Plan for Today
- Technological Determinism vs. Social Construction of Technology
- Move onto Ch. 5 & 6 in Collins & Pinch
- Midterm Exam is online next Tuesday, 10/20
- Now is a good time to set that calendar reminder…
Technological Determinism vs. Social Construction of Technology
Make sure you understand the difference between the two concepts below. This class privileges a social construction of technology point of view.
- Technological determinism: the idea that a technology is created in a vacuum devoid of social need; often, a lone inventor or team “discovers” a tool that changes social values.
- Social construction of technology: the idea that society and (usually hegemonic) cultural values drive technological creation; inventors pursue new tools based on their understanding or inspiration from prevailing social ideology.
Although this class privileges social constructions of technology, there is a dialectical relationship to consider. The mobile phone–smart or otherwise–is the latest incarnation of a tool for humans to communicate quickly over vast distances. Humans have pursued communication technologies for millennia. However, these tools do change practices and behaviors, but it’s more complicated than claiming they change values. Our adoption of these tools has changed our expectations: we assume we can get a hold of anyone instantly, we consider the phone a security apparatus, we don’t ask “what are you doing” but “where are you” when the receiver answers, etc. Don’t get me started on people wandering the grocery store (or any store) while glued to their phone…
Chapter 5: “Tidings of Comfort and Joy: Seven Wise Men and the Science of Economics”
One of the keys to understanding this chapter is to understand why it is in a volume purportedly about technology. Throughout the chapter, Collins & Pinch refer to the science of economics. Well, just like a good economist, we can be 95% certain that their reasons have much to do with their definition of technology: the application of science. Economics is a social science, relying heavily on mathematics and statistics to predict human behavior as it relates to financial decisions. Economics is a technology; it is a tool for managing, arguably, the most important aspect of a society—its means of production. Economics, as the plural indicates, isn’t a single tool but a series of tools for managing, predicting, and discussing production and consumption. It’s also an imperfect tool not guided by natural laws; instead, it’s guided by policies mired in experimenter’s regress (“technologist’s regress” as Collins & Pinch mention [p. 141]). With few exceptions on the macro level (the big picture of the economy), econometric modelers (modellers for Collins & Pinch) have no where near an accurate model for the economy. Yet those modelers might be the best ones to put in charge of the economy.
Three Things to Take Away
- US Presidents (and Congress for that matter) get more credit and blame than they deserve for what happens in the economy. One’s political standpoint often constructs one’s economic worldview. Politicians use the voters’ biases to garner support for their particular economic policies:
Cutting taxes, reducing deficits, deregulating “free” markets all seem straightforward when listening to politicians (or economists) in sound bite media.
- An economist’s most used expression—“all things being equal”—melts into air because all things are never equal when modeling the outcome of economic behaviors and policies.
- Possibly, the experts on economics are the ones who spend so much time modeling, re-modeling, and explaining economic forecasts. That dedication makes them more likely to understand the economy.
- Maybe a syllogism is appropriate to understand this idea:
Major Premise: To be an expert in any subject, one must devote time to that subject.
Minor Premise: Economists dedicate much of their time to forecasting and analyzing economic trends.
Conclusion: Therefore, economists are experts on the economy.
- Maybe a syllogism is appropriate to understand this idea:
What’s implied in the conclusion is that they should be trusted. I don’t want to give the impression that economists don’t know what they’re talking about. However, Collins & Pinch point out that, just like the weather, it’s harder to predict too far into the future.
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
–Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Check out Bill Phillips’s Hydraulic model of the economy:
- p. 124: “[M]acroeconomic modellers…use equations to build a model of the economy.”
- p. 125: Many, many variables in a full macroeconomic model.
- p. 126: Consider the “simple” equation for consumption: C= 2/3*Y
Basically, this means consumers (a household or individual) will spend two-thirds of their income. But then Collins & Pinch complicate it…not so simple an equation.
- p. 126: Models are based on past events—“the numbers in the equations have to be obtained by looking at how things happened in the past.”
- p. 127: “[E]xogenous variables include the state of the world economy, the price of oil, undecided government policies, and so forth, all of which are likely to be far more complex to model than the national economy itself.”
- What makes the price of oil an exogenous variable?
- What have politicians and forecasters said about the recent drop in oil prices?
- What do they claim consumers are doing because of the drop?
- p. 128: There are ranges of possibilities that economists claim to be 95% confident will be presented. They can offer “error bars,” but those “underestimate the true error because [they take] into account only those mistakes which have a well understood statistical pattern.”
Again, all things being equal.
- p. 129: “Retrodict” = retrofitting + predicting. “[N]early all the macroeconomic models we have in Britain are successful at predicting the past.”
- p. 133: “Not only is there no agreement about which models are best, there is no agreement about what it would be to be the best.”
- p. 140: Who’s to blame? Collins & Pinch point out that “Britton is suggestion that it was not the model but the economy that was wrong.” In other words, Britton’s model was correct, but “the underlying economy had changed.”
Metaphor of the Sea (and Weather in General)
As mentioned last week, we describe things through comparison; we compare a common idea to an unfamiliar concept to explain it. Collins & Pinch use the weather and tides to compare to economic forecasts—neither can be accurately predicted but get close the closer (sooner) they are to a prediction. They quote Andrew Britton who claims modelers use their judgment when constructing their models: “intuition…has its place in the sciences and that it’s the people who are intuitive who are successful” (p. 135). Remember, QT was a successful energy beam operator and relied on intuition, reason and not empirical data. Consider the expertise of a captain at sea. The sea changes constantly, so captains must rely on intuition and refined assumptions to navigate safely. That’s similar to econometricians.
- p. 136: “[T]here is never any expectation that one is developing the kind of truth, accuracy, and replicability which we expect under the standard model of science.”
- p. 144: “Weather forecasting and econometric forecasting are similar in that they try to model extremely complex systems with sets of interacting equations.”
- And, just like a Captain…
- p. 146: “It may be that macroeconomic modellers, as a result of the prolonged attention to the economy that is required of those who are to have professional credence in the modelling community, know more about the working of economies than most other people.”
- p. 146-147: “[T]he value of expert advice should be judged on the expertise of the advisors, not on the scientific appearance of their procedures”
The Economic Lessons of The Rhetoric of Technology
Lesson 1: Powerful Forecasters Can Predict, Define, and Shape Simultaneously
- p. 148: An economist’s “proximity to the markets enables [him or her] to keep a little ahead of those whose information comes to them second-hand.”
- p. 148: “If you are a powerful forecaster…the more people believe you, the more likely is it that your forecast will come true.”
These powerful forecasters convey the meaning of the models and the economy itself.
The economy runs on our assumptions that exchange is valuable. Money and credit is valuable because we’ve been indoctrinated to believe it’s valuable. We can be certain (well, 95% certain) that most consumers will make rational decisions with their money. If most do that, we can make small predictions…based on what we’ve seen in the past. Don’t let ANYONE tell you any economic policy will lead to a definite outcome. We can find empirical examples for when the following policies worked and didn’t work: Cutting taxes leads to growth; increasing taxes reduces the deficit; investing in this will yield high returns. After all, not only do economists state “all things being equal,” but financial planners always warn (even if it’s just in fine print): “past performance is not a predictor of future results.”
There’s also a problem with the “certainty” that people make rational decisions with their money. Americans spend lots of money on gifts during Christmas, but the value for the recipient is much less than what the buyer paid for the gift. More information on that discussion is here. No, seriously, buying gifts is a waste of money.
Lesson 2: The Complexity of the Economy is Lost on the Public
We operate and spend money or assume economic increases or decreases based on ideas from imperfect theories that cannot predict accurate results; therefore, how certain can we be when politicians claim X, Y, or Z will be good or bad for the economy? They aren’t certain, but that doesn’t stop lay audiences from drawing decisive conclusions based on their belief in simple economic truisms. No fact is self-evident, especially, economic “facts.” However, meaning is conveyed by ideas surrounding the economy, a technology. Consider where most people learn economic theories and assumed facts…is it from a textbook or a talking head on TV?
Chapter 6: “The Science of the Lambs: Chernobyl and the Cumbrian Sheep Farmers”
Sheep liver goes well with fava beans and a nice Chianti…
This chapter may also initially seem like it belongs in Collins & Pinch’s first volume on science. However, farming is a technology. We might not see farm animals as technologies, but they have been bred and controlled to yield certain attributes based on market demands. This goes for plants. Corn doesn’t grow in nice blocked off areas naturally—it’s been planted. Likewise, there’s nothing natural about chickens you eat. They didn’t evolve to live in coops on farms. Farming techniques were some of the first tools that came about when humans started living in permanent settlements. What can we say about hunter-gatherer peoples vs. farming peoples? Well, we can read much about their ideologies through the technologies they use.
The rhetoric of technology apparent in this chapter revolves around the beliefs and attitudes the lay and quasi-lay publics have about expert opinion. The farmers—rightly and wrongly—concluded that the experts weren’t to be trusted. This mistrust, a serious problem Collins & Pinch feel is a byproduct of Golem science, led farmers to be more susceptible to believe in conspiracy theories. Because these scientists came from the government, the mistrust was compounded. The rhetoric of technology shows us that people draw meaning from technology (and science) based on their own biased filters. If they’re generally distrustful of the government, they might dismiss expert opinion too quickly. This chapter is an example of how the public can lose trust in the experts.
Three Things to Take Away from Ch. 6
- All farming—including sheep farming—is a technology.
- Can’t treat livestock the same way scientists control for lab experiments. They aren’t rats bred for lab tests.
- The rhetoric of technology (or science) extends to the lay public’s beliefs; right or wrong, that conveys meaning, it helps define a technology, regardless of validity.
Questions (time permitting)
- What are the issues surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
- What makes a food product able to be marked as “organic”?
- How does a report about radiation or radioactivity affect your perception of safety whether it be for food, atmosphere, or something else?
- Why do you trust or not trust the governmental organizations responsible for ensuring safety in agricultural and medicinal products? These would be organizations, such as the FDA, USDA, FTC, etc.
We’ve read about the concerns and problems for showing the existence of the invisible. Because one can’t see radiation, one has to rely on special instruments to detect it. These instruments aren’t household items like thermometers, carbon monoxide detectors, or hard water/pH testing strips. Although there are commercially available Geiger counters, most people don’t go around testing all the elevator buttons they come into contact with. Mostly, the public relies on experts employed by the government to assure them that there aren’t any radiation concerns nearby. The experts report the results of radiation tests (or other environmental tests) by claiming what’s safe or unsafe. They don’t go into detail as to how they derived those results. Depending on the audience’s faith (or lack thereof) in the experts, the public could draw different conclusions. Whether it’s lead or radiation, there are “acceptable levels”—often measured in parts per trillion—of contaminants. Hearing that there are carcinogens in the food we eat can be alarming if the public doesn’t understand how small the amounts are.
I’m sure you’ve been told to avoid chemicals. Well, you can’t. Chemicals are everywhere and chemistry is the study of matter. Even water has a chemical compound, H2O. However, a popular assumption is that when we hear about chemicals, we assume that means pollutants or harmful substances. When confronting a non-expert public, one must choose words carefully.
- p. 151: Don’t trust milk! “Some citizens took matters into their own hands and refused to buy diary products.”
How much radiation is allowed in the water and soil in the US?
How much radiation are we exposed to? (MIT, 5 Jan. 1994)
- p. 152: Assumption that radiation levels would dissipate in lambs. “The hill lambs were still young and the hope was that the high levels of radiation would decrease naturally before they were taken to market.”
- p. 153: “[The farmers] were also most unimpressed with the scientists’ arrogance and their vacillating pronouncements. Their faith in scientific expertise was undermined.”
- p. 154: Predictions were off. “[S]cientists underestimated two aspects of rain-borne radiation.”
- p. 154: Different soils, different absorptions. “The scientists gave flawed advice because they failed to take into account the special geological conditions in Cumbria.”
- p. 155: “What particularly dismayed the farmers was the overweening certainty with which the scientists made pronouncements, their refusal to admit mistakes, and to give any credence to the sheepfarmers’ knowledge.”
- p. 155: Serious problems controlling for variables.
- p. 156: Scientists didn’t understand sheep behavior to the level of the farmers.
- p. 162: Farmers lost faith in the experts. They were wrong in one area, so they could be wrong in other areas—especially when the farmers were upset about Sellafield concerns being dismissed.
“[O]nly about half of the observed radioactive caesium (si-zi-um) came from Chernobyl, with the rest originating in ‘other sources’ such as weapons testing fallout and the 1957 Sellafield fire.”
Farmers Draw Conclusions
- p. 163: “The farmers were unimpressed by what they saw as scientists’ overconfidence and false certainty.”
- p. 163: Conspiracy Theory—“[T]he authorities were waiting for Chernobyl to occur in order to give them the perfect excuse to pass off the previous unacknowledged contamination from the Sellafield plant.”
- p. 163: “[T]he scientists must have fallen victim to political pressure from the government” according to Wynne.
- p. 164: “[The scientists] made over-confident claims which, in the long term, were unsustainable.”
Also, think about the dilemma scientists and government are under. They don’t want to alarm citizens or make statements that haven’t been fully vetted. However, as mad as the public could be about a rush to judgment, what might the public think if the experts—after a radiation disaster—claimed they don’t have all the facts in, so they don’t know what’s safe or not?
Lessons from Observing Radiation Outside of a Controlled Lab Setting
- p. 155: “What no one contemplated was that the caesium might pose an indirect chemical-biological threat by absorption into roots and then ingestion into sheep.”
- p. 157: Can’t just sell the lambs later. Sheepfarming “runs completely counter to the rigidity of the bureaucratic method for dealing with the crisis” (Wynne, 1989, p. 33)
- p. 159: “Many local practices and judgments important to hill farming were unknown to experts, who assumed that scientific knowledge could be applied without adjusting to local circumstances.” (Wynne, 1989, p. 34)
More Understanding About (golem) Science Needed
- p. 164: “Flipping to and fro between science being all about certainty and science being a political conspiracy is an undesirable state of affairs.”
- Pay particular attention to this situation. Later this semester, we’ll read a few articles about the WHO’s and CDC’s early conflicting advice about the protections facial coverings give for COVID-19.
- Yes, social distancing and facial coverings are good steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
- What you should hone in on is that when new science issues come out (especially epidemics), it’s hard to expect CERTAINTY when scientists don’t have enough facts or haven’t been able to make enough observations.
- If the public thinks that means “scientists don’t know anything,” that’s wrong. Scientists need time to observe, test, and report on what they’ve learned:
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. (Voltaire)
- p. 164: Government as the protector. “In Britain the official response to public health risks has traditionally been paternalistic reassurance. The government judges that the danger of panic usually outweighs any real risk to its citizens.”
- p. 165: Need a more stable relationship between experts and the public.
Keep up with the reading. We’ll be finishing Collins & Pinch’s The Golem at Large: What You Should Know about Technology this week. Make sure you do your Canvas post this week by Friday, 10/16, at 11:00pm. Don’t forget, your Midterm Exam is a week from today–10/20/2020 on Canvas...is that reminder set?