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When Is a Scientist Not a Scientist?

When Is a Scientist Not a Scientist?

Alok Jha, the irrepressible Guardian columnist, has been at it again. You might recall from one of my earlier Arctic Encounters blogs (January 6, 2014) that Jha hogged quite a few of the London-based newspaper’s headlines over the Christmas season with his excitable eyewitness reports on the travails of the Russian ship the Akademik Shokalskiy, which had to evacuate its 52 passengers after becoming trapped in thick Antarctic coastal ice. Since then, there have been recriminations aplenty, with the hapless venture—ostensibly a scientific research trip honouring the centenary of Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1913 Australasian Antarctic Expedition—accused of being little more than an ‘ill-prepared junket’ (Nova) or a scandalous ‘tourist frolic’ (Rust 2014), and with the rancour surrounding it all the greater given the high-profile international rescue mission’s prohibitive cost. Not to be outdone, Jha has recently weighed in with some more considered reflections of his own, suggesting that the Akademik Shokalskiy incident has opened up fault-lines in the scientific community; that it has done serious public relations damage to other scientific research in the region; and that it has raised larger doubts about the ethics of private funding for scientific research and the criteria for access to the Antarctic, nominally (but in name only) a peaceable territory free from the geopolitical wrangling that has long haunted its northern counterpart, the Arctic, which is nothing if not a politically contested space.

As before, my main interest in all this is the extent to which the Akademik Shokalskiy debate reflects anxieties over the status of alternative tourism, which itself goes by many names, one of which is the coinage ‘scientific tourism’, provocatively defined by the anthropologist Paige West as ‘a form of ecotourism that is linked not to science but to self-fashioning and individual gain’ (2008: 597). For West, scientific tourists are tourists, not scientists, and their alternative aims may be to seek ‘an educational adventure they can turn into symbolic capital on their return home, [or] a way into the world of science, or an experience of that can be turned into economic capital through publication in popular magazines’ (2008: 597). This dubious distinction between scientists, prescriptively defined as professional ‘people who collect and analyze various forms of data and then publish their results in academic journals and reports’ (2008: 603), and scientific tourists is hotly disputed by several respondents to West’s article, who point out that science is undertaken by a wide range of different individuals, only some of whom choose to refer to themselves as ‘scientists’; and that ‘scientific authority exists in multiple contexts’ (Hathaway), only some of which pertain to the professional activities of card-carrying scientists, who in any case are classified as a particular kind of tourist according to at least some influential definitions of tourism, e.g. that of the UN (Campbell & Gray).

This is being slightly unfair to West, who is well aware that the borders between science and tourism are porous; and that popular science, in particular, relies on strategies of dissemination that operate through what might loosely be considered to be open—public-facing—tourist forms (West 2008: 603; see also Gregory and Miller 2000, Perrault 2013). What happens, though, when scientists and tourists are literally, not just figuratively, mingled? This was the case on the Akademik Shokalskiy, where roughly half the passengers were paying customers—tourists—and the other half were credentialed climate scientists, with twenty-odd crewmembers also on board. But as might be expected, it wasn’t as simple as that, with the tourists doubling as volunteer ‘science assistants’ and many of the scientists also billing themselves as self-styled ‘adventurers’, not least the expedition leader, the charismatic UNSW climate scientist Chris Turney, who on his personal web page illuminatingly defines himself as a scientist, an explorer and a writer, while also announcing (in its pre-expedition form) that he can be followed as ‘Intrepid Science’ on ‘all manner of social media’ — which definitely proved to be the case in the second instance, if not apparently the first.

It’s easy to mock, but rather than adding to the long list of Turney’s detractors—at least some of whom also took another opportunity to have a jab at climate-change ‘alarmism’ (Rust; Watts)—I want to see Turney as a paradigmatic example of the modern-day celebrity environmentalist, an attention-seeking figure who also seeks widespread attention for the particular causes he or she represents (Huggan 2013). ‘Science’ and ‘tourism’ are mutually implicated here, and both converge in the increasingly ubiquitous figure of the celebrity intellectual, who comes to embody both the generously adventurous spirit of the outgoing public commentator and the more narrowly self-serving instincts of the academic entrepreneur. In this and other respects, Chris Turney is a scientist for our times; that he also a tourist, surrounded by other tourists, might make some of us morally queasy, but it doesn’t alter the fact that public engagement is an integral feature of the kind of activist science that wants to make a difference—and that public derision is one of its occupational hazards, if not necessarily one of its anticipated results.

(Image credit: ‘Einstein during a Grand Canyon tour, 1921’; photographer unknown; retrieved from http://photosofwar.net/einstein-at-the-grand-canyon-1921/)

References
Campbell, Lisa and Noella Gray (2008) ‘Response’ [to West], Current Anthropology 49.4: 612.

Gregory, Jane and Steve Miller (2000) Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility, New York: Basic Books.

Hathaway, Michael (2008) ‘Response’ [to West], Current Anthropology 49.4: 613.

Huggan, Graham (2013) Nature’s Saviours: Celebrity Conservationists in the Television Age, London: Routledge/Earthscan.

Jha, Alok (2014) Icy wilderness opens up—but will privateer explorers be frozen out? The Guardian, Friday February 28: 14-15.

Nova, Joanne (2014) ‘Antarctic climate scientists finally return: ABC covers for the $2.4m failure. Speedy’s epic poem’, http://joannenova.com.au/2014/01/antarctic-climate-scientists-finally-return-abc-covers-for-the-2-4m-failure-speedys-eipc-poem/, accessed March 17, 2014.

Perrault, Sarah (2013) Communicating Popular Science: From Deficit to Democracy, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rust, James H. (2014) ‘A Trip Too Far: The Chris Turney Antarctic Expedition’, Heartlander Magazine, http://blog.heartland.org/2014/02/a-trip-too-far-the-chris-turney-anatractic-expedition/, accessed March 17, 2014.

Turney, Chris (2013) ‘Chris Turney: Scientist, Explorer and Writer’, http://www.christurney.com/ accessed march 17, 2014.

Watts, Anthony (2014) ‘spiritofmawson ship of fools to get the rescue cost bill from Australian government’, http://wattsupwiththat.com/tag/chris-turney/, accessed March 17, 2014.

West, Paige (2008) ‘Tourism as Science and Science as Tourism’, Current Anthropology 49.4: 597-625.

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