Whither the Humanities in the Era of Transformative Science and Technology?

I got my PhD in history and social sciences at MIT, a science and engineering school. And now I’m teaching lessons drawn from history and social sciences at KAIST, a science and engineering school. Because of this, I’ve long been interested in the lessons or toolkits the sciences can use from the humanities, and vice versa. This past fall I attended the 3rd World Humanities Forum here in Daejeon, the theme for which was “Humanities in the Era of Transformative Science and Technology“, and the main debate was over what role, if any, could the humanities play in our modern technological present and future. Speeches by two keynote speakers in particular, historian of science Peter Galison and novelist Chang-Rae Lee, got me thinking about the relationship between the “Two Cultures“, and I found myself writing an essay listing what I saw as the key “products” that the humanities excel at creating which scientists and engineers (and policymakers) need. (I was also inspired by my dissertation advisor‘s op-ed last year in The Boston Globe, “At MIT, the humanities are just as important as STEM”, laying out arguments for way STEM needs the humanities.) The result was an op-ed piece published this month in the History of Science Society Newsletter here (on pages 11-14).

In the hopes of getting a wider readership, I've posted a copy of the article on my Academia.edu account.

In the hopes of getting a wider readership, I’ve posted a copy of the article on my Academia.edu account here.

I encourage you to read it in its entirety. But to summarize, I argue that different fields of humanities (history, anthropology, philosophy, literature and art) offer a variety of methods for cultivating creativity, moral imagination, humility and an ability to identify with “the other” (those who are not like us), and that these are necessary for scientists and engineers in their work because of how it shapes society more broadly. I then turn to the trickier question of how to bring the humanities to the sciences, tackling two separate challenges: how to build university curriculum and policies that incorporate both humanities and sciences perspectives, and how can humanities scholars build bridges through new media and technological platforms to reach a technology saturated techno-savvy public?

You can read the article for my arguments about the first, but here I wanted take advantage of the blog to highlights some of the interesting projects I’ve seen my colleagues in STS conduct in the spirit of taking their intellectual tools to the people and engaging the public or public policy with ideas from the humanities that have relevance to the social and political challenges of today. One such example is my friend Alex Wellerstein‘s excellent blog, “Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog“, which uses the history of the nuclear bomb and cultures of secrecy to explore governing assumptions today about the bomb’s legacy or myth-conceptions about what lessons we can draw from its history. Alex made a fun and provocative online app NUKEAPP, which allows users to visualize an atomic bomb detonation on a map of their hometown. It got picked up the media and went viral. Suddenly his blog went from hundreds of page hits to millions, and he was pulled into all kinds of interesting media interviews about what did the public’s fascination with the app suggest about our relationship to the bomb.

A map Alex posted early on  of NUKEAPP use on his blog.

A map Alex posted early on of NUKEAPP use on his blog, where he speculated on what it meant for his users.

Two other interesting online projects by my colleagues, which I’ve been following with interest being over here in Asia and teaching in a policy program, are Teach Sewol and Teach 3.11, both an exercise in how to transform a disaster and tragedy into a teachable moment. Teach 3.11 is an online web resource developed by Lisa Onaga and others following the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and nuclear meltdown. Lisa wanted to teach a class on disasters for her students who were trying to make sense of it, and she and others started to compile resources for the website to help others interested in teaching about it, too. Teach Sewol reflects a similar motivation to provide tools for educators wishing to make sense of a complicated, not to mention emotional social, economic, legal, and technological event. Chihyung Jeon and others, working with a design firm, have developed online readymade classes and discussion questions (in Korean) that Korean university and high school teachers can use to teach about the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. The idea of both projects is to elevate the public discussion to better consider policy contexts for risk and responsibility and to better make sense of the strong feelings that surround these and similar events.

This week was the one-year anniversary of the Sewol Ferry sinking, and students at KAIST organized a very moving "Read-In" where they read out loud documents and key texts relating to the tragedy and political and social aftermath.

This week was the one-year anniversary of the Sewol Ferry sinking, and students at KAIST organized a very moving “Read-In” where they read out loud documents and key texts relating to the tragedy and its aftermath. This photo I took last fall of a memorial in Seoul, which shows the signature yellow ribbons worn here in Korea to remember the event.

9780520243569In addition to these educational strategies, some humanities scholars are more directly engaging in public policy and policy debates. Here many examples come to mind, but I’ll limit myself to two. The first was an edited volume published by a group of anthropologists who asked the question: why are we letting overconfident, thin analysis and pat observations scare us away from policy discussions? The result was the 2005 book “Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back“, where anthropologists engage common myths and misconceptions perpetuated by pundits in American news on complicated social issues they study, including globalization, ethnic violence, social justice, the biological roots of behavior, consumerism, the welfare state, and violence against women. Among them, Hugh Gusterson in particular has continued to write prolifically in public newspapers critiquing the assumptions about expertise or other cultures that mislead American policy abroad.

Janet is no stranger to public engagement on policy matters. She also penned articles on space policy back when she studied

Janet is no stranger to public engagement on policy matters. She also penned articles on space policy back when she was studying the Mars Rover project and remote sensing.

For my other example on how STS scholars are engaging public policy in creative ways, sociologist Janet Vertesi took the trick of “participant observation” to a new horizon: she attempted to opt out of the private surveillance systems of big data that monitor our purchasing behavior in day-to-day transactions. The hook in her story was the she sought to hide her pregnancy from Facebook and other social platforms, only to discover that in order for her and her husband to do so, they had to go to social extremes (buying everything with cash or gift cards to disguise baby products) and inadvertently triggered national security protocols for criminals and terrorists. (Who else, after all, would want to hide from internet surveillance?) As one of her Facebook friends, at one point I and others were even hushed into silence about posting congratulations to her on the news, in case it affected the results of her study. Read about it here, it’s fascinating. The larger lessons she drew from her personal experience were that there was Big Data monitoring of almost everything we do, and that this has been happening with little public discussion about what opt in or opt out rights we as citizens, users, or consumers should have.

And this is just a handful of examples of what directions the humanities are taking in the era of transformative science and technology. To summarize Peter Galison’s talk, new technologies and sciences are transforming our world in ways that raise core human questions that cut across disciplines. The humanities have as much, or arguably more of a roleto play today in giving people the tools they need to question, to doubt, to wonder, to marvel, and perhaps most importantly, to comprehend these transformations.


Food diary project & “nutritionism”: What is (scientifically) knowable?

This week I had my “Food and Power” students do an interesting experiment: to keep a food diary of everything they eat (and drink) for 7 days. I asked them to take photos, email me two (one pic of their most representative food, and a second of their most special food that week), and on Thursday for our class I made a slideshow from the photos for discussion. I opened with Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s famous statement, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” (transl: tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are). And I asked them: What does the food you ate this week tell you about yourself?

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61ualtkQWGLThis week the course topic was “Gluttony”, and more specifically nutritionism and the so-called obesity epidemic. So to make their assignment more complicated, I ask them to calculate their daily calorie intake, which, if you’ve never tried it, you might not know is very difficult to do. Indeed, my secret goal of this assignment was to show them how difficult it is to keep precise track of every calorie you eat. In discussion this challenge came up quickly. One student laughed and said all her pictures were of half eaten food, because she only remembered to take them after the fact. Several students said it was hard to remember to include liquid calories (fruit juices, sodas, etc.). One of my students said coffee was her most representative food, an interesting claim since coffee is a beverage, which she defended by pointing out that a cup of black coffee has an average of 20 calories. And we all agreed that it will be difficult calculating the calories for many sauces and dips (e.g. mustard, BBQ sauce). We discussed these different types of “invisible calories”, and what Brian Wansink calls “Mindless Eating“, the ways we eat without noticing that we are eating that sometimes contribute to our eating too much.

I used this challenge of recording each and every food item to talk about the limits of diet epidemiology. One of the recurring themes I return to in the class discussions is: How do we know what we know about food? (It’s a question I first heard stated by Alan Brandt: how do we know what we know about… anything?) In medicine the presumed “gold standard” for knowing something is the Double-Blind Randomized Clinical Trial. Yet, some things are more amenable to this kind of study than others. Pills, for instance, are easy to do: you have an experimental group take the real drug, and a control group take the placebo, and nobody knows which is which. But imagine trying this with food. Who do you think you will fool when you give one group the low-fat food, and the other the normal one? (Surgery is another area where RCT is not an option: it has been decades since “sham surgery” was allowed as an ethical option for a control group.)

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My lecture slide on the limits of knowing: I love this pyramid on the hierarchy of knowing, from the satire website The Spud.

Moreover, in studies testing some specific change within a diet, epidemiologists say it is a nightmare trying to get exact information about what exactly their participants are eating day to day. Either they rely on surveys, whose reported information is dubious. (Ask yourself, what did you eat yesterday, and see if you can give a good answer.) Or, they have participants keep a diary, and then nurses are tasked with calling them to remind them to keep the record. And invariably participants don’t, and the size of the study gets smaller and smaller. Bringing us back to my students’ challenge this week.

Of course, there are certain special people who do manage this kind of nutritionally obsessive work day to day, and we talked about them. Diabetics have to be very careful about the quantities of foods that take in, for sugars. People with food allergies or celiacs, who are in my experience those who most carefully read a food label. Pregnant women are also increasingly getting pulled into this kind of biomedical model of managing one’s diet. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. They are unusual in that their diets are not so much framed as food choices, and therefore are not about “will power”.

Two other types of people obsessed with diet fit into what Robert Crawford so elegantly identified 35 years ago as “healthism: athletes and vanity dieters. Indeed, last Sunday, as it happened, I ran my first marathon (the Seoul International Marathon in 4:45:29!). So when I described my representative food for the week, I introduced it as “carbs”, falling into the nutritionism trap. Why consider spaghetti carbonara to be the same as Chinese noodles with blackbean sauce when they hail from completely different cultures? (According to RunKeeper, I burned 4,000 calories during the race. I asked my students, what does this mean?) But these kinds of lifestyles demand an abnormal level of will power. (I simply refuse to live my life as a health-conscious marathoner. One time, sure, but as a constant state of being, no way!) Do we really expect ordinary mortals to track their eating in such a careful, deliberate manner? Not really. But it’s a problem for scientific eating.

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My Food Dairy was completely distorted by the fact that this week I ran my first marathon, and was therefore obsessed with “carb loading”.

Gary Taubes, science journalist and all-around science debunker crank, wrote a New York Times article in 2002 titled: “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?“, where he basically assaulted the lipid hypothesis and argued that because there were no solid RCTs on it, it wasn’t good science. But then Taubes, and later Michael Pollan, fell into the regular trap of putting forward some other theory (evil carby diets), ignoring the fact that there wasn’t “good science” by his impossible definition for that either. Thinking about Taubes and his ever elusive Gold Standard, and how even my brilliant capable KAIST students found it difficult keeping a scientific record of what they eat, I wonder if there are certain things that are just not “knowable” scientifically. Rather than lapse into Taubes’s absolutism or some equally unproductive opposite relativism, I used this example to caution my students to approach diet science advice with care. In general, if someone tells you some diet thing is “science”, odds are they are trying to sell you something… it might be the food, or it might be their expertise (or in Taubes’s case his expert-debunking expertise), but they’re selling you something. In which case, buyer beware!

Putting aside these issues of nutrition, the food diary was also a good class experiment for other reasons. It got them to think about what and how they eat, and how everyone is a little different. Some have small snacks regularly throughout the day, others 2-3 periodic meals which punctuate their daily schedule. One of the big questions for my college students, to skip breakfast or not. And in my Korean class there was the other interesting question: Western breakfast or Korean breakfast? The class experiment had a collateral benefit: to get to know the students better, and encourage them to relax and enjoy the class. (One student said his roommate, not in the class, thought it was a neat idea and also tried it, which I will interpret to mean the project is fun to do.)

I’ve given them a take-home survey, to draw out these observations made in class discussion. It has the questions discussed above designed to get them thinking about their diet generally, and about the things they didn’t notice about it: What was your most representative (normal) food/meal? What was your most special (significant or unusual) food experience? Were there any foods you documented that you hadn’t really “noticed” before this “experiment”? (e.g. liquid calories, snacks) I wanted them to think about the differences in eating alone versus eating with people, both because we tend to eat differently (and thus digest differently), and, to anticipate a theme we are going to take up later in the course, because these social influences or constraints are often more important than the myth of the individual eater making a choice in isolation, when determining how and what we eat: What time of day do you get most of your calories? How long does your normal meal last (are you a rapid eater)? Do you eat with friends/family or alone?

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Lecture slide where I get students to think about other factors, other than nutrition, that motivate us to eat a food. I also ask the students: what are other ways that we talk about food and health, without using nutrition. (E.g. organic, wholesome, what mom used to eat, seasonality, freshness…)

But I also added some questions to get them to think about the experiment itself: Did you change or modify your diet as a result of the “experiment”? How? In general, students said they didn’t change much. (A relief for me, because Guthman in Weighing In describes her class as having triggered her students’ dieting obsessions.) Though several said that they didn’t take snacks at students socials, because it would be too complicated to calculate the calories, which we all laughed about. I used this to highlight the challenge in any human experiment that social scientists call reactivity: the tendency of human participants to change their behaviour in response to being measured or study, usually to best conform with the experimenter’s desired results.

Ah, and if you are curious what the class results were, there were no big surprises: they are college students. Cafeteria food and instant noodles are what they eat, supplemented by the occasional special restaurant meal out with friends.

I encourage all of you teaching a food course to try this Food Diary Experiment with your students. Write to me if you have questions about it, or would like me to forward you materials. And leave comments below if you have any suggestions or ideas about how to improve on it. Thanks in advance!

Welcome to Comedo Ergo Sum: A Blog on Food and Diet (and STS)

Cogito, Ergo Sum” [Transl: I think, therefore I am]
—René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1644

This will be a blog about the history and culture of food as it has been, and is being transformed by science, technology, and other social and cultural currents of modernity. It is an effort to make sense of food as a modern thing understood, produced, and transformed by the many processes and events that have modernized, scientized, technologized (sic) modern society. A recurring motif will be the role (or problem) of scale in making sense of food culture and politics, since changes in scale (in terms of population and globalization) has become a signature departure from food-as-it-was-known-throughout-human-history and food in modern, contemporary society. Food, diet, and eating offer interesting opportunities for exploring the role of expertise in the everyday. The blog will touch upon certain perennial anxieties which surface in public food debates, and offer insights from history and the social sciences about their deeper roots.

U.S. FDA Publication No. 3 (pamphlet): “Read the Label on Food, Drugs, Devices, Cosmetics, and Household Chemicals,” 1961, p. 4.

What’s in a name?
The title of the blog is a play on René Descartes’ famous (performative) utterance, “I think, therefore I am.” The phrase marks an important existential moment in the history of science and the  Enlightenment origins of many of our (Western) modern beliefs. We use it as an homage to our background in Science & Technology Studies (a.k.a. science, technology, and society; a.k.a. “STS“). Comedo,” from the latin word edo “to eat”, instead of cogito, foregrounds the blog’s focus on food and eating. We have all heard those food tropes, “You are what you eat,” which comes from the French, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es“, and then there is the analogous German wordplay on “essen“, “Man ist, was man isst” (Transl.: Man is what man eats.). Swapping “I eat” with “I think” is intended to suggest that food, today, is central to identity. But comedo also means “to devour”, “to waste”, or “to use up”. In this way we hope to foreground food’s materiality, how food is a liminal object that bridges the environment and the human body. “Food safety” (foodborne illness), “food security” (availability and access to food), “food risk” (anxiety about the hypothetical or future of food)… cooking, eating, drinking, dieting… all of these are shaped by material constraints, food’s perishability and ephemerality.

The Manifesto
Any good blog needs a raison d’être or purpose for being. One motivation for the blog is intellectual. Many years ago Sidney Mintz posed the following paradox to food scholars:

“We do not understand at all well why it can be claimed both that people cling tenaciously to familiar old foods, yet readily replace some of them with others.”

Scholars in the humanities and social sciences had long argued that food was, in Levi-Strauss’s words, “good to think with”. (Argh! That hanging preposition at the end!) Diet and “taste” has been explored as a manifestation of social distinction. And food scholars regularly proclaim that “food is culture“. Yet many of these studies lacked an account of how those dynamic cultural and social dimensions were linked to equally dynamic material and natural dimension of food, foodways, and agri-culture. Recent literature in STS and “material culture” has offered us a wide variety of concepts and terms from considering the “material-semiotic”, the nature-culture “hybrids”, or “Liquid Materialities“, all of which are intended to reopen the “nature” of culture and look at how the nature and culture fashion each other and literally construct things. (That there has long existed an intellectual tradition in studying the relationship between the material and ideological —e.g. the “word made flesh“, “Book of Nature“, “transubstantiation” or even “commodity fetishism“— seems to be besides the point, or sits in the background of these discussions.) There is “something in the air,” and this blog seeks to apply some of those insights and innovations to the subject of food, and to Mintz’s question about how we account for change and continuity in our dietary habits.

A more scholarly, professional motivation for the blog is to further the dialogue between Food Studies, a growing and popular, but also at times a quite un-disciplined field, and Science and Technology Studies, a field whose methodological insights have much to offer to discussions on food and diet, but which is often framed in esoteric terms focused on the nature of knowledge production rather than matters of everyday importance. Here the blog seeks to engage timely and trending topics, to “correct the record” on common misconceptions or erroneous historical perceptions that surface in popular debates on food and diet. But the blog will also build a “toolkit” for thinking about food issues, drawing upon new methods and concepts in the fields of STS and food studies that have direct applications to the study of food and agriculture, and eating and dieting. We will also (shamelessly) promote those people in the field working at this intersection of food and STS by featuring their work and guest posts here.

Join Our Community!
This blog is intended to be a dialogue, not a monologue. Please join the conversation by leaving comments below or following us on Facebook and Twitter. We welcome your contributions!