The War on Science and its Secular Cloak

Recently I’ve been reading The War on Science  by Chris Turner. Turner chronicles the Harper government’s steady dismantling of Canada’s environmental science infrastructure and the instantiation of anti-environmentalism into public policy. Turner documents Harper’s apparent insistence on thwarting environmental research and erecting barriers between evidence and policy.  Turner places his critique in an historical context that positions Harper as an enemy of science and a problem politician to the extent that what we formerly considered political scars now look like beauty marks. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I’m referring to the actions of Mulroney that left the country in financial despair and whose party was virtually demolished at the end of his parliamentary tenure. Mulroney, according to Turner, at least sought evidence-informed intervention in the problem of acid rain signaling an interest in the well-being of the country and its inhabitants.  If Mulroney and Harper are going to be compared, however, I’d like to point out another dissimilarity—under Harper, the country’s financial state cannot, arguably, be characterized in terms of despair.

According to Turner, Harper’s agenda is quite straight forward (loc 404 Kindle ed.): “Do No Science, Hear No Science, Speak No Science” — that is the Harper agenda. And if this agenda is most evident and most pronounced in environmental science, that is simply because it is the field most likely to uncover evidence that the government’s paramount goal — to free the country’s resource extraction industries from regulatory oversight in the name of rapid expansion — is wrongheaded, reckless, and damaging.”

Twice Turner quotes environmental scientist David Schindler’s comments about the deep cuts of Bill C-38: “The kindest thing I can say is that these people don’t know enough about science to know the value of what they are cutting” (361 and 1415).

I don’t dispute this author’s presentation of the data nor do I dispute his interpretation or analysis—that can be left up to others more qualified than me. My problem with this book draws on a point I made in an earlier post but now want to expand on here.

While I understand and appreciate Turner’s obvious frustration and outrage, I am not convinced of the picture he paints of the Harper government. Is it really the case that all of those powerful government officials are so uneducated, stupid, naive, silly, evil, stubborn, greedy, or whatever ill-characterization we might choose? Moreover, what do we make of those who elected them, repeatedly, not to mention those — such as the scientists, academics and generally concerned citizens—who have had little success in intervening to change Harper’s direction?

I do not think that the Harper government’s narrative is that simple. While he and his government have thus far taken a most obvious anti-environmentalist stance, there are more clues to be found as to some other things that might be going on and that might be connected to this war.

In 2010 Marci MacDonald published The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada. In this book, MacDonald offers another framework from which to understand some of the Harper government’s activities. She suggests that the Harper government is working in step with Canada’s Christian-right faction that seeks to instantiate its biblical ideology, couched in an end-times prophetic narrative, into the public mind and policy. In terms of Harper’s anti-environmentalism, this narrative makes more sense, though it too has some major gaps.

Just to give a couple of easy examples:  The Christian-right has the propensity to take the Bible quite literally (or quasi-literally I would argue), so it’s not such a leap for those operating in such a framework to interpret the declining environmental state as a sign of the end times and not the natural outcome of human behavior and activity (e.g., Luke 21:11: 11 — “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” [NIV]).   Or, there’s the view that God has given man dominion over the Earth and, apparently, the economy it facilitates, and good stewardship is manifested and rewarded by the bearing of abundant fruits (yes, the metaphors are a study onto themselves).

MacDonald’s framework is not a good enough answer either, however. There are indeed many movements afoot within the sphere of the Christian-right that advocate for careful environmental stewardship, are strongly concerned with the impact of environmental degradation on the poor, and disavow profits-at-all cost ambitions. Moreover, one might argue that there remains an acute environmental apathy within the Canadian culture more generally that is unassociated with religious beliefs whatsoever. The Liberals had had a robust environmental agenda as a key element of their platform in previous elections, but they lost rather dramatically. This is not a simple story and we cannot blame everything on one particular ideological orientation at work in our political culture.

My point(s) is(are) simple: there is much work to be done!! We cannot continue to talk about Harper’s “War on Science” without talking about the religious orientations of our elected officials to the extent that such orientations guide and/or influence public policy decisions. In a paper presented to the Canadian Political Science Association at Concordia in 2010, Jonathon Malloy makes some important and relevant points. Drawing on direct interviews with evangelical MPs he writes that “most self-identified evangelicals do not emphasize the building of separate and parallel ‘Christian’ institutions, but emphasize some variation of actions as ‘salt and light’ (see Matthew 5) within existing institutions” (pg 6). Furthermore, he writes, “evangelicals commonly argue that their faith does not necessarily determine their views on specific issues. Rather, it is a sense that their faith underlies their entire character and outlook, and particularly their personal integrity” (pg12).

Many of us may well look at the beliefs and assertions of religious groups and think to ourselves or aloud “This is crazy. Ridiculous.” But it is also ridiculous to simply write off a government and its public associates as irrational, stupid, and greedy particularly when this group, or at least subsections of this group, takes great pains to operate with a high degree of integrity. And I believe they are sincere. It seems easier for us to believe that people are greedy and evil, but such judgment seems to me to fall smack-dab in the center of the same religious framework that we are assailing. We take the narrative of good and evil without question, and so if Harper and his people are simply evil than we need a different religious narrative—one that offers some type of salvation to both the earth and its inhabitants. In this narrative we are coerced into seeking a new savior—one that will save the government from itself. “Forgive them–they know not what they do.”

The insistence of a secular cloak on politics is probably one of the greatest boons to those seeking to impose religious ideology into the public sphere. It forces people to seek and develop ways to quietly embed personal faith and beliefs into public pursuits thus it turns our attention away from the messiness of personal faith and beliefs onto the concise little policy outcomes to which they give rise. It also traps those seeking recourse into the easy narratives of profit and greed or whacko conspirators seeking to rule the world for some god to explain what is happening and why we can’t seem to do much about it. These are copouts.  The secular cloak seems to have truly partitioned off a sacred ground and granted it license to foster mystery and mystique—not a platform for democracy that I would embrace. And while Canada presents its ideally partitioned church-state profile to the world, the beliefs and ideas of the Christian-right, who or whatever this is or whatever it really means in Canada, are being carefully and cleanly translated into public policy and practices.

There is certainly a growing body of scholarship on the Christian-right in Canada, but we need more–more nuanced and just more, particularly in regards to science, policy and the general intellectual/academic milieu. We usually associate the political influence of the Christian-right with American politics, but while the US factions parade their worldview on Fox News for the world to cheer, challenge, mock or whatever one’s reaction might be, nothing much is said here in Canada. But lots is being done. It’s not a case of all talk and no action. It’s exactly the opposite.

Science, Evidence, and Narrative

Science, Evidence, and Narrative

I’ve heard it said that the way we see the world in some ways determines the world we see.  I think this is true, though I’m not well equipped to delve into this from any deep philosophical vantage point. And I don’t mean to suggest any type of supernatural causation instantiated via the human gaze. All I am attempting to query here is the role of narrative in perception. Well, not simply perception, maybe “knowledge construction,” but I’m not sure what the right terminology is for the idea I seek to explore.

Let’s start with this: There seems to be a great deal of positive talk about use of narrative to communicate science. I found one Scientific American blogger, Bora Zivkovic, who sketches a narrative methodology for science communicators and provides a short typology: “cool stories” play on the sense of oddness or peculiarity in a bid to capture the curiosity of the audience; “relevant stories” seek to inspire some sort of behavior or action; and “fishy stories” look into the workings of the science and scientists themselves. These types of science narratives suggest that there is translation to be done from some pre-narrative domain to a narrative domain, or that stories are written in a way such that the ‘facts’ or the science is dragged along with a plot.

In his article “Re-calibrating the Science-Media Conversation,” Jacob Berkowitz argues that the use of narrative is a plausible way of traversing conceptual divides that hamper cross-domain communication. I’m quite confident that he is spot-on in this, though perhaps not in the exact way intended.

Berkowitz’s piece suggests something similar to Zivkovic when he writes that he is exploring the use of narrative in the construction of science-based theater, books and plays, but he hints at something that I think is more significant. He discusses the analogy of the iceberg in the context of cross-domain communication: “Only a small portion of an iceberg is visible above the waterline. In science communication it’s the facts that are visible above the cognitive waterline. The vast bulk of what’s actually being communicated lies invisible below the factual surface. Down there are the beliefs, histories, ideologies, personal and community relationships—all the things that actually make or break cross-cultural communication.”  What is unclear, however, is whether or not the above portion could stay afloat on its own accord. In other words, is it the case that science lays outside of the narrative domain? Or is it that it atop of all that ‘other’ noise?

The point I am trying to get at is this: I am not convinced that there is a pre-narrative domain as is suggested in the narrative methodology of science communication. In a recent talk at the University of Saskatchewan, Cindy Patton discussed her analysis of the ways evidence is derived from studies designed to examine what appeared to be a correlation between an increase in crystal meth use and rates of HIV. She argued that the evidence was taken to instantiate, what I would call homophobic policies that amounted to the policing of non-heterosexual activity. On one level, it appears that the results of the studies that were conducted were read (even constructed, perhaps one might argue) in the narrative context of normative (compulsory) heterosexuality, a narrative that saturates virtually every cultural domain and permeates our conceptual history and heritage.  Seeing differently takes education and adaptation—though I’m not sure in which order. Either way, it seems that we need to investigate the narratives that shape and house our discoveries and insights as much as or more than we need to translate them into second level stories (though I’m quite sure this is a very good thing in and of itself).

Perhaps we need to dig into our narratives at an even more basic level. Lakoff and Johnson (1980/2008) suggest that our basic means of operating within the world is primarily metaphorical. Our conceptual practices structure “what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities” (3). These authors argue that experiences and interactions provide the basis for the development of conceptual metaphors, the transference of experience and interactions with the material/physical world, or source domains, into ideas and concepts–conceptual or target domains, and these become systematized into more comprehensive frameworks. Looking more closely at these frameworks may be one way of digging into the narratives that are embedded in the presumed pre-narrative perceptual domain.

What does this have to do with communicating science?  Well, let’s see. I have serious doubts, for example, that there is any type of story, play, book, or theater production that will convince a Christian creationist of the validity of evolutionary science. However, maybe, if we look at the differing narratives and the conceptual metaphors that structure them, we may find patterns that are common to multiple domains. Metaphors that convey concepts of group belonging, in/out metaphors, for example. Or perhaps we will find common ontological metaphors that invest ethereal concepts and ideas with material properties and thus facilitate certainty and security that functions to ward off the paralysis of fear and doubt. It may be that these basic conceptual metaphors furnish a cohesive narrative that shapes perception and can be drawn on to proffer the ‘spirit’ of science and discovery rather than the ‘facts’ themselves.

Of course, this leads us onto a slippery slope which may in the end leave the whole point moot anyway. If what I am suggesting has merit we are going to find ourselves having to face the ethics of narrative manipulation. [i1]  I think we first need to face the deep entanglement of science and narrative that already seems to have us knotted and twisted in all sorts of weird and wacky contortions. Of course, while we debate these ethics, our narratives are already being expertly manipulated by scientific discourse and competing narrators that want us to utilize all sorts of paraphernalia that we had no idea existed and didn’t realize we desperately needed.

Paradigms. Worldviews. Conceptual frameworks. Cultures. Ideologies. Perspectives. Ways of knowing. Call it what you will, but it seems to me that we see the world through the lens or lenses of certain full-bodied cognitive sets. One could have all the evidence in the world, but when it butts up against an impenetrable embedded narrative, acceptance becomes difficult. Remember OJ? A tight glove and a cute little rhyme to challenge what seems so obvious could very well be enough to let the guilty walk free. But is this the same for scientific evidence? Must observable reality be vetted through accepted networks of perceptual pathways? I think so. It’s messy but surely it’s part and parcel of what we do. We need science and story, but though they may be parsed at a literary level, I think that at a more basic level they are one and the same.


Evidence, the Death of Evidence, and Finding Some Good Questions

The recent announcement by the Canadian Federal government of the closing and consolidation of Fisheries and Oceans libraries has the media, once again, reporting outrage on what appears to be the present government’s war on science. A quiet outrage has developed among academics and researchers as they mourn the loss of priceless data and artifacts.

I call the response a “quiet outrage” because I’m not certain that their concerns are resonating with the general public. One blogger, for example, listed the number of shares of a couple of related media bits, and in my mind, the numbers are quite low.

So what I want to point out is that it seems to me that headlines that assert the Harper government’s row with “science” dilutes and obscures an important point: the Harper government seems to be waging a war on one particular type of science—environmental. Which, I’m quite sure everyone knows. So why not say “environmental science” specifically instead of “science” in general?

Recent media makes little mention of the meaning and reasoning behind these seemingly strategic moves. The few suggestions that appear or are hinted at are basic and typical: profits, especially given Canada’s place in the global market of fossil fuels, and it will be handy to have a bunch of money to hand out just prior to the next election.

But I don’t think it’s that easy. The picture that is painted with such explanations are that of a bunch of greedy cutthroat irrational people conspiring to gain and lord power just for the hell of it and in the face of obvious and imminent demise. Maybe. But I doubt it. Call me sentimental or naive, but I kind of feel that most people tend to be mostly decent and will do a good thing if they can. Of course determining what’s  “good” is based on one’s frame of reference.

I recently attended a symposium about science and society. The foundational question of this symposium was this: “How can we understand and improve the interplay between science and society, and improve science policies for the future?”  Throughout the symposium, and at a number of recent events along similar lines, several recurrent themes have popped up:  citizen science, science and democracy, and trust in science. “Evidence-based policy” and “evidence-based decision making” seem to be the catch-phrases du jour. But there was not a peep about religion. At least not that reached my ears, and I thought I was listening pretty close.

Are we thus to assume that civilizations are now witnessing the pinnacle of  advancement  such that church and state, faith and science are properly quarantined to their respective corners? I am highly skeptical.

In regards to the Canadian federal government’s war on “science” (read: environmentalism or environment or environmentalists), some writers have offered an alternative explanation: Harper and his government are motivated by an evangelical Christian worldview that holds God and his natural law-infused ecological order and balance responsible for the ultimate fate of the earth.  In this view, if this is indeed the case, then it seems that the environment is not a human issue but a divine one.

I am not sure how accurate such claims are, and in fact I don’t really know why the Harper government seems so bent on thwarting environmental science. But I think we need to take a closer look. The news articles themselves say little to nothing about what’s behind the anti-science activities it reports. Few seem to want to bring it up.

I know this is a difficult issue. The media persecutes any misstep towards religious insensitivity or intolerance more harshly than it does Harper’s activities. The academy is no better—everyone seems scared to offend, to cause a scene or infringe on one’s personal and private realm of thought and belief.  I know that this is a volatile issue. There are lots of easy arguments about who’s right and who’s wrong, and no one wants to wake this sleeping dragon.

But if we’re going to talk about evidence, we need to talk about conceptual frameworks. Evidence, obvious or not, is context contingent, and if we want to talk about science and the general public, or science and public policy, or science and public officials, we need to talk about science and its place in the marketplace of competing ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and conceptual frameworks.

What role is religion playing at the interface between science and its publics? (And by “religion” I mean the good old fashioned monotheistic types, replete with their own worldviews, moral systems and evangelistic ambitions, fuzzy as these descriptors might be, at least to start with.) I’m not sure what the consensus is or even what the spectrum of opinion is, but the silence seems to be its own brand of a death-of-evidence.

We accuse the government of killing evidence, of turning a blind eye to the obvious and well- documented. But what is that old saying? The one about being concerned with a speck of dust in another’s eye without noticing the stick in one’s own? Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. I am not sure. But for now, I care more about the questions than I do about the answers. In fact, let’s forget about the answers altogether for the moment and just start looking for some good questions.

Hype in Science: How can respectable journals publish such c**p? oh, and peer-review

On December 7, 2013, the Atlantic Node of Situating Science Strategic Knowledge Cluster hosted a one day public series of discussions exploring six case studies of overselling, misrepresentation or biasing in the presentation of scientific research. Included in these case studies was a discussion of the NASA supported research article published in Science that claimed the discovery of bacteria from arsenic that was subsequently refuted; a discussion of the widely popular and controversial “Liberation Therapy” for MS; and a discussion of what appears to be a contemporary re-inscription of racism in the new science of cognitive genetics. Each of the discussions evoked lively debate and conversation.

Let me start my comments by saying that I am by no means and in no way a scientist. I struggle with basic arithmetic and can never remember what gold is on that chemical thingy (what do you call that?…Oh yeah, the periodic table!! That’s it). The point being that I cannot be trusted to relay any of the theoretical content of the discussions, though I have to admit, the conversations were largely accessible, even to the scientifically challenged. There were, however, several themes that arose throughout the day that concerned the interaction between science the general public, and I am going to focus on one of them now and will return to the others in later posts. Now I am not an expert on the “general public”, whatever that actually is, but as I am not a scientist, I feel that I somehow belong that exo-scientific constellation and I speak from that situated location.

So I hear that the peer-review process is in crises. Now, I am not sure if all would agree with my assessment that the discussions portrayed such a dire situation, but that’s the way it seemed to me. In her presentation “The “Arseniclife” Debacle,” Rosie Redfield (UBC) discussed an article in Science that reported the existence of arsenic-based bacteria. After this research was published it was subject to intense critique and was subsequently refuted based on a number of outstanding problems (don’t ask me what they were, I didn’t get it and I don’t know).  Dr. Redfield led the audience in questioning how such major scientific problems in this, a NASA-supported research project, could have made its way through the series of checks and balances that have been traditionally trusted to safeguard against this very thing. While certainly the peer-review was not the only culprit (and indeed Dr. Redfield suggested other factors that were likely of greater consequence), the starkness of the error is outstanding.

So what’s the problem with peer-review? Well, nothing new here. Writers want readers, sellers want buyers, and everyone wants something new and exciting. Sometimes reviewers are selected based on their known sympathies for the subject of the pending paper, some reviewers are swayed by academic charisma of the research being presented, and sometimes even the pool of potential reviewers is assembled based on political prospects rather than on academic credentials and expertise. I’m sure there are many more reasons why this process is problematic, and I hope readers will bring me up to speed on all the other pitfalls, but the point is that the word on the street is this: Houston, we do indeed have a problem!

What struck me as particularly interesting is the way in which the conversation oscillated between how essential the peer-review process is and how problematic it is. If the issues are as severe as I heard, why not just abandon the whole thing? This reminds of the problem with marriage—it fails somewhere between 40-60 percent of the time (depending who you ask), and these stats do not even include those who may remain married even though they are miserable or those who remain married even though the partners are practically living separately. Yet everyone just keeps doing it, over and over. Abandon the whole idea? What? Society would crumble! Abandon peer review? The science sky would surely fall.

In my own research, I’ve recently been considering a legal case in the US in which the court was trying to sort out the scientific status (and legal status though it seemed that the legal status was secondary) of intelligent design. In this case, one scientist made the argument that science is as close as it comes to a universal language, and that the peer-review process is the essence of this language. ID is not considered science by most scientists because, among other things, its practitioners do not participate in traditional peer-review research forums (though ID advocates have built up a network of their own journals, conferences, etc).  But if the peer-review process is what keeps ID ‘science’ at bay, and peer-review is not really working well, then I, the general publican in the room, am nervous.

I wonder if it is not really the peer-review process itself that enraptures scientists but the ideal of peer-review. Scientists, to me, often seem to deal in prestige and credibility, and so it’s perhaps not the impact of peer-review on knowledge claims that is so important but rather the impact on the credibility of knowledge claimers. Perhaps the greatest value of peer-review is that it marks validation and acceptance into a selective social sphere entailing rights and privileges that diminish as the boundaries become more porous. If this is indeed the case, then it’s the presence not the practice of peer-review that really matters, and little wonder scientists are not really interested in seeing it abolished (I have a fun parallel argument for [or against, actually] marriage, but alas I must save it for another time and place).

I am actually not being cynical here at all. As a wary watcher of alternative religious ‘science,’ particularly those alternatives that are widely endorsed by a large proportion of the ‘general public,’ I am nervous about the democratization of science for lots of reasons. But on the other hand, this democratization has to a large extent already taken place. This was spectacularly evident in the presentation by Dr. Murray on “Liberation Therapy” for MS. Dr. Murray discussed how this therapy was widely endorsed and taken up by members of the general public and even the mainstream medical community despite a significant lack of evidence for its effectiveness and a good deal of evidence for its potential harmfulness.  People want to and do judge for themselves, and the governing bodies can easily find themselves at the mercy of great public pressure.

The main point that I want to make here is this: If scientists want to revamp the peer-review process, it might be more effective to be clear about what it is they are dealing with. Is it a process of knowledge adjudication, a process of knower adjudication, or both? That much of the conversation at this event focused on protecting/improving knowledge and knowledge claims seemed to me to be a shill for protecting the power and prestige of the scientific community (and the trustworthiness of science by extension), and there’s nothing wrong with that (at least not for me so long as it works to keep a rein on the political powers of pseudo-scientific initiatives, but this is a huge topic for another time). The task is made cumbersome by the tacit cloak of epistemic value. I have no idea whether or not good science can be done without peer-review, but I think that a lot of good science gets done in spite of it.

Citizens and Science: Really?

On Monday, October 21, 2013, Dr. Yves Gingras (UQAM) opened the Science and Society Sympoium 2013 with a talk entitled “The Transformations in the Relations between Science, Policy and Citizens.” Humorous and insightful, Dr. Gingras inspired a great deal of conversation and set the tone for a very productive three days that focused on how to improve the social-science interface. I begin here with an overview of the presentation which is followed by a short commentary.

Dr. Gingras began with a light-speed tour of the relatively recent emergence of what he calls “The New Science Contract.” Though by no means the first major shift in the in the relations between science policy and citizens, contemporary shifts in the landscape mark a return to a type of public science from a type of private science that had come to pass, in part, on account of the rise of instrumentation and sophistication of science that increasingly required specialized knowledge and skills. In many practical ways, these developments largely barred the layperson from participating in the scientific enterprise and established an obvious partition between science and the citizen.

Things are now very different and changing rapidly. With the burgeoning of the digital realm throughout all the nooks and crannies of the social world, not only have the ways in which knowledge is produced and disseminated changed, so too have the relationships between knowledge and knowledge practitioners. With a perpetual vetting of knowledge through public media forums, easy access to a wealth of knowledge repositories online, an increase of public interest in the impact of science (such as in the realm of environmental issues or medical interventions, for examples), “the doctor knows best” is no longer the powerful governing sentiment that it once was.

Dr. Gingras contrasted two models of the relationship between citizens and science. One model, the older more traditional model, entails a fairly linear chain of command, so to speak: citizens elect representatives who then articulate the government’s priorities in science and in turn entrust these priorities to the major funding agencies that then administer the dispersion of funds to specific research and technology development activities.  The newer model is much more web-like in that citizens now have representation not only by elected representatives but also by lobbyists and special interest groups. Citizens now have more direct access to the major funding bodies and elected officials can and do now intervene directly in research activities. Dr. Gingras presented a number of specific cases to demonstrate each of these relational developments. Fueled by better and more rapid access to knowledge, a more educated population, an ease in the organization and operations of special interest groups, and a competitive industry that transacts in science and knowledge claims, among other things, one might say that science has reached the end of normal and has been transposed into a post-normal realm.

An erosion of trust in research and truth claims is a central issue in the new scientific ethos. Who do we trust? What claims are reliable? As Dr. Gingras explained, it often does not take much digging under surface, particularly the highly publicized claims, to discover the beneficiaries. One finds that a fair number of good scientific initiatives and developments attract big industry and are harnessed to (and perhaps driven by) the industry’s economic objectives. The blogosphere is rife with campaigns for and against everything from vaccinations to caffeine, and these campaigns entail the embedding of arguments in the perceived power of scientific authority.  Who knows who or what to believe.

Okay, I think I understand the problem, and I am in no position to make a case for or against either of models, to echo Dr. Gingras.  Each, I am sure, have their advantages and drawbacks. A quick look around attests to the rapid evolution of science and technology which suggests that the older model has been working to some degree at least. One question I have, however, is whether or not the older model as articulated by Dr. Gingras represents how the relationship between science and citizens really worked or represents the conception or perhaps perception of how it worked.

This makes a difference because if it is a model of how the science actually worked (or works), then the term “citizens” functions as a rather unified homogeneous unit which washes over the distribution of power and influence at play within such a collective. In other words, if this is how science actually worked, then “citizens” renders the vision of a unit in which all members are equal with equivalent power and influence. Everyone gets one vote. In reality, political stratification is and has been a reality.

Indeed, the traditional model might well be understood as highly receptive to special interest groups in a way similar to that of the contemporary model, except that the number of groups are far fewer and unmarked. The special interest group(s) are those situated in the dominant realms of the “citizen” collective and can wield the power and influence that their position affords to access the processes of science at points conducive to their own agenda and objectives.

While there may indeed be special interest groups in the traditional model that are consciously organized and understood in the same way as they are understood in the contemporary model of science, I am more interested in pointing out the rather un(officially)organized and likely even unconscious interest groups that seem to have shaped the science-citizen relationship in significant ways. For example, feminist theorists have pointed to the ways in which science has long embodied androcentric values and norms. One result of this was (is), as Carla Fehr discussed in a separate talk at this symposium, a lengthy history of sharp misrepresentations of gender and sex, systemic mis-observations and disinterest in relevant and significant information. As Fehr explained, it’s not necessarily that scientists and knowledge practitioners were (are) necessarily ‘bad’ at what they did or that they had disingenuous intentions. More significantly, the science entailed the values and norms of the social context in which they developed. As a result, the interests of those citizens whose interests correspond with androcentric norms and values are taken up in the scientific process, at all points of possible entry. Though unnamed and unmarked as a special interest group in the way in which they are currently understood, and perhaps not even really fitting within the framework of this term at all, there seems to be a degree of commensurability in that one group of citizens among others had more (perhaps tacit but at least concentrated) access, influence, and impact on the scientific enterprise. Similar arguments could be made if one looked from the perspective of class, race, sexual orientation, and so on.

There is much worry about the erosion of trust inherent in the new network science model. But I wonder if the discomfort is really about a lack of reliability (or perceived lack) of science and scientific claims or about the transfer of power/influence from a concentration in dominant social factions to a dispersed and sprawling web of diverse people with diverse interests.

I don’t think, however, that a more democratic type of science in itself (whatever ‘democratic” might actually mean other than some basic notion of distributed political power), can offer any advantages in regards to challenging biases in science. It may appear that a system in which the many rather than the few have influence on the knowledge economy and participation in the scientific enterprise is better equipped to ensure that a diversity of interests are represented, but if cultural norms and values are not attended to and still entail serious social inequalities then they will continue to infuse the same biases—en masse rather than from concentrate. What I mean is that so long as our cultural norms and values embrace, endorse, sustain and reproduce dominant ideals to the benefit of some and detriment of others (in unethical proportions) such power discrepancies, such as those articulated in the feminist critiques of science, may indeed be more democratic but may not be any less hierarchical or bias and value laden.

Indeed, it seems to me that there is a risk that the democratization of science may entrench the biases even more. It’s one thing to petition a central governing body to reconsider the implicit values and assumptions of the conceptual framework in which the relationship between citizens and science is situated, but it’s quite another to motivate collective reflexivity and undertake a mass persuasion project.

I do not have anything close to a good solution, and in fact, I am not even sure if I have sufficiently articulated problem. I do think, however, that at the very least there are a number or worthy questions.

The Slow Fix by Ivan E. Coyote

Ivan E. Coyote is a transgendered writer/storyteller who grew up in the Yukon and now lives in Vancouver. This book is his latest and it is a compilation of short stories. The stories are not really fiction; they are based on real life experience, though I doubt that they would fit neatly into any one genre.

I really enjoyed this book. Along with being very well written, Coyote provides an insightful and fresh commentary on a host of social issues. I am particularly enamored with the ambiguous construct of gender that he portrays, and the way in which this ambiguity shapes daily experiences.


Marriage and Morals–Bertrand Russell

040211Well, I have not too much to say about this yet. I am interested in the particular alignment between the wife and the prostitute. Not that this idea is new to me, it’s just that this work seems to be particularly foundational.

As one goes through this blog there appears to be a divergent set of interests: sexuality in a cultural/social context and basic evolutionary topics. Though in many ways the topics are disparate, I find it interesting that hidden in many of the debates in evolutionary theory is an ideology of sexuality. This should not be surprising given that a, if not THE, primary concern of biology/evolution is reproduction/survival. But how does this sexual undercurrent compare with sexual ideology in the cultural/social sphere?

This is a particularly interesting question when one considers the extent to which sexual ideology–from must-be-monogamy to heteronormativity–are intertwined with theological and religious discourse and heritage. In the contention between science and religion, the questions of origins is a pinnacle issue, but might this contention be seen as a struggle over sexuality? Might the embeddedness of sexual ideology be a source from which the common ground can be extended beyond what current scholarship in this area already asserts?

Surely this issue is not as simple as I have just presented it. It is much more complex; however, I think this might be an interesting starting place.

Natural Kinds Pt 2

Natural Kinds: Rosy Dawn, Scholastic Twilight by Ian Hacking.


Basically and simply: there are no such things as “natural kinds.” Despite the fact that the concept has an endowed history and has functioned well for certain conceptual purposes (eg. as a mode of clear-cut classifying such as is required by the scholastic tradition), the concept is so theoretically saturated by varieties that it is now impotent.

The concept of natural kinds has not denigrated simply because continued research has grown the theory exponentially causing the plethora of strains to overshadow the original seeded theory and thus requiring a higher level theoretical noose. Rather, according to Hacking, the concept of natural kinds has within its essence a self-destructing thread.

Somehow, the hierarchical structuring of natural kinds (species, genera. families, orders) requires an “artifical” construction of grouping practices which precludes the possibility of natural kinds being natural in the first place.  In this paper there is no reasoning as to why, when something is constructed, it is then not natural. This natural category is always problematic.

“Kinds” then are those entities which can be grouped into some set with a specific name. Thus, natural kinds is a a nomilistic convention.

Natural Kinds

The Origins of ‘Natural Kinds’: Keeping ‘Essentialism” at Bay in the Age of Reform

Gordon McOuat

Intellectual History Review 19(2) 2009: 211-230

Essentialism-here refers to the idea that for any specific thing there is some absolutely necessary element(s) present thus allowing for a percise definition.

Natural Kinds-groups of entities that share a set of necessary and sufficient properties and exist in some real sense as a unified class. The classic example of a natural kind is the “electron” in physics.

This paper argues that contrary to standard historical perspectives on the historical relationship between essentialism and natural kinds–namely that essentialism is the seeded form of natural kinds leading to the classification of species as a natural kind–they are in fact counter-weighted such that the development of the concept of natural kinds coincided with a strategic decline of the concept of essentialism.

So how did this work?

Essentialism is criticized by philosophers of science as the scientific objective of discovering essences then developing percise definitions. While such may in fact be the objective, the actual practices of scientists (specifically of naturalists in the Darwinian era as is the focus of this paper) does not reflect this goal. Rather, naturalists sought to avoid the rigidity of essentialist ideology because it was divisive, limiting, and counter productive. Hence the rise of the concept of natural kinds.

Natural kinds–the grouping of entities according to an apparent shared set of commonalities shifts the onus of classification onto the beholder ( and away from the concept of something being firm, absolute and separate). This  allows the observer to draw on on “convention, tradition, and intuitive knowledge” (220).  Without the strict adherence to definition and logic as in the ideology of essentialism, the door is then open to allow for dynamism and fluidity in characterizing the natural world–thought by many to be a more accurate representation.

The problem that arose is that the understanding of natural kinds–species–becomes subject to the experts or those who know and hence becomes somewhat of a closed and protected system. Challenges to the system–which becomes important insofar as ideology within the natural sciences is connected to broader social-organizing practices and ideology–is very difficult.

This paper concludes by defining natural kinds as a type of boundary object that although is not strictly defined, is familiar enough to fit in a various contexts. It is fluid enough to accommodate a variety of concepts and firm enough to create coherence among diversity.


1. The author suggests that this issue is fueled by religion. Yet religious traditions at that time and place held humans as a species above the natural world at least to the extent that humans are spiritual and intellectual–so why did the philosophers/scientists of the day turn to the natural sciences to ground social and political thought?

2. If, as the author suggests, there have never really been any true essentialism, why do so many people believe there was and why did/does it have such an influence–much literature on the issue. On what is this debate founded?

3. Why do we look for absolutes? Clear definitions? Why this incessant need to know? Why not accept uncertainty?

4. Want to know more about boundary objects. How do they work? Evaluation criteria?