Interview with Shobita Parthasarathy

 

In October 2017, Jennifer Singh had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Shobita Parthasarathy, Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies, and Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, at the University of Michigan. Jennifer met with Shobita while she was visiting Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy to discuss her recent book, Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Patent Politics compares recent controversies over life form patents in the United States and Europe and demonstrates how political culture, ideology, and history shape patent systems in fundamental ways. Her first book, Building Genetic Medicine: Breast Cancer, Technology and the Comparative Politics of Health Care (MIT Press, 2007), compared the development of genetic testing for breast cancer in the United States and Britain. Findings from this book helped to inform the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case over gene patents.

The interview started with how Shobita came to STS after receiving a biology degree from University of Chicago and working in Washington D.C. in the White House Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Given her background in science and interest in critical issues in science policy, STS was a natural fit. She then shared with us her experiences in being a part of the June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated the U.S. patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2. Our interview ended with insight into her current research on the use of innovation to alleviate poverty and inequality, with a focus on India.

Singh: Tell me about your pathway into science studies?

Parthasarathy – I was always interested in law and policy. But I was good at science and then I was kind of galvanized by the Human Genome Project. I remember sitting there in some bioethics class in college at the University of Chicago, and realizing that it brought up interesting moral and social questions, and we needed to develop answers to regulate the new area of technology. More generally I just realized that there was a lot of emerging science and technology that raised serious issues, and needed regulation, but it wasn’t clear how this should be done. I wanted to think more critically about science and technology policy and how to make sure it benefitted society.

Singh: Is this what led you to work in Washington D.C. on human radiation experiments?

Parthasarathy: Yes. My first job in D.C. was pretty amazing for a first job out of college. This experience really piqued my interest in the political nature of science. I think I had that critical eye but the light just switched on and then I couldn’t turn it off. Then when I was looking for Ph.D. programs, I couldn’t find anything that really addressed these interests and I stumbled on Cornell’s STS program and I read people’s bios and I didn’t totally understand what they were saying but I was like, okay I think this is right.

Singh: Sign me up.

Parthasarathy: Yeah. It was natural. It was really natural but I had not been trained to think that way. I mean it’s so interesting for me now because I direct the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Michigan and so I deal with a lot of students and graduate students in science and engineering and it is such a wonderful moment when they see the social and political construction of science. I mean I know that for them sometimes it can be really fraught. I’m sure you’ve had this too when you flip the switch and they get it and they’re like, “Oh, wait a second, what am I doing.” On the one hand once they see it they can’t unsee it, and they become these extraordinary thinkers and they go to D.C. and do this amazing stuff. On the other hand I know that it’s hard because everything that they know gets turned on its head.

Singh: Science is not objective, science is not value free.

Parthasarathy: Yeah. I mean when it comes to these kinds of matters of innovation policy, too, it’s very difficult to be making arguments about how maybe it’s not really these systems that are in our interest. I mean I did that in my first book too. People would say, “Myriad Genetics, the company that held patents on the breast and ovarian cancer genes, is evil,” and I said, no, maybe our systems are structured in such a way that Myriad exists and that’s the issue. Myriad is just generally smart.
Singh: What are your thoughts about the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated patents on two genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, the BRCA genes, in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT)? This came after your first book.

Parthasarathy: I write about it a bit in my second book. I was involved in litigation a little bit – a lot actually. On the basis of my first book, the ACLU asked me to write an expert declaration for that book and the expert declaration got cited a lot in the Supreme Court decisions. This was pretty amazing.

Singh: Were you nervous about writing the declaration?

Parthasarathy: Yeah, because I was untenured.

Singh: Okay. So you were concerned about the political nature of writing the expert declaration?

Parthasarathy: Yeah. What made me feel better was that I was just about to go up for tenure so the decision was not exactly coterminous. I was also lucky because I didn’t have to be political really; the political act was in submitting the declaration. I had to do zero extrapolation since I was simply reporting the results I had already discussed in my first book: the BRCA gene patents clearly had negative implications for research and health care in the United States.

Singh: Okay.

Parthasarathy: Yeah. Since then, yes, I have become a little more engaged in public and policy discussions but that was the first major moment and I remember as it was happening – I was getting more calls and I was getting requests and I wasn’t doing much. I wrote one piece but then I realized that if I didn’t write the declaration I would regret it for the rest of my life. I had been involved in the discussions with the ACLU as they were developing the case and I had helped them along the way. I had one friend at the ACLU who emphasized that this was a major moment in my life.

Singh: And you couldn’t ignore it.

Parthasarathy: So my take on that ACLU decision is that it is a decision about the product of nature doctrine in patent law. It’s not a decision about access to research tools or healthcare. It is also the result of the ACLU being a singular entity that is both an outsider to the patent system and could therefore see the injustice more clearly, and an insider that could play the games of legal standing and legal argument. In the second book I talk about how the ACLU carefully played the game along the way.

Singh: They are not prevented by the expertise barriers that you talked about in the second book but actually get on the inside.

Parthasarathy: They find the holes in the barriers that usually keep outsiders out of the patent system. If you think about it as a fence, the ACLU figured out how to traverse this little thing and squeeze in and that’s why they never got taken seriously. That is what’s important; the ACLU didn’t get taken seriously because they were assumed to be an outsider, and the insiders assumed that the barriers would hold. That’s another way to think about it. The assumption from Myriad and the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) was that the barriers would hold and in fact at that first stage they did not take the ACLU seriously at all. In fact that was the moment when they needed to be taken seriously because the district court judgment totally excoriated the patent holder. So then Myriad was shocked and even then, Myriad and the PTO were still expecting that the Supreme Court would not take the case and that the appeals court would reverse the district court decision, which they did because the appeals court is always a pro-patent court. I think that they didn’t expect that the Supreme Court was ever going to get the case. After I attended the Supreme Court hearing on the case, my sense was that it was fairly certain that the Supreme Court would overturn, but they were not asking questions about access to healthcare. A couple of justices asked questions about research and competitiveness. So they were thinking about policy questions too. But at the end of the day they only cared about this question about product of nature. That is, is the gene a product of nature, or a technology? The hilarious thing is there is a whole discussion in the Supreme Court hearing about a magic microscope. The question was, if you had a magic microscope and you could see into the body, to what extent is the gene that you could see in your magic microscope the same as the gene that was isolated, purified and patented? If they’re the same then the gene shouldn’t be patentable because it exists in nature. But if they are different, then the gene is patentable. Interestingly the European Patent Office revoked the European BRCA patents long before the U.S. Supreme Court case, but because of different reasons. They allowed gene patents overall, but revoked the BRCA patents on technical grounds. But the Europeans also take the potential research and health care impacts of gene patents seriously, through compulsory licensing legislation and other kinds of things. I argue in the second book, then, that even though the U.S. looks more restrictive than Europe in the gene patent case, there are still very different political ideologies and environments that shape these legal decisions and their consequences.

Singh: So is the second book out?

Parthasarathy: It is out.

Singh: Maybe you could just tell me what led you to focus on a comparative analysis of patents processes and what led you to the specific cases you highlight in the book.

Parthasarathy: So I guess I’ll talk about it in two ways. The first is the specific case and the second is why a comparison. So the first question about the specific case is related to the first book. When I was doing the research for the first book I went to the opposition hearings challenging the BRCA patents at the European Patent Office and when I first went to them I thought they were so odd. My first inclination was that such a thing would not exist in the U.S. I was partially right and partially wrong. I was wrong because there had actually been a robust controversy in the U.S. but it had been shut down and reanimated in different ways. But I was partially right because that kind of institutionalized form doesn’t exist in the U.S. and that is also something that I sought to explain. The question eventually became why do these places think about life form patents so differently not just in terms of legally but at a more fundamental level politically and socially? Why do these different kinds of expertise get invoked? Why are there different kinds of institutional practices, different kinds of actors, and also different kinds of interests that emerge in those places? These were the questions that prevailed.

But the second question about comparison is that I find comparison to be a really useful tool and especially for science and technology because we in science studies or social studies of science and technology, are always in a position where we have to demonstrate that something that’s taken for granted, black boxed, neutral and objective is social and political. Comparison, I think makes that process a little bit easier and it forces me to keep interrogating the object. I found that very much to be the case even more so in the second book than in the first book, which is also a comparison. In the first book, the object is stable. I was trying to understand a genetic testing system. In the second book, the object wasn’t stable and I had to keep asking new questions relatively late in the process. I think after the book had gone through the first round of review that I realized that it wasn’t just that the systems were different and the patents were different; it was that actually the interests were totally different too, so that was also something that I had black boxed. I had fallen into the positivist trap of assuming interests were identical but quickly realized that’s also something that needs to be explained. I wouldn’t have known to open that up if I hadn’t had to keep looking at these two different processes and keep asking myself, “why are these things similar or why are these things different?” In addition, I think if I had only focused on one place I’m not sure that I would have been able to get the variety of ways in which the context shapes the objects that I was trying to explain and as I said also influences the shape of the objects not just their presence or absence.

Singh: So the new book investigates the BRCA patents (Breast Cancer Gene 1 and Gene 2)

Parthasarathy: Yes, but it looks much more broadly at the whole history of controversies over life form patents in the United States and Europe. So, it starts with the first debates over life form patentability, and then looks at controversies over patents on genetically modified plants and animals, stem cells, cDNA, and then finally human gene patents.

Singh: Do you think the Supreme Court decision really changes much because cDNA is still patentable?

Parthasarathy: So there’s a paper that just came out that says that in fact it did. I was skeptical but it sounds like the patent office is taking it seriously and so it is not allowing certain kinds of claims anymore. So in that respect it is, but that was a narrow analysis. My suspicion would be that the companies are just finding other ways to patent, which is smart and is fine I guess. I think the other thing that people say is that it’s also less of an issue because you’re no longer looking at single gene tests so the importance of that decision is yet to be determined.

Singh: Now we have chromosomal microarrays and human genome sequencing that analyze hundreds if not thousands of genes.

Parthasarathy: Right. That’s part of why the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court decision wasn’t about these broader ethical and social questions is a problem. I mean it doesn’t capture the broader set of questions, which hasn’t gone away. We don’t have any systematic way of regulating anything. We cannot figure out a systematic way to regulate genetic testing. In my first book I sort of joke about the parade of advisory committees. You could argue that from the 1970’s they have been offering systematic methods for regulating genetic testing.

Singh: And nobody has followed it. Yet, there is always a new committee.
Parthasarathy: Every new committee begat another committee and now people are concerned with 23andMe. The FDA’s approach to 23andMe did not actually suggest they had developed a systematic approach. They just regulated what 23andMe could say about what it was doing. It’s sort of like an on/off switch rather than a systematic approach. In the book I talk about the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority in Britain as being another model. So now they’re part of National Health System (NHS). I think they were a separate institution now they’re part of the NHS but one of the things I’m fascinated by in this space is how can you think systematically about these kinds of questions in a policy space and what is especially the American resistance to doing so? We are completely resistant to thinking about moral and socioeconomic issues as in any way systematic that could inform policy.

Singh: So I’m really curious about your new research in India and how you’re engaging with issues of poverty, science and technology. It was very vague on your blog.

Parthasarathy: That’s because it is evolving! I feel like every two weeks it’s getting more concrete. I’ve always been interested in these issues but I’ve come at them indirectly and I think I just reached the point where I want to focus centrally on these questions. So the way that I’ve structured the project is that I’m interested in technologies that are meant to directly help the poor. How do we decide what looks like a good pro-poor technology, and why do we continue to invest in these technologies even when there isn’t necessarily interest among the users? So I’m looking at it in two ways politically. One is institutionally. So I am looking at the new institutions of development at the international, national and local level, at governmental, NGO, philanthropic activity etc., and asking questions such as: How are they structuring these initiatives? What kinds of things are they funding? How do they structure them? Then, I’m looking at four technologies and I come to this with an interest in why it is that invariably these technologies are controversial or mixed at best and useless at worst. So the four technologies that I’m focusing on here, which have been of questionable impact are: clean cook stoves, toilets, sanitary pads and watershed management for agriculture. Microfinance could be fit into this space, local banking could fit into this space and sometimes they work in one context but then they don’t work when they are expanded. That’s often what happens. In fact, some of my preliminary research shows that these institutions are totally focused on questions of scalability and use provocative language, which is appealing for sociologists and STS scholars because they talk about how culture can be changed to fit the technology. It’s sort of like fix the context not the technology. That’s actually the language that the World Bank’s grant making program uses, suggesting that any technology can be scalable so long as it comes with appropriate behavioral or communication strategies. That’s one dimension of it.

Then there are the cases. I’ll talk about the sanitary pads example because I think it’s incredibly interesting and I’m in the midst of doing that work now and I’m totally fascinated by it. So I’m interested in how sanitary pads become a development intervention in the first place. I’ve been tracing the intellectual history and what’s fascinating about it is it requires all of this kind of political machinery. It requires a set of statistics that travel with the technology that underline the need for that technology but the statistics are totally disembodied and pretty dubious. I had a research assistant try to trace these statistics and one of the things that I think is super fascinating is that you can have some questionable data that’s never interrogated; data that’s all from one place and partial in these settings they are used to justify certain kinds of policy interventions, whereas in other places the science gets infinitely interrogated. So what is it about this space where it doesn’t get interrogated; it fits neatly into the millennium development goals so everybody’s like “look we have a technology that can solve the problem of gender equity and sanitation” but sanitary pads are generally not used and accepted. And at the same time, the woman is being constructed as backward as non-innovative.

Singh: As unsanitary.

Parthasarathy: As unsanitary, as a victim. So they’ll often say traditionally women used rags or ash or cornhusks. So you can use the word cloth that’s the same as a rag. But you don’t use the word cloth, which is important and interesting. But also they neglect to say that most disposable sanitary pads have wood pulp in them, so in fact the most modern technologies also have elements that seem strange. And yet we don’t question that.

Parthasarathy: Nobody is saying, women have innovated their way into addressing their menstrual needs in a particular way. Let’s go from the way that women have innovated already to the next levels. I mean that does not seem to be the case.

Singh: It’s not the starting point.
Parthasarathy: No, it’s not starting there. Instead, they say, look at these social innovators and entrepreneurs, usually male, who are solving this problem for poor and rural women. But that’s also partially because they would never see those women as innovators and if you did you might see the issues totally differently. And then of course there’s the next stage, which I haven’t yet seen in the sanitary pad space but in cook stoves and toilets and you see it elsewhere, is to conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT). Because yes we agree the development interventions are often failures so let’s do an RCT. Any science studies scholar would say, “okay well this RCT is shaped by the same politics as the original intervention.” The other dimension of this is that India is particularly interesting because it actually often really respects what I call bottom up approaches because that is seen as Gandhian. So there’s traditional knowledge that’s valued in interesting ways but there’s also actual efforts to foster grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship. But those ideas for using technology to help the poor, or recognizing that the poor can produce technology, don’t travel in the way that microfinance and global banking travels. International institutions don’t sanction them and I think part of the analysis has to try to understand what is it about the political machinery that values certain kinds of moveable, scalable interventions over others.
So that’s kind of where I am. I now see my work as taking a critical approach to innovation. Innovation is built on this assumption that it, by its very nature, is going help us. I think where I’ve been the most infuriated has been around issues of justice and equity and distributional concerns. In the cases that I’m looking at here, these are usually not interventions that these people asked for. So other people decided that they needed these kinds of interventions; that they needed access to these technologies. The users may say, “No, I want access to those other technologies.” The systems are not designed to address that. The efforts of development scholars, STS scholars, to say participatory methods, deliberative democracy, and to push all of this stuff, that is not being heard. That’s another dimension of this question of who is asking for the access and access to what exactly? My effort is to try and bring a social science lens to these critical questions.

Call for Nominations

CALL FOR NOMINATIONS FOR SKAT COUNCIL MEMBERS AND STUDENT REPRESENTATIVE

Want to get involved in SKAT governance? Now’s your chance! In Spring 2018, SKAT will hold elections for 2 Council Members (3-year term) and 1 Student Representative (2-year term). Please send nominations and contact information, including self nominations, to Scott Frickel (Chair, Nominations Committee) by Sunday, January 7, 2018.

Interview with Victoria Pitts-Taylor

Jennifer Singh caught up with Victoria Pitts-Taylor, Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University and winner of the 2017 Robert K. Merton Book Award for The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (Duke University Press, 2016). Her book was also awarded the Feminist Philosophy of Science Award from the Women’s Caucus of the Philosophy of Science Association. In our interview, Professor Pitts-Taylor discussed key theoretical lessons of her book, insights on neuroplasticity, and future directions of this work.

Singh: Congratulations on winning the Robert Merton Book Award.

Pitts-Taylor: Thank you. I am very honored.

Singh: What inspired you to write The Brain’s Body and what are the main theoretical lessons your book offers for sociology of science and technology?

Pitts-Taylor: I got really interested in this topic in part because I am interested in how neuroscience is being taken up in all of these different fields, including sociology, although not as much as some other fields like economics.  The neuro-turn worried me a lot, not because I wasn’t interested in the brain and neurobiology, but rather because our field was at risk of taking up neuroscience uncritically.

My background is interdisciplinary, and my STS interests and feminist training taught me to be critical of scientific knowledge, and I saw a lot of inroads that neuroscience was making in the social sciences without that kind of robust critique of how that knowledge production was happening.

At the very same time on the other side, social neuroscientists have become the sociologists and philosophers of our era. So, I think, it’s really important for sociologists to be literate and critical and not just skeptical of scientific knowledge. Some of us are trained to do that and others are not. So, when I started the project I had to learn about neuroscience. But the project was never intended to merely be a critique. I took Bruno Latour seriously when he said, “it has run out of steam.” So, I am also interested in materialism and biological aspects of body and the embodiment. Taking all of those different threads and weaving them together was my goal.

In terms of what lessons there are for sociologists, I think of the book as one road map. One way you can think about how to try to do an assessment of scientific knowledge without being skeptical, while remaining critical. One of things I think sociologists have to offer is a really robust and nuanced sense of what social difference is. When we read social neuroscience we get frustrated at that kind of rudimentary classifications that are sometimes used in terms of race, class, gender and so on, or if any are used at all. So there are an awful lot of claims about neurobiology that either ignore difference or use rudimentary notions of difference. We have a lot to offer to 21st century knowledge if we are scientifically literate.

Singh: Can you tell us more about your approach to feminist new materialisms and new ways of thinking about the body?

Pitts-Taylor: If you read only one chapter of the book you might come away from the idea that it is a critique of neuroscience. But if you read the whole thing, you will see that there are counter-moves that I am trying to make where I really try to take neurobiology as seriously as it needs to be taken. In the fourth chapter especially I really push the idea of what it would mean for feminist theory, queer theory and the sociology of gender to take neurobiology seriously, which we can’t do without being critical of the heteronormativity of the literature on oxytocin, kinship, and attachment. But if we include a critique and robust sense of the pitfalls of making claims of kinship and attachment based on heteronormative models, none the less, we can still think about the neurobiology of attachment and social bonding as a really interesting place to look for resources to understand the stakes of the regulation of kinship. Drawing on the neurobiology literature, what I argue in this chapter is that biological relatedness does not need to be genetic or blood based. I argue that close intimate interactions with other people we care for changes our biology. So, biological relatedness need not be based on a reproductive heteronormative model. If you bring a queer and feminist critique to a deep interest in neurobiology you get a totally different idea of what biological relatedness could be, which I think is really exciting. This kind of relatedness is material ;  includes the body. It includes feelings. It includes more than symbolic representations of discourse.

Singh: The idea of plasticity is an interesting component of your book. What is plasticity and how do you think through this idea in The Brain’s Body?

Pitts-Taylor: Neuroplasticity is a huge area of neuroscientific research and it’s really part of the turn in the late 20th and early 21st century toward new biological models that also includes epigenetics. The idea of plasticity is that the brain is not only developmentally plastic in terms of being able to grow and change in its early years. Increasingly, it is understood as plastic throughout life. So even in adult brains, there is potential for significant morphological changes. Which is really great news. There are a lot of people who have been really interested in plasticity beyond the clinical potential. So what is it mean for nature and nurture? If we have a bifurcation of nature and nurture then we have a very brief developmental plasticity early on. We really get brains that are fixed for life. But if we have this open-ended plasticity then suddenly nurture has a whole lot more to do.

In the chapter on plasticity I take up the implications for some significant social differences like sex/gender and class. I’m looking at sex/gender – using those two terms together as one, like as Anne Fausto-Sterling does – as one place where the politics of the body have come up to the shores of the new neuroscience. People are really excited about plasticity because it means, for example, even if we find differences in adult male and female brains we no longer have to assume that those difference were genetically hardwired, but rather we could explore how socialization could make a difference in creating different kinds of brains. What you get is a biologically deep biosocial understanding of the brain. However, what I try to show is in various ways that plasticity is this really, really broad umbrella concept in neuroscience that in practice actually means different things in different research programs. So there are different kinds of plasticity, there are different processes that are considered to be plastic. There are still different life stages that are thought to be more plastic than others. The different regions are considered to be varyingly plastic. Adding these all together what you get is an economy of plasticity. So if you have something like, in research on the adolescent brain, an immature pre-frontal cortex and a mature amygdala. When some neuroscientists map that on to a localized view of brain function, then can make arguments like, “adolescents have poor executive function and overactive anger issues,” which confirms our cultural biases.

In research on class, you might get a really interesting biosocial picture of how class difference can have neurobiological effects. It really matters then how plastic the brain is and for how long. Are we now going to declare that people are who in the lower social classes have different brains that are fixed for life? The politics are really troubling. And so what I try to show is that plasticity is not a Band-Aid or a prescription for the problems of biological reductionism and determinism, because plasticity is deployed in multiple different way and means many different things. Plasticity gets arrested at different times in different research programs.  Eleanor Maguire’s studies looked at taxi drivers in London who learned the 25 thousand streets of the city to take the license test, and she and her colleagues found some volume growth in the hippocampus. This research was hailed as evidence that the adult brain can change based on learning, which is really exciting. But she also found that some people pass those tests and some people do not pass the test. Maguire speculates that some people have more plastic hippocampi than others. So plasticity is not universally distributed and there is an economy to it. Neuroplasticity is becoming one of the new frontier of social difference, like epigenetics. Because of this, I think that we really need to learn how to read this work and pay very careful attention to the kind of political claims that might be attached to them.

Singh: If you were to write an epilogue, what would you include?

Pitts-Taylor: I dealt only a little bit with race in this book and I would like to return to that. The research that I write about in the book is ostensibly colorblind. But if you read it through a critical race lens you can see that there are actually a lot of racial implications to research on poverty and the brain. Some of my current writing and thinking right now are about how I can understand race as a ghost variable. Like how race is actually operating in this work even though it is ostensibly not there, and what are the racial implications of making claims about poverty, which is a highly racialized phenomenon even if researchers don’t think that they are studying race.

I am also interested in exploring the chronopolitics more than I did in The Brain’s Body. As I mentioned before, there are speculations that some groups are more plastic than others; that some people with certain kinds of experiences actually have the plasticity of the brain reduced. But what really matters here is time. How long does plasticity last? When does it get arrested? I want to address plasticity in chronopolitical terms and there is a lot more thinking to be done.

Interview with Natasha Myers

David Peterson (Northwestern) spoke with Natasha Myers, Associate Professor of Anthropology at York University and winner of the 2016 Robert K. Merton Book Award for Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter (Duke University Press, 2015). In the interview, Professor Myers discussed theoretical innovations and the next directions of her work.

David Peterson: What is the thesis of your book?

Natasha Myers: This ethnography develops new methods in sensory anthropology to show that that science is more and other than what we have long thought it was. It tracks the life science researchers who model the molecular substructure of living bodies, and documents in vivid detail the embodied, sensory, affective, performative, and aesthetic dimensions of scientific practice and pedagogy. The book takes readers into laboratories and classrooms where practitioners in the arts of molecular modeling go to great lengths to cultivate their skills, and to teach others how to see, feel, imagine, and know what they know about the molecular realm. A central claim of the book is that while these researchers publicly avow mechanistic approaches to the sciences of life, relying heavily on machinic metaphors to describe molecular forms and interactions in the texts they publish, close ethnographic attention to the ways they animate molecular life through stories, and through their articulate movements and gestures, shows that more often than not, practitioners deviate from these conventional scripts. Indeed, by documenting renderings of molecular life that waver between the machinic and the lively, this book shows that mechanism, even in twenty-first century life science, has failed to fully disenchant living matter. Asking “What is life becoming in modelers’ hands?” this book amplifies an otherwise muted liveliness inflecting mechanistic accounts of the stuff of life. In their hands, living matter becomes excitable.

Peterson: How do you see this book contributing to studies in feminist technoscience?

Myers: This book takes inspiration from works by Donna Haraway (1991, 1997), Lucy Suchman (2007), Karen Barad (2007), and many other scholars who develop feminist and queer methodologies to examine forms of performativity, affect, agency, embodiment, and objectivity in science. Feminist technoscience is also particularly attuned to the fraught relations between power and knowledge, and between epistemology and ontology, and these are also prominent themes in the book. One of the primary ways Rendering Life Molecular contributes to this literature is by documenting a group of scientists whose practice of objectivity closely resembles Haraway’s (1988) articulation of “situated knowledges.” These molecular modelers acknowledge and even celebrate the profound contributions they make to producing and securing robust visual facts, and they accentuate, rather than disavow, the role embodied knowledge plays in this process. Indeed, for them, objectivity is measured not by their efforts to detach themselves from their objects, or through forms of automation that would keep their subjectivity at bay; but rather, by their willingness to give themselves over to the laborious process of model building, and allow their objects to inform and transform how they see, feel, and know the molecular realm. This book tunes into the stories scientists tell about their intimate relations with their objects of study, and hitches a ride on scientists’ gestures and movements in order to document the affective entanglements of inquiry in the life sciences. Where forms of “mechanical objectivity” would disavow these entanglements, molecular modelers insist on accounting for how they know what they know, on the partiality of their knowledge, and on locating their unique contributions to crafting visual facts. In this way, they demonstrate what feminist objectivity might look like in practice.

Peterson: Can you talk a bit about the central metaphor of your book? How did you come to the concept of “rendering”? How did it evolve?

Myers: Rendering is a widely used term in computer modeling to describe the processing of images to make them appear three-dimensional, but it also has much older and wider meanings, such as when it is used to describe the process of giving oneself over to a practice, or defined as the act of inflecting or infusing a quality into some thing. The concept of rendering took shape for me while I grappled with ways to understand both the performativity of visual facts in science, and how the visual cultures of science are simultaneously performance cultures. What I came to see is that the models that these scientists build are more than just representations of the molecular realm. I was finding that when molecular models were treated as representations at the end-stage of model building, they could at best gesture at the probable configurations of atoms in a molecule, and as such they tended to induce significant epistemic anxieties about the limits of scientific vision and the epistemic failures of scientists. When treated as renderings, however, models became not just things that stand in for knowledge or phenomena; they could also be seen as enactments or performances that generate new ways of knowing and things known. By treating models as renderings I could redirect my ethnographic attention to the practices of model building and the ways that modelers’ kinesthetic knowledge and intuitions shape and are shaped by the molecular realm. The concept of rendering could also shed light on the performative effects of visual facts: to engage models as renderings is to insist that they do more than just re-present molecular phenomena. Indeed, these models rend the world in some ways and not others, pulling, bending, and tearing at the world to render life molecular.

Peterson: You develop the notion of “haptic vision” to provide a richer account of how scientists draw on their sensory capacities. Can you discuss how kinesthetic entanglements either undermine or expand traditional notions of objectivity which tend to rely on a much narrower concept of scientific “vision” as that which can be explicitly represented and reproduced?

Myers: The concept of “haptic vision” is not new, but it acquires new significance in light of the challenges that molecular modelers face in their efforts to make the molecular realm visible, tangible and workable. Protein crystallographers and other molecular modelers have no direct visual access to the molecular structures they hope to make visible, tangible, and workable. In order to build a three-dimensional atomic-scale model of a protein molecule, they must enmesh themselves in complex technological prostheses in order to decipher probable structures from the scattered shadows of X-ray diffraction patterns. Model building is a hands on, laborious, and often wayward process, and to date, methods for deciphering molecular structures from diffraction patterns have not been fully automated. As such, modelers must rely extensively on trained intuition, tacit and embodied knowledge, and aesthetic judgment. Building a model is an affectively charged performance that engages a modeler’s entire sensorium. It is in the process of building and manipulating their models that modelers’ perceptions, sensibilities, and dexterities are entrained to molecular forms and movements. As a modeler builds their model onscreen, they simultaneously articulate an embodied model, to such an extent that the richest, most detailed model of their molecule comes to reside in their kinesthetic imagination. In the process, modelers’ bodies become the most articulate proxies for rendering molecular forms and movements. Molecular modeler’s vision is thus profoundly haptic; that is, what they come to see and know is shaped by a synesthetic tangle of touch, movement, kinesthesia, proprioception, imagination, memory, and intuition. Getting to know what molecules “look like” is not a detached, disembodied, or neutral process; it involves practitioners’ learning to palpate imperceptible realms, and cultivate a feel for the molecular realm (cf Keller 1983). Objectivity, for these practitioners, is thus profoundly situated, embodied, and felt, and the most robust visual facts are those that can be enacted through the articulate bodies of expert crystallographers.

Works Cited
Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007)

Haraway, Donna J., ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives’, Feminist Studies, 14 (1988), 575–99

Haraway, Donna J., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991)

Haraway, Donna J., Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997)

Keller, Evelyn Fox, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1983)

Suchman, Lucy, Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions, 2nd Expanded Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Are We Complicit? Talking Social Constructionism in the Age of Trump

by Owen Whooley

Like many, the presidential election has left me with a profound sense of unease. This unease operates on three registers, the combination of which concoct a veritable witch’s brew of angst.  The first is the unease I feel as a citizen, concerned about the state of our democratic institutions.  The second is the unease I feel as a sociologist, who despite claiming some expertise on, you know, society, didn’t see this coming (and worse, insisted throughout the election that a Trump presidency would never happen).  Both of these sources of unease have received their due attention in election post-mortems and hallway discussions with my peers.  However, it’s the last sources of disquiet that’s the bitterest to swallow, for it raises inconvenient questions regarding the way I think about the world.  I fear that I, as a social constructionist, have contributed to the mess in which we find ourselves.

Did my research, and the research of my like-minded peers, lead us, in some small way, to this point? Can we draw a line, however circuitous and indirect, between decades of critical science studies and the Trump administration’s “alternative facts”? Is the phenomenon of fake news a logical, albeit extreme, destination on a slippery slope we created? And if so, what does that mean for SKAT going forward? How do we defend a politics of “truth” when we’ve published reams of paper problematizing that very notion?

For me, these questions have crystallized around the March for Science (https://www.marchforscience.com/). As someone dismayed by the administration’s denigration of science and its propagation of falsehoods, I’d like to support these efforts and not just from a distance. I want to create a clever sign and march along.  But I can’t escape the tension between scientists’ professed commitments to objective, apolitical knowledge and my life’s work. Can a sociologist of science become a sociologist for science?  Would marching be hypocritical? Would I even be welcomed?

After all, before the administration’s War on Science – waged via climate denialism, threats of defunding and hostile cabinet appointments – we had our own Science Wars – waged via laboratory studies, philosophical tracts and snarky hoaxes published in academic journals.   Admittedly, our war carried more modest implications; at stake was disciplinary politicking and intellectual prestige, not the future of the planet.  But I can’t shake the sense that our war has fueled theirs. I worry that what we’re witnessing has its roots in our critical research, which has (rightfully in my mind) taken science and expertise down a peg.  I’m concerned that decades of undermining “that noble dream” of objectivity, of applying a symmetry principle in assessing knowledge claims, and of revealing the extra-scientific factors that shape “facts” have become parts of the arsenal for this administration’s full-throttled assault on reality.

My training antedated the height of the Science Wars.  By the time I came around, an uneasy truce had been declared.  And while social constructionism is by no means commonsense – at least not in my discipline of sociology – it won’t get you laughed out of the room or pilloried as a dangerous subversive.  Under the big tent of sociology, we now have a home base in SKAT, from which to launch novel forays into social constructionism. With the headiest days of battle behind us, this cozy niche is sheltered from the vexing criticisms that were so often hurled at the social constructionists in the past. Perhaps naively, I have been able to avoid the stickier issues and tougher challenges that a commitment to social constructionism entails.  I can avoid these no longer.

I wonder if, safely ensconced in our own bubble, we missed the political threats our research carries.  In the wrong hands, our nuanced, laborious analyses have become weaponized.  Sure, we’ve long known about the “production of doubt” and the venerable tradition of using science to serve political ends.  But did we ever consider that our efforts might lead us to something like Trump?

This administration’s approach to knowledge – if we can call it one – represents something distinct, if not in kind, then certainly in degree.  Their promotion of the most easily debunked falsehoods presents, simultaneously, a less sophisticated strategy and a more pervasive challenge. Curiously, in its baldness, it’s easier to identify (it fools nobody who hasn’t consented to being fooled), but harder to combat.  In this way, the treatise of our time is not Orwell’s 1984 but a slim book by Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.  Read with an eye to contemporary events, Frankfurt seems to be describing Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Sean Spicer when he argues that bullshitting is more cynical than lying. At least liars, in lying, acknowledge that it matters what is true.  Bullshitters are not at all concerned about whether anything is true; they assert what needs to be asserted to convey a desired impression, with no concern that these assertions meet any sort of empirical test or even should. The Trump administration feeds us a false dystopian picture of the U.S. in which the economy is in shambles (it’s not), the murder rate is at a 40-year high (wrong), the “inner city” is a war zone (it isn’t), hordes of violent immigrants are pouring over our Southern border (they’re not), and all Muslims are potential agents of ISIS (c’mon).  Shameless, their bullshit is immune to practices like fact-checking, which draw their strength from shaming. The embarrassment that results from being caught in a lie serves as perhaps the most important failsafe for civic and civil discourse. Without it, everything becomes just bullshit noise meant to distract from the blunt exercise of power.

Has our social constructionism provided tools and legitimating cover for this excrement? At our core, social constructionists believe that argumentation, honest debate, and intellectual rigor matter; otherwise we would have chosen another craft. But by whittling away at truth, have we unwittingly undermined the possibility of reasoned discussion?  By raising such concerns, I don’t intend to reignite the science wars. Nor do I think it’s productive to resort to tired debates over what social constructionism is, to spend hours cataloging and comparing its variations along a spectrum of weak to strong, or to once again take up arms against the bugaboo of relativism.  Rather I want to call attention to the effects of social constructionism, however unintended they might be.  I want to encourage a collective, sober reflection, to look ourselves in the mirror and assess our culpability.

My brand of social constructionism has deep roots in American pragmatist philosophy. With William James, I share an abiding appreciation of “blooming, buzzing confusion” of human experience and the limits of our minds to comprehend it in all its multidimensionality.  With Charles Sanders Peirce, I recognize the social, communal nature of knowledge production. With John Dewey, I reject the “quest of certainty” and in its place, insist on democratic processes that engage an educated citizenry. With pragmatism in general, I refuse to separate thought from action and note that the acceptance of a belief is dictated by its practical effects, its “cash-value” to use James’s admittedly problematic metaphor.   But where do these cherished notions leave me today?  Having renounced external validators of truth and sullied science with practical political and social concerns, have I reduced knowledge to a mere trial of strength or worse, adjudication via the Electoral College? Trump often parries criticisms with the retort that he won the election.  This rhetorical move, unsubtle as it is, speaks to the imbrication of knowledge and power, the way in which might can dictate right – essentially a key insight of social constructionism.  As Trump puts this insight of ours into problematic action, a nettlesome doubt creeps in. Might everyone be better off if we left well enough alone?

Like so many things these days, I just don’t know.  I’m not ready to jettison the project of social constructionism, which has achieved a deeper understanding of science.  But I also fear that decades of deconstructing the soapbox have left us without a leg to stand on in the current fight. And worse, I’m worried that we have armed our enemies.

Given the urgency of the situation, I believe that it would be neither wise, nor responsible, for the SKAT community to duck these difficult questions.  This moment demands of us the courage to interrogate our convictions. We need to talk about social constructionism in the Age of Trump.

 

SKAT Council Publishes Statement on Trump Administration and Congress

On February 14, 2017, the SKAT Council voted unanimously to adopt the following policy statement. 

Statement of American Sociological Association Section on Science, Knowledge, and Technology (SKAT) Regarding Recent and Future Actions of the Trump Administration and Congress

The free exchange of ideas is a core value of democratic societies and the foundation of research and academic scholarship. In recent weeks, this principle has come under sustained threat by the new Trump Administration. The immigration ban issued by the Administration on 27 January prevents the movement of international students and scholars into the US, undermining the scientific community’s vibrant internationalism and broad commitment to equality. Confirmation of several Cabinet-level appointments threatens a future in which informed public policy is based on the findings of scientific and scholarly research. Similar threats from Administration officials target the well-established need for affordable healthcare for all Americans and a global commitment to reduce the human causes of climate change. Perhaps most concerning of all, these threats are often aimed at the public institutions that ensure open debate and a respect for empirical evidence: the academy, the media, and the judiciary.

We oppose these threats to equity, justice, internationalism, and the collaborative, free exchange of ideas that must underlie democratic decisions. We reaffirm our commitment to the values and practices that sustain and nurture the scholarly pursuit of knowledge and education of the citizenry, as well as citizens of other countries.

The central purpose of SKAT is to promote scholarly research and professional activity relating to sociology, science, knowledge, and technology. Our section’s social responsibility at this critical moment is twofold: to uphold and defend the principles of academic scholarship and to document, through sociological investigation, the Trump Administration’s effects on science, knowledge, and technology and on the broader causes of social equity and justice. These responsibilities are intertwined and inseparable.

To date, our section has encouraged members to prepare essays on the 2016 campaign and post-election environment and post them to our online blog [https://asaskat.com/blog/]. We have also invited members to contribute relevant teaching and research materials to the section website [https://asaskat.com/]. We will continue to develop programmatic actions as opportunities present, and we welcome member suggestions [email skatpubcomm@gmail.com]. We also encourage members to take action together and individually. In the face of these emerging challenges there are many ways to contribute and participate. Please monitor the SKAT website for a listing of online resources.

For the SKAT Council,

Scott Frickel, Chair
Steven Epstein, Past Chair
Alondra Nelson, Chair-Elect

Fake News and the Future of Journalism

From friend of the section Pablo J. Boczkowski of Northwestern University:

“Every public has its own universe of discourse and…humanly speaking, a fact is only a fact in some universe of discourse.”

Writing those words three quarters of a century before the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the 2016 word of the year, Robert Park — a former newspaper journalist and one of the founders of the Chicago School of sociology — understood fake news to be an intrinsic element of any information ecology. Long before Mark Zuckerberg started to be treated as a rapacious business man, noted real and fictitious publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Charles Foster Kane aimed to exploit the commercial potential of fake news, as did others who predated and succeeded them. On top of intentional attempts to distort or misinform, many unintentional mistakes caught by the public — and a suspicion that there might exist more unidentified ones — have further reinforced a certain stance of skepticism among media audiences over the inherent veracity of the news report.

Read the full article.

 

A Media Ecosystem for an Age of Fracture

by Shreeharsh Kelkar, University of California at Berkeley

As the dust settles after Donald Trump’s shocking upset of Hillary Clinton in the US Presidential Election, and we await the long-term fallout, I am left wondering about what “objectivity” in media institutions will—and should—look like in the future in this age of political polarization. How might we—social scientists interested in understanding how knowledge is made credible—use our insights and contribute to this debate about the future of media institutions in the United States?

The United States today is heavily polarized along political lines. As political scientists have shown time and time again, the polity of the United States experienced a realignment after the Civil Rights movement. The two major parties no longer have substantial overlap, if any; they cater to entirely different constituencies. Republicans are the party of managers, evangelicals, and the white working class; Democrats of organized labor, affluent professionals and minorities. The Democrats have a wider tent and therefore more disagreements, but both parties and their constituencies have sorted themselves into competing and opposing positions on a number of vital issues: the size and role of the welfare state, the scope and status of abortion, and the parameters of religion in public life.

This fracture was bound to have some effects on the media ecosystem. As Paul Starr has shown, American media institutions have constructed themselves as independent organizations, free of political bias—partly because their distribution was heavily subsidized by the federal government and partly because they started to rely on advertising as their main source of revenue. This is typically true of some of the largest circulation media institutions: the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time Magazine, Newsweek, the Atlantic Monthly, CBS, NBC, CNN, and others. These institutions produce this objectivity through a variety of practices: separating their business and editorial divisions, keeping fact and opinion separate, and scrupulously reporting (political) conflicts by giving equal coverage to every side. This arrangement worked very well for a pre-polarization age where both political parties presided over coalitions that spanned the ideological spectrum; indeed, it was constitutive of it.

Polarization caused the first crack in this media ecosystem as it led to the creation of new media institutions at the margins (as well as a public that consumed them avidly) that did not adhere to (and indeed, flouted) this form of objectivity, conservative talk radio being a prime example. Internet-enabled business models multiplied and scrambled this effect. The early Internet bloggers, attuned to the age of polarization, despised the he-said-she-said model of media objectivity, which they sometimes characterized as “false equivalence.” Their blog-posts combined both an obsession with facts and an emphasis on their personal, partisan, voice. Blogging has long since become institutionalized with many early bloggers now writing for more established media publications. What has stayed constant is that their model of writing (embodied in outlets like Vox and Talking Points Memo) is attuned to a different model of objectivity: while being obsessed with facts, figures and truth, it proudly spurns the bipartisan style of, say, the NYT or CNN. Facts and opinions are mixed, and every side does not get equal (or similar) coverage.

But perhaps nothing has been more consequential for media institutions than the rise of curatorial “platforms”: the Facebooks and the Googles who remain many Americans’ gateway to the news that they consume. Curiously, Facebook and Google have adopted the same stance of media objectivity even as their role in guiding public discourse has increased: they stress that they are non-political arbiters of political discourse. They have invested their organizational identity into becoming “platforms”: as platforms, they have no politics and are simply channeling the voice of the users. As Tarleton Gillespie has argued, the word “platform” sometimes refers to “technical platforms, sometimes as platforms from which to speak, sometimes as platforms of opportunity. Whatever tensions exist in serving all of these constituencies are carefully elided.” Unlike media institutions who maintained their objectivity through specific organizing practices like separating fact from opinion, the platforms’ main justification is that they use algorithms. In their telling, the mechanical objectivity of algorithms—and the relative absence of human judgment in this process—is the reason their curatorial decisions are objective.

Why have Facebook and Google studiously resisted being styled as media institutions and stuck to their guns in calling themselves mere platforms? A couple of reasons are clear: their reliance on advertising for revenue, and the fact that, in this age of polarization, being labeled “political” turns away people of the opposite political affiliation. But there is a third, perhaps more insidious, reason. Facebook and Google are committed to the principle of what has been called “context collapse“: Google wants to index all the information in the world and Facebook wants to make all activities “social” all the way down. These aspirations are sweeping in that they seek to dismantle the boundaries between activities such that everything is mediated through these platforms; the distinctions between the social and the commercial, the personal and the public, and the political and the non-political are blurred. To slightly twist a phrase coined by Helen Nissenbaum, platforms seek to blur, even exterminate, the “contextual integrity” of particular activities so that they all start to be mediated by the technological machinery that these platforms specialize in. Expanding their activities to cover more and more domains is the key to Facebook and Google’s Silicon Valley-inspired business models. Explicitly regulating content or regulating content-producers is not conducive to the growth of these platforms.

To understand this, consider the dispute over Facebook Trends, and the current debate about “fake news.” In this age of polarization, how then do we restore a meaningful public sphere of reasonable political debates?

Facebook Trends, Fake News and Objectivity

After Trump’s victory, an increasing amount of liberal dismay focused on the rise of “fake news“: transparently false and outrageous claims about Hillary Clinton, manufactured sometimes in Macedonia, at other times in California (and in a demonstration, that sometimes commerce knows no politics, by gung-ho entrepreneurial Democrats!), that managed to nonetheless circulate widely among conservative audiences primarily through sharing on Facebook. Critics alleged that these fake stories circulated more than real stories did, and that this had some role in the election results, and that Facebook should do something about this.

But before fake news, there was Facebook Trends. A few months ago, the website Gizmodo unveiled what seemed to many a scandalous revelation. Facebook’s Trending Topics were not really algorithmically generated; rather they were curated, by a group of people (to be sure, a very small group of people who were neither trained in the practices of journalism, nor paid very well), who worked with what Facebook’s massive programs discovered. Even more damning, this group of people was making choices that systematically deleted conservative news headlines while privileging more liberal ones. Or so alleged the main source for the article: a conservative Trends curator.

Scholars have expressed dismay about what the Trending fracas revealed: first, that the general public sometimes seems unaware that there are people behind the algorithms of Facebook, and second, that Facebook’s Trend curators were abysmally paid employees with little or no formal training in any journalistic enterprise, an indication that Facebook treated a fundamental job as contingent work. Conservatives expressed a different kind of dismay: that Facebook had a liberal bias just like the New York Times and was systematically discriminating against them.

Facebook’s reaction to the controversy was instructive. Conservative luminaries were invited to Facebook’s headquarters to have their concerns registered. And then, Facebook essentially fired its Trending staff and left the algorithms essentially unsupervised. The result has not especially been good, as the Washington Post has shown: the output of the Trends feature has steadily grown more incoherent.

Facebook could have certainly dealt with the Trends controversy in a different way. They could have strengthened the job description of these Trends curators and hired journalists rather than contingent workers. They might have made the process through which a Trend was captured and published transparent (at a similar level of abstraction they use for their much-vaunted Edgerank algorithm so that they revealed no proprietary information). They could have hired more conservative curators and explicitly claimed that their curators were as representative as possible of the general US population. Instead, they opted for an argument where they fell back on the mechanical objectivity of algorithms. This allowed Facebook to remain a neutral, non-political platform, and it seemed to assuage affronted conservatives.

Facebook’s approach to dealing with fake news has been notably different, maybe because influential Facebook employees may have felt unease at their own complicity in the election of Donald Trump. After some initial denials by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook recently announced that independent fact-checkers would get privileged access to Facebook and would be able to flag egregious articles. Shared Facebook items would thus carry some sort of mark verifying their authenticity. Facebook is also clearly at work on more computational mechanisms to identify false news items. Time will tell whether these methods raise an outcry from conservatives who argue that the fact-checkers are not fair and have some sort of liberal bias.

Rather than falling back and doubling down once again on the objectivity of algorithms, Facebook created what is essentially a political solution to the fake news problem: it outsourced the verification of shared links to third parties who have established practices of adjudicating truth claims by media institutions. Certain issues remain unresolved: what happens when particular parties dispute the judgment of the fact-checkers? How is the judgment of the fact-checkers incorporated into the Edge rank algorithm, given the brute fact that items at the top of the Facebook newsfeed tend to be read the most? Time will tell.

We—and Facebook—might conceivably think of other models of objectivity in our efforts to create trust-worthy media institutions (i.e. trusted by both liberals and conservatives) in an age of polarization and platforms. In her comparison of the American, British and German regulation of biotechnology, Sheila Jasanoff characterizes each national regulatory style as “contentious,” “communitarian,” and “consensus-seeking” respectively. In the German polity, for example, she finds an emphasis on the representativeness of knowledge-making bodies, while the United States hopes to resolve regulatory issues by having the different parties face off in an adversarial manner through disputes between experts. That Facebook chose to tackle its fake news problem (in as much as this can be “tackled”) not by emphasizing the mechanical objectivity of its algorithms, but rather by drawing on the prestige of fact-checking institutions, is a hopeful first step.   Platforms are new; there is a great deal of interpretive flexibility in their underlying technical and institutional infrastructure. The future of media objectivity in an age of polarization, Trump, and social media platforms might lie in drawing on alternative civic epistemologies. That might be an area where we social scientists might make a useful contribution.

Contact Dr. Kelkar at: skelkar[at]berkeley.edu

Knowledge and Expertise after the Election

By Dan Morrison, Vanderbilt University

Note: This is a revised version of the leading essay in the November 2016 issue of Skatology. Dan Morrison takes full responsibility for its content, and thanks Scott Frickel for his comments on an earlier draft.

Donald J. Trump is President-elect here in the United States. Articles like those Joe Waggle wrote in the November 2016 issue of SKATology on science policy under Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green administrations both an artifact of pre-election history and an important document on what might have been. We do know that Mr. Trump garnered over 270 electoral votes and thus will be the next President.

As Waggle recognizes, we do not know much about what science policy under a Trump administration will look like except to the extent that any decisions will be made with an eye towards economic competitiveness and market dominance. We do know that Myron Bell, Mr. Trump’s choice to oversee the EPA transition from President Obama to Trump is a well-known denier of the overwhelming consensus on climate. His nominee for EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has sued the agency he is nominated to run 14 times. One suit aimed to stop protections for his state’s air. Pruitt is known to deny scientific consensus on climate change and his selection has potentially devastating consequences for the recent Paris Climate Accord.

Based on our many discussions with colleagues in the immediate post-election period, I think it is likely that those who rely on federally funded research institutions such as the NSF, NIH, NEH, and others, are experiencing a profound level of anxiety. Those with “soft-money” jobs are concerned that their grants will be either cut, or that funding for their granting agency will be slashed to such an extent that future work is in peril. There are just too many unknowns at this point. Past Republican-controlled Congress sessions have voted to cut funding for political science. It seems likely that the incoming administration will finance its other priorities by reducing or eliminating several federally funded research programs, with the possible exception of research aimed at protecting national security or increasing economic competitiveness.

We may well be in an era of retrenchment. But we may also be in an era that is ready for sociological analyses of expertise and knowledge. Our area of the discipline may be more important than ever. We have studied the rise of new professions, the creation of academic disciplines, and the construction of expertise. Sociologists of science and knowledge have been active for decades in investigating how expertise is legitimated, and the links between legitimation and power. What might we do within the public sphere to advocate for justified beliefs without turning to naïve positivism?

Related to the problem of expertise is the problem of low-information, or active ignorance. In a 2008 article for Sociology Compass, Robert Evans wrote:

… how are we to understand decision-making in the absence of information? This problem is particularly acute for the political sphere where a disinterested or uninformed public can undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutionsbased on mass participation (228).

I have been reflecting on the earliest sociologists in America, the Atlanta and Chicago schools, seeking inspiration for what may be a difficult four years for those of us who would foster democratic values and want America to become America for all.

W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his The Souls of Black Folk, “Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched, –criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led,–this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society” (1903: 45-46). I think that as scholars we have a great deal of responsibility moving ahead. If you are an American citizen, you may have special duties as well. We all must take up that responsibility and defend our society and our institutions, including our colleges and universities as sanctuaries for critical reflection and action. The philosopher and pragmatist John Dewey once wrote: 

Society exists through a process of transmission… this transmission occurs by means of communication of habits of doing, thinking, and feeling from the older to the younger. Without this communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, opinions, from those members of society who are passing out of the group life to those who are coming into it, social life could not survive… Unless pains are taken to see that genuine and thorough transmission takes place, the most civilized group will relapse into barbarism and then into savagery (1916: 3).

As always, we have much to do, and several SKAT section members have written extensively about these issues. I am thinking specifically of scholars such as Alondra Nelson, Ruha Benjamin, and Tony Hatch.

Let us begin again in our sociological work that is also political and, if we take up the challenge, oriented towards justice.

References

Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Evans, Robert. 2008. “The Sociology of Expertise: The Distribution of Social Fluency.” Sociology Compass 2: 281-298.

Note: This post has been updated to include information about Scott Pruitt, Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.