The new science wars

I happen to be reading the book Wittgenstein’s Poker, which was an infamous but brief exchange between two philosophical heavy weights, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. I’ve meant to read it for years, and now that I found it for under $5 it seemed timely to learn a bit more about the old kind of science wars where battles were over things like whether and how language and social practices affect the objects of scientific inquiry.

Ah, those were the days.

Today it is more likely that the battle lines are drawn as a war about whether or not to do science at all. Dan Farber has just such a piece over on his blog, which details how an assessment of “peer review” for NSF projects seems more of a thinly veiled political exercise.

Dan’s piece sounds similar to the stories coming out of Canada: the general hostility between politics and science and the on-going barb’s being thrown at the Prime Minister for accidentally coining a phrase when he warned we should not “commit sociology.”

What’s odd about this?

The first thing is that the back and forth, “he said she said” about science and politics (such as in this interview probing the war of words between James Hansen (climate scientist) and Joe Oliver (Canadian Minister of Natural Resources) over the KXL Pipeline) misses the deeper issues in the fit of science to democratic institutions. That the two are commensurable (at least the current types of science and democracy) seems far from guaranteed. That would seem a more interesting debate to have.

The second is that there is a widely acknowledged strategic shift in what sort of projects fall under new funding priorities. It seems odd to harp on this point, especially since many of the disciplines themselves grew up in exactly this way – geography, for instance, was hand-maiden to the military for a long time. Sociology to statecraft, and so on. At any rate, it seems odd to distance the two in an arbitrary way now.

Brian Cook has the concept note up for a panel he’s organized at the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) in San Diego this fall on the material politics of water. I’m looking forward to it!

Writing update

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks holed up writing. Partly, this was to prepare for a great workshop on water held this last weekend here at Harvard. Historians, anthropologists, designers, geographers all working out ideas through papers we had circulated. It was great, and provided some very good feedback on my work. Toby Jones gave an exceptionally thoughtful response to a paper I presented and which I will be submitting for publication soon.

On Saturday evening James Wescoat gave a very compelling lecture on issues of sanitation and design, particularly the ways that certain ideas have traveled between the US and India. If you’ve not come across Dr. Wescoat’s work, here is a short interview with him:

At present, I’m working through the first part of the book I’ve tentatively titled Water and no Other. The project has taken some unexpected turns, particularly into the history of geology, which turns out to be a formative dimension of modern water policies in North America. The best part of this turn is getting a chance to examine Rudwick’s great work in Bursting the Limits of Time. At any rate, I think I will have the first 1/3 of the book in a complete draft by the end of May. The next two parts should come a bit more quickly as I’ve already done the research for them. Inevitably, I expect some rabbit-trails, detours and (of course!) summer to weigh in on the progress.

Likely by the end of May, I will also have followed through on my aim of making some sub-pages for the book that provide some background on where the project is headed and the shape it is taking.

Responses to #water threats from #mining and logging in Chile

The Guardian recently reported the conflicts over water in Chile between mining and logging companies and, well, most everybody else.

A large carnival was held in response. About 6000 people attended the march (one report says 10 0000) to deliver their message of frustration with the on-going water problems in Chile.

There a number of other articles on this issue, which cover the relationship between mining and water from a few different angles, see here, here or here.

Arctic Sea Ice Minimum Volumes, 1979-2012

A short, powerful video on the loss of Arctic Sea Ice via The Anthropocene Journal:

Earth Day perspectives

Some interesting links and information about water – which looks abundant on the surface of things (like earth) but isn’t as huge a portion of the earth as we think. I often wonder if this is because of the way that we imagine the oceans themselves – as though it is oceans-all-the-way-down. I think the idea of “the depths of the ocean” or “the deep” in general might play into that way of imagining them as vast, mysterious and fortified from the negative effects of human activity.

Recent GMO research and the (ongoing) controversy

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been controversial for some time. In a recent set of articles, Keith Kloor has been arguing that the concerns over GMOs in food production are overblown (see here and here). In particular, Kloor and others argue that some of the initial reports of massive suicides among farmers in India are incorrect; these are claimed by Vandana Shiva and others to be connected to the changes in livelihoods that ensue when GMOs are introduced and big corporations start running the supply chain.

I don’t aim to settle the debate, which is often positioned (like most debates) by opponents that disagree about how to frame the issue to begin with.  I had initially planned to do my graduate work on GMOs since, for several years, I worked in custom agriculture and have probably sprayed more chemicals (by several orders of magnitude) than most people.

Anyhow, I’d like to point out two new publications on the topic. One, a book, the other an article.

(1) The book is by Emily Eaton and is titled: Growing resistance: Canadian farmers and the politics of genetically modified wheat. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

“In 2004 Canadian farmers led an international coalition to a major victory for the anti-GM movement by defeating the b836bbe16d65d27b2e1f575a1352e73ca7f6bdf0introduction of Monsanto’s genetically modified wheat. Canadian farmers’ strong opposition to GM wheat marked a stark contrast to previous producer acceptance of other genetically modified crops. By 2005, for example, GM canola accounted for 78% of all canola grown nationally. So why did farmers stand up for wheat?

In Growing Resistance, Emily Eaton reveals the motivating factors behind farmer opposition to GM wheat. She illustrates wheat’s cultural, historical, and political significance on the Canadian prairies as well as its role in crop rotation, seed saving practices, and the economic livelihoods of prairie farmers.

Through interviews with producers, industry organizations, and biochemical companies, Eaton demonstrates how the inclusion of producer interests was integral to the coalition’s success in voicing concerns about environmental implications, international market opposition to GMOs, and the lack of transparency and democracy in Canadian biotech policy and regulation.

Growing Resistance is a fascinating study of successful coalition building, of the need to balance local and global concerns in activist movements, and of the powerful forces vying for control of food production.”

(2) UPDATE JUNE 12: The piece below seems to not be by scientists at all. So take it with as much salt as required.

The second piece is an article in the journal Entropy, it is on the active ingredient (glyphosate) in Round-Up Ready crops – such as the version of wheat rejected by Canadian farmers. If you click the link above you can get a free copy of the article. It is open access. Here is the abstract:

Abstract: Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®, is the most popular herbicide used worldwide. The industry asserts it is minimally toxic to humans, but here we argue otherwise. Residues are found in the main foods of the Western diet, comprised primarily of sugar, corn, soy and wheat. Glyphosate’s inhibition of cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes is an overlooked component of its toxicity to mammals. CYP enzymes play crucial roles in biology, one of which is to detoxify xenobiotics. Thus, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins. Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body. Here, we show how interference with CYP enzymes acts synergistically with disruption of the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids by gut bacteria, as well as impairment in serum sulfate transport. Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. We explain the documented effects of glyphosate and its ability to induce disease, and we show that glyphosate is the “textbook example” of exogenous semiotic entropy: the disruption of homeostasis by environmental toxins.

Further remarks on the #Anthropocene; archaeologists want in!

A few days ago I summarized three different approaches to the Anthropocene. And over at the Topograph, a new post has offered some further reflections on the topic. These are worth a read.

Also, a new essay came out in Science on how archaeologists want in on the discussion. Here is a summary:

Archaeologists Say the ‘Anthropocene’ Is Here—But It Began Long Ago

A vocal group of geologists and other scientists are pushing to define a new geological epoch, marked by climatic and environmental change caused by humans. At the Society for American Archaeology meetings in Honolulu, archaeologists argued that it’s high time for their field, which studies humans and their activities over geological time, to have a greater voice in the debate. The archaeologists agreed that human impacts on the Earth are dramatic enough to merit a new epoch name—but they also argued that such an epoch should start thousands of years ago, rather than focusing on a relatively sudden planet-wide change.

Green Fire: documentary on Aldo Leopold

The documentary Green Fire has won a number of awards for its account of Aldo Leopold’s life and work. And it is going to be showing on some public television stations, the details of which are in the above link.

Here is a a bit about the project, also from the website:

“The Green Fire Story

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

The impact of his own gunshot from a rimrock in Arizona changed Aldo Leopold’s own thinking, leading to the key insight that was the culmination of his life’s work: a responsibility for its health. Join us as we trace Leopold’s personal journey and follow the threads that connect to his legacy today.

The Green Fire Film Project

Green Fire was produced in partnership between the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the Center for Humans and Nature, and the US Forest Service. The film provocatively examines Leopold’s thinking, renewing his idea of a land ethic for a population facing 21st century ecological challenges. Leopold’s biographer, conservation biologist Dr. Curt Meine, serves as the film’s on-screen guide.

Green Fire describes the formation of Leopold’s idea, exploring how it changed one man and later permeated through all arenas of conservation. The film draws on Leopold’s life and experiences to provide context and validity, then explores the deep impact of his thinking on conservation projects around the world today. Through these examples, the film challenges viewers to contemplate their own relationship with the land community.

The high-definition film will utilize photographs, correspondence, manuscripts and other archival documents from the voluminous Aldo Leopold Archives as well as historical film and contemporary full-color footage on location, including landscapes that influenced Leopold and that he in turn influenced.

The film also features commentary and insight from some of today’s most recognized and credible scholars and conservation leaders, including: three of Aldo Leopold’s children—Nina, Carl, and Estella, Leopold scholars, noted environmental writers, scientists, humanities experts, public policy leaders, business leaders,; and leaders of non-profit groups inspired by Leopold.”

Salmon confidential: what is happening on the west coast?

Declining and unpredictable salmon stocks have been a big issue on the west coast of North America, and it recently came to light that the Canadian government withheld key documents that they had possession of.

Here is an interesting documentary on the topic. It is available here if the video does not embed properly below.


<p><a href=”″>Salmon Confidential</a> from <a href=”″>Twyla Roscovich</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>