Science and Society 2013: Some thoughts on the idea of bias and the idea of ignorance

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Science and Society 2013: Some thoughts on the idea of bias and the idea of ignorance
By Joanna Griffin, PhD candidate, Transtechnology Research Group, Plymouth University. Her thesis title is Viewpoint and experience in the social domain of space technology.
During the Sicnece and Society 2013 symposium, Joanna presented her poster, Language, Art and Authorship: A Comparative Approach Towards Making Sense of the Science-Society Question

After attending the Science and Society 2013 conference at the University of Ottawa last week, I want to offer some reflections based on my own research perspective and some ideas offered in two presentations given in a session titled Value-Laden Science. In this session Carla Fehr spoke of an epistemology of ignorance within the history of gender research and Sergio Sismondo spoke of bias within pharmaceutical research. As tools for thinking through the nuanced interplay between science an society, the idea of bias and the idea of ignorance open up an area of reflection about the intimate spaces at the core of discussions of science and society. Through our poster presentation myself and Jobin Kanjirakkat tried to address such particularized and elusive spaces by proposing that the agendas of citizens and the sciences could be accessed in more nuanced ways if considered as acts of authorship. In the following I try to draw these ideas together.

In an essay about art and technology, Sundar Surukkai (2004) calls on artists to expand the ways that technology is talked about, saying, "I want to suggest here that artists can enlarge our understanding of technology, not by becoming technocrats but by enriching the ways in which we talk about technology." As he wonders about the possibility of combining discourses of beauty and technology Sarukkai questions the scope of ideas adopted in certain fields, calling on artists to do more than use technologies as a canvas on which to make artworks, but to re-enchant fields of discourse and practice that have incrementally become disenchanted.

As an artist myself, I like to respond to this call by opening up the breadth of ideas, or ways of thinking brought into discussions about the modes of transference of science through society. My own research inquiries have been about the affective realm of space technologies. I led a project called Moon Vehicle in Bangalore, India for two and a half years that aimed to draw out the cultural resonance of the launch of the Chandrayaan spacecraft in 2008 on its mission to the Moon. The project was based out of the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore and together with students I created a series of events and workshops in schools and public spaces that drew together a hybrid community. The space scientists and systems engineers from the Indian space agency ISRO, the artists, designers, amateur astronomers and others who gravitated towards the possibilities the project offered, had a shared interest in renegotiating relations of instrumental sciences to the more cognitive, intimate or everyday realm. The Moon Vehicle project provided a 'vehicle' by which this could happen through dialogue, workshops, activities, the forming of friendships and the project culminated in a collaboratively produced festival of astronomy called Kalpaneya Yatre: Journey of Imaginations.

This kind of project is sometimes called 'citizen science' or in India 'science popularization'. Throughout this inquiry questions of the interplay between technologies, sciences and publics featured prominently not least because in India it is the constitutional duty of every citizen to inculcate the 'scientific temper'. Moon Vehicle belongs to the kind of citizen science described in the Science and Society 2013 conference as that which demands cognitive justice for the citizen from science. A noticeable quality of the project was the way that scientists working under contracts in institutions would use their connection to the more autonomous and de-institutionalized art project to bring about shifts that they themselves were unable to engineer from their positions as employees. Correspondingly, other participants in the project used the association with the space agency to engineer shifts that in many ways had little to do with the space mission. It takes some close looking to understand the sophistication and nuance of the shifts brought about during this project or the range of motivations behind it. As a first step to understanding the tactical currents operating beneath the surface appearance of an artistic project, the closeness of scientific agendas to the ear of state as compared to those of the creative arts can perhaps begin to indicate why exceptional forms of resistance and resourcefulness creep into the brokering of the sciences within society. Where the agency to influence matters of state is denied there is little choice but to collaborate or partner with institutions that are able to influence policy.

Certain limitations can creep into the vocabularies used to discuss the modalities of science within society. Certain frictions are produced when a spectrum of affect is produced through science-based activity that is both visible and invisible in the social domain. The affective space of science within society may at some points be voiced and accounted for but at other points will always be elusive. This means that terms like 'public opinion' and 'public interest' which give the impression of constituting a domain that can be accounted for, provided for and perhaps bettered, are categories withholding a kind of unknowable dark matter that nonetheless shapes futures and the present while recasting the past.

Both the terms science and society were called to account during the conference. Sheila Jasanoff spoke of the vast range not only of scientific practices but also of attachments to scientific work, calling for more work that gets "deep down and dirty" about differentiation. The word 'science' incorporates too much and glosses incommensurability that may matter a great deal. Society is likewise a word that is extremely problematic to define, and perhaps, as Yves Gingras suggested, a word without meaning. Science and society are both collective nouns that behave in some ways like mathematical imaginary numbers – they allow a calculation or discussion to proceed without ever actually existing in the world.

There are consequences though in using the collective noun as a shorthand through a discussion because details can be excluded for lack of image, voice or words to describe them. In this regard the presentations by Carla Fehr and Sergio Sismondo seemed to me to offer a route toward opening some of the undisclosed contents of our discussion at the conference by providing a space for perspectives not voiced or otherwise missing. Sismondo spoke of the subtleties of the production of bias within the research of the pharmaceutical industry. Not only could segments of trial tests be excluded if producing the 'wrong' kind of results but the practice of ghost-writing scientific papers had become normalized, calling into question the authenticity of authorship and the community endeavor of peer review. Fehr spoke of the idea of ignorance in relation to racial and gender exclusion. She called the excruciating histories of beliefs about women the "parade of the dreadfuls", exposing ignorance within best practice research. The difference between ignorance as oversight and 'ignoring' as an active construction is hard to discern, allowing subtleties in patterns of exclusion to emerge and become normalized.

The idea of bias and the idea of ignorance, it seemed to me, were offered as perspectives to the Science and Society conference with which to critically discern tendencies that could emerge within our own discussions. Bias could for instance suggest a favouring toward that which can be seen, researched and talked about, toward that which already has a vocabulary and involves persons who belong identifiably to specific groups. It may inevitably be easier to talk about science than to talk about society. In this regard, the idea of ignorance can become a starting point to open a discussion about the 'dark matter' of the science and society discussion: that which cannot be seen or named, that flits and changes its mind, is between states, is not exactly scientific or disciplined or available to be research. In my own pursuit of accessing realms of affect of space technology, the artistic approach has provided a means of making visible that which is otherwise elusive by foregrounding viewpoint and experience. In our efforts to get close to the spacecraft Chandrayaan through the Moon Vehicle project much creative work was produced such as drawings. A drawing can provide an index of the first-person experiential viewpoint always present but perennially overlooked when discussions of publics are allowed to become generalised. A drawing becomes an act of resistance to the sublation of "I" within the anonymity invoked by the term 'publics'.

If qualities of viewpoint and experience can be accessed within the intimate spaces of affect produced by a planetary-scale technology then they can also be accessed within large-scale concepts such as science and society. In our poster presented at the conference, Jobin Kanjirakkat and I offered the idea of authorship to the discussion as a way to forestall or rename a more habitual vocabulary of phrases associated with the discussion of science and society. Sismondo's revelations about the probable misuse of authorship in the pharmaceutical marketing call into question the viability of that term. However, our intention was to direct attention to a spectrum of acts of authorship, from writing a book or making a drawing, to the signature of a person's handwriting and the creative authorship we practice in conversations with each other. What we wanted to offer to the discussion of science and society was a space for perspectives not present and a reminder that in the agency of authoring our own perspectives on our relations to the scientific, silences are more often resistance than mere ignorance. Sometimes a problem can be solved better by expanding the imagination of how the problem might be probed. By opening up routes of address that make the invisible more visible creative practices have potential to foreground signatures of authorship and thereby enriching discussions by enlarging the recognition of how and where participation and affect occur. Where structural bias exists, something that looks like ignorance can appear and very often it can seem to appear inside something habitually termed the 'public realm'. But as Fehr indicated, ignoring has its complexities. It is therefore useful to thoughtfully accommodate the sophistication of ignoring and understand many versions of silences as tactical responses to a delimited choice of positions.


Video of the festival:

I wrote an article about Moon Vehicle for Leonardo journal which is free to download here:

A blog I use to keep, which has other projects also:

Sarukkai, S. Leonardo Vol. 37, No. 3 (2004), p. 175-6 [Online] (Accessed 26 October 2013)