Monday, September 26, 2011

Science & Religion in America

Last weekend, I co-organized Princeton's American Studies Graduate Conference. Our topic was "Science and Religion in America," and we had twelve papers, four panels, two keynote addresses, and one great Cheselden print:


Our chronology ranged over three centuries, and participants' disciplinary identities spanned history, religion, anthropology, political science, and integrated science studies programs at a variety of American institutions.

As you might be able to guess, given this range of interests and the broad nature of the theme itself, there was lots in the air over our day and half together – too much for one blog post (even if that blog post's written by me).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cinematic Cultural Cartography: Scientists in Hollywood

Kubrick and Clarke working on 2001


This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey in the company of a bevy of historians of Cold War science. One of them, a specialist, as he puts it, in "the human experience in the milieu of space," pointed out the way in which Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke – the author of the book that formed the basis for the movie – worked closely with engineers at NASA to shape such visions. It seems fair to say that 2001 played an important role in stoking support for the Apollo Program that led astronaut Neil Armstrong to take his momentous “small step” on July 20, 1969.


Why I am telling you this? There could be a thousand reasons. But the one I want to highlight in this short post is about scientists as technical advisers to filmmakers. I’m particularly interested in the role that claims to technical accuracy (not to be confused with T/truth) play in mediating science and fiction.


In my research on the history of cryobiology I have been startled at how often scientists, as early as the 1930s (if not before), were asked to go on set to ensure the ‘accuracy’ of scenes involving attempts at human preservation. For example, in the late 1930s scientist Ralph Willard was credited as a consultant to the film “The Man With Nine Lives,” a medical thriller starring Boris Karloff as a mad-scientist who attempts to freeze humans alive. Willard, who is now viewed as a purveyor of pseudo-science, conducted early experiments with cold-induced hibernation. In the late 1950s, James Lovelock (yes, that James Lovelock) earned a day’s pay by serving as an on-set consultant for the play The Critical Point, which “revived” the effort to depict humans in a state of cryopreservation. Before he came up with his cybernetic Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock made important breakthroughs in the ability to keep blood and sperm functional after exposure to low temperatures. The ability to defrost and revive whole bodies remains controversial and elusive, but is an example that makes it worth asking: What’s at stake for scientists when they participate in the production of fiction? The boundary work of scientists behind the scenes of pop culture is still largely uncharted territory for students of the cultural cartography of science.


I’ll conclude with an example from the present. In the weeks following the release of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a number of the scientists and public health officials who served as technical advisers for the film have used their involvement as a platform for raising awareness about biosecurity and epidemic preparedness. Assuring accuracy in the film both legitimates them as experts and legitimates the film as an extension of that expertise. Time will tell if anyone is taking them seriously and how.


There are many, many more examples. What scientists/films come to mind? What sort of scholarship -- work on nature films, scientists as consultants in other fields, etc -- could one draw on to go deeper into these questions?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cases: History, Philosophy, Science

I've touched on the relationship between history, philosophy, and science too many times to hyperlink (key posts: here, here, and (hesitatingly) here). It's both an important topic for the discipline and the subject of my own research, and today I'll try to bring those two things together.

My dissertation is about the scientific method. Specifically, it's about meta-scientific arguments between psychologists, philosophers, and scientists in the United States around 1900. I show why these folks felt so much was at stake in debates about methods in the sciences—and why they were right.

Part of what's interesting is that the vocational categories I just listed–psychologists, philosophers, and scientists–were only then coming into their modern forms. The result is a boon and a bother: contexts and terms blinked in and out of existence as these debates about science unfolded.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Economic vs. Scientific Value: The Case of National Parks


Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona.

There is an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the expansion of Petrified Forest National Park in north-eastern Arizona.  The park, which began its life as a National Monument under Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, has now been enriched with over 25,000 acres of land formerly belonging to a private ranch.

Negotiations between the Dpt. of the Interior and the owner of this land had been stalled for over a decade.  The reason is that the two parties could not agree to a price.  The ranch's owner, Marvin Hatch, demanded $500 per acre, which would have amounted to over $13 million in total.  When the government refused, Hatch turned the land -- which is especially prized for the abundant dinosaur fossil it contains -- into a private theme park.  Calling it International Petrified Forest, Hatch built a giant concrete dinosaur along I-40 to attract visitors and charge them an entrance fee.  

International Petrified Forest, photo by Dean Jeffrey
Hatch has since passed away, and his sons agreed to sell the ranch-land at the reduced price of $300 per acre. In part, they appear to have been motivated by the fact that International Petrified Forest never really took off as a tourist destination.  The Times goes on to describe the immense scientific value of the new acquisition, citing, among other things, the discovery of Gertie, a diminutive ancestor of the Cretaceous monster Tyrannosaurus rex.

The Times also quotes unnamed scientists as stating that the "value of the land in terms of research ... is impossible to measure."  This is an interesting thing to say in an article that is primarily about how the United States Government did exactly that: negotiate a fair price for the land.

Historians of American conservation policy will recognize a further, deep irony in this story.  The legislation that first made it possible for the US Executive to set certain areas aside for conservation as a National Monument was explicitly enacted to remove these sites from the free market.  Originally passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act was drafted by scientists in an effort to ban commercial collectors (or "pot hunters" as they tended to be called) from the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings in Colorado.

The Antiquities Act was designed only to protect sites of archeological and historical interest from capitalism.  But it's language was extremely vague, stating the President could declare any "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments."  Moreover, the act made it illegal for anyone to "appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States."

A few years later, in 1909, vagueness of the Act's language -- which could be construed to include natural historical treasures in addition to archeological ones -- prompted a land agent in Utah to deny a mineral claim by Earl Douglass on behalf of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Douglass filed the claim in an attempt to secure ownership of a particularly rich dinosaur quarry, hoping to keep it from falling into the hands of private collectors or rival museums.

Earl Douglass at Dinosaur National Monument

When the Carnegie Museum's director, William J. Holland, learned that Douglass' mineral claim had been denied, he was furious.  Holland had a personal hand in drafting the law, and never dreamed that it could be invoked to do anything but protect the interests of museums such as his own.  He immediately got in touch with the Secretary of the Interior, and an awkward compromise was worked out in which Woodrow Wilson declared Douglass' dinosaur quarry to be a National Monument.  This was not entirely satisfactory, because it meant the Carnegie Museum might have to allow rival museums like the Smithsonian to dig for dinosaurs there.  But at least it would keep commercial fossil dealers off of the site.

What is the upshot of all this?

I think the history of the Antiquities Act points to the fact that sites of historic and scientific interest cannot really be removed from the market.  Scientists and governments are economic players too! Legislation such as the Antiquities Act has often been used as a mechanism by which certain players assert their dominance over others in the course of an economic negotiation.  William J. Holland was not offended by the notion that a monetary value might be placed on Douglass' dinosaur quarry.  What bothered him was the thought that his museum might not be able to maintain control over the site.

So what do we mean when we declare a site to be immeasurable scientific or historical value?  The usual way to interpret such language is that we think there is something profane about putting a cash value on historic landmarks or scientific discoveries.  The point that I want to make is that this idea -- the idea that objects of scientific significance cannot be assigned a cash value -- has a particular history. Moreover, we should recognize that it serves the interests of scientists who understandably want to exercise control over those objects.

To forestall any misunderstandings, let me clarify one thing: I am not in favor of having National Parks or Monuments given over to private ownership.  Far from it!  I do think they represent a common heritage, and thus ought to be treated as a public good to be kept in the public domain.  So I am the first to support the creation of public parks, national monuments, and so on.  But just because they ought to belong to everyone does not mean they are not worth something.  I think they are worth a great deal, and ought to belong to us all!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Statistical Infrastructure

It has little to do with America directly, but I am fascinated by the New York Times' coverage of India's new nation-wise statistical and biometric registry: "Aadhaar"---which translates, in an Asimovian twist, to "foundation."

The project aims to assign a 12-digit ID to every Indian---that's 1.2 billion IDs---and link those IDs to names, fingerprints, and iris-scans. As Lydia Polgreen, the Times reporter, notes: "It is a project of epic proportions." It also promises to make the Indian government into the world's most important aggregator of biometric data, surpassing the US-Visit program by an order of magnitude.

Nandan M. Nilekani, the former chairman of Infosys and Aadhaar's head, explained the necessity of the system in terms that made it sound like a natural governmental activity: "What we are creating is as important as a road." It is, in other words, a kind of infrastructure: statistical infrastructure. That's a phrase I use quite a bit in my own work as I trace the ways that different systems for gathering data about individuals developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries around the life insurance industry. In that story, private and public actors worked in parallel and sometimes together to improve the nation's system of vital statistical registration, to discipline doctors and nurses, and to build special biometric (of sorts) databases that could help assess each individual's risk. Yet the United States' own giant leap in gathering data (Social Security) created a national identity database only as an after-thought and had no thought of including biometric data.

That's the most intriguing thing about Aadhaar, as viewed through Polgreen's reporting. Identity sits at the center of the project. Polgreen begins with Ankaji Bhai Gangar volunteering to be IDed with hopes of getting "the first official proof that he exists." She ends with Mohammed Jalil pointing to the biometric station and saying "This will give me an identity....It will show that I am a human being, that I am alive, that I live on this planet. It will prove I am an Indian."

I'm wary of Polgreen's enthusiasm. She brushes aside concerns of "privacy watchdogs" effortlessly. She thrills at the possibililies of overcoming corruption on the local level and getting around the "crippling bureaucracy that is a legacy of [India's] socialist past." Aadhaar, we learn, will increase worker mobility and allow for greater agricultural modernization---these are both, we are made to understand, necessarily good things.

I'm all in favor of reducing corruption, improving the distribution of poor relief and welfare benefits. I think the poor ought to have access to savings, credit, cell phones, and teachers who show up to work. Who doesn't? But will a centralized, national system of identification really do that? Does bypassing local government---rather than, say, fixing it---solve that problem? I can't pretend to know, but I think there's reason to be skeptical with any theory of improving governance that tries to bypass local institutions. I do hope my fears prove entirely unfounded.