“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?

Spectacular Nature

Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, Susan G. Davis

The second and third chapters outline how the Sea World experience is tailored to the customer and to the flow of the park in order to maximize profits. I was struck by how, even as the park claims to produce knowledge and educate, the picture it paints of nature is largely based on what its customers want to see rather than what is true. They want to see animals with habitats that look like the places from which they could have been extracted; the captive animals seem happier, more at home in appropriate environments (a proposition with which Sea World employees disagree — the animals do not seem to be affected by the aesthetics of their surroundings). “Animal displays are cultural as opposed to natural, not only in the sense that they are manufactured, but also in that they refer to predefined sights, to already known ways of contemplating nature as romantically beautiful, stern, wild, and empty.” (108) Even when they are attempting to portray nature as it is, Sea World is more concerned with what rendition of “nature” will garner the most profit than a realistic portrayal of marine habitats.

I am reminded of the metaphor of nature as a mirror. When humans look for truths in nature, what we see is oftentimes what we already believe to be true. Perhaps we can’t fault Sea World for doing something we have been doing for centuries — producing narratives in which nature takes on the characteristics we find in ourselves, the characteristics we went into our study of the universe prepared to ascribe to it. In the modern world, inundated with the commodification of not only entertainment and public spaces, but knowledge as well, perhaps it should not be so surprising that places like Sea World exist. This is, however, not to imply that they should exist, and the increasing awareness of the contradictions inherent in Sea World’s operations is a hopeful sign that we are no longer as content to consume feel-good interpretations of nature and our interactions with it. Instead, as Blackfish and the environmental activists and bad press that plague Sea World show, people are recognizing the ridiculous paradox of holding animals captive — and training them for entertainment purposes — while at the same time promoting ecological awareness and sustainability.

Sea World, like those who consume its products, is an active entity and has worked hard to maintain such a paradox by implementing programs aimed at counter-balancing the negativity directed toward their exploitation of nature and its inhabitants. Sea World has established orca breeding programs to justify their remaining in captivity, and they have gone so far as to fund a marine-focused research institute, which, Davis argues, “constructs Sea World as a place of responsible scientific investigation and unfolding knowledge, and emphatically not a site of animal exploitation.” (70) Here, science is used to instill trust in a populace and to hide much more controversial and sinister goings-on. Further, the park emphasizes human-animal interactions in its exhibitions — notably something that would never occur in nature — to establish an emotional connection between the customer and the captive. This connection makes it more difficult for people to feel negatively about the animal’s condition.

Sea World has thus both produced scientific knowledge and used it to its advantage as a for-profit institution — an alarming conflict of interest that can tell us a lot about knowledge production in late capitalist society. For me, it speaks to the importance of vernacular participants in scientific endeavors; since Sea World’s antics are based on marketplace statistics, it is actually “everyman’s” desires and understandings that have created Sea World’s interpretation of nature. In a capitalist world where commodification continues to infringe on more and more aspects of human life, science will continue to be profoundly influenced by how people understand, and want to understand nature. An awareness of such a connection goes far beyond Davis’s work and encourages thought about how science should be portrayed in both education and entertainment — particularly if, in a place like Sea World, the two are conflated.