Tag: expertise

Negotiating Expertise: The Case of Operations Research

Among the most important and common questions that historians of science and STS scholars address is how technical cultures interact with various “lay” communities, such as policymakers, executive decision makers, juries, and public stakeholders. Within STS broadly, scholars have usually thought about these relations within an analytical framework of boundary negotiations. In this framework, technical experts do political work to stake out an epistemic terrain in which their claims will carry an unchallengeable authority. The idea of “science” is important in this framework, because it supposedly signifies (to historical and contemporary actors) knowledge that is uniquely authoritative and stands outside the influence of society and culture. My research on the history of “operational” or “operations research” (OR) has led me to question how well this model describes actual cultures of expertise. One of the prototypical sciences of decision making, OR originated in World War II in scientists’ scrutiny of military tactics and procedures. In the postwar period, a civilianized version of OR, directed at industrial problems, arose, accompanied by a body of formalized (i.e., mathematized) OR theory. Prior scholars have supposed that formalization constituted a move to consolidate OR’s scientific authority. I believe that to understand the development, we require an entirely different understanding not only of OR’s history but of how cultures of expertise operate. (read more...)

2015 Year in Review: Deflating Footballs, Twins in Space, Women (not) in Tech, and More

Last year on the CASTAC Blog began with anthropological ruminations on what the “Deflategate” football scandal has to do with questions of expertise, and closed with discussions of citizen science, earthquake warning systems, the (anti-)politics of women in tech, and deeply personal engagement with experiencing crisis or catastrophe—in this case, terror attacks in Paris—over social media. One of the great perks of editing this blog lies in reading the array of topics, perspectives, and modes of analyses from our contributors. This year, I’m taken by the variety in tone, from the (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek (the aforementioned Deflategate post; the anthropology of rigged games), to the deeply affecting (again, Charlotte Cabasse-Mazel “Looking at the Pain of Others [on Social Media]”), from the boundary-pushing (Abou Farman’s call to envision radical alternative futures) to the experimental (a Twitter fieldwork experiment from Rice’s Ethnography Studio). Beyond timely, weekly engagement with climate change, artificial intelligence, changing media ecologies, infrastructure, design, energy, and more, the blog is becoming a repository cataloging—and pushing forward—the driving concerns of social scientific and humanistic inquiry in these areas. In this review post, I consider four central conceptual questions animating this year’s coverage on how science, technology, computing and more are shaping (and shaped by) diverse lives, worlds, and experiences. These include: the mutual production or constitution of conceptual categories; questions of knowledge production and expertise; concerns with the future and futurity; and key political dimensions of science, technology, and computing. Although these themes unfold differently across intellectual projects and modes of inquiry, they elucidate the value of critical, reflexive, and empirical approaches to scientific and technological worlds. (read more...)

The Rise of Citizen Science, Part I: A Principled Approach

This is the first in a two-part series about the rise of citizen science, from CASTAC Contributing Editor Todd Hanson. When it comes to science, Albert Einstein was an amateur. Well, at least he was during the time he made his most groundbreaking contributions to physics. From 1902 to 1908, Einstein’s day job was that of an assistant patent examiner at the Swiss Federal Office for Intellectual Property. It was during these six years as an avocational scientist that he developed his theories that transformed physics. Working as what we would today call a “citizen scientist,” the four papers he published would become a foundation of modern physics. While Einstein’s case may be unique, a lesson from his life is that ignoring the contributions of those scientists and scholars unaffiliated with university or research institutions is done at society’s risk. The bifurcation of scientists into professional and amateur is a relatively recent and arbitrary occurrence. Several notable eighteenth and nineteenth century “gentlemen scientists” had no direct affiliation to corporate or public institutions, including Robert Boyle, Henry Cavendish, and Charles Darwin, and were not paid scientists, or even science professors, for much or even all of their lives–but were nonetheless immensely important in the history of science. Historically, the divide increased as professional scientists were generally better educated in their fields and paid positions in universities and, later, corporations increased. Still, the general public interest in scientific matters was strong and although amateurs were rarely welcomed into science’s inner circles, they continued to work unpaid, and mostly unacknowledged on scientific matters. (read more...)

Trusting Experts: Can we reconcile STS and Social Psychology?

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. (read more...)

Who speaks for soil?

Finally! 2015 is the year of soils! Ready the celebration. Polish your spade, pick, and shovel, and carefully wrap those gifts of organic fertilizer you’ve been hiding away. It’s going to be a hell of a party. Humor aside, soil is obviously important in a number of very complex ways. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) is spearheading the “2015 International Year of Soils” initiative to raise awareness of soil issues for food systems and broader environmental concerns. The director of the FAO, José Graziano da Silva, had the following to say of the importance of soil: “The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production” (as quoted on FAO’s website). Yet as I’ve found researching soil conservation in Haiti in 2012 and examining the history of soil conservation more broadly, it seems that many people have spoken out for soils. In fact, through the panic related to the 1930s dustbowl crisis in the United States, soil erosion arguably became the first global environmental problem (Anderson 1984). This rapid spread of environmental concern highlights the way that soil has, in the past, captured the imagination and emotion of governments around the world. But the spread of soil conservation was not the seemingly de-politicized “awareness” campaign that we’re presented with by the FAO. Rather, in the 1930s, soil conservation was rooted in a desire to control and manipulate rural farmers. So while I’d agree with Mr. da Silva that soils do not have an “audible” voice, I’d argue that we need to pay far more attention to who speaks for soils and why. (read more...)

Crowdsourcing the Expert

“Crowd” and “cloud” computing are exciting new technologies on the horizon, both for computer science types and also for us STS-types (science and technology studies, that is) who are interested in how different actors put them to (different) uses. Out of these, crowd computing is particularly interesting — as a technique that both improves artificial intelligence (AI) and operates to re-organize work and the workplace. In addition, as Lilly Irani shows, it also performs cultural work, producing the figure of the heroic problem-solving innovator. To this, I want to add a another point: might “human computation and crowdsourcing” (as its practitioners call it) be changing our widely-held ideas about experts and expertise? Here’s why. I’m puzzled by how crowdsourcing research both valorizes expertise while at the same time sets about replacing the expert with a combination of programs and (non-expert) humans. I’m even more puzzled by how crowd computing experts rarely specify the nature of their own expertise; if crowdsourcing is about replacing experts, then what exactly are these “human computation” experts themselves experts on? Any thoughts, readers? How might we think about the figure of the expert in crowd computing research, given the recent surge of public interest in new forms of — and indeed fears about — this thing called artificial intelligence? (read more...)

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

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? 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. (read more...)