History and Philosophy of Science

The Normalization of Deviance

January 7, 2016
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The Normalization of Deviance

In his piece for the most recent issue of the Atlantic on the origins of the corporate mea culpa and its promulgation of evils, Jerry Useem turned the theory and research of Diane Vaughan, including that drawn from her book The Challenger Launch Decision: The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster—the subject of a landmark study by Vaughan—damage to the crucial O‑rings had been observed after previous shuttle launches. Each observed instance of damage, she found, was followed by a sequence “in which the technical deviation of the from performance predictions was redefined as an acceptable risk.” Repeated over time, this behavior became routinized into what organizational psychologists call a “script.” Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself. More explicitly, for Vaughan, the O-ring . . .

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From Aristotle to South Park: An online seminar with Randy Olson

November 18, 2015
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From Aristotle to South Park: An online seminar with Randy Olson

In Houston, We Have a Narrative, consummate storyteller—and Hollywood screenwriter and former scientist and communications expert—Randy Olson, conveys his no-nonsense, results-oriented approach to writing about science, the stuff of some of our greatest plots. On December 1, 2015, at 2PM, Olson will be leading an hour-long, online seminar for the AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society). In addition to conveying the fascinating journey of how he left a tenured professorship in marine biology to write for the movies, Olson will let you know why—and, but, therefore—how. From the AAAS’s description: He had a single goal — the search for something that might improve the communication of science. He found it in a narrative template he crafted and labeled as “The ABT.” The ABT is adapted from the co-creators of the Emmy and Peabody award-winning animated series, South Park. In a 2011 documentary about the show, they talked about their “Rule of Replacing” which they use for editing scripts. Their rule involves replacing the word “and” with “but” or “therefore.” From this Olson devised his “And, But, Therefore” template (the ABT). This has become the central tool for his new book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” his . . .

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The Union of Concerned Scientists on Randy Olson

October 16, 2015
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The Union of Concerned Scientists on Randy Olson

Randy Olson was once a marine biologist, with one foot in academia, a screenwriting dream, and the uncanny ability to communicate complicated science via narratives that used the foundations of story to draw readers in and keep them engaged. Now one of our most revered interlocutors of how science is understood and appreciated, Olson recently published Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, which takes readers through his “And, But, Therefore” principle of writing. In addition to delivering a TED talk on the ABT method, Olson was recently the subject of a review/profile for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a piece that details his book’s inspiration and operating themes. From the Equation blog at the Union for Concerned Scientists: Scientists who want to succeed with Olson’s methods will have to not only read and process what he has to say, but also commit to thinking about how to communicate their work more effectively over time. . . . This isn’t an add-on to doing good science, either, Olson argues. Scientists are born storytellers, trying to make sense of data. Olson writes that even the humble scientific abstract benefits from adhering to an ABT structure and he presents several convincing case studies to . . .

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Joanna Kempner on Oliver Sacks and migraines

September 23, 2015
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Joanna Kempner on Oliver Sacks and migraines

Joanna Kempner’s Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health confronts our tendency to dismiss the migraine as an ailment de la femme, subject to the gendered constraints surrounding how we talk about—as well as legislate and alleviate—pain. In the book, Kempner traces the symptoms of headache-like disorders, which often deliver no set of objective symptoms but instead a mix of visual and somatic sensitivities, to the nineteenth-century origins of the migraine, its reputation in the 1940s for soliciting the “migraine personality” (code for so-called uptight neurotic women), forward to present-day sufferers. A couple of weeks ago, following the death of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, Kempner published a piece at the Migraine blog on Sacks’s lesser-known first book: called Migraine, it drew upon Sacks’s experience working at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, the nation’s first headache clinic, and reflected on the neuropsychological effects of migraines. From Kempner’s post: The book itself was a tour de force. The backbone of the text is a thorough and eloquent overview of the various forms of migraine (as they were understood in 1970), peppered throughout with case studies from Sacks’ clinical practice. But what made Migraine different from other texts on the subject were Sacks’ unique . . .

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Free e-book for April: Hybrid

April 1, 2015
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Free e-book for April: Hybrid

Just in time for your ur-garden, our free-ebook for April is Noel Kingsbury’s Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding. *** Disheartened by the shrink-wrapped, Styrofoam-packed state of contemporary supermarket fruits and vegetables, many shoppers hark back to a more innocent time, to visions of succulent red tomatoes plucked straight from the vine, gleaming orange carrots pulled from loamy brown soil, swirling heads of green lettuce basking in the sun. With Hybrid, Noel Kingsbury reveals that even those imaginary perfect foods are themselves far from anything that could properly be called natural; rather, they represent the end of a millennia-long history of selective breeding and hybridization. Starting his story at the birth of agriculture, Kingsbury traces the history of human attempts to make plants more reliable, productive, and nutritious—a story that owes as much to accident and error as to innovation and experiment. Drawing on historical and scientific accounts, as well as a rich trove of anecdotes, Kingsbury shows how scientists, amateur breeders, and countless anonymous farmers and gardeners slowly caused the evolutionary pressures of nature to be supplanted by those of human needs—and thus led us from sparse wild grasses to succulent corn cobs, and from mealy, white . . .

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Excerpt: Southern Provisions

March 31, 2015
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Excerpt: Southern Provisions

An excerpt from Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine by David S. Shields *** Rebooting a Cuisine “I want to bring back Carolina Gold rice. I want there to be authentic Lowcountry cuisine again. Not the local branch of southern cooking incorporated.” That was Glenn Roberts in 2003 during the waning hours of a conference in Charleston exploring “ The Cuisines of the Lowcountry and the Caribbean.” When Jeffrey Pilcher, Nathalie Dupree, Marion Sullivan, Robert Lukey, and I brainstormed this meeting into shape over 2002, we paid scant attention to the word cuisine.1 I’m sure we all thought that it meant something like “a repertoire of refined dishes that inspired respect among the broad public interested in food.” We probably chose “cuisines” rather than “foodways” or “cookery” for the title because its associations with artistry would give it more splendor in the eyes of the two institutions—the College of Charleston and Johnson & Wales University—footing the administrative costs of the event. Our foremost concern was to bring three communities of people into conversation: culinary historians, chefs, and provisioners (i.e., farmers and fishermen) who produced the food cooked along the southern Atlantic coast and in the West Indies. Theorizing cuisine . . .

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Excerpt: The Territories of Science and Religion

March 25, 2015
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Excerpt: The Territories of Science and Religion

Introduction An excerpt from The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison *** The History of “Religion” In the section of his monumental Summa theologiae that is devoted to a discussion of the virtues of justice and prudence, the thirteenth-century Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas (122–74) investigates, in his characteristically methodical and insightful way, the nature of religion. Along with North African Church Father Augustine of Hippo (354–430), Aquinas is probably the most influential Christian writer outside of the biblical authors. From the outset it is clear that for Aquinas religion (religio) is a virtue—not, incidentally, one of the preeminent theological virtues, but nonetheless an important moral virtue related to justice. He explains that in its primary sense religiorefers to interior acts of devotion and prayer, and that this interior dimension is more important than any outward expressions of this virtue. Aquinas acknowledges that a range of outward behaviors are associated with religio—vows, tithes, offerings, and so on—but he regards these as secondary. As I think is immediately obvious, this notion of religion is rather different from the one with which we are now familiar. There is no sense in which religio refers to systems of propositional beliefs, and no sense of . . .

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Facebook’s A Year of Books drafts The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

March 23, 2015
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Facebook’s A Year of Books drafts The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

In his sixth pick for the social network’s online book club (“A Year of Books”), Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently drafted Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a 52-year-old book still considered one of the most often cited academic resources of all time, and one of the crowning gems of twentieth-century scholarly publishing. Following in the footsteps of Pixar founder Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc., as Zuckerberg’s most recent pick, Structure will be the subject of a Facebook thread with open commenting, for the next two weeks, in line with the guidelines advanced by “A Year of Books.” If you’re thinking about reading along, the 50th Anniversary Edition includes a an equally compelling Introduction by Ian Hacking that situates the book’s legacy, both in terms of its contribution to a scientific vernacular (“paradigm shifting”) and its value as a scholarly publication of mass appeal (“paradigm shifting”). Or, in Zuckerberg’s own words: It’s a history of science book that explores the question of whether science and technology make consistent forward progress or whether progress comes in bursts related to other social forces. I tend to think that science is a consistent force for good in the world. I think we’d all be better off if we invested more . . .

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Excerpt: Invisible by Philip Ball

March 16, 2015
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Excerpt: Invisible by Philip Ball

Recipes for Invisibility, an excerpt from Invisible: The Dangerous History of the Unseen  by Philip Ball ***  “Occult Forces” Around 1680 the English writer John Aubrey recorded a spell of invisibility that seems plucked from a (particularly grim) fairy tale. On a Wednesday morning before sunrise, one must bury the severed head of a man who has committed suicide, along with seven black beans. Water the beans for seven days with good brandy, after which a spirit will appear to tend the beans and the buried head. The next day the beans will sprout, and you must persuade a small g irl to pick and shell them. One of these beans, placed in the mouth, will make you invisible. This was tried, Aubrey says, by two Jewish merchants in London, who could’t acquire the head of a suicide victim and so used instead that of a poor cat killed ritualistically. They planted it with the beans in the garden of a gentleman named Wyld Clark, with his permission. Aubrey’s deadpan relish at the bathetic outcome suggests he was sceptical all along– for he explains that Clark’s rooster dug up the beans and ate them without consequence. Despite the risk of such . . .

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Excerpt: Seeing Green

February 23, 2015
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Excerpt: Seeing Green

An excerpt from Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images by Finis Dunaway *** “The Crying Indian” It may be the most famous tear in American history. Iron Eyes Cody, an actor in native garb, paddles a birch bark canoe on water that seems at first tranquil and pristine but becomes increasingly polluted along his journey. He pulls his boat from the water and walks toward a bustling freeway. As the lone Indian ponders the polluted landscape and stares at vehicles streaming by, a passenger hurls a paper bag out a car window. The bag bursts on the ground, scattering fast-food wrappers all over his beaded moccasins. In a stern voice, the narrator comments: “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.” The camera zooms in closely on Iron Eyes Cody’s face to reveal a single tear falling, ever so slowly, down his cheek (fig. 5.1). This tear made its television debut in 1971 at the close of a public service advertisement for the antilitter organization Keep America Beautiful. Appearing in languid motion on television, the tear would also circulate in other visual forms, stilled . . .

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