Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Science in the Pub

Citizen Science: what makes an expert?

by Kate Viscardi

For March’s Science in the Pub (PubSci), Gail Austen, a PhD student at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, discussed Citizen Science, asking “what makes an expert?” 
Although “Citizen Science” is a new term, the practice goes back a long way. Amateur, novice, non-professional and similar terms sound pejorative, but Gail argued that practitioners can actually be very knowledgeable and the important thing is that everyone is involved. There are lots of different levels, from the wealthy amateurs of the 19th century, like Darwin, to indigenous groups who have intimate knowledge of the biodiversity of their localities. She showed a photo of a member of a hunter-gatherer tribe holding a smartphone – yes, it certainly looked anachronistic but the purpose was deadly serious – they use the phones to monitor poachers’ movements.
Gail argued that right back to the Industrial Revolution, education has concentrated on producing people who met the needs of industry and commerce and that ethos is still alive today, but what we need is fresh perspectives. Gail gave Zooniverse as an example where a volunteer, Hanny van Arkel, pointed out a galactic feature that no-one knew what it was and so opened up a new area for research. Over 100 years ago Beatrix Potter was knowledgeable about algae, to the extent that she had a paper read to the Linnean Society – by her uncle, her being a woman. Websites such as iSpot, Ask a Biologist and iNaturalist, include contributors who are not necessarily professionals but are knowledgeable in their chosen field.
There are benefits and issues for both professional scientists and enthusiasts. Academics have access to publications and tools that the public doesn’t, whereas amateurs are free to pursue their own interests without worrying about grant applications and suchlike. Observation records can be very useful too. The National Biodiversity Network has data going back to the 1600s, which can’t be used commercially but is a massive, free source of information. However, some academics still query the robustness of the data. There are now publications available to guide professionals in how to harness the strengths of citizen science. 
Gail herself came through the route of being an accountant volunteering with the Natural History Museum, to chairing a local conservation group (Kent Greater Crested Newts), to doing a PhD in citizen science. Her research uses face recognition studies to examine how good people are at recognition and the types of errors people make. How good are experts compared with novices? How do training methods impact on accurate identification? Do we see what we expect to see? Thoreau said: “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see” – for example, it’s only religious people who see Jesus on a piece of toast. Gail has found that people who know very little are much more confident of their knowledge than people who have more experience – an example of the Dunning-Kroeger effect.  (Author’s aside: This is something that explains an awful lot of what goes on in social media – people who lack the skills or abilities for something are also more likely to lack awareness of their lack of ability.)
This matters for species identification.  In Kent there are malaria-carrying mosquitoes and it’s vital to spot the right species. But if we do not know what species exist, and how they interact, we cannot be accurate – but there aren’t nearly enough professionals to cope with the information that’s there, not even what’s being found in museum collections. The process of identifying a new species is not straightforward, either. There are also observation effects – there are lots more reports of rare species than common ones because people know they’re rare.
Whatever information is gathered it will be of interest to someone, somewhere. Non-structured observations can provide new information and there are plenty of data, that could be used to predict changes and inform policy, but it’s all over the place. Gail feels that what we need now is a massive database to bring it all together but there isn’t the money to fund it.

PubSci is held on the first Wednesday of every month, at 7pm, upstairs at the Old Kings Head, King's Head Yard, 45–49 Borough High Street, London SE1 1NA. Arrive early to take advantage of the pub's Happy Hour.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Remembering Walter Ayles

 by Alex Kempshall
TRADE unionists and labour movement activists came together last Sunday to honour the life of Walter Ayles, one of Bristol's conscientious objectors during World War One. The event, organised by Bristol's Remembering the Real World War One group, culminated with the unveiling of a Blue plaque in the St Andrews district of Bristol. Relatives of Bristol conscientious objectors were also present, one of whom unveiled the plaque.
Roger Balls set the scene by reminding those gathered that a few days before the start of the war Bristol dockers had held an open meeting addressed by Ernest Bevin (national organiser Dockers Union) and Ben Tillett (general secretary National Transport Workers Federation), which took the position to oppose the war.
Colin Thomas, author of recently published biography of Walter Ayles, Slaughter No Remedy, gave a brief résumé of Walter's life.
It wasn't only his opposition to war that was significant to the people of Bristol. In 1910 Ayles took up the job of Bristol full-time secretary of the Independent Labour Party.  Shortly after he published [Bristol’s Next Step], which argued that transport, gas and water “must not be entrusted to private individuals any longer, but must be placed in the hands of the people themselves”.
In April 1916 he was arrested for distributing Repeal the Act – a pamphlet calling for the repeal of the Military Service Act under which conscription was introduced.
The unveiling of the plaque, on 17th April, took place on the centenary of the day that Ayles was first arrested. There was poetry, song and excerpts, spoken by an actor, from a statement that Ayles made to Bristol Magistrates.
“If I believed in the efficacy of slaughter to remedy evils, I would long ago have advocated the killing of those who, year after year, have been responsible for the sweated, the starved and the slummed. I know however in my heart of hearts that slaughter being wrong is no remedy.”
He was sentenced by to 61 days in prison.
On his release from prison Ayles was conscripted. Like many others he applied for conscientious objector status at a Military Service Tribunal, where he pointed out: “Because horrible outrages and ghastly crimes have been committed by others that is no reason why I too should kill and destroy… I can only help to prevent them by a refusal to join in war. Hate cannot be destroyed by hate. It can only be transformed by love.”
His application was refused and he was handed over to the military. Refusing to wear uniform, he was court-martialled and served 112 days in prison with hard labour. On release he was conscripted again and imprisoned again. Overall he was imprisoned from April 1916 to February 1919. Whilst still in prison Ayles attempted to stand for Parliament in the 1918 election.
He later headed the “No War Movement” and became a Labour MP for Bristol North. In later years he became MP for Hayes and Harlington.
The current MP for Hayes and Harlington in West London, the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, had previously sent a letter of support: “It is an honour to represent the constituency that Walter once served with such distinction.”
John McDonnell went on to describe Walter Ayles as “a courageous socialist and peace campaigner, who made such a contribution to our community”.

Bristol Radical History Group has recently published a biography of Walter Ayles – Slaughter No Remedy by Colin Thomas, price £2.50. Available online at or from Hydra Bookshop, 34 Old Market Street, Bristol, BS2 0EZ.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Establishment and all that...

REVIEW: The Establishment and how they get away with it by Owen Jones. Penguin Books, 2015, paperback 360 pages. £8.99.

ISBN-10: 0141974990; ISBN-13: 978-0141974996

By Ray Jones

THIS CAN be a useful book. Although much of its content will be recognised by regular New Worker readers it is an excellent quick reference source for information about many of the major struggles of the recent past. It would also be an ideal book to put in the way of political people who still have a soft spot for the status quo.
It is a blistering attack on the “Establishment”, interesting and well written. The author writes with righteous indignation on the corruption and short comings of the media, Parliament, police and bankers – with lots of hard facts and interviews to back up and enliven his case.
But the theory behind his arguments is essentially weak.
His idea that there have been different “Establishments” since the Second World War hardly survives his own description of it – slippery, changing according to circumstances, ready to adapt where it believes necessary and possible. Where is the need to divide it up?
It is rather misleading to do so. The division in the ruling class between radical free-trade non-interventionists and Keynesian social democrats is a natural one but at bottom it only one of degree, as the author himself strongly points out. It is their state and they will use it when and where they wish – they have to.
The author rightly thinks that one of the main problems for progress is that people do not see an alternative to the present system. From that position you might think he would examine some of the many successful attempts to build an alternative (that is socialism!) in the Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic, Yugoslavia, Cuba, China or Democratic Korea.
This not an easy area because this is where the ruling class ideological assault is arguably strongest, but if the working class thinks that all previous attempts to move forward have been disasters it is an enormous anchor on their struggles – so it must be tackled.
The author has a concept of gradually expanding democracy in which democracy is not tied to class. Like many others before him he thinks that democracy and participation can be gradually extended until we are in a new society.
Again he refuses to learn from history – the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Cuba and Chile all show that the ruling class (a far better term than “Establishment”) will always fight to keep its dominance.
Owen Jones does not, I think, claim to be a Marxist and sadly this is all too evident in this book. A back bone of Marxism–Leninism might have turned this work from a useful and very readable reference work into a brilliant revolutionary document (although I doubt that Penguin would have published it!). Still, if it stirs people’s anger against the status quo then they may look about for more satisfying explanations and solutions.