Friday, January 21, 2005

Class reminders

Jan 26 - Watch Minority Report in class. Don't forget to bring the assignment questions with you to help you take good notes during the movie.

Feb 3 - No class. Use this time to finish your film essay and work with your group on your project proposals. Don't forget to include Stengers' radical critique of scientific rationality in your project objectives.

[Note: If you have any questions or concerns during these two weeks, please email me.]

Feb 9 - Film essay due. The class lecture and readings are on feminist critiques of science and technology. We'll also spend some time working on project proposals.

Feb 16 - Project proposals due. The class lecture and readings are on hybridity. Graded project proposals will be returned so that you can continue your research over Reading Week.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

LECTURE - Science as culture and practice

Online papers

Sharon Traweek, Iconic Devices: Toward An Ethnography of Physics Images (pdf)

Sharon Traweek, Warning Signs: Acting on Images (pdf)

Lancaster University Centre for Science Studies - online papers (see in particular articles by Lucy Suchman and John Law)

Books and articles

Doing Science + Culture, edited by Roddey Reid and Sharon Traweek (library info)

Science as Practice and Culture, edited by Andrew Pickering (library info)

The Mangle of Practice by Andrew Pickering (library info)

Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (library info)

Representation in Scientific Practice, edited by Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar (library info)

Following articles from The science studies reader, edited by Mario Biagioli (library info)

Michel Callon, Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fisherman of St. Brieuc Bay

H.M. Collins, The TEA Set: Tacit Knowledge and Scientific Networks

Ian Hacking, Making Up People

Thomas P. Hughes, The Evolution of Large Technological Systems

Donald Mackenzie, Nuclear Missile Testing and the Social Construction of Accuracy

LECTURE - Doing science: materialities & socialities

After hearing from several students that the assigned Latour readings were virtually incomprehensible - don't worry about it, they're quite dense - I decided to go straight into lab studies and we'll follow up with Latour* later.

So we began with Karin Knorr-Cetina's description of laboratories as more than just physical spaces where experiments, scientific research or treatments take place. Anthropological studies of lab work have indicated that natural objects are malleable, and not fixed entities. She argues that there are at least three features of natural objects that a lab science does not need to accomodate:

1) it does not need to put up with an object as it is (it can substitute transformed or partial versions)
2) it does not need to accomodate the natural object where it is (it can take an object out of its natural environment)
3) it need not accomodate an event when it happens (it can make events happens frequently enough for continuous study)

By detaching objects from their natural environments, scientists install them in a "new phenomenal field defined by social agents". In other words, "laboratories allow natural processes to be 'brought home' and to be made subject only to the conditions of the local social order". But Knorr-Cetina is not only interested in how labs can "improve upon natural orders" but also how they "upgrade" social beings to "instruments of scientific work".

With her example of how doctors' power was enhanced by their ability to perform autopsies (and see things patients couldn't see) or listen through a stethoscope (and hear things patients couldn't hear) we can begin to see how scientists work with the visual, auditory or electrical traces of objects, and with their components or extractions. To appreciate the power of these images, just think of how many movies or TV shows you have seen where a person's death is indicated only by the flatline of the heart monitor. Another example she gave was how astronomy changed from being a field science practiced only at night to an imaging science where astronomers could observe pictures of celestial phenomena at any time. In these ways, just as objects and processes are transformed into images and sounds, so too are scientists "reconfigured to ... act as bodily measurement devices by hearing and seeing signals".

Knorr-Cetina goes on to describe three ways in which scientists conduct laboratory experiments: through "technologies of correspondence", "technologies of treatments and interventions" and "technologies of representation".

"In the first case, objects in the laboratory stage real-world phenomena; in the second, they are processed partial versions of these phenomena; in the third, they are signatures of the events of interest to science."

When laboratories act as stages for experimental or simulated situations, scientists deploy a technology of correspondence, where every effort is taken to create an environment that corresponds to the outside world and is not "tainted" by the experimenter. In other words, when there is no way to observe the real-time phenomena, the experimental conditions or computer simulation stages the action. In the social science laboratory, "the 'objects' featured on the stage are players of the social form ... [where] they are called upon to perform everyday life in a competent manner." An example of this type of laboratory work would include simulating the effects of an earthquake or tsunami, or in the social sciences, observing how people use software or websites.

When lab work uses a technology of intervention, or procedures of manipulation, objects are "treated as processing materials and as transitory object-states". In either case, there is no assumption that these objects do - or should - correspond to real-world processes. In this type of laboratory work, the lab becomes a "workshop and a nursery ... where different plant and animal materials are maintained, bred, nourished, warmed, observed and prepared for experimental manipulation". In this scenario, scientists are not only researchers but also caretakers of the lab and its contents. Examples of this kind of laboratory work would include breeding disease-resistant sweet potatoes or developing new materials to protect soldiers in battle.

In the case where lab work involves the use of technologies of representation, "objects are not reconfigured as not-to-be-interfered-with performances of 'natural' events or as decomposable material ingredients of processign programs, but as signs". Analysis involves the progression from identifying outward signs or symptoms to "reconstructing the meaning and origin of these representations" and thereby identifying the underlying (invisible) situation or problem. An example of this kind of lab work is high energy physics, where detectors register particle traces and these signs are attached to underlying causal events (particle occurrences) that cannot be directly observed.

In summary, Knorr-Cetina's argument is that laboratories are not just sites which house experiments, but rather places and processes "that create new configurations of objects that [scientists] match with an appropriately altered social order".

In Sharon Traweek's study of physics laboratories, she devotes a chapter to scientists, or more specifically how people become scientists. In Pilgrim's Progress, she looks at the cultural values and practices associated with the phases of a physics education - from undergraduate student to graduate student and then to post-doctoral student or research associate. In each stage, the student and researcher is taught what makes a good science and, more importantly, what makes a great physicist. From learning about historical physics heroes to learning how to survive highly aggressive and competitive working conditions, the community is formed along particular lines. Even once a career in physics has begun, a physicist is still subject to the pressures of an elite group where one may become a leader, a statesman or, if one is great enough, a genius that is held up as hero to undergraduate students. At any stage a person may fail to meet the expectations of what constitutes a great physicist, and subsequently drop out of the field.

Of particular interest here is what kind of values inform the culture of physics. Traweek draws out detailed accounts of the novice who must demonstrate his comprehension of the material but is rarely allowed to design his own experiment, and the anxieties he feels about whether or not he will ever actually become a physicist. As he passes into the next rank, he learns the difference between mediocre and good experimental work, the importance of protecting the data, and how to "live and feel physics". His letters of recommendation describe him as meticulous, hard-working and, with the support of his girlfriend or wife, not distracted from his work by everyday life. When he begins to practice physics he will be constantly evaluated for inclusion into the community, and will feel the tensions between cooperative group work and the consistent message that "only competition and transgression will prevail". Even after making a major contribution to the group, he will still only "make it big" if he becomes a group leader with a reputation great enough to secure the best laboratory equipment and recruit the best new researchers to carry on his earlier work. If he eventually manages to direct a lab, he will tend only to the maintenance of its community and practice. Because he now works primarily with the "outside world" he will no longer actually practice physics. The most exceptional statesmen are considered physics geniuses and become heroes for undergraduates, almost mystical in their abilities and supporting a never-ending romance with science.

In each of these stages, Traweek argues that physics emerges as a story of men, not women:

"The scientist is persistent, dominant, and aggressive, ultimately penetrating the corpus of secrets mysteriously concealed by a passive, albeit elusive nature. The female exists in these stories only as an object for a man to love, unveil, and know. In their careers, physicists journey from romantic readings of others' lives, through handing on mimetic tales of heroic action and quests of survival, to becoming skilled practitioners of gossip and rhetoric. They complete the cycle by telling erotic tales about physics, tales transformed into romance for the next generation of neophytes, These stories reflect how physicists come to passionately care about who they are and what they are doing".

In summary, Traweek looks at the culture of physics and how the physics community passes on its particular values to successive generations. From her ethnographic field-work we can see that the scientific community not only teaches it members what constitutes a good and proper science, but also what makes a good and proper scientist. She also makes the case that these values shape and are shaped by broader cultural values outside the scientific community. In later lectures and readings, we will return to related feminist critiques of science.

Assigned reading

Karin Knorr-Cetina, "What is a laboratory?" from Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge, 1999

Sharon Traweek, "Pilgrim's Progress: Male Tales Told During a Life in Physics" from Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists, 1988

Bruno Latour, "Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World" in Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, 1983

Bruno Latour, "Opening Pandora's Box" from Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, 1988

* For anyone who started to get into his way of thinking, you might want to check out his book Pandora's Hope. I'll use that in my lecture and to help orient people for the discussion of the other readings.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

In the news

These recent articles may be of interest for some people's research projects:

No Magic for Older Moms
"Over-50 mothers are increasingly common. But are they genetic moms? Not likely, experts say."

An Aerial Crime-Fighting Tool Banks on Portability
"If all goes well, this year a remote-controlled portable airplane will be taking to the air over Southern California, providing a low-cost eye in the sky for law enforcement."

Unwrapping the Biometric Present

"Congressional funding for a biometric system to track potential terrorists isn't likely to have much impact on the bad guys. But it will likely help the government keep track of you."

Cell-Phone Shushing Gets Creative
"As mobile phones become ever more ubiquitous, so too do those annoyed by inconsiderate chatterers. Designers across the country are finding ways to reduce the risk of coming to blows."

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

LECTURE - Isabelle Stengers and the radical critique of scientific rationality

I finished today's lecture by introducing the work of Isabelle Stengers and what she considers to be the radical critique of scientific rationality - a perspective to which we will return for the remainder of the course.

At the beginning of The Invention of Modern Science, Stengers looks at why many scientists agreed with Kuhn's assessment of the social dimensions of scientific practice, but objected to related investigations by sociologists and anthropologists.

She points out that the social studies of science position that the relationship between scientists and the phenomena they study is not neutral is particularly problematic or threatening to proponents of an objective scientific method - but should not be confused with an accusation that science is false or that scientific knowledge is arbitrary.

She also points out that sociological and anthropological studies focus on how social and cultural values and practices shape science and technology, and how in turn science and technology shape social and cultural life. In contrast, Kuhn's account preserves the "autonomy of a scientific community in relation to its political and social environment." With this autonomy, the scientific community is constructed as the norm and as the "condition for the possibility of future science". In this scenario, scientists are not required to "account for their choices and priorities" and they do not need to "adopt a critical perspective on scientific knowledge and knowledge-making". In other words, the internal history, definition and practice of science are more important than any external, or broader, social and cultural factors and concerns.

For Stengers, the objective of studying science as culture and practice is to "articulate what we mean by science and what we mean by politics, and how the two shape and are shaped by each other".

I will use this "radical critique of scientific rationality" to guide our future discussions - and it may be considered the primary objective behind your research projects on the social and cultural implications of science and technology.

LECTURE - Scientific methods and knowledge

Today's lecture opened the question of what constitutes scientific method and knowledge - and what does not.

We began by considering the differences between objective and subjective knowledge, and Karl Popper's criterion of demarcation, or his claim that "if a theory is falsifiable, then it is scientific; if it is not falsifiable, then it is not science". In other words, objective or scientific knowledge is understood to be distinct or separate from personal reflection or feelings, whereas subjective or non-scientific knowledge is considered to be biased, irrational or ideological.

The rest of the class looked at the logical tensions and limitations embodied in positivist, empiricist and falsificationist approaches to science.

We discussed a famous challenge to such approaches from Thomas Kuhn, who was among the first to claim that scientific theories change because of paradigm shifts - a point that clearly indicated that scientific method was a social enterprise where scientific worldviews are collectively agreed upon and changed.

Kuhn defines a scientific paradigm as: 1) what is to be observed and scrutinized, 2) the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject, 3) how these questions are to be put, and 4) how the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted. To better understand how this plays out in social terms, we took a closer look at Kuhn's accounts of the route to normal science.

The assigned reading by Feyerabend also offered a critique of empirical science based on the claim that, in principle, experience is not necessary at any point in the construction, comprehension or testing of empirical scientific theories.

The assigned reading by Longino begins with the claim that:

"It is, of course, nonsense to assert the value-freedom of natural science. Scientific practice is governed by norms and values generated from an understadning of the goals of scientific inquiry ... and contextual values [that] belong to the social and cultural environment in which science is done."

In asking how we may judge the claims of science, she positions the question as a matter of what constitutes acceptable (good) or unacceptable (bad) scientific practice - again, like Kuhn, drawing our attention towards how scientists socially and collectively practice science by accepting or rejecting particular kinds of knowledge.

Assigned reading

Paul Feyerabend, Science Without Experience, 1969

Helen Longino, "Good Science, Bad Science" from Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry, 1990

Further reading / listening

George Herbert Mead, Science and the Objectivity of Perspectives, 1938

Paul Feyerabend, from Against Method, 1975

Helen Longino, audio lecture on Truth and Relativism, 2004

Following articles from The science studies reader, edited by Mario Biagioli (library info)

Lorraine Daston, Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective

Roger Hart, On the Problem of Chinese Science

Geoffrey Lloyd, Science in Antiquity: The Greek and Chinese Cases and Their Relevance to the Problems of Culture and Cognition

Theodore M. Porter, Quantification and the Accounting Ideal in Science

Joseph Rouse, Understanding Scientific Practices: Cultural Studies of Science as a Philosophical Program

Thursday, January 06, 2005

What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

The 2005 Edge Question : What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

This is a fascinating collection of the different ways that scientists approach what it means to know something. As the editor writes, this is a "commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty" and the answers range from the possibility of absolute understanding to examples of shared faith.

For example, Leo Chalupa writes:

"Here are three of my unproven beliefs:

(i) The human brain is the most complex entity in the known universe;

(ii) With this marvelous product of evolution we will be successful in eventually discovering all that there is to discover about the physical world, provided of course, that some catastrophic event doesn't terminate our species; and

(iii) Science provides the best means to attain this ultimate goal."

And Timothy Taylor explains:

"Truth and belief are uncomfortable words in scholarship. It is possible to define as true only those things that can be proved by certain agreed criteria. In general, science does not believe in truth or, more precisely, science does not believe in belief. Understanding is understood as the best fit to the data under the current limits (both instrumental and philosophical) of observation. If science fetishized truth, it would be religion, which it is not. However, it is clear that under the conditions that Thomas Kuhn designated as 'normal science' (as opposed to the intellectual ferment of paradigm shifts) most scholars are involved in supporting what is, in effect, a religion. Their best guesses become fossilized as a status quo, and the status quo becomes an item of faith. So when a scientist tells you that 'the truth is . . .', it is time to walk away. Better to find a priest."

Science and technology in the news

Part of this course will involve keeping up with current innovations and issues in science, technology and society.

To get started, you can check out Discover's The Year in Science: Top 100 Stories of 2004 and here's a short list of sources that offer good ongoing coverage of science & tech:

Globe Technology
BBC News: Science/Nature and Technology
Wired Magazine and Wired News
NY Times: Technology and Science
Scientific American
Forbes: Technology
Nature: News
Technology Review

Feel free to add other links in the comments - there are tons online - and share your thoughts on any stories that catch your attention.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


I've set up this course weblog so that students of SOCI 2035 have a resource for topics related to science, technology, social and cultural life. Each week I'll post my lecture notes, as well as further reading for anyone interested in learning more. Along the way I'll also post links to interesting news stories and other weblogs.

But mostly I hope that it will serve as a place for you to start - and continue - discussions on your readings and research projects. You can also use this as a place to ask questions. I promise to answer them as quickly as possible, but I encourage other students to share what they know too! And don't forget that contributing to this blog is one of the easy ways you can earn class participation marks.

All students can post comments or questions after creating an account and you can customise your profile to share as much or as little about yourself as you want. If you'd like to share a link you think the class would find interesting, or start your own discussion, please just let me know and I will make sure you can add your own post.

There's just one thing you need to remember: this weblog is public. Your posts and comments are not anonymous and will be archived by Google so that anyone can find and read them. So have fun - but don't post anything you wouldn't want your mother to read!