2016 as a ten-letter word

proctor
Robert N. Proctor (Photo: Linda A. Cicero)

In the end of November, as it is the case every year since 2004, Oxford Dictionaries revealed their choice for the word of the year. For 2016, they settled on “post-truth”. This adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, echoed a number of events of the past few months, including UK’s vote in favor of Brexit and, most infamously, the election of Donald J. Trump. Following the announcement, a few commenters were quick to observe that “post-truth” could be considered as an emanation of postmodernism, the brain-child of post-1968 French philosophy and critical theory. Whether you buy this or not – I don’t -, there’s no denying that “post-truth” has been everywhere in the press and on social networks. Yet, as a historian of science with little – if any – interest in questions of “truthfulness” and “falsity”, I would like to suggest another ten-letter word for describing more accurately what has been going on over the past few months – and, admittedly, over the past few decades as well, 2016 representing in my opinion some kind of turning point in its development. This word is: “agnotology”.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept elaborated by Robert N. Proctor in books such as The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer (1995) and Golden Holocaust – Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (2012), suffice to say that “agnotology” is the production and dissemination of ignorance – as well as the study of this phenomenon. Proctor’s argument in a nutshell is that knowledge is not created out of a vacuum which we would call “ignorance” but, instead, that both knowledge and ignorance are social constructs, therefore contingent to many social, political and individual factors. The production and dissemination of ignorance, therefore, can be studied using the tools that are traditionally attached to the history of science, making the distinction between science and non-science not so significant in the process. When we look at the history of how the cigarette industry intentionally spread doubts about evidences that linked smoke ingestion to cancer, there were a few scientists to back this claim. At first, I was skeptical about “agnotology” because I had read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, which does not use the term “agnotology” but tells a relatively similar story of ignorance dissemination, and was unsatisfied with the way they tried to demarcate between the good, disinterested scientists fighting for truth and those who were paid by big corporations to spread false information – I had expressed my dissatisfaction on the INET version of this blog. However, I do not find the same problem with Proctor’s historical narrative which is not so much interested in questions of demarcation but rather in the cultural and political context in which ignorance is produced and disseminated. Accordingly, agnotology has been used in the history of economics by Phil Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah in a way that may seem controversial at first  but which I found, after some resistance, increasingly convincing. After all, agnotology deals with producing and distributing something, so economics should not be too far away when we think about it. Two French economists have recently tried to use Proctor’s work, without using the term ‘agnotology’, in order to build a case against the critics of mainstream economics but in my opinion – which I have expressed in a forthcoming review of their book for a French STS journal -, they fell short of understanding the complexity of the concept and, quite ironically, ended up generating a lot of agnotology over the current status of their discipline.

trump
Donald Trump: the rise of agnotologic governmentality?

But so much for these issues of scientific demarcation – or lack therof. “Agnotology” is an enlightening word to describe 2016 because it is effectively applicable to the political issues of the day. Ignorance production and dissemination is not something which is just relevant to scientific issues. It is actually, a total social fact in the Maussian sense of the term, one that ties together cultural, psychological and political elements. With the election of Donald Trump, I even wonder if it is not possible to assert that we are entering an age of agnotologic governmentality, a way of governing that uses ignorance as a political device. In using the term governmentality, I explicitly refer to Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics. Governmentality, in Foucault’s conception, should not be confused with “government”. A regime of governmentality is enforced, not just by the State, but at many different levels where knowledge and power are connected. Suffice to replace knowledge by ignorance and then you have some idea of what a Foucaldian version of agnotology could look like. Since his election in November, Donald Trump has been a master in disseminating so much information, both in the press and on social networks, that it is almost impossible to assess what his legislature will yield. But of course, this had not begun with his election: this is the way he had behaved since the very beginning of his campaign at the Republican primaries. At the time, it had been summed up in one fantastically short tweet.

Now that “the comments section” has become the new President of the United States, we can argue that the kind of ignorance that such comments section typify will noy only lead  the most powerful nation, but as a result will preside over the way of the world at large. But ignorance is not a “top-down” phenomenon and that’s what makes it so stealth, yet powerful. Ignorance is cultivated at every level of the society and now, through more or less trustable internet news coverage, it is disseminated at a higher speed. Even academics and self-proclaimed “intelligent” people such as you and I can be subjected to it. If you have been a regular user of social networks in the course of the past few months, I defy you to tell me that you have never fallen into a clic-bait, believing for at least a few minutes a piece of information that has been revealed to be either false or (mis)guided by a non-objective source. The bombing of Aleppo, for instance, has been the subject of so much news coverage that it is impossible be sure that everything we were told was true. While there is no doubt that, on one hand, some information has been manipulated by pro-Syrian and Russian medias, we are not so naive as to believe that there is no propaganda on the other side, too. Increasingly complex conflicts and social issues such as this one are not easy to grasp and we can all be deceived. Effective propaganda knows how to exploit the capacity we all have to doubt. It is no surprise that agnotology is often related to neoliberalism. It is not so much, I think, that there is a mechanical relation between the two but, instead, that both are so squeezed in the recesses of our our everyday life that they are difficult to espace, unless we turn off our computers and start leading a more recluse life – which may not be a bad idea after all.

Anyway, I am afraid I have conveyed that 2016 has been a very bad year and this is similar to a lot of rants you have already read elsewhere. I should apologize for my lack of originality. But there is also a more positive message: as historians of science, we may  be able to apply our critical toolbox to the understanding of how we got there and, hopefully, how we will be able to get away with it.

@INET-BW: Upon leaving Mount Washington

Who goes with Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,                    
And dance upon the level shore?                                         
Young man, lift up your russet brow,                                            
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,                      
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
 
And no more turn aside and brood,
Upon love’s bitter mystery;                                                        
for Fergus rules the brazen cars,                   
And rules the shadows of the wood,                 
And the white breast of the dim sea                         
And all the dishevelled wandering stars. 

The place invites poetry. By the way, all sessions can be viewed from the webiste – check out in particular the last session featuring Gillian Tett of the Financial Times moderating a disucssion between Paul Volcker and George Soros.

Here’s what it all looked like through an amateur lens.

@INET-BW: Clear skies with a chance of economics

For the next three days, a few of us are blogging the Institute of New Economic Thinking’s Bretton Woods Conference. It is an unusual event, as unusual as the Institute’s patron, George Soros, who somehow manages to be a player in politics, finance and culture on both shores of the Atlantic. A number of principals are walking about Mount Washington: policy makers (Summers and Sachs will drop by), media (Wolf and Tett from the FT, Cassidy from the New Yorker), bloggers (Huffington in on the guest list) and plenty of economists.

Historians are here too. (Skidelsky, Keynes’s biographer is sitting in front of me.) One of INET’s core business is to foster the teaching and the research into economic history and the history of economics. I am sure this will scramble some folk’s disciplinary grids, of who fits where, and the dangers of being an historian and analyst without due distance to one’s subject, that trouble of being too “embedded”. That is why I am taking this assignment more as the anthropologist (as I imagine them) than as the colleague. As in a field assignment I come prepared with my trusted Marantz recorder, a set of agreed questions that i discussed with colleagues in the course of the last week, and a set of empty notebooks to be filled. I also thought of wearing my khakis to make the transformation complete, but upon visiting weather.com I discovered it was going to be cloudy and cold, and there is still snow on the hillsides.

(Ben and Floris will likely take this experience differently, I am looking forward to some contrast)

Robert Lucas demands more books in economics!

The quote is extracted from a Panel Discussion on “Promoting Economic Literacy” in the American Economic Review in 2002 (v.9, n.2):

Another way to define the new course, … might be to provide an economics canon: a list of economics writings that all well-educated people should have read. The appeal of this idea led me, last year, to assign to my sophomores the selection from Ricardo’s Principles that treats comparative advantage. This was a pedagogic failure, even by my modest standards, and not even an honest failure: I didn’t learn about comparative advantage from Ricardo, so why make my students do so? One could probably do better with selections from the Wealth of Nations, but I am skeptical that an entire, good, one-semester course could be defined as a course in the Great Books of economics. Maybe we just have not written enough of them.

Not new, but it is news, no?

How big is your H?

Recently I discovered (actually it was Funny Bird) a neat software Publish or Perish. It is the ultimate toy for the narcissistic or anxious 21st century academic. The program fetches data from Google Scholar and calculates impact statistics for authors and journals. It doesn’t work that well because Scholar sometimes gets dates confused, it takes as separate works items that differ only in minor edits in author name or publisher, and other such like.

I started by doing a top ten of the history of economics, but then found the exercise too parochial and self-serving. So instead I went ambitious and decided to find the most influential social theorist of the late 20th, early 21th century. My metric was the h-index. (To get the h one ranks all of a scholar’s papers by how many times it was cited. A scholar’s h is 4, if her/his top 4 papers are cited at least 4 times, the scholar’s h is 8 if his/hers top 8 most cited papers have at least 8 cites each.)

The kids Bernard Henri Levy and Slavoj Zizek go at 14 and 55 respectively. C Wright Mills gets a 25, and EP Thompson a 36. Jean-François Lyotard does better at 44, and F. von Hayek better still at 63. The father of structuralism, Claude Levi-Strauss is as high as 76, and the great man of science studies Bruno Latour manages an 80. Jacques Derrida and Anthony Giddens, the frenchman and the englishman are head to head at 100 and 101.

But the real business is down to Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jurgen Habermas and Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is h 116, he is a level 30 warrior mage in World of Warcraft. Habermas makes it third place at 124. Michel or Pierre. A french final, and the winner is … (you have seen the picture next to the post!)… Pierre Bourdieu (168 to 162, cricket score numbers).

I was routing for Michel…

P.S. Incidentally Paul Samuelson is h=75, and JM Keynes goes only for h=39.

Rudolf Modley (?)

There is a frequent bias in the history of science – and the history of economics alike. We are mainly interested in people who have published, and particularly in people having published in the main field we are interested in. People having greatly contributed to the development of departments – think of Aaron Director and Gregg Lewis at Chicago, for instance – or operating at the crossroads of disciplines are often neglected. When my co-author Loic Charles and I began to be interested in the history of visualization in the interwar social sciences in general and in the dispersion of Otto Neurath‘s pictorial statistics in the US in particular, we quickly found that one man was particularly influential in these developments: Rudolf Modley.

Modley, a former student of Neurath in Vienna, moved to the US in the early 30s, where he was appointed as curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, under Waldemar Kaempffert (Neurath’s cousin). Modley, after experiencing numerous difficulties, created a flourishing business in illustrating magazines, newspapers, official reports and pamphlets with Neurath-like Isotypes. The name of his corporation, Pictograph Inc., could be seen anywhere in these different medias. As Loic and I put it in our paper: “the American reader was [then] more likely to encounter Modley’s version of [pictorial statistics], rather than the original [Neurath’s]”. One could dismiss Modley as someone who’s only responsible for the little men and women we find on our bathroom doors. After all, Modley’s pictorial statistics was almost completely stripped of the theoretical and political contents Neurath would attach to it. Neurath himself was quite critical of the way his former disciple used his method. On the other hand, social scientists were very interested in Modley’s enterprise. In the course of our research, we have encountered some important names of social scientists of the period (including economists) who were quite eager to participate in the diffusion of Modley’s little men. On the whole, Modley is one of the central characters in the Americanization of Neurath’s visual method, namely its transformation from a tool of conceptualization into a tool of illustration and consequently, its move from social sciences to propaganda and finally, to graphic design.

Though he was the object of only one scholarly article (Crawley 1994) and was briefly mentioned in another one (Lupton 1986), Modley has lately attracted more and more fans on the internet. You just have to google his name to find several blog posts and websites devoted to his use of Neurath’s method. By contrast, when I began being interested in Modley while finishing my PhD dissertation in late 2007, there was almost nothing to be found on the internet. Meanwhile, websites devoted to pictorial statistics are flourishing (see examples here or here). Loic and I would like to take advantage of this recent proliferation and try to gather as much information as possible on Modley from all those contributors. In particular, if some people do know whether some archives exist and if so, where they are located, that would be highly useful for further research. Besides, we would be curious to know the various background of those who have contributed to disperse Modley’s pictures on the internet and how they got interested in his work in the first place.

Lead and Follow in the ash cloud controversy of 2010

Wiki tells us that “In partner dancing, the two dance partners are never equal. One must be the Lead and the other will be the Follow.”

Someone from STS will write, within a couple of years, the “icelandic volcano controversy” of 2010 (since the Eyjafjallajökull controversy would not be a usable title). This person will write on how the UK Met office collaborated with the aviation authorities to close off European air space in face of an Ulrich Beck type of risk. And then how the Met office, after four days of stranded passengers, hungry, sleepless, penniless, was pressured to review its authoritative claims about air safety. The scholarly account might examine the credibility of the weather model that was used to predict the location and concentration of the volcanic ash. The story might include a Dutch hero, the head of KLM who sent out a plane, and out to the real world above the clouds with a mission to find the ash and measure. Private interests doing battle with the model’s claims. The Met office’s plane which was also stranded, for repairs, would follow the Dutch example as air space began to open.

In such an account we will read contextual claims about the “obvious” economics of airlines. The rich uncertainty of the lava spewing natural world will lead. The comparatively certain world of Mr. Moneybags, counting and subtracting coins, will follow. The danger is that the lead partner of the dance objectifies and caricatures the follow.

Let’s discount the influence upon the story of losing, for nearly 5 days, the fastest means to move freight (if not the only means for fresh produce), and consider only the calculations and the knowledge producing practices of the airline industry. The airline business is generally know as the most hazardous business around. It is hard to keep a profit, and an expensive gamble to guess petrol prices, negotiate airport costs, prevent industrial action, always under the vigilant pressure of new entrants who want a piece of the glamorous business. The airline industry has equipped itself with practices of continued discovery and modeling of its own sort. The story of the ash of 2010 is also a story of airlines knowledge producing practices of ash and how the event might have changed airlines’ views on their business, on how to liaison with air control authorities, on how to prepare for the future.

I want to suggest to that anonymous STS scholar writing about the “ash cloud controversy of 2010”, that she/he really needs to collaborate with an historian or sociologist of economics to get any handle on the events (possibly someone from this blog). Although wiki’s entry on dancing condemns it, some occasional “lead stealing” might make for the best kind of partnership.

This IS knowledge !!!

Reviewing (i.e. bashing) David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations for the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Philip Mirowski (2007: 492), concluded:

I pity the poor student of modern economics, trying to make some sense of what can only appear to the outsider as cryptic oracular pronouncements emitted from people who claim to be experts in the nature and validity of knowledge.* But when you get your news from Jon Stewart, your history from Paul Krugman, and your research facts from Wikipedia, maybe the nature of knowledge has itself changed.

The end of the sentence is tinged with what I believe is Mirowski’s utter disdain for popular culture. It takes, however, just a few days for a non-American person to realize that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is certainly a better source of information than any other cable news (CNN included …), though I personally prefer the Colbert Report.

But my question is: what about Wikipedia? I have to confess I use it quite frequently,  for some basic research at work as well as for some more silly inquiry about music, cinema or celebrities at home.  Of course, I never take the information that is given there as granted and I think it is rather crucial to double check it with a more formal source of information, but I have largely benefited from the bibliography that is often provided at the end of articles. I am fairly impressed by the fact that some anonymous people have spent some time writing on E. Roy Weintraub or Waldemar Kaempffert, sometimes advertising the works of others without any reward. All in all, there is an underlying model of disinterestedness scientists should be proud (or envious?) of … Why, on the contrary, they spend so much time bashing it is therefore a mistery to me. Where does this idea that an increasing dissemination of knowledge corresponds to a degeneration of its substance come from? Jealousy? Elitism?  Declinism? Conservatism? Repugnance for the “neoliberal” ideology they think such modes of dissemination sustain?

PS: Thanks to Wikipedia, for example, I learned that philosopher of science Susan Oyama has been married to the late great contemporary composer Luciano Berio from 1966 to 1972. Pretty interesting …

* I should point out that Mirowski is not referring to David Warsh here but to Paul Krugman, though his using the plural of “experts” is quite intriguing.

Big boss man

Deservingly, Social Studies of Science is the top journal in History and Philosophy of Science in Web of Science’s Journal Citation Reports (Social Science edition, impact factor 1.651 in 2007). It is the journal of the 4S (The Society for Social Studies of Science) — the “S pun” goes as high as 6, with the Society for Social Studies of Science Student Section.

The journal’s latest call for papers is on the subject of “Privatizing Science: new commercial ways of knowing.” It reads:

The authors of these studies tend to polarize into what Mirowski has called the Economic Whigs – promoting technology transfer and public/private partnerships – and the Mertonian Tories – sounding the alarm bell to protect the norms of science while preaching a return to the supposed Mertonian Golden Age.

That’s right, Mirowski. The editors of the special issue will be Rebecca Lave (Indiana University), Samuel Randalls (University College London) and Philip Mirowski (Notre Dame).

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the enfant terrible of the history of economics became the gatekeeper of the economics of knowledge?


P.S. In the video Hayek turns up at 6:32, Phil at 8:40.

Shopping

Ratatouille

Biotechnologies reshape our relation to “nature”. All sorts of living organisms are engineered and marketed, it is now almost trivial even to remark it. Yet, I am still struck when I meet the most banal form of genetically modified organisms. As the linked page shows, it is not just about a model-organism: the JAX laboratory highlights the “key features” of the commodity, informs you of its availability, provides technical support, all with a price tag. With sales in July?

The economic logic is so much intertwined with the biological material that I feel that the story of the commodification of living organisms, well studied in the history of biology (eg, here or here), might find a place in the history of economics as well.

Avis, Genella and Eve

In Spring 1937 – I guess it is 1937, but it could be 1931, depending on how you interpret the handwriting -, Avis Windham, Genella Burke and Eve Smith bought a textbook of economic theory. It was Principles of Economics, written by Frederic Garver and Alvin Hansen and first published in 1928 by Ginn and Company. This textbook was among those recommended by Harvard teachers in the 1930s, and it has been read and studied by the likes of Robert Solow and Paul Samuelson, who, in their reminiscences, have described the book as a rather serious, but also dreary and poorly entertaining account of economic theory. It really looks rudimentary – not in content but in form – compared to its modern counterpart, which is full of tables, diagrams and figures.

In the 1930s, economics was a man’s field – some might say it still is. Yet I try to imagine those three women living in the same apartment, sharing this seemingly boring book, underlining some sentences – not many, actually -, writing their names all over it: on the edge, on the top, they wrote their three first names Avis, Genella and Eve, as well as their initials, gracefully forming the acronym AGE. I wonder why they bought this book : was it a course requirement, was it for general knowledge? Were they studying in an American university? Did they obtain a B.Sc. or an equivalent diploma? Where did they end up? Were they the typically liberated young women of the 1930s, with short hair and short skirts, or were they compliant daughters from a rather rich family? They bought just one book for all three: was it too expensive, or just uninteresting for them? 

I guess that knowing a little more about Avis, Genella and Eve, their lives, expectations and intents would bring us more knowledge about the status of economic theory in the 1930s than another article on Piero Sraffa. 

Note keeping

Yesterday, I saw a talk by Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, Director of the MPIWG. The title was “The Economy of the Scribble.” It is worth the footnote that “economy” in its Aristotelian sense, is gaining currency among cultural studies people. On my shelf is Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell’s Tissue Economies, by all opinions a really important book. There was no blood in Rheinberger’s talk, it was mostly about paper. With a really nice example from botany, Rheinberger pressed the idea that notes: the material practices of producing and distributing them, are critical to understand knowledge making. His metaphors were still unstable. At times notes were “containers,” at other times “reversible inscriptions,” and there were such things as “constellations.” He added that we can (encore une fois) reconsider scientific research communities in terms of the note taking and sharing.

It is all very sexy, as sexy as history can be. I caught myself lamenting that what I do is so very different from this both grand and detailed scrutiny of the scientist in action. It is odd to confess that I would like to dig into a study of a scientific drawing, a table, a graph, and the scribbled and stained notes that adjusted its creation. Why is it so romantic?

Hoarding

In February 1973, Paul Volcker announced a 10% depreciation of the dollar. It was the second such move in less than two years and a final blow to the appreciated dollar and the fixed exchange regime.

The respectable way to tell this story is to look at the dollar-gold parity. The inebriated way and somewhat more fun, is to look at the dollar-wine parity. Did Americans load up their cellars of French wine? Did they speculate on wine futures? Did the wine speculators understand monetary uncertainty?

Ad from the The New York Times, March 3, 1973, page 9.

The purpose of a blog

A prerequisite for academic quality is an environment of researchers that more or less conduct the same kind of research. The big difficulty that we (young) historians of economics often face is that we lack this appropriate academic environment. We can contact each other through e-mail, but cannot grab a coffee to discuss informally whatever it is we have on our minds. This blog partly aims to be this informal platform, but does it work? As yet, it seems it doesn’t, there’s no coffee discussion going on. Are people reluctant to put their quick remarks on the internet? Can a blog not be a substitute for face-to-face contact? Or is there simply no real urge to meet each other informally outside conferences and workshops?

The publisher

McGraw-Hill LogoPaul Samuelson’s Economics sold up to 70,000 copies in its first year, in under two decades a million. If economics is a business, the entrepreneurs are not the economists but the publishers and McGraw-Hil Book Company ranks high on the list.

To follow the internationalization of American economics is to consider the influence of Samuelson, but to what extent is Samuelson’s success a corollary of the influence of McGraw-Hill? The internationalization literature makes passing reference to advances in communication that allowed dissemination of American texts. This frames the problem with publishers being ancillary to economists, but could it not be the other way round? After all, American economists had little to gain from an international economics, but publishers had a market to conquer.

Posed as a research question what is the publication trail of Samuelson’s Economics? Which is also to ask: who published it in each country? When? And for what reasons?

As far as I can tell, the history of McGraw-Hill is under researched. The only book length examination of its past is as old as 1959, The Endless Frontier by Roger Burlingame. A history of McGraw-Hill published by McGraw-Hill reads like an in-house piece to celebrate the company and its genius.