Trusting Experts: Can we reconcile STS and Social Psychology?

September 22nd, 2015, by § 2 Comments

A protest against fracking. Picture taken from here. Creative Commons License.

Image: A protest against fracking. Picture taken from here. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Numerous battles are being fought today within and across America’s political landscape, from global warming to the regulation of new technologies (e.g., GMOs, fracking). Science plays a big role in these debates, and as a result, social psychologists, political scientists, economists, and other social scientists have become interested in the question of why people (or rather, certain people) don’t accept scientific findings. These social scientists have converged on a concept called motivated reasoning: that because our reasoning powers are directed towards particular ends, we tend to pick facts that best fit our needs and motivations. Motivated reasoning, in this explanation, is a universal concept, perhaps a product of evolution; all human beings do it, including experts. It also raises the profoundly disturbing possibility of a scientific end to our Enlightenment hopes that experts—let alone publics—can be rational, that they can neatly separate facts from values and facilitate a harmonious society.

Influential science journalists have now started drawing on those findings. Chris Mooney, who made a name for himself writing The Republican War on Science, drew on social psychological and brain imaging research on political bias in a well-cited Mother Jones piece, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science: How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.” Other political scientists have written about this in high-profile outlets, such as Brendan Nyhan for the New York Times. It has also made several appearances on The Monkey Cage, a political science blog that is now part of the Washington Post.

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Twin Astronauts: The Perfect Research Subjects

September 15th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Expedition 45/46 Commander, Astronaut Scott Kelly along with his brother, former Astronaut Mark Kelly speak to news media outlets about Scott Kelly's 1-year mission aboard the International Space Station. Photo Date: January 19, 2015. Location: Building 2. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Image: Scott and Mark Kelly. Source: NASA.

In March 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, remained on planet Earth. This remarkable event—accompanied by a frenzy of media attention—created a degree of separation between twins that scientists could previously only imagine. For science journalists and their readers, the Kelly twin astronauts were like a dream come true, a perfect marriage between popular fascination with twins and Americans’ boundless enthusiasm for space travel. Attention-grabbing headlines like “Meet the twins unlocking the secrets of space”, “Nature vs. Nurture vs. NASA”, and “NASA twins to embark on year-long space experiment” began to appear in the news. Friends and colleagues were quick to forward these stories to me, knowing of my personal (I’m an identical twin) and professional (I’m an anthropologist who studies twin researchers) interest in twins. Scientific research on twins has a long history, so as I read about the plans for experimentation on the Kelly twins, there was much that was familiar to me. In a way, the twin-in-space and twin-on-earth scenario is a logical conclusion of long-standing scientific fantasies about twins and their power to reveal the hidden workings of nature and nurture. Interestingly, however, by the time it became possible to realize this older vision of twin research, the life sciences had entered the molecular era, with new methodologies and technologies threatening to replace the classical twin study. So, we might ask—how did we end up with this improbable study of twin astronauts?

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Understanding Users through Data: UX, Ratings, and Audiences

September 9th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Understanding how audiences move through information (c) Luca Mascaro via Creative Commons

Image: Understanding how audiences move through information. Photo by Luca Mascaro, some rights reserved (Creative Commons license).

“It needs to be usable by distracted individuals in a hurry. It needs to be extremely legible and intuitive,” began the client emphatically as he leaned forward, one of several people  gathered at a conference table on the 16th floor of an office tower in Houston, Texas. He rested back in his chair and waited, drumming his hands on the table. The project lead and two of the designers nodded, as one called a vast library of application mockups up onto the demo screen. As she scrolled through these, the other explained the rationale behind its user-interface elements: “we tested this prototype with [x user base]. We have seen that they need to take [y action] immediately, and if they are hindered in this, the company itself cannot track projects or time spent by employees. [Staff] are too busy on the job to engage in lengthy bookkeeping procedures.”

This project, a massive one spanning more than a year’s research and development, is one among many for which I am currently acting as a participant observer at [Intellisoft Inc.] In foregrounding research, this company is not unique, but they are among an ever-growing number of organizations appropriating anthropological methods to understand how audiences interface with technological artifacts. Occasionally, these methods employ terminology that diverges between the academic and applied social sciences; it took me a moment to realize, for example, that “contextual inquiry” is field research, that is, ethnography.

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Steadying the Plays: Rhetoric and Risk in the Shale Boom

August 25th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

“Please God, give us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time.”

– Popular bumper sticker in oil producing regions after the 1980s oil markets crashed

In the 1970s, there was much to be celebrated for those involved in the US oil and gas industry. The OPEC oil embargo coupled with events like the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War led to a shortage of oil on the world market and precipitated a boom for US producers. This boom, however, was short lived. By 1981, world production had stabilized and oil prices had plummeted, bankrupting a significant number of producers and inspiring the use of “Please God” bumper sticker in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Alberta.

A tall white drill tower stands on and orange rig, with mountains and a partly cloudy blue sky in the background.

Image: Drilling the Bakken formation in the Williston Basin. By Joshua Doubek (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the bumper sticker didn’t seem to help, and the oil and gas industry limped along. Against financial engineering and IT novelties that sent the stock-prices of energy firms like Enron soaring (Zellner 2001)—and, in California’s deregulated energy market, allowed Enron to keep itself afloat at the expense of “Grandma Millie” (C-SPAN interview with B. McLean; Oppel 2002; Roberts 2004)—the capital-intensive technologies of the oil and gas industry seemed dull and unable to capture the general public’s imagination. By 2010, however, this story had almost entirely changed. Where financial and IT services had once seemed to be at the forefront of innovation, two stock-market crashes coupled with the technological advances in oil and gas production that enabled the “Shale Boom” seemed to suggest the reverse. They seemed to suggest that creative accounting and financial engineering may make a company appear healthy— even forward thinking—but they cannot replace tangible contributions to technology and production. « Read the rest of this entry »

Understanding How People Use Technology: A Primer on Human Factors Engineering and UX Research

August 4th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

UX Research in Action: Press aplications on iPad, by K2_UX on Flickr.

Image: iPad app user experience research. Source:  K2_UX on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Corporations are increasingly interested in hiring anthropologists for human factors engineering (HFE) and, most recently, user experience (UX) research, roles many of us are interested in pursuing when we look beyond academia. I researched and wrote the following piece to help anthropologists of science and technology who want to approach these professional fields. Both HFE and UX research rely on methods that resemble the skill sets required by ethnographic fieldwork. Whether you expect to end up in such a role or not, much work being done in UX and HFE draws on similar theoretical perspectives to that of the  anthropological literature addressing users and interface design, and is interesting as a source of case studies and data. This isn’t coincidental, of course–there’s long been anthropologists in industry, and overlap between anthropology and design research in major tech companies. « Read the rest of this entry »

Entertaining Science: A report from a colloquy at the intersection of science and entertainment

June 9th, 2015, by § 4 Comments


Image courtesy the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

As you read this post, members of a community of like-minded scholars are unwinding after a weekend symposium at the UK’s University of Manchester. The symposium Stories About Science—Exploring Science Communication and Entertainment Media explored the intersections of science with entertainment from various disciplinary perspectives and as experienced by a diverse range of publics. Organized through the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), the SAS symposium was the brainchild of the Playing God Project of CHSTM ‘s Science and Entertainment Laboratory research group.

So what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with CASTAC? Well, as an anthropologist invested in exploring ethnographically the cultural qualities of humanity’s intersections with science, I was interested in efforts by the symposium’s presenters, not unlike CASTAC’s own, to understand significant cultural aspects of science in contemporary society. Perhaps more intriguingly, I saw it as a potential opportunity to further our goal of fostering discussions between anthropologists and other STS scholars. To that end, I contacted several SAS symposiasts to get a sense of what they presented at SAS. Colloquy topics ran from explorations of gender for fictional television scientists to the ways legitimate scientists are presented in the media to the power of comics in science communication. « Read the rest of this entry »

From Academia to Business: How Barry Dornfeld brings ethnography to the business world

March 10th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Barry Dornfeld’s 1998 book Producing Public Television, Producing Public Culture was a formative one that knocked me from media studies to media anthropology (and made me realize that my “revolutionary” new idea for fieldwork had been scooped). For my first post on the CASTAC Blog as an Associate Editor, I want to return to my intellectual roots to interview Dornfeld, and discuss his transition from NYU assistant professor and University of Pennsylvania Communication program director to ethnography evangelist in the business world.

Producing Public Television saw Dornfeld conducting full-fledged participant observation amidst the producers at PBS while they assembled a transnational documentary called Childhood. This book has influenced both my dissertation and my fieldwork among television producers, particularly for its treatment of expertise. Dornfeld, for example, addresses the degree to which producers consider themselves proxies for their audiences, vehicles for a kind of mass-mediated paternalism, or feel shackled by a necessity to communicate reductively. But in learning about his professional trajectory, I found myself curious about his unconventional movement(s) between academia and industry. And as our potential for engagement with the business (or at least non-academic) world is on the minds of some in the CASTAC community, I thought I’d talk to Dornfeld about his work on media production, the use of ethnography in the business world, and his most recent book on how ethnography can help organizations adjust during periods of intense change. Below, he graciously answers my questions.


Elizabeth Rodwell: First, how aware are you of the legacy your book “Producing Public Television” has had in anthropology and media studies? What has been the legacy of that publication in your professional life?

Barry Dornfeld: I am aware that some folks still use and refer to the book, which I am pleased to be reminded of after all these years. Not being in academia any more limits my exposure a bit, but I do hear periodically from people who are studying media production and find the book useful. And I have some old colleagues who still assign the book. I think the perspective and method hold up well, even if the world of media and media theory have evolved.

ER: Do you think television corporations have become more sophisticated in their understanding of audiences than they were when you conducted your doctoral fieldwork? « Read the rest of this entry »

Are You Singing of Science?

March 3rd, 2015, by § 1 Comment

In January, researchers from National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan and Alpen-Adria-Universität in Austria published a study in the journal Public Understanding of Science exploring the use of science words as lyrical elements in popular Taiwanese mainstream music. The intent of the study was to understand better how non-scientists were using science terminology in creating pop music songs, and perhaps learn something about bridging social contexts by exploring aspects of the most fundamental element of science communication: words.

De Musica Mundana, Robert Fludd, 1617. Sonification of the elements of Earth, pyramids as symbol of the interaction between divine ones and terrestial ones. Courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek, public domain.

De Musica Mundana, Robert Fludd, 1617. Courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek, public domain.

The study examined the content and quantity of scientific terms and expressions distributed throughout mainstream music lyrics as a potential reflection of the presence of science into Taiwanese popular culture and life. Starting with a list of 4526 songs created between 1990 and 2012 generated from the Golden Melody Awards, Asia’s mainstream music awards, the authors then reduced the sample based on the “relation of lyrics to science/technology” criterion. A total of 377 songs were ultimately selected for analysis by a panel of three researchers from the fields of science communication, communication, and popular culture. They examined the lyrics looking for scientific and technological terms, scientific metaphors, and/or expressions of scientific implications, and then categorized them as scientific activity or products, scientific research subjects, or cultural idioms. In those 377 songs, the researchers found 858 science words or phrases.

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Developer’s Dilemma and Making as Privilege

February 3rd, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

A book I wrote, Developer’s Dilemma [Press, Amazon Physical Book, Amazon Kindle, iBooks], was recently published by MIT Press. It is an ethnography that explores the secretive everyday worlds of game developers working in the global videogame industry. There is an excerpt of the book over at Culture Digitally if you’re interested in checking out some of the words prior to making a commitment to the rest of the text.

Developer's Dilemma Cover

Developer’s Dilemma Cover

But I didn’t really want to start this year off just plugging my book. I mean, I did plug it. Just then. You should check it out. But that isn’t the point of this post. I recently Skyped into Tom Boellstorff‘s graduate seminar to discuss the book. One of the questions they asked me had to do with “game talk” and if I thought game talk had to do more with boundary policing than it had to do with actually having real utility and functionality. Game talk, in essence, is the use of game names as a shorthand means by which to reference the rather complex mechanics and ideas that set certain games apart. It was a wonderful question, because in the book I write:

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Deflategate, or Ballghazi, and the Conundrum of Expertise (or: why anthropologists should write about football)

January 30th, 2015, by § 1 Comment

It is the week of Super Bowl Sunday and I live with a Patriots fan. For the last two weeks all serious conversation in our house has revolved around some aspect of the upcoming game. Unless you have been living under a rock (or inside a book), you can probably guess that most of our conversations center around why a set of footballs used by  the Patriots during the AFC Championship game were found to be under the minimum psi level specified by the NFL. Were the Patriots cheating by manually deflating footballs? Or is there a “natural” explanation for the deflation?

Photo by Flickr user Frankieleon,

Heaving a big psi. (Photo by Flickr user Frankieleon,

The interesting question from an STS perspective, and the hinge which cheating allegations revolve around, is whether or not the atmospheric conditions at the AFC championship game could have caused a football to deflate what the NFL has called “a significant amount.” The question is a thorny one because it is entirely unclear who counts as an expert on football deflation, where one might turn to find an expert opinion, or even what criteria might be appropriate in determining who is, or is not, an expert on football deflation. Worse, how might one find a deflation expert who does not have a rooting interest for or against the Patriots at this late date? In short,  who may enunciate the truths of football deflation?

Patriots head coach, and noted gridiron alchemist, Bill Belichick was the first to turn to science for an explanation. Like a modern day Boyle, he held a press conference in which he detailed an experiment conducted at the Patriots facility which he claimed demonstrated that natural conditions caused “significant” football deflation at the AFC Championship game. His explanation was detailed and involved a special method of preparing the football for play (that is, getting the correct feel for the quarterback) that can change the psi level without manual deflation.

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