Citizen Science in Wellfleet

Herring River estuary

Herring River estuary

The current habitat for communication between science and the public is dysfunctional. One need only look at the “debates” about climate change or disease prevention to see the problem.

Scientific findings are regularly misrepresented and sensationalized in the mass and social media. Even when well presented, those findings are ignored or distorted, attacked through faulty arguments, or tied to unsupported inferences. At its best, current science/public dialogue tends to be one-way, with the occasional enlightening article, book, or video, followed by public commentary. This rarely serves to deepen  understanding, much less lead to enhanced inquiry.

State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference 

Wellfleet marina

Wellfleet marina, note osprey nest, upper left

The 10th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference held yesterday at the Wellfleet Elementary School represents an alternative to that typical dysfunctional science/public relationship. One refreshing note was an effort by scientists to explain not only the results, but also the assumptions, methods, and theories behind them. People asked about the selection of factors to study, or about habitat assessment in tidal river versus bay sites, not to discredit a finding, but to understand more about how results were achieved. The conference was itself a small data point for the case that ordinary citizens can engage in science-based discussions, given enough time and well-crafted presentations, displays, videos, and other materials.

Poster session

Poster session

You can see from the schedule that there was a wide variety of presentations and posters. There was talk about dolphin mass strandings, bathymetry, auditory evoked potential, sentinel species, estuaries, cross-shore sediment transport, salt marsh backup, turtle gardens, terrapin clutches, brumation, eutrophication, cultching, winter/spring blooms, quahog seed, anoxic shellfish, temperature-dependent sex determination, anthropogenic effects, and many other topics related to the diverse ecosystems of the Outer Cape.

There were some good videos from the Friends of Herring River and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Brian Sharp complemented the latter with a talk and a tour of the IFAW van used for marine mammal rescues. This was especially salient given the mass strandings of dolphins in Wellfleet Bay in the early part of the year.

Mayo Beach, with groin

Mayo Beach, with groin

These presentations emphasized the interconnectedness of ecosystems, with humans as an integral part. Mark Borrelli from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies talked about how groins and revetments prevent local beach erosion, e.g., to protect a house, but shift the erosion elsewhere. Thus, they are simply “erosion relocation structures.” Sarah Martinez from the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary presented a poster on the consequences for horseshoe crabs of their use as bait for conch and eels. Moreover, the revetments that relocate beach erosion also disturb the spawning, much of which occurs above the high tide mark.Vincent Malkoski from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries spoke about the data on horseshoe crab fisheries. These findings have led to harvesting closures for five days around the new and full moons in May and June to allow lunar spawning. Diane Murphy from the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant spoke on the relation between oyster and clam growth and the wide variety of habitats they find in Cape Cod Bay.

Avoiding Either/Or Thinking 

Fishing boats

Fishing boats

One consequence of creating the forum in this way was that discussions avoided the either/or kind of thinking often expressed in mainstream media. For example, although most of the participants shared deep commitments to preserving natural environments and generally opposed rampant development, I heard statements such as “you can’t say that dredging is always bad or good; the decision is about choices and values.” There would then be productive dialogue that critiqued human-made alterations of the shoreline, estuaries, ponds, and so on, but acknowledged values others might hold for commerce, recreation, or housing. Zero-based planning  is no longer an option in the Wellfleet area: Every change today, even one that seeks to undo earlier construction, interacts with a myriad of alterations over centuries and can have unintended consequences for the environment.

Interactive map

Interactive map

Multilogue

Through Q/A, posters, and ample time for informal discussion, the conference fostered one to many, many to one, and many to many conversations among participants including scientists in the same and other disciplines, students, and general public. There was an interactive map on which people could write their hopes and concerns and peg them to a geographic spot. The map activity will be continued at the library to solicit input from those who did not attend the conference. I saw numerous examples of scientists taking seriously the concerns or knowledge of the public.

This was perhaps enhanced by the fact that many of the projects involve direct citizen science participation , e.g., the river herring count, the horseshoe crab spawning assessment, terrapin sightings, and the dolphin rescues. Others involve coordination with local activist organizations, such as the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

Some were of special relevance to those involved in commerce, such as oyster farmers. Jessica Smith and Barbara Brennessel from Wheaton College had an interesting poster on a study of genetic diversity among hatchery versus reef oysters, showing, as one might expect, a greater diversity for the reef oysters. This provides indirect support for seeding oyster beds with pelagic, rather than hatchery, veligers. Some oyster farmers still collect these wild larvae for seeing their beds, despite the method being considered slower, difficult, and old-fashioned. A quahog farmer of 30 years was able to add comments about changes over three decades that was missing from most of the shorter-term scientific studies.

Sustainability

IFAW van

IFAW van

Perhaps a meeting like this requires a supportive habitat such as Wellfleet in order to thrive, just as the terrapins, horseshoe crabs, eels, dolphins, ospreys, and other creatures do. Would it fail to survive elsewhere?

Richard Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix that no organism can survive without a supportive environment, but also that no living environment exists without organisms. In this case, the conference organism succeeds because of the town environment, but also shapes it to become more supportive of exactly the kind of discussion heard today.

The conference was well-organized with good snacks, including clam chowder. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the special beauty of Wellfleet, but also sadness about what we’ve done to destroy this, and so much else of the natural world. The fact that a conference such as this is so rare punctuates that sadness. How much did you hear from political candidates or mass media this year about protecting the environment we all live in and depend upon?

Small but good things are worth preserving. I hope to make the conference an annual event.

Islamic Science and Technology Historical Museum

Yalikavak, Turkey

Our last stop in Istanbul was at the İstanbul Islâm Bilim ve Teknologi Tarihi Müzesi (Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam) in the Eminönü district. It’s a wonderful museum, displaying centuries of achievements in geography, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, music, optics, chemistry, chronometry, historiography, medicine, military, civil engineering, and other disciplines.

I was told in school that the period when most of these discoveries and creations occurred (9th-16th century CE) was called the Dark Ages, a time of fear, superstition, lack of progress, even regression from the Classical era. Then the Classical learning was miraculously rediscovered and expanded during the Renaissance. And of course, like many things I learned in school, it was partly true.

But the fact is that while great scientific and technical accomplishments were happening in the Islamic world, much of Christian Europe languished in these areas, not completely, but to a large extent in comparison. Islamic scholars maintained and extended the Classical learning, and incorporated additional ideas from Greek, Byzantine, Indian, Judaic, and other traditions. They not only advanced learning considerably, but did so by listening to and learning from other cultures.

Long before Roger Bacon, they articulated and promoted experimental science, and they wrote about inductive or scientific methods long before Francis Bacon. They studied the circulation of blood before William Harvey, and made many other medical advances. But the exhibits do not take a “who did it first?” approach; instead, they emphasize the continuity of learning, across time and across cultures.

The Ages were not Dark everywhere, and the Renaissance in Europe was not autonomous; it was dependent upon and grew organically from an Islamic culture that valued learning in all its forms.

The Museum displays fascinating astrolabes, glassware, maps, globes, medical instruments, ships, an elephant clock, and many other artifacts. I’ve never seen such an assemblage anywhere, and these are beautifully presented and explained with multilingual text and video. Scientists, mathematicians and other scholars, such as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Ibn Sena (Avicenna), Geber, Al-Jazari are featured.

That’s why it was both surprising and a bit depressing to see how few people came to the exhibits. I counted five total visitors during the entire time that we were there, Make that seven if I include Susan and me. There were about fifteen staff and guards. Of course, it’s been open only two years.

İstanbul offers tough competition for any museum. World Heritage sites like the Topkapi Palace nearby, the Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque), and Hagia Sophia are just a few of those within easy walking distance, each offering jaw-dropping sights. But those also offer long lines and crowded viewing. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the Topkapi dagger while being shoved along in a crowd. The Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam offers a different and equally important view of Islamic culture, one that I suspect is not well known by many within or outside of Islam,

The Museum is housed in the Has Ahırlar (Imperial Stables) complex now in Gülhane Park. This area was once the outer garden for the Topkapı Palace during the days of the Ottoman Empire.

The working instruments and other objects were constructed by the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, based on illustrations and descriptions in textual sources, and to some extent, on surviving original artifacts. There is a similar exhibit there under the direction of Fuat Sezgin. The İstanbul museum is a joint project of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA), the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and Goethe University.

Outside lies magic, Part 1

Gesa Kirsch recently pointed me to John R. Stilgoe’s, Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. It’s a refreshing call for becoming more aware of the ordinary world around us. Stilgoe urges us not only to walk or cycle more, but also to use the advantages of those modes of transport to see the world that we usually ignore.

I finished the book, and am writing now, in the antipode of his call to walk and observe. I’m cramped in an airplane seat near the end of a four and a half hour flight. Stilgoe would say that I should still take the opportunity to observe, to learn, and to make sense of my surrounding, but instead I’m counting down the minutes until we land.

The chapters—Beginnings, Lines, Mall, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, Endings—lie somewhere between prose poems, history lessons, and sermons about the everyday. They remind me of John McDermott’s summary that John Dewey “believed that ordinary experience is seeded with possibilities for surprises and possibilities for enhancement if we but allow it to bathe over us in its own terms” (1973/1981, p. x).

To appreciate the book, you need to follow Stilgoe as he discovers nature, history, urban planning, ethics, social class, and more through cracks in the pavement, vegetation, telephone poles, roadside motels, angle parking, and other seemingly forgettable objects. The real point is not his own findings, but the demonstration that slowing down to look can open up worlds of understanding.

He shows the value of a camera, despite the lament that “ordinary American landscape strikes almost no one as photogenic” (p. 179). He recognizes the dread of causal photography (‘why are you photographing that vacant lot?’), but ties it to “deepening ignorance” (p. 181). This ignorance makes asking directions dangerous: People question us back, ‘Why do you want to know?’

Stilgoe says, “discovering the bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary metropolitan landscape scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning” (p. 184). Unprogrammed exercise and discovery leads to a unified whole that reorients the mind and the body together. Someone else may own the real estate, but “the explorer owns the landscape” (p. 187).

Stilgoe’s prescription is simple:

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.
So read this book, then go.
Go without purpose.
Go for the going.

See Outside lies magic, Part 2.

References

  • McDermott, John J. (1981). The philosophy of John Dewey: Two volumes in one. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1973)
  • Stilgoe, John R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York: Walker.

hear you are — [murmur]

murmur[murmur] is a documentary oral history project that records stories and memories told about specific geographic locations. We collect and make accessible people’s personal histories and anecdotes about the places in their neighborhoods that are important to them. In each of these locations we install a [murmur] sign with a telephone number on it that anyone can call with a mobile phone to listen to that story while standing in that exact spot, and engaging in the physical experience of being right where the story takes place. Some stories suggest that the listener walk around, following a certain path through a place, while others allow a person to wander with both their feet and their gaze…

All our stories are available on the [murmur] website, but their details truly come alive as the listener walks through, around, and into the narrative. By engaging with [murmur], people develop a new intimacy with places, and “history” acquires a multitude of new voices. The physical experience of hearing a story in its actual setting – of hearing the walls talk – brings uncommon knowledge to common space, and brings people closer to the real histories that make up their world.

Being cellphone-impaired, and far from Toronto, I’m reduced to listening to the stories on the website, but they still convey a sense of the city and its history. The site’s a well-designed example of integrating oral history, geographic information systems, and mobile phones.

Mapping cemeteries

Several of our Youth Community Informatics sites are mapping cemeteries. What sounds like small project, or even a gloomy one, soon opens up into far-reaching explorations of history, geography, health, families, technology, mathematics, literacy, and more.

At Iroquois West Middle School, youth started with a story about a primary school’s project to study cemeteries: Learning from graveyards. The “Map Masters” soon expanded this by incorporating technologies of GPS and GIS into their mapping project of the Onarga Cemetery. They have already made many discoveries and are continuing to do more. They’ll also connect with cemetery mapping projects in Cass County and East St. Louis.

One interesting tombstone that we found at the Onarga Cemetery was in the shape of a tree trunk. The name of the person buried there was Emory Gish. According to our reseach on symbolism the tree trunk showed a life cut short. The number of broken branches might symbolize the number of deceased family members buried nearby.

Journey sticks for learning geography

This video about journey sticks for learning geography presents a project for Key Stage 2 pupils (ages 7-11) in England. It’s a different age level, orientation, population, and technology from our Youth Community Informatics project. Even so, it has some interesting ideas and you’ll enjoy watching it. It shows how simple tools can help young people open up to the world around them.