The Whale and the Supercomputer

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change, Charles Wohlforth

I was interested in how the natives perceived scientific methods as lazy, in a way. After it was pointed out, I cannot unsee it now. While the Iñupiaq spend most of their time living in and experiencing Alaska and the changes it has undergone in recent years, scientists primarily only come in the summer. They take measurements or install gear to do so in the winter, when they will undoubtedly not be present to observe the data-gathering in action. Scientists take detailed data in an isolated manner; they search for “slices” of something far more complex, and they try and extrapolate about what they don’t know, given what they do know in detail. As evidenced by many failures — one being the gross underestimate of the Arctic whale population — this does not always work, and it can affect policy, people, and the earth itself.

This stands in sharp contrast to the way that the natives attempt to understand nature. Far more grounded and involved in the knowledge-gathering process, they work together as a community, bound by social conventions, common culture, and a need to survive in a harsh and rapidly changing environment. Their knowledge base is more practical; while they observe the changes taking place around them, they don’t necessarily seek the kind of explanations scientists would. They seek practical adaptations, ways of working with the cards that nature has dealt them. They have little interest in conquering nature and instead hope to work with her.

The way that these two groups interact is telling. The Iñupiaq seem to relatively readily have adopted many of the techniques white whalers employed in the 19th century, like brass pipe bombs, that made their work less dangerous and more fruitful. Because their way of knowledge-gathering and authentication is largely based on what works, rather than where that knowledge came from, there seems to be much less intellectual resistance to the adoption of alternative ways of doing and knowing. Scientists, on the other hand, seem to have a harder time incorporating traditional knowledge into their research. A good example can be found in the episode Wohlforth recounts of one of Matthew’s data-gathering expeditions in which an Iñupiaq elder is brought along. The scientists were worried about “translating the different frames of reference”, (90) and in the end, the elder ended up primarily being a guide. His knowledge was of a different language, inscrutable and irreducible, and unable to be communicated or translated into the numbers and statistics the scientists felt were the only way to understand what was happening to the climate in Alaska.

I think it all comes down to communication. Wohlforth spends a lot of time talking about how systems composed of many people operate; the Iñupiaq on a whale hunt, scientists in a conference room at IARC trying to understand why their models for climate change weren’t producing results. He discusses the difficulties in translating one person or culture’s knowledge to another, but emphasizes that it is in these connections that the whole, complicated truth lay. One way of knowing, even one as meticulous as the scientific method, cannot paint an entire, comprehensive picture of an actuality. The mechanical worldview’s track record with the “harder” sciences — chemistry, physics, some aspects of biology — have given scientists an unrealistic faith in it; climate change shows us that some things are simply too complicated to be broken down and must be viewed more holistically if we ever expect to understand them as they are.

When international and US lawmakers, concerned with the preservation of whale species, attempted to make hunting them illegal (despite the fact that the Iñupiaq way of life would be a casualty of such policy), scientific and traditional knowledge were forced into cooperation. Scientists had estimated the population of the bowheads to be far smaller than the natives believed to be the case. Political maneuvering on the part of the Iñupiaq made their voices heard, and the scientists were forced to listen. Having coexisted with the bowheads for as long as they could remember, the natives knew that the way the scientists were counting them was inefficient, missing huge numbers of animals — their migration band was much larger than scientists predicted, and the whales often swam under the ice where they could not be seen. In order to develop a more effective way of counting bowheads, the scientists were forced to collaborate with the natives. The result was that, unsurprisingly, the natives had been right all along. As the only place where “samples of large, freshly killed baleen whales” were present, Barrow drew many scientists who wished to study the mysterious animals. In close proximity, and because the scientists needed their expertise on ice navigation, a discourse between the natives and the scientists opened up. As Wohlforth so eloquently puts it, “Researchers… had to accept that there was another valid way of knowing complex facts about the environment.” (22)

Vernacular Knowledge

The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China, Dagmar Schäfer

            In her analyses of the writings of Song Yingxing (1587-1666?), author Dagmar Schäfer elucidates the intricate and complex systems of knowing in seventeenth-century China. Song was part of a society in which individuals were divided into four major classes: scholars, farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. While Song’s writings reflect these subdivisions (and the social hierarchies in which they were placed), they also defy his society’s unique knowledge classification systems by emphasizing the role of qi in universal harmony and understanding. In a method markedly different from his contemporaries, Song proposed a chaos-defying system based on qi and “natural phenomenon and the production of material objects,” instead of on “moral categories of ‘heaven’” imposed on humanity.[1] Schäfer brilliantly highlights how cultural, political, and societal influences play a role in knowledge production and understanding through her case study analysis of a single, at times abnormal and at times quite typical, lower-ranked Chinese scholar. 

Science in the Everyday World: Why Perspectives from the History of Science Matter, Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader

            Science in the Everyday World brings attention to the tendency for scientists and historians of science to discount or altogether ignore the importance of those “outside the temple of science” and in the realm of popular culture in the production and perpetuation of knowledge.[2] To assume that all knowledge is synthesized in the laboratories of professional scientists leaves out the many, equally important actors at play in the lay world. If historians will venture into the realm of popular cultures of science, Pandora and Rader argue, we have to gain “the positive transformation of relations between expert scientific practitioners and nonexpert public science participants.”[3] The authors then illustrate how this type of analysis should be carried out by discussing three examples: historians’ work on the nineteenth-century scientific popular culture, the development of and motivations behind scientific museums, and twentieth century media portrayals of the scientist. By understanding the ways that the scientific community and laypeople communicate with one another, scientists can benefit from historians in a way that will make future conversations far more rewarding.

Pandora and Rader’s piece on popular science reminded me very much of Nancy Tomes’s work, The Gospel of Germs. Tomes appears to use the exact analytical strategies proposed by Pandora and Rader; she attempts to understand the lay American reaction to an awareness of microbial disease-carriers. A marked difference between this approach and the more traditional, top-centered strategy can be located in the source base. Pandora and Rader’s brief discussion on popular representations of scientists in the twentieth century focus on film and television shows, while Tomes uses similar sources that lay outside of the professional realm, including advice books, patent applications, advertisements, and oral histories. While these sources may not always be the most visible, apparent, or traditional, they offer insight into a completely different aspect of scientific culture — one that is equally important to the acquisition and transmission of knowledge.

I find the indirect approach to the historical study of scientific understanding the most fascinating, and arguably the most important. While scientists like to isolate themselves physically and professionally, they are still part of the worldly, human-comprised community. They are not immune to its structure, politics, culture, or ideas, as many proponents of the SSK school would argue. I think, however, that one of the most effective ways of understanding the context in which science is conducted is to study the consumers of science. Their role in the creation of scientific knowledge has been paramount; after all, without public support science (usually) cannot operate. And how science sells or isolates itself from the common people can have major implications for what kind of science is done. Equally interesting and useful is the study of how science has affected the communities for which it operates; how did your average American understand germ theory, and how did this change how they behaved? A question taken up by Tomes, this kind of inquiry can lead the historian to better understand what role science has played in the overall history of humanity, and like Pandora and Rader argue, it can facilitate important modern-day conversations between scientists and common audiences.

[1] Dagmar Schäfer, The Crafting of 10,000 Things, 52.

[2] Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader, “Science in the Everyday World,” 350.

[3] Ibid, 354.