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Science in Literature: Reflections on the Social Constructs of Science in Society

Course: OEAS/ENMA 795/895 Advanced/Special Topics (three credits);
Course title: Science in literature: reflections on the social constructs of science in society;
Instructors: Dr. Hans-Peter Plag, Dr. Michelle Covi, Michelle Heart;
Term: Fall 2014.

Notes Week 9: Science and collapse in poetry, plays

The first part of the session focused on a discussion of Hans Christoph Binswanger’s essay "The Challenge of Faust" in terms of its main focus: how Goethe "confronts the promises and pitfalls of the Industrial Revolution and the economic growth that it generated," based on a critical analysis of Part II of Goethe’s play, Faust (1832). At an early point in the discussion, it was clarified that Binswanger's article, "The Challenge of Faust," is based on Goethe's "Faust." (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "German poet, playwright, novelist, and natural philosopher is best known for his two-part poetic drama Faust, (1808-1832) which he started around the age of twenty three and didn't finish till shortly before his death sixty years later. He is considered one of the greatest contributors of the German Romantic period.").

There was a misunderstanding that he could be referring to a play by the English poet Christopher Marlowe, who in 1604 wrote a first version of his play "The History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus." Although Marlowes play is loosely derived from the German "Faustbuch", there is little relation between Goethe's "Faust," and Marlowe's play, besides the fact that Goethe's Faust also has its origin in the "Faustbuch," which in turn can be traced back to the 4th century.

Binwanger in his discourse on money and magic analyzes Goethe's play, focusing particularly on the second part, which according to Binswanger "confronts the promises and pitfalls of the Industrial Revolution and the economic growth that it generated." Binswanger points out that Goethe's position as finance minister at the Court of Weimar put him in a special position to comment on theswe developments and underlines the fact that Goethe's insight is of relevance for today. Goethe creates Faust, the representative modern man, as a "vigorous entrepreur who drives his workers to their utmost" and who has the devil as business partner. Key steps in the development of his enterprise are the introduction of paper money, which overcame the limitation inherent in using gold as payment, access to almost unlimited energy (through coal and the steam engine) and "the renewed establishment of the laws of property, which grant mankind the right of absolute power over nature." The vigorous nature of Faust's entrepreneurship based on the partnership with the devil makes him unable to see reality and leads to the apocalypse and total destruction of nature. In this respect, Goethe's Faust can be taken as a dystopic scenario of what some consider unfolding in the current crisis of unsustainability.

It is worthwhile to mention that Faust does not know that he is blind. A twist of this is that he prefers to be blind, too. In other words, he is content and happy in his chosen ignorance (Goethe would call this "active ignorance"), because he does not like the reality that includes uncertainty and the unknown. Since he cannot relate to the unknown and the uncertainty of nature, for example, he is afraid of it. Hence his need to control it in order to be safe from it. It is self-induced misery, a trap, and a (mental) prison that dooms Faust.

The discussion about Binswanger's work led to a focus on growth and the notion that "sustainable growths" could be an oxymoron (as pointed out by Albert Bartlett, who also stated that "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."). The opinion piece by Erik Lindberg, "The Krugman Function," was briefly reviewed. Lindberg focuses on the fact that an economist with deep insight, like Krugman, still faces the dialema of not being able to make the paradigm shift away from considering growth as necessary.

The other readings for the session, Jack London's "To Build a Fire," and Peter Heller's "The Dog Star" address another aspect of how human develop, or do not develop wisdom, based on the knowledge they have.

One conclusion is that "it is actually impossible to convince someone into deliberately choosing what is false, unless it is made justifiable by twisting of the facts & reality." This process of "justifying the unjust" involves both, the act of self-fooling (because it is gratifying to do so) and by the affect from the outside agents/society. The resulting "blindness" (by choice, because it is more gratifying and comforting than the reality) include conviction that what one "sees" is the reality.

The remaining part of the session was used to discuss the conceptual models for the decision making processes in a community facing an emerging threat. Each student drew his or her model and the white board and gave an explanation of the model (see below).

A last point was the question what determines power in society? The answer was that we have power.

Discussion topic for week 10: The students are asked to ponder during the week about how society creates the model that justifies the wrong model. The "method of justification" is the key here. Please, come up with models and figures.

To see the picture in higher resolution, just click on the picture.

Brett Buzzanga: This conceptual model is based on a danger to society, a problem society must solve. Knowledge, generated by scientific method and/or direct experience is at the interface between this threat and society. Society is a complex series of relations fundamentally between a small number of powerful elites and the general public at large. These social relations are governed by a loop in which historically driven survival strategies (such as economy), knowledge, and value systems (such as religion) serve to create an ideology that not only justifies these social relations, but closes the loop and reinforces the prevailing paradigm. Thus, knowledge of danger is fundamentally narrowed by ideology into risk. Based on this risk, a course of action - wisdom - is generated by both past experiences and interests of decision makers. The separation between knowledge and wisdom creates a disconnect between danger and the response to it. The extent to which a societal paradigm is flexible is the extent to which the wisdom it generates will respond to the actual danger — instead of simply the risk.

William McConnell: In the concept map pictured above, knowledge begins as an observed threat. Because power is needed to deal with an imminent threat to the general population, the powerful are who is first contacted. Those in power often deal with this threat by making a call for scientific investigation into the issue. Already the biases of those in power are impacting response to the threat. The powerful will grant only those scientific proposals that match their values, beliefs, and other biases with the funding to proceed. After investigations, scientists (Dr. Plag mentioned that there is also power among scientists that prohibits certain proposals from going through) disseminate their findings to the scientific community. These findings are then filtered through another set of biases (businesses, political factions, etc) before they are provided for media outlets. Different media outlets, often influenced by various factions and founded on biases and varied values, then choose which findings to present to the public. Again, among these different media resources, certain topics of the new knowledge are accentuated while others are minimized. Finally, the public chooses a media source that best fits their biases.

In summary, the public receives a version of knowledge that is incredibly filtered by the biases of those in power, scientists, and finally by their own choice of media. The result is a watered-down and often confusing and conflicting version of knowledge that poorly equips the public to make sound decisions in the face of imminent threats. By William McConnell.

Megan McKittrick: In order to conceptualize the relationship between the general public, science communication, risk, and power, I decided to focus on the general public and the forces that influence their risk perceptions. Every individual in the general public has his/her own background/set of experiences, feelings/emotions, and sense of logic. Everything they see is filtered through some combination of the three as they determine which messages they will adopt or reject. The shoppers are the general public, choosing between different brands or angles of science communication. The stockboys behind the shelf represent media outlets, bringing the messages to the public. Behind the stockboys, you find those in power: scientists, business owners, politicians. They are in the back of the store, examining the produce, tossing out the messages that don't meet their standards and selecting the messages that do. Some shoppers don't even shop at the risk store. They avoid it altogether, perhaps because the risk store is expensive and a bit confusing.

Judy Hinch: My conceptual model has as its center Power Balance. Power can be defined in the model as "the capacity to determine outcomes" and has both formal (governments) and informal (NGOs, economic, political, etc.) parties. The geographical (resources, location) and historical influences are important, shown at the top of the diagram. A true transformative change is difficult with emerging risks, as this balance of power moves slowly, but can be shifted rather quickly with contributions from "knowledge" and society, and industry. Society has great influence due to numbers and group behavior, especially when the cost-benefit can be seen or when benefits to children and future generations are clear. Often, however, standards and programs must be set up by those in power to ensure power is exercised responsibly and resources distributed equitably.

Modified version of the model by Brett Buzzanga provided after the class.