Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Medicine, Uncertainty, and Art

Surgeon John Semple (photo credit: stefanmorel.com/stefanmorel.com/Courtesy of Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – Ontario Region)

Here's a link to an article about a surgeon (h/t to my wife, Elena Belle White - thanks honey!), John Semple, who began his educational career as an art student. It makes me think of this article that I linked to a while ago:

Education and the Art of Uncertainty

The Righteous Mind

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. And then, in the evening, I attend a free concert at the New England Conservatory, as a part of the annual Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP), aka: Sick Puppy. The Callithumpian Consort, with Stephen Drury and Yukiko Takagi on piano were the evenings performers. They performed two Christian Wolff pieces, and two John Cage pieces.

Just briefly, I'd like to connect Jonathan Haidt's work with two of the pieces performed: the world premier of Christian Wolff's Overture (2012), and John Cage's Music for Seventeen (1984-87).

Haidt's main thesis is that humans are groupish. We like belonging, and seek experiences that join us to others. He cites one process, that of "muscular bonding" (specifically in relation to military training), that yields to - in one young cadet's words - "a sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual." pg. 202

I have had similar experience making things with other people, most notably when raising the copper crown for the recreation of Bushnell's 1776 Turtle with my friend and colleague Professor Joe Wood. Donned in safety gear to protect our eyes and ears, communication was severely limited. Joe was moving the two foot copper disc beneath the sledgehammer I was attempting to consistently and accurately drop on a particular spot. A wrinkle in the copper appeared, and although it wasn't directly below my hammer, and although Joe didn't manipulate the piece to the optimal spot, hammer and copper collided and the wrinkle disappeared. And Joe and I both laughed out loud.

Wolff's Overture (2012), will be understood by listeners as a contemporary work; little melody or rhythm present. I have a fairly limited experience and only an amateur appreciation for this type of music. I do find it fascinating. Obvious is the fact Wolff composed the work with ensembles in mind. It seemed that the musicians were paired, and worked their parts out in relation to each other - often visibly and joyfully - smiles and nods as they played together to create a beautiful, new work of art. Haidt explains this experience as belonging to the "hive". He even goes into neuroscience and cognitive science - some of my favorite non-fiction topics - to explain these kinds of groupish interactions. Read up on mimesis and mirror neurons in Merlin Donald's A Mind So Rare if you like.

So let's go back to Cage's Music for Seventeen (1984-87). In this piece, Cage produced individual pieces for each instrument. The real title is Music for _________ , because it can be played with number of different parts - 17 being the maximum. There is no overall score. From the liner notes from last night's performance "The players are to rehearse independently, and then to decide on a total number of pieces to be performed, before meeting together."

In essence, what we see happening on stage is seventeen musicians playing their own music, while ignoring everyone else on stage. In this respect, performances of Cage's "time bracket' pieces cannot be  called concerts, for in almost every respect they reject the notion of the players working together. I can only imagine that these are difficult pieces to perform because of the tendency (and requirement for most music!) for ensemble players to work together. So kudos to the Callithumpian Consort for their performance! But to Cage, I would critique the final work in its lack of gestalt. The parts do not work together to create a greater whole. In fact, watching the musicians on stage, intent on their music and their stopwatches (or timers on iPhones), I was a bit angry. Cage did an extraordinary job disassembling the ensemble. I think in the end I'd rather see them work together.

While I didn't get into the moral psychology part of Haidt's book here, I was happy I could connect some of Haidt's work into my immediate experience with the work of Cage and Wolff. In Cage's Music for Seventeen, there is a sensation of anomie - a term Haidt borrows from Durkheim, "a word for what happens to a society that no longer shared moral order" pg 245. There was something sad and isolating about the Cage piece, the complete antithesis to the contemporary practice of the flash mob.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Further thoughts and links on Uncertainty

Ok, here are a couple more resources for those of you who are interested in cross-disciplinary notions of uncertainty. Studying uncertainty within the context of singular disciplines only serves to keep the disciplines isolated. This regimented approach misses fantastic opportunities to learn about uncertainty in different modalities. Scientists can learn from craftspeople; dancers can learn from folks studying comparative literature; iron workers can learn from hand surgeons; artists can learn from accountants.

A recently held conference (May 2012) at CUNY:

And an image from their website:

A past (2010) conference at Stanford:

Here's an abstract from one of the papers:

Kenney, Martha. Counting, Accounting, and Accountability: On Helen Verran’s  Science and an African Logic. “The crucial philosophical question pertaining to reality was: how can we be sure?  Now, after the turn to practice, we confront another question: how to live with doubt?” – Annemarie Mol.  Accountability is a word that is often invoked when we imagine how to practice responsible science.  Despite the economic and bureaucratic connotations of accountability, it also evokes an obligation to others which has resonances beyond the audit cultures of contemporary bureaucracies.  In Meeting the Universe Halfway Karen Barad argues that both ethics and objectivity should be thought of in terms of accountability for the material-discursive practices that materialize the phenomena that make up our world.  This paper explores the possibilities of Barad’s notion of accountability through an attentive reading of Helen Verran’s Science and an African Logic, a remarkable study of how numbers are enacted by Yoruba speaking children in Nigeria and English speaking children in Australia.  As she struggles to remain accountable for the colonial histories of the classrooms she inhabits and the social science she practices, Verran’s numbers are transformed from abstract objects to the outcomes of collective acting.  Science and an African Logic both provides an example of Karen Barad’s accountability and enriches our understanding of what this ethical imperative might mean when writing ethnography.  By following how Verran’s empirical objects change during her project, I develop a working definition of accountability as both a storytelling practice (to give an account) and a critical accounting practice (to count with care).  This modest vocabulary project will contribute to thinking about how to do empirical research that incorporates Annemarie Mol’s question “how to live with doubt?” while taking responsibility for how we account for our objects of study.  

And three that deal more directly with issues of uncertainty in Climate Science:

Toesse, Sunniva.  Authority and ambiguity: The role of uncertainty in shaping climate scientists' perceptions of the science-politics relation. Climate science is a field that has been 'under siege' for some time, and the uncertainty of e.g. climate models have been given much attention. In controversial issues, focus on uncertainty abounds and debates on the production and management of uncertainty become very important. How does increased focus on uncertainty influence climate scientists' views of themselves, their roles and their possible ways of engaging with society and politics?  This paper takes as its case Norwegian climate scientists and their perceptions of the science-policy relationship. The analysis is based on in-depth interviews with Norwegian climate scientists, undertaken in 2004 (1st round; 19 interviews) and 2009 (2nd round; 11 interviews).  The analysis will center on the role uncertainty, as well as the idea of "sound science" with its associated requirement of a high threshold of certainty, play in shaping Norwegian climate scientists perceptions of the science-policy relation. 

Weichselbraun, Anna. Weathering uncertainty: the struggle for an international science of meteorology. In 19th century Britain, meteorology was a rising science concerned with accurately predicting the weather to prevent calamities at sea, in cities, and the colonies. Despite scientific optimism, the discipline's future was uncertain. Measurements were riddled with inconsistencies (most data was collected by laypeople, volunteers, and natives) and the forecasts published in daily newspapers were harshly criticized by the public, which opposed the new science to popular almanacs. Even more vexing, the United States' cutting edge meteorological system supported by military infrastructure put European efforts to shame. In 1853, representatives from ten countries met for the first time in Brussels; two decades went by until the next meeting and the founding of the International Meteorological Organization. The following meetings held to negotiate standards for the science were riddled with a variety of difficulties producing conditions of uncertainty that took 50 years to overcome. One issue lay in the object of study itself: the weather was at once distinctly local and profoundly global. An additional problem was the struggle to liberate the science from its embedded position in state management. Furthermore, each participating country used different scales of measurement and none of the instruments were standardized. These elements complicated the processes and strategies by which the actors engaged in an international project with competing priorities. In this paper, I will trace the negotiations that led to the formation of an international community of scientists during the last few decades of the 19th century, outlining the very practical uncertainties and also language-based ambiguities the actors managed in order to bring legitimacy to their discipline. 

Zee, Jerry. Reactive Certainty: ‘Anthropogenic’ Environmental Change and the Un-Limiting of Power.What kinds of uncertainty can be imaged in pronouncements that actively emphasize their own certainty? This paper takes as its starting point contemporary discourses on environmental risk that have worked to establish the ‘scientific consensus’ on the anthropogenic origins of environmental change, making natures and environment legible by articulating environmental change as the (often inadvertent) endpoint of a causal chain that begins with human actions.  With reference to Chinese state environmentalism, this paper considers the consequences of claims about the scientific incontrovertibility and certainty of ‘anthropogenic environmental effects’ – those phenomena, most notably climate change, whose origins are located in human practices. What kind of reflection on the scope and epistemological conditions of political practices do configurations of human action in contemporary environmental concerns compel, and what are the implications for anthropological modes and practices of knowledge-making? I argue that this constant re-assertion of certainty of anthropogenic causality could be understood as part of a reflection on the possible targets, techniques, and limits of human power and agency, especially vis-à-vis the problematic figure of a nature whose operation cannot be accounted for in theories of power that emphasize the formation of (human) subjects. I argue that the insistence on the certainty of anthropogenic causality can in one way be read first as a sign, and then, as an expiation of a more pervasive uncertainty over the status of the human as an epistemological and practical category, and thus offers a potent arena in which to consider the conditions and possibilities of a different concept of the political.

A workshop/conference in Australia later this summer:

Thriving in Uncertainty

This fall's conference at the Royal Society:

Saturday, June 09, 2012

William of Chelsea with the Great Jamaica Pond Carp. He released the fish back into the pond moments later.

Friday, June 08, 2012


There can be little doubt that the classical scientific paradigm has provided “the means for systematically acting on the world, for predicting and modifying the course of natural processes, for conceiving devices that can harness and exploit the forces and mate- rial resources of nature” (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984, p. 37). That being the case, it would be naïve to suggest that science has been a purely empirical endeavor devoted solely to the pursuit of knowledge. The human power drive, to have dominion over the natural world, is also at play here. 

Thomas Kuhn (1996, p. 42) pointed out that scientific paradigms imply a specific set of rules or assumptions to which the paradigm is committed and must appropriately respond. In this respect, the classical scientific paradigm both supports and is a natural out- growth of its cultural context, one that assumes that order must be inherent to the natural world because only through order can humankind fulfill its manifest destiny, which, following Genesis I, 28, is to “subdue...and have dominion over...the earth.” Indeed, biblical scholar Lyman Abbott commented that 

the secret of all modern science is in the first chapter of Genesis. Belief in the dominion of spirit over matter, of mind over nature, of man over the physical and the animal creation, was essential to the possession of that dominion. (as cited in Hertz, 1961, p. 5) 

Given this basic cultural assumption, it follows that “to bend phenomena to human needs, natural processes must be reduced in complexity and simplified into predictable, lawlike behavior” (Kellert, 1993, p. 154). And, indeed, the classical model has been enormously successful in this respect to the extent that we have become dangerously inflated in the pride of our own accomplishment. Not only have we come to accept that we can dominate and bend the natural world to our will but also that it is our responsibility to do so.

 - from: The Impermanence Of Being: Toward A Psychology Of Uncertainty Kerry Gordon, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 2003 43: 96

MH - One of the greatest challenges I believe we currently face right now as a society is this: How do we handle uncertainty in an age of access to so much information and upheaval? Contrary to our perhaps most closely held beliefs, we are no nearer "knowing" the world than we were hundreds of years ago. And frankly, this is the where artistic endeavor helps to mediate the anxiety of "not-knowing". I believe this is where my artistic practice is situated.

 Here are a couple of links to important discussions about uncertainty:

The Impermanence Of Being: Toward A Psychology Of Uncertainty, Kerry Gordon, 2003

Education and the Art of Uncertainty, Richard B. Gunderman, MD, PhD

Stephan Lewandowsky's recent post "Uncertainty is not your friend" where he attempts to use a statistical analysis of possible futures to argue that where there is uncertainty the outcome can only be worse than you imagine.

 Judith Curry's multiple posts about uncertainty:

First, a discussion of Stephan Lewandowsky's posts here. And her original article "Climate Science and the Uncertainty Monster" a link to her post as the article went to press is here, and a link to the article here.