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:



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