March for Science


Just got home from the San Diego March for Science. Not as huge as the Women’s March, but displaying the same defiant wit: ‘Stop Truth Decay!‘ ‘Science is not a Liberal Conspiracy.‘ ‘Science is Magic that Works.‘ ‘So Severe the Nerds are Here.‘ From the Salk Institute: ‘Got Polio? Me Neither.‘ Some of the signs linked this demo with the women’s march: ‘I’m with Her,‘ the arrow pointing to a picture of the earth; ‘Science grabs women by the cerebral cortex.’

UCSD’s V. S. Ramachandran was the first speaker, and talked about science as poetry, as creativity, as the ultimate humanistic endeavor. It was an inspiring speech and an inspiring event.

I got an email from the President of the History of Science Society the other day announcing that HSS had, after much debate, decided to support the March for Science. The statement is a tad mealy-mouthed but ends on a rousing note:

The study of the history of science demonstrates that science is a human enterprise, deriving strength both from the diverse cultures of scientific practice and the faithful application of shared methods of evidence-based inquiry. In the past, science has undeniably advanced collective knowledge. When it is responsive to public concerns, it serves the common good. On these grounds, the History of Science Society heartily endorses the Core Principles of the March, which affirm a commitment to the highest ideals of science in service of global society.

Other historians of science have weighed in more cogently on the significance of these marches. Naomi Oreskes, Robert Proctor and David Kaiser note in the Washington Post that American scientists have been politically engaged before, most notably against nuclear armaments, but the difference here is the sense that the pursuit of truth itself is under threat.

The interesting question for Science Studies is how to be politically engaged without being nihilistic about the possibility of scientific progress, how to stand with our colleagues at Scripps and the Salk and defend what they do while at the same time holding onto the core values that got us into this game in the first place. UCSD’s Science Studies program, for all its many faults, is a place where the most reverential philosophies of particular sciences and the most damning post-colonial critiques of science in general have had to rub shoulders. It’s not comfortable, it’s not pretty, it doesn’t resolve anything, but it does demand an open mind. Can we develop an epistemology of such open-mindedness, something that is rigorous, non-dogmatic, flexible, and value driven? Can we investigate the interface between the extremes? Maybe we can at least try…gradually…

Heading into Spring


Last time I posted a round-up, we were about to find out what a Trump presidency would really mean on the ground. It turned out that his will to enact his promised agenda was even stronger than many of us anticipated. Pictured here is the headline news from two day’s ago — the executive order undoing Obama’s most far-reaching climate change legislation, the Clean Power Plan. At the right hand of Trump is Scott Pruitt, his EPA administrator, who has denied that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. With Rick Perry in charge of the Department of Energy, Rex Tillerson pursuing the fossil fuel industry’s foreign policy in his capacity as Secretary of State, and Lamar Smith chairing the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, plus dozens of others setting science policy for this administration, extreme ‘Merchants of Doubt’ are now the most powerful people in the world.

This is the situation we have faced since the George W. Bush presidency. While many practitioners of Science Studies have re-aligned their approach, and have repudiated the relativism that was the defining feature of the field, I still think it would be fruitful to confront the ‘alternative facts’ predicament more explicitly. To that end, our graduate student conference on May 19th-20th will culminate in a session on Science Studies in a post-fact world. The colloquium next term will also be tackling some related questions, see especially the session on April 24th.

The conference will be on the agenda for Monday’s program meeting, along with updates on the ‘other departments’ question, plus sundry administrative matters. It has been a full year since I took up the directorship, and I would welcome any feedback you have about the program and its direction, either in the meeting, over email, or, indeed, here on this website. Many thanks and see you next week…



Two Lab Ethnographies


Angela Willey’s talk attracted a Dionysian throng of inverts to the Science Studies seminar room — about thirty queers of color, transmen, dykes, and fellow travelers packed into the space at noon on Monday to hear Professor Willey’s critique of the ways in which monogamous pair bonding is written into sex science as a naturalized moral order. She gave us an overview of her recent book Undoing Monogamy, including a tantalizing taste of her chapter about a lab studying the mating behaviors of two sub-species of vole, one monogamous and the other promiscuous.

Famously, it seems to be possible to turn a monogamous vole into a promiscuous one and vice versa by manipulating the genes that encode for hormone receptors. Knock out a prairie vole’s oxytocin receptors and it develops a wandering eye. Insert the same genes into a meadow vole and it starts to exhibit ‘pair-bonding’ behavior. This discovery has generated a lot of scientific excitement, some silly books about how to ‘Make Love Like a Prairie Vole,’ and an oxytocin spray, as well as some speculative leads into the genetic basis of autism, of which more below.

In her riveting chapter on the prairie vole research in Undoing Monogamy Willey unpacks the ways that this work naturalizes the moral order of heterosexual coupling. First, the ‘monogamous’ vole is no such thing. While pairs of prairie voles do cohabit and co-parent, DNA testing recently established that the offspring of a couple were often not related to the male, indicating that plenty of ‘extra-pair copulation’ was in fact going on. The scientists use ‘monogamous,’ ‘socially monogamous’ and ‘pair-bonded’ interchangeably, by which terms they seem to mean a sort of rodent open relationship, along the lines of ‘we live together, but we can fool around outside the home.’ By using these terms interchangeably, however, they give the impression that sexual exclusivity is really what is at stake. Willey then analyzes the circular logic by which the ‘pair-bonded’ voles have become proxies for normally socially attuned humans, while the ‘promiscuity’ of the other sub-species stands in for social pathology. The genes that encode for oxytocin receptors are now counted as plausible candidates for the biological basis of autism.

Of course, all of this sexy stuff is catnip for pop science writers. The readers of science journalism can now be led to believe 1. that a prairie vole practices sexual exclusivity and that this is a marker of the ability to bond with others 2. that this bonding behavior is a clue as to the genetic basis of normal sociality in humans, and 3. that the ‘promiscuity’ of a meadow vole gives us a valid lead into the genetics of human autism. By virtue of these slippages, translations, and circularities, we arrive at the full valorization of what Willey hilariously characterized in her talk as “the search for someone to file taxes with.”

By coincidence, the colloquium talk in the evening also described an ethnography of a hormone receptor lab. This presentation was by Joyce Havstad, who got her PhD here at UCSD in Philosophy and Science Studies in 2014. She outlined her observation of a lab at the Salk Institute. The lab in question is dedicated to elucidating the action of a “super-family of nuclear hormone receptors.” The purpose of Joyce’s study was to test the conclusions of Latour and Woolgar’s book Laboratory Life, a provocative anthropological observation of the goings-on in a different lab at the Salk from 1979.

Joyce-as-ethnographer was the consummate insider. She had worked at the lab in question for seven years as a technician. For her, in contrast to Latour and Woolgar, the practitioners in the lab are discovering truths about the structure of their objects. As she interacted with the scientists, some of them her erstwhile colleagues, her aim became to generate a description of scientific practice that captured – better than Laboratory Life’s deliberately estranged and cynical outsider view – how scientists themselves understand the nature and purpose of their activities.

in some ways, Willey and Havstad encompass the range of approaches in Science Studies at UCSD. The realist philosopher of science on the one hand, the queer feminist critic of science on the other, both studying aspects of hormone receptor science. Even with the best will in the world, it can be hard to get these two sides onto common ground. Listening to these two presentations back-to-back, however, offered some commensurable terrain between the two approaches.

First and perhaps most importantly, both talks occupied what might be called a hyper-realist framework, taking seriously the molecules as well as all the other entities, including practices, equipment, discourses, performances, social institutions, reward structures, and historical contexts (Hannah Landecker’s presentation was also exemplary in this regard). Both talks engaged a self-reflexive mode, making more explicit the personal investments and ethical commitments behind the projects. The speakers are both feminists. Self-reflexive, ethically-committed feminist science studies – from Evelyn Fox Keller to Donna Haraway to Angela Willey, Banu Subramaniam, and Kalindi Vora – has always  held fast to the possibility that both science and society might be served by a realist analysis of the ways in which they mutually constitute one another. Can we build on this legacy at UCSD to map the grounds for productive interdisciplinary communication?

Hannah Landecker and “American Metabolism”

American Metabolism is the title of Hannah Landecker’s forthcoming book, from which her superb colloquium talk on Monday was drawn. Beginning at a sub-molecular level, Landecker first took us through the ways that metabolic processes are implicated in gene regulation. In other words, she explained how a dietary regime can switch gene expression on or off, findings from the relatively new field of ‘nutritional epigenetics.’

For Landecker, nutritional epigenetics represents a change in the way that the life sciences configure the relationship between the individual and her environment. As she wrote in an earlier article: “This is a model in which food enters the body and in a sense never leaves it, because food transforms the organism’s being as much as the organism transforms it. It is a model for how social things (food, in particular) enter the body, are digested, and in shaping metabolism, become part of the body-in-time, not by building bones and tissues, but by leaving an imprint on a dynamic bodily process.”

For the purposes of the talk on Monday, she focused on the transformations undergone by arsenic as it is metabolized in the human body. One of the most canonical of poisons, arsenic is present in trace amounts in air, food and water. Prolonged exposure to arsenic has been linked to certain forms of cancer, skin lesions, increased heart disease risk, neurotoxicity, and diabetes. As Landecker explained, low doses of arsenic do not act by attacking and destroying, but through their ability to be taken up and incorporated into normal metabolic and epigenetic processes. In 2012, researchers discovered elevated levels of arsenic in baby food sweetened with brown rice syrup.

Using arsenic as a tracer, Landecker’s talk radically reconfigured the relationship between bodies and environments, following arsenic from its emergence as a byproduct of copper smelting, to its use as a growth promoter in chicken feed, to its biological take-up in rice plants fed on chicken shit, to its metabolized forms in the human digestive tract, to its possible epigenetic effects. The scope and ambition of her analysis is matched only by its precision and clarity, working at multiple scales to complicate the relationship between science and society.

Under Landecker’s pitiless scrutiny, metabolism becomes an interface where the distinction between inside and outside, individual and society, microcosm and macrocosm, breaks down. Her analysis makes the social relations through which industrial agriculture wreaks its effects on human health more visible, and therefore more available for far-reaching and sober critique. American Metabolism will certainly be a landmark in the field and a model for how to do Science Studies in a robustly realist and yet unsparingly critical vein.

“Radical Machines” at the Chinese Historical Museum

Prof Tom S. Mullaney of Stanford gave a mesmerizing talk yesterday at the Chinese Historical Museum for the opening of his exhibition “Radical Machines.”

From a racist turn-of-the-twentieth-century cartoon, to a dance hit by MC Hammer, to an episode of The Simpsons, the phrase ‘Chinese Typewriter’ has enjoyed a long career as a cheap joke. Behind the joke is a fascinating story about the information age, dating back to systems worked out in the 1860s for transmitting Chinese over telegraph cables in Morse code.

Mullaney’s story culminated with the 1947 release of Lin Yutang’s typewriter, featuring an ‘eye’ that displayed eight alternative characters with the striking of two keys. The lecture stressed the Occidental arrogance behind Chinese Typewriter jokes, and implied that the exquisite solutions offered by Lin Yutang and other Chinese inventors represented a blow against cultural imperialism as well as a precursor to the latest developments in digital technology. Neatly side-stepping the Romanization of written Chinese, these men envisioned the kind of conceptual algorithms between input and output currently at frontier of telecommunications.

Mullaney seemed genuinely impressed by the Q&A, including the usual sharp queries from members of Science Studies. The brilliance of Yelena Gluzman’s question about analogies with stenography had him asking what was in the San Diego water. After the talk, he was readying himself to lead us over to the exhibition, located in a building a block away, when he was blindsided by the museum’s hospitality. After blushingly accepting a commemorative plaque, he was then serenaded along the street by drums, cymbals, and dancing dragons, provoking a bit of envious muttering from us fellow academics straggling along behind.

If you missed the talk, don’t worry, the exhibition is on till April, and Mullaney will be down to give another tour on February 25th. Many thanks to Nir Shafir for suggesting this provocative, informative, and entertaining event. Not just a charming distraction from you-know-what, but a substantive antidote.

Kaushik Sunder Rajan on the HPV vaccine trials in India

Just returned home from a truly inspiring event. Kaushik Sunder Rajan, anthropologist of biotech, author of Biocapital, gave a talk today on a series of human papillomavirus vaccine trials in India, during which seven of the young girls who served as subjects died.

In 2009, under the sponsorship of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an international NGO called the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), administered HPV vaccine to thousands of girls in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The drugs (from Merck and GlaxoSmithKline) had already been approved in the US and India. The trial was to establish if they were suitable for the Indian government’s mass immunization program.

In the tribal areas – the official designation for parts of the country populated by mostly indigenous people – seven girls died during the trial, bringing it to a scandal-ridden halt. The deaths were investigated and all were found ‘not linked to the vaccine.’ According to the report from PATH, there were two cases of malaria, two of organophosphorus poisoning (!), one fever of unknown origin, a snakebite, and one of the girls drowned in a well. It quickly emerged, however, that the informed consent procedures for the trial had been extremely lax, and PATH was denounced in the press. A highly critical report issued by the Indian Parliament in 2013 lamented the way that the NGO “had exploited with immunity the loopholes in our system…”

Sunder Rajan’s talk led us through a multi-layered analysis of the case, placing it in political and historical context, and probing its wider implications. He hovered over some fascinating moments, including parliamentary exchanges about the definition of a clinical trial and poignant testimony from the parents of the girl who supposedly died from a snakebite.

His overall critique was aimed at the technocratic nature of organizations such as PATH, self-described on its website as “an international nonprofit organization that transforms global health through innovation. PATH takes an entrepreneurial approach to developing and delivering high-impact, low-cost solutions, from lifesaving vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, and devices to collaborative programs with communities. Through work in more than 70 countries, PATH and our partners empower people to achieve their full potential.”

At the beginning of the talk, Sunder Rajan mused on the figure of the free-choosing subject that underpins informed consent. When I asked him about that in the Q&A, his answer took us back to the birthplace of technocratic liberalism, the first few decades of the nineteenth century, when the British state turned the Indian subcontinent into a laboratory of mass governance. In 1813, the Governor General of Calcutta, Sir William Bentinck, legalized the practice of ‘voluntary sati.’ In answering me, Sunder Rajan gave a sketch of the multi-layered ironies of that legacy as piercing as it was subtle. My British soul is slayed.

Round Up


Here’s a quick round up of Science Studies as we descend into the fateful month of January 2017.

Fueled by the anxious vigilance of fledgling directorhood, I found last quarter’s colloquium series pretty gripping, and there’s lots of great talks coming up. For me, the most significant one is Hal Pashler, from the Psychology Department. Significant because he is a local scientist talking on a metascientific issue and I think we should do more of this kind of programming. Thanks to Kerry McKenzie for inviting him.

One memorable colloquium session was with our colleagues in Anthropology. I blogged that the event was like someone throwing wide double doors in the SSP seminar room to reveal a pantheon of brilliant fellow travelers. More wittily, another audience member compared it to Thanksgiving dinner with someone else’s dysfunctional family… Anyway, the discussion was in aid of figuring out the still-unresolved question of other departments joining the program. There are now two possibilities: an individual faculty member can join, under the terms of our new arrangement, or a whole department might be able to attach itself, adding a fifth appendage to our four-footed beast. The way is as clear for both of these options, but it will be an intricate process, and so I will need to figure out what, if any, avenues to pursue. The issue will be on the agenda for the Winter Quarter meeting on January 9th.

Rebecca Hardesty, bless her soul, is organizing an SSP workshop in the spring. It will be held on Friday May 19th and Saturday May 20th, and will feature a series of different activities on the theme of interdisicplinarity. It will culminate in a session on the question of where to take Science Studies’ critique of objectivity in the era of fake news. My friend, the philosopher of mind and language Anandi Hattiangadi may be in town, and if so, she and I will do a joint presentation on the theme of ‘Science Studies minus relativism.’ We co-taught the first gender and science course in Cambridge HPS, and I think she is the perfect person to help us grapple with the age of trumpery and truthiness.

Because of our new divisional funding for the colloquium, we have the resources to put on a bigger show next year with more outside speakers. I will be soliciting possible themes at the meeting.

The cross-divisional FTE circus goes on apace, with a number of candidates coming for interview in the next few months who would fit right into Science Studies. I’ll keep everyone posted with details.

To my delight, we are co-sponsoring some events with the UCSD ‘South Asia Initiative’ including a roundtable on March 2nd with the novelist Vikram Chandra, author of Geek Sublime, “…an idiosyncratic history of coding. Part literary theory, part tech story and part memoir …” He will be joined by a panel of sublime UCSD geeks, including our own Lilly Irani. Thanks to Kamala Visweswaran for looping us in to this really fun-sounding event. Also, when Banu Subramaniam comes to Science Studies in May, Kamala and the other South Asia Initiative folks are hoping to keep her around the next day for an interdisciplinary session on caste genetics. Don’t let anyone say we shy away from the tough topics…

Ben and Rebecca

chinesebox72dpiBen Sheredos and Rebecca Hardesty gave us a real treat last night.

In a brilliant double act, which one audience member aptly described as ‘thrilling,’ they presented a subtle, self-reflexive consideration of the problem of interdisciplinarity in Science Studies.

He is a recent graduate of UCSD’s program in philosophy and cognitive science currently doing a postdoc with a group of biologists studying circadian rhythms. She is a PhD candidate in our Communication Department, with a background in formal epistemology, currently embedded in a neuroscience lab.

Ben kicked off the proceedings with a ‘talk within a talk,’ outlining the lengthy discussion and review process by which circadian rhythm scientists decide how to represent biological clocks in their diagrams. He then turned the analytical lens on himself, describing the exasperating peer review process he is currently suffering through as he tries to get a paper on the diagrams published in a history and philosophy of science journal.

Rebecca’s presentation followed a similar structure. First she narrated the ironic tale of how her scientists have developed a mouse model of Down’s Syndrome that they insist is the ‘gold standard’ for studying the condition. In defiance of this verdict, however, they do not use it in their own research because it is expensive, aggressive, short-lived, non-procreative, and doesn’t mimic the cognitive impairments found in humans. Pulling the camera back, she then mused on why the various audiences for her talks refuse to recognize her work as truly interdisciplinary between philosophy and science studies.

The whole thing was as satisfying and ingenious as a Chinese Box, with drawers full of treasures and hidden compartments springing open at a touch.

In the Q&A, Lilly Irani sketched all the different players and constituencies that Ben and Rebecca had mentioned, and asked whether ‘interdisciplinary’ was really the right term. ‘What do you actually do when you’re with the scientists?’ she asked Rebecca. The answer was totally unexpected. Rebecca is one of the few native English speakers in the lab, and, in her capacity as a ‘comm person’ she serves as sort of translator. She will tell the Anglophone scientists what one of their English-as-a-second-language colleagues said, sometimes having to use phonetic approximations for unfamiliar technical terms, which in turn get translated into scientific English. ‘Worthy of another whole book,’ Lilly opined.

Rebecca’s answer to Lilly’s question lay so far outside any notion of ‘communicating across fields’ that it made a nonsense of the whole arid concept. It was so jarringly human that it had the effect of replacing the notion of interdisciplinarity with something warm-blooded and alive, something about aligning with one another’s needs and interests, making ourselves useful, and promoting dialog at all levels and registers.

Complex, candid, and subtle, this colloquium session was a true lesson in communication.

Martine Lappe and SfN


Martine Lappe’s fascinating metascientific talk on the epigenetic effects of maternal care inspired me to seek out the scientific treatment of the topic at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, a massive shindig in which 30,000 brain researchers descend upon the Convention Center for four days of rattling off terms like adenohypophysis and mesencephalic without stammering. Anyway, I went to the keynote talk by Yasmin Hurd, and she had one slide illustrating the bifurcated possible outcomes of epigenetic effects — “Pathology” (a silhouette that looked a bit like Trump) — and “Resilience” — a photograph of Hillary — eliciting a huge spontaneous cheer from the audience of hundreds of neuroscientists.


…and the fourth wall came tumbling down…

Feminist Theory Theater on Monday brought about thirty of us to the Mandeville Suite, an apartment for visiting dignitaries in Muir College, with a roof terrace overlooking the ocean. In the living room, a large coffee table was covered in props and costumes. We were each given an envelope containing a copy of a 1993 memo from the SSP archive, composed a then-grad-student. The memo laid out two divergent visions of the program, (one positively anarchic, the other more structured). It seemed to have been written in response to some sort of crisis, and emanated a certain desperation about the challenges facing Science Studies, then an unsteady four-year-old with lots of disposal income courtesy of a huge grant from the NSF. Those were the days of mandatory team teaching, and pairs of academic megafauna from the three founding departments (phil, soc, hist) would hash out their metaphysical disagreements in class. Rumor has it that one core seminar featured three professors clashing antlers in the presence of a single hapless student.

FTT instructed us to split into groups and physically act out parts of the text before reconvening to perform our enactments in front of each other. This turned out to be pretty tough. I won’t go into our group’s psychodrama, but suffice to say that I regressed to a kid at a tense birthday party. The facilitators tried vainly to keep the mood upbeat and playful, intervening with the slightly forced gaiety of parents unable to figure out why their child’s guests were having a such a hard time of it.

At 5pm we all trooped back into the living room for the re-enactments. Memorable images include Theo Dryer in a green wig leading a train dance, Christine Payne in a shark’s head and magenta heels rocking the nude suit, and John Ruiz looking on with dogged sociological detachment as members of his group lay on the carpet under a large black fishnet, murmuring about rhizomatic connectivity and the space-time continuum.

Our group performed last, out on the back terrace. We walked stiffly towards one another repeating narrow formulas from our respective disciplines. When we got close enough to make hand-to-hand contact, we broke into ‘joyful’ interdisciplinary conversation, only to start quarreling and move apart again. At least, I think that’s what we did, but I couldn’t say for sure. God knows what it looked like. It felt completely insane. I was dressed as Jeremy Bentham’s corpse, by the way.

Pondering this exercise afterwards, one thing came across with stark clarity: the degree of pessimism and cynicism about interdisciplinarity. From the memo itself, to Christine’s reverse striptease (embodying the problem of too many different departments getting involved), to our group’s semi-choreographed quarrel, to the profound social weirdness of the whole occasion, I came away re-impressed by how difficult it is to communicate productively across disciplinary divides.

Anyway, I am greatly looking forward to the resumption of normal service on Monday, when STS rising star Martine Lappe will tell us about epigenetics…