Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Social Construction of Scientific Sausage

[updated below]

Bruno Latour is a sociologist of science best known for his insistence that scientific facts are constructed rather than discovered. He's widely reviled by scientists and critics of postmodernity; I rather like his work myself and feel that it's usually misinterpreted. Anyway, my guess is he's laughing his Gallic ass off right now at the so-called Climategate affair, which seems like a perfect test case for his point of view.

Thanks to the acts of some hackers, we got to see some politicized science construction in action. The scientific consensus around climate change is revealed to be the result of an ongoing human process, involving a variety of academic politics and a few somewhat shady-sounding practices, including:
  • applying pressure to journals to keep conflicting articles out of press
  • instructing people to delete emails, possibly in violation of the law
  • applying fudge factors to data to make it conform to theory
It appears that at least in this case the making of science is like the making of laws or sausage: not for the squeamish. The import of any of this stuff is up for contention. Is it improper? Unusual, or just normal behind-the-scenes stuff? Does it imply anything at all about the physical facts of the matter? After a couple of hours of scanning the web and looking at some of the email and code that was stolen, I don't know. I have a couple of insights which I may post about later; for now I'm just interested in the sociology.

One thing is clear -- it's pretty clear that even a relatively science-literate layperson can't hope to have a reasonable opinion on this stuff which relies only on raw data and not its suspect interpretations. I suppose if I spent 2-3 months on this stuff I might understand it well enough to be useful, but without that much time to spend I am stuck relying on the judgement of others. And given that, my most important decision is deciding which others to trust. There have been some self-proclaimed experts diving into the material and proclaiming fraud; my impression is that while there is some suspicious stuff there it is impossible to tell exactly what they mean at this stage.

It's somewhat amazing to me how closely the opinions on AGW line up with people's political sensibilities, considering that this is presumably over a physical question which has a matter-of-fact answer (unlike, say, the definition of "conservatism"). But the climate of the past is something that cannot be measured directly, so there is plenty of room for variant interpretation (I suppose a proper sociologist of science would say that nothing is "measured directly"). Almost all the global warming sceptics I come across are also libertarians or right-wing cranks of one stripe or another, who have a vested ideological interest in the denial that there is a vast collective action problem to be solved. And of course, the scientists who support AGW have a vested interest in climate being a significant social problem because it affects their funding. There seems to be no light between the politics and the science, which of course is one of Latour's points.

There have been calls as a result of this for greater openness and transparency in the process of science. The Open Notebook Science movement is already on this. At first glance this seems like a great idea, but I'm somewhat sceptical about the workability, because science is no different than any other field in being a staged performance requiring a backstage zone where the performers can work on the non-public parts of the show (that's a link to Erwin Goffman, another favorite sociologist).

So, channeling my inelegant, Americanized version of Bruno Latour again: here's a situation where there is presumably a physical matter of fact (the actual state of the earth's climate in the past, and the various proxy measurements like tree-rings that we hope reflect it). There are scientists, journals, computer programs, datasets, and funding agencies which are all being deployed to construct competing theories. Only one gets to win, and the battle is enjoined on many levels with little regard for the supposedly neutral gentlemanly rules of combat that the Whig version of science history gives us. That's what the social construction of science is, only now it will occasionally get spread out all over the Internet for all to see. The rubes are shocked; scientists and sociologists are not.


Full 61M of released materials.

A bunch of podcasts with a variety of philosophers of science.

Mapping Controversies on Science for Politics is a really interesting-sounding project by a bunch of European labs (including Latour's) to do just what it says.

[[update: I called Latour's attitude fairly accurately:
What I found so ironic in the hysterical reactions of scientists and the press was the almost complete agreement of opponents and proponents of the anthropogenic origin of climate change. They all seem to share the same idealistic view of Science (capital S): "If it slowly composed, it cannot be true" said the skeptics; "If we reveal how it is composed, said the proponents, it will be discussed, thus disputable, thus it cannot be true either!". After about thirty years of work in science studies, it is more than embarrassing to see that scientists had no better epistemology to rebut their adversaries. They kept using the old opposition between what is constructed and what is not constructed, instead of the slight but crucial difference between what is well and what is badly constructed (or composed).
from An attempt at writing a "œCompositionist Manifesto" (pdf) ]]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Phil Agre, an appreciation

[updated below]

Phil Agre, a friend and former UCLA professor who I've often mentioned on this blog, has gone missing, and some of his friends are organizing an informal search of the streets. As far as anyone knows, he had some sort of severe mental breakdown and is presumed to be homeless somewhere in LA.

Phil was one of the smartest people I knew in graduate school. More than smart, he had the intellectual courage to defy the dominant MIT sensibilities and become not just an engineer but a committed critic of the ideology under the surface of technology, especially as it was applied to artificial intelligence. He was a leader of the situated action insurgency in AI, a movement that questioned the foundations of the stale theories of mind that were implicit in the computational approach. Phil had the ability to take fields of learning that were largely foreign to the culture of MIT (continental philosophy, sociology, anthropology) and translate them into terms that made sense to a nerd like me. I feel I owe Phil a debt for expanding my intellectual horizons.

Phil was a seminal figure in the development of Internet culture. His Red Rock Eater email list was a early predecessor to the many on-line pundits of today. Essentially he invented blogging, although his medium was a broadcast email list rather than the web, which didn't yet exist. He would regularly send out long newsletters containing a mix of essays, pointers to interesting things, and opinions on random things. He turned email into a broadcast medium, which struck me as weird and slightly undemocratic at the time, but he had the intellectual energy to fuel a one-man show, and in this and other matters Phil was just ahead of the times -- now the web is stuffed to the brim with outsized personalities, but it wasn't so back then. Here's one of the last recorded posts on RRE, on Vaclav Havel, which includes an explanation of what Phil termed "issue entrepreneurship". I picked this out at basically at random from the archives, and it typifies the insight, clarity, and urgency of Phil's writing:
What is needed and missing in the United States is the other major component of Vaclav Havel's life story -- the intellectual seriousness that believed down deep that the world is made of ideas and that the health of a society depends on the health of its language. ... Civilization cannot survive when language becomes the terrain of a thoroughly instrumentalized political war. Vaclav Havel and his colleagues won a contest of decency against the dead hand of an authoritarian system that had nothing living inside it. Today's authoritarians are altogether more resourceful. Today's civil society will have to discover a correspondingly deeper meaning in its own ideals.
Some of Phil's better-known essays include:
  • What is Conservatism and What is Wrong with it? - cuts to the heart of our present politics.
  • Networking on the Network: an early guide to using the Internet to build intellectual communities and careers.
  • How to Help Someone Use a Computer - excellent practical advice. This particular bit I use all the time: "Whenever they start to blame themselves, respond by blaming the computer... When they get nailed by a false assumption about the computer's behavior, tell them their assumption was reasonable. Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable."
  • The Practical Republic - An examination of the importance of social skills in the creating of citizenship
Phil was constantly dispensing excellent advice. I wish I had taken more of it.

The tragedy is that for all his intellectual engagement and instruction of others in social skills, something seems to have gone wrong with Phil's own social life. The energy he poured into his writing seems to have left him little to spare to form close relationships -- or something like that, something that allowed him to slip away from the society about which he had so much to say. It is somewhat mystifying that a UCLA professor with a huge Internet following could just vanish with nobody noticing, but that is what seems to have happened. When Phil's voice suddenly ceased a few years back, I assumed he had decided to focus on a book or some other major project. Apparently everyone else made the same assumption. I've been out of the academic circuit for years, that's my excuse, but I don't quite understand how those in the loop could have let this happen. It's a stunning indictment, but I can't say exactly of whom or what.

This reads too much like an obituary. I hope to hell it isn't, and that Phil finds his way back from wherever he's gone off to. We still need him.

[update: the news as of early 2011 is that Phil is in good physical health but wishes to be left alone; the people who were searching for him are going to respect that wish.]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

For the Union Dead

Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die –
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year --
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
And muse through their sideburns

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here.
On Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

-- Robert Lowell, 1964

I have almost no personal connection to the US military -- my father served in the British Army during WWII, and I was too young for Vietnam, although not to protest it. It bothers me that there is this huge machinery of violence that claims to be acting for me. The usual stance of today's left is to try to distance themselves as far as possible from the military, but there's an element of dishonesty in that, as if war could be vanquished by keeping our individual hands clean of it. Like the state, we can't embrace it and we can't live without it. Today is for those who made or found themselves part of the business end of the machine, whatever the reason.


The Sacred State, Memorial Day, War Sucks, Iraq Casuality Memorial.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Gentlemen! You can't fight here, this is the war room!

I'm not sure why it should be shocking that violence can erupt in the middle of an Army base. I guess it's analagous to a gun backfiring and injuring the hand that holds it. Or it's like a mistake in syntax, since Americans are supposed to be exclusively the subjects and not the objects of violence.

9/11 briefly reminded the US political culture that its causal connection to the rest of the world is bidirectional, but that insight lasted about two weeks.