Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lovecraft, Science, and Epistemic Subcultures

For my first post, I want to build on discussions about literature and science that Hank, Joanna, and Dan had earlier, here and here. H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) wrote a series of stories for magazines such as Weird Tales during the 1920s and early 1930s, before science fiction, horror, and fantasy split into distinct genres.  He set his stories in old, decaying East Coast towns, not unlike his home, Providence, RI, and nearby small hamlets that he knew well. He filled his tales with plot devices—like archaic, mysterious texts and secret societies—that remain stock-in-trade for genre writers today. His monsters are enormous and sublime; they leave his characters whimpering with shattered minds. Yet, for all of his silliness and shortcomings, like Dickens, Kafka, and Poe, Lovecraft created an ambiance and tone that is distinctively his own. 

People have long known and written about Lovecraft’s fascination with science.  Beginning in 1914, he began writing astronomical columns for a local Providence newspaper. His understanding of the universe as a vast expanse indifferent to human desires informs his tales in which characters cower before giant and ancient beasts, realizing in these moments their ultimate insignificance in the great scope of things. That is, contemporary science strongly shaped what Lovecraft’s critics refer to as his “cosmic horror.”

Rather than draw attention to Lovecraft’s broad interests in science, I want to focus on one
aspect, namely his participation in amateur journalism and epistolary circles.[1] The hobby of amateur journalism took off in the late 19th century with the introduction of small, cheap printing presses. Lovecraft eventually became president of the United Amateur Press Association (which was founded in 1890s). He used his own publication, The Conservative, as a soap box for his favorite causes, like decrying the League of Nations and, most infamously, supporting Aryan racial theories.  Lovecraft also took part in a few round robin letter-writing groups. Group members would send a packet of letters and writings from one to the other in a set order. When the packet came back to the first person, he would remove the piece that he put in it last time and replace it with something new. In this way, the group would constantly circulate new ideas and writings. Lovecraft likely circulated his racial theories through this route as well.

Lovecraft was born into a wealthy family in decline. He died in poverty. This economic descent combined with his beliefs about race and other intuitions about society led him to see degeneration everywhere, and these notions found their ways into his stories. For instance, in his story “The Horror of Red Hook,” Lovecraft wrote about a once patrician family that retreated from the world. After generations of inbreeding, they became “dwarfed, deformed hairy devils or apes - monstrous and diabolic caricatures of the monkey tribe.”

I’m not breaking any new ground here. All of this is well known. What interests me is how Lovecraft and others traded these ideas in periodicals of amateur journalism and these round robin epistolary groups.  They were doing more than just circulating pre-existing knowledge vouched for by professional scientists. They were putting forward their own speculations and developing and extending on the ideas of others.

Historians know that early scientists were—and, indeed, prided themselves on being—amateurs. I am more interested in lay circles, like Lovecraft’s, that persist(ed) well after the professionalization of science and technology. Some scholars have already touched on this theme. The historian of technology, Susan Douglas, has noted the importance of amateurs in shaping the initial stages of technical change in objects such as radios. We can also think of Sophia Roosth’s work on garage science. Yet, much remains to be said about the perseverance of amateurism.

Recently, I have been a great deal about two communities that have put forward idiosyncratic ideas about the world. Less Wrong claims to be “a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality.”  Eliezer Yudkowsky, a proponent of the singularity, began the blog in 2009 and used it as a space to broadcast his views on, well, just about everything but primarily artificial intelligence, epistemology, and ethics. Yudkowsky and the Less Wrong community often base their speculations on ‘rationality’ on research in cognitive science, behavioral economics, and related disciplines. I’ve also been interested for some time in chemtrail conspiracy theorists, a community that is more decentralized. Chemtrailers believe that contrails, or lines of condensed water left in an aircraft’s wake, are in fact, um, chemtrails, chemicals sprayed into the atmosphere by the government or some other malignant group. Chemtrail theorists have carried out their own experiments to verify their intuitions. And they have become the scourge of those proposing research on geoengineering (like these people haunting a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science [beginning @ 1:50]).

Thinking about these communities reminded me of Lovecraft’s earlier interactions. In some ways, amateur journalism and epistolary circles of Lovecraft’s day were not unlike the blogs and webpages that Less Wrong and the chemtrailers use. (Yes, I know the dangers of cross-temporal and cross-technological comparisons.) Still, I think there is much to explore about how such groups produce and distribute their knowledge against the background of an epistemic status quo. If scientists have their journals—as Alex Csiszar has been exploring—the laity have their amateur journalism and their blogs. And such spaces give historians of science and technology and STS scholars a chance to examine and probe the practices of epistemic subcultures.

[1] Hippocampus Press has published five volumes of Lovecraft’s Collected Essays, including one dedicated to his work in amateur journalism and one on his science writings.


  1. Hey Lee – I'm wondering about "epistemic subcultures" and the "epistemic status quo." I see the comparison (in the first case especially) to Knorr-Cetina, but what I want to hear your thoughts on in particular is the boundary between the epistemic and the epistemological.

    That is, does it matter at all whether the participants you're interested in have their own theories about the social or technical aspects and possibilities of knowledge and its formation? Do they have epistemologies, either explicit or implicit, that distinguish them? Or is this something simpler, about the structures of knowledge and its production that prevail (and the groups that get left out because they don't fit the categories such structures impose)?

  2. Hank, I dig the point of your comment.

    I'm a bit of a philosophical (methodological) conservative, like Lukas, and I want to hold terms like "ontology" and "epistemology" fairly steady and let them refer to what they've always referred to. So, for me, an epistemology is a theory of knowledge. I do *not* want to say that any people in these communities have epistemologies, unless, of course, they do.

    By referring them to them as "epistemic subcultures," I wanted to say that these groups make knowledge claims about the world that would not be accepted by a lot of people in mainstream science. That might be a "duh" statement.

    I think Less Wrong and chemtrailers are interesting case studies because there is a lot of distance between them.

    The Less Wrong crowd draws on a lot of mainstream cognitive science, behavioral econ, and such. I once witnessed two members argue about two different (but thoroughly "mainstream") epidemiological and statistical theories of inference and which was more rational. But I also think that the crowd draws many normative lessons from scientific research that would make, for instance, a neuroscientists skin crawl. At the same time, there's a lot of gray zone here: the program Radiolab ( sometimes seems to offer advice about life. And there are plenty of books like Tancredi's _Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality_.

    The chemtrailers more clearly fall into the field of questionable knowledge claims (from the point of academic science). And I think the Less Wrong crowd would generally want to have nothing to do with chemtrails. I originally became interested in chemtrailers as a group because I was hanging out with one and she said, "Did you feel that rain yesterday? It felt so unnatural." She clearly believed that the "feel" of rain stood as some form of evidence. The community also often take pictures of chemtrails and gives testimony to how long the particular photographed thing in the sky was there. (The long duration of chemtrails supposedly speaks to how they are not contrails.) Finally, you can see a person discussing contrails in the context of gaia and prophesying for space aliens here:

    In other words, I think you see a lot of variance in the chemtrail community about how one goes about making claims. And I really doubt that there is any consensus in the group about the right methods. There's even disagreement about the purpose of the chemtrails:

    One interesting point is that what holds these communities together is an object of ostensible knowledge. How does the "interest" (in a that's interesting sense) of a group become an *interest* (in the political sense)? And how does this relate to knowledge?

    At the same time, I don't want to pretend that members of these groups don't have epistemologies. Some members of Less Wrong clearly do, and perhaps the groups focus on "rationality" just amounts to (a morally inflected) epistemology. As I've thought about doing interviews with these two communities, I've been fascinated mostly by questions that get at these issues about justifiable knowledge claims.

  3. Lee writes:
    "But I also think that the crowd draws many normative lessons from scientific research that would make, for instance, a neuroscientists skin crawl."

    I'd like to hear this point elaborated. In particular, while I see a distinct normative culture surrounding LessWrong, I think the question of whether a neuroscientist would find the conclusions off-putting is likely to depend on which individual neuroscientist you talk to. I'm open to persuasion, but the claim you make here is not obvious without the inclusion of specific examples.
    While I'm pretty sure that most scientists don't see themselves as being in the business of making normative claims, but that doesn't stop us from making normative leaps based on our science... often in some non-standard directions.

    What strikes me about the LessWrong phenomenon is not its normativity but the boundary that LessWrong -- or more clearly the Singularity Institute -- puts between itself and mainstream academia. Despite a clearly high opinion of his own intellect and research, Yudkowsky takes care to make sure that no one mistakes him for a mainstream scholar:
    "Though I have friends aplenty in academia, I don’t operate within the academic system myself. (For some reason, I write extremely slowly in formal mode.) I am not a Ph.D. and should not be addressed as 'Dr. Yudkowsky'."

  4. My statement about making neuroscientists skin crawl was overstated and meant to be funny. The gist of the sentiment, however, comes from hanging out with several neuroscientists in Pittsburgh. I once asked about the moral import of their research when I was hanging out with two of them. The first one said that the moral import was "almost exactly zero." The second one agreed.

    I'm not saying that the community called "neuroscience" is monolithic. There's probably a lot of variation. My instinct is that if we did an expert elicitation with neuroscientists their views would be pretty far away from that of LessWrong. But I could be wrong.

    I've never known what to make of Yudkowsky's boundary work between what he does and what academics do. What do you think it amounts to?

  5. Well, I don't have anything erudite to add. I just want to say how glad I am to see you writing about Lovecraft in this context! His correspondence circles have interested me for awhile--boy do I wish someone would publish on this. You should get on that, Lee! Great stuff.

  6. ...meant to be funny.

    There I go taking things too seriously again... ah well.

    I've never known what to make of Yudkowsky's boundary work between what he does and what academics do. What do you think it amounts to?

    Perhaps it's inevitable for any person who fancies hirself an intellectual and somehow (miraculously?) manages to make a living on it outside of the academy? To try to paint oneself as definitely separate but perhaps equal? The short answer is that I don't make anything specific of it yet, but it does seem to be worth noting.

    Perhaps relatedly, do you agree that LessWrong is largely a cult of personality? Yudkowsky is such a central force in the phenomenon. In that sense it seems quite different from Lovecraft's group (as you describe it) or from the chemtrailers.