The theme of University Press Week 2017 is #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters.
In today’s political climate—where “fake news” and “alternate facts” are believed by so many people—valuing expertise and knowledge can feel like a radical act. University presses not only believe in facts and knowledge, but traffic in them daily, publishing approximately 14,000 books and more than 1,100 journals each year, read by people around the globe.
In line with this theme, we’d like to alert readers to a few things happening locally. Milkweed Editions, in partnership with PEN America and The Riveter, is hosting Be The Facts You Wish to Read: A press freedom panel discussion with local journalists and authors, 6:00PM on Monday, November 20th, in downtown Minneapolis.
More info || RSVP
At the beginning of 2017, the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul launched a monthly “Book Gathering” series, which spotlights timely topics, community events, local organizations, and relevant booklists. Materials are listed here.
Now, we bring you to an essay by author John Hartigan Jr. about the precarious state of facts and knowledge today. Thanks for reading.
BY JOHN HARTIGAN JR.
University of Texas, Austin
The current surge in “climate change denial” and “alternative facts” offers an opportunity to reflect on social constructionist arguments about scientific knowledge. Versions of such claims are longstanding but they were critically highlighted in the “science wars,” a series of academic skirmishes over the status of facts—artificial products or realist glimpses of a world “out there”? The polemical contours of that moment are cast in strange relief by recent contests over the disappearance of scientific reports from government websites. An object of knowledge as massively complex and unwieldy as “climate change” is a singular example of the constructedness of scientific claims; yet few who chanted “socially constructed” then seem inclined to do so now. That reaction appears squelched by anxious concerns that such hard-won facts be maintained and promoted.
What happened to social construction, and how does that stance matter now? In broad domains of critical thinking pertaining to race and gender, it never went away and remains a mainstay of classroom lectures and introductory comments in department talks. Even as genetics research created increasingly tangible and realist renderings of racial thinking, “race is socially constructed” stays a mantra for turning attention from scientific claims and towards the social ways that “race matters.” My own work on race and genetics, sometime ago, diagnosed this problem in Latourian terms: race continues to “gain in reality” despite constructivist critiques. Bruno Latour, of course, is a touchstone for these questions; he claims his counsel is now sought by climate scientists nervously contending with the perilous state of their facts. But in this account, what stands out is his glib sense of what was at stake in his previous work: “it felt good to put scientists down a little.”
Looking back over the last couple of decades of generative work in science and technology studies (STS), two things are apparent. First, the task and motivation initially seemed animated by a desire to assail the inaccessibility of science and to rupture the implacable visage of its singular facts. Indeed, the challenge, especially for ethnographers working in labs, was to gain access to the sites of knowledge production; additionally, there were hurdles of being taken seriously by scientists, who saw little to gain from (or comprehend in) considering a cultural perspective on their labor. Second, such accounts perhaps mimicked the orientation of their subjects’ fixation on the end results, the artifacts of scientific production. There was not much attention to knowledge base from which these were generated, the slowly assembled, largely reliable understanding of how the world works.
Today the situation is different—STS scholars are approaching scientific knowledge with an altered sensibility and orientation towards how their accounts may matter. Simply, we too are engaged in a process of knowing the world, not just critiquing certain authoritative claims about its operations. And it’s increasingly apparent that navigating our world requires multiple forms of expertise; questions and contests over access are generating an alternative approach. That is to use ethnography to tap the expertise of scientists and make it accessible to publics contending with the challenge of knowing our complex world. This is evident in Lisa Messeri’s Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. As cultural critics like Gayatri Spivak and Paul Gilroy promote “planetarity” or “the planetary” as means of conjuring an anti-racist solidarity for our species, Messeri suggest these efforts might learn something from her ethnographic subjects, planetary scientists. These researches have honed and realized a “planetary imagination,” “one that has been professionally productive for scientists and perhaps can also be meaningful for social scientists and humanists who similarly grapple with planetary phenomena” (2017:12). That is, rather than just deconstructing their facts, there’s something of value to learn here. That ethnography is an excellent means for making that knowledge base accessible is further borne out in Priscilla Song’s ethnographic account (Biomedical Odysseys) of “how an alternative form of biological knowledge is reshaping human relations and futures” (2017:4). As well, Candis Callison use ethnography (How Climate Change Comes to Matter) “to excavate climate change as a multiply instantiated fact, with varying scientific, political ethical and moral contours” (2014:22). In her account, climate change is “an emergent form of life,” one we are struggling to know and understand; such efforts are not advanced or enhanced by regarding it as “social construction.”
My own efforts to assail the social constructedness of race (Care of the Species) eventually led me to a national plant genomics institute in Mexico, where researchers were studying “razas de maíz” or races of corn. Initially, I seized on fluctuating assessments of how many such races exist—59, 62, or 48, depending on whether you ask breeders or geneticists—to conclude that the razas are social constructs. Before long, though, I realized such a tart finding kept me from learning much about maize in all its varieties. Once I moved past treating these geneticists as ciphers for racial ideology, they were able to teach me to recognize how these distinctive life forms are reflections of the huge climatic and geographic variation in Mexico, and that biomes worked together with ethnicity to generate morphologically distinctive plants. This does not suggest “race is real” in any simplistic manner; “raza,” in Spanish is used on domesticated species, not natural ones, reflecting the history of the concept, which predates its application to humans. As well, when I then ventured into the botanical gardens in Spain—first to learn this history, then to regard these sites ethnographically—I initially fixated on tumultuous points of uncertainty within taxonomy; again because I trained to analyze social constructions. Gradually, I grew more impressed with taxonomists’ capacity—despite the constructedness of species—to discern and recognize botanical forms. And as I thought about the devilish predicament of rapid extinctions of both plant and animal life forms, their expertise warranted a better accounting than social construction affords. Fortunately, botanical gardens are designed exactly with this end in mind, to introduce people to plants they’ve never met before. I encourage you to visit one soon.
As we think about the precarious status of facts and knowledge today, we need to reconsider the tendency toward critique that dominates in the humanities. The world we live in requires manifold forms of expertise; a critical consciousness isn’t sufficient. We need to devise ways to combine both in addressing enduring problems of access to science. Our accounts of natural science research are means, certainly, to foster a critical stance on facts, but also to promote the fundamental forms of scientific literacy required of understanding something as complicated as climate change.
John Hartigan Jr. is author of Care of the Species: Races of Corn and the Science of Plant Biodiversity and Director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies, University of Texas, Austin. Hartigan is on Twitter @aesopsanthro as Aesop’s Anthro.