empirical methods; in fact, I'm relying on them. And I'm not going to trash the idea of a 'real world' as, however relativist your ontology, a boot in the head is definitely going to hurt. But I am going to question the orthodox scientific world view by drawing from feminist and postcolonial critiques of science.

Sandra Harding draws these together under the heading of standpoint epistemology. This perspective sees the gendered character of science in the questions it asks, the discursive resources it draws on, and the way it organises knowledge production. This also apply from a postcolonial point of view as well, with the added dimension that European science disproportionately developed to serve the needs of the European expansion. Taken together, this has created distinctive patterns of knowledge and ignorance about nature's regularities and their underlying causal tendencies. It's not saying that science 'makes up' results but that, following Kuhn, it co-evolves with the historical social order. Standpoint epistemology suggests positions of political disadvantage can be turned in to sites of analytical advantage because the prevailing version of objectivity misses the culture-wide assumptions that shape concepts & procedures. So identifying these elements in the conceptual frameworks can potentially bring forth a stronger form of objectivity. This was pithily expressed by Donna Haraway who denounces 'the god trick' of seeing everything from nowhere, in other words, the universalising abstract viewpoint of science. For her, objectivity is about particular embodiment because an unlocatable knowledge claim is irresponsible; it can't be called to account. In her words, 'only partial perspective promises objective vision'.

Of course, standpoint epistemology is still a theory, so where is its practice? I think this is where citizen science comes in. Now there are many different types of citizen science; often people are collecting data for experiments designed by scientists or participating in online crowd-sourcing that scale scientific pattern-recognition. Instead, I want to talk specifically about Science for Change Kosovo, which is not those kinds. It's the kind citizen science where participants are involved in every step of the process, from framing research questions to collecting data to interpreting results and deciding on actions. We were able to start doing citizen science in Kosova because of our 'activism'; we had already been on the ground for a few years doing digital Social Innovation Camps with local partner organisations. We also already had an specific approach to this work, which was critical pedagogy. As Paulo Freire put it in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The other driving reason for doing citizen science in Kosovo is that is has a lot of pollution; in fact it's in one of the most polluted regions of Europe. Consequently the population very bad health outcomes, with high levels of morbidity and mortality that can be linked to poor air quality. Kosovo is still struggling to it's feet after generations of occupation, a decade of strife and the war in 1999. Unfortunately it has a corrupt and completely captured political system that tries to control even production of knowledge, as I personally observed when I taught a summer school in the University of Prishtina. But, by contrast, it also has a lot of young people who want to change things. For me, one of the single most positive actions in the last year or two was the successful protests against the corrupt rectorate at the university of Prishtina after it was discovered that the rector & several other academics, who were political appointees, had fake PhDs. Students protested in the face of much pepper spray and police violence and were, surprisingly, successful. The participants in Science for Change Kosovo are drawn from that same young generation; they range from high school age to mid twenties. Our citizen science tries to enact a form of participatory action research. It follows the principle that research and action must be done ‘with’ people and not ‘on’ or ‘for’ people, and seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and following reflection. In our project, the young people are grouped in to a measurement committee, an education committee and a mobilisation committee, a way of organising which consciously echoes the committee form of occupy-like structures and their commitment to direct democracy.

One thing about community-driven air quality measurements is that they make literal the concept of standpoint; they depend on decisions about who's standpoint it is that is being investigated. For example, there are widely used standards in the UK for statutory measurements using diffusion tubes that says they should be placed at a height of 2 meters. While this is justifiable in terms of avoiding obstruction or vandalism, it immediately excludes the different air quality at the level that's breathed by children in pushchairs. Over last year we have ourselves used diffusion tubes in several locations in Kosovo, and identified hitherto unknown nitrogen dioxide hotspots in the capital city Prishtina. Of course, nitrogen dioxide is all over the news at the moment because it is these emissions which the defeat devices installed in Volkswagen cars were intended to obscure. In the coming year, Science for Change Kosovo will also be investigating the levels of particulates, which are parametrised as PM2.5 and PM10, using a semi-professional device called the Sidepack. This enables us to measure individual exposure levels such as the pollution on a bus journey to work, the PM levels inside and outside a school, or the air quality in the housing estates in Fushe Kosove that are downwind from the country's only power station.

Citizen science mandates a careful attention to specific differences in ways of seeing between citizen science and status quo science. Our empirical projects must be attentive to Donna Haraway's point about prosthetics; that we are already cyborgs in relation to our ways of knowing the world. "It is in the intricacies of these visualization technologies in which we are embedded that we will find metaphors and means for understanding and intervening in the patterns of objectification in the world-that is, the patterns of reality for which we must be accountable. In these metaphors, we find means for appreciating simultaneously both the concrete, "real" aspect and the aspect of semiosis and production in what we call scientific knowledge." In citizen science this becomes very obvious: we must understand the deviations of our devices so we can ground the meaning of our measurements. This is where the digital starts to re-emerge in my narrative. Both the internet and physical computing are catalysts for the growth of citizen science, and DIY devices from the maker movement, like the Arduino-based Smart Citizen kits which we also use in Science for Change Kosovo, are understood as lowering barriers to general participation in active science. We need to understand the both the views they produce and also the devices as material objects of translation. Karen Barad talks about post-Kuhnian scientific knowledge as 'constrained constructivism'. In our immediate context, the constraint is the requirement for calibration, so that we can be sure we are probing nature's regularities rather than be lost in the glossolalia of spiking signals from a device that can't be relied on.

Now situated knowledges are about communities, not simply about individuals carrying around particulate detectors. The wider question for a citizen science project is what form of social recomposition becomes possible; what change in the production of knowledge of the physical world can also be, at the same time, a political formation. As Haraway puts it, the only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular. Our 'somewhere' is Kosovo, a wholly marginalised country which also has it's own marginalised communities, such as the Roma living in Plemetina who are also participating in Science for Change. By sharing as much as possible, especially using the internet, we are trying to do do citizen science as a form open source research. The way I understand it is that we're working to mobilise affect, the embodied experience of air quality issues and their urgency, with the aim of developing what we might call a 'democracy of the air'. But we've all just seen the re-affirmation of climate colonialism at COP21 in Paris. As Adrian Lahoud points out, such events are the climate equivalent of the 1884 Berlin Conference that divided Africa for European colonial powers. While the atmosphere is parcelled up at a molecular level and the distribution of costs and benefits sustains the same global inequity, we can observe the irony that orthodox science is still the touchstone of apparently neutral truth, when science is wholly enrolled in the production of this situation in the first place. This seems a good moment to be suggesting the possibility of a more grassroots and postcolonial science. So I want to close by harking back to the very beginnings of modern science, when it was called natural philosophy. In letters in 1646 and 1647, Robert Boyle refers to "our invisible college", the far-reaching group of correspondents who's common theme was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. I'm proposing that critical citizen science, articulated through the internet, constitutes a new invisible college that starts, in every sense, not from the centre but from the edges.

Thank you.