Sheila Jasanoff – Science and its publics: Dependence, disenchantment and deliverance

Melissa Leach: science-governance challenges in the Anthropocene

Isabelle Stengers – Cosmopolitics: learning to think with science

Is water H2O? My review now available at Water History

I mentioned earlier this summer the book Is water H2O? My review of the book is now available at Water History.

The book is excellent and I recommend it. The main drawback is the price – so request that your library purchase it and then get it that way. The strengths of the book are numerous as it offers a close reading of the works of Priestly and Lavoisier, to name just two of the late 17th and early 18th century scientists it considers. In addition, the book does quite a bit of philosophical work. My review tries to give a better overview of both the history and philosophy that the book covers – I’m not sure if it is open access or not.

Fiction(s), Anthropo-scene(s) and Maragaret Atwood



Is there a boundary between non-fiction and reality? Probably. Whatever it is though, or in what it would be accomplished, I couldn’t say. And yet, this is how I feel about Margaret Atwood’s trilogy, which culminates in the recently released Madaddam, which I will be picking up shortly.

On the one hand, the trilogy is labeled “post-apocalyptic’. On the other, that label masks some important themes that Atwood explores. She gave a great interview on CBC’s Q yesterday, that you can listen to here. She’s quite funny. And her remarks seem apt for understanding the anthropocene precisely because nothing in this trilogy is outlandish – it is all within the horizon of what is currently possible. It doesn’t require new conceptions; so it has a way of blurring non-fictional possibilities with things that are not all realities. Of course, the narrative is entirely fictional; they are novels.

Towards the end of the interview, Jian Ghomeshi, the host of Q, asks about the state of science in Canada – a real can of worms if you saw the recent New York Times piece, or George Monbiot’s essay yesterday, which I think comes out in the Guardian today. Both argue that the current practices of muzzling scientists in Canada is designed to guarantee ignorance. A quick google search should net quite a few more articles on this if you are interested, as well as a recent protest held by Canadian scientists.

Anyways, Atwood makes the argument that, because Canadian science is funded by tax payers, those tax payers should have better access to scientific findings. A good point, but one that is easily undone by diverting tax payer dollars away from research, which is exactly what the Canadian government is now doing by aligning research to serve the economy. So here is another place, in my view, where a boundary arises between non-fiction and reality: economic practices are certainly not fictional, but the overall conception of “the economy” is not connected to reality.  And even though Environment Canada now predicts a 2 degree (Celsius) rise in temperatures by 2050(!) there are no meaningful policies in place that would bring Canadian economic practices into line with the reality of a changing climate.


Between science and, well, everything else

Steven Pinker’s recent article on scientism in the New Republic is getting a lot of attention. It is not an easily summarized essay, but I will do so anyways. It is a suggestion that the sciences have a great deal to contribute to the humanities even if neither are reducible to the other.

A recent video by another New Republic writer/editor, Leon Wiseltier, suggests something of a response that is examined in more detail here. It confronts some of Pinker’s ideas on Big Data and the quantification of life (i.e. the measurement of ‘happiness’ by economists) and social relations more broadly.

Is water H2O?

One of the most basic assumptions about water is that it is H2O. The assumption finds its way into all sorts of debates. Critiques of our supposedly scientific culture often bemoan management practices that treat water as only H2O and which fail to incorporate other ways of knowing water (i.e. non-scientific ones). Philosophers have used H2O in debates about essentialism – over whether water is essentially constituted in a certain way and, if so, what that might tell us about “essences” more generally.

It’s all premised on a simple idea, but one that has a really fascinating history and philosophy of its own. cda_displayimage

And so, if you haven’t yet come across Hasok Chang’s Is Water H2O: evidence, realism and pluralism, may I recommend that you do. It is too pricey to recommend purchasing, but if you can snag a library copy you will be treated to an in-depth analysis of the ways that theory and practice evolved in the 19th century.

Here is the editor’s description:

“This book exhibits deep philosophical quandaries and intricacies of the historical development of science lying behind a simple and fundamental item of common sense in modern science, namely the composition of water as H2O. Three main phases of development are critically re-examined, covering the historical period from the 1760s to the 1860s: the Chemical Revolution (through which water first became recognized as a compound, not an element), early electrochemistry (by which water’s compound nature was confirmed), and early atomic chemistry (in which water started out as HO and became H2O). In each case, the author concludes that the empirical evidence available at the time was not decisive in settling the central debates, and therefore the consensus that was reached was unjustified, or at least premature. This leads to a significant re-examination of the realism question in the philosophy of science, and a unique new advocacy for pluralism in science. Each chapter contains three layers, allowing readers to follow various parts of the book at their chosen level of depth and detail. The second major study in “complementary science”, this book offers a rare combination of philosophy, history and science in a bid to improve scientific knowledge through history and philosophy of science.”

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.

Muzzling scientists in Canada: an interview with Gordon McBean

Yesterday on CBC Radio Michael Enright interviewed Gordon McBean about federal policies regarding how Canada’s scientists disseminate research findings. The interview can be listened to here (18 minutes).

Gordon McBean is a professor of Geography and Political Science at Western University, policy chair at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a former Assistant Deputy Minister at Environment Canada and, though this certainly will never be on any other introduction, one of the readers on my PhD examination committee.

Here are some of the background notes on the interview from CBC’s website.

“Last summer, a rare but telling event occurred, when scientists left their labs to vent their frustration on Parliament Hill.  They marched in a mock funeral procession, mourning “The Death of Evidence.” More and more, Canadian scientists employed by the federal government say they are being muzzled by Ottawa. They are being told when, if, and how to speak to the public about their research.

For journalists, the ability to speak directly to researchers is essential to correctly convey complex ideas to the public. The federal government rejects the accusation that it is muzzling scientists.

Now the Information Commissioner of Canada has been asked to investigate. The request was made by the Environment Law Clinic at the University of Victoria last week. It alleges the government is systemically obstructing the right of the public and the media to speak to government scientists.” READ MORE HERE


Upcoming webinar on resilient watersheds

The POLIS Water project, hosted at the University of Victoria, is hosting a webinar on watershed resilience.

Webinar Date and Time

Wednesday January 9th, 2013
9 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. PT (12 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. ET)
**please note your timezone**

This is the second webinar in the POLIS Water Sustainability Project’s 2012/2013 Creating a Blue Dialogue webinar series. To view archived webinars click here.

To register email Laura Brandes at

Webinar Summary

When it comes to watershed governance, interest is growing in the role that innovation can play in building resilience and a capacity to solve the complex problems being faced in watersheds around the globe. In this webinar, the guest speakers will discuss challenges and opportunities for building resilience within watersheds. Michele-Lee Moore, an emerging scholar in global water governance, will discuss the importance of global networks for driving new innovation processes and improving resilience in our domestic watersheds. Drawing on her research from the Prachinburi River basin in Thailand and the Murray-Darling basin in Australia, she will explore the growing linkages between these watersheds and the challenges and benefits that transnational relationships bring for watershed-based organizations. Respondent Frances Westley, a leading social innovation researcher, will focus on the role of social “traps” during disasters and how they can affect the capacity to build resilience across sectors within a watershed.

Guest Speakers

Michele-Lee Moore
Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of Victoria
Director, Water, Innovation, and Global Governance Lab (WIGG)
Research Associate & Strategic Faculty Advisor, POLIS Water Sustainability Project

Frances Westley
Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience
JW McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, University of Waterloo

Upcoming Webinars

Stay tuned for more information on the upcoming webinars in the 2012/2012 Creating a Blue Dialogue series! The focus of this year’s series is The Water-Energy Nexus and Water (and Watershed) Governance Reform.

Please contact Laura Brandes for further information.