Tag Archives: participation

Changing Science in Heterogeneous Environments

Levins’ career was a series of explorations of complexity in many and diverse settings. One aspect of complexity, heterogeneity, is explored through two vignettes (about heritability and differences among means), a taxonomy of eleven kinds of heterogeneity, and a contention connecting heterogeneity, control of populations, and possibilities for participation.

“Changing Science in Heterogeneous Environments,” pp. 87-101 in T. Awerbuch, M. Clark, P. Taylor (eds.), The Truth is the Whole: Essays in Honor of Richard Levins, Arlington MA: The Pumping Station, 2018.

My ontology and epistemology in tension with my pedagogy

A transcript of a work-in-progress presentation about ontology, epistemology, and pedagogy— specifically, my ontology, epistemology, and pedagogy. More specifically, how they might be affected by our current time of crisis.
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Five principles or themes for addressing unruly social and ecological complexities

On the presumption that the dynamic flux of ecological and social complexities cannot be well understood from an outside view…
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Troubled by Heterogeneity?: A simple example to illustrate why we might or might not be

Fresh perspectives on modern understandings of heredity and development over the life course can be opened up by examining the ways that research and application of resulting knowledge address—or suppress—heterogeneity in a range of senses (including individual particularity and variation around a mean).  Let me illustrate why we might or might not be troubled by heterogeneity through a personal story that involves the simplest sense of heterogeneity, namely, a group made up of two distinguishable subgroups.

At my annual physical when I turned 50 my doctor recommended a regimen of half an aspirin a day to help prevent a stroke or heart attack.  Not long afterwards I learned that some fraction of the population is resistant to aspirin—it does not produce the desired anti-platelet effect.  This subgroup is, however, still subject to aspirin resulting in an increased risk of serious gastrointestinal bleeding.  Could I find out if I was in the resistant fraction?  My doctor informed me that health insurance companies do not consider testing to be a justified expense for healthy subjects.  It was, he advised, up to me to decide whether to take the daily aspirin.  Some Internet follow-up on my part revealed that testing for resistance is possible, but is undertaken only when patients under treatment for a cardiovascular attack do not seem to be showing the anti-platelet effects of aspirin intake.  Would I devote energy to find others with similar concerns about their aspirin-resistance status and agitate for access to testing?  No—I went along with the health insurance company’s determination and followed the doctor’s advice to make a personal choice, in this case, not to take the daily pill.

With hindsight, my decision was a good one—recent research indicates that in all healthy subjects the decreased average risk of a cardiovascular event might not outweigh the increased average risk of gastrointestinal bleeding (Seshasai et al. 2012).  Yet, these newer findings aside, consider my experience at the time.  In the doctor’s initial recommendation, aspirin-resistant and normal subgroups were treated as a single group of over-50s, all of us subject to the same positive trade-off between cardiovascular and gastrointestinal risks.  The doctor could have been troubled by the heterogeneity within this group, especially after I raised my concerns.  Instead he invoked the rhetoric of patient choice and the constraints of the health insurance system.  I entertained the possibility of joining with others to agitate for testing to determine which subgroup we belonged to.  In the end, I complied with my doctor’s framing of my position, namely, I should see myself as a member of an over-50s group subject to a degree of uncertainty about the positive trade-off.

In this story we can see the three parts of a broad contention—

•  Research and application of resulting knowledge are untroubled by heterogeneity to the extent that populations are well controlled—As the story conveys, I did not comply with my doctor’s initial recommendation, but accepted his subsequent advice.

•  Such control can be established and maintained, however, only with considerable effort or social infrastructure—The authority of medical professionals was not sufficient to achieve my compliance, but the rhetoric of patient choice and the reimbursement guidelines of the health insurance system eventually were.

•  The interplay of heterogeneity, control, and social infrastructure provides an opening to give more attention to possibilities for participation instead of control of human subjects—The Internet gave me a means to go beyond the consultation with my doctor.  It would have been my first port of call if I had embarked on a journey of finding whom to collaborate with to agitate for change in the guidelines for aspirin-resistance testing.


Figure 1. Schema that summarizes the contention in the text.  The contention applies both to the modern understandings of heredity and to interpretations of science in Science and Technology Studies (STS). (Colored text narrates the connection between terms linked by the curves. Zigzag lines indicate a tension or contrast, e.g, populations are harder to control if members of the population are able to participate in ways that draw attention to heterogeneity within the population.)

Heterogeneity and Data Analysis: Coda: Heterogeneity and Control


Several of the vignettes speak to a broad contention I would make about heterogeneity and control:  In relation to modern understandings of heredity and development over the life course, research and application of resulting knowledge are untroubled by heterogeneity to the extent that populations are well controlled.  Such control can be established and maintained, however, only with considerable effort or social infrastructure, which invites more attention to possibilities for participation instead of control of human subjects.  On the control side, people can be made to fit types in many ways: through stereotyping, screening and surveillance, population health measures, diagnostic manuals in psychology, reassignment surgery, ignoring non-conformers, and so on.  On the participation side, Taylor (2005) describes diagramming of intersecting processes to expose multiple points of engagement, “mapping” by researchers of the complex situations they study and their own complex situatedness, and well-facilitated participatory processes.

Does the contention about heterogeneity and control make sense in data analysis?  Does it have relevance beyond heredity and life course development?

(completing a series of posts—see first post)

Collaborative production of knowledge: Health, environment, and publics

The workshop “Collaborative production of knowledge: Health, environment, and publics” in Arouca, Portugal aimed to

make sense of the growing attention to the collaborations with the public (or different selection of the public) in the production of knowledge about health and environmental concerns. All research is collaborative-even solitary scientists have to secure audiences if their findings are to become established as knowledge-so why emphasize collaboration in health and environmental research? The workshop will consider the diverse reasons that might be put forward to explain that emphasis. How are different angles on collaboration related in theory and practice? In what ways can scientists, science educators, science shop organizers, and researchers in history, philosophy, and social studies of science conceptualize, interpret, teach about, and engage in the collaborative generation of knowledge and inquiry? What can we learn reflexively from our own experience in an interaction-intensive workshop around these questions?

Applications were sought from teachers and researchers (including students) who are interested in promoting the social contextualization of science through interdisciplinary education and outreach activities beyond their current disciplinary and academic boundaries.

At the start of each day participants undertook daily writing on the theme of the workshop.  My own writing makes up the next few posts.

22 May 2011

The growing attention to collaborations with the public in the production of knowledge about health and environmental concerns represents, I believe, a confluence of a number of streams:

  1. “Science for the People” and similar slogans were promoted by radical organizations during the 1970s.   However, scientists pushed back against local democratic accountability and pushed for the “freedom” for their research to be directed by corporations (and to share in profits).  The growing attention to collaborations with the pubic involves a push back against that pushback.
  2. Environment, health, and environmental health issues in particular involve activists who push for changes in policy, expose or exploit controversies in the science, and, in some cases, become conversant in the science and push for changes in funding priorities and regulations.  Collaboration with the public in this case means collaboration with these activist subsets of the public.
  3. Health and, to some extent, environmental remediation require people to follow advice or guidelines from authorities.  Physicians and environmental managers often lament the “lack of compliance” among members of the public.  Collaboration is valuable so these professionals can see the extent to which lack of compliance is rational resistance, can draw models or best practices from successful communities, and can co-develop policies that are more likely to be implemented and maintained.  In short, collaboration is a pragmatic move for professionals who want their advice to be taken up.
  4. The shifting social, economic, and political conditions means that ongoing innovation, monitoring, and adjustment is needed.  The “unruly complexity” of health and environmental situations does not allow for overarching, once-and-for-all knowledge to be established.

Developing an ethical framework for participatory processes that integrate environmental concerns, ecological science, values, and action, with special attention to interaction among diverse social agents

One outcome from a Cary conference discussion group on ethics of participatory process. The link describes the processes leading to this (and other) outcomes; the result below is necessarily cryptic, but maybe explored in future posts as a starting point for a “enactable, contingent social theorizing.”

Outreach to listen & engage with diverse others, risks notwithstanding Embrace difference so far as to destabilize privileged position/ing Embrace difference in theory & practice so moving forward deconstructs privilege as it constructs through collaborative projects Mindful, reflective action in a changing world needs ideas, action, and positions to be put in tension with those of others so that theory and action are dynamic and deeply participatory
First priority to empowering vulnerable & less powerful
Build connections among diverse parties as a basis for planning & conducting practical environmental projects
Walk the talk in actions as consumers that lessen our footprint If some local actions are consistent with Big Visions, other actions are grounded in specific places A changing world needs a dynamic ethics that allows for but goes well beyond Big Visions and local actions
Keep Big Visions in tension with action grounded in specific places
Nudge ethical theorists to be dynamic: No theoretical difference without difference in (messy) action Scientists & ethics both committed to dynamical theory of ethic in action in a changing world
Scientists become explicit about their ethics for knowledge-making in specific places
Reflective practice: Listening, probing, creating new connections, reflecting, opening questions Mindful, patient cultivating of practice that is critical, reflective & generative
Take the time & silence it takes to prepare us to participate