Anti-regulation Discourses, Nuclear Safety, and the Role of STS

By William J. Kinsella

Despite the proliferation of issues marking the turbulent beginnings of the Trump presidency, many important questions have received little or no public attention. One question involves the future of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), whose stated mission, proclaimed on a banner at the top of the agency’s website, is “protecting people and the environment.” As anti-regulation discourses become increasingly normalized and budget priorities shift, actors in both government and the nuclear industry may soon be seeking changes that could impair that crucial mission. Perspectives from the field of science and technology studies (STS) may help anticipate and respond to the challenges ahead.

Following the 2011 disaster at Fukushima, critics pointed to regulatory laxity as a key factor in the meltdowns that followed the Tōhoko earthquake and tsunami. In Japan, those events are widely known as the “triple disaster” of “3-11.” For STS scholars, they demonstrate a convergence of environmental forces, technological vulnerabilities, and human failures. As we observe the sixth anniversary of Fukushima it is appropriate to ask: could such a thing happen in Trump’s America?

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Do Historical and Societal Circumstance Still Have a Place in Law Enforcement?

By Tiffany Nichols

On February 9, 2017, US law enforcement officially began its shift from crime prevention and investigation to ensuring the safety of law enforcement itself through the Presidential Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers. The Executive Order makes no mention of crime prevention or investigation and instead focuses on the enhancement of “protection and safety of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”

A similar attempt was made by former President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of the Watts Uprising of 1965. Over 35,000 adults “active as rioters” and over 72,000 spectators were involved. These riots resulted in 34 deaths (mostly Blacks), 1,000 injured, 4,000 arrests and $200 million in property damage within the Watts-Willlowbrook district of Los Angeles. The Watts Uprising can largely be attributed to the exclusion of Blacks from the movie industry after the Hollywood Red Scare, slow presence of the effects of the Civil Rights Movement in Los Angeles, the rise of Black Nationalism paired with White fear thereof, and the exclusion of Blacks from unions, among numerous additional factors. To many within the city, the Uprising was seen as inevitable due to these imbalances. Although later disproved, psychologists blamed the increase of unrest on the heat in August of 1965, while others blamed the full moon. [1]

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Post-Truth and Zambia’s King Cobra

By Marja Hinfelaar and Tinenenji Banda

While ‘post-truth” was dubbed Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2016, for those who have lived under populist and authoritarian regimes, the concept felt simply like a déjà vu. Having been an integral part of our political DNA long before the term was popularized by recent happenings in the West, we were startled at how Western academia and the media misread the situation. Yet, many studies were at hand. Is it a sense of exceptionalism that blinded them to the potential benefits of comparative, but also historical knowledge? It appears that these commentators could not comprehend beyond the teleological lens of what is expected and defined as a modern and rational society.

This tunnel vision has not only affected the U.S., but also determined how the rest of the world has been perceived, most notably ‘developing’ countries. Zambia is a case in point. Its history has largely been cast through a developmental lens. Continue reading “Post-Truth and Zambia’s King Cobra”

Making Way, True or Not, in Jakarta

By Rika Febriyani and AbdouMaliq Simone

In a region of thirty million people, what would residents stake their futures on? How would they decide where and on what to devote their time and their, for the most part, limited resources? Readings of the landscape, in all of its multifaceted physical, social and political dimensions, would of course be replete with cues and trajectories. Certainly vast alterations of the built environment with their implications for where and how people reside, socialize, and operate economically to reinforce an intensive individuation of livelihood, obligation, and accountability. In a city where how the world was to be interpreted largely was contingent upon the everyday pragmatics of residents coordinating markedly heterogeneous backgrounds and ways of doing things within dense, collectively-evolved quarters, the ongoing disentanglement of these everyday relations attenuates the accompanying structures of interpretation.

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I Will Build a Great Swamp, and Nobody Builds Swamps Better than Me

By Sergio Sismondo

Individual corruption is when government officials take bribes or use their positions for personal enrichment. Little can be more incendiary, can more reliably anger voters and taxpayers, than charges of this kind. That’s why “Crooked Hillary” was such a powerful phrase during the 2016 election— however well or poorly founded the accusation. With characters like “Crooked Hillary” in mind, Trump promised to “drain the swamp.”

Corruption still carries some of its slightly archaic stench of rottenness, infection and decay, moreso when the whole body of an institution becomes infected or is decaying. When old-fashioned corruption extends beyond isolated cases, or when it structures government actions from the top, a swamp emerges that takes on a different character. The creatures living in it look less dangerous than the swamp itself, with its (to borrow from Milton) “Vapour, and mist, and exhalation hot; Corrupt and pestilent!”

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“Reoxygenating” Research

By Laura G. Goetz

In a world in which politicians and media outlets are spreading “alternative facts,” detached objectivity may be an elusive and undesirable basis for a scientific gold standard. Context matters, both for the questions we ask and the answers we obtain. Separating science from society is no longer an option, because knowledge loses its power if people do not care about it. In Meeting the Universe Halfway, STS scholar Karen Barad asserts, “Matter(ing) is a dynamic articulation/configuration of the world.” Mattering requires explaining the world in a way that can move within the world. Scientific researchers need to think about the questions that matter and how to disseminate their results beyond the confines of academic journals and indices. Against calls for greater isolation, science should generate evidence-based knowledge that can travel more widely.

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Make Engineering Great Again: Shifting to ‘Self-Expert’ Platform of Governance in Iran and the US

By Ehsan Nabavi

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has recently been blocked from running again in Iran’s presidential elections, is probably the farthest example of a foreign leader Americans can think of as analogous to Trump. the two share a resemblance, however, in a number of ways. Particularly in how both build their governance platform on creating “shock events,” as well as providing alternative interpretations of what constitutes expertise and knowledge, through which they themselves act as the central expert.

Like Trump, Ahmadinejad’s populist platform has massively criticized Iranian political elites and the experts who worked with them for using their power to monopolize wealth. He was nominated by the Alliance of Builders/Developers of Islamic Iran (Abadgaran) with a promise to redistribute wealth, recreate the original revolutionary spirit of 1979 Revolution, and regain the country’s lost pride, dignity, and esteem, particularly in when confronting the West. Paraphrasing, Ahmadinejad’s platform is to Make Iran Great Again.

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Post-truth Politics in Switzerland and Threats to Direct Democracy

By Francesca Bosisio

In the days that followed Donald Trump’s election, the media celebrated the dawn of a new Age, characterized by post-truth or post-fact politics. A point in the history of modern society in which a previously authoritative source of knowledge is neither considered as a reliable source of information nor a need. But post-truth politics, as opposed to its branding, is not a new phenomenon: worldwide, candidates have long ago diverted facts and statistics and appealed to people’s emotions to reach large parts of the population. The spread of social media has reinforced this trend. On the one hand, social media gave an audience to people who do not want or do not have the opportunity to go public via traditional mass media. On the other hand, it is allegedly more difficult to deny, challenge or improve the contents of a discussion happening on the boundaries of the private and the public sphere.

In Switzerland, few mass media commented on the post-truth or post-fact phenomenon in the days that preceded or followed Trump’s election. Only few papers tried to compare the results of the US presidential election with the raising of populist movements in Switzerland. An editorial on “Le Matin” wrote that: “Some claim, referring to statistics, that there is no similar risk [of financial powerlessness] in Switzerland. As if politics was only a matter of data, while everywhere the anger is growing. […] [T]he feeling of economic oppression and the anguish of not having enough reserve to face a harsh blow altogether weaken solidarity and give points to the populist formations.” In the same period, the “Tages-Anzeiger” also drew a parallel between Switzerland, France, and the US by highlighting that in these countries mistrust of authorities has become a leit motiv of right-wing parties.

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Infrastructures of Compassion: Trumpism and America’s Democratic Future

By Hilton Simmet

May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.

–inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869.

A year of disbelief ended in a morning of despair. On November 9, 2016, the American people elected a real estate tycoon with no record of public service to the nation’s highest office. I will not forget the faces from that morning at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. A November gray had sunk into the faces of bleary-eyed men and women. Balloons in red, white, and blue fell from above in the post-election ball drop ritual. Some students began singing “Amazing Grace,” needing, it seemed, almost religious comfort. Words came to me not of grace but of compassion, from the Vedic shloka “from ignorance, lead me to truth … from the darkness of suffering, lead us to the light of compassion.” I thought of Trump supporters, wherever they were, and wondered if, in their jubilation, they understood how their years of dejection and loss had now been shifted to the other side of the wall separating elite rationality from mass fervor.

Understanding on anyone’s part seemed unlikely. The election had rejected the Kennedy School’s culture of calculated truths, coolly leading the world one smart policy decision at a time. It marked a radical division between citizens, exposing the fragility of the “we” in “We the people.” This “we” depends on compassion, a feeling for the plight of the other. Yet, one of my own students asked, “How can I find empathy for groups of people who deny my right to exist?” I did not answer. How can one find a “we” of shared value and concern in a country gripped by fear and the impending threat of violence? Not, I believe, by casting Trump’s supporters as the enemy. They are only the symptoms of the breakdown of the polity into “us” and “them.” We must look deeper into this breakdown, examining failures in what I call “infrastructures of compassion”: the epistemic, material, and normative structures that underwrite the democratic enterprise. Instead of investing $1 trillion in physical infrastructure, longer-term “investment” is needed in our infrastructures of compassion to safeguard America’s democratic future against the recurrent threat of Trumpism.

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Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part II)

Uncivil Epistemology

By Michael Lynch

Editors’ note: This is the second part of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part I: Between Liars and Truthers’ has been published and ‘Part III: The Truther Paradox’ will be published in the coming weeks. 

Some of the “epistemological” disputes that arose in the early days of the Trump administration had to do with specialized factual claims made by scientists, investigative reporters, and intelligence agents. However, some of the most notable disputes about “facts” and “alternative facts” concerned more mundane matters, such as the crowd size at the inauguration. The advantage of mundane facts in political discourse is that they appear to be democratically available: there is no apparent need to trust the “so-called experts.” For similar reasons, reverting to such plain examples also is common in academic disputes. Those of us familiar with the debates about realism and relativism in the “science wars” of the 1990s may recall that simple mundane examples often stood proxy for arguments about more technical matters. Continue reading “Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part II)”