“All Epistemology Begins in Fear”: Daston and Galison QOTD

I am reading Daston and Galison’s (2007) Objectivity for the STS grad student workshop meeting today. It’s a fascinating book, and a gorgeous one. Much of the evidence for the argument comes from scientific images – drawings, photographs, etc. – from the 19th and 20th centuries. Daston and Galison literally show us their argument about the history of objectivity through the varied styles of visual reasoning (not their term). The argument itself is relatively straightforward given the complexities of the subject: objectivity has a history, and is a relatively recent answer to a particular epistemological worry. Daston and Galison trace the movement from “truth-to-nature,” where images attempted to represent idealized forms, to “mechanical objectivity,” where images tried to minimize the role of the scientific subject (judgment, bias, etc.) in the mid-19th century, to a more recent model of “trained judgment,” which neither eliminates the knower entirely nor does it privilege the typical in nature. Rather than rehash the argument beyond that, I simply want to present a delicious quote about the history of epistemology and objectivity:

All epistemology begins in fear – feat that the world is too labyrinthine to be threaded by reason; fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect too frail; fear that memory fades, even between adjacent steps of a mathematical demonstration; fear that authority and convention blind; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive. Objectivity is a chapter in this history of intellectual fear, of errors anxiously anticipated and precautions taken. But the fear objectivity addresses is different from and deeper than the others. The threat is not external – a complex world, a mysterious God, a devious demon. … Objectivity fears subjectivity, the core self. (372-374)

This quote gets at the heart of what Daston and Galison see as peculiar about the mid-19th century move to thinking about and discussing objectivity per se (as opposed to older epistemological debates going back to Kant, Descartes, and even Plato). The concern is no longer just that the world will elude our descriptions, but that the knowing subject is flawed and self-delusional, that the same feature that makes knowledge possible at all (the self) makes knowledge precarious.

Anyway, it’s a neat book, and has lots of insights for anyone interested in doing history of science, or conceptual history. Recommended.

Healy QOTD: An Organizational Approach to Organs

Kieran Healy’s (2006) Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs is a staggeringly good book.* Reading it, I’m reminded of the comparison between the Encyclopædia Galactica and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although that comparison here is totally inapt:

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.

First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words “DON’T PANIC” inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.

Last Best Gifts (LBG) is not wildly inaccurate, and is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of all knowledge and wisdom. But, like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, LBG is quick to read and, despite weighing in at just 132 pages (for the main text), doesn’t sacrifice in terms of depth or rigor.

Substantively, LBG examines the organization of blood and organ donation across the US and in international comparison. The book shows that organizational factors account for much of the difference in procurement rates, in contrast to (for example) evolutionary arguments for altruism, which may explain the existence of altruistic acts but not the wide variation across states or countries. In some ways, the book makes the most classic of sociological moves: it argues that a rate of individual behavior (organ donation) is not simply a consequence of individual characteristics, but of the organizational context of those actions. Healy explains this perspectival switch from existing literature clearly in the introduction and in a later chapter on cross-national variation in blood donation:

Put in its broadest terms, my argument is this: to understand this world of goods we must get away from the character and motives of individual donors and look instead to the cultural contexts and organizational mechanisms that provide people with reasons and opportunities to give. (2)

[B]lood can be seen not so much as something that individuals donate but as something that organizations collect. (71)

For details on the findings themselves, you’ll have to read the book. Fortunately, like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, LBG can be read in a single enjoyable sitting. Highly recommended for anyone looking for an excellent example of how to write an academic work of sociology that treats an important issue in a tractable way.

*I know I’m late to this particular party, but I’ll try to make up for it with effusive praise.

Footnote of the Day: Guinier on Admissions Officers and Sorting Hats

For a project on affirmative action and admissions processes, I am reading a voluminous 2003 Harverd law review article by Lani Guinier, “Admissions rituals as political acts: Guardians at the gates of our democratic ideals.” The article argues that we should treat admissions decisions as political acts because they so influentially determine life chances, and then goes on to discuss in detail the 2003 Supreme Court decisions. I’m still near the beginning of the article, and just hit the perfect footnote for this particular week.

In a section on how to think about the relationship between education and democracy, Guinier draws on a lovely metaphor:

In our society education means opportunity, higher education offers heightened opportunity, and elite higher education confers not just heightened opportunity, but also elevated status. Admissions officers may not view themselves as the “sorting hats” of our society,105 but many Americans construe the fat or thin envelopes mailed in April as serving just this purpose.

The Sorting Hat refers to an artifact in the world of Harry Potter. But, this being a Harvard Law Review article, it can’t just say ‘This is a reference to Harry Potter, in case you’ve been out of the world for the last decade.’ Rather, footnote 105 is this brilliant summary and elaboration:

105. The term “sorting hat” comes from the popular novel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It refers to a magic cap that reads minds and evaluates character in a sorting ceremony in order to assign future witches and wizards to residential houses. See J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 114-21 (1997). The selection determines their friends, classmates, and the noble history to which they begin to fasten their identities. The hat itself can “cap them all,” since “there’s nothing hidden in your head the Sorting Hat can’t see.” Id. at 117 (emphasis omitted). The sorting ceremony determines a wizard’s destiny. Here in the “Muggle” world, id. at 53, we ask standardized testing and admissions officers to play a similar role. Unfortunately for us, educational selection rituals are no magic hat.

Well-played, Professor Guinier. It’s nice to see that law professors take advantage of the complete lack of word limits in their publications to have some fun. I think I will check out that reference.*

*Also, it’s really amusing to think of some Harvard Law Review editor checking that citation for accuracy.

Keynes QOTD: Non-Euclidean Economics

I’m finally reading John Maynard Keynes’ magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. I’m enjoying it, though not the pace at which I need to finish it (e.g. large chunks by tomorrow morning). One quote I wasn’t already familiar with stood out to me and I felt the need to share. As you may know, Keynes trained as a mathematician before turning to economics. Some of his early work was on probability theory (resulting in a A Treatise on Probability). The General Theory is not especially laden with mathematics, but the title itself is a clear reference to Einstein’s general relativity and a few other hints of Keynes’ outside interests shine through. In particular, in chapter 2 on the postulates of the classical economists, Keynes asserts:

The classical theorists resemble Euclidean geometers in a non-Euclidean world who, discovering that in experience straight lines apparently parallel often meet, rebuke the lines for not keeping straight – as the only remedy for the unfortunate collisions which are occurring. Yet, in truth, there is no remedy except to throw over the axiom of parallels and to work a non-Euclidean geometry. Something similar is required to-day in economics. (16)

Two thoughts: it’s interesting that Keynes hitches his rhetorical wagon to both the triumph of early 20th century physics and the finding in 19th century mathematics that geometries were more varied than we had previously thought and we could not get rid of the pesky parallel postulate. Also, it suggests that Keynes and H.P. Lovecraft might have gotten along swimmingly.

Measurable Virtues QOTD: Stevens on the Reproduction of Privilege through Admissions

Admissions at elite colleges and universities is a rigged game. More specifically, it is a game with various ways to score points, and so parents with the resources to help their kids score those points find ways to do so. Mitchell Stevens sums this process up nicely in the introduction to his excellent, recent work on admissions at an elite (but not super elite) liberal arts school:

The goals and standards most explicitly depicted in the attributes elite colleges say they are looking for in applicants: measurable academic and athletic ability, demonstrated artistic accomplishment, and formally recognized philanthropic service.

Affluent families have a big advantage in meeting these goals and standards because they have relatively more resources to invest in doing so. Keenly aware of the terms of elite college admission, privileged parents do everything in their power to make their children into ideal applicants. They pay for academically excellent high schools. They shower their children with books and field trips and lots of adult attention. They nurture athletic talent through myriad youth sports programs. They encourage and fund early glimmers of artistic interest. They channel kids with empathic hearts toward exotic and traceable forms of humanitarian service. In the process of doing all of this, affluent families fashion an entire way of life organized around the production of measurable virtue in children. (15)

Two quick thoughts to what is otherwise a pretty self-explanatory passage. First, this passage illuminates nicely the rationale behind the various activities that Hilary Levey examines in her work on highly-competitive children’s activities. The point is not to raise children who will have careers in dance, soccer, music or chess, but rather to produce formally recognized, measurable accomplishments. Second, and related, the “measurable” bit is particularly interesting. We tend to jump to thinking about SAT and GPA when discussing measurable traits used in admission, and for good reason (especially given the emphasis on those traits in evaluations of schools by rankings agencies and internal metrics). But beyond helping their kids with these academic measures, well-resourced parents are also good at helping their children find formal recognition for less obvious talents (joining the chess club and competing in chess tournaments, submitting poetry to magazines, serving in a larger, well-respected organization rather than simply helping out at school or church, etc.). In other words, well-resourced parents are good at making their children’s talents legible to admissions’ committees.

Coase QOTD: “The Opposite of Economic Imperialism”

Coase was a very interesting and hugely influential scholar. His two most cited works, and they are really heavily cited, use the idea of transaction costs and externalities to ask, why do firms exists in the first place? And how much does the law (specifically, property rights/liability assignation) matter when it comes to determining efficient outcomes? The latter gives rise to the unfortunately named Coase theorem*, which is often misstated as saying something like “it doesn’t matter who gets assigned the property rights, the efficient outcome will always happen.” The classic example is a farmer and a shepherd on adjacent plots of land. The question is, should they build a fence? Well, if the sheep do damage to the crops greater than the cost of building a fence, it’s efficient to build the fence. What Coase argues is that, in the absence of transaction costs, the fence will get built if it is efficient, and will not get built if it is not efficient, no matter who has the liability for the damages – that is, no matter the shepherd is obligated to pay for the damages or not. The farmer and the shepherd will come to an appropriate side deal (“Coasian bargaining”). What often goes unsaid, however, is that the assignment of property rights does affect the distribution – who ends up paying the most. The paper can also be rephrased to say that since transaction costs do exist, changing the assignment of liability might produce a more or less efficient outcome.

All that is to say that Coase is both very influential and a bit different than your typical economist. In 2002, Coase gave a lecture where he argued for greater realism in economics. Coase argued that economics had not changed sufficiently since the days of Samuelson, Marshall, or even Smith. Coase asserts that economics will change, and that it ought to, and in part that it must change by expanding its scope. But rather than embracing the economic imperialism of Gary Becker, Coase argues for the opposite:

Gary Becker talks about an economic approach. In effect what they are saying is that economics is a bag of tools, a way of analyzing problems, and it no doubt is. It has resulted in what is termed “economic imperialism,” namely, taking those tools and analyzing other subjects. … All this explains, I think, why economists are so happy. They have these tools, they are useful, they go around not only improving economics but do a lot to improve other subjects.

Now it is true that there have been a lot of complaints about formalism in economics – the elegant but sterile reasoning and so on – but also talks about the lack of realism in economic discussion.

What I think is important is that economists don’t study the working of the economic system. That is to say, they don’t think they’re studying any system with all its interrelationships. It is as if a biologist studied the circulation of the blood without the body. It is a pretty gory thought, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere. You wouldn’t be able to discuss the circulation of the blood in a sensible way. And that’s what happens in economics.

Transaction costs, in my view, become the factor upon which the productivity of the economic system depends.

However, transaction costs depend, as we learned from the new institutional economics, on the working of the legal system (the system of property rights, the enforcement of property rights, the ability to foresee what the legal decisions will be, and so on). They also depend on the political system, they depend on the educational system, and they are interrelated with other social systems. And in consequence, economists should enlist the support of lawyers, sociologists, anthropologists, and others in our work in order to understand why transaction costs are what they actually are. It’s the opposite of economic imperialism. We should invite these other practitioners in these other fields into our realm to help us in understanding how the economic system actually operates.

Ok, I excerpted a few big chunks, but I like a lot of the moves Coase is making. The rest of the speech (which is quite short) is also worth your time, I think. Coase makes fun of formalism from the “left” (Keynes, Hicks) and “right” (Becker) because they all treat economics as a way of thinking rather than an empirical exercise in understanding how a system works. Though I don’t know if I’d be so quick as to lump Smith in with Marshall and Samuelson…

*Unfortunately named because it’s not really a theorem, and when people think of it as such they often misremember it. I have tested this on a small sample of law students (who learn the Coase theorem in their contracts or property class). See also Misinterpreting the Coase Theorem.

Latour QOTD: “No innovation without representation.”

I’m a big fan of Bruno Latour’s early work, from Laboratory Life to Science in Action and The Pasteurization of France, along with his co-authored essays with Callon. They’re fantastic entry points into science studies in general, and actor-network theory in particular with its sometimes confusing ontological language of actants and networks and enrolling and objects with agency and all that. Latour’s later work diverges (evolves?) a bit from this starting point and takes up much more the question of politics, and democracy. These themes are present in Pasteurization for sure, but they become much more central in the 1990s and 2000s. On first reading some of these pieces, I didn’t quite get it. Why the sudden fascination with democratic decision-making, with hybrid fora, and all that?

I just read a short, clear essay that does the best job of any of Latour’s recent work at explaining his position and why it matters, “From Multiculturalism to Multinaturalism: What Rules of Method for the New Socio-Scientific Experiments?” (2011) The essay rehashes some of Latour’s claims from earlier books, and nicely summarizes his antimodernist position. Here’s a nice, juicy quote on how to tell if you are a modernist, a postmodernist, or a non-modernist:

Those who dream of separating facts and values even farther are what I called “modernists.” For them, there exists an arrow of time, a thrust forward, that clearly distinguishes the past from the future: “Yesterday,” they say, “we were still mixing things up, ends and means, science and ideology, things and people, but tomorrow for sure we will separate facts and values even more sharply; we won’t confuse the way the world really is and the way it should be any more; others were confused by this in the ancient past, but we won’t be confused in the future.” Pass the test, make the experiment, and ask yourself, right now, if you feel that the arrow of time flows in this way for you. If so, you are a modernist. Nothing wrong with that! You are in good company. But if you hesitate, you are a “postmodernist.” And if, in the depths of your heart, you are convinced that, if yesterday things were a bit confused and entangled, and that tomorrow facts and values, humans and non-humans, will be even more entangled than yesterday, then you have stopped being modern. You have entered a different world, or, more exactly, you have stopped believing that you are in a different world from the rest of humanity. (6)

Latour goes on to draw out consequences for this attempt to “disinvent modernity”. In particular, analogizing between taxes and innovation:

“No innovation without representation.” In the same way that the benevolent monarchies of the past imagined they could tax us for our own good without us having a say in their budget because they alone were enlightened enough to understand, in the same way, the new enlightened elite have been telling us for too long that there is only one best way for the innovation they have devised, and that we should simply follow them for our own good. (15)

In other words, since we live in an ordinary world, one where humans and non-humans, facts and value are all tangled up, we can’t rely on technical, scientific or business elites to make decisions for us about what the right path forward is. Latour trumpets a version of the precautionary principle, the latest fad in decision-making under uncertainty. This principle is not simply one that urges caution or inaction in the fact of unknowns – that would be an impossible rule, since the future is always uncertain. Rather, the precautionary principle calls for “experimentation, invention, exploration, and of course risk-taking…. For all our actions we consider risk-taking and precaution-taking as synonymous: the more risk we take, the more careful we are. … Care and caution go together with risk-taking.” (12-13)

I buy it. But I do wonder how it interacts with another excellent Latour essay, “Why has critique run out of steam?” and the “new” problem in science studies: what to do about Tobacco science, climate skepticism, and the like. What do we do when the process of scientific consensus formation has worked the way it’s supposed to, but governments and major institutions remain inert. I see how the call to risk-taking, to acting under uncertainty but with care, runs directly against the “wait and see” defense of climate skeptics (for example). But I still wonder if we really have as much to struggle against in terms of the overall legitimacy of experts to make decisions for us as we used to. But, then again, Latour is very much speaking to Europe here and excludes the US explicitly. Hmm..

On Not Despising Modernity: Baudelaire and Rabinow QOTD

I am reading (parts of) Rabinow’s fascinating, French Modern, a Foucauldian history of French “middle modernism” in the 19th to early 20th century. The introduction is chock full of delicious quotes; I present a couple here without much commentary:

In his famous essay “The Painter in Modern Life,”, Charles Baudelaire presented one possible attitude toward modernity: “you have no right to despise the present.”… Not despising the present by no means implies that the present is not, in many ways, despicable, but only that, as Baudelaire advised young writers, “Orgy is no longer the sister of inspiration.” … One hundred and twenty years later, our perspective on the modern world is no doubt more tempered than Baudelaire’s; in part for that reason our spleens are less full of bile and our prose is less poetic. Still, having no right to despise the present, we continue our work of writing its history. (7)


The understanding of social reality which yielded the pathos – its rejection of metaphysical solutions and the sense that society had no outside, but only margins – also produced a sense that there was no choice but to reform it. One had no right to despise the present; one had no place from which to despise the present. (14)

I absolutely love the phrase “society had no outside, but only margins.” It nicely captures a set of problems about positions, normativity, critique, etc. What happens when you give up on the notion of a social Archimedean point, a place to stand that is far away and outside the system from which you can act on it? And so on.

Keynes QOTD: 99 Problems but Benthamite Utility Ain’t One

Earlier this week, I came across an interesting speech delivered by John Maynard Keynes to, of all people, the Eugenics Society in 1937. The speech, titled Some Economic Consequences of a Declining Population, argues that a declining population may not result in economic growth. While declining population does stem the Malthusian pressures that worried most demographers, Keynes argues that these declines may also lead to unemployment as businesses (failing to predict the decline in demand resulting from a smaller population) over-invest and thus produce a glut of goods and services, leading to a period of high unemployment and declining standards of living. Keynes summarizes his argument:

When devil P. of Population is chained up, we are free of one menace; but we are more exposed to the devil U. of Unemployed Resources than we were before. (523)

Keynes rests this argument on what we might anachronistically* call a “behavioural economics” model – the inability of business to accurately predict the reduced demand arising from a declining population. This inability connects to the larger tendency of predictions of the future to look too much like the present. Keynes abstracts from this a critique of marginal utility and rational maximizer-style models of human behavior that became dominant in the 19th century:

…in the nineteenth century… they accepted an extraordinary contraption of the Benthamite School, by which all possible consequences of alternative courses of action were supposed to have attached to them, first a number expressing their comparative advantage, and secondly another number expressing the probability of their following from the course of action in question; so that multiplying together the numbers attached to all the possible consequences of a given action and adding the results, we could discover what to do. In this way a mythical system of probable knowledge was employed to reduce the future to the same calculable status as the present. No one has ever acted on this theory. But even today I believe that our thought is sometimes influenced by some such pseudo-rationalistic notions. (518)

I wonder, much more anachronistically and provocatively, if Keynes is advancing a bit of a performativity thesis: rational actor models have never been accurate descriptions of human behavior, but they were (and are) influential in producing agents that try very hard to calculate the future in terms of the model (and just the assumption that the future will resemble the present), for better or for worse.

* Though not too anachronistically, as the contemporary behavioral economics movement is in part inspired by Keynes, e.g. the borrowing of Keynes’ phrase “Animal Spirits” for the title of Akerlof and Shiller’s book on behavioral economics.

Freeman Dyson QOTD: On Information, Science and Wikipedia

The New York Review of Books has an interesting piece by famed physicist/mathematician Freeman Dyson. Dyson reviews a new book on the history of information and information theory by James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.

Dyson reviews discusses the history of the definition of information, the theoretical mathematics injected into discussions of information in the 20th century, and the modern problem of info-glut.* Dyson jumps off from Gleick to discuss Wikipedia and how it works, and in particular, how WIkipedia is a better metaphor for science than the traditional accumulation of true facts story you get in K-12 education. I rather liked Dyson’s description of both Wikipedia and science:

Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible. Wikipedia is the ultimate open source repository of information. Everyone is free to read it and everyone is free to write it. It contains articles in 262 languages written by several million authors. The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate….

Jimmy Wales hoped when he started Wikipedia that the combination of enthusiastic volunteer writers with open source information technology would cause a revolution in human access to knowledge. The rate of growth of Wikipedia exceeded his wildest dreams. Within ten years it has become the biggest storehouse of information on the planet and the noisiest battleground of conflicting opinions. It illustrates Shannon’s law of reliable communication. Shannon’s law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.

The information flood has also brought enormous benefits to science. The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

I think the next time I teach a class, I will point my students to this essay when explaining to them that, of course they should look at Wikipedia, but that they aren’t allowed to rely on it as an authoritative source. They should follow its links, and look to see who said what, why they said it, and what evidence they used to make their claims. Because that’s what science is, and that’s how science works – we collect mysteries**, and argue forever and ever about what they mean and where they come from. I’d be curious to know what y’all think about Dyson, and what differences you see between Dyson’s gloss of what science is and how it works from the vision presented in Popper, Kuhn, or Latour?

I highly recommend the whole essay, and I look forward to checking out the book.

* And I would be remiss not to mention that Dyson cites Borges’ “The Library of Babel”, though I’m not sure I quite agree with his reading. The Library of Babel shows that information is not simply in the possession of statements, texts (facts), but rather in the structure that maps between them (and is missing in that ill-fated library). The Library of Babel is a misnomer – a collection of every possible book is not a library, but rather an unordered chaos in the guise of shelves and books. It is the opposite of a library. This is a universe with too little information, not too much!

** In Representing and Intervening, Ian Hacking argues, persuasively I think, that the natural sciences are defined more by their ability to create new phenomena than by their access to ‘truth’. New phenomena, once created, never go away, even though our interpretations of them may radically change as we fit them into new theories, new paradigms, etc. What Dyson calls mysteries we might just as well call phenomena, I think. But mysteries is a bit more poetic!