This 10-minute video is the first of three that use the science of population growth to introduce themes that apply to all of science (audio only).
The second part is audio only.
The third part is video or audio.
Reading Mike Hulme’s (2009) Why we disagree about climate change (Cambridge UP) for a new discussion group leads me to say that I’m most interested in hearing how the other members of the group have pursued their various angles of action in relation to climate change. Two lines of thinking underlie this interest:
1. I expect the group members already appreciate that scientific knowledge is not established/accepted/disputed solely on the basis of its correspondence to physical reality. Many diverse practical considerations have to be addressed in trying to make or dispute knowledge and these considerations span intersecting social worlds (lab technicians, computer programmers, funders, journal editors, media portrayals, policy makers, owners, workers,…). The challenge is where and how to engage within the resulting complexity with a view to changing what is accepted as knowledge and necessarily simultaneously modifying our own social situatedness (where social is a shorthand for the intersecting social world in which each of us makes the many practical decisions). In addressing this challenge we draw on resources that include aspirations (a sense of the place we want to head towards) and values-talk (what we say to others and ourselves –or even viscerally feel– about what should guide individual and group decisions.
Where I diverge from Hulme is that I do not position aspirations or values as drivers or foundational. Several reasons for rejecting that:
a. Empirical–Abundant cases of people acting in ways that depart from their expressed values, or shifting their professed values when push comes to shove.
b. Methodological–How does a researcher demonstrate that values are drivers of the diverse practical decisions?
c. Explanatory weakness–Do we know why people disagree after reading a book that highlights aspirations and values better than after reading Merchants of Doubt, which documents the active work done to discredit scientific results around smoking, ozone, climate change, etc.?
d. Practical, in specific situations–When trying to make changes in some specific situation, it is necessary to address a wide range of practical considerations. Values talk is a small and often distracting part of that work.
e. Interpretive–The author emphasizing deep drivers can be viewed in terms of his particular positioning in their own specific situation.
f. Political blowback–Movements that emphasize deep drivers and discount the diverse practical considerations facing diverse knowledge-making agents end up producing unintended and undesired consequences.
2. To the extent that any of us emphasize “diverse practical considerations facing diverse knowledge-making agents” we have to develop frameworks that help us navigate and negotiate a multi-stranded and -layered complexity, more complex in many ways than the supercomputer models of climate change.
Author: Peter Taylor
“Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins”
(Sense-making contextualization following http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/SenseMakingResponse.html)
a) The essence of the project is…
Promoting a form of science criticism that is engaged with the political dimensions of biology at the same time as making sense of my limited impact in this area since I wrote an essay review of the previous L&L collection 25 years earlier (when I was finishing my PhD with them).
“‘Science criticism’, unlike art and literary criticism, is not a widely accepted enterprise in our culture, but that would be an apt label for the essays of Lewontin and Levins reviewed here.” L&L belong to a category of scientists who “have tried to express their dual commitments—to science and to political change.”
b) The reason(s) I took this road is (are)…
My approach to science combines a personal proclivity to learn by probing what others had taken as given + formation as a undergraduate student in the early 1970s at an Australian university that was known for its political, environmental, and counter-cultural activism. This combination led to my wanting “to shape… scientific practices and products self-consciously so as to contribute to transforming the dominant structure of social and environmental relations.” (from Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement, 2005)
This continues: “In retrospect, I would read in the broad terms of the critique of science an overoptimistic assessment of the potential, on one hand, for the social movements of the 1960s and 70s to bring about radical restructuring of social relations and, on the other hand, for people to transform their lives accordingly—including, in this context, for scientists to redirect their research. Yet the 1970s critique of science was a key aspect of the context in which I first began to engage with the complexities of environmental, scientific, and social change together, as part of one project.”
c) The best of what I have achieved is…
• The syntheses presented in two books Unruly Complexity and Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement (2012).
• Innovation over 30 years in teaching critical thinking about science in its social context.
• An emphasis in all of the above on reflexive analysis of “the complexity [or heterogeneity] of resources or practical commitments involved in knowledge construction in any particular area.”
d) What has been particularly helpful to me in this project has been…
Being invited into or being able to organize spaces in which to experiment (see c), stretch the terms, find support from others on the margins, and recover when things did not work out so well.
“L&L’s politics is also one of considerable generosity to students and colleagues, even those who may have discounted their advice or moved away from the collectives they brought them into.”
e) What has hindered me has been…
• A tendency to position myself at margins, reinforced by my proclivity to learn by probing what others had taken as given (which draws me away from the centre of any field I am in).
• The counter-cultural context of the late 60s to early 70s dissipated in the 80s, but I did not think through the changed conditions as I continued to pursue the ideal of prefiguring the desired future in experiments in the present.
f) What I am struggling with is…
• Getting clear enough to be able to wake up each day feeling good about what I am going to focus on, which means not feeling frazzled by the many other things I allow myself to be or feel responsible for.
• A question asked of me recently by a younger researcher and activist: What do I do with my scholarship?
g) What would help me now is…
Apprentices (in some form) who would make demands on my time, care, and clarity and, thereby, help me address the issues I have been hindered by (e) and am struggling with (f).
In a 2011 graduate course on “Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology,” students were asked to add an annotated reference or resource (=person, organization…) to the evolving googledocs bibliography each week. (Annotations were to convey the article’s key points as well as its connection to the student’s own inquiries and interests.) The result is as follows: Continue reading
Biology says human life does not begin at conception. The sperm and the egg are already living, functioning, human entities. They are certainly not dead; nor are they non-human. Yuval Levin (“A Middle Ground for Stem Cells“) could, therefore, extend his “profound moral case” for equality to every sperm and every egg. In vitro fertilization gives most eggs a chance—a right?—to be fertilized and move into the next phase of living.
As a matter of public policy, this extension of Levin would require colossal interference in the menstrual lives of females. (And the right of every sperm to continue living-let’s not spell out what that would entail!) Society would then need to decide which women would then be implanted with those fertilized eggs—even in Levin’s “age of biotechnology” embryos need a women’s womb to develop until birth. And to decide who would then look after these human lives, given that every baby needs nurturing adults to grow and develop as a person…
I doubt that Levin wants the logic of his argument to be played out this way. But doing so exposes the political position taken by most people who oppose stem cell research on so-called moral grounds, namely, support for laws that subordinate the lives of women to the embryos they may not always choose to carry. No bioethical or “moral” considerations can make this position just.
(an unpublished letter to the editor in response to A Middle Ground for Stem Cells)
Interpreta: That seems a very coarse way to take environmental and health costs into account….
The previous post ended thus. Continuing the three roles: Partovo (“Humans are a Part Of nature”); Separata (“Humans have become Separate from nature”); or Interpreta (“Interpret Socially views about nature and what is natural”).
Interpreta: That seems a very coarse way to take environmental and health costs into account. In fact, you’re both claiming that analyses of ecological, health, and economic dynamics are too complex to be the basis of social decision making. This appears to be a claim about how the real world works. I know you’re not refering to nature — trees, animals, etc. — but just as I said at the start about ideas of nature, these ideas about the “real world” build in ideas about your favored social arrangements.
Partovo & Separata: Huh?
Interpreta: You’re assuming, for example, that some participatory form of on-going planning and assessment is not possible. The absence of this possibility then warrants Partovo trusting corporate and military decision makers to balance benefits and costs, and warrants Separata resorting to dramatic rhetoric — “Act now to save the wetlands!”
Separata: And you think that such participatory planning is possible. That explains why you point to the unspoken messages behind our statements — you want to check the power of simple accounts of the ecological and social world and counter the rhetoric of crisis management that gets associated with those accounts.
Partovo: I’m getting dizzy. You’re interpreting our statements in terms of social views and commitments that we didn’t state…
Interpreta: Or, at least, only started stating when prodded…
Partovo: OK. And now Separata is saying that this very interpretive stance of yours is itself subject to non-literal interpretation?
Separata: It’s even more complicated than that. Interpreta has faith in the ability of people to understand complex processes and participate in decisions about investment and social policy. So he seeks to undermine our approaches and their implications about social action and to boost his approach. We’re all involved in intervening in social processes. Therefore, we should examine empirically whether my environmentalist rhetoric, Partovo’s developmentalist rhetoric, or Interpreta’s critical interpretations of us have the most impact.
Furthermore, Interpreta, if you prefer the more complex, why do you focus on interpreting our more simple statements? Instead you should present to us some complex accounts of particular cases. At the very least, to help me get beyond “do not disturb natural balance” type rhetoric, I would like to know what ecological and social principles can guide our interventions with/in nature.
While I’m on this roll, I think it would be better if you — together with a group of collaborators — demonstrated on-going, participatory planning and assessment. Or else, we would be justiied in interpreting your emphasis to date on critical interpretations as indicating your confidence in the political impact of ideas, words, and text. Could it be that practice is secondary in your framework?
Interpreta: I think you’re both right to challenge me. Raymond Williams’ life’s work — and I have been taking him as a model today — focused on literature and politics. The correlations he draws between ideas people have about social and natural arrangements — I am impressed by them. But he does leave me wondering what people actually do so as to end up with such connected ideas. I’d like him to say more about the social interactions and negotiations through which humans come to know the world.
Partovo: I hate this — now you are distancing yourself from your role model. Can’t we keep this simple?
Interpreta: Yes and no. Let me observe that in this discussion a Williams-type perspective has opened up questions you had been avoiding, and it has exposed assumptions you were taking for granted. In this light, even if simple rhetoric and accounts — “(non-human) nature is in fragile balance”; “economic processes adjust investment and R&D choices to respond to costs and demands” — are sometimes powerful, wouldn’t it be better to have a more complex account to complement that? Furthermore, suppose you were simply committed to mobilizing people to act (or, in Partovo’s case to let corporate managers act for them), I think more complex accounts would be needed to help you understand when the simple rhetoric will be powerful. That isn’t always the case. And, even when it is, simplicity sometimes engenders unintended, undesirable consequences.
Separata: Hold on. I understand the undesirable consequences of Partovo’s accounts — they help distract help corporations and the military avoid paying the full costs of their projects. But what are the undesirable consequences of drawing attention to the environmental costs of development?
Partovo: Let me answer. Environmentalist rhetoric, especially of the apocalyptic kind, undermines people’s commitment to working hard to keep the economy thriving.
Interpreta: Maybe, but that’s not what I had in mind. I suggest that you wait for Peter Taylor’s classes on neo-Malthusians, the so-called “tragedy of the commons,” and global models to see how environmental rhetoric can have undesirable consequences.
Separata: OK, I’ll wait. But let me admit that I’m worried by where you’re leading us with your critical interpretations of ideas about nature. I now doubt your earlier reassurances that I have some alternative points of reference, namely, health and ecological sustainability. If one shifted to more complex analyses, health and ecological sustainability would start unraveling too. We would be left without any firm handholds.
Interpreta: I don’t think that must be the case. But, to convince you of that, words and arguments are of limited power. I believe that we’d have to join in and experience some participatory processes of social governance.
Partovo: We already do — we all vote in elections, right? I know that voters aren’t all informing themselves with analyses of “complex ecological, health, and economic dynamics” as you call them. But voters elect representatives whose decision making takes into account the advice of those to whom they delegate the tasks of analysis.
Separata: You must know that that is a seriously idealized picture of how decisions are made in government.
Partovo: Maybe, but tell me: Would you be happy if we moved towards this ideal of social decision making by elected representatives following the advice of environmental analysts? Would you — or Interpreta for that matter — accept an appointment as such an analyst?
Separata: I don’t know.
Interpreta: I’m afraid we’re too far from that ideal for me to make a well-informed response.
Partovo: It’s easier to be a critical interpreter of the messy present, isn’t it?
Interpreta: Yes, but I think there’s more to learn from our conversation than that…
Paper intended for but eventually not contributed to a meeting on “The Dialectics of Biology and Society,” held in Bressanone, Italy, March 1980.