Category Archives: Lee

The High Quality Research Act: Searching for Ways Beyond "Politicization"

This post is a continuation of our on-going discussion here at American Science of Rep. Lamar Smith’s High Quality Research Act (HQRA), which would cut the National Science Foundation’s funding to certain kinds of research, especially in the social sciences.

It was only a matter of time before someone dropped the p-word, “politicization,” in discussions of the HQRA. It’s a word that haunts these kinds of topics. The first appearance of the word in this context that I noticed was in this post by Michael McAuliff and Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post.

I want to question and probe their discussion.

McAuliff and Grim use the p-word in their first paragraph when they write that the HQRA “would in effect politicize decisions made by the National Science Foundation.” They never define the term. They then go on to quote approvingly from a letter that Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) wrote to Lamar Smith: “This [the HQRA] is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely regarded as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world.” They summarize Johnson’s letter as claiming that the HQRA was a “dangerous politicization of one of the most successful scientific research promoters in history.” Politicization isn’t Johnson’s word; it’s theirs, though Johnson does use close approximates like “political intrusion” and “political pressure.”

Johnson also lays out this beaut of an argument, which I pull from his letter: The “NSF’s peer review process” has been “the gold standard for how scientific proposals should be judged and funded.” And “in this context, the term ‘peer’ is not simply a fellow citizen as we encounter on a courtroom jury. It means very specifically another scientist with expertise in at least some aspect of the science being proposed.” Therefore: “Politicians, even a distinguished Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, cannot be ‘peers’ in any meaningful sense.”

Democracy Be Damned!!!!

What is going on here?

As many in science and technology studies have argued, the rhetoric of politicization assumes that science is somehow non- or a-political. It is a favored rhetorical strategy of many popular science writers, especially progressives criticizing the right, including academics, like Naomi Oreskes, and science journalists, like Chris Mooney. There are lots of things wrong with politicization as an argumentative ploy. First off, it’s too simple. It’s not an accurate picture of reality. Also, it typically leads to a too easy polarization of politics: there are good guys, and there are bad guys, and we know who they are. And frequently it ends up with choir-preaching. It’s no surprise that Mooney went from talking about the right-wing politicization of science in his first book to arguing that Republicans have bad brains in his most recent one. Forget the Socratic injunction that the wise person knows that she doesn’t know. It’s the other guys who are fools. The most vocal critic of this kind of thinking in science and technology studies has been Sheila Jasanoff. She doesn’t think politicization, especially with its frequently built-in demonization, is any place to begin conversation. And she’s right.

Politics, politics, politics. So many different kinds of politics. So many different kinds of politics that the word itself begins to melt. A basic tenant—perhaps even a dogma—of science and technology studies is that science is always political, but what does it mean to say this? Well, in their 1985 book, Leviathan and the Air Pump, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer described how the earliest debates about experimental science—in their story, the debates between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes—were about the nature of polities and politics, with Boyle arguing for a quasi-democratic (though always selective) community of peers and Hobbes holding out for monarchy. In other words, the founding of science was itself political. Others have shown how the Cold War shaped science; how academic fads, such as the current craze for the three O’s (nano-info-bio), influence project funding; how scientists strive to gain legitimacy and credibility and then use their authority for political ends; and how peer review is much less ideal and much more political and fraught than defenders make it out to be, just to name a few such arguments. The consensus was established a long time ago: there’s no use in trying to separate science from politics, even rhetorically, and, moreover, attempts to make that separation are themselves political. Science, like everything else, is human and screwed up.

Also, we shouldn’t forget in all of this that “politics” has long been a dirty word in the United States, extending back from recent rampant discourse about “partisanship” through pop works, like E. J. Dionne’s 1991 book, Why American’s Hate Politics, all the way to the founding of the nation, with the Federalists fretting endlessly over factions, parties, and their ill consequences. (I’ll just mention without going into it that some thinkers, like him and her, have argued for years that this attempt to suppress politics is exactly the wrong tack; that, instead, we should admit that politics are omnipresent and learn to deal with them fruitfully and productively.)

This leads to a further question. Given that science is always political, what kind of politics do we want to use to guide it? Here, as I argued in my last post, I think science and technology studies have largely fallen down. One response from many corners would likely be that we can’t give a general answer to this question. The appropriate form of politics will have to fit the context and the situation. But I would like to hear something more concrete than all that. Smith, as an elected official, is putting forward one version of a democratic politics: the NSF, a federal agency, should be accountable to Congress, the federal body of democratically-elected representatives. It’s easy, however, to argue, with some force, that our electoral system is so broken that it is no longer democratic. Scott, who commented on my last post and who I hope will say more, criticized Smith as anti-democratic but drew on the trusty table metaphor to argue, “I would love to include him and all others at a table for fair, open, honest discussion and consensus building.” This would be another model, having open, public discussions about how to set research priorities. Yet, can we imagine the NSF as a site of direct democracy? The science funding table? I can’t; nor do I want to imagine such a thing, I think (though I could be convinced otherwise). So, what then? Rep. Smith has given people an excellent opportunity to put forward alternative frameworks for science governance.

I think the final question is this: what can people working in science and technology studies do to get their arguments “out there”? If we artificially date the idea that science is always political to the 1985 publication of Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump, then the argument has been around for nearly thirty years to little avail (outside academic discussions). Pop writers, such as McAuliff and Grim, Oreskes, and Mooney are still falling back on the too easy, too simple trope of politicization. What is to be done?


The High Quality Research Act: A Steaming Plate of Democracy, or Careful What You Wish For!!

I’d like to build on Hank’s post from yesterday, which looked at Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Smith’s potential legislation, the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA), which would curtail research spending on certain kinds of research at the National Science Foundation. This article nicely spells out the basic contours of the story. Rep. Smith is particularly interested in cutting funding to research in the social sciences, unless it makes contributions to economic development and national security. What has mostly gone un-mentioned in recent news articles is that most of the cuts will likely effect the NSF’s program in science and technology studies (STS), a field in which I and most other authors of this blog work. Hank did a nice job in his post of connecting this law to two long-standing themes in STS, namely the so-called Science Wars and peer review. I would like to take this issue in a slightly different direction by focusing on STS writing on democracy.

STS writings on democracy go back a long ways, indeed one could easily argue that the place of science in liberal democracies is *the* central theme of the literature. How should science be controlled in a democratic society? Should it fulfill a “social function,” for instance? Or should its objectives be set by scientists? Also, how should the products of scientific discovery play a role in democratic politics?

In the UK in the mid-20th century, J. D. Bernal and Michael Polanyi had it out over this issue, with the Marxist Bernal arguing the science should be for the people and Polanyi insisting that science worked best when it was “autonomous.” In the United States at about the same time, Vannevar Bush was dreaming up the institution that would eventually become the NSF. It’s important to note, however, that Bush originally envisioned an organization for scientists by scientists that would have been fully autonomous from intervention from politicians, including Congress. But this part of Bush’s reverie never came true. The NSF has always had some oversight. 

Of course, one way this issue connects to the history and sociology of science is through the theme of who chooses scientific problems and how they are chosen. This topic goes all the way back to Merton’s Harvard dissertation (1936?) and whiles its way through Kuhn, Forman, Crosbie Smith, Jeremy Blatter, and the whole literature on whether Cold War defense spending “distorted” science.

Most of my progressive friends have been unhappy about this Republican turn against the NSF. They like to point, as Hank did, to the fact that Rep. Smith doesn’t buy into the products of science, including climate science. But we should realize that Smith’s actions are completely understandable when viewed from a slightly different angle, which I usually call the “Whitey’s on the Moon” critique, after Gil Scott-Heron’s great song of the same name.

As Heron asks, why should we be putting white men on the moon when our healthcare system is broken and people are suffering poverty? “Was all that money I made last year for Whitey on the Moon? How come there ain’t no money here? Hmm. Whitey’s on the Moon.” And all of us know about how silly and stupid some research in the social sciences and humanities is. This became especially true in various “studies” programs took off in the 80s, 90s, and 00s. Even lefty scholars, like Terry Eagleton, criticized the silly excesses reached in certain fields: it paints unholy pictures of some grad student in his studio apartment, dressed only in socks and boxers, sitting on his couch with a notebook, watching hours of porn, writing up his doctoral thesis on “The Historical and HermeneuticalTrajectory of the Money Shot” or whatever. 

So, it’s a good thing to ask where our money is going and what it is producing. (Of course, as Scott-Heron points out, the same kinds of questions can and have been asked about the space program and, like, particle accelerators.)

It goes without saying that I part ways with Rep. Laramie when he thinks that the only things of value are economic development and national security. But that last sentence is so glaringly obvious that it really should have gone without saying.

But I think another place this law clearly intersects with STS is around the issue of “democracy.” Some branches of STS have been insisting for years that science and engineering need more democratic input. (Just go to your friendly neighborhood STS journal and pump in the search term “democracy.”) Is this desire for “democracy” in STS a conservative desire? Or a progressive one? Well, that depends, of course. It is remarkable, however, how close certain self-proclaimed progressive strains of post-1960s academic thought come to traditional conservative ideas. It’s no surprise that Habermas called Foucault a “young conservative” given the long Burkean line of seeing people primarily as a product of their society’s past. It’s complicated. Michael Polanyi, who defended the autonomy of science, was also a “conservative nutter” (as one person called him at a conference I attended recently). Our ordinary ways of dividing up politics often falls down when examining these kinds of issues. 

But now perhaps we are seeing how calls for “democracy” are often not as progressive as their chanters believe. Yes, I know that there is a long tension in this country between desires for democracy and fears of the populist mob, of which the Tea Party is one expression. The irony is that STS scholars have always advocated democracy but when the crowds came–Rep. Lamar and his merry band of Tea Partiers–and they entered the NSF, the work of STS scholars was the first thing on the chopping block.  

Here’s another metaphor for you: STS-ers have written a lot on “democracy,” and now Rep. Lamar Smith has served them up a big steaming plate of democracy, upon which he and they can now dine.

Should Online Communities Have Rights?

On November 30th, 2012, NCsoft, a South Korea-based video game maker, shutdown one of its digital properties, a massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), City of Heroes. Its community of gamers, many of whom had played the game for several years, had earlier reacted with startled indignation when the closure was announced. Indeed, some held in-game protests in front of City Hall in the game’s fictional capital; they called it Occupy Paragon City. (You can see video of one of the protests, along with live commentary, here.)

An In-Game Protest in the MMORPG City of Heroes

I never played City of Heroes, nor have I had much interaction with the MMORPG scene, but in this post, I want to consider some of the interesting developments around technology and community in the City of Heroes story. And I want to ask the question: should online communities have rights?

City of Heroes was released in 2004. While most MMORPGs, like Everquest and World of Warcraft, focused on a Tolkienesque fantasy setting, City of Heroes enabled users to become superheroes (and later supervillains). The game had its ups and downs, and present and former players believed that game designers had made missteps in developing the world. Still, many were shocked when they heard the news at the end of August that the game was doing to die.

The players reacted in a variety of ways, beyond the protests already mentioned. Many shared stories. One former player, now writer, claimed that the game “saved [her] life,” and there are plenty of anecdotal tales about couples who met on the game and later got married, about babies who would not exist if it not for City of Heroes, etc., etc. We’ve continued to see new forms of intellectual exploration around online communities as well, including this video on the pending killing of City of Heroes by the blogger, MMOAnthropology. (He has some cool ideas, though I wish they were more deeply informed by academic anthropology; of course, others are already up to that intellectual “game”). Organizers also created an online petition to keep the game active.

For sometime, I’ve been following these kinds of both in- and out-of-game activities from a distance (mostly with the help of an old friend and active gamer, Richard Piskur). For instance, Rich showed me how players within the Facebook-linked strategy game, Battle Pirates, hold in-game vigils for other players who are undergoing some hardship. There are even reported cases of hoaxes, wherein people feign sickness or death in order to have a vigil held in their honor.

Players Hold a Vigil in Battle Pirates by Surrounding a Sick/Dead Player’s Base with Their Ships (Thanks, RP!)

With these new forms of communality arising, we can—and maybe should—wonder whether these online communities deserve some kind of protection, or at least the development of norms that would keep these kinds of closures from happening. In an interview with The Korea Times, the fantasy author and City of Heroes player, Mercedes Lackey called the closure “unethical.” As she argued, “I think canceling a game that is making a profit, along with destroying jobs and an online community, is entirely unethical. And I believe that companies that do that are going to get exactly what they deserve, as customers revolt over greed killing cool.” It’s easy to mock online gamers. They are on the ass-end of a lot of jokes. But when it comes to thinking about rights, what marginalized community has not been ridiculed?   

One pissed-off player and blogger wrote about the “costs” of closing the game, including a) “loss of revenue” (many people claim that the game was profitable), b) a “loss of faith” in NCsoft (lots of calls for boycotts), c) loss of development talent (NCsoft folded the game’s development team), and, most important for my purposes, “loss of culture.” He wrote, “CoH‘s closure is helping to eliminate the idea that an MMO is a home, someplace you stay through thick and thin.”

Some of the venom is unsurprisingly being spat at real cultural divides, namely the oceanic one between the Korean firm NCsoft and its US users. Players have drawn attention to the poor morale among NCsoft’s employees to suggest that the company is a bad actor. For instance, at this page, (supposed) former employees have left harsh (and racist/nationalist) criticisms of the firm’s policies, like this: “Advice to Senior Management – After your meltdown please do not attempt to re-open to the United States. Stay in Korea. Thanks.”  

It seems to me this cultural divide is beside the point, however; the issue of online communities and game closures is really about the role of capitalism in shaping the online world. Corporations are building online spaces that people want to inhabit. They fill those spaces with desirable things: nifty graphics, involved plots, fun. And in those spaces, people form communities; they make friends; they create inside jokes and a local culture. (One character in City of Heroes was a rather large rabbit named Watership Doom.)  But companies can kill the games whenever they want.

So what rights do players have to keep their communities and “their” games? We see some people beginning to ask questions about this. For instance, at, some called OOPManZA commented:

“I think that all MMOs, including CoH, should operate under a policy whereby when the parent company decides to shut down the game the following happens:
1. Game server and client code is open sourced and placed on GitHub
2. Game assets are made available under a suitable license that allows for them to be used freely but not resold by any third-party.
I think this would be awesome as it would prevent the game from disappearing completely and also allow the community to become the maintainers of the game.”

To which another commentator responded, “That would indeed be awesome, but it’ll never happen. There’s too much proprietary code and artwork in modern games for them to ever be released as open source.” But OOPManZA came back to that, claiming, “Proprietary code that is abandoned is worse than useless, it’s practically criminal…” As the users talk about community, they debate IP, the net’s sine qua non.

Will we look back in forty years and shake our heads that online communities did not have rights? I’m not so sure. In a class I’m teaching this semester, Computers & Society, my students claimed that they have very little interest in taking part in deep online communities. Meeting strangers online does not appeal to them. They are even increasingly skeptical about Facebook. Of course, they might be the wrong sample for such a question. Perhaps these kinds of communities only become desirable once people have moved onto working-life and adulthood and loneliness threatens. At the same time, Second Life is a ghost town. Perhaps the whole notion of an online community will be a passing fad.

For all of the players’ efforts to save City of Heroes, the closing day finally came. A small online movement will continue to push NCSoft to let players to set up and run their own non-proprietary version of the game, and some players have asked Disney to pick up and continue the property. At the end, players recorded their last minute of play to video. When the plug was pulled, players saw an error message: “Lost Connection to Mapserver.”

Error Messages Met Attempts to Log-in to the Community

On the final night of City of Heroes, an in-game DJ span tracks as groups of superheroes danced below. (The song list for the night can be viewed here.) One of the tunes was Goo Goo Doll’s Iris. Some felt what the song’s lyrics pleaded, “You’re the closest to heaven that I’ll ever be. And I don’t want to go home right now.”

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Lovecraft, Science, and Epistemic Subcultures

For my first post, I want to build on discussions about literature and science that Hank, Joanna, and Dan had earlier, here and here. H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) wrote a series of stories for magazines such as Weird Tales during the 1920s and early 1930s, before science fiction, horror, and fantasy split into distinct genres.  He set his stories in old, decaying East Coast towns, not unlike his home, Providence, RI, and nearby small hamlets that he knew well. He filled his tales with plot devices—like archaic, mysterious texts and secret societies—that remain stock-in-trade for genre writers today. His monsters are enormous and sublime; they leave his characters whimpering with shattered minds. Yet, for all of his silliness and shortcomings, like Dickens, Kafka, and Poe, Lovecraft created an ambiance and tone that is distinctively his own. 

People have long known and written about Lovecraft’s fascination with science.  Beginning in 1914, he began writing astronomical columns for a local Providence newspaper. His understanding of the universe as a vast expanse indifferent to human desires informs his tales in which characters cower before giant and ancient beasts, realizing in these moments their ultimate insignificance in the great scope of things. That is, contemporary science strongly shaped what Lovecraft’s critics refer to as his “cosmic horror.”

Rather than draw attention to Lovecraft’s broad interests in science, I want to focus on one
aspect, namely his participation in amateur journalism and epistolary circles.[1] The hobby of amateur journalism took off in the late 19th century with the introduction of small, cheap printing presses. Lovecraft eventually became president of the United Amateur Press Association (which was founded in 1890s). He used his own publication, The Conservative, as a soap box for his favorite causes, like decrying the League of Nations and, most infamously, supporting Aryan racial theories.  Lovecraft also took part in a few round robin letter-writing groups. Group members would send a packet of letters and writings from one to the other in a set order. When the packet came back to the first person, he would remove the piece that he put in it last time and replace it with something new. In this way, the group would constantly circulate new ideas and writings. Lovecraft likely circulated his racial theories through this route as well.

Lovecraft was born into a wealthy family in decline. He died in poverty. This economic descent combined with his beliefs about race and other intuitions about society led him to see degeneration everywhere, and these notions found their ways into his stories. For instance, in his story “The Horror of Red Hook,” Lovecraft wrote about a once patrician family that retreated from the world. After generations of inbreeding, they became “dwarfed, deformed hairy devils or apes – monstrous and diabolic caricatures of the monkey tribe.”

I’m not breaking any new ground here. All of this is well known. What interests me is how Lovecraft and others traded these ideas in periodicals of amateur journalism and these round robin epistolary groups.  They were doing more than just circulating pre-existing knowledge vouched for by professional scientists. They were putting forward their own speculations and developing and extending on the ideas of others.

Historians know that early scientists were—and, indeed, prided themselves on being—amateurs. I am more interested in lay circles, like Lovecraft’s, that persist(ed) well after the professionalization of science and technology. Some scholars have already touched on this theme. The historian of technology, Susan Douglas, has noted the importance of amateurs in shaping the initial stages of technical change in objects such as radios. We can also think of Sophia Roosth’s work on garage science. Yet, much remains to be said about the perseverance of amateurism.

Recently, I have been a great deal about two communities that have put forward idiosyncratic ideas about the world. Less Wrong claims to be “a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality.”  Eliezer Yudkowsky, a proponent of the singularity, began the blog in 2009 and used it as a space to broadcast his views on, well, just about everything but primarily artificial intelligence, epistemology, and ethics. Yudkowsky and the Less Wrong community often base their speculations on ‘rationality’ on research in cognitive science, behavioral economics, and related disciplines. I’ve also been interested for some time in chemtrail conspiracy theorists, a community that is more decentralized. Chemtrailers believe that contrails, or lines of condensed water left in an aircraft’s wake, are in fact, um, chemtrails, chemicals sprayed into the atmosphere by the government or some other malignant group. Chemtrail theorists have carried out their own experiments to verify their intuitions. And they have become the scourge of those proposing research on geoengineering (like these people haunting a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science [beginning @ 1:50]).

Thinking about these communities reminded me of Lovecraft’s earlier interactions. In some ways, amateur journalism and epistolary circles of Lovecraft’s day were not unlike the blogs and webpages that Less Wrong and the chemtrailers use. (Yes, I know the dangers of cross-temporal and cross-technological comparisons.) Still, I think there is much to explore about how such groups produce and distribute their knowledge against the background of an epistemic status quo. If scientists have their journals—as Alex Csiszar has been exploring—the laity have their amateur journalism and their blogs. And such spaces give historians of science and technology and STS scholars a chance to examine and probe the practices of epistemic subcultures.

[1] Hippocampus Press has published five volumes of Lovecraft’s Collected Essays, including one dedicated to his work in amateur journalism and one on his science writings.