“On the Frontier of the Empire of Chance”

Arwen Mohun, “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance: Statistics, Accidents, and Risk in Industrializing America.” Science in Context 3 (2005): 337-357.

In “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance,” author Arwen Mohun examines the rise in statistics and probabilistic thinking in the American vernacular context from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Through the lens of a cultural historian of technology, Mohun takes a closer look at how the industrial-era quantification of risk altered the way people understood it; she asks why and how this transformation took place, and then delves into how these understandings were shaped and used in order to mold individual behavior and enact widespread change. Mohun argues that the actors in her narrative existed on the periphery of the Empire of Chance. While experts, primarily located in European centers of statistical theorizing, formed the “epicenter” of the empire, those on the frontier employed statistics as a tool in social manipulation. Far from relegating popular audiences to a primarily observational, inert role, however, the author also acknowledges their agency in the story by explaining how their motivations affected their choices regarding risk and reward.

Obviously, Mohun’s work builds off of the book she references in her title — The Empire of Chance. Her piece is different from that of Gigerenzer et al., however, in that it addresses how the methodological and intellectual developments of professional statisticians found their way into popular understandings of variability and the risks associated with it. This is reminiscent of Dr. Pandora’s assigned reading for her two weeks of 5990 at the beginning of the semester — Spectacular Nature and The Whale and the Supercomputer. Like Mohun’s work, Susan G. Davis looks at how ideas from the “top,” the professional scientists, filter down into the vernacular through institutions like SeaWorld. Mohun also looks at how institutions influence the way that popular audiences understand scientific theories, their consequences, and their uses. In contrast, Charles Wohlforth focuses on how non-professional ways of knowing had a major impact on the way scientists looked at and understood climate change in the arctic. Mohun mimics this approach when she includes in her analysis how the importance of individual experience affects the way that the average American understood and behaved in regards to risk-taking. When the approach involves popular science, both perspectives — top-down and bottom-up — are important for a holistic understanding of how science and vernacular audiences interact and influence one another, and in this regard, Mohun as clearly covered all of her bases.

Something I found particularly interesting in this piece was the discussion of the “pragmatic approach” to science that Mohun discusses primarily on pages 339 and 340. She argues that it was especially characteristic of American statisticians in the time period she covers, and cites as evidence their absence from histories of statistics. American statisticians worried less about developing sound theories and methods and more about applying their knowledge (no matter how unsound or theoretically dubious) to real-world problems. This embodied what I have come to understand as being a very Industrial-American ideal; the self-made, self-trained practitioner unconcerned with the useless, bookish knowledge so characteristic of their less hard-working, impractical European counterparts. I wonder if the different approaches caused animosity between American and European statisticians; they were obviously sharing ideas. What did these conversations look like, and how did they take place? Was it common for Americans to train abroad, or were universities in America training these frontiersmen of the Empire of Chance?

Advertisements

The Whale and the Supercomputer

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change, Charles Wohlforth

I was interested in how the natives perceived scientific methods as lazy, in a way. After it was pointed out, I cannot unsee it now. While the Iñupiaq spend most of their time living in and experiencing Alaska and the changes it has undergone in recent years, scientists primarily only come in the summer. They take measurements or install gear to do so in the winter, when they will undoubtedly not be present to observe the data-gathering in action. Scientists take detailed data in an isolated manner; they search for “slices” of something far more complex, and they try and extrapolate about what they don’t know, given what they do know in detail. As evidenced by many failures — one being the gross underestimate of the Arctic whale population — this does not always work, and it can affect policy, people, and the earth itself.

This stands in sharp contrast to the way that the natives attempt to understand nature. Far more grounded and involved in the knowledge-gathering process, they work together as a community, bound by social conventions, common culture, and a need to survive in a harsh and rapidly changing environment. Their knowledge base is more practical; while they observe the changes taking place around them, they don’t necessarily seek the kind of explanations scientists would. They seek practical adaptations, ways of working with the cards that nature has dealt them. They have little interest in conquering nature and instead hope to work with her.

The way that these two groups interact is telling. The Iñupiaq seem to relatively readily have adopted many of the techniques white whalers employed in the 19th century, like brass pipe bombs, that made their work less dangerous and more fruitful. Because their way of knowledge-gathering and authentication is largely based on what works, rather than where that knowledge came from, there seems to be much less intellectual resistance to the adoption of alternative ways of doing and knowing. Scientists, on the other hand, seem to have a harder time incorporating traditional knowledge into their research. A good example can be found in the episode Wohlforth recounts of one of Matthew’s data-gathering expeditions in which an Iñupiaq elder is brought along. The scientists were worried about “translating the different frames of reference”, (90) and in the end, the elder ended up primarily being a guide. His knowledge was of a different language, inscrutable and irreducible, and unable to be communicated or translated into the numbers and statistics the scientists felt were the only way to understand what was happening to the climate in Alaska.

I think it all comes down to communication. Wohlforth spends a lot of time talking about how systems composed of many people operate; the Iñupiaq on a whale hunt, scientists in a conference room at IARC trying to understand why their models for climate change weren’t producing results. He discusses the difficulties in translating one person or culture’s knowledge to another, but emphasizes that it is in these connections that the whole, complicated truth lay. One way of knowing, even one as meticulous as the scientific method, cannot paint an entire, comprehensive picture of an actuality. The mechanical worldview’s track record with the “harder” sciences — chemistry, physics, some aspects of biology — have given scientists an unrealistic faith in it; climate change shows us that some things are simply too complicated to be broken down and must be viewed more holistically if we ever expect to understand them as they are.

When international and US lawmakers, concerned with the preservation of whale species, attempted to make hunting them illegal (despite the fact that the Iñupiaq way of life would be a casualty of such policy), scientific and traditional knowledge were forced into cooperation. Scientists had estimated the population of the bowheads to be far smaller than the natives believed to be the case. Political maneuvering on the part of the Iñupiaq made their voices heard, and the scientists were forced to listen. Having coexisted with the bowheads for as long as they could remember, the natives knew that the way the scientists were counting them was inefficient, missing huge numbers of animals — their migration band was much larger than scientists predicted, and the whales often swam under the ice where they could not be seen. In order to develop a more effective way of counting bowheads, the scientists were forced to collaborate with the natives. The result was that, unsurprisingly, the natives had been right all along. As the only place where “samples of large, freshly killed baleen whales” were present, Barrow drew many scientists who wished to study the mysterious animals. In close proximity, and because the scientists needed their expertise on ice navigation, a discourse between the natives and the scientists opened up. As Wohlforth so eloquently puts it, “Researchers… had to accept that there was another valid way of knowing complex facts about the environment.” (22)

Science & Technology in World History

Authors James McClellan and Harold Dorn attempt to survey the world history of science and technology in their book Science and Technology in World History. Their general method for dealing with such a huge volume of information is clear, but definitely leaves to the reader the establishment of a solid timeline; they divide the book roughly by large time periods, and then by location. General trends are highlighted, such as the disunity of science and technology until recent times and the importance of certain societal and cultural institutions for the advancement of science, and evidence is provided in the form of a few basic, albeit specific, examples. They are careful in the introduction and the conclusion to emphasize that, in writing a survey of such magnitude, they had to be selective in what they included, and that the reader should understand that the historical record is far more complex than appears in their work.

Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus, in the introduction of their work Making Modern Science, stress similar problems inherent in a survey and with the history of science in general. It is a contentious field, they emphasize, and far from a “smooth process of fact gathering,” due in no small part to the influence of scientists themselves.[1] The authors go on to trace the history of the history of science, from its post World War II conception (brought about by a society that had become painfully aware of science’s dangers) through its various critical stages of development. Their history serves another purpose; it highlights an idea that the history of science, along with sociology, philosophy, and related fields, have been working toward — treating science like other fields of inquiry are treated. In conclusion, Bowler and Morus justify a study focused on modern science based on the claim that research interests have changed in the field in order to address culturally relevant scientific problems, which involve institutions and other influences unique to modernity.

Both readings address a theme I have found quite prominent in my first week of classes here. Science has acquired an authority similar to that of religion in the early modern world, and it continues to fight for that power. Thomas F. Gieryn, in his article “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science,” deals with a similar idea. He analyses, through three examples of scientists’ own writing, how science has used the ambiguity of its ideologies to cast itself in different roles in order to claim authority in various situations. The outline of the history of science gives a few examples of scientists engaging in this activity; when confronted in the past by other academic disciplines about the fallibility of their methods, they maintain that their art is an objective one and should be treated differently. The survey also plays into this discourse by emphasizing the dangers of the power of the industrial science complex. The power of science, and the willingness of its proponents to defend it in light of its flaws, has major implications for the future.

The reading for this week was both broadly informative — I knew next to nothing about early science — and methodologically illuminating. Surveys have always been rough to read because I find them tantalizing, but this one was satisfying in that the authors did their best to include specific examples of the broad phenomenon they were describing. The general intellectual feeling I garnered from the two readings was disparate; on one hand, the survey painted a vivid picture of the development of an amazingly capable way to understand and analyze the world, and on the other, the introduction highlighted problems with science as an authoritative institution. It seems that humanity will take any powerful interpretive framework and abuse it. My main point of inquiry would be this; can science be “fixed”? Is a truly objective method within the capability of humanity to carry out, and if not, what is the role of the historian (and the sociologist, and the philosopher…) in mitigating the “human” component of science? And should we be striving to improve this method or, seeing its flaws and its dangers, should we engage in a “paradigm shift” and attempt to find a more perfect framework for inquiry into the universe?

[1] Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus, Making Modern Science, 1.