Tag Archives: science

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.
Continue reading

The Haraway Hall of American Science Interpreters

A mock-up (with live-links) of the Haraway Hall was my draft product for “What does it cost to establish knowledge in a certain place at certain time for a certain people?” a project in a graduate course on gender, race, science, and literature intended to lead students into interpretation of the cultural dimensions of science. Specifically, the project asks students to “produce a mock-up of a museum display and text interpreting Haraway’s [Paper Tiger] video or texts in their 1980s context.”  Notice the confusion evident in the alternative scripts.  Comments welcome. Continue reading

Who inquires into the basis for inquiry?

[This book] reminds us that the quest for knowledge demands uncompromising skepticism and abundant humility alongside the insatiable curiosity that has always characterized the human heart. M. Engel 2016

Scientists often make grand claims about their profession like this one.   Which scientists show skepticism about such claims,  humility about what goes into being able to pursue science, and curiosity about how to understand the human social dynamics—something not captured well by a romantic invocation of the heart that all humans (or anyone laying claim to being fully human)—that shape what inquiries get pursued and accepted?

Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology (syllabus for 2015 graduate course)

Many links won’t work because they point to a blog accessible only to the students in the course.

Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology

A Problem-Based Learning Approach

Spring 2015

Graduate Consortium of Women’s Studies

Continue reading

Historical and autobiographical origins of an ongoing project on scientific and social complexity

From Taylor, Unruly Complexity (2005, xiv ff):

The sequence of cases [in the book] should help researchers and students in this wide range of fields appreciate more acutely the limitations of assuming that ecological, scientific, and social complexity can be delimited into well-bounded systems.  My hope is that readers will then take steps—on their own and in collaboration with others—to reconstruct the unruliness of complexity without suppressing it, to link knowledge-making to social change, and to wrestle with the potential and limitations of critical reflection as a means to redirect practice.  In the words of Raymond Williams (1980, 83), I want to encourage others not to “mentally draw back [and be] spared the effort of looking, in any active way, at the whole complex of social and natural relationships which is at once our product and our activity.”

Historical origins

Why undertake a project that addresses complexity and change across the different realms of science, interpretation of science, and critical reflection on practice?  One answer would be that the realms are already always connected, but concepts and practice are shaped to make the realms seem separate.  This is a position that can only emerge after the book has worked its way through many steps.  A shorter answer that might suffice in the meantime derives from the project’s historical origins, which can be located in the intersection of two kinds of ecology during the 1970s.

A century earlier Ernst Haeckel had defined “ecology” as the study of the complex interrelations among animals, plants, and their living and non-living environments (Allee et al. 1949).  The meaning of the new term soon stretched to refer to the complex interrelations themselves as well as the scientific study of them.  Starting around 1970, “ecology” (and the prefix “eco-“) also became associated with actions responding to the degradation of the environment of humans and other species.  The array of endeavors that have come under the umbrella of ecology-as-social-action is vast: preventing pollution, ozone holes, global climate change, future catastrophe; advocating radical social change, environmental activism, recycling, simpler lifestyles, unrefined foods; preserving nature, biodiversity, endangered species; promoting balance and interdependency.

Ecology-the-science promised to help address ecological concerns from a number of angles.  Researchers competent in using tools of ecological research could provide technical assistance on particular environmental problems.  Systematic environmental analysis and planning might be established so problems could be managed before they became the crises that provoke environmental campaigns.  General theories of ecological complexity might enlighten humans about the conditions for more harmonious relations among people and with other organisms sharing our environment.

The rise of ecology-as-social-action, however, also involved a serious critique of the scientific enterprise.  The presumption that scientific advances constitute Progress was challenged by peace and environmental activists, among others.  The destructive effects of science applied, for example, in military technologies and synthetic agro-chemicals made it hard to justify the pursuit of knowledge as a good thing for all.  The pertinent question was raised: Who benefits from scientific research, and who does not?  Such probing exposed science’s role in many forms of domination: developed nations over former colonies, military and security branches of the State over dissenting citizens, managers over workers, whites over other races, men over women, and humans over non-humans.  Some people saw science in the service of domination as abuse, not use, of science, but other critical commentators associated these tendencies with the nature of scientific inquiry itself.  Either way, science was not viewed as unfettered inquiry; instead, specific developments in scientific knowledge began to be interpreted in terms of the social priorities of the governmental bodies, military agencies, corporations, and individuals who sponsored, created, or applied them.

The critique of science also involved positive proposals for alternative processes of inquiry and alternative applications of the products of science.  To counter the inherent tendencies of science towards domination—or the recurrent abuses of science in that direction—these alternatives should revolve around cooperation and should not take the contributions of other people or species for granted.  Scientists were urged to accept local, democratically formulated input to their research.  Even among scientists who insisted on their freedom of inquiry (albeit within parameters set by their funding sources), there was wide recognition of the need to take more responsibility for how the knowledge they made would be applied.[endnote]

In short, ecology-as-social-action challenged ecological researchers not only to attend to ecological concerns through technical assistance, analysis for planning, or general theories, but also to shape their scientific practices and products self-consciously so as to contribute to transforming the dominant structure of social and environmental relations.  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.  The challenge I take up in writing this book, then, is to build on the historical and personal origins of the project and to convey its subsequent evolution in terms that help other researchers engage with such complexities in the context of the early 21st century.


Conceptual exploration: An autobiographical narrative

My decision to study ecology during the early 1970s stemmed from environmental activism in Australia that ranged from a collaboration with trade unionists opposing the construction of an inner-city power station to street theater exposing fraudulent, industry-sponsored recycling plans (Whole Earth Group 1974).  Ecology-the-science was the recommended choice for college students who sought programs of study in which to pursue their interests in ecology-as-social-action—if indeed any other choices were available.  I hoped my studies would lead to some kind of career that would take me beyond responding to one environmental issue after another and instead allow me to help in planning that prevented future problems from emerging.  I also hoped that understanding how to explain the complexities of interactions in life would lend support to less hierarchical and exploitative relationships, both within society and among humans and other species.

I had brought a mathematical disposition to my studies in ecology, so I undertook projects that advanced my skills in quantitative analysis and mathematical modeling.  I was excited to learn that some biologists and mathematicians were creating a specialty called theoretical biology (Waddington 1969).  This discovery was still fresh when I took a course for which E. C. Pielou’s (1969) text on mathematical ecology was assigned.  In the introduction she noted that organisms come from a range of species; within any species they differ in age, sex, genetics, experience, and so on; and any particular individual changes over its lifetime.  Any situation an ecologist might study is continually altered by births and deaths, by migratory exchanges with other places, and by seasons and climatic change.  Even so, ecological regularities persist long enough for most people to recognize some order, such as, an oak-maple forest or the sequence of plants encountered as one moves inland from the seashore (Pielou 1969, 1).  The processes could be simply described, yet the combination of them seemed theoretically challenging—how could ecologists account for order arising out of such complexity?…[continued through the book]


Allee, W. C., A. E. Emerson, O. Park, T. Park and K. P. Schmidt (1949). Principles of Animal Ecology. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Pielou, E. C. (1969). An Introduction to Mathematical Ecology. New York: Wiley-Interscience.
Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: U. Chicago Press.
Waddington, C. H. (Ed.) (1969). Towards a Theoretical Biology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Whole Earth Group (1974). Uncle Afrely’s Earth Guide (info)
Williams, R. (1980). “Ideas of Nature,” in Problems in materialism and culture. London: Verso, 67-85.

Problems in making sense of the influence of the counterculture (c. 1970)

Kurt Andersen’s recent NYTimes OpEd on the 60s roots of “selfishness” and a subsequent radio interview are pointing to the same idea as my post a few months ago about science, in which I said:

The same four currents–access to tools, rejection of the System (conformity, bureaucracy, large corporations), new, flexible organizations, and faith in individuals–lead to disparate outcomes. E.g., John Brockman celebrates individual scientists and their innovations and rejects social interpretations of science. Scientist Lee Worden promotes social movements for (and social interpretations of) change in society and science.

The implication of this theme is not to discredit all social change initiatives that shared the same roots as libertarian economics or hedonistic narcissism.   Nor is it to say there were people who had pure motivations but allowed themselves to be corrupted.  The implications I see are as follows:

  1. At any point people are making their lives with multiple resources and see alliances or similarities with other people who are making their lives with some of the same resources as well as others.  The shared resources do not determine a shared outcome.
  2. There is a challenge to make sense of the path one took.  The simple narratives, e.g., “I came of age at a time when the young thought they could change the world,” are not sufficient.  (It seems that Kurt Andersen’s new novel, “True Believers,” has a fictional character addressing this challenge.)

Problems in making sense of the influence of the counterculture (c. 1970) on science-and-society connections

(A contribution to “Guided e-trail on grassroots or citizen initiatives in shaping the directions taken in science and technology and drawing attention to their effects.” The entry point on the e-trail is Lee Worden’s essay, “Counterculture, cyberculture, and the Third Culture: Reinventing civilization, then and now”. My guide on how to interpret that point on the e-trail follows. Section 3 still needs to be completed. (Peter Taylor, March 2012 [who in 1974 coordinated the production of something like an Australian whole earth catalog].)

1. Initial proposition
The 1970s counterculture* with its emphasis on people getting together to create new organizations that prefigured the society they wanted (and differed from the existing social systems that they critiqued) influenced many people in the USA who went on to become scholars and writers about science in its social context. (Peter Taylor after memorial service for S. L. Star, August 2010)
(* Clicking on “The Farm” and the “Whole Earth Catalog” in this version of the diagram  below will provide glimpses into the counterculture, albeit through websites created in the 21st century. Many other terms are also linked to relevant websites.)

2. Lee Worden article (mapped)
The same four currents–access to tools, rejection of the System (conformity, bureaucracy, large corporations), new, flexible organizations, and faith in individuals–lead to disparate outcomes. E.g., John Brockman celebrates individual scientists and their innovations and rejects social interpretations of science. Scientist Lee Worden promotes social movements for (and social interpretations of) change in society and science.

3. How then to make sense of the influence of the counterculture (c. 1970) on science-and-society connections?
Many kinds of approaches (hypotheses and methods) can be delineated (and will be added here in due course).

Science and maps: Discussion with Katy Börner (Day 5 of Learning road trip, morning)

The “Places & Spaces: Mapping Science” collection at the University of Indiana http://scimaps.org/maps/browse/ includes many aesthetically pleasing, information-filled figures, maps, and other graphics.   I arranged to talk with the director of Places & Spaces, Katy Börner, so as to explore the tension between map as representations of reality (which Places & Spaces exemplified) and as devices that show the way-providing a guide for further inquiry or action.  I let her know that I was interested in how new angles of representation (as were evident in Places & Spaces) can inform (or not) the ephemeral, pragmatic maps my students make during their research and writing.

What happened:

Katy Börner described how her background as an engineer led her to be interested in tool.  Tools her group has developed for analysis of large data sets allow us to explore when, where, what, and with whom (e.g., in what networks).  These tools can be put in the hands of policy-makers, funders, research agencies (e.g., so NSF can identify who good reviewers are).  One resource is a data base of scholarship (most biomedical) that has 25m records (http://sdb.cns.iu.edu).  Such a database affords lots of room for exploration, which is a key aspect of her course on informational visualization.  Another emphasis is on focus (“high-level resolution”) and context (which is characteristic of Places & Spaces).  By implication, Börner’s response to the tension I identified is to say there is lots of room for exploration once one has access to a super-large data base and some tools (presented in tutorials that accompany http://sdb.cns.iu.edu.

(Start of road trip; Day 5 midday)

Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology: A bibliography

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

“Race: A Social Construct or a Scientific Reality?”

Discussion on WUMB Commonwealth Journal  based on new exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science exhibit, Race: Are we so different?

Broadcast on Sunday February 13, 2011.  Speakers: Peter Taylor, Nina Nolan, Chair, RACE Education Team, Boston Museum of Science, and WUMB host, Janis Pryor. Click here to listen to  Podcast.

Afterthoughts on the discussion:

1.  The host did well to launch us into the discussion without precirculation of questions.  The broadcast ended up cutting out only about 5 minutes of the recorded discussion.

2. I was cast as the scientist who would supply the definitive answers about the biological (genetic) basis of race, as if the answer to the rhetorical question in the title given to the broadcast was there’s no scientific reality to race (with the implication that those who say there is are part of the longstanding, historically given problem of racism in the USA).

3. I tried to take the role of someone who was informed by the science, but wanted all listeners to be able to think about the complexities of the issues around race.

4. One of these issues is helping people who think it’s plausible that average differences in, say, IQ test scores, among social/racial groups could be explained by genetic differences see the problems in supporting such an idea with evidence.

5. Another of the issues is the fact that, even if races are defined by (shifting unreliable) social definitions, the experience of living with such definitions can have a significant impact on one’s biology and psychology–that is, it becomes a scientific reality in another sense.

6. I tried to do #4 on the radio and they didn’t edit it out, but visual aids would have helped and even then I need more practice if the take-home point is to come across.  #5 isn’t so hard to convey, but I didn’t get into countering the rejoinders that hypothesize that average differences in susceptibility to illness among social/racial groups could be explained by genetic differences.

7. Re: the passage at the end where I try to speak of the cost of a racially divided society even to those that benefit from it, I need to keep working on how to express this to have impact (and not seem to discount the far greater costs to minorities).

Comments welcome.