Author Archives: Peter J. Taylor

About Peter J. Taylor

Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

On unintended consequences—how people push for something, e.g., to discredit structures of authority, but that comes back to bite them

An unscripted 14-minute audio thought piece on how we make sense of the social relations being exposed in these times. A particular theme that I’m chewing on is unintended consequences—how people push for something, for example, to discredit structures of authority, but that comes back to bite them (us). Comments welcome.
(I hope to attach a text version of the audio in due course.)


Changing Life: Reading the Intersections of Gender, Race, Biology, and Literature (Open Courseware version)

An Open Courseware version of a Spring 2017 graduate course in which students developed their abilities to expose ways that scientific knowledge has been shaped in contexts that are gendered, racialized, economically exploitative, and hetero-normative. The course used a Project-Based Learning format that allowed students to shape their own directions of inquiry in each project, development of skills, and collegial support. Students’ learning was guided by individualized bibliographies co-constructed with the instructors, the inquiries of the other students, and a set of tools and processes for literary analysis, inquiry, reflection, and support.

Alan Roberts (1925-2017), physicist, theoretical ecologist, writer and activist on environmental politics and the need for the self-management of society


Alan Roberts, a physicist who also wrote about environmental politics and the need for the self-management of society (Roberts 1979), was the advisor of my undergraduate thesis in ecological modeling at Monash University in Australia and someone who stimulated my interest in understanding science in its social context.  These two strands came together when I left Australia in the late 1970s with the idea of studying informally with biologists whose work on complexity in ecology, evolution, and development interested me politically as well as intellectually. I had learned that two biologists in the United States whose theoretical work I already knew and valued, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, saw their scientific work as a political project (Taylor 2010). I sought an opportunity to study with them. This journey would draw me away from environmental activism in Australia, but this leave—which has extended longer than I could have imagined—would provide space to focus on questions around conceptualizing life’s complex ecological context and to take up questions of conceptualizing science’s complex social context.

From Roberts and others I had begun to learn that through the course of history all kinds of social lessons had been read from nature (Williams 1980). It would be better to argue directly for, say, cooperative, decentralized social relations than to put forward some account of ecological complexity to justify them. Nevertheless, I could still envisage research on complexity challenging the simple scientific themes, including ones that were often invoked in support of social inequalities and exploitation of nature (Science for the People 1977).

Consider the modeling work in the 1970s by Robert May, another Australian physicist turned theoretical ecologist, showing that stable systems are extremely rare as a fraction of the complex ecological systems being sampled. The conventional wisdom arose, which persists to this day, is that complexity begets instability.  May (1973, 174) concluded that there must be “devious strategies [to] make for stability in enduring natural systems” (May 1973, 174). Roberts (1974) showed, however that, complex systems can be readily constructed over time by the addition of populations from a pool of populations or by elimination of populations from systems not at a steady state (Taylor 2005, chapter 1). The implications of such a constructionist perspective could challenge not only ecologists, but also theorists in all fields that make use of models without a process of construction over time of the complexity of the situation studied. A puzzle is why the constructionist view seems difficult for theorists to take up (Taylor 2018).

(Adapted from Taylor 2005)


May, R. M. (1973). Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Roberts, A. P. (1974). “The stability of a feasible random ecosystem.” Nature 251: 607-608.

Roberts, A. (1979). The Self-Managing Environment. London, Allison & Busby.

Science_for_the_People, Ed. (1977). Biology as a Social Weapon. Minneapolis, Burgess.

Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, P. J. (2010). “Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins (An essay review of Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health).” Science as Culture 19(2): 241-253.

“From Complexity to Construction to Intersecting Processes: Puzzles for theoretical and social inquiry,” Ecological Complexity, in press,

Williams, R. (1980). Ideas of Nature. Problems in materialism and culture. London, Verso: 67-85.

Science in a Changing World initiatives

“Science in a Changing World” (SICW) is a constellation of initiatives aimed at “facilitating learning & teaching innovation, research & public engagement, discussion & collaboration regarding scientific developments & social change.” SICW is linked to what is now a Master’s program of the same name at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (UMass Boston), but the decentered approach to SICW infrastructure building began developing much earlier in the work of its coordinator, Peter Taylor. This statement sets the scene with a brief account of the principles that animate the decentered approach, describes the prehistory before UMass Boston and the strands that make up SICW, and closes with some remarks about the ways that this kind of infrastructure development follows from and feeds into STS analyses. (read more)

Paper proposals invited for “Most workshops are dysfunctional–This one wasn’t”

“Most workshops are dysfunctional–This one wasn’t” Interpreting, enacting, changing organized multi-person collaborative processes
This panel at the EASST meetings in July invites presentations or other interactive processes that explore various aspects of interpreting, enacting, changing organized multi-person collaborative processes—functional or dysfunctional; our own in STS as well as those of the researchers we study.

Why study fractions?

I googled the question “Why study fractions?” (for reasons I describe later) and found a study (reported in Swanbrow 2012) that invites critical thinking at two levels: 1) the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning warrant scrutiny; and 2) what is it that allows researchers and policy makers to proceed as if there are no alternative interpretations to be drawn from the study?

via (read more)

Lives in STS “as a series of failed political experiments”

This open panel for the August/September 2018 meetings of 4S (the Society for Social Studies of Science) invites exploration of how to make sense of the biographical changes in changing contexts of radical scientists and of critics of science since the 1970s, as well as of STS interpreters of science influenced by them.
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