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…





Sharon Crasnow and our Halloween Spooktacular

Monday’s colloquium was a really approachable, clear, sharp presentation about feminist epistemology from Sharon Crasnow, a local philosopher of science, recently retired from Norco College, who will be a visiting fellow at the famed department in Pittsburgh this coming Spring. Sharon brought some much-needed analytical clarity to the debate about feminist STS, laying out its origins in Marxist analysis as well as bringing us up to date about the controversies that beset it to this day.

Next Monday, on All-Hallows’ Eve, we will be rattling some SSP skeletons courtesy of Feminist Theory Theater. This event will be held in the Mandeville Suite on the 11th floor of Tioga Hall. Whoever wishes to stay on for a drink afterwards is most welcome. Please bring a bottle of your favorite tipple, and join us for perhaps the most unorthodox colloquium presentation in the quarter century of the program….


Everyone showed up…

All the anthropology faculty I invited to the colloquium came! I felt as though for the nine years I’ve been here, I have been sitting in a small room called Science Studies at UCSD. Then on Monday, someone pointed out that one of the walls was actually double doors. So we opened the doors wide, and found ourselves looking at a spacious chamber full of other people doing meta-scientific scholarship, working in Japan, Kashmir, El Salvador, and Indigenous America, and tackling issues from food politics to neuroplasticity. Inspiring.

Anthropology and Science Studies

Next Monday, October 17th, the colloquium is dedicated to a discussion of possible future integration of colleagues from the Department of Anthropology into the Science Studies Program, something that we have been debating for a while. The names of various anthropology faculty kept coming up as possible interested parties, and so at the beginning of term I wrote to Saiba Varma, Hanna Garth, Dredge Kang, Janis Jenkins, Katerina Semendeferi, Joe Hankins, David Pedersen, Amy Non, and Tom Csordas with this message:

“As some of you know, we are an interdisciplinary graduate program with four participating departments — history, philosophy, sociology and communications. In the last couple of years we have added a cluster of great new faculty to our ranks, some of whom wanted to know why anthropology was not part of our program. We have recently tweaked the program’s administrative structure to allow for the incorporation of different departments, and are now hoping very much to engage as many of you as possible in a discussion of whether and how we might want to strengthen our tie with anthropology.” 

To my delight, most of them have accepted the invitation! So come on Monday and join in the conversation about the structure and future direction of the program. If you are unable to make it, but want to voice your opinion on this matter, please do so by posting to this website.

For anyone interested in what, exactly, the administrative tweaks are, here is the explanation I sent to the Dean of Social Sciences:

“The main change is that instead of membership of the program being channeled in a blunt way through the participation of only four departments, we would open up the possibility of membership to individual faculty all across the two divisions. The departments of Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, Literature and Visual Arts all have faculty working in the field of Science Studies. To allow these members of our community to join us fully, we will be asking departments to contribute 1.25K for each active faculty member in the program.

“One of the reasons for doing this is that philosophy’s involvement with Science Studies has been changing, and the chair and MSO have raised the question of why they contribute 5K to a program from which they do not reap much benefit in the form of student support. Since we currently have only two philosophy faculty involved with Science Studies, this new structure will halve their contribution from 5K to 2.5K. As for the integration of other departments, we are taking this slowly, but it is likely that in time for next year, Lisa Cartwright, who has moved over to Visual Arts from Communication, will be joining us as a member of that department under this new structure, allowing us to ‘road test’ the integration of a new discipline. Discussions with Anthropology, Ethnic Studies and Literature will take place over the course of the next academic year, using the colloquium as an intellectual forum.”

OK, so I was a bit over-optimistic about Visual Arts already being on board by now. It turns out that the integration of every new department has to go through a faculty vote and a grad division vote and an academic senate vote and gawd knows what else. All the more time to roll up our sleeves and have a debate about where our program and our field should be heading…

Grant update

Yesterday we sent off two FISP applications. The first asked for money to develop a prototype of a map called From Kumeyaay Nation to Biotech Beach: a radical cartography of UCSD and its environs, pitching it as ‘a tool for diversity training on this campus.’ The proposed post-docs, James Deavenport and Ulices Pina, are both finishing up PhDs in Latin American history. Ulices, who recently won an award from the Mexican government for his work, has family ties south of the border and a deep knowledge of the historical terrain. James is a radical cartographer working on mapping the archaeology of the indigenous Amazon. They just happened to be the graders for my history of bioethics class this quarter, which is serendipitous given that James has already made a digital map of historical changes to Kumeyaay land!

The other FISP application is a proposal to conduct some fieldwork in the nascent field of philosophy of science-in-practice. This one was entirely dreamed up by Ben Sheredos, currently a post-doc in biology, having done a joint PhD here in philosophy and cognitive science. As you can see from this summary, Ben is quite the interdisciplinarian. He assures me that he regrets not joining Science Studies for his PhD, and he does seem to be making up for lost time this quarter by taking Bob’s Introduction to Science Studies, as well as agreeing to give a joint presentation at the colloquium in a few weeks…

Emma Frow


Emma Frow (on the left, after the talk) from ASU gave a terrific talk last night on the social, economic, and scientific ecology of synthetic biology, and how it is inflected by hacker culture and the maker movement. This rapidly changing terrain, in which biology is no longer given but made, raises vexed questions about intellectual property, scientific priority, and control over standards.  My favorite line? In the Q&A Emma mentioned that some of the more anarchic MIT engineers have taken exception to the tyrannical rule of evolution in biology and coined the phrase No Mutation without Representation.

Next week Kamala Visweswaran, Professor of Ethnic Studies, is stepping in for the speaker who had to cancel, and will be telling us about how her training in Science Studies enabled her to make an important intervention in a textbook controversy in India. Yours truly will introduce the talk with a brief consideration of the case of Steve Fuller, the sociologist of science who testified for the Christian fundamentalists who wanted intelligent design taught in biology classes. The session will be pretty loose and conversational, and aims to interrogate the relationship between science studies and anti-science movements such as global warming denial and creationism.

Let the games begin!


Thanks to everyone who attended the first program meeting of the year yesterday evening. It was conducted at a brisk gallop so that the more masochistic among us could go home and watch the debate.

Welcome to the new cohort! They are Rachel Fox, Gabi Schaffzin, Angelo Haidaris, Alanna Reyes, Bobby Edwards, Trischa Tschopp, Carolina Mayes and Stephen Reynders.

Some noble souls volunteered: Bobby Edwards and Rachel Fox will be in charge of the vote for the student choice speaker. Davide Carpano and Carolina Mayes will be the Graduate Student Association representatives. And Rebecca Hardesty, whose intellectual mission it is to bring philosophy and science studies into a more fruitful dialog, will organize a student conference for Spring this year. As for the faculty, the departmental representatives are David Serlin in Communication, Cathy Gere in History, Kerry McKenzie in Philosophy and Martha Lampland in Sociology.

The colloquium will begin next week with Emma Frow from Arizona State University talking to us about synthetic biology. Anyone interested in the cutting edge of the life sciences should find this a really rewarding session. Her talk is entitled “Making big promises come true? Negotiating standards and value in synthetic biology,” and it examines how engineering principles were used in the development of the ‘BioBrick,’ the prefabricated modular unit for building synthetic cells. (Please note how nicely the title fits with the ‘Future-Casting’ grant idea below.)


Grant Idea: Scientific Future-Casting at UCSD


Accurate prediction is a canonical aim of science. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity during the solar eclipse of 1919. It turned out that light from the stars was, indeed, bent by the gravitational force exerted by the sun to the extent predicted by Einstein’s theory, a phenomenon too vast to be testable on earth. The cosmic theater of that moment, when day became night and Einstein’s prediction became visible against the darkened sky was a grand performance of the analytical powers of physics.

While prediction lies at the heart of scientific method, Science Studies @ UCSD is interested in thinking about some less iconic aspects of scientific forecasting, namely prognostication, prophecy and promising. We argue that these are powerful drivers of scientific practice, but that their action is less well characterized in the philosophy of science. There is good reason for this neglect. Unlike prediction, these looser forms of future-casting stand somewhat athwart science’s self-image. They constitute the arts of persuasion rather than of proof, and are more bound up with power, money, and politics. Above all, because of the well-deserved prestige of the natural sciences, these are rhetorical practices with very real material effects. Metaphorically speaking, the relationship between canonical scientific method and these speech acts might be thought of as an epigenetic one. If prediction and replication constitute the DNA of scientific method, these looser forms of future-casting are its epigenome, a switching system that turns laboratory production on and off.

At UCSD, we find ourselves in an exceptionally rich field for investigating how rhetorical projections of the future affect scientific production. Most importantly, the much-vaunted entrepreneurialism of the institution gives us ample opportunity to study how the often extravagant promises made by scientists to angel investors, philanthropists, state funders, and, indeed, our own students, stimulate (or suppress) scientific activity. On a slightly different scale, the presence of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography allows us to consider the politics of prognostication in the environmental sciences, which has devolved into a bitter battle over the virtues and vices of capitalism, as investigated by our erstwhile colleague Naomi Oreskes. The Arthur C. Clarke Center for the Human Imagination provides us with a forum for considering which science fictions are later realized as fact, allowing us to probe questions about creativity and science, and about the relationship between science and art. Using the theory of performativity – an analysis of the grammar of the self-fulfilling prophecy – we will explore the myriad ways in which scientific infrastructures get made and unmade at UCSD through promissory speech acts.  

Grant Idea: radical cartography project



Where the hell did this crazy place come from?

One of the most pressing topics in Science Studies is colonial “world-making.” We seek to understand how the technoscientific world that surrounds us came into being. How is it that we came to dwell among these kinds of laboratories, hospitals, communication technologies, and forms of transportation? What are the roots of modern university pedagogy? How – and for whom – is nature transformed over time?  Understanding that science and technology have been pivotal to colonial expansion, science studies scholars have investigated the material processes by which European technologies and political systems came to dominate the globe, starting in the sixteenth century. We seek, above all, to understand and ameliorate the ongoing prejudices and inequities that are produced by this dominance.

UCSD is a fascinating site of colonial and scientific world-making. Founded in 1960 and mostly constructed out of flimsy reinforced concrete, it sits on a hill in La Jolla surrounded by the homes of billionaires. It overlooks the Pacific Ocean to the west and to the south the San Diego-Tijuana border, reputed to be the steepest economic precipice in the world. Its student body is predominantly Asian, while approximately 77% of its faculty is both white and male. Since the 2010 ‘Compton Cookout,’ a ghetto-themed party at a frathouse off campus, it has been rocked by the racial controversy that has erupted during Obama’s presidency at most elite American universities, with the interesting twist that the racist fraternity in question was a South Asian one. It has graduated the highest number of science fiction authors of any American university and houses the oldest Cognitive Science department in the world.

Our plan is to map the intellectual ecology of this place, showing how world-making unfolds in time through the material, epistemic, and textual practices of science. Our method constitutes a form of “radical cartography.” The word “radical” comes from the Latin for “root.” Applied to our mapmaking, it evokes both the historical dimension of our proposal – we will be mapping change through time – and the moral urgency that we bring to it – our belief that the decolonization of the university is urgently demanded by the lessons of history.  Maps have often been used for the purposes of colonial world-making. Radical cartography summons the ghosts of those who were despised, excluded, and enslaved in the making of this world of ours, in order to help us bend the arc of our institutions towards racial justice.

We propose to construct an interactive digital map, consisting of two layers. The first layer, which defines the geographical extent of our inquiry, will consist of the 1769 map of the territory of the Kumeyaay Nation, stretching from Escondido to Ensenada along the coast, and extending inland to the Colorado River. The second layer will be the satellite map of the same area today. The U.S.-Mexico border bisects this territory almost exactly in half, and provides a most instructive example of colonial infrastructure. Both maps will feature the same series of icons denoting different themes: immigration, health and medicine, eugenics, treaties and borders, etc. Clicking on any of the icons will take you to a website narrating the colonial world-making of that particular area.

The idea is for UCSD artists, humanists, and social scientists to collaborate with the Kumeyaay Nation on deepening our historical, sociological, and spatial awareness of the area in which we work. By adding icons and stories to the map, we will come to understand how Kumeyaay land transformed into the modern technoscape – how one map turned into the other through time. We will be applying for money for graduate students and post-docs to work on the map, looking especially for young bilingual and bicultural scholars accustomed to crossing the borders that divide our world. The project will help build ties to Mexican and Native American local historians and will fit into the ‘Understanding Cultures and Addressing Disparities’ focus at UCSD.