The Science Studies Colloquium Series takes place every Monday of the quarter from 4:00p-5:30p in Room 3027, Humanities & Social Sciences Building, Muir College campus, unless noted otherwise.
A reception for the colloquium speaker takes place before the talk from 3:30p-4:00p in Room 3005, Humanities & Social Sciences Building.
SSP faculty and students only
What can we gain by integrating the histories of Jews and science? What could such a synthesis teach us about science, Jews, or modernity? This talk will address these questions by focusing on the famed Judenfrage (the Jewish question), which asked, to borrow Marx’ terms, why was the political emancipation of the Jews not followed by their social integration and human emancipation? The question was quintessentially modern. It could not have been posed the same way in an earlier epoch that organized itself by faith and birth. And as a modern question, it had to be answered scientifically. The history of the Jewish question may provide us, then, with a useful lens to ponder the intimate relations between Jews and science in the modern era.
When we speak of the history of “biology,” most historians actually refer to the history of investigations on animals. History of the plant sciences is not only less cultivated by historians of science but also not very well integrated into a larger picture. Why is this? Under what circumstances does it make sense to talk about a history of biology that actually treats scientific investigations of animals and plants together? In this talk, I approach these questions through the problem of the alternation of generations in the mid-nineteenth century. This problem, which concerned the nature of complex life-cycles involving both sexual and asexual reproduction, engaged both botanists and zoologists beginning in the 1840s. But the histories written about it make no mention of the plentiful cross-talk about animals and plants appearing in the primary literature. My talk seeks to explain why, in relation to the larger historiographic fractures in the history of biology.
Battle conditions on the Western Front during World War I highlighted the existence of a series of whole-body threats to the human organism that transcended the dangers of immediate injury and the focus on antiseptics that dominated medical attention during the first year of the war. Shallow breathing, exhaustion, soldier's heart and wound shock became important motivators for a reconceptualization of the human body, and British and American physiologists paid close attention to the forms of bodily integration and collapse that they indicated. This lecture focuses on wound shock, an at first baffling condition that saw soldiers with apparently minor injuries undergo often fatal forms of collapse several hours after the injury and often while under surgical care. It examines the Anglo-American response which involved some of the most celebrated and influential physiologists and medical thinkers of the period, including Walter B. Cannon, William M. Bayliss, and Henry Dale, and it inquires as to the ways in which shock influenced homeostatic theory, the understanding of anaphylaxis, and the place of the invisible wound in the emergence of shell shock.
During World War II, the Allies created a propaganda campaign that used ‘luscious pin-up girls’ and anthropomorphized mosquitoes to convince soldiers to practice malaria discipline and limit their exposure to malaria-carrying mosquitoes. That mosquitoes were purposefully working to defeat Allied soldiers alongside the Axis countries or that mosquitoes were an additional enemy that were even more dangerous than Japanese or German soldiers were common tropes in this campaign. Posters, informational pamphlets, and calendars used caricatures of mosquitoes, such as those created by Dr. Seuss, along with attractive, scantily-clad women to portray mosquitoes as an organized fighting force, interested in claiming territory and defeating their enemy by transmitting malaria to unsuspecting or undisciplined Allied troops. This construction of malaria mosquitos as a spatially-situated enemy who was actively trying to increase its territorial holdings was also both reflected in and created through the military’s mapping of the location and size of mosquito populations as well as by the methods deployed to control those populations.
This talk will use archival maps, images, and documents to trace the genealogy of malaria, showing the central importance of these material geographies in the relationship between landscapes, humans, and mosquitoes and strategies for malaria control.
This talk uses the Saxon alchemist Anna Zieglerin (c. 1545-1575) to explore the ways in which Christianity served as a resource for alchemy in early modern Europe. While alchemists had long envisioned the philosophers’ stone as Christ, achieving its redemptive power only through a creative process that resembled the passion, Zieglerin focused instead on the Virgin Mary, likening the alchemist’s exceptional generative powers – working at once within and beyond nature – to Mary’s own motherhood. This connection allowed Zieglerin not only to posit a new role for the alchemist in sacred time, as someone who could help restore the world during the Last Days, but also to underscore the importance of the alchemist’s own body in fully realizing the art’s potential.
This talk addresses how a municipal government, through a sub-committee dedicated to health and wellbeing, evaluates scientific information designed to illustrate the efficacy of alcohol harm reduction strategies implemented by the city in question. We examine the how scientific (or explicit) knowledge informs this evaluation, as well as what other methods and means elected officials and bureaucratic experts use to determine if the local authority is responding to the real alcohol problem. This talk concludes with some editorial comment on the prospects of science informing government agendas.
A classic theme of STS (currently experiencing a renaissance) has been the examination of the politics of knowledge and/or how ‘scientific’ knowledge might contribute to the delivery and evaluation of public services (c.f. Knorr 1976; Shapin & Schaefer 1985; Pielke 2007; Collins & Evans 2002; 2009; Collins 2010). Equally, scholars and practitioners of government/governance have spent the last two decades advocating for more ‘scientifically informed’ systems of government evaluation under the rubric of ‘evidence-based decision-making’ (c.f. Aucoin 1990; Berridge and Thom 1996; Clarence 2002; Sanderson 2002; Bevir 2011). In the midst of these discussions, there is little empirical examination of what governors do with ‘scientific’ information, how ‘science’ helps officials see their populations and the governing problems they face. Using data gathered from a 13-month field study of elected officials and bureaucrats in action, this talk examines the various ways scientific information is presented, topicalized and addressed to and by elected officials, and how various forms of evidence are used to inform public service decision-making. Using a case study of a Health and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee, we attend to the nature of the evidence presented, and how that evidence is received and understood by elected officials, who in turn decide on the efficacy of this programme’s delivery. This talk will conclude with some editorial comment on the constraining nature of scientific methodology in seeing social problems, and whether scientific evidence (knowledge) can genuinely replace less structured ways of seeing and understanding health or social problems.
What does it mean to live in a criminalized ecology in the Andean-Amazonian foothills of Colombia? How does antinarcotics policy that aims to eradicate la mata que mata (the plant that kills) pursue peace through poison? Relatedly, what is the significance of cultivating a garden, caring for forest, or growing food when at any moment a crop duster plane may pass overhead, indiscriminately spraying herbicides over the landscape? Since 2000, the US-Colombia War on Drugs has relied on militarized aerial fumigation of coca plants coupled with alternative development interventions in the aim to forcibly eradicate illicit-based rural livelihoods. With ethnographic engagement among small farming families in the frontier department of Putumayo – gateway to the country’s Amazon and a region that has been the focus of counternarcotics operations – this article explores the different possibilities and foreclosures for life and death that emerge in a tropical forest ecology pushed to its metabolic limits. By following farmers and their material practices and life processes, this lecture closely narrates the way soils become an ally in rural resistance to the violence and criminalization produced by militarized, growth-oriented development. Rather than productivity – one of the elements of modern biopolitics – the stamina of these ecologies relies on organic decay, impermanence, even fragility, that complicates modern bifurcations of living and dying, allowing, this lecture argues, for ecological imaginaries and life processes that do not rely on productivity or growth to strive into existence.
Until the 1990s, molecular biology and genetics had been a kind of cottage industry of small laboratories, where researchers searched for single genes related to diseases using painstaking, time consuming methods. In the 1990s, geneticists began to build infrastructures as “short-cuts” to quickly find genomic markers that would lead them to the many genes they suspected were involved in common complex diseases. But each infrastructure was not enough, so they built another. At this time, we have layers of infrastructures, each supporting the other, each based on the previous. Genetics is now in a time of “big science,” “big data.” But infrastructures are not innocent. They carry with them practices, some of which have become embedded in the infrastructure. The Hapmap is one such infrastructure that incorporated notions of population differences that could be read as ancestral differences that some downstream users have read as racial differences. The infrastructures were built from the bottom up, but the knowledge outcomes are based on the practices embedded in each layer of the infrastructure. In a situation of uncertainty, ambiguity, and many folk assumptions about social differences, some geneticists, sociologists, media members, and members of various publics have read race into the clusters that were constructed using algorithmic technologies of difference. We conduct an archaeology of the assumptions and practices built into the layers of infrastructure, which we use to argue against the reading of race into genetic clusters.
The poorly compensated and willfully invisible infrastructural work of repair and resurrection performed in India’s poorly understood waste processing hubs underwrite the urban economy’s conditions of production. Such hubs are toxic sinks, where the waste generated as part and parcel of a growing capitalist space-economy is reprocessed and repurposed by workers and petty entrepreneurs numbering in the thousands, often drawn from historically stigmatized social groups. Even as they perform the double function of supplying recycled raw materials for capital accumulation while inoculating cities from the injurious effects of their own detritus, the people whose livelihoods are connected to these places are continuously abjected by the establishment, which views them with anxiety and loathing, as a nuisance, even danger, to the proper order of things. The waste infra-economy, in this respect, exemplifies the subaltern geographies of ur ban India.
SSP faculty and students only
‘Proof,’ Amy Scher, a Lyme disease patient who underwent embryonic stem cell therapy at NuTech Mediworld in New Delhi, wrote, ‘is not always in the Petri dish, it’s in the patients.’ For the stem cell therapy patients, who are increasingly traveling overseas for treatment, the patient has indeed become the clinic and the laboratory. Absence of accepted studies on how stem cell therapy works, combined with ethical, juridical, and cultural concerns, has meant that there is no way to know about such therapies except through the patients. And yet patients’ experiences have largely been ignored and commonly characterized as ‘false hope,’ both in media reports as well as in academic studies. In this presentation I analyze the experiences of patients and their ‘journeys of hope’ to NuTech Mediworld. My analysis, which draws on my observations in the clinic and patients’ experiences, instead of seeking to adjudicate whether embryonic stem cell therapy in clinics such as NuTech is right or wrong, true or false, focuses on how patients navigate and contest these concerns. In particular, highlighting the ‘lines of flight’ in patients’ experiences, I analyze how the transnational journeys of patients reflect ‘deterritorialization’ of several ‘regimes of truth.’
Amit Prasad is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at University of Missouri-Columbia. His research focuses on transnational and postcolonial aspects of science, technology, and medicine. He is the author of Imperial Technoscience: Transnational Histories of MRI in the United States, Britain, and India (MIT Press, 2014).
It is normally assumed that the concept of error (and related ones such as failure, pathology, and interruption) is a negative one, definable only in terms of an ideal of truth. In the era of digital technologies, error is something to be corrected. Yet philosophically speaking, error is not just parastiic on a truth that measures it. From Descartes to Heidegger, error names a fundamental condition of the human mind, its propensity to stray, as the etymology of error implies. In this context, the error is in fact a way toward truth, for the mind is always searching, exploring, even when straying. What would it mean to think the history of computerization and the truth of the digital from the perspective of error and failure, rather than truth and success? Surprisingly, at key moments in the development of digital technology the concept of error was in fact central to the project of simulating human minds and brains with computers.
Failing to See the Invisible
This presentation examines how we have come to know what we know about radiation health effects following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. The fallout from Chernobyl covered vast areas in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in Europe. Belarus, at the time a Soviet republic, suffered heavily: nearly a quarter of its territory was covered with long-lasting radionuclides. Yet the damage from the massive fallout was largely imperceptible; contaminated communities looked exactly like non-contaminated ones, and radiation caused no immediately observable bodily effects.
Similar to many other modern risks, radiation and its effects have to be made publicly visible. I argue that making visible is not a one-way process and describe the production of invisibility of Chernobyl’s consequences - that is, practices and conditions that displace radiation health effects as an object of public attention and scientific research, and make them unobservable. To illustrate the production of invisibility, I describe historical fluctuations in recognition of Chernobyl’s consequences in Belarus. I also consider why the affected populations cannot be assumed to be the most risk-aware. The analysis relies on archival research, as well as interviews with various groups of Chernobyl experts and residents of the affected areas.
In the narratives emerging from the new field of environmental epigenetics DNA is no longer figured as the master molecule or the blueprint for the adult organism; instead we hear stories of how gene expression is affected by the environment, stories of how organisms become with their surroundings. While this may offer a radical, relational understanding of life that could contribute to struggles for social and environmental justice, to date the most charismatic examples of environmental epigenetic studies still rely on conventional assumptions about social and biological difference. To push against these dominate narratives, this talk tells the story of unfamiliar model organisms: small crustaceans called “Daphnia.” Daphnia respond dynamically to their environment, changing from asexual to sexual reproduction in times of scarcity; they also grow protective helmets in the presence of predators, an adaptation they pass on to their daughters. This talk considers what we can learn about the relationship between organisms and their environment from the Daphnia and her clonal brood, weaving in the story of Daphne and Apollo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and recent scholarship from feminist science studies. This speculative feminist fable is designed to participate in the storytelling and world-making practices of contemporary environmental epigenetics, opening up different bio-political imaginaries for thinking epigenetic metamorphoses.
The Vegetal Sensorium
Plants, long renowned for their sensitivity and irritability, are now recognized to have the ability to sense -- and make sense of -- their worlds. Researchers in the fields of chemical ecology, plant physiology, and the emerging field of plant neurobiology are experimenting with plants’ remarkable sensory dexterities. They claim that plant response is not a passive, mechanical reaction to changing environments; rather, plants intervene actively in their worlds in response to subtle sensory cues. Though they have no nerves, they can “feel” and respond rapidly and intentionally to the subtlest of touch. Though they have no tongues, they can “taste” the saliva of the insects that feed on their leaves, and mount species-specific responses to herbivores. Though they have no noses they can “smell” minute differences in atmospheric chemistry and synthesize volatile chemical bouquets to communicate directly with other plants and insects. Their experiments appear to demonstrate that plants have memory and the capacity for learning and anticipation. This talk builds on conversations with plant scientists to explore how they grapple with the taboo of anthropomorphism as they render plants in terms familiar to the human sensorium. I argue that their practice is not just a one way imposition of human concepts on plant processes; rather practitioners’ intimate and mimetic sensory entanglements with plants set their analogies in motion, opening up a new genealogy of sense, sensibility, and sentience.
In the 1970s, Nigeria’s oil boom generated unprecedented state wealth, quite in contrast to a massive U.S. economic recession. During that period, U.S. and European multinational companies turned to Nigeria to manufacture drugs and sold them on what was then a significant and important foreign market in terms of sales. By the 1990s, brand name drug markets in Nigeria and throughout Africa were completely eviscerated and relocated elsewhere. What was once almost exclusively a brand name drug market is now home to mostly imported pharmaceuticals throughout the world, for which there are constant concerns over drug quality. The paper first discusses two simultaneous convergences that remade the West African brand name market: Nigeria’s structural adjustment program and the pharmaceutical industry’s turn to speculative capital. It then provides an overview of the kinds of markets and the kinds of drugs that emerged in the aftermath of brand name industry’s abandonment of the West African market. It concludes with a discussion on how actors within Nigerian and global drug markets interact with chronic, and indeed anticipated, market volatility in ways that produce new orders of pharmaceutical value.
Do ocean waves have a history? The question may sound odd: surely waves are simple facts of nature, matters of the substance of the sea. Waves may have diverse manifestations in marine and maritime lore, a variety of effects on economic and political enterprise, and a range of meanings for fishers, surfers, and swimmers. But as formal and material entities, the standard view might say, they are best known by a science arriving at ever-improving models of oscillation, undulation, and movement. Historians of oceanography have complicated such a view, documenting the changing systems through which scientists and seafarers have known waves. This presentation will go further, looking toward a future in which waves are not only known differently (though new kinds of computer modeling, for example) but also become differently composed material phenomena than once they were. Today's wave scientists and modelers are predicting that climate change may not only transform the global distribution of significant wave heights, but also may also (though the claim is controversial) amplify the frequency of rogue or freak waves, changing the world's wavescape in novel ways. This presentation will deliver a history of ocean wave modeling in order to anchor an ethnographic report on how scientists think about whether waves (canonically imagined as not evolving, not decaying, but repeating, periodic — cyclical avatars of the ceaseless sea) may be transforming in synchrony with the political, economic, and social scene of the Anthropocene.
SSP faculty and students only
Immersive Simulation and (Con)figurations of the Other
This talk sets out the motivating questions and initial analytic framing of my research in progress on the problem of ‘situational awareness’ within contemporary forms of (particularly U.S.) warfare. My focus is on the interfaces that configure war fighters to achieve ‘recognition’ of relevant subjects and objects, including the discriminations of us and them that are prerequisites for defensible killing. I’m interested more specifically in the logics and material practices of remotely-controlled weapon systems (particularly armed drones and weaponized robots), and military training simulations. These configurations reveal the complex relations of mediation and embodiment, distance and proximity, vulnerability and impunity that comprise contemporary warfare, as the virtual is infused with real figurations with their own material effects, and the real environments of war fighting are increasingly virtual. The primary empirical basis for this research is the archive of Flatworld, an immersive training environment developed between 2001 and 2008 as the flagship project of the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. I read the project through a frame inspired by Judith Butler's theoretical analysis of figuration’s generative agencies, to try to articulate further the training simulation’s discursive and material effects.
We tend to evaluate objects and people around us in two main ways: as types (i.e., having a particular quality) or as grades (i.e., being more or less). A broad review of examples from many different domains shows the very widespread applicability of this simple distinction, but it raises an obvious sociological question: under which conditions do we develop a "type" imaginary or a "grade" one? We dive into the world of wine, specifically contrasting the history of wine classification in Napa and Burgundy, to develop some answers.
In this paper I outline a theory of the imposter. I am interested in the so-called imposter syndrome, an affliction identified particularly with highly successful women in business and academia. I trace the history and etiology of this syndrome. Since it first appeared in 1978 as an “imposter phenomenon,” it is recognized collectively and publicly in public seminars and popular news articles, and is seen as a problem that women must overcome in order to achieve full success. The gurus of imposter syndrome propose a strange cure: bullshit, or, “fake it ‘til you make it.”
I lay out a hypothesis that theory is a form of imposture. To “impose” is “to put or place on something, or in a particular place,” “ to lay on or set something as to be borne, endured, obeyed, fulfilled, paid, etc.” One cannot lay theory lightly upon things. One must take great care to impose one’s ideas with a sense of responsibiilty to the truth. Theory is a burden for others to bear and we struggle mightily to put it in the right place.
The cure for imposter syndrome, we learn in the self-help press, is to bullshit. Bullshit appears as the opposite of imposture. The essence of bullshit, says Harry Frankfurt, is a “lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are.” For this reason, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies.” In contrast to bullshit, imposture appears in clearer relief. Imposture implies a deep commitment to truth, to placing theory in the right place. I am a careful imposter.