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…