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: Discipline and punish

Ken Rogoff and Larry Summers were on the program today at Bretton Woods, and they stole the show. Both are Harvard professors, both have been in and out of policy making, both are intellectual leaders of the economics profession. On any criteria, these are not men of “new economic thinking”. Rogoff of his own initiative, Summers pressed towards it, had to defend the state of economics teaching and research.

Two unlikely responses were given, and even more unlikely, they overlapped (when Rogoff spoke Summers was not in attendance).

1. The first was to describe the failing of economics as a subject of “sociology”. As economists, and practitioners, both men were baffled by how young people in the profession are more interested in formal puzzles and define research as model building taking any empirical work as distraction. Both men confessed they were the same when they were starting. Unfortunately, no sociologist was in the audience, however…

2. The other response, more interesting because of its bizarre possibilities, saw Rogoff and Summers defending rational expectations models and efficient market hypothesis as an integral part of economics education and research because both provide “discipline.” No one followed up asking what discipline meant.

The panoptic suggestion hints that economists have a bit of the sociologist in them after all…

TV guide

Lots happening this week’s end and weekend. Harvard’s Program on Science Technology and Society is hosting a “STS 20+20”. By the cryptic title an event that promises only to excite the converted to science studies. The tone is not very hopeful either:

This meeting is the product of a year of conversations across several continents and dozens of institutions. It weaves together the hopes, aspirations, and—yes—frustrations of STS scholars from around the world who have committed their careers to studying the central role of science and technology in our social, political, and moral lives.

The meeting is in part a stock-taking. After two decades of increased public funding for STS, what can we say about our achievements as a “thought collective”? What have we learned from speaking the truths of our field to the power of established disciplines? Which areas of work do we recognize as displaying the greatest theoretical depth and creativity? What do we impart to STS scholars-in-the-making, and what can we do to ensure that their ideas are heard more widely and that they find appropriate academic homes? The three-day program addresses these questions: first, STS and the disciplines; second, STS and its theories; third, STS’s institutional challenges and opportunities.

In part, too, the meeting is a provocation: an invitation to reflect on the conditions needed for this field to thrive and grow—in keeping with the importance of its mission. As with any provocation, the questions we hope to explore may have conflicting answers. Ideas will be generated throughout the meeting from both our physical and virtual audiences. This website, managed by a local team of scholars, is part of an effort to make the meeting as inclusive and participatory as possible, both during the event and after it.

Overall, this is a meeting to rethink questions that all STS scholars have grappled with at some point in their intellectual lives. Why do STS? What makes it interesting, distinctive, coherent, relevant, and deserving of stronger institutionalization?

This meeting—diverse enough to be representative, yet small enough to foster conversation—offers a rare opportunity to think together about these issues, in the company of others who share our concerns and our convictions.

But the program is marvelous, today, tomorrow and saturday. It kicks off with Ted Porter on “Does STS Matter, and to Whom?” and later today at 5 pm, Eastern, there is “STS, Economics, and Sociology: Do Economists Make Markets?”. If like me you can’t attend, you can still be a fly on the wall through the live video feed from 2pm, US eastern time.

Politics as History of Economics

Since almost a year now I’m involved in local politics (a few long evenings a week). Apart from all the obvious differences between the business of politics and the business of history of economics, I’ve noticed an unexpected similarity. Whenever politicians receive information of any kind, they will immediately do two things: 1) Check where the information is coming from, and 2) See how they can spin the information to their advantage. Politics is founded on the firm belief that there is no such thing as objevtive, or value-free information – even though part of the rhetoric is that there is. Ok, you might say, surely you knew that before entering politics. I did, although I had never realized how strongly and deeply rooted this conviction is in every nerve of the political process. But I also think that how readily you, reader of this blog, recognize the self-evidence of this observation, testifies to how similar the history of economics perspective is to the political perspective. Although we do different things, we historians also treat all information – publications, archival sources, interviews – always and everywhere very explicitly as the product of its source. That is, we never treat the information without taking into account the origin of the source.

But academic economists (including the IMFs and OECDs of this world) do. In fact, when we as historians of economics are alerted by fact that economists could take some information about some phenomena as THE truth, we are alerted in the very same way as are politicians about the same economists. Ipso facto, when economists are alerted because we introduce this source- or context-dependence in the discussion, they are alerted in the same way as they are alerted when politicians start questioning the source of their information (or worse, start spinning it). Economics is a self-perceived body of value-free, objective knoweldge in between two realms of politics and history of economics with surprisingly similar world views.

Ps: Not implying any of the three is better than the other of course….

Denaturalizing the book

Once upon a time a book was a book was a book. Now a book has become a technology. Once it began competing with iPals, Kindles, audiobooks, the book became an artifact. Still, it stays closer, more human, more intuitive, otherwise comedy would not work for the following videos:

Thanks to Federico D’Onofrio and Andrej Svorencik for the vids.

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.

HET vs. SSK etc. etc… It’s (very) old hat

Maybe I am slow or we have just collectively ignored the fact that the debates we keep having about internalist vs. externalist history, SSK vs Traditional History of Economics, Context vs theory-focus, was resolved many many years ago. Maybe no-one bothered telling us? At least that’s what I get from the third edition (!) of a rather excellent book on The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2008: 7):

The discipline of the history of science used to be riven by warfare between internalists and externalists (c. 1930-59). The internalists were supposed to have believed that science, or possibly an individual sub-discipline within science, was a system of thought which was self-contained, self-regulating, and developed in accordance with its own internal logic. The externalist, on the other hand, was supposed to believe that the development of science was determined by the sociopolitical or socioeconomic context from which it emerged. In fact, neither position seems to have been properly established as valid or viable (Shapin 1992: 345-51), and it wasn’t long before a professed eclectic approach became all the rage (c. 1960). Effectively, this eclectic approach is still dominant.

I am happy to plead ignorance on this one, but having heard this sort of debate at many a conference, across several blogs (ours is no exception, even if this memorable debate was not explicitly about externalists vs. internalists), I get the feeling it isn’t just me. At some level I wish I had had John Henry’s book a few years ago, but better late than never. Also, I’d recommend it as a good introductory read – it’s 179 pages is not strictly correct, as only 114 are content (the glossary – especially his definition of ‘whiggism’ – and references are excellent too), and it is a ‘small’ book, A5 size. Worth getting, now if only I was still going to teach that course this semester. Dammit.

Reader Meet Author @ HES 2009

You can call it scandalous; you can call it Mickey Mouse; you can even call it fried chicken, if you want. But the session titled “From History of Economics to Histories about Economics” at the last HES meeting in Denver was just a thrilling experience. Let me explain in a few words what its purpose was. The last few years have witnessed the development of a literature about the history of economics outside of our field. Historians of science, economic historians and journalists (among others) have begun to write about the same issues we are (supposed to be) interested in and most of the time, they do not quote historians of economics. How did it happen? It is very simple, actually, and could be summed up in Stanley Fish’s terms: 1) Do your job, 2) Don’t try to do someone else’s job, 3) Don’t let anyone else do your job. Historians of economics have tried to act as economists, using the past to build alternative economic models or criticizing mainstream economics on its own terms. By doing so, they have created a “What If” History of Economics, one that builds parallel stories that can be understood only within the community, but offers virtually no insight on its recent developments, its status as a science or its cultural influence. On the other hand, you have another kind of accounts, such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. They provide a more caricatural view of the economist as a torturer, mass-murderer and conspirator. Historians of economics may find them shocking (that’s the word, indeed), misinformed, misleading and dangerous, but those accounts have a significant appeal beyond our small community, and by refusing to address them in some ways, considering them as popular rubbish, we choose to remain in self-referentiality.

During this session, Loïc Charles, Harro Maas and Tiago Mata presented a perspective on the future developments of our field, not by restating previous positions, but by looking at possible new ways of doing the history of economics. Looking at recent developments in other fields such as history of science, economic history and political science, Loïc observed that non-disciplinary histories of economics are currently being written, offering a new intellectual space of trade between these various communities. Harro, by resorting to the metaphor of the historian as a curator, showed that we can build new narratives on the history of economics if we try to go beyond the text, arranging economics as a series of objects. For someone like me who studies the place of visual representation in economics, this metaphor has a strong appeal. I look at the large amount of visual materials I collected over the years (books, digital pictures and scans) and realize I use them in a very conservative way in comparison to the vast possibilities that are open if I think of them as pieces of art which would have to be curated in an exhibition. Would it provide a different kind of history? Last but not least, Tiago used Fish’s concept of interpretive communities to construct a picture of the public imagination of economics in recent works, without distinction between works intended for an audience of specialists and those intended for a larger audience. In Tiago’s account, indeed, there is no “audience” understood as this abstract mass of people out there, there are only anonymous individuals, internet users and bloggers, all contributing to create some understanding of economics.

I would not assert that these papers are perfect. They were intended for discussion rather than for immediate publication and I should say that the presentation itself seemed to me better than the actual papers. The presentation, actually, was quite spectacular. It had a kind of restrained violence toward the audience – the violence became less retrained during Tiago’s presentation when spectators were exposed to Klein’s striking rhetorics by way of graphic images – and the tension was palpable. In the same way art history has gradually given way to visual studies and visual culture, these papers may be viewed as an attempt to get rid of the “old” history of economics and to replace it by “economics studies” or “economic culture”. This is not a mere question of wording, it is a deeper transformation of our field. The skepticism of many attendants, explicit or implicit, makes sense.

To the bone

Reading some of the comments on a previous post of this blog, I can’t escape thinking that there still exists, even among the members of our community – by “our” community, I don’t mean historians of economics in general, but more narrowly, postmodern and SSK-inflected historians of economics (whatever that is) -, some misunderstandings related to what postmodern thought is, to its influence on the history of science and on SSK. Words such as “postmodernism” and “relativisn” can be used in a quite loose – and sometimes harmful – way. I will not pretend here that I have more knowledge than anyone on that matter, but I know at least one person who does: Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Professor Smith has been trained in psychology, literary criticism and cultural theory and those who haven’t read my review of Stanley Fish’s Save the World on your Own Time, will surely wonder what literary criticism has to offer to those who study the history of economics. The answer is: a lot, actually.

In her last book, Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human (2005), Smith elucidates, in less than 200 pages, some of the questions we are asking ourselves on this blog, with unequaled accuracy, thoughtfulness and what I would call a jubilatory bent for intellectual jousting. This is hardly Smith’s first endeavour in the field of the History and Philosophy of Science. Her previous book, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy (1997) dealt with the same kind of material. Though she proudly acknowledges she is no philosopher, nor is she a social scientist, Smith is a fine reader of science. It is no secret that she is herself a radical relativist/constructivist but the power of her analysis comes from her ability not only to criticize, but also to understand the point of view of those who try to beat postmodernism. She can literally strip her opponents’s arguments to the bone, as to reveal how empty and meaningless they are. If you intend to contradict her, then, choose your words carefully! I will not detail the book chapter after chapter as I did for Fish’s essay, but I will try to give you a hint of a material that certainly repays study.

The general objective of the book is to revisit two decades of science wars and to review all the harms that have been made on contemporary cultural theory and behavioral sciences, tracking the last bits of anti-relativism and positivist philosophy in newspapers articles, feminist writings and recent works in evolutionary psychology. The author does not think that all people criticizing postmodernism are idiots. In her opinion, indeed, most of them are doing interesting – if not fascinating – things but they are also misled by unjustified preconceptions on constructivism. To contradict these authors, Smiths appeals to what she calls pre-postmodern relativists such as Ludwig Fleck and Carl Becker.

The meaning of the title is dual: it refers both to the fact it is often said that “knowledge, or the problem of knowledge, is the scandal of philosophy” (1) and to all the scandalized critiques of postmodernism, which assert that the latter is a threat against the highest values of our society: the ability of making moral and aesthetic judgements, the possibility of scientific progress and nothing less that the pillars of Western democracy. Smith’s response to that critique is that in fact, relativism is an attack against one and only one thing, traditional (i.e. positivist and judgemental) philosophy. But, as Smith observes: “[w]hile it is not clear that the scandal matters to anyone but philosophers, philosophers point out that it should matter to everyone … [f]or, they explain, unless we can ground our claims to knowledge as such, which is to say distinguish it from mere opinion, superstition, fantasy, wishful thinking, ideology, illusion or delusion, then the actions we take on the basis of presumed knowledge – boarding an airplane, swallowing a pill, finding someone guilty of a crime – will be irrational and unjustifiable” (ibid.).
This is a rather serious claim. In chapter 2, Smith illustrates some examples of the implications of it in recent controversies, examining Deborah Lindstadt‘s thesis that postmodern theory is responsible for the rise of Holocaust denial (a thesis that has been given credit by other academics and journalists) and Edward Rothstein‘s contention that the same stream of skepticism has been discredited by 9/11. She observes that such sets of linkages are generally based on no actual quotation from postmodern thinkers. “Who among the figures commonly associated, properly or improperly, with ‘postmodern’ theory maintains that all truth is subjective or that one man’s narrative is as good as another’s? Michel Foucault? Jacques Derrida? Jean-François Lyotard? Hayden White? Richard Rorty? Stanley Fish? David Bloor? Bruno Latour? Actually, of course, none of these” (20). The real problem, she suggests, is that those who support such misleading conclusions often do so because they want to sustain values that they consider beyond scrutiny: “A denunciation of relativism amounts to a demand for dogmatism – for predetermined judgement armoured against new thought” (23).

Smith also points out that many disparaging commentaries on relativism are made by people who often happen to be relativist in the sense actual relativists define it (she illustrates this paradox by quoting from feminist theorician Donna Haraway and from … Proust !). She shows that debates similar to those who appeared at the end of the twentieth also occurred in the 1920s and in the 1930s as Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf or Pablo Picasso were often linked to the more perilous evil of those times: Bolshevism. In fact, she observes, there existed an important stream of pre-postmodern relativism, represented by people like John Dewey or Margaret Mead, during a period “marked by a confident positivism in the natural sciences and a related scientism in much academic philosophy”. Those original thoughts were mostly swept away by decades of “popular beliefs and cultural associations that made-up the Cold War; the global eruption of various radical social movements … ; and throughout the century, dramatic technological developments and widespread demographic shifts” (31). All those events fostered in the same way social conservatism and a “renewed … commitment to the idea and ideals of objectivity” (32).
Related to this historical context is Smith’s account of Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, published in 1935. Fleck’s book was overshadowed by a more popular one, Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, published the same year. Fleck was rediscovered and praised by Kuhn and later by Latour (whose Pasteurization of France, Smith argues, is in some way a reinvention of Genesis and Development). Yet it is no surprise, given the peculiar intellectual environment of the early postwar period that Fleck was ignored and that scientists, in search of legitimacy, preferred the demarcating epistemology offered by Popper. In addition, Fleck was a Polish Jew whose work in chemistry did not draw the attention of Western scientists. He was arrested during the war and sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Nonetheless, he survived the war and emigrated to Israel, where he died in 1961. His conceptions in Genesis and Development were influenced by his practice of chemistry. The book tells the development of the Wassermann reaction, a chemical process that allowed for the detection of the syphilis pathogen. Fleck shows that the Wassermann reaction occured within the development of various beliefs, techniques, theories, methods, political and professional interests (yes, it sounds a lot like SSK !). The following passage, quoted by Smith (57), shows how radical Fleck’s relativism was:

It is true that modern doctrine is supported by much more sophisticated techniques of investigation, much broader experience, and more thorough theory. The naive analogy between the organs of both sexes has disappeared and far more details are at our disposal. But the path from dissection to formulated theory [and pictorial representation] is extremely complicated, indirect and culturally conditioned … In science, just as in art and in life, only that which is true to culture is true to nature.

In addition, Smith shows that Fleck also provided the demonstration that his conceptions of science had nothing to do with the idea that all theories are equally valid because the latter is actually the opposite of the assertion that “the validity of a theory depends on its position in a network of historically specific connections” (64). Smith observes that this justification is similar to Latour’s distinction between relative and absolute relativism.

I will not try to detail the rest of the book. Smith’s wordings are too precise and subtle to withstand summarization. Trying to reconstruct her thought would result in unproductive paraphrase. Nonetheless, I can’t finish this review without saying a few words on Chapter 6, devoted to Evolutionary Psychology. In this chapter, she addresses the claims of contemporary evolutionary psychology, whose most notable advocate is Steven Pinker. She shows that contrary to what evolutionary psychologists assert, the alternative to the claim that all human behavior – “from incest avoidance and female-adolescent anorexia to past-tense formation and a taste for Victorian novels” (130) – can be explained by our genes, is not dogmatic theology or ideologically driven humanities, but a set of more sophisticated models of development, such as those theorized by Susan Oyama in her book The Ontogeny of Information, giving rise to developmental or ecological psychology. Evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker operate within a mechanical conception of the brain, in which the latter is considered as an information processing computer. This conception rejects – or ignore – major works in biology which explain human behavior in terms of  interactions between cells and their environment (involving “complex social and perceptual coordination”, as well as “internal feedback mechanisms”). The relation between those issues and what has been studied earlier in the book is that evolutionary psychologists often strengthen their claims by discrediting alternative theories as dubious – if not dangerous – postmodernism. Frequently, those claims mistake constructivism for social constructivism (or social constructionism): they identify the claims of alternative theories as the idea that everything is socially/culturally constructed, whereas these theories  simply claim that there is no clear separation between nature and nurture. These distinctions are particularly rich and subtle and one is not even obliged to share Smith’s skepticism to examine them carefully. Those interested in the relations between economics and biology might want to give special attention to these debates.

In her course on “Biological Issues in Cultural Theory” at Duke University, Barbara Herrnstein Smith teaches graduate students in philosophy, theology and natural sciences that Bruno Latour has been the most important theorist over the last twenty-five years. If only to hear that once in my life, I think I have been fortunate to sit in on her class. I hope I have conveyed the pleasures one feels reading her writings, that his, the pleasures of being scandalized.

A Creative Community ?

Vanessa Bell, The Memoir Club (1943)

Hazy concepts can produce some enjoyable reading.

Evidence of that has been furnished by the recent conference on “Creative Communities”, which has been held at Duke on saturday, november 1st. I understand that the conference itself was an emanation of the HES list, following a question asked by Evelyn Forget in April 2008. Attendees were among those who answered Evelyn’s initial question. Those were the usual suspects working on some other usual suspects: Robert Leonard on The Vienna Circle, Ross Emmett on the Chicago School, Loic Charles on Quesnay’s circles and Craufurd Goodwin on the Bloomsbury group. Bruce Larson provided the opening speech and Evelyn Forget presented a paper on the US economists doing economic policy at the Office of Economic Opportunities in the 1960s. That episode, which is not well known among economists and historians, seems very interesting to me, because it is my feeling that the history of economics as it has been done until now has on the whole ignored the importance of economic policy and more generally of the work that has been done by social workers, statisticians, propagandists, journalists and bureaucrats at the crossroads of creation and diffusion of economic knowledge.

The other contributions were similarly interesting and produced many thoughtful comments from the audience. I particularly enjoyed Ross Emmett’s article on the Chicago School of economics, and its emphasis on the worshop, the seminar organized by the Chicagoans to train their graduate students and spread the Price Theory to the rest of the academics – involving some painful paper bashing from senior Chicago professors toward their students and guest lecturers.

Yet I have to confess that, while I learned a lot from individual contributions, I did not learn as much about the whole idea of “Creative Community”, a term that does not make much sense to me. What is the difference between a “Creative Community” and a “Collaborative Circle”? As Roy Weintraub suggested during the conference, it is even doubtful that the term “creativity” is of any interest as a historical concept. It results from this that the real contribution of the conference was elsewhere. Actually, it showed that good articles are easily obtained when the emphasis is placed on social relations in the process of creation and diffusion of (scientific) knowledge rather than on individual contributions or on the text itself. Said in other terms, good contributions to the history of economics require at least some understanding of the context. Though it would be rather easy to say that we already knew that, as historians of science have done such work for decades, I will simply say that I was delighted to see how the discussion turned naturally to the questions that interest me the most. Should we use the word “schools”? How collaborations occur? How one’s personality toward his friends and collaborators affect the work that is done? Are we focused too much on the output of scientific research and not enough on the process itself?

For this reason, I don’t think that the output of the conference should be a specific issue or a mini-symposium in a HET journal. If those contributions were to be fully developed and joined by some others, I would rather see a kind of SSK Reader following from this. But my wish might be at odds with the feelings and expectations of the other participants.

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.

What does it take to create a sub-discipline?

This question pops up in my mind while reading an article in which the author, Frances Woolley, assesses the impact of Feminist economics on the economic profession after 10 years (http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a727695227~db=all~order=page).

According to the abstract: “This article provides a partial assessment through a consideration of citations of the journal Feminist Economics, describing its impact on mainstream economics, heterodox economics, and other disciplines.”

What I find interesting is the conclusion that, measured through citations of the journal in other economic journals, the impact of feminist economics has been marginal on the economic profession as a whole. On the other hand, I think that few would contest the fact that feminist economics has established itself as an emerging sub-discipline in the last 10 years. The explanation of this apparent paradox is that a few individuals deeply committed to the feminist economics research program (for example, most of them are or have been in the editing commitee of Feminist economics) were able to attract enough attention and interest to launch and sustain it. In this regard, one may say that it took very little to create a new sub-discipline.

One issue raised by the article is the fact that, since most of the works devoted to history of successful and unsuccessful economic sub-disciplines have insisted on the content rather than on the context, we know very little on the institutional process that leads a research program to emulate a new sub-discipline. It is a shame since, in the present situation of the history of economics, this kind of knowledge could be quite useful to better undestand our options and our likely institutional future if any…

Post-Scriptum: Frances Woolley’s article has prompted an interesting comment by Fred Lee in a later issue of the same journal (http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a788401976~db=all~order=page), who argued that Feminist economics was not so much a new sub-discipline but a specific research program integrated in an existing sub-discipline (heterodox economics).

The war continued

The boat had an engine so it wasn’t sailing. Jay A. Labinger and Harry Collins explain:

“Collins then at Southampton University, was organizing the so-called Southampton Peace Workshop which took place in July 1997. Sokal was unable to come but the participants included Labinger, Mermin, and Pinch as well as several other scholars representing diverse fields: physics, history of science, literary theory. For two days, one of which was spent cruising round Southampton water in a small motorboat, the eight conferees were closeted together for intense discussions” (p.x)

It was watersports for peace and it worked. Labinger and Collins’s book seemingly proclaimed an armistice in the Science Wars. But there was still Alan Sokal, the hoaxman who had missed the boat trip. Refusing the terms of the settlement Sokal has a new book replaying the mid-1990s and his hysterical defense of science. David Mermin reviews it for Nature with commendable good sense and taste, calling the book a “small step backwards.”

I cannot be so contained. My suggestion is to throw Sokal in the water.

Categories SSK

A house of mirrors

Truth

3. a. Faith, trust, confidence. (Cf. TROTH 3a.) Obs.
b. Belief; a formula of belief, a creed. (Cf. TROTH 3b.) Obs.

If the Oxford English Dictionary says so, who am I to disagree. Scientific communities arrive at “truthiness” through social negotiation. It is not consensus. Battles for credibility and some empire building decide who is silenced and who is conferred authority. We get winners and losers. We get convention and we get dissent. Communities reconfigure alongside the intellectual controversy, some will go in and some out, some distant and some close.

Do we have truth in the history of economics? We have a few programs that promise to interpret the historical record in a single sweep, such as the Graz-Rome and the Notre Dame-Nijmegen. But it seems unlikely that any of them will succeed in shaping our community. Instead we are fragmented in little specialties, experts on some authors, periods, or themes, which mostly do not communicate. Beatrice and I will share a desire for a more encompassing history of economics, less feudal. In her suggestion that we “find THE four histories of such and such event,” I read openness to have many historians piecing the mosaic of their work to compose a broader and more complex view of the past.

As I enter the house of mirrors, I am expected to apply my understanding of scientific communities to my own. So I should be calling for truth, to distinguish convention and dissent and regulate insiders and outsiders. But gazing at my disformed reflexivity, I am not sure this image I see is me. For me what makes a good history is not its explanation of how WE got here. Good history is not the history of the big white men and the “important.” I suggest that our truth lies not in THE narrative but in the ways we write them. Any “THE four histories of such and such” will exclude the n-4 histories of such and such. I feel committed to defend the historical record of that destruction. Volumes and volumes are still being written on the French revolution, not because we are still looking for THE histories, but because we indulge in changing the questions and always finding in that record something fresh.

With aimless curiosity we should reshape our community.