Values in Science

Short piece pointing to research on embracing values in science in a period of ‘post-truth’ public discussion.

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Movement in Body Parts

See this terrific review of the interesting book, and there is a free introductory chapter for those interested:

Bronwyn Parry, Beth Greenhough, Tim Brown and Isabel Dyck (eds.) Bodies Across Borders: The Global Circulation of Body Parts, Medical Tourists and Professionals, 2015, 248 pp., Routledge, New York, paper $109.95 ISBN 978-1409457176.

*image: http://www.bioethics.com/medical-tourism

Ahhh…Seriously again? On “How French Postmodernism ‘Ruined the West'”

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We are living in a time of intellectual fights. As STSers, we sometimes feel like being pushed back into the 1990s, only that the strange debates we had back then on “Science as Practice and Culture” have made it onto the streets and into mainstream media. Sure, we have expressed many times that we love science and love technology and today we join (and even practically and intellectually lead) the “march for science”. But the shortcut “post…” -> “relativism” -> “danger” seems to be still in place. A recent piece on HOW FRENCH “INTELLECTUALS” RUINED THE WEST: POSTMODERNISM AND ITS IMPACT, EXPLAINED argued for that – again. We’ve written about postmodernism many times, even in a 1, 2, 3 set of posts, so there is – intellectually – not a lot to add to that nonsense. But maybe it is time to take that, well, personal again: If that attitude is still a guidance for the modern, for the west, maybe we should have ruined it when we had the chance. Or, if that sounds too offended, why we obviously never had the chance to do so.

Teaching Disasters

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With some success, I have been teaching Charles Perrow’s “Normal Accident” concept with “Engineering Disasters.” It is a show on the History Channel, which is itself an offshoot of Modern Marvels). Each show is broken-down into usually four or five vignettes that are essentially “case studies” in engineering accidents and disasters.

These shows can easily be harnessed to walk students through the normal accident concept by analyzing each of the case studies using a worksheet (I could share this with anyone that wants it njr12 at psu.edu) that distills normal accidents into a few component parts. See below. I use Modern Marvels Engineering Disasters 7 in my course and in the image you see the final two cases — Northridge Earthquakes in CA and the Underground Mine Fires in Centralia, PA — and they are cross-referenced with the three criteria that I use from normal accidents, namely,

  1. That there is a techno-human-nature interaction that is detectable;
  2. That the relational interaction is sufficiently complex (and/or tightly-coupled);
  3. That, with regard to the resulting engineering accident or disaster, it is not reasonable to expect the designing engineers to have anticipated (i.e., predicted) the issues that lead to the engineering accident or disaster in advance.

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The students, from what I can gather, enjoy doing this sort of detective work. After four or five case studies, the students typically know how to apply the criteria and, thus, the concept of normal disasters.

Infrastructure Field-trip

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Just thought I would mention that I am working on a field-trip project on infrastructure that takes students on a hunt for “signals” of infrastructure in New York based on a book we discussed on the blog a couple years ago. The book is finally for sale, and if you go to the purchasing site, you’ll find a new option to purchase a walking tour that accompanies a copy of the book. It is marvelous.

If you’re on the East Coast, and can get to NYC without a ton of trouble, this is a fascinating look at what the internet infrastructure “looks like,” illustrated with visual examples of what to look for to decode infrastructure cues.

Do search engines make cultural capital less valuable? 

A student of mine said something last week that gave me déjà vu. We completed our lessons on “social class” and the student was having difficulty with the notion of cultural capital.

In class, waving an iPhone in the air, s/he said:

“Why would anybody need to know this when you have the whole world’s knowledge in your pocket?”

The student was referring to the ability to command cultural knowledge (i.e., cultural capital).

Reminded me of this immediately: And a student said “Ah, so like, people with cultural capital don’t need Google…ohhhh, I get it”

Map of Science

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This is cool. Click here for a map of science as we know it. Reminds me of a number of topics we have discussed here, namely, digital methods, maps of submarine cables, and cartographic narratives from the past.

The above image is just a snippet of the original, which is only one of numerous maps to help make sense of massive amounts of data at Places & Spaces, Curated by the Cyberinfrastructure for Network Science Center.

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NYC’s circulatory system and skin

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If you’re teaching infrastructure and you need some metaphors to communicate how certain kinds of infrastructure operate, consider this: Street as vein and skin. 

“Streets are both New York City’s circulatory system and its skin.”

Part of New York 101 from the New York Times, Why are the streets always under construction?” is a great short, readable resource for students about the “subterranean layer cake” underneath the streets of any major city.

 

Teaching Paradigms

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Like anybody actively teaching STS, I imagine that you too reach back to teach a little of Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsWell, among the many other lessons about “normal science” relevant to students (periods of shared vision regarding what constitutes a “legitimate” scientific question, general consensus about “proper” methodological techniques, etc), how “anomalies” mount under the conditions of normal science until eventually scientists come to the realization that these “errors” or “unaccounted for findings” were a kind of data in themselves, and then, of course, all the insights about how entrenched scientists protect their privileged positions as purveyors of truth as more recently trained scientists make new, unorthodox, or counter-intuitive claims (in search of achieving their own legitimacy and recognition.

I have two examples to use in the classroom: one that I’ve used for years, and another I only learned about today (thanks Alexander Stingl).

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Why NYC Subways Don’t Have Countdown Clocks

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Great, quick read — possibly useful, in form and function, for generating teachable moments and useful learning projects.

Why New York Subway Lines Are Missing Countdown Clocks: “I honestly just wanted to know why the F train didn’t have clocks. I never expected it to be so complicated.”

*This is similar, in some ways, to previous posts on NYC and natural gas infrastructure.

Re-Using Nuclear Sites

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Logging and nudist colonies

It is an admittedly odd juxtaposition, but these two ideas landed on my desk this week. 

First, in an example of public participation in inquiry,Chornobyl’s urban explorers find evidence of logging inside exclusion zone” — logging glow sticks in the “zone of alienation” (thanks dmf). A group of “stockers” roams the zone of alienation and monitor it, and they have found some interesting things in their somewhat odd form of tourism. “The first time we saw forests and the second time it wasn’t there,” says Kalmykov. Chernobyl is having a birthday.

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Internet Railroad?

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I will return to this piece each year teaching STS. Living in Central Pennsylvania, we are sitting right on top of PRR country (Pennsylvania Railroad). It is useful for students to understand the sunk costs, the path dependency (literally, in this case), and the reverberations through history that simple technological infrastructure decisions can make. “How railroads shaped Internet history.”

Unintended Consequences Go Hog Wild

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If you find yourself teaching unintended consequences, consider this case “Radioactive wild boars rampaging around Fukushima nuclear site.” The animal population, which was previously hunted as a delicacy, has expanded dramatically (likely on account of nobody wanting to eat the radioactive meat); the hogs have pillaged the environment local to the Fukushima nuclear site, eating all manner of contaminated fruits and vegetables.

Uncommon Walking Tour of Bristol

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In a fascinating post about walking, Will Self offers an uncommon walking tour of Bristol. According to Self, “walking was the way to break free from the shackles of 21st-century capitalism.” Walking tours, sometimes also called pedway tours, are growing in popularity; pedways are pedestrian walkways and they can be both above ground and below; they are sometimes discussed as a form of ungoverned or unplanned civil engineering.

Self, who guides the walking tours, gets meta pretty quick; he “began with a brief introduction to the situationists – the Paris-based artists and thinkers of the 1960s who championed the concept of “psychogeography”, the unplanned drifting through an urban landscape to become more in tune with one’s surroundings.”

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Squirrels, Sharks, and Eagles, oh my!

While teaching STS, I was recently talking to my students about what constitutes an “internet attack.” The students arrived with clear examples in mind (and in hand, which was part of the assignment). The answers were primarily in the form of human-based hacking projects, and, as most of you know, they are abound. Giving the timing of the assignment, most of the cases had something to do with hacks against the US, hacks against power production facilities, and financial institutions.

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However, one student brought this: Sharks, replete with jokes about Sharknado as evidence of the prowess of the shark. Seeing as how a previous lesson was about ANT, with an emphasis on non-human agents as not-to-be-ignored agents in understanding social order, broadly speaking, this was a sign that at least one student “really got it.”

Another student brought in this: an eagle hitting a drone, hard.

Not a few days pass, and the blog’s oldest friend, dmf, sends me to a great website, half-serious, half-satire, CyberSquirrel1. The site is a terrific description of how our critical infrastructure is seemingly the most danger from other nation-states; however, the empirical materials do not seem to suss-out such an explanation; in fact, squirrels and other non-humans are responsible for more “attacks” than anyone else.

Makes for a great lesson if you want to find a fresh new way to bring infrastructure and the agentic role of nonhumans into the classroom in a way that is, to my mind, far better to the early discussions that Latour made about stop signs or door hinges.

A Yelp for People?

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Apparently, yes, according to the Washington Post.

It is called Peeple, and this on-line human-rating infrastructure is more or less the equivalent of rating a meal at a restaurant or a hotel stay. Fortune calls it “truly awful,” the always balanced BBC News says the app “causes social uproar,” while the Guardian suggests that of all apps this is the app “you didn’t dare ask for.” There are also worse things ( “creepy,” “toxic,” “gender hate in a prettier package”) being said about this admittedly odd idea.

For the moment, the promotional website (forthepeeple.com) seems to be dead at the stick. Continue reading

Race in Material Culture

Some resources I use to teach a lesson about race woven into the lived material world for my STS classes:

Lorna Roth (Communications, Concordia University,  Canada) wrote a read-worthy open-access article for the Canadian Journal of Communication in 2009 “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity” wherein she documents how “light-skin bias embedded in colour film stock emulsions and digital camera design” despite attempts at correcting such matters during the 1990s. Continue reading

New Zealand Grants River Personhood

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Great ANT case for teaching: “New Zealand Grants River Personhood

Want to take it to the next level in the classroom? challenge students to understand how a person-like “state” (in this case, New Zealand) is apparently accorded the ability to do this!

Ask them, which is weirder, a river being a person or a state granting the personhood?

Jugaad, Siqizai, Bricolage

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New article about jugaad, which we’ve discussed here a bit, by Pankaj Sekhsaria (a graduate student at Maastricht’s Department of Technology and Society) is available on academia.edu (note: if you click the link, you’ll find the paper starts on page 21 of the larger PDF file — the paper is short and to the point).

Infrastructure Discourse: Poorly Regulated and Explicitly Not Sexy?

John Oliver comments on infrastructure in the news. He comments on how poorly regulated infrastructure is in the US (the low grades America receives on its infrastructure report card) and hints that one of the reasons that we are so inattentive to infrastructure is its explicit “not sexiness.” Catastrophe is apparently one of the only reasons to be attentive to infrastructure …

Infrastructure and Enchantment

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A friend recently turned me onto the idea that somebody, somewhere is embedding USB ports into infrastructure in various places around the world — like a treasure hunt (sometimes called a “USB dead drop“). Turns out that some of these early devices were embedded in 2010 by Berlin artist Aram Bartholl. There is even a manifesto — interesting, in my mind. This is part of, I think, the broader DIY culture, and, though it is dated, it is a bit cool.

The idea of inhabiting infrastructure like this — they claim that it is the data equivalent of geo-caching for P2P file sharing, but the implications are bigger — is not merely as an expression of “un-clouding data” or even DIY freedom (from the Borg); the promise of this sort of intervention into infrastructure is “enchantment.” I do mean this, in the Weberian sense of the word, although Weber mainly referred to rationalization and secularization in reference to their de-mystifying or “disenchanting” quality for our world.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently found a documentary film set in San Francisco called “The Institute.” 

The film, for all its flaws, contains something I found powerful about engaging our infrastructure and intervening in it to produce enchantment out of the ordinary. Granted, it is like an artistic way to play in infrastructure, to transform the ordinary world. There is some promise, as idealistic as it might sound, in the logic of these USB dead drops for producing such an effect in our cityscapes. I get the feeling that university settings in urban areas could really make this work.

Free PhD Class at Roskilde University

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Free 3-day PhD Course: “Criticizing Contemporary Technology: From Drones to Google Glasses and Self-Driving Cars” w/ Prof. Evan Selinger (RIT, USA)

Deadline for sign-up: Monday 20th April to Søren Riis, soerenr@ruc.dk

Relevant dates: 29 June 2015 (day 1), 30 June 2015 (day 2), and 01 July 2015 (day 3).

Background: Prof. Evan Selinger is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Media, Arts, Games, Design, Interaction and Community Center (MAGIC) Head of Research Communications, Community, and Ethics at Rochester Institute of Technology. In addition to publishing widely on issues in philosophy of technology in the standard academic sources, he has also written extensively for popular media, including places like The Atlantic, Wired, Slate, The Nation, Salon, and The Wall Street Journal. Starting September 2015, he will spend a sabbatical year as a Senior Fellow at The Future of Privacy Forum. You can find out more by going to Prof. Selinger’s homepage (http://eselinger.org/) and following him on Twitter @EvanSelinger.

Summary: In this 3-day PhD course, Prof. Evan Selinger gives a general introduction to the field of philosophy of technology and dedicates a day of presentations and discussions to three disputed topics: obscurity and privacy, automation and the ethics of outsourcing, and technology and public scholarship. The course is developed for graduated students across different disciplines: humanities, media studies, social sciences, IT and engineering.

If you’re in Denmark, happen to be in Denmark, or are close, write Søren!

 

Is Access to Darkness an Equality Issue?

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“… many people have never experienced true darkness,” a report reads. The discussion is mainly about light pollution, and the body-burdens associated with 24 hour light exposure, which are on the rise:

It’s estimated that the amount of light in the night sky globally is increasing by around 6 per cent a year, but that statistic can be deceptive, according to Paul Bogard from James Madison University [author of The End of Night].

There is hope, however, from the marketplace: 

The Amsterdam-based company Tvilight is one of those firms leading the way in the practical roll-out of smart lighting technology. Tvilight manufactures street-based lighting systems that automatically respond to traffic and pedestrians. The idea is to create urban lighting systems that limit light pollution in suburban areas, with lights dimming or illuminating depending on the level of human and vehicular traffic detected.

I get the feeling, however, that access to darkness is going to become another equality issue: the wealthy in wealthy areas will get access to the diminishing resource of darkness based on their access to other resources (which, quite ironically, may have been earned through the bright lights of some other company) while the less than wealthy suffer light pollution. The capitalist logic is breath-taking: Sell them light and then sell them darkness! (this would work as a case lesson for students about resources and access to those resources, especially something as “given” as access to darkness … no doubt, college students have low access to darkness many campus locations)

Teaching STS: Defensive Architecture

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Opportunity: Have students map “defensive architecture” and “infrastructural discrimination” on campus or in a local city environment. 

We are not talking about the defensive structures of yesteryear (large, impenetrable fortresses), defensive architecture now constitutes a major infrastructural investment in major cities (even as bridges crumble and roads decay).

What’s the point? Those spikes are about keeping homeless people from laying down or loitering (above, an imagine from China), although many readers might be more familiar with the anti-skate boarding elements of our urban landscape, like these below (the most supremely dick-ish one I could find):

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Here is a broader array of these sorts of defensive architectural moves from around the world. This form of blatant infrastructural exclusion (or infrastructural discrimination, if that makes sense) is surprisingly obvious in everyday life.

No doubt, those of you teaching on college campuses have seen elements like this. A viable assignment, especially if you live in an urban area, might be to map (cartographically) where defensive architecture is in your city.

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If you’re not in an urban area, then perhaps less obvious forms of infrastructural discrimination might work, for example, sending students around to determine what school entrances are up to code, for example, related to wheel chair entry or fire code. Surely, this won’t make you popular with the higher-ups, especially if you find the college wanting in some regard; however, it will turn campus into a living laboratory for these sorts of infrastructural investigations. A campus map is usually just as easy to get as a city map, after all.

3:1 — Experts Everywhere? Experts Nowhere? — 3 of 3

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Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink … 

Earlier this week, Jacob raised the provocative notion that “terrorism expert” was something of an oxymoron drawing attention to how supposed terrorism expert Steve Emerson made some irresponsible public remarks about the concentration of Muslim persons in a number of cities.

But Jacob also shed some light on how the very notion of terrorism does not lend itself to a clean/clear subject to be an expert in because terrorism, on the one hand, has a political dimension that can never really be excised to form a “pure” science (cough) and, on the other hand, terrorism is often in the eye of the beholder (or as Jacob said somewhere, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter). It all reminded me of some readings in my Social Problems class about terrorism – during class discussion a student (perhaps unknowingly) raised a really important question: “Hey, Dr. Rowland, does it matter that the author of this piece is not at a University and instead works for the government military complex?” (not a perfect question, obviously, but it lead to a great discussion, and, at times, a heated one). Returning to the crisis of expertise in terrorism: my hunch was that some serious traction might be gained by thinking about how persons in this line of work get said expertise during training – given that, as Jacob noted, certificates in this line of work are a dime a dozen – or what sorts of activities a person can be involved in – journalistic work with terrorists inside prisons, for example – that justify their expert status. On Monday, we were questioning the very possibility of an expert of terror(ism); the supposed experts, whom get a good deal of public and political attention, seem not to be experts in the scientific context that the term typically is used (thus, science is used in name only).

On Wednesday, while Jacob’s terrorism experts are rarely questioned and get tons of public attention, Stef’s climate experts are seemingly always questioned and get little public attention (at least, positive public attention, or they are pigeon-holed as participating in some grand debate about “warming”).

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So what makes Jacob’s experts – who reach ecstasy on a daily news show – legitimate experts and Stef’s experts – who cringe at the thought of a daily news show – illegitimate experts?

If Lyotard was right about one thing in “The Postmodern Condition” it was his commentary about scientific expertise, especially about how “old fashioned” scientific expertise was being gradually replaced a parallel somewhat pseudo-scientific enterprise that serviced capital interests (think business scholarship and that ilk) and the state (Jacob’s terrorism experts will do). The net result was a plurality of experts, but what Lyotard did not tease out (he was too busy indicating that this was undermining the grand narrative that Science worked so hard to erect over passing centuries) was that this gradual shift toward a plurality of expertises allowed for a whole new game to be played in public arenas: You could have your cake and eat it too, so to say, you could have your (essentially unquestioned) experts while simultaneously challenging the expert-status of some other expert on the grounds that they claim to be an expert. There is a split; a fissure. This crisis of science, as Jacob pointed out in a comment to Stef’s post anticipates my response: Mertonian norms have failed us under precisely the postmodern conditions we live in!

What do I mean by “water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink” as it applies to experts? My meaning is simple: The split in expertise means that experts are somehow all around us all the time, but none is to be trusted outright, unless of course there are other non-scientific reasons for doing so.

Consider the anti-vaccination controversy (or movement, though I shudder to call it a movement). Now, it is worth noting that this is nothing new – anti-vaxers have been around for nearly a century (as long as we’ve had vaccinations to be against, folks have been against them). While there is a lot of attention directed at the US these days – because of the thought link between vaccinations and autism (where “evidence doesn’t dispel doubts”) and the recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland – there have been similar international examples in recent history in Sweden, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, and so on. What is it that makes Jenny McCarthy expert enough for a documentary film about “The Vaccine War”?

My sense is that it is precisely the fissure between expertise in the name of science and other expertises in the employ of capital or politics that opens-up seemingly legitimate space to reroute a general sense of skepticism and then target it so that, on the one hand, we can make the calm, sober, and public claim that a climate scientist is biased on account of being an expert (i.e., those scientists can cook-up any data they want, or that they are in a staunch debate that will never be resolved showing that, in fact, they don’t “know” anything definitively anymore), and, on the other hand, we also make the calm, sober, and public claim that a terrorism expert is unbiased because all s/he wants it to protect the nation and “our way of life” (i.e., the terrorism expert is unbiased on principle account of being obviously biased toward his/her home country, a bias “I can get behind”). This compartmentalization of expetises in relation to how bias operates in public appears to be at play; a bold corruption of Mertonian norms.

The first rule of math club is “You don’t talk about math club”

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In a peculiar turn of events, Shinichi Mochizuki, a mathematician from Kyoto University, is really peeved — maybe even more than a little irksome — that nobody will read and review his solution to the ABC conjecture. To date, no errors have been uncovered, and yet the proof remains unverified. His work sits in a scientific nether region; his work is neither falsified nor supported as truth.

Part of the concern at work in this controversy, we learn, is that the ABC conjecture (also known as the Oesterlé–Masser conjecture) gets its name from a simple equation — a + b = c — but the implications run deep in the mathematical community, especially that it provides answer to deep questions in the theory of numbers (number theory).

“[F]ellow mathematicians,” he claims, “are failing to get to grips with his work.” On balance, however, his proof is 500 pages long of extremely dense material. Mochizuki’s current strategy: Put the proof on-line and wait. 

The solution from the mathematical community is for him go on a world tour and share his proof in person. According to a New Scientist essay, however, Mochizuki’s refuses to share his work through a series of talks and lectures — I Will Not Lecture, he is all but saying. Instead, he is proposing to train a few scholars in his technique so that at least someone is able to review his work and determine if there are any errors. My understanding of the math community is limited, but I am fairly confident that this is seen as abnormal behavior among insiders.

I’d welcome some insight from the social studies of science community on this matter. The notion that some discoveries are, in effect, peerless — meaning, even seemingly equal peers in the scholarly community are unable to verify or falsify a truth claim — is relatively rare. Moreover, that Mochizuki won’t go on a “public tour” (let’s say) is also interesting because research in SSS has routinely shown that the frontier of math research is often a dynamic activity undertaken in person with others, which makes Mochizuki’s refusal all the more interesting.

The New Scientist piece chalks it up to pride. I can understand that. It is unconfirmed, but a few stories on Mochizuki indicate that it took him four solid years of work to complete this proof. Possibly, he expected to be warmly embraced by the mathematics community, rewarded, lauded, and raised-up as a public figure of math for the world. Who knows? Mochizuki won’t talk, so we don’t know yet.

This would be great to teach with: because his work sits in a scientific nether region; his work is neither falsified nor supported as truth, which makes this a good case study for teaching students about the philosophy of science, especially about the role of consensus among scholars as well as some more general notions of falsificationism and the work of the early logical positivists.

Computer Engineer Barbie, ugh

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This is gonna hurt. The empowering “I can be an actress” and “I can be a computer engineer” are part of the “I can be” Barbie Seriesthe reviews on Amazon.com are interesting, some saying that this book if “Great for lighting fires during power outages” or less veiled “Why Do People Who Make Toys for Girls Seem to Hate Them?Books like these make great, great fodder for teaching issues related to gender and engineering. There has also been tons of flack that students might sift through and reflect upon — here, here, or here.

If you want a solid run-down of “I can be a computer engineer” — a story were Barbie gives Skipper’s computer a virus by accident and then the only way to fix it is to get some young guys to take care of it for Barbie — then check out this thorough blog post. The Barbie Facebook community responded to these and other concerns, indicating that “The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books” as if, perhaps, to say that things have really changed since 2010…

For a healthier example, we’ve most recently related to girl’s building-blocks called GoldiBlox.

Not since my childhood have I seen something this bad from Barbie related to math, science, and engineering (i.e., the Barbie doll that said “Math is hard”). 

20 Ethnographic Films to Teach With

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Worth checking-out: visual psychological anthropology films that can be used for teaching from our friends over at Psychocultural Cinema:

Despite the rich history of innovative methods and techniques employed by documentary filmmakers across a range of genres, there seems to be little awareness or integration of the findings and approaches of psychological anthropology in ethnographic film

If Latour were a craft-beer-brewer, his name’d be …

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… Steve Wright. Check out this innovative ANT account of craft beer tasting, now on-line, free of charge. Investigation into the flavor profiling of craft beers as well as auto-ethnographic blind beer tasting and tasting exams, this paper — and by paper, I am referring to a 277 page thesis — is replete with outstanding detail.

Also, upon even modest reflection, the teaching potential of this document is striking.

My favorite part is the explanation of language-sensory experience:

The historical construction of the contemporary language of sensory assessment supports the construction of the style guides. Once assembled into an information infrastructure the style guide is extended to act in multiple different ways: its propositions are translated into testable facts with multiple choices, it functions as a technology of material ordering and coordination, as a regulatory technology placing limits on how taste judgements can and cannot be expressed or recorded, and as a re-enactment and materialisation of individual cognitivist models of assessment.

Latour’s inconsistencies unveiled

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In this terrific article in New Literary History, Graham Harman draws-out some of Latour’s inconsistencies in his shift from old ANT days (i.e., the early Latour) to the more recent emphasis on “modes” (i.e., the late Latour) related to his culture-nature rejection-reficiation (played with a few of these idea a decade ago reviewing his book PoN).

Teaching STS: Construction of Time and Daylight Savings

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In the “Teaching STS” collection, we’ve discussed teaching lessons (with some resources) about the social construction of time a number of times related to whether or not time exists at all (with research from the Max Planck Institute), reflections on the notion of aberrant time such as “leap seconds” (students are bothered by this one), and, even though when we write about the olympics, it is usually about derelict stadiums, it occurs to me that when the atomic clock was adopted and the length of the second transformed, “timing” at the Olympic games might have been an interesting topic to think about for students who imagine that the length of the second back in 1936 should be identical to the length of the second that Michael Phelps was swimming in 2008 (in Beijing).

At any rate, a nice entry point for a classroom situation for discussing time might be to use humor before you get into the nitty-gritty of “existence” or whether or not the basic units of measurement are less stable than we previously thought. Enter a satirical trailer about daylight savings … it would work to kick off a class on the topic of time.

Teaching STS: Sexual Harassment in the Field

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A piece in the New York Times recently discusses sexual harassment while scholars are out in the field conducting research.

A topic worth of discussion in its own right, I can see this being a solid introductory read for undergraduate students interested in how gender and science meet. A lot of the literature in that area centers of feminist technology, seeing the underlying sexism in scientific depictions (i.e., the sperm is active while the egg lays in waiting, and so on), and, of course, access to and participation in science and engineering broken-down by gender (sort of like a version of the Matthew Effect, only with women falling out of the pipeline to professional scientist/engineer, perhaps it should be called the Molly Effect or something like that).

At any rate, the piece covers a number of important issues such as power/gender dynamics while in the field, the issue of “sleeping arrangements” while conducting research at non-local venues, as well as the reality that when sexual harassment looms in university-based research activities the matters are often settled internally (rather than in a public forum).

These are matters worth of more public discuss, especially on college campuses, and, to my mind, the sooner the better (perhaps, even in high school) 

4S Newsletter Volume 02 Issue 03 (Summer, 1977)

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Quote of the issue: “On 26 August 1975 … fifty scholars assembled … [to] declare themselves members incorporate in 4S” (August 26th is 4S’s birthday!) Aarnold Thackray and Daryl Chubin, 1977.

Issue in brief (PDF is here: 1977 Volume 2 Issue 3 Summer).

  1. Editorial on the origins of the professional society — interesting,
  2. Preliminary program for the 2nd annual meeting — at Harvard University. You’ll also note that in the elections for members, the status hierarchies of old are all represented,
  3. Fact Sheet for 2nd annual meeting — $15 pre-registration; $20 at the door … makes me wonder what a 1976-2014 registration fee chart might look like,
  4. Thought and opinion section about citation research with an odd opening remark that I think might be about Latour’s 1976 presentation at 4S (but I can’t be sure),
  5. David Edge offers a retort — an excellent one — to the (at best peripheral) acceptance of quantitative (co-)citation analysis in the sociology of science. Well done!
  6. Commentary on the Psychology of Science, which is a field no longer in strong standing (to my knowledge),
  7. A piece on teaching STS in Papa New Guinea — interesting,
  8. STS in the Netherlands,
  9. Excellent reviews of about Zuckerman’s Scientific Elite (a text that challenged the idea that scientists needed to have their great breakthrough by 30, but a book that also did not necessarily support Merton’s Matthew Effect among elites … where it was thought to be strongest), and
  10. The closing pages contain the freshly revised charter.

This newsletter contains information about the origins of the society. According to opening editorial, in connection with the Montreal Congress of the International Sociological Association (who knew?), the earliest foundations of the professional society were laid and an informal committee was established in 1974-75. On 26 August 1975, 50 members assembled in San Francisco to ratify a charter for 4S. Apparently, the 26th of August is 4S’s birthday!

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More on Lego gender battle

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BBC chimes in on the Lego gender battle, which we discussed here and here.

CHOICE QUOTE:

David Robertson, a former Lego professor of innovation at Switzerland’s Institute for Management Development, says such criticisms are unfair. “If Lego was still marketing sets the way it used to, it’d be out of business.”

In his book Brick by Brick, he details the company’s fear in the late 90s that Lego would soon be obsolete. The patents were out of date and a new approach was needed. Instead, the company focused on stories, which in practice meant tie-ins like Star Wars and Harry Potter.

On Taking Notes By Hand

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Evidence that writing notes by hand on paper results in greater learning (as compared to taking notes by laptop keyboard). Check out “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard” by Mueller and Oppenheimer in Psychological Science.

CLAIM: In effect, quickly typing copious lecture notes by computer fails to (at least in the experiment) generate the sorts of conceptualization techniques that promote learning (the way that slow handwriting requires students to think about what to selectively write).

Obviously, as any educator will tell you, based on his/her experience, this is an imperfect explanation. Seeing this, the authors also conducted a content analysis, which shows that students writing longhand have to summarize in their own words and draw on conceptual mapping to digest the information.

PROBLEMS: Interestingly, nothing about in-class discussion is mentioned and very little is said about on-line learning. I am reluctant to draw too many conclusions just yet about what this means for practice. There is a powerful irony when I hear a student say “its hard enough to just write this down let alone understand it” … as if notes were really designed for “learning later what you’re learning now.” The active classroom full of discussion — even if some or much of it distracts from the topic at hand — seems relevant. Also, on-line learning wherein notes are often ready-made for the bill-paying student seems like a relevant consideration too in this regard. Also, very little is said about writing assignments: I have been using a technique where students write their first draft totally by hand and then only type it up after I give comments; the quality is outstandingly better, in my experience (using this in a high-level social theory course where conceptualization in significantly important to success on writing assignments).

STUDY: Back to the original study: Evidence comes from experimental research. Mueller and Oppenheimer used the following set-up:

Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand.  As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.

Much of the argument is hinged on a sort-of-fair assumption that college students perceive having laptops in the classroom creates an advantage for the student; typing is faster than writing and this means that students are able to collect a more complete set of notes (as compared to handwriting notes). They write:

When it comes to college students, the belief that more is better may underlie their widely-held view that laptops in the classroom enhance their academic performance.  Laptops do in fact allow students to do more, like engage in online activities and demonstrations, collaborate more easily on papers and projects, access information from the internet, and take more notes.  Indeed, because students can type significantly faster than they can write, those who use laptops in the classroom tend to take more notes than those who write out their notes by hand.  Moreover, when students take notes using laptops they tend to take notes verbatim, writing down every last word uttered by their professor.

Time to start telling student to ditch the laptop for the fountain pen? I did years ago.

Chinese Constitutional Politics

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The video recording of the conference, China-Constitution-Politics, is now available for accessing via mediasite. I was involved in the PM discussion; I reviewed Dr. Larry Backer and graduate student Karen Wang‘s paper “THE EMERGING STRUCTURES OF SOCIALIST CONSTITUTIONALISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS: EXTRA-JUDICIAL DETENTION (LAOJIAO AND SHUANGGUI) AND THE CHINESE CONSTITUTIONAL ORDER” which is soon coming out in Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal; the AM session considered Zhiwei Tong (童之伟) and his new work “Two Issues.”

RECORDINGS: Entire Conference HERE: AM Session HERE: PM Session HERE.

The original schedule is here:

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Retrospective on “The Carceral”

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A chapter of Michel Foucault’s famous 1977 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison) is titled “The Carceral.” In a few brief notes, I reconsider the chapter in light of contemporary discussions and literature.

As with so much of Foucault’s work, the chapter starts with a rich, seemingly (but not really) unorthodox example, in this case, the official opening of Mettray, a location where “disciplinary form at its most extreme” was born. Utilizing nearly every form of traditional organizational forms — the family, the army, the workshop, the classroom, and juridical ordering techniques —  such that those “young delinquents condemned by the courts” (as well as, I will note, boys charged, but acquitted, and yet were imprisoned as an alternative to “parental correction”) were to be overseen by “technicians of behavior; engineers of conduct, orthopaedists of individuality.”

As you can see from the quotes, Foucault’s language holds nicely to this day, even if post-foucauldians in governmentality studies have “cleaned-up” the ideas so much so that now we rattle-off “voluntary self-regulation through myriad disciplinary techniques,” it is worth remembering that, earlier on, we used to have to learn what Foucault meant from writing that did not give way to bullet-point-like writing or textbook-like bold terms sitting like warts in our prose. That said, some of the prose does not really hold over time as well as his language choices. When I first read Foucault, I recall his work being mind-blowing and yet, at some level, impenetrable. My colleagues would say something like “this is not sociology as usual,” and while I agreed with them back then (perhaps out of fear — Foucault readers often loved him dearly and not “getting it” was something you would not normally want to reveal in public, which I think now Foucault would have laughed about), now that I have some distance from my initial readings, it is easy to see why Foucault was not sociology as usual: it is not sociology. I do not mean it does not belong among the sociology canons; I mean that it was never “just” sociology; his work always struck me as historical, political, social, etc. but that it was simply not possible to reduce it to any of them. At any rate, I return to the retrospective.

Of course, the penal systems were famous for meticulous notes; “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates,” such that in the toughest of prisons, at the hardest of times, surveillance always implied: “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” These two quotes, juxtaposed in the above sentence, give you also a sense of Foucault that I only notice now. I used to think that he was a dynamic writer, for a historian (I used to think of him this way); however, now, having done some professional writing, I see that Foucault is a master of shifting registers. He switches effortlessly between gigantic abstractions that seem to swallow-up the entire carceral world, for example with a quote like, “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates”; however, moments later, he reduces his voice to a nearly personal tone, as if whispering to the reader (without breaking eye contact, I imagine in my mind’s eye) shifts registers to tell you, the reader, what an person might have heard, as a prisoner, and in these moments, you are both, for example, “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” You get the feeling Foucault might have, upon uttering this line, paused for effect. As a matter of style, I will take this form of writing over the bullet-points and bolded-terms, but the executive summarizing of texts into carefully constructed abstracts and sound blurbs (like those that post-foucauldian governmentality studies scholars have reduced Foucault to) seem to win the day in our times.

While all the discussion of discipline, training, and then self-discipline is positively lovely to read, I was stopped dead in my book at this line: in a discussion of supervision and being supervised, “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net,” Foucault writes, “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods, assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” I have no recollection of reading that line before; however, reading it now, its like a curio box of how the work has been up-taken into contemporary sociology: the emphasis on “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net” feels like the precursor for discussions of networked stateness; having the net replete “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods” serves to underscore that Foucault was not an anti-institutionalist, but that institutions were “separate” (or distanced both practically and analytically) from the “diffused methods” upon which much (if not most) discipline is rendered; from there, we get a feel for jurisdiction as a key mechanism for control and knowledge production (which, for example, Andy Abbott’s work is a cool off-shoot as well as Tom Gieryn’s) when we read the net of institutions carefully divorced from the methods of everyday discipline, “assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” The sentence, as it were, and for me only in retrospect, twinkles like a curio box of Foucault’s lasting legacy.

Another matter warranting some re-consideration is how sloppy Foucault is and how this general sloppiness is neatly pasted-over by his vivid word choices. For example, in an incredibly sloppy historical gloss of the origins of the prison, we get a paint-by-numbers tour of yesteryear, seeing “colonies of poor, abandoned vagrant children,” those boarded-up “almshouses for young female offenders” whose mothers exposed them one too many perversities, backbreaking “penal colonies” for young men often acquitted but condemned to reform through labor, “the institutions for abandoned or indigent children” as well as “orphanages,” what was left of the institution of “apprentices,” or those “factory-convents” where young girls would tally-away under circumstances of voluntary confinement, and if all of those beautiful and tragic pictures of yesteryear were not yet enough to bully the reader into agreeing not to disagree with the fine points raised by Foucault, we now get bombarded by “charitable societies, moral improvement associations, organizations that handed out assistance and also practised surveillance,” and now I am too exhausted to continue this German machine-gun of corollaric  examples. Still, a point is to be made here, because we have all seen this technique before (some of us, in our own writing), this “exhaust the reader with colorful examples” technique (I am, myself, routinely guilty of this); however, until reviewing Foucault again for my students in social theory today, I had no idea that I was doing this, as if a scholarly mimeograph machine, in the tradition laid-out by Foucault (although, and it would be fitting, perhaps Foucault was copying somebody else that either I don’t know about or whom has been lost in time).

Those are just a few thoughts, having returned to Foucault’s D&P after a number of years.

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Bruno and (Star)bucks

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Teaching ANT to students at the undergraduate level can be a difficult endeavor; however, I have come across a viable solution.

Coffee.

But not to keep students awake during boring lectures about Bruno so much as a case study. The rise of gourmet-style coffee in the United States via the mass producer and distributor Starbucks.

The lecture is here; if you’ll use it, drop me a line (njr12 <at> psu.edu).

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Diagnosing Bridge Collapse

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New York Times has a nice retrospective video on the “collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 killed 13 people and focused attention on the state of bridges across the nation.” As a native Minnesotan, this event is one of the moments I look back and can easily pinpoint my growing interest in infrastructure, especially, infrastructural decay as a major present and future concern in the US and beyond.

Surveillance Infrastructure Novel

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As weird as it sounds, that’s what “The Watchers” is, but it is also written by Shane Harris who has something of an academic/journalistic background, which the subtitle “The rise of the American surveillance state” clarifies.

The concept developed, the surveillance state, is not really developed for use in theory, but it does seem to have applications for the general public as a (new) way to think about these issues (that Foucault cued us to long ago). Likewise, the book is written in a novelistic style even though it is based largely (if not entirely) on first-hand accounts from people Harris has interviewed. Makes for an interesting discussion: is it worth using the novel format to learn empirical truths about the state, or does the style/format reduce the “weight” of the argument?

I don’t know, but the more our ideas here get in congress with dmfant’s, I wonder if “more useful” is not always better provided “still true” is the baseline.

Using search engines to teach reading

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Interesting development in Alabama:

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Feb. 27, 2014) – An Internet search engine developed specifically for schools by two University of Alabama in Huntsville professors is being tested as a way to increase reading abilities in challenged students and help motivate intellectual development in gifted students, while saving schools money on textbooks.

Check out the full story here.

Legos Shutting-Down Gender Criticism?

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Girls, Blox, Bricks, and “Childhood Engineering”: We’ve written about the new craze for Goldiblox a bunch of times recently (here, here, and here), now that that young engineer from Stanford has formally “launched” the product. Legos appear to be joining the battle-cry … or they also might have started it (well, they seem to claim as much).

Here is some recent text I’ve been seeing all-over discussions about gender and, let’s say, “childhood engineering” (its a WYSK EXCLUSIVE — but seems to be difficult to load the stuff right now … not sure why). Here is the text, and above is the original picture:

“In 1981,” explains Giordano, “LEGOs were ‘Universal Building Sets’ and that’s exactly what they were…for boys and girls. Toys are supposed to foster creativity. But nowadays, it seems that a lot more toys already have messages built into them before a child even opens the pink or blue package. In 1981, LEGOs were simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message. In 2014, it’s the reverse: the toy delivers a message to the child, and this message is weirdly about gender.”

Not sure if Legos has seized this little tid-bit trying to shut it down, and that explains why it is down, or perhaps the traffic to it is too high (though that seems unlikely, at best). Here is the piece, at least as I can see it from my facebook:

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If you can find it, check out the commentary. You could save this and write a modest piece in STS or even have students analyze the responses in an activity about gender and engineering…

 

Teaching the Public Understanding of Science with Ancient Aliens

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I have had unprecedented success with a new lesson in STS and I thought I’d share it with you all on the blog. NOTE: I’ve also got a sheet that can be used for students to follow along and it provides some questions to orient discussion after viewing (if you’d like it, it is like some others I’ve shared, for example, related to the “King of Kong” as an easy way to teach students about the scientific community and philosophy of science or a handout used to teach students about controversies in science through a documentary on intelligent design). So, every semester, the chapters on the “public understanding of science” in Sismondo’s introductory text end-up being sort of boring to students.

However, working with a student over the last year, we found another way to “get at” the information. Instead of dealing directly with some of the issues associated with the public and science through the typical lens of “understanding,” we look for the public and science through another lens, that of “misunderstanding,” in this case about what is and is not science.

Enter: Ancient Alien Theorists!

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Ancient Aliens” is a series on the History Channel, self-described as:

Ancient Aliens explores the controversial theory that extraterrestrials have visited Earth for millions of years. From the age of the dinosaurs to ancient Egypt, from early cave drawings to continued mass sightings in the US, each episode in this hit H2 series gives historic depth to the questions, speculations, provocative controversies, first-hand accounts and grounded theories surrounding this age old debate.

In class, we just watch one episode, and it has been an incredible source of discussion ever since. During Season One, the fourth episode (which is just perfect for this lesson) is called “The Visitors.” Here is the summary:

If ancient aliens visited Earth, who were they, and where did they come from? Possible historic evidence and beliefs are examined around the world. The Dogon people possess knowledge of a galaxy they claim was given to them by a star god named Amma. The Hopi and Zuni people celebrate Kachinas, gods from the sky, whose headdresses and costumes appear to resemble modern helmets and protective clothing. Halfway around the world, Chinese legends tell of the Han leader, Huangdi, arriving on Earth on a flying, yellow dragon. Was this dragon more likely a spacecraft? Ancient astronaut theorists believe that these are far from chance encounters and that extraterrestrials not only interacted with us, but changed the course of human history.

The key is to ask questions after viewing like:

1. How do these “theorists” use the tools, rhetoric, and, thus, credibility of science to launch their claims?

2. What statements might be made or what portrayals do you see that link ancient aliens to the scientific enterprise? 

After we watched this, understanding how the presentation of scientific ideas (in this case, non-science), the students have literally no trouble dealing with Sismondo’s chapter, which features the deficit model of public understanding and the presentation of science and the scientific enterprise by journalists. The real joy, though, comes when Sismondo starts to discuss how some scientists short-cut the journalism process and go to the public directly — often, out of desperation (enter, again: Ancient Alien Theorists!)

Again, write me if you’d like a copy of the sheet or to discuss the teaching idea.

Images from: http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Aliens-Season-One/dp/B0038M2AWI

GoldieBlox stirkes again

Last night in the states, the NFL hosted the Super Bowl, a night when the game is watched nearly as closely by Americans as are the commercials. Surprising, to me, was that GoldieBlox, which we blogged about before and before that, was featured. It seems that that toy is really making headway and this probably marks the “beginning” for this concept.

Here’s to finally making some pro-engineering gender normativity — finally, “doing” STS out in the broader public (for example, perhaps about as much as these esteemed folks at MIT).

*PS: I finally learned to spell GoldieBlox correctly; thanks to all the viewers that let me know that I misspelled it incorrectly every time in the past entries. Mia culpa!