Nov 04 | Big Data: The Promises and Problematics of Prediction

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By virtue of big data, we are being offered a dizzying array of predictive possibilities unimaginable a generation ago. If a crime has occurred in such and such a place, it is probable that others will be committed in the same area (predictive policing). If a student presents with a given profile, it is likely that she will run into trouble within a year at university (educational data analytics). If an infant displays a particular genetic disposition, it is likely that he will become antisocial. In a world where correlation is cast as causation, a core political and philosophical task is to understand what it means to put our faith in the prophets of big data. In this talk, from the Council for Big Data, Ethics and Society, Geoffrey Bowker and Jacob Metcalf will explore with us the landscape of prediction in big data.

Geoffrey Bowker, Professor of Informatics, University of California, Irvine

Jacob Metcalf, Researcher, Data & Society Research Institute

November 4, 2015 | 4:00-6:00 PM | Physical Sciences Building 305

Oct 07 | It’s About Time: How Perceptions of Time Influence Environmental Action

How do conceptions of time inform our perceptions of anthropogenic climate change and influence the political and societal will to respond? How can an appreciation for the timescales of civic policy help scientists to frame their findings for effective social change? How can we render scientific data actionable while retaining the depth of temporal knowledge? This presentation and panel discussion will provide an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the effects of human behavior on different timescales. By bringing together these different perspectives, we aim to theorize how perceptions of time can help communities, such as UCSC, implement both long- and short-range environmental goals and allow for more active engagement with environmental issues.

Elida Erickson, Sustainability Programs Manager and Interim Director, UCSC Office of Sustainability

Zoey Kroll, Internet Communications Coordinator, San Francisco Department of the Environment

Adina Paytan, Research Professor, Institute of Marine Sciences, UCSC

Organized by Science & Justice Training Program Fellows Carolyn Branecky (Earth and Planetary Sciences) and Samuael Topiary (Film + Digital Media)

Read Rap Report > It's About Time

October 7, 2015 | Physical Sciences Building, Room 305 |   4:00-6:00 PM 

It’s About Time: How Perceptions of Time Influence Environmental Action
SJWG Rapporteur Report
7 October 2015
Rapporteur Report by Carolyn Branecky & Samuael Topiary
The Panel Discussion
At this Science & Justice Training Program event, Zoey Kroll, Adina Payton, and Elida Erickson
discussed how different perceptions of time influence the ways they communicate anthropogenic climate
change to broader publics and the implications of this communication for political action. Carolyn and
Topiary moderated a discussion with the three panelists, followed by a question and answer discussion
with the audience. By focusing on the timescales that define each of the panelists’ efforts, we explored
some of the possibilities as well as the limitations on both communication and action which face the
environmental movement today.

The panel began with a presentation by Zoey Kroll, who provocatively suggested that ten seconds
was the timeframe she is most guided by in her work as the Internet Communications Coordinator at the
San Francisco Department of the Environment (SFDE). In suggesting that she has about ten seconds to
capture the attention of the average visitor to the SFDE website, Kroll stated that her work was defined by
her ability to communicate quickly and simply. Thus, she sees quickness as essential to working on the
long-term goals of municipal transformation. The SFDE provides easy to understand guidelines for
recycling and composting to help SF city dwellers and businesses to implement new city ordinances, such
as the plastic bag ban.

Dr. Adina Paytan, UCSC Earth and Planetary Sciences Research Professor, focused on the
techniques she uses to communicate the impact of human activities on the ocean environment. She
explained how her research spans a wide range of temporal scales, observing natural processes that occur
in one season to environmental change that evolves over millions of years with spatial scales that range
from the molecular to the global. Although her work explores these multitudes, she explained how she
relies upon human lifespans to communicate the gravity and relevancy of her data. Using the benchmarks
of generations within her own family, she plots the changes in ocean acidification levels, noting the wide
change between the years when she was born and when her daughter was born. Using these personal
markers in her research data graphs, Paytan suggests that in talking about long-term issues, she finds it
essential to put her data into the perspective of a human generation, stating that a 100-year lifespan is
about as much as people can really understand in terms of rates of change.

Elida Erickson, Sustainability Programs Manager and Interim Director at UCSC’s Office of
Sustainability, focused on institutional timescales at the university, stating that the Office of Sustainability was established seven years ago by students, focusing on the problems of food waste. She discussed the ways that timescales for environmental action can differ among the groups that she works with. On the one hand, college students want to see change happen within their 4-year term at the university and have been successful in some cases at catalyzing that change within their time here. Yet, from the administrative side, sometimes institutional policies, such as building permits in the case of one student project, can defer or prevent the implementation of creative solutions. In drawing a distinction between student timeframes and administrative timeframes, Erickson raised the issue of how working with committees has its own kind of timeframe and challenges, and suggested that working with administrators was the least fun part of her job. She also noted that the ambition and perspective of students wanting to achieve environmental goals on a student timeframe can help to push the administration to move faster than they might otherwise to implement environmental policy changes.

Conversation Following the Presentations
Both UCSC and the City of San Francisco have Zero Waste programs, whose shared goal is to
eliminate (in some sense of the word) waste by a given date. Kroll, representing the City of San
Francisco, and Erickson, representing UCSC’s Office of Sustainability compared the implementation of
these Zero Waste programs in a compelling way. Both of these speakers discussed the role which politics
plays in their work as well as the need to navigate institutional positions when strategizing on
communicating environmental action. Kroll suggested that she tends to think and work from a citizen
point of view, rather than from a City government's administrative perspective. Erickson suggested there
was a difficulty with fast change, suggesting that UC-wide initiatives, such as Zero Waste, which are
mandated from the top down, often leave people in the middle having to adjust.For example, UCSC is
“crawling” on a campus-wide composting due to the undesirability of a bin next to offices. She suggested
that while the voice of students can push the administration to be more responsive, it can also be pushed
aside more readily. Kroll suggested that in San Francisco, the idea of Zero Waste 2020 produces
excitement and creates a sense of a goal for people to work toward. She notes that to date, San Francisco
has achieved an 80% diversion rate and that 10% of the outlying waste has to be addressed with producer
responsibility laws.

The panel discussed the difference between achievable goals and “impossible” or aspirational
goals, such as Zero Waste, and mused about the ways in which achievable goals helps to foster personal
action, while “impossible” goals can be useful to galvanize a larger community movement. This line of
thinking was interrogated by Anthropology PhD candidate Kristin Lawson, who questioned the role of
time in relationship to differences between institutional and individual action. Kroll responded that
institutions and municipalities can affect change at the procurement level and spoke about the high
purchasing standards held by the City of San Francisco, which publishes a directory for approved sources,
which in turn, provides a pathway for industry to move in this direction. Kroll also discussed the way that
her personal experience of working on a collective urban farming project with a 2-5 year timeframe
demonstrated how working toward specific goals can head off a sense of numbness and disempowerment
that comes from doom and gloom climate change predictions. She added that, in San Francisco, one
hears is a lot of talk about “disruption” as a solution and she wonders if the feeling of urgency (about
climate change) must be combined with the experiences that help one feel one’s actions are making a
difference. Kroll focuses on how to make her work be as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Paytan picked up on the issue of “doom and gloom,” stating that she feels scientists need to be
more solution-oriented when communicating the negative consequences of their research, such as rapid
climate change, species extinction, and environmental destruction. Dr. Karen Barad (UCSC Feminist
Studies) pushed Paytan on the ways in which scientists communicate their work using standard notions of
time, questioning “the seduction of clock time” and its tie to capitalism. Barad wondered about the
temporality of urgency and its relationship to doom, questioning whether there might be a way to discuss
urgent time, which is not tied to doom, but rather allows the past and the future to carry more meaning.
Paytan countered that, although we receive distressing data about climate change, our planet has been
around for four billion years and has been through other huge changes, stating that she personally finds
comfort in knowing that we humans are not going to be here forever. Barad countered that she is not
comforted by how this kind of philosophical nihilism is often taken up politically, especially considering
the unevenness of how the planet is being damaged and by whom. She noted that scientists often have
lively alternative conceptions of time and can think about temporality more richly when our hands are not
tied to “clock time.” Barad continued by suggesting that although something like sea-level rise happens
at a certain rate within a fixed frame, the consequences of that rise are experienced very differently by the
people living in rich countries than in poor ones and wondered whether these effects should be put in
words of time or social equality.

Towards the end of the panel discussion, PhD student Ella Ben-Hagai raised the question of
whether zero waste goals were paradoxical to the push for economic development and expansion in both
San Francisco and at UCSC. She also provocatively wondered whether the zero waste programs were
causing these two enclaves to become islands of “sustainability” and created zones of privilege or
whether there was some notion of zero waste mandates as being more “trickle down” kinds of strategies
for other places.

The panel discussion concluded with a question about the politics behind scientific research and
an acknowledgment of the importance of having interdisciplinary conversations between scientists, social
scientists and humanists and which include voices and experiences from both inside and outside of the
academy, in helping to further discussions about environmental action and in order to build new alliances
to build a progressive agenda.

Post-panel Discussion Reflections
Following this panel discussion, we received written comments from our panelists reflecting on moments
that stuck out to them. The following quotes come from this written feedback:

Kroll:
“It was interesting to hear candid words from Elida about what it's like to work within a
university context, ... how terms are defined or redefined as campaigns evolve (Can Zero Waste
really mean 95% waste diversion?). The role of the Science and Justice Program in bringing
together a dynamic audience and panel cannot be understated.

Paytan:
“Having social scientists, humanists and physical scientists on the panel contributed to a
fascinating exchange of ideas. As a scientist and particularly a geologist I tend to define time as a
precise measurement related to the rates of rotation of planetary bodies (the Earth and the Moon)
and it was very interesting and educating for me to hear how others regard time in a much more
subjective manner and that time could be by personal and even societal experiences. I also
learned a lot about the challenges people have when they have to communicate timelines to a
broad community and accomplish set goals, both the campus sustainability goals and the City of
SF environmental Stewardship (0-50-100 roots) goals are impressive!”

May 20 | Kim TallBear – Cultivating Indigenous Scientists

Kim TallBear (University of Texas, Austin) discusses how genomics forms along with notions of race and indigeneity (the topic of her 2013 monograph, Native American DNA) and the novel roles that Native geneticists are playing in intervening in these processes to create a more just and democratic approach to genomics.

Co-Sponsored by the UCSC Genomics Institute and the Center for Biomolecular Sciences and Engineering.

To view the video documentation of this event, click this link.  Or — listen to the event below:

May 06 | Good Science/People’s Science: An Exploration of Science and Justice

C-Thompson-2As part of the Science and Justice Research Center’s efforts to develop analytics for understanding and enacting ‘science and justice,’ we hosted a half-day long symposium that features the work of Charis Thompson (Chancellor’s Professor and Chair of Gender & Women’s Studies, UC Berkeley) and Ruha Benjamin (Assistant Professor in the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University).  In their respective works (Good Science: The Ethical Choreography of Stem Cell Science, University of California Press; People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier, Stanford University Press), Thompson and Benjamin provided us with an excellent starting point for our collective efforts to conceptualize and enact ‘science and justice.’

This event included a morning reading group and an afternoon presentation by the two speakers, followed by discussion with a response from Julie Harris-Wai (Assistant Professor, UC San Francisco and Associate Director of CT2G).

Part 1: Introductions by Jenny Reardon & Tala Khanmalek
Part 2: Charis Thompson
Part 3: Ruha Benjamin
Part 4: Julie Harris-Wai, respondant
Part 5: Q/A session
 
Audio of Full Event:

Speakers:
Ruha Benjamin (Assistant Professor, Center for African American Studies and Faculty Associate in the History of Science Program, Princeton)
Charis Thompson (Chancellor’s Professor and Chair of Gender & Women’s Studies, UC Berkeley; Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics)
Respondent: Julie Harris-Wai (Assistant Professor, UC San Francisco; Associate Director, Center for Transdisciplinary ELSI Research in Translational Genomics | CT2G)P1000020

This event was co-sponsored by UCSC Departments of Politics, History of Consciousness, Feminist Studies, WiSE, and Sociology.

The event is also sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender, Politics of Biology and Race Working Group, and Gender and Women’s Studies Department as well as UCSF’s Center for Transdisciplinary ELSI Research in Translational Genomics (CT2G).

Organized in part by Visiting Scholar Tala Khanmalek.

 

Apr 22 | Fixing the Pathological Body

The medical industry leans heavily upon a distinction between the "normal" and the "pathological." How and why do we continue to define this distinction, and for whom are these categories useful?  What are some alternative ways to organize the lived experiences of human bodies and/or minds?

A Panel Discussion with Janette Dinishak (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UCSC) Kelly Ormond (Professor of Genetics and Genetic Counselor at Stanford University) Matthew Wolf-Meyer (Associate Professor of Anthropology at UCSC and author of The Sleeping Masses).Organized by Science & Justice Training Program Fellows Sandra Harvey (Politics), Linda Dayem (Philosophy) and Jessica Neasbitt (History of Consciousness). Co-Sponsored by UCSC Departments of History of Consciousness, Literature, and Philosophy, as well as the Institute for Humanities Research.

Janette Dinishak is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research interests include philosophy and history of psychology and psychiatry (especially autism), Wittgenstein, philosophy of mind, disability, and ethical theory.

Kelly Ormond is a Professor of Genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine. While Ormond's primary role is to direct the MS in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling program, her research focuses on the intersection between genetics and ethics, particularly around the translation of new genetic technologies (such as genome sequencing or non-invasive prenatal diagnosis) into clinical practice. She is especially interested in patient decision making, informed consent, and the interface between genetics and disability.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in medical anthropology, the social study of science and technology, and neuroscience. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), which focuses on sleep in American culture and its historical and contemporary relations to capitalism. His second book, What Matters: The Politics of American Brains, focuses on the ethical and epistemological practices in contemporary neuroscience, cybernetics, disability activism, and psychoanalysis in American society. Currently he is in the early stage of a new project focused on the neurological turn to the gut as an extension of the nervous system, the history of shit in the United States, and the therapeutic uses of human excrement in modern medicine.

April 22, 2015

"Fixing the Pathological Body"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
22 April 2015
Rapporteur Report by Jess Neasbitt
This event was organized to begin what we hoped would be ongoing discussions that addressed
themes and questions like the following: "The medical industry leans heavily upon a distinction
between the "normal" and the "pathological." How and why do we continue to define this
distinction, and for whom are these categories useful? What are some alternative ways to
organize the lived experiences of human bodies and/or minds?" We invited Drs. Dinishak and
Wolf-Meyer and Professor Ormond to introduce their research and engage in a panel discussion
regarding these questions, as well as those asked by the audience.

After a brief introduction of the panelists and the overall event theme by Jessica Neasbitt, Dr.
Dinishak spoke about her interest in issues surrounding “deficit attribution.” She forwarded this
model as a specific form of pathologizing difference, and encouraged the audience to consider
what (or whose) standard is being used to assess the lack, or absence of a feature that a person
“should have,” that is a hallmark of “deficit attribution.” Dr. Dinishak is interested in calling the
moral complacency surrounding this decision into question, as well as bringing the narratives of
the pathologized into the conversation. This led to a brief overview of her research regarding the
narratives of autists, which involves qualitative interviews, and speaks to her stated commitment
to finding responsible approaches to engage in such research in ways that acknowledge subjects
as “not just objects to study.” Instead, Dr. Dinishak encouraged the audience to consider what the
narratives of autists can teach us about the lived experience of those labeled autistic, the cultural
representation of these individuals, and what their (autists) concerns might be.

Following Dr. Dinishak, Professor Ormond discussed how disability is talked about in genetic
counseling. Building off of Dr. Dinishak’s talk, she mentioned the challenge of mixing lived
experiences of people with disabilities with discussions of risk assessment during counseling
sessions. She is interested in starting conversations that focus more on the former than on the
medical aspects of potential conditions a fetus may develop in order to move past parental fear
and into a space of more expansive possibility. Professor Ormond stated that, at the present time,
potential parents most commonly focus on the medical aspects of potential disorders/disabilities
over the lived experiences of those diagnosed with them, and this often leads them to constrain
their choices to either abortion or bringing the baby to term and keeping it (versus adoption and
other possible options).

Dr. Wolf-Meyer also discussed social fixes in contrast to medicalization, and gave examples
from his para-ethnographic work. Most of his examples involved the tendency to medicate rather
than seek social fixes, which often require the rethinking—and perhaps radical changing—of
powerful institutions. The influence of capitalism was a recurrent theme, not only during Dr.
Wolf-Meyer’s presentation, but throughout the panel discussion and the question and answer
period; however, the “normalization” required of subjects in capitalist societies was integral to
several key aspects of Dr. Wolf-Meyer’s talk. Among these were: the increase of medical and
pharmaceutical interventions to make individual bodies “fit” into existing social systems and the
dramatic decrease of any social “safety net” (public assistance for persons with disabilities).
The individual, and the individualization of responsibility, were recurrent themes throughout the
event—especially in relation to the influence of capitalism on the practice of medicine in the
United States. Many attendees questioned panelists on whether or not their proposed
interventions into these practices and/or institutions were realistic, given the tenacious hold of
capitalism and its current rigid practices. While there were some small-scale examples of
successful interventions given (communal living, alternative clinics that evaluate social fixes as
well as medical ones), this was the extent of the discussion, and—given more time—this would
be a fascinating avenue to continue exploring.

Another topic in which the concept of the individual loomed large was the genome. There were
several audience comments and questions regarding the power of the genome and the ease with
which risk scores that describe possible futures transition into labels that dictate identities. This
tied in with the parental fear that Professor Ormond had discussed earlier, and the question was
asked: Is fear a necessary part of medical care? Professor Ormond reiterated that this was one of
the limitations of genetic counseling, that there is no “gene for” (it is not as clear cut as that), and
that this is one of the reasons why she believes that discussions with genetic counselors might be
better framed in terms of “abnormal-normal, risk-chance.”

Most of the remainder of audience questions and comments can be divided into two categories:
those focused on the role of the history of eugenics and race in regard to processes of
pathologization, and those focused on the terminology used by the panelists. The history of
eugenics was mentioned by one panelist—Professor Ormond credited it as contributing to how
genetic counseling happens today. However, there were several excellent questions that brought
up the possibility that genetic counseling may be contributing to current eugenicist practices,
especially in relation to abortion of fetuses that are at increased risk for particular pathologized
conditions. While there was some further discussion of the relation of race, eugenics, and
pathologization, we were again limited by the format and time constraints of the event; however,
we all agree that this is an area of rich possibility for further events to explore.

Audience questions regarding the terminology used by the panelists were extensive, and also
limited by available time. Overall, these questions focused on the terms used to describe those
persons being pathologized, and why these specific words were chosen. Questions about the use
of the following terms were recorded: difference vs. deficiency, disorderly vs. disabled, disorder
vs. condition, atypical vs. abnormal, variance vs. diversity, and risk vs. chance vs. diagnosis. The
length and breadth of this list suggest yet another subject that could feasibly support its own
panel discussion; at the very least, it should be addressed in any future events planned as an
outgrowth of our event.

Our initial vision for this event was to begin a conversation regarding what work pathologization
does, and for whom. Overall, we agree that this panel was a good start to what we envisioned as
an ongoing dialogue, and we—along with our critical listeners, Jeff Sherman and Jen Trinh—
have many ideas as to aspects of our theme that future events might explore. These include
narratives and counter-narratives of pathologization, the role of institutions in pathologization
(and how this might be addressed), late capitalism and pathologization (especially regarding the
concept of “productive” bodies and the commercialization of pathology), disability activism, and
the history of pathologization—particularly in regards to race and eugenics. All of these topics
came up in one form or another during our event, and we all agree that the format of the event
severely limited our ability to allow the in-depth examination of any one of these rich lines of
questioning. However, these are topics that we think merit exploration and would make for
future events that would both continue the discussion that began during our event and interest a
wide variety of individuals and groups on campus and in the surrounding community.

As to the possible forms the continuation of this discussion might take, there are several that we
would like to forward. First (and most ambitious), we would like to suggest that, given the easy
division of our overall theme into the sub-topics mentioned above, a conference (or other multipanel
event) on this theme would be both one way to continue this discussion and have many of
the people who should be represented “at the table.” Regardless of the format of the event, we all
agree that future speakers must include disability rights activists, community members, and
narratives of pathologization that originate from the pathologized themselves. Suggestions for
future speakers included Mia Mingus and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha; we also
acknowledge that more outreach and collaboration with the disability studies community on
campus should have been part of our process, and would highly benefit any future events that
stem from our event.

Other suggestions for keeping the discussion going dovetail nicely with the stated desire of the
Science and Justice Research Center for achieving more of an online presence. These include a
series of blogs (some of which would be guest authored), a series of podcasts and/or an interview
series, and a moderated online forum on the topic. The growing number of scholars working on
related themes on this campus, the presence of a healthy activist community (both on campus
and in the community), and the upcoming History of Consciousness concentration of
“Differences Now” all point to there being a good deal of interest in—and potential for joint
sponsorship of—a variety of events that could further the discussion that began during “Fixing
the Pathological Body” in new and innovative ways, and we look forward to seeing where this
discussion goes next.

In closing, Jessica, Linda and Sandra would like to thank our generous co-sponsors, without
which this event would not have been possible: the departments of History of Consciousness,
Literature, and Philosophy, the Institute for Humanities Research, and the Science and Justice
Research Center. We would also like to thank our critical listeners (Jeff Sherman and Jen Trinh)
for their time and extremely helpful feedback. To our panelists, Dr. Janette Dinishak, Professor
Kelly Ormond, and Dr. Matthew Wolf-Meyer, we wish to extend our sincere gratitude for your
participation and inspiring discussion, which we envision as the beginning of a much needed
exploration of the work, histories, and purposes of pathologization.

Attendance
There were approximately 26 attendees, the majority of whom hailed from the social sciences.
The remainder of the attendees were from the sciences and the community.

Apr 01 | Working Against Female Genital Mutilation in Khartoum, Sudan

Female Genital Mutilation is prevalent across many parts of Africa, with a wide variety of approaches advocated to help prevent this practice.  Dr. Atif Fazari, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Medical Sciences & Technology, Khartoum- Sudan, will discuss his work as a reconstructive surgeon and opponent of FGM.  He will talk about various strategies for reducing this practice, and discuss these with Dr. Carolyn Martin-Shaw, emerita Professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, who has published and taught about African women, social theory, and sexuality.

 

Hosted by Professor of Anthropology, Nancy Chen.

Organized by Associate Professor of Anthropology: Andrew Mathews

Respondent: Anthropology Professor Emeritus Carolyn Martin Shaw

Coordinated by: Dr. Jordann Loehr, MD, MPH

Engineering 2, 399 | 4:00-6:00pm | April 1, 2015

March 05 | The H+ Film Festival: Cyborg Fictions and Futures

 

Organized by Science & Justice Training Program Fellows Jeff Sherman (Politics) and Jen Trinh (Physics), together with the Crown Social Fiction Conference, the Science & Justice Research Center presents:

Thursday, March 5th: 8:00 pm Ghost in the Shell | UCSC Merrill Cultural Center

Friday, March 6th:
Midnight screening of Robocop (1987) | Del Mar Theatre, Santa Cruz, Reception and Introduction by Ed Neumeier

Saturday, March 7th:
10:00 am: Registration & breakfast
10:30 am: Transcendent Man | Crown/Merrill Dining Hall
12 Noon: H+ Panel Discussion
1:00 pm: Lunch & Student Poster Session

What kind of future are we moving towards with advances in robotics, prosthetics, artificial intelligence, and body augmentation? The idea of transhumanism (H+) suggests that the future is bright, with extended human lifetimes coupled with higher quality of life. However, in popular science fiction, the future is often not so bright. Will humans eventually transcend their bodies and become higher beings, or will technology reduce humans into mere machines? What is the outlook for "humanity," how does our popular culture shape our visions of that future, and what ethical questions should we consider today rather than in a transhuman tomorrow?

This film festival (part of the Crown Social Fiction Conference) seeks to create an opportunity for conversations with screenings of the science fiction classics RoboCop (1987) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), as well as the documentary Transcendent Man (2009). Following Transcendent Man, we will have a guided discussion, featuring panelists Ed Neumeier (cowriter of the original RoboCop and UCSC alumnus), Dr. Vivienne Ming (theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley), and UCSC's Dr. Chris Gray (lecturer at Crown College and author of the book Cyborg Citizen). They will explore these questions and examine the relationship between the fictions that awe us and the realities that face us.

Ed Neumeier is a screenwriter, producer, and director, who studied Journalism at UCSC before going on to complete his bachelor’s at UCLA at the School of Motion Picture & Television. Ed is best known for his work on the Robocop and Starship Troopers franchises.

Dr. Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience. Her research focuses on developing models for the neurobiological processes involved in cognition, perception, learning, and motor function.

Dr. Chris Gray is a lecturer at UCSC’s Crown College, as well as the author of Cyborg Citizen and Peace, War and Computers, two books that explore the political implications of our increasing dependence on electronics. Dr. Gray’s research interests include postmodern politics, information theory, the implications (political, artistic, and ethical) of cyborgs, and more.

 

The H+ Film Festival: An Exploration of Cyborg Futures and Fictions
SJWG Rapporteur Report
5-7 March 2015
Rapporteur Report by Jeff Sherman and Jen Trinh
In conjunction with the Crown College Social Fiction Conference, this film festival hoped to
explore the near futures that face us with the growing technologies of robotics, prosthetics,
artificial intelligence, and body augmentation through the lens of popular science fiction. This
was done through the exploration of the popular motif of the Cyborg cop in science fiction. On
Thursday March 5th we screened the Japanese Anime classic Ghost in the Shell. On Friday
March 6th we screened the original RoboCop at the Del Mar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz
with a short introduction by Ed Neumeier, one of the cowriters of the film. On Saturday March
7th we screened the documentary Transcendent Man concerning the technologist and futurist Ray
Kurzweil. Our panelists, Ed Neumeier, Dr. Vivienne Ming and Dr. Chris Gray initially took up
the efficacy of Ray Kurzweil’s ideas as they were presented in the documentary that preceded
our discussion. This generated quite the number of critiques of the exceedingly optimistic view
that we will realize immortality within our lifetimes through these technologies. It also spurred
conversations about the ethics that will invariably complicate the development and
implementation of such technologies.

In responding to the ideas of Kurzweil, Dr. Ming suggested that the techno-utopianism of his
visions was somewhat misplaced, given that not all of these technologies are readily viable along
the timeline he suggests and if they were that their implementation would not necessarily be
automatically benign. All three panelists noted that Kurzweil’s quest was deeply informed by an
obsession with defeating death (his own and his father’s) to the point of possible neurosis. While
Ed and Vivienne agreed that they do not wish to die, and that their fears of death may play some
role in their hopes for the future of technology, they expressed doubt that such technologies will
be developed so quickly. Chris, on the other hand, noted later in the conversation that he
celebrates death as the “vaccine against hubris” and accepts his fate.

Following discussion of the documentary, the panelists conversed about the ethics that will
invariably complicate the development and implementation of such technologies, despite hopes
for a techno-utopia. Ed shared thoughts on how the film industry creates what the viewer wants
to see and hear about (the miracles of future technologies), rather than the issues surrounding
these technologies, such as the monopoly of the companies that control these new tools, the
possibility of misuse by individuals (rather than the machines being inherently at fault), and the
actual feasibility of these advancements. Chris expressed skepticism about how humanity could
possibly create a techno-utopia, given the dire state of affairs within our government, where
corporations are afforded the same rights as people, and intelligence (of the IQ sort) is advanced
while emotional intelligence is neglected.

We concur with our critical listeners, Linda Dayem and Jessica Neasbitt, that as the conversation
continued through the hour, the dynamic that developed among our panelist was one of a
tempered technological optimism on the part of Dr. Ming and Mr. Neumeier with the opposite
view of technological pessimism reflected by our third panelist, Dr. Gray. We could somewhat
anticipate this chemistry from our initial discussions with our guest speakers. However, this split
was more pronounced at the public panel and this may be attributed to the particular audience
addressed for the Social Fiction Conference (undergraduate audience poised as the next
generation of technological innovators) and the provocations suggested by our documentary on
Mr. Kurzweil. Where our panelists’ views generally coincided were on: 1) the limitations of AI
in the near to midterm 2) the greater probability of body and neurological augmentation in the
near future 3) the false distinction between “science fiction” and what is touted as “science fact”
given the creativity and imagination evident in today’s leading industries.

With our project, we hoped to explore the possible futures that face us given the predicted
trajectories of robotics, prosthetics, artificial intelligence, and body augmentation through the
lens of popular science fiction. We also hoped to reach as wide an audience as possible among
graduates, undergraduates and the UCSC community. In screening three different films (two
science fiction and one documentary) and convening a panel of experts to comment on this
subject, we believe we were successful in at least starting the conversation on these subjects.

Most importantly, Jen and Jeff would like to extend their heartfelt gratitude to the Crown College
staff (Jennifer Day, Derek DeMarco, Camila Dixon, Cathy Murphy, Shane Sanchez and
especially Provost Manel Camps). We also say thank you to our support at the Science & Justice
Research Center (Colleen Massengale and Acting Director Andrew Mathews) and our critical
listeners (Linda Dayem and Jessica Neasbitt). Above all we wish to thank once again our panelist
Chris Gray, Vivienne Ming and Ed Neumeier for their time participation and enthusiasm.
Without the support of all of these partners, the H+ Film Festival would have simply been
impossible. Thank you all.

Attendance
Overall we had the following attendance at our three events as part of the H+ Film Festival
14 people at the screening of Ghost in the Shell
30+ people at the midnight screening of RoboCop
40+ people at the screening of Transcendent Man and panel discussion

March 04 | Science Journalism: Education, Entertainment or Instigation?

How much can you educate someone about DNA tests or climate change in three and a half minutes?  Is "education" even the goal? NPR science journalist Joe Palca discusses what he hopes to accomplish in his science segments for public radio, as well as the reporting and production effort behind them. Palca was joined in a conversation with Science and Justice Professor and fellow journalist Sally Lehrman about the role of science news in society, including the interplay of scientists and audience in its expression.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca comes to journalism from a science background, having received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz where he worked on human sleep physiology.

Sally Lehrman is the first Visiting Professor in the Science & Justice Training Program. She is an award-winning reporter and writer specializing in medicine and science policy with an emphasis on genetics, race and sexuality. Lehrman has written for some of the most respected names in national print and broadcast media including Scientific American, Nature, Health, Salon.com, and The DNA Files, distributed by NPR. As a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, she also directs the Executive Roundtable on Digital Journalism Ethics initiative. The roundtable brings together journalism executives and entrepreneurs to discuss the responsibilities of the news media to accuracy, inclusion, transparency and accountability in the digital public square.

Science Journalism: Education, Entertainment or Instigation?
SJWG Rapporteur Report
4 March 2015
Rapporteur Report by Samuael Topiary
Joe Palca began his presentation by talking about his career trajectory in science reporting
which began with science reporting for TV in the NBC news Washington DC bureau where
he became a health & science producer. At that time, in the mid 1980s, his job was focused
on presenting science to the public in ways that would allow for an understanding the issues
in public policy debates. Palca told us that he couldn't stand the TV news approach where
every story had to have a medical Dr. and a patient and there was no time to find out if Dr.
knew what they were talking about. He was responsible for putting a story on the air every
night and this quick pace didn’t allow for other opinions about the story. Frustrated by the
limits of TV news science reporting, Palca moved to writing for Nature, the complete
opposite scenario, where the editor wouldn’t settle for anything short of a well-researched
story. In his move from one end of journalistic spectrum to the other, he learned that experts
aren't always as expert as they claim to be.

Moving from Nature to Science, Palca moved into medical-science writing and was the first
person to report on the Human Genome project. While at Science, he was supposed to be
tracking the money and policy-making activities, and not so much on the actual science,
which he considers to have been a dark period in science journalism. In 1992, he was
offered a one year job at NPR, which also necessitated a pay cut. Twenty-three years later,
he is still working at NPR, reporting on medicine, public policy, astronomy. He considers
NPR somewhere between local TV news and the type of reporting he did for Science and
Nature. The NPR audience is presumed to be a general interest audience, and his job is to
try and get them engaged and interested in science stories. At NPR, science reporting
integrated into general interest news, and will generally report stories that are similar to what
is being reported in the NY Times.

In explaining how science news stories are reported on, Palca explained the practice of story
“embargos” where the major science journals will publicize their table of contents in
advance to science reporters, in order to give them a jump on what stories will be published
in the upcoming article, allowing them to do their own research and due diligence on the
story. The embargo prevents reporters from publishing on the story until the date the article
in the journal is published. However, in this way, the news can publish simultaneous
articles about the breaking discoveries being published in the important science journals.
Palca explains that the “embargo” is what makes science writers look so clever, since all
journals have PR departments and send out embargo copy of next issue's table of contents,
and gives science journalists the chance to understand the topic and report on it, as well as to
predict what the big science stories will be.

Lehrman asked Palca about how his thinking about science reporting has changed over the
years. Palca responded that it has not really changed that much. He suggested that science
reporters can do a ton of education but no editor is going to ask for education; they are
interested in news and that you have to make reporting sound like news. He then added that,
in his opinion, science doesn't have a lot of answers. He was contemptuous about the idea
of relying on technological fixes to solve problems, such as geo-engineering to solve our
climate problems. He suggested that science reporting can answer the question of why tax
money should continue to be used to fund science inquiry: because it makes our culture
more interesting and gives us the ability to ask big questions. He suggested that if the
public understood science better, they might not be so interested in 'news stories' which
attempts to paint a picture of science “solving” something rather than a more true account of
scientific inquiry as being about inquiry and process. Lehrman asked how he approaches
attempting to disabuse the public of the notion that science knows everything in a 3.5 minute
piece? Palca responded by suggesting that, if taken as a whole, his body of work is
attempting to give people a notion of what science is all about.

As an illustration of this approach, Lehrman played Palca’s NPR story "Why Ants Handle
Traffic Better Than You Do" from January 19, 2015. 

Palca explained that the scientist who was studying the ant
behavior was probably wrong in his conclusion that ants don't jam up, suggesting that other
scientists he consulted thought the physics was wrong. Because there were so many
questions in his mind about the scientist’s conclusions, Palca believed that his findings were
not relevant as a news story, however, he felt that the story gave an idea that traffic
engineers can look at behavior in another discipline and he thought the story was cute and he
got jazzed about doing the traffic report (which begins this entertaining radio piece). Palca
stressed the importance of making the stories entertaining and finding ways to make the
ideas come alive with humor. He feels it is important to explain but not explain it too much,
adding that the web version of the story includes a hyperlink to more information.

Lehrman explained that in her own stories she writes critically about genetics and asks Palca
why he went with the ant story when he knew there might be problems with the underlying
science. Palca answered that he’s not making it out to be too important. With this story and
his series of stories, he’s aiming at less important science so as to not mislead anyone. He’s
showing the process of doing science, rather than the conclusion or outcome. In this way,
he’s attempting to point out what is interesting, and not worrying about what is “important.”
Explaining that he has to be respectful of people's time, as the forum for his stories is
Morning Edition, he tries to keep his pieces short and entertaining.

The second radio piece they played was a profile about a genetics researcher at UC Berkeley
who is forecasted to win the Nobel Prize.

Palca explained that in longer form journalism, you would storyboard before
you go out and do the reporting, which is how TV documentarians do it. He never does that;
he just wants to talk to them about what they're doing and why; explaining that most of the
time, he has no idea of the structure of the story. He listens through his recording for tape,
which he finds moving or compelling. Lehrman asked how he knows how complicated to
get into the details of the science. Palca explained that he has to decide what people need to
know to follow the story without making it so complicated that it would be hard to follow.
He added that he’s not trying to prove the story is worth covering; he wants his audience to
take it on faith that it's interesting.

Palca explained that his focus is on exploring the minds and motivations of inventors.
Lehrman countered that she wonders if he let the scientist in his story off the hook by not
questioning her about whether editing the genome is the most effective approach, and
whether it is the best way to allocate resources? Palca responded that we would have to
throw out 9/10ths of medical research if we thought solely about economics. Rather, he
wants to tackle stories of inventions before they get to the point of implementation. Here
he’s looking at the mind and process of inquiry. Palca added that is critical of some health
reporting because he thinks the health care system is a mess. In the past, he wrote articles
for Science about the limitations of cancer research, but that was for a scientific audience.
In terms of the Human Genome Project, “this whole business about genomes and
personalized medicine, give me a break! There are so few cases when it's helpful.” He also
added that it would be a conflict of interest to report on many of these stories now, since his
wife is the deputy director of the NIH. Lehrman asked if this means that don’t hear stories
on NPR about the NIH? Palca responded that he tries to get his colleagues to do them,
assuring her that NPR has more than one science reporter.

Andrew Mathews asked about ways that Palca is about to bring the domains of politics and
science together. Palca answered that he doesn’t think the scientific community has done a
good job at analyzing it's process. He added that he is skeptical that peer review leads to the
best research being funded. Raising the question of how does a journalist know which
stories are good or important leads to follow? Lehrman suggested that she thinks Palca is
underselling his news sense -- some journalists just follows the PRs, whereas Palca is
discerning what is the most important work and how can he highlight that. Palca counters
that he can be wrong, just as everyone is wrong and that no one knows what the important
story will be and that he doesn’t think journalists or scientists know until you have
retrospect. He added that both Science and Nature are more wrong than any other journals
because they are riskier. He states that this is the process of questioning - I'm done saying
you should listen to this because it's the most important thing happening - I don't know what
is the most important thing

Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, UCSC)
stated that she thought his Crisper story perpetuated a whole series of metaphors about
biology and genetics, simplifying the science and thereby reinforcing some of the most
destructive myths about genes by allowing the listener to believe that being able to edit
single gene diseases is going to be a fundamental breakthrough, rather than understanding
the reality of multi-gene interactions. She suggested that the story reinforces a public view
of science, which is destructive. Palca responded that “I give in more often than I like to.”
Haraway asked “what little tweaks could you have done that could have avoided that
problem?” Palca responded that he didn’t think they could build in that nuance. Haraway
suggested there was room to play with the metaphors and Palca stated that his difficulty was
getting across what how the scientist’s work would be useful and to get an audience with
limited attention and understanding to engage. He also added that he understands how he
perpetuates myths. Lehrman asked if he thought there was a feeling in science journalism
that the only thing people care about is cures to diseases. Palca said that his editor is the one
who talked with about what to include. He also suggested that the head of NIH goes to
Congress to say we're going to cure disease, not that the science which is being funded is
“good for learning.” Palca stated that he steers away from stories that seem to have cures
embedded in them, but still, it is received wisdom that the reason we're doing the work if for
medical cures and not knowledge in general.

Feb 20 | Plant Intelligence or Plant Signaling?

In recent years, plant scientists have been increasingly interested in complex forms of plant behavior, including in the ways in which plants communicate with each other by long distance electrical signals and by vesicle mediated transduction of auxins and other chemicals. For some scientists, the capacity of plants to anticipate, remember, and learn, is best captured by the concept of plant intelligence, in the emerging field of ‘plant neurobiology’, which focuses on plants’ capacities to share important information. For some researchers, the very term ‘neurobiology’ is a potentially distracting anthropomorphism which diverts attention from the actual capacities of plants which they see as utterly different from human conceptions of intelligence. Anthropologist Natasha Myers has studied practices of anthropomorphism in the natural sciences, and described how anthropomorphism can enable research questions as well as limiting them. In this event, Elizabeth van Volkenburgh will present her research on plant growth and adaptation to stress and then engage in a conversation with Natasha Myers around what is gained or lost by seeing plant communication as a form of intelligence.

Hosted by Andrew Mathews

Read Rap Report > Plant Intelligence or Plant Signaling?

Listen to event >
part 1: 

part 2:

 

Natasha Myers, Associate Professor of Anthropology at York University, Canada, is Director of the Institute for Science and Technology Studies. As an anthropologist of science and technology, her research examines a range of visual and performance cultures alive in the contemporary arts and biosciences. Her forthcoming book Rendering Life Molecular: Modelers, Models, and Excitable Matter (Duke University Press, 2015) is an ethnography of an interdisciplinary group of scientists who make living substance come to matter at the molecular scale. It explores how protein modelers’ multidimensional data forms are shifting the cusp of visibility, the contours of the biological imagination, and the nature of living substance. With support from SSHRC and an Early Researcher Award from the Ontario Government, she convened the Plant Studies Collaboratory to serve as a node for interdisciplinary research on plants in the ecologies and economies contoured by technoscience. In new work, she is investigating how the phenomena of plant sensing and communication are galvanizing inquiry in both the arts and the sciences.

E. Van Volkenburgh majored in Botany at Duke University (B.S. 1973), and worked for two years as a technician, at the Smithsonian Botany Department and at the Duke University Phytotron. She obtained a Ph.D. in Plant Physiology from the University of Washington (Ph.D. 1980) and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana (1980-81), University of Lancaster, UK (NATO Fellow 1981-82), and the University of Washington (1982-1985). Following two years as Research Assistant Professor, she was hired as an Assistant Professor in Botany at the University of Washington (1987) where she remains as Professor of Biology, and Adjunct Professor of Environmental and Forest Science. Her research is focused on the physiological mechanisms regulating cell and leaf expansion in plants. This work includes photobiology, electrophysiology, and connections to ecophysiology and agriculture. She is also exploring the new field of plant behavior, and leads the Society for Plant Signaling and Behavior.

Co-Sponsors: Departments of Anthropology, Environmental Studies, Literature, and Sociology.

"Plant Intelligence or Plant Signaling?"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
20 February 2015
Rapporteur Report by Samuael Topiary
In this provocative presentation, a packed house audience was treated to a fascinating
exploration of the ways in which one biologist is exploring the idea of plant intelligence.
Prof. van Volkenburgh presented her long time research into the ways in which corn and pea
crops deal with stress. In this work, van Volkenburgh studies the differences between wild
and cultivated plants in their responses to light exposure and water conditions in order to
understand the genetic aspects of drought tolerance. Comparing growth rates under different
light conditions, she was able to understand that plant photoreceptors that absorb blue & red
light are not chlorophyll but rather that the plant’s cells manage their growth based on light
and water conditions. She further explained that for certain strains of poplar and corn
hybrids, growth rate predicts yield and that certain types of commercially bred corn seed can
be shown to have less advantageous yields under drought conditions since light signaling
pathways influence growth rate. She thus concludes that high yield corn hybrids, which had
been selected for density and shade avoidance have inadvertently limited the (wild) corn’s
natural drought tolerance. She also demonstrated the ways in which corn, although
genetically perennial, has been bred as an annual and thus modern maize hybrids are not as
sensitive to light.

Van Volkenburgh concluded with a quote from Ambrose Bierce (1909) who suggested that
plants belong to the philosopher's class. She suggested that if we can increase our awareness
of what plants do, we might be able to breed plants that can deal with food scarcity in
Africa.

Natasha Myers, explained that she had originally trained as plant molecular biologist before
becoming an anthropologist. She explained that in her work, she studies stories about
energetic process and plant stress and suggested that there is a whole literature connected
with plant signaling and behavior, which addresses how plants respond to wounding,
environmental change. In looking to plants coping mechanism, Myers suggest that we can
learn how to cope with environmental changes. She also suggested that this is an
opportunity to imagine that plants are experimenting with ways of living and that whether or
not we accept that plants think, as we understand this term, we can see that plants also cope
with and transform in relationship to their environments.

Myers asked the audience to consider what we learn about curiosity from the ways that
plants explore the world? She pointed out the issue in the language we use to talk about
plants: whether to speak about plant behavior in a passive or an active voice, and how the
language we use points to the problems of telling stories which situate plants as agents with
intentionality.

How do we talk about plants' interestedness? Wary of the temptation to anthropomorphize
and raising the issue of its taboo in plant neurobiology, Myers challenged us to play with
and against this concept. She asked us to consider what is possible and to think about the
role of the passive voice in sciences, questioning whether conceptions of intentionality are
allowed into stories of biology. Van Volkenburgh responded to this provocation by asking
what anthropomorphizing means; whether it involves imbuing an object with human traits or
“my own human traits”? Highlighting the professional risks of being taken seriously as a
biologist, van Volkenburgh stated that she felt anthropomorphizing limited possibilities by
risking adding bias or limiting what could be imagined as possible within biology.

Myers followed up this idea by exploring the use of analogies as ways of opening up our
understandings of biology. She suggested that stories about interspecies co-evolution, such
as the intermingling of the wasp and orchid physiologies, offers new possibilities for
understanding. And yet, she points out that the literature seems to police pleasure. She
suggests that the scientific proscription against agency mirrors certain concepts in the social
science and humanities, such as theories by Foucault, which suggest that we have no
freedoms, and that this conceptualization is echoed in conceptions of biology, such as we are
just what our genes want. Myers asks: “does anything that is not human have intention?”
She suggests that if we push a little further and “plantify” our imaginations, perhaps
understandings of plant phenomenon can change our conceptions about ourselves.

Myers and van Volkenburgh discussed reasons to “plantify” concepts of communication and
cognition as offering possibilities to test assumptions currently in place in animal behavior
models. Van Volkenburgh cited Philosophy of Plant Cognition by Paco Calvo as a book
which draws attention to ways people look at plants and explores the concept of plants as
reactive as compared with humans as proactive. She suggested, rather, that we think of this
as a spectrum and matter of degree and preference; undermining the notion that humans
have some special or unique role in evolution and encouraging us to see all biological
organisms as connected. She suggested that there are two ways of looking at cognition: a
bottom up way of learning which accumulates the info that constructs knowledge; and a
difference way, where consciousness knows something in general and then takes info and
compares it with what comes as surprising or inconsistent with that vision and where the
element of surprise drives learning. In this second philosophy of cognition, plant cognition
is a better way to look for that kind of approach to knowledge and learning.

When asked about her feeling about the book The Secret Life of Plants, van Volkenburgh
revealed that it was the book that made her apply to grad school. However, she said that
funding at the NSF dried up and careers were sidelined and that she wasn't only one who
received pushback from older plant physiologists against this way of thinking. She said,
however, that what arborists, farmers and vegetable gardeners know what they know and
that she has had an arborist bend her ear about this kind of knowledge, but that generally,
scientists are not open to it.

Myers talked about research on electrophysiology done in the late 19th century in India,
looking at the behavior and misbehavior of metals and plant irritability, and how that line of
inquiry was denigrated by colonial science and racism. This line of research got swept up
into the interest in what psychotropic plants can do to humans. However, she suggests, now
is the moment for the re-legitimization of plant neuro-physionomy.

Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, UCSC)
stated that this panel brings up questions of metaphor and language, such as those used in
primate behavior studies where competition was quantifiable and friendship was ‘woo woo’.
She suggested that the “machinomorphic” language, which is seen as non-anthropomorphic,
really does the opposite. Haraway questioned the use of the word “neuro-physionomy,”
suggesting that changing the “neuro,” (which she suggested is “over-owned,”) might be too
up hill, but wondered if there were other words which could get at "the stuff plants are up
to" which are less colonized. Van Volkenburgh responded that the choice of the name was a
product of organizational compromises. Haraway followed up by asking her what are the
words she would use if she had control over the scene? Van Volkenburgh spoke about
another possibility which had been floated but it was felt the name had to be something that
is commonly recognized to mean 'what plants are up to.' Myers interjected that plants are
so much cooler than humans and why denigrate plants with these human terms? Why put
plants on level of consciousness when they're going to lose; they'll always be lesser us. She
asked why not foreground those things that plants can do that we can't and attempt to and
foreground these capacities, like photosynthesis, which would bring out another sensibility
of plant capacity and thus implicitly suggest how unskilled we are?

Beth Stephens, Professor of Art, identified herself as an ecosexual, tree hugger and talked
about doing workshop in which the participants hug trees and playfully asked about whether
the tree can consent? She suggested that watching a cellist hug her cello, or seeing books, or
the wood molding in the room, demonstrated the generosity of plants. She said that plants
are giving us oxygen and food, and what are flowers if not the ultimate in play—the
genitalia of plants? Stephens said that if we took anthropomorphizing seriously, we would
have to take responsibility for all the destruction of plants that we have wrought. She
followed up by asking about the possibility of plants using different types of signals,
wondering if they could use dishonest signals and whether plants have any capability of
intention? Van Volkenburgh responded that her definition of signal was rudimentary and
that a signal for her means only incoming information. Myers clarified that plants are
responsive to information coming from their environment, such as changes of temperature,
light, and heat. In plant behavioral ecology, plants generate bouquets and create an
atmosphere of senses that can be picked up and turned into signals for other plants and
animals. In this sense, dishonesty would be a kind of mimicry that thwarts the signal as
information, in other words, a kind of disinformation. This notion is of honest and dishonest
is stuck in a model of the world with internal vs external realities, in which organisms can
fail or succeed in representing and is based on a representationalist model of the senses.

Myers continued this line of thinking by asking: “why begin with doubt?” Plants can pay
attention and they have a willingness to stick it out. Their sensory antennae are such that if
they fail to pay attention, they are dead. Why not think of plants as beings that are sensing
and changing their environments and are anticipating the future. In this way, Myers
suggests, plants have a model of the future, seen in the vernalization process. Sunflowers
can be thought of as anticipatory, opening to where sun will come up. We have to shift our
assumptions about these concepts and think about what they might need to know about the
world to cultivate different kinds of respect for these organisms.

Feb 11 | Collaborating to Learn about Wicked Problems: Water, Food, and Energy in Rural India

Ashwini Chhatre, Professor of Geography at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Senior Research Fellow/Visiting Professor at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad presented a talk about sustainable development in rural India as a wicked problem.  Hosted by Andrew Mathews, SJRC Acting Director, the discussion following the talk was moderated by Ben Crow, Professor of Sociology, UC Santa Cruz.

A wicked problem is difficult or impossible to solve because of complex interdependencies, and the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem reveals or creates other problems. This is particularly true for agriculture-based rural livelihoods in India’s vast hinterland, which require tightly, connected household strategies to secure water, food, and energy under the shadow of an unpredictable monsoon regime. Interventions to improve rural livelihoods, with the best possible intentions, fail to have an impact in an unacceptably high proportion of cases, and often produce unintended and undesirable consequences for society and the environment. For example, an intervention to increase organic manure to improve soil fertility can easily set off a cascade where cowdung is used as domestic fuel. Women will have to collect more firewood, perhaps from farther forests, decreasing forest condition. The firewood will be of inferior quality, increasing adverse health impacts from indoor air pollution. Greater workloads for women will translate into higher classroom absenteeism and some girls will drop out of school completely. The diversity of disciplinary lenses required to simply outline the boundary of such a cascade is challenging enough; to try and bring these diverse perspectives to bear on improving the actual outcomes is a herculean task. But the pattern of outcomes is not unusual at all. Such a pattern with respect to a long list of well-meaning development interventions can only be described as shooting in the dark, and occasionally shooting ourselves in the foot. This requires a creative response to the design and evaluation of interventions for improvement of rural livelihoods. It requires harnessing research, education, and practice in ways that enable a learning-while-doing approach to sustainable development. By definition, wicked problems do not have a solution. The sustainable development challenge can, however, be formulated as one of identifying the combinations of interventions necessary in specific contexts that improve the possibility of improvements and reduce the incidence of adverse outcomes. This presentation describes such a collaboration between NGOs, researchers, and public agencies in India, with an emphasis on the challenge of producing a body of knowledge that is credible, legitimate, and salient with all relevant actors across multiple scales.

Ashwini Chhatre has recently relocated from the University of Illinois to India from the US to serve on the faculty at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Ashwini has an undergraduate degree in Economics from the University of Delhi and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Duke University. In between, he spent 11 years working with local communities and social movements on democratic governance of natural resources in India. Ashwini was the Giorgio Ruffolo Post-doctoral Fellow in Sustainability Science at Harvard University during 2006-07, and serves as a faculty member in the Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 2007. Ashwini’s research investigates the intersection of democracy with environment and development, with a more recent focus on rural livelihood dynamics in rainfed systems across agro-ecological and socio-political contexts. Ashwini has co-authored one book and published articles in Science, PNAS, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Conservation Biology, Journal of Peasant Studies, World Development, and other journals.

Ben Crow is a professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz. He trained and worked as an engineer in London and Africa, and was an activist and volunteer in South Asia, before becoming a social scientist. His PhD is from Edinburgh University in Scotland, and he taught at the Open University in UK and at Stanford and UC Berkeley before coming to UCSC. He has done research on conflict and cooperation over international rivers in South Asia, leading to a book Sharing the Ganges: the politics and technology of river development; on traders, township markets and the making of social classes in rural Bangladesh (Markets, Class and Social Change: Trading Networks and Poverty in South Asia); on global inequalities (The UC Atlas of Global Inequality (online) and The Atlas of Global Inequalities, with Suresh Lodha). His current work explores how access to household water in low-income urban settlements shapes the time and constrains the prospects of poor households and how the global idea of adequate water access promoted by international institutions - ‘safe drinking water’ - limits understanding and social change to improve water access and reduce poverty.

"Collaborating to Learn about Wicked Problems: Water, Food, and Energy in Rural India"Wednesday,
SJWG Rapporteur Report
11 February 2015
Rapporteur Report by Samuael Topiary
Professor Chhatre provided an introduction to the “wicked problems” of sustainable development in rural India
where attempts to alleviate poverty and malnutrition and develop new approaches to agricultural development can
create unintended consequences. He provided us with stories, lessons and insights from his work on
interdisciplinary approaches which seek to link disparate perspectives from academia, journalism and NGO work in
order to change attitudes, restructure public investment in agriculture and produce desirable outcomes.
Professor Chhatre began by explaining that wicked problems are ones in which there is no clear solution to a
problem and that all efforts to address this problem create or reveal more problems. He suggested that this situation
creates a boundary problem whereby issues cascade across disciplines and make the original problem seem
impossible to address. In attempting to seek solutions to the huge issue of rural poverty and malnutrition in India,
Prof. Chhatre described a three-pronged approach in which small-scale “proof of concept” projects are created in
seven different locations in India. He stressed the importance of the scale of each project, which had to involve
several thousand people, in order for the scale to be large enough. These pilot projects involved the integration of
multiple layers of interventions: approaching the issue of rural poverty and malnutrition by intervening in different
aspects of agriculture and food distribution. These multiple layers include soil, seeds and water access, converged
with public investments. The multidisciplinary approach of his work included economic analyses of agricultural
subsidies (who receives what subsidies and where) as well as of food storage systems and places in which food
waste occurs.

Professor Chhatre described a system-wide approach to analysis which includes environmental cost considerations
and can generate alternative ideas, such as implementing incentives which advocate for better food production (what
plants can be most environmentally efficiently grown where) and the distribution systems (how can transportation
and storage needs be modified by growing more food locally). He stressed the importance of collaborating with
government agencies in order to generate knowledge and change behaviors, as well as the importance in generating
knowledge which captures the complexity of rural livelihoods. This approach thinks about agriculture in relation to
other systems and is founded on place-based knowledge about local cultures which can bring an awareness of
unintended negative consequences and can make improvements that learn from problems. This approach, a learning
while doing approach, leads to a research framework which can thus make claims about what works and what
doesn’t work.

After discussing this approach as a general interdisciplinary framework for research, Chhatre described three
concepts that “get in the way,” and serve as ideological blindspots which naturalize the status quo in ways that are
difficult to see. These concepts are 1) the Discount Rate as a predictor of the future; 2) price as indicator of
scarcity; and 3) productivity per hectare as a measure of performance. In each case, the economic assumptions
which underlie the capitalist system at work in agriculture are seen as obstacles which must be understood,
debunked and overcome.

Following Prof. Chhatre’s presentation, Ben Crowe asked how is he able to work with economists in the face of his
underlying critique of standard economic ideologies. Chhatre responded that he cannot collaborate with economists,
but rather he finds it more productive to work with philosophers. Because he questions underlying assumptions
about Economic Growth and “fetishized” assumptions about India’s rate of growth (generally understood to be 5.5%
annually), Chhatre suggested there would be no need to confront tropes of economic growth if people are better fed
and that the question for India should be focused on equity and distribution of wealth rather than growth. He also
suggested that one road to amelioration of India’s poverty issues is in open outcomes, where farmers have the option
of going to market on their own terms. A number of questions in the audience focused on labor issues and the notion
of the aspirations of young people growing up in rural areas.

Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, UCSC) asked about the issue of
scale and Chhatre’s early suggestion around thinking about abundance, rather than being trapped with scarcity
thinking. Chhatre responded by explaining that in order for NGO’s to act as a substitute to government and to
become an agent for government change takes a long time. The instinct for NGO’s is to help people directly, but this
does not produce long-term, systemic change. Therefore, Chhatre suggests there must be new approaches tried.
One of these approaches is using middle school children for data collection and reporting. For example, they have
the school children collect rain fall data and when certain flowers start blooming. In this way, they reduce the need
for expensive monitoring equipment, and include students in the process; allowing them to visualize ideas for
themselves and seeing themselves as the drivers of change.

Andrew Mathews asked how to avoid creating wicked problems. Chhatre clarified that his approach reframes
situations not as choices between but rather as a choice to put together elements differently in such as way that a
system of public investments can be put in place and combined in ways which work locally so that it is possible for
these new approaches to happen. For example, in creating an incentive for farmers to use organic manure in order to
replace chemical fertilizers they have to work through the cascades of effects that this change will create. So, being
able to see that this change in fertilizer means that the use of cow dung will be diverted from its previous use as fuel
which will also mean that women will have to spend more time transporting the dung to the fields and collecting
firewood or shift to inferior fuels. In other words, this shift to organic fertilizer will end up increasing a burden on
women and could also result in increasing girls’ absenteeism from schools. People intervening in soil don’t think to
ask about the state of the local forest or whether girls go to school. Chhatre’s approach shifts from a focus on
singular intervention to combining multiple interventions, which can account for the energy deficit and therefore
combine the shift to organic fertilizer with kerosene subsidies, so the cascade effect can be nipped in the bud and
women’s labor valued. This approach necessitates asking what else is missing and how to monitor that? Mathews
points out that this focus on multiplicities avoids “empty world thinking.”

The conversation continued with other questions about water systems and questions which address new ways of
understanding the legacy of the Green Revolution. Haraway added that this approach emphasizes actual knowledges
and practices of actual workings over modeling and abstractions or theory. She suggested that we have outmoded
notions of knowledge and that this complex systems theories in which multi-factor processes allow us to let go of a
certain need for precision. She stressed the importance of interdisciplinary communication and expressed optimism
for this approach.