Past seminars 2023
Wednesday 11 October
The concept problem in the historiography of science
John Wilkins (HPS, University of Melbourne)
In this talk I will discuss how we individuate concepts as terms in formal or informal languages, and how the imprecision of these terms both inhibits HPS and enables science. My own work on species concepts and definitions led me to reject the notion that such terms are theoretically determined all of the time, and that they are instead often worked out either in the absence of prior theory or as the theory. develops. I will present several cases in which this is to be found, based upon my recent paper "The Good Species" in Species Problems and Beyond (CRC Press 2022).
Wednesday 27 September
Democratic Constitutions, Disobedient Citizens
PhD Completion Seminar
James Field (Social Theory, University of Melbourne)
This thesis reads Habermas’ political theory in light of his arguments about civil disobedience. Rather than weakening democracy or dissipating a commitment to realising an equality of freedom between people, I argue that the concept of civil disobedience stands in as a model of democratic conflictuality that is otherwise absent from his formal political theory. The idea of social conflict within boundaries formed not by legality but by a democratic ethos is the basis of what I term ‘disobedient citizenship’- a concept implicit in Habermas’ theory that nonetheless displaces his model of procedural civic patriotism as the cultural centre of democratic politics. I argue that his central programmatic claim that ‘democracy and the rule of law are internally related’ can be revisited from this perspective. In addition, his writings on religion and interstate relations indicate that the notion of disobedient citizenship can be accompanied by spaces of ‘complementary freedoms’ that are constituted by a culture of tolerance, rather than procedural secularity. The thesis argues that both conflict and tolerance are core values in his democratic theory. The thesis therefore presents a critical but sympathetic reading of Habermas’ ‘unwritten monograph’ on political theory. It argues that the modernity of democracy emerges in Habermas’ work not primarily through epistemic or cognitive rationality, but rather through the openness with which the democratic imagination approaches disagreement and conflict, evaluates and sets limits to it.
Wednesday 27 September
What Good are Historical Case Studies for the Philosophy of Science?
Kristian Camilleri (HPS, University of Melbourne)
How should historical case studies inform the philosophy of science? This question has been the subject of much debate and disagreement ever since Thomas Kuhn's landmark work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While Kuhn would later express reservations about whether history could play a substantive role in philosophy of science, by the 1970s many philosophers would acknowledge the importance, and even the necessity, of using historical case studies to support philosophical claims. The last twenty years has witnessed a resurgence of interest in the question of how historical case studies can and should contribute to the philosophy of science, resulting in a series of ‘manifestos’ for doing integrated HPS. In this paper, I examine some of the lessons we have learned from this scholarship, while at the same time, noting that philosophers have, on the whole, found it difficult to practice what they preach. While there has undoubtedly been some excellent work produced in recent years, the formidable difficulties of integrating history and philosophy of science remain very much evident in the tendency of philosophers to cherry-pick examples, draw hasty generalizations from a very small number of case studies and privilege narrowly rationalistic accounts of historical episodes. In this paper, I propose a number of reasons for why this is so, and conclude with a few tentative suggestions for how we might remedy this situation in the interests of furthering the project of integrated HPS.
Wednesday 20 September
Indirect Genetic Effects
Kate Lynch (HPS, University of Melbourne)
Indirect genetic effects occur when genes exert their influence on traits via the environment. This can happen in at least two ways: 1. When individuals have a genetic propensity modify their own circumstances, resulting in active gene-environment correlations at the population level, and 2. When others impose particular circumstances on individuals with certain genes, resulting in reactive gene-environment correlations. In both cases genes are indirect causes of phenotypic differences, yet the two kinds of scenarios are often interpreted as causally distinct.
How to interpret different types of indirect genetic effects is contentious. Some believe that they all represent causally similar scenarios and as such should be interpreted in a similar way. Others argue that reactive gene-environment correlations don’t represent ‘true’ genetic causation and should be treated differently. Others again argue that the current taxonomy used to understand different kinds of genetic causes is insufficient.
This talk will consider how different features of causal relata (the cause and the effect in question) and causal relations (the relationship linking the cause and the effect) explain interpretative differences between the two cases. IT will also look at how cases in genetics parallel other problem cases for causation in philosophy and science.
Wednesday 13 September
The Nature of Preindustrial Mining: Environmental Perspectives and Knowledge Creation
Guy Geltner (Monash University)
This talk will present ongoing research on metal-ore mining in “preindustrial” Europe (c. 1200-1600) mainly from a social, cultural and environmental-health perspective. It examines how, following the so-called medieval mining boom of the later 12th century, new technologies and labor- and environmental hazards emerged, which communities across Europe had to contend with. In doing so they drew on, created and disseminated knowledge about Nature (or Creation) that was both innovative and conservative. Historians of science tended to attribute these forms of knowledge to Humanism and the Scientific Revolution, yet its roots and practice appear to be centuries earlier. The key to unlocking these developments, however, lies in being able to work across historical and archaeological methods, which is not always an easy path, due to the growing gap in these fields' epistemologies.
Wednesday 6 September
Energetic Performances: Exploring Early Cultures of Electricity in Late-Colonial Queensland
Histories of electricity and energy in Australia have typically focused on spectacular performances of new electrical technologies in late colonial society, or on the commercial, governmental and engineering infrastructures that coalesced around the new technology in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. While several scholars have produced valuable accounts of the complex ways in which these two modes were meaningfully linked in colonial society, ample space remains to elaborate on the intensely local entanglements and networks that attended on the spread of electrical technology in colonial modernity. In this paper I will reconstruct the early career of electrical engineer and showman Edward Barton, popularly remembered as the father of electricity in Brisbane. While Barton is widely understood as a crucial figure in the development of public electricity supply in Queensland, less work has explored his parallel work as a public performer and demonstrator of new technologies. As well as acting as the colony of Queensland’s chief authority on the new technology, Barton and his entourage were also purveyors of ‘wonder shows’ including the telephone and phonograph in the 1880s and 1890s. In bringing together these varied threads in Barton’s career, this paper emphasises the complex ways in which electricity, spectacle and infrastructure fed off and reinforced each other in colonial modernity in Queensland.
Henry Reese is an early career historian based in Meanjin/Brisbane. His research interests include histories of sound, electricity and other energies in settler societies. Henry completed his PhD at the University of Melbourne in 2019. His PhD thesis, ‘Colonial Soundscapes,’ was the first cultural history of early sound recording in Australia. Henry has eight years’ experience as a sessional lecturer and tutor, primarily at Australian Catholic University and the University of Melbourne. Henry has also worked as a research assistant on several ARC Projects, including most recently as a postdoctoral researcher on the ‘Merchants and Museums’ Linkage project, which aims to reconstruct the global trade in zoological specimens in nineteenth-century Australian museums. He was the 2021 John Oxley Research Fellow at the State Library of Queensland and a 2022 Harry Gentle Visiting Fellow at Griffith University.
Thursday 24 August
Good Deaths: Nineteenth-Century Foundations of Medical Care of the Dying
Caitlin Mahar (Swinburne University)
This paper explores the foundations of modern medical management of the dying in the context of changing conceptions of the good death and suffering in the nineteenth century. In doing so it gestures to some of the ways understandings of what constitutes ethical care of the dying have changed over time. Through the writings of British pioneers of this new medical art it examines the complex and shifting relationship between religious and medical attitudes to pain – particularly as regards the ethics of administering strong analgesics to the dying. It argues that scientific and religious understandings of suffering should not be seen as antithetical. Instead it draws attention to the way they have intersected and informed one another, shaping – and continuing to shape – medical ethics as well as broader cultural norms regarding the best way to care for the terminally ill and ideas about what constitutes a good death.
Caitlin Mahar lectures in history at Swinburne University of Technology. She completed a PhD in history at the University of Melbourne in 2016 in the course of which she was awarded the Society for the Social History of Medicine Roy Porter Essay Prize, the Australian and New Zealand Society for the History of Medicine Ben Haneman Memorial Award and and the University of Melbourne’s Dennis-Wettenhall Prize. Her book about medical care of the dying and euthanasia activism, The Good Death Through Time, was published by Melbourne University Press earlier this year.
Wednesday 16 August
Science Festival Seminar: Arts/Science Collaborations in Research Landscapes
Collaborations between scientists and artists are increasingly a feature of research projects in Australia. Such partnerships can add richness to both practices, allowing important phenomena to be seen from different perspectives, and thus providing more socially relevant research outcomes and a deeply grounded artistic practice. This panel discussion will present two different collaborations and explore their benefits. The Smallest Measure is an ongoing collaboration between artist and writer Jesse Boylan and atmospheric scientists at the CSIRO led by Zoë Loh, which focuses on the Kennaook/Cape Grim Air Pollution Monitoring Station in north-west lutruwita/Tasmania, Australia, as a site to explore global atmospheric change through mixed media art and hybrid non-fiction writing approaches. Where Lakes Once Had Water is an immersive long-form video artwork by collaborating artists Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, commissioned by ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) and filmed on the lands of the Mudburra, Marlinja, Jingili, Elliot, Jawoyn and Larrakia communities in collaboration with teams of Earth scientists, including Cassandra Rowe, Tim Cohen and Michael-Shawn Fletcher, and First Nations Elders and rangers. All panelists will reflect on working in these environments and on the value of collaboration.
Jesse Boylan is an artist and writer living on unceded Dja Dja Wurrung country in Central Victoria, Australia. Jesse is interested in expanded documentary practice and the role art plays in environmental and social justice issues. They like to collaborate with others and regularly works with Linda Dement and V. Barratt as Bonedirt. Jesse also works for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Australia), and teaches within the School of Art at RMIT University, Melbourne. As part of their doctoral research, Jesse has collaborated with Dr Zoë Loh and her team at the Kennaook/Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Monitoring Station on the North-West Coast of lutruwita/Tasmania.
Zoë Loh is a research scientist with CSIRO Environment. She uses spectroscopic methods to measure greenhouse gases in a range of contexts including from beef production, fugitive emissions from geological carbon storage, coal seam gas production and in urban areas. In collaboration with colleagues, greenhouse gas concentration data are used in atmospheric inversion studies to derive so called 'top-down' emissions estimates.
Zoë currently leads the Observations - Greenhouse & Ozone Depleting Substances team which is responsible for maintaining and developing high quality greenhouse gas observations across our global flask network and our in-situ observation network around Australia, its Antarctic Territories, and on board the Research Vessel Investigator. The team uses these data to improve our understanding of the biogeochemical cycling of these radiatively important trace gases.
Zoë is also a Lead Scientist in the Kennaook/Cape Grim Science Programme, responsible for perpetuating high-quality observations of greenhouse gases at this crucial global site for long term measurements of environmental change.
Sonia Leber and David Chesworth are a collaborative artist duo based in Naarm/Melbourne, known for their distinctive video, sound and architecture-based installations that are audible as much as visible. Leber and Chesworth’s works are speculative and archaeological, often involving communities and elaborated from research in places undergoing social, technological or local geological transformation. Their works emerge from the real but exist significantly in the realm of the imaginary, hinting at unseen forces and non-human perspectives. Sonia and David are Adjunct Senior Industry Fellows in the School of Art at RMIT University.
Leber and Chesworth’s artworks have been shown in the central exhibitions of the 56th Venice Biennale: All The World’s Futures (2015) and the 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire (2014). Solo exhibitions include 'Where Lakes Once Had Water', TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Australia (2022) and Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra (2022); 'What Listening Knows', Messums Wiltshire, UK (2021) and 'Architecture Makes Us: Cinematic Visions of Sonia Leber & David Chesworth', Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne (2018) touring to Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane (2019) and UNSW Galleries, Sydney (2019).
Artist website www.leberandchesworth.com
Wednesday 9 August
Are There Any Natural Kinds? Reconsidering Chemical Elements
Monte Cairns (HPS, University of Cambridge)
Scientific classification practices, historically somewhat neglected by philosophers of science, have more recently come under significant scrutiny. A large portion of this recent literature is preoccupied with the question of whether or not classificatory concepts that can be delineated in various ways, such as ‘species’ or ‘disease,’ refer to natural kinds. This is a live debate with committed proponents on both sides. But the question itself is grounded in the understanding that there are some natural kinds – what’s at stake is whether these contestable concepts might be natural kinds too. This paper aims to dispute the understanding that we have good reason to believe in any natural kinds.
Evidence for the view that there are some natural kinds is almost always drawn from chemistry. In particular, it is an essentially uncontested view in contemporary philosophy of science that discrete chemical elements such as ‘gold’ are natural kinds, because discrete atomic number is determinately associated with discrete elements. This is microstructural essentialism about chemical elements, which rests on three arguments: (i) that microstructure is central to elemental classification and nomenclature, (ii) that no other systematic basis for individuating elements is consistent with chemical practice, and most crucially (iii) that microstructure serves to explain and predict the chemical properties of the elements.
This paper aims to dispute (iii) by arguing that the chemical behaviour of discrete elements is irreducible to their subatomic makeup. Meanwhile, an argument for microstructural essentialism on the grounds of only (i) and (ii) is question-begging. This leaves us without an explanation for why inductive inference works so well in regard to discrete chemical elements. But using the success of induction to justify belief in natural kinds leaves us without an epistemological justification for inductive inferences themselves, and so this move is more trouble than it’s worth. Ultimately, the case of chemical elements recommends a pragmatic view of scientific classification practices. If the renewed philosophical interest in classification is to be fruitful, then the natural kinds question should be left behind.
Monte Cairns completed his undergraduate studies in HPS (Honours) at the University of Melbourne, and an MPhil in HPS at the University of Cambridge in 2022, where he will begin a PhD in October 2023. His research interests revolve around scientific classification and associated ontological problems, and his PhD will aim to address the role of values in public health classification standards.
Wednesday 2 August
Where Do Theories Come From? An Inference-to-the-Best-Explanation Theory of Theory Building (IBET)
Peter Seddon (School of Computing and Information Systems, University of Melbourne)
This paper presents a theory of theory building and testing called IBET that is based primarily on Lipton’s 2004 book “Inference to the Best Explanation”. First, IBET argues that theories are ideas invented (not discovered) by people to explain how some part of the world works. Second, IBET argues that the goal in theory building is to abduce from the available evidence (including data, the literature, and the theory builder’s personal beliefs) an explanation that provides the researcher with their best understanding of why the phenomena of interest occur. Finally, IBET distinguishes between abductive testing of theories, where the information used for theory building is used for testing, and independent-data testing, where independently collected data are used for assessing the validity of a theory. In the last quarter of the paper, IBET is compared to three rival theories of theory building: (a) Grounded Theory, (b) Eisenhardt’s theory building from case studies, and (c) Shepherd and Suddaby’s recent advice on theory building. The conclusion is that IBET seems to provide a more in-depth, broad-scope, explanation of theory building than these rival theories.
Peter B. Seddon is an Honorary Professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems at The University of Melbourne. His major research interests are in the areas of evaluating information-systems success, packaged enterprise-application software, IT management, IT outsourcing, business analytics, IS research methodology, and accounting information systems.
Tuesday 30 May
Writing a Talking Cure: Between Medicine, Psychology, and Fiction
Joint UoS/UoM/AAHPSSS Seminar
Kim Hajek (Vossius Center for the History of Humanities and Sciences, University of Amsterdam)
When the term ‘psychotherapy’ gained cultural currency towards the end of the 19th century, it was effectively as a synonym for suggestion, especially as associated with the therapeutic practices of Hippolyte Bernheim. Bernheim would, for instance, instruct a patient to apply himself to ‘practical studies’ rather than ‘sterile contemplation’, or announce that her abdominal pains would soon disappear. Sometimes Bernheim would hypnotise his patient to a greater or lesser degree, and sometimes he would move a patient’s limbs to reinforce the verbal suggestion. As well as explaining his ideas in substantive chapters, Bernheim added some one hundred case histories of psychotherapy to his volume as a way to show other physicians how they could put psychotherapy to good use. He disseminated another hundred such clinical observations in a book of 1891. In Amsterdam, doctors Frederik van Eeden and Albert van Renterghem followed Bernheim’s lead not only in opening a clinic for suggestive psychotherapy, but also in communicating 110 of their cases in print in a French-language report of 1893. Paul Dubois, for his part, shared the details of his flourishing psychotherapy practice in Berne by including a number of cases in his bestselling account of ‘psychoneuroses’ in 1905.
Despite their number and availability as published sources, case histories of psychotherapy as published by Bernheim, Dubois, and others have received strikingly little attention from historians. My talk sets out early lines of enquiry for a new project that aims both to valorise these texts as sources for understanding pre-Freudian psychotherapy, and also to interrogate their function as scientific documents.
On the one hand, I examine what the cases can reveal about the dynamics of treatments that operated fundamentally by means of words or talking—features that continue to define psychotherapy to this day. In Nancy, Amsterdam, and Berne, we have settings where—perhaps for the first time—significant numbers of patients encountered psychotherapy outside the walls of the asylum or psychiatric hospital. This was psychotherapy as a (nascent) ‘routine’ treatment, notably distinct from the extraordinary case histories of unusual patients related at (very) great length by prominent theorists such as Pierre Janet or Sigmund Freud. I analyse cases by Bernheim and Dubois to shed light on the kinds of ‘magic words’ (to use Carroy’s expression) they employed in treating various (mental) illnesses, and the embodied modes of speech and listening that linked therapist, patient, and sometimes other actors.
On the other hand, I shift perspective from using psychotherapeutic case histories as historical sources to asking how they functioned as texts. What did such documents, published in their hundreds, do for medico-psychological knowledge, for doctors, and for patients? Here, I attend to the textual and narrative practices used by Bernheim and others in their case-writing, and explore whether reading cases might have served to teach the essence of psychotherapy, or whether publishing the cases was more an exercise in persuading the medical community to take this ‘new’ medication seriously.
Kim Hajek is an intellectual historian of science with an interdisciplinary background spanning French literature, the history of science and medicine, and experimental physics. My research focuses on interactions between science and literature in 19th-century France, particularly in the area of the nascent psychological and human sciences.
Friday 26 May
Gift, trade and gravity: Circulation practices and knowledge economies, across disciplinary space and time
Richard Staley (University of Cambridge and University of Copenhagen)
In 2004 Jim Secord developed a proposal to consider ‘knowledge in transit’ or communication practices as a means of providing a more comprehensive and analytically rigorous approach than microhistories and historiographical arguments about context, which often failed to conceptualise geographical and disciplinary boundaries. This paper builds on his suggestion and explores several strategic examples in order to develop a framework for understanding circulation practices, by focusing on the way historians and philosophers of science approach geographies and temporal traditions of knowledge. Bronislaw Malinowski’s anthropology of a ‘Tribal Economy’ and the Kulawill serve as both a theoretical resource in its examination of exchange relations, and as an example of knowledge in circulation for the sense in which it exemplified a continuation of Ernst Mach’s vision of science as economical description. My two other primary examples will be drawn from the papers on the gravitational constant and related fields presented to the 1900 international congress by C.V. Boys, R. Bourgeois and Roland Eötvös, treating them as papers designed to set research in circulation; and from Mach and Einstein on acceleration and gravitation, which speak to the possibility of implicit and explicit forms of the circulation of knowledge in textbook pedagogy and research. To consider how best to understand circulations and knowledge economies, we will thereby link the sciences of gift, trade and gravity, working across experimental and theoretical dimensions of the gravitational constant and equivalence principle, and between the physical and social sciences.
Tuesday 23 May
The Symmetry train
Darrin Durant (HPS, University of Melbourne)
Is the Science & Technology Studies (STS) concept of ‘symmetry’ part of the problem, or part of the solution, when considering responses to the politicization of science? Two main applications of the concept of symmetry exist in the STS literature (ignoring Latour’s). One usage is permissive, holding that symmetry has distinct epistemic implications for scientific authority, either democratizing or politicizing scientific authority. The other usage is pure, denying that symmetry has epistemic implications for scientific authority, instead presenting symmetry as a procedural maxim that imposes limits on its own implications. The purist conception of symmetry leans too heavily on its methodological (curiosity and contingency) and formal properties (what can be done), at the expense of its temporal (local purposes) and causal properties (what is or will be done). We should rescue the concept of symmetry from purity applications by reverting to the original Strong Program development of the concept, which was embedded in a finitism project. The payoff is permitting greater freedom for the social analyst to shift between epistemic curiosity and political critique.
Dr Darrin Durant is Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Melbourne. He has published widely on the relation between experts and citizens in democratic decision-making, disinformation and democracy, climate and energy politics, and nuclear waste disposal. His most recent work relevant to the question of symmetry and the politics of knowledge is the book Experts and the Will of the People: Society, Populism and Science (Palgrave, 2020), and chapters on “The Third Wave and Populism” in The Oxford Handbook of Expertise and Democratic Politics (Oxford, 2023), “Post-Truth Dystopia” in Post-Truth Imaginations (Routledge, 2021) and “Ignoring Experts” in The Third Wave in Science and Technology Studies (Palgrave, 2019). He Tweets @DarrinADurant.
Tuesday 16 May
HPS student work-in-progress presentations
Modality in Research: Beyond Hypothesis testing in the hypothetic-deductive model
Carmelina Contarino (HPS, University of Melbourne)
The current replication crisis in life and social sciences has motivated new reforms and interventions to improve scientific practice. The pre-registration of empirical research, improved inferential statistical tests, and a stronger emphasis on replication and reproducibility form part of the response to the replication crisis.
Some researchers have suggested that the reform movement’s heavy focus on fixing hypothetico-deductive methods is disproportionate compared to the amount of time researchers in these disciplines spend testing hypotheses, compared to generating hypotheses through exploratory work.
Uncovering the balance between exploratory and confirmatory research helps us better understand how we generate scientific knowledge in practice and assists in addressing the divergence between perception and reality.
Was French Vitalism linked to Romanticism? An inquiry into Xavier Bichat and his Recherches Physiologiques sur la Vie et la Mort
Indigo Keel (HPS, University of Melbourne)
Xavier Bichat published his treatise Recherches physiologique sur la vie et la morte in the year 1800, while he was working at the Hotel Dieu in Lyon. The book is reflective of the strength of vitalism in France during this period. Where, we may ask, did this vitalism come from? Scholars have drawn links between vitalism and Romanticism in Germany and England, though the same links have not been interrogated in France. Furthermore, culture in France varied between Paris and the rest of the country, perhaps having more impact on Bichat in Lyon than his contemporaries in Paris.
Evolving Simulations: A comparative analysis
Carl Joseph (HPS, University of Melbourne)
Challenging the linear narrative of technological progress, Carl’s research explores the factors which influence researchers’ choices when creating and using computer simulations. Drawing on case studies in astrophysics and geophysics (think smashing galaxies together and dinosaur extinction events), Carl highlights how existing disciplinary terrains, political contexts, and technological resources shape the specific roles that computer simulations come to play
Tuesday 2 May
Mental health ‘self help’ initiatives in Australia: A comparison of two radically transformative communities in the 1970s-80s.
Gemma Lucy Smart (History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney)
During the mid-late 20th Century in Australia, critiques of poor-quality care in mental hospital settings led to widespread deinstitutionalisation. Developments in mental healthcare attended to the provision of services outside of the hospital setting, although the success of these services varied over time. By the 1970s, alternatives for inpatient mental hospital-based psychiatric care became crucial – though underfunded – components of Australia’s mental health care system. Some of these initiatives went well beyond mainstream medical ideas of what the experience of mental distress, illness and crises meant and could be, influenced by the rise of international movements such as anti-psychiatry, critical psychiatry, and self-help.
In this paper I investigate two peer led initiatives that directly engaged with the self-help movement and contrast the way(s) in which they embodied self-help ideals with a distinctly Australian flavour. PALA (Positive Alternatives to Psychiatry) was a radical democratically formed and run humanistic ‘self-help community’ of psychiatric survivors and activist practitioners in the Sydney region. Recovery (now known as GROW) was established in the late 1950s by Catholic Priest and Doctor of Theology and Philosophy Father Con Keogh.
This paper is part of research conducted by the Re;Minding Histories and ARC Project: “The development of Australian community psychiatry after 1970” (Project ID DP190103655).
Gemma Lucy Smart is a PhD candidate in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Science. Current research is in the history, philosophy and sociology of psychiatry and neuroscience
Tuesday, 18 April
Masters of an Improbable Future: How Technocracy Shaped the future of human evolution for three British Scientists, J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal, and Julian Huxley
Luis Felipe Eguiarte Souza (Program in History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Minnesota)
Fierce political and ideological upheaval, world wars, and economic distress characterized the years between 1910 and 1950. As more traditional forms of politics appeared to fail, three renowned British biologists —J.B.S. Haldane, J.D. Bernal, and Julian Huxley—used their scientific stature to promote their vision of technocracy: government controlled by scientists and engineers. They publicized this vision in science fiction and popular science articles, venues where they were unconstrained by peer review or real-world practicality. My talk will analyze how the three transformed their views on science, evolution, and the future of humankind into technocratic propaganda supporting government by scientific experts.
Tuesday, 4 April
Drawing a Line in the Sand:
Bioengineering as Conservation in the face of Extinction Debt
Josh Wodak (Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University)
What conservation could possibly become commensurate with the rates of human-induced biophysical change unfolding at the advent to the Sixth Extinction Event? Any such conservation would not only require time-critical interventions into both ecosystems and evolution itself, for these interventions would also require domains of risk and ethics that shatter normative understandings of conservation. And yet, normative critiques against such experimental conservation serve to retain conservation practices that are null and void against the extinction debt facing multitudes of species.
Amidst this quagmire, this paper explores conservation ethics in the face of extinction debt, through a detailed case study of current and proposed conservation for endangered Chelonia mydas sea turtles on Raine Island, a small coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Chelonia mydas and Raine Island are presented as synecdoche for conservation across diverse species across the world, because turtles are among the most endangered of all reptiles, and Raine Island is the largest and most important rookery in the world for this species.
This is not, however, a paper about conservation per se. Rather, the paper reframes any-and-all conservation in the context of the radical asymmetry and radical contingency of life to the vicissitudes of the cosmos. In this vein, the paper formulates a cosmology based on Raine Island’s unintentional creation via coral formation and guano from nesting sea birds, highlighting the relevance of pre-human ruptures to the one currently unfolding. This cosmology is presented as a synecdoche for how life has altered the lithosphere and atmosphere of the planet since its first appearance. Therein, in response to the question of what would a risk ethics of conservationist synthetic biology constitute if it was to become commensurate with the ecological and climate crisis, the paper contemplates the unthinkable questions that our current situation demands we ask, and perhaps even try to answer.
Dr Joshua Wodak works at the intersection of the Environmental Humanities and Science & Technology Studies. His research addresses the socio-cultural dimensions of the climate crisis and the Anthropocene, with a focus on the ethics and efficacy of conservation through technoscience, including Synthetic Biology, Assisted Evolution, and Climate Engineering.
He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, and a Chief Investigator at the ARC Centre for Excellence in Synthetic Biology. This presentation is drawn from a chapter of his recently completed book Petrified: Living During a Rupture of Life on Earth.
Tuesday 28 March
Panic in the techno: AI, ethics and Chat GPT in Universities
Jay Daniel Thompson (School of Media and Communication, RMIT University)
ChatGPT has received lively journalistic coverage since being released by Open AI in November 2022. A significant portion of this concerns the chatbot’s ramifications for education, including higher education. Some commentators have approached this technology with cautious optimism, elucidating its pedagogic promises, while others have cautioned that the chatbot may represent a(nother) threat to academic integrity and the future of learning.
This paper addresses those anxiety-underpinned commentaries. Deploying a combination of Critical Discourse Analysis and Framing Analysis, the paper suggests that this reportage initially appears to invoke a techno-panic, in which a technological bugaboo (here, Chat GPT) threatens vulnerable innocents (educators and their students – especially the latter), and must thus be controlled by punitive means – e.g., banning from the classroom. Such a reading is appealing; techno-panics are comfortingly black and white (the folk devil is easily identified – and vanquished!), and (while not new) seem ideally suited to the clickbait era by virtue of their sensationalism.
The paper suggests that commentary which expresses anxiety about Chat GPT actually contain the germ of an ethical approach to the imbrication of technology and/in higher education: one that acknowledges the origins and the validity of the Chat GPT anxieties, while not fuelling these; that seeks to mitigate harm (pedagogical, personal); and that remains alert to the ways in which AI might be deployed to cultivate technologically literate and ethically committed subjects. This is a reparative reading, one that foregrounds how apparently reductive and restrictive techno-panic media frames may ultimately generate the kind of human-technology cohabitation that the frames seem to regard as impossible.
Dr Jay Daniel Thompson is a Lecturer and Program Manager in the Professional Communication program in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. His research explores ways of cultivating ethical online communication in an era of digital hostility and networked disinformation. These animate his current and previous research projects, the latter of which include two co-authored books published in 2022: Fake News in Digital Culture (with Professor Rob Cover and Dr. Ashleigh Haw) and Content Production for Digital Media (with Associate Professor John Weldon).
Tuesday 14 March
Are we all metascientists now? Paradoxes & pathways to the future of research on research
James Wilsdon (Department of Science, Technology, Engineering & Public Policy, UCL)
Since 2000, global investment in research and development (R&D) has tripled—to around US $2 trillion a year. This extra investment has been accompanied by inflated aspirations and sharpened accountabilities to government, citizens and society. The resulting tensions and opportunities have spurred an expansion of research on research—known also as meta-research, metascience or the science of science—which has grown in volume, visibility and intensity.
These domains are diverse, and draw on a blend of old and new methodological approaches. From different starting points, they aim to better understand research systems; to ensure that R&D resources are invested strategically and effectively; and to underpin reforms to the ways that funding is allocated, results are disseminated and outcomes are measured and evaluated.
Alongside AIMOS in Australia, the Center for Open Science in the US and many more, one recent initiative in this space has been the Research on Research Institute (RoRI), founded in Europe in 2019 by a group of research funders and meta-researchers, with a mission to accelerate transformative research on research systems, cultures and decision-making.
In this talk, on the work of RoRI, and his own messy and undisciplined 20-year journey through the ‘commons and borderlands’ of research on research, James Wilsdon will share some insights and pose a few questions about the future of these fields. Blending the personal, the political and the institutional, he will poke at the foundations of meta-research; reflect on what’s old, what’s new, and what’s borrowed from elsewhere; ask how one institutionalises an endeavour which is inherently transdisciplinary within structures which (for all their rhetorical nods elsewhere) remain in essence siloed and monodisciplinary.
And at a time when so much is up for grabs in the governance and design of Australia’s research system—from the reform of ERA, through the review to ARC to the new Australian Universities Accord— James will end by offering a few tenatative thoughts on the metascientific possibilities of the present moment.
James Wilsdon is a transdisciplinary social scientist and meta-researcher who works on the governance and management of science and research, and the relationship between evidence and decision-making.
Tuesday 21 March
Paleofantasy: What Evolution Tells Us About Modern Life
Marlene Zuk (College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota)
Joint seminar with the School of BioSciences and the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences
Have human beings in modern society stopped evolving? Are our bodies and brains at odds with contemporary life? In other words, have we somehow freed ourselves from evolution? Drawing from my book Paleofantasy, I will explain how popular theories about how our ancestors lived—and why we should emulate them— are often based on speculation, not scientific evidence, and they reflect a basic misunderstanding about how evolution works. In reality, there was never a time when everything about us—our bodies, our minds, and our behavior—was perfectly in synch with the environment.
Marlene Zuk is Regents Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. Professor Zuk focuses on emerging questions in behavioural ecology and evolutionary biology, using invertebrate systems to study the evolution of mating behavior and secondary sexual characters in natural populations. Professor Zuk seeks to understand how natural and sexual selection pressures shape the behaviour, life history, and morphology of animals.