“On the Frontier of the Empire of Chance”

Arwen Mohun, “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance: Statistics, Accidents, and Risk in Industrializing America.” Science in Context 3 (2005): 337-357.

In “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance,” author Arwen Mohun examines the rise in statistics and probabilistic thinking in the American vernacular context from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Through the lens of a cultural historian of technology, Mohun takes a closer look at how the industrial-era quantification of risk altered the way people understood it; she asks why and how this transformation took place, and then delves into how these understandings were shaped and used in order to mold individual behavior and enact widespread change. Mohun argues that the actors in her narrative existed on the periphery of the Empire of Chance. While experts, primarily located in European centers of statistical theorizing, formed the “epicenter” of the empire, those on the frontier employed statistics as a tool in social manipulation. Far from relegating popular audiences to a primarily observational, inert role, however, the author also acknowledges their agency in the story by explaining how their motivations affected their choices regarding risk and reward.

Obviously, Mohun’s work builds off of the book she references in her title — The Empire of Chance. Her piece is different from that of Gigerenzer et al., however, in that it addresses how the methodological and intellectual developments of professional statisticians found their way into popular understandings of variability and the risks associated with it. This is reminiscent of Dr. Pandora’s assigned reading for her two weeks of 5990 at the beginning of the semester — Spectacular Nature and The Whale and the Supercomputer. Like Mohun’s work, Susan G. Davis looks at how ideas from the “top,” the professional scientists, filter down into the vernacular through institutions like SeaWorld. Mohun also looks at how institutions influence the way that popular audiences understand scientific theories, their consequences, and their uses. In contrast, Charles Wohlforth focuses on how non-professional ways of knowing had a major impact on the way scientists looked at and understood climate change in the arctic. Mohun mimics this approach when she includes in her analysis how the importance of individual experience affects the way that the average American understood and behaved in regards to risk-taking. When the approach involves popular science, both perspectives — top-down and bottom-up — are important for a holistic understanding of how science and vernacular audiences interact and influence one another, and in this regard, Mohun as clearly covered all of her bases.

Something I found particularly interesting in this piece was the discussion of the “pragmatic approach” to science that Mohun discusses primarily on pages 339 and 340. She argues that it was especially characteristic of American statisticians in the time period she covers, and cites as evidence their absence from histories of statistics. American statisticians worried less about developing sound theories and methods and more about applying their knowledge (no matter how unsound or theoretically dubious) to real-world problems. This embodied what I have come to understand as being a very Industrial-American ideal; the self-made, self-trained practitioner unconcerned with the useless, bookish knowledge so characteristic of their less hard-working, impractical European counterparts. I wonder if the different approaches caused animosity between American and European statisticians; they were obviously sharing ideas. What did these conversations look like, and how did they take place? Was it common for Americans to train abroad, or were universities in America training these frontiersmen of the Empire of Chance?

Spectacular Nature

Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, Susan G. Davis

The second and third chapters outline how the Sea World experience is tailored to the customer and to the flow of the park in order to maximize profits. I was struck by how, even as the park claims to produce knowledge and educate, the picture it paints of nature is largely based on what its customers want to see rather than what is true. They want to see animals with habitats that look like the places from which they could have been extracted; the captive animals seem happier, more at home in appropriate environments (a proposition with which Sea World employees disagree — the animals do not seem to be affected by the aesthetics of their surroundings). “Animal displays are cultural as opposed to natural, not only in the sense that they are manufactured, but also in that they refer to predefined sights, to already known ways of contemplating nature as romantically beautiful, stern, wild, and empty.” (108) Even when they are attempting to portray nature as it is, Sea World is more concerned with what rendition of “nature” will garner the most profit than a realistic portrayal of marine habitats.

I am reminded of the metaphor of nature as a mirror. When humans look for truths in nature, what we see is oftentimes what we already believe to be true. Perhaps we can’t fault Sea World for doing something we have been doing for centuries — producing narratives in which nature takes on the characteristics we find in ourselves, the characteristics we went into our study of the universe prepared to ascribe to it. In the modern world, inundated with the commodification of not only entertainment and public spaces, but knowledge as well, perhaps it should not be so surprising that places like Sea World exist. This is, however, not to imply that they should exist, and the increasing awareness of the contradictions inherent in Sea World’s operations is a hopeful sign that we are no longer as content to consume feel-good interpretations of nature and our interactions with it. Instead, as Blackfish and the environmental activists and bad press that plague Sea World show, people are recognizing the ridiculous paradox of holding animals captive — and training them for entertainment purposes — while at the same time promoting ecological awareness and sustainability.

Sea World, like those who consume its products, is an active entity and has worked hard to maintain such a paradox by implementing programs aimed at counter-balancing the negativity directed toward their exploitation of nature and its inhabitants. Sea World has established orca breeding programs to justify their remaining in captivity, and they have gone so far as to fund a marine-focused research institute, which, Davis argues, “constructs Sea World as a place of responsible scientific investigation and unfolding knowledge, and emphatically not a site of animal exploitation.” (70) Here, science is used to instill trust in a populace and to hide much more controversial and sinister goings-on. Further, the park emphasizes human-animal interactions in its exhibitions — notably something that would never occur in nature — to establish an emotional connection between the customer and the captive. This connection makes it more difficult for people to feel negatively about the animal’s condition.

Sea World has thus both produced scientific knowledge and used it to its advantage as a for-profit institution — an alarming conflict of interest that can tell us a lot about knowledge production in late capitalist society. For me, it speaks to the importance of vernacular participants in scientific endeavors; since Sea World’s antics are based on marketplace statistics, it is actually “everyman’s” desires and understandings that have created Sea World’s interpretation of nature. In a capitalist world where commodification continues to infringe on more and more aspects of human life, science will continue to be profoundly influenced by how people understand, and want to understand nature. An awareness of such a connection goes far beyond Davis’s work and encourages thought about how science should be portrayed in both education and entertainment — particularly if, in a place like Sea World, the two are conflated.

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)

Why Popular Science Matters

“Popularizers provided syntheses, synoptic overviews, and more: at heart, as storytellers who engaged with questions of meaning as well as providing information, they brought the larger public into communication with the search for natural knowledge by incorporating their hopes and dreams and fears and speaking directly to their experiences.”

— Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader in “Science in the Everyday World”