Tag Archive for Science in Society

Rubenstein Discusses Theories of the Multiverse on Studio 360

Mary-Jane Rubenstein

Professor of Religion Mary-Jane Rubenstein was a guest on WNYC’s “Studio 360” recently, in a show titled, “The Theoretical Physicist Wore a Toga.” She addressed existential “what if” questions and the idea of multiple universes—an idea, she explains, which “is about 2,500 years old.”

“For the ancient Atomist philosophers [in Ancient Greece], the most desirable thing about what we’re now calling the multiverse was that it got rid of the need for a god. If it is the case that our world is the only world, then it’s very difficult to explain. How is everything so perfect? How is it that sunsets so beautiful?” she said. “What the Atomists believed was that religion and the belief in these kinds of benevolent gods actually caused people to behave terribly to one another, so they wanted to find a different explanation. So their explanation was that it’s not the case that some anthropomorphic god or gods made the universe so it was just perfect the way it is, but that actually that our world was just one of an infinite number of other worlds that looked totally different from our world, and that worlds were the product just of accident, of particles colliding with one another and randomly forming worlds.”

“It sounds a lot like modern physics,” she added.

What are the practical effects of such theories?

“Every major development in modern Western science since Copernicus has been advertised as this radical de-centering of our importance. […] As science progresses, we learn that we are less and less important than we thought we were. That’s one argument. But of course, it doesn’t seem to be the case that these purported decentralizations of the importance of the human have in any way contributed in any way to our feeling like we’re insignificant. We still tend to think that we run the planet.”

Rubenstein is also professor of science in society, professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies.

Environmental History Class Produces Radio Program

This year, students in Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker’s class, Seeing a Bigger Picture: Integrating Visual Methods and Environmental History, had an opportunity to share what they learned in an unusual format. They produced an hour-long radio program, which debuted on WESU 88.1 FM on Memorial Day. It will air again on the station this summer, and can be heard on wesufm.org or on SoundCloud.

Rosie Dawson, a producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), teaches Phie Towle '20 and Alea Laidlaw '20 about radio program development. 

Rosie Dawson, a producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), teaches Phie Towle ’20 and Alea Laidlaw ’20 about radio program development.

The course introduces students to key landmarks in the visual history of environmentalism and environmental science, from the 18th century to the recent past. The class studies the power and the limits of visual representations, addressing how images of nature have changed as well as how the nature of images has been transformed in the past 250 years, according to Tucker, who is also associate professor of environmental studies, associate professor of science in society, and associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies. The students received training in radio storytelling from Rosie Dawson, a producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Tucker and Dawson first met two years ago, when Tucker contributed an essay to a BBC series that Dawson was producing

Gottschalk Writes on the Sufis and Why They Threaten ISIS

Peter Gottschalk

Peter Gottschalk

Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk recently authored an article, “Who are the Sufis and why does ISIS see them as threatening,” which appeared on Raw Story and The Conversation.

The Sufis, who have been the target of violent attacks in Pakistan in recent years, practice austerity “stemming from a sincere religious devotion that compelled the Sufi into a close, personal relationship with God, modeled on aspects of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. This often involved a more inward, contemplative focus than many other forms of Islamic practice.” And, according to Gottschalk, though “many Muslims and non-Muslims around the globe celebrate Sufi saints and gather together for worship in their shrines,” these practices “do not conform to the Islamic ideologies of intolerant revivalist groups such as the Islamic State.”

Gottschalk argues that there are two reasons why the Islamic State violently opposes Sufis:

First, some Sufis – as illustrated by Rabia, the Sufi from Basra – deliberately flout the Islamic conventions of their peers, which causes many in their communities to condemn their unorthodox views and practices.

Second, many Muslims, not just militants, consider shrine devotion as superstitious and idolatrous. The popularity among Muslims and non-Muslims of tomb veneration alarms many conservative Muslims.

When a Sufi tomb grows in reputation for its miraculous powers, then an increasing number of people begin to frequent it to seek blessings. The tombs often become a gathering place for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and people from other faiths.

Special songs of praise – “qawwali” – are sung at these shrines that express Islamic values using the imagery of love and devotion.

However, Islamist groups such as the Taliban reject shrine worship as well as dancing and singing as un-Islamic (hence their assassination of the world-famous qawwali singer Amjad Sabri). In their view, prayers to Sufis are idolatrous.

Gottschalk also is professor of science in society, and director of the Office of Faculty Career Development.

Tucker Comments on Victorian Pseudoscience, Romance

Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker

The pseudoscientific myths about love and sexuality that abounded in the Victorian era, many of which seem “cruel and oppressive” by today’s standards, could also offer women relief from the era’s “rigid gender politics,” according to Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker, who comments on the topic for a Broadly article.

For much of the 19th century, the Western world was fascinated with a variety of pseudosciences, or theories that lack a basis in the scientific method.

“Definitions of science were malleable and hotly contested in the 19th century,” said Tucker, who is also associate professor of science in society, associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and associate professor of environmental studies. “Far from being on the sidelines of intellectual life, spiritualism and other unconventional forms of knowledge often provided a means for Victorians from a variety of different social backgrounds to question scientific authority and to ask what counted as a proper science, or as a ‘scientific practice.'”

“One of the great myths about the Victorian age [was] that it was sexually repressive; on the contrary, Victorian society was obsessed with sexual reform, heterosexual and homosexual love, lust, and sex (as well as of the policing of sexual desires),” added Tucker. “Love and sex were both controversial and politicized.”

Pseudoscientific theories included phrenology (which was used to explain the different propensities of men and women toward love and sexual desire); the use of love potions made of dangerous ingredients such as arsenic and belladonna; beauty face masks made of raw beef; cures for low libido such as bull testicles; and vibrators used to treat “hysteria” in sexually frustrated women.

According to the story, “Victorians were also surprisingly progressive on what would eventually evolve into more enlightened views on gender.

“Theosophists [occult philosophers] believed that life in male and female bodies taught different lessons; for some, this meant that it was necessary for the Ego to incarnate many times as both female and male,” Tucker explains. “Many theosophists believed, for example, that in their evolutionary progress men reincarnated as women, and women as men. Therefore at any given time, as one believer in this theory said in 1892: ‘We have… men in women’s bodies, and women in men’s bodies.'”

Grabel Warns of Threat to Embryonic Stem Cell Research in Op-ed

Laura Grabel

Laura Grabel

Laura Grabel, the Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society, professor of biology, warns in a new op-ed that the progress of embryonic stem cell research in this country, always subject to the ups and down of politics, is currently under threat.

Co-authored with Diane Krause of Yale University, the op-ed in The Hartford Courant notes that Tom Price, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, is on record opposing embryonic stem cell research. They write:

As stem cell researchers, we fear that this appointment would endanger human embryonic stem cell research in the United States and reverse the substantial progress made in recent years. There are promising clinical trials underway for macular degeneration, spinal cord injury and diabetes with more possible, including for Parkinson’s disease.

The authors explain what has made this research so controversial, and argue why it is singularly valuable in its potential to treat life-threatening diseases and injuries.

Grabel also is professor of environmental studies, professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies.

Pitts-Taylor Edits Collection on Feminist Science Studies and the Brain’s Body

9781479845439_FullVictoria Pitts-Taylor, chair and professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, is the editor of Mattering: Feminism, Science and Materialism published by NYU Press in August 2016.

Anthony Hatch, assistant professor of science in society, co-authored a chapter in the collection titled “Prisons Matter: Psychotropics and the Trope of Silence in Technocorrections.”

Mattering presents contemporary feminist perspectives on the materialist or ‘naturalizing’ turn in feminist theory, and also represents the newest wave of feminist engagement with science. The volume addresses the relationship between human corporeality and subjectivity, questions and redefines the boundaries of human/non-human and nature/culture, elaborates on the entanglements of matter, knowledge, and practice, and addresses biological materialization as a complex and open process.

Gottschalk writes on Islamophobia, Homophobia and Orlando

Peter Gottschalk

Peter Gottschalk

In the wake of the unparalleled homophobic violence committed in Orlando this month, and the Islamophobic and anti-Muslim sentiments expressed only hours later (notably, by presidential candidate Donald Trump), Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk writes an op-ed for Inside Sources about the deep roots of all three in America.

He opens on a personal note: “As a boy in the late 1960s and 1970s, I knew there were few more destructive suspicions that could be voiced about me than those connoted by the label ‘gay.’ While the term might be flung at someone by friends as a joke, it could be a damning adjective if antagonistically and permanently attached to one’s name. […] Meanwhile — in an era that extended through two Israeli-Arab wars, the OPEC oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution — Middle Eastern politics reinforced longstanding American antipathies toward Arabs and Muslims. I grew up with the impression that all Muslims were Arab, violent and non-American. Of what others did one hear?”

Gottschalk goes on:

Raised in the United States, perhaps (killer Omar) Mateen’s homophobia stemmed, at least in part, from the same fears from which mine did. However, it seems significant that his father reported that Mateen’s outrage was piqued recently when the killer’s 3-year-old son saw two men kissing. In addition to whatever childhood antipathies with which he likely grew up, his homophobic-fueled fury seemingly also fed on fears that public gay life represented a threat to his family, if not to society in general: attitudes still expressed by too many Americans.

It is here that the homophobia still sadly endemic in America intersects with an Islamophobia that also has a long history. Donald Trump lost no time connecting Mateen’s horrible violence to his demand that all Muslim immigration into the United States temporarily cease. His speeches repeat tired stereotypes debunked too long ago to be accidental.

The Republican presidential nominee consistently uses “Muslim” and “Middle Eastern” as interchangeable terms, even though the overwhelming majority of Muslims live outside that region, which is also populated by sizable Christian and Jewish populations.

And Trump loudly insinuates that Muslims should be suspect not only because, as immigrants from conflict zones, they might bring violence with them. In his statement about Muslim migrants on Sunday, he claimed, “And we will have no way to screen them, pay for them, or prevent the second generation from radicalizing.”

An uncritical audience would likely ask why — if the children of migrants might radicalize — might not the third, fourth or 10th generation do so? Are not nearly all Muslims therefore suspect?

Read more here.

Gottschalk is also professor of science in society.

Gruen Weighs in on Killing of Gorilla at Zoo

Lori Gruen

Lori Gruen

Writing in The Washington PostLori Gruen, the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy, argues that fingers are being pointed in the wrong direction after Harambe, an endangered lowland gorilla, was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a 4-year-old child entered his enclosure. “The real culprits are zoos,” she writes.

Many in the animal protection community contend that the gorilla didn’t pose a real threat to the boy, and are questioning if zoo staff did enough to try to separate Harambe from the child. Others are blaming the boy’s mother for not properly supervising him.

Gruen writes:

For me, the real question is not who to blame, but why anyone was in a situation in which they had to make a choice between the life of a human child and the life of an endangered teenage gorilla in the first place. Keeping wild animals in captivity is fraught with problems. This tragic choice arose only because we keep animals in zoos.

Though killing is less common at U.S. zoos compared with the regular practice of “culling” at European ones, zoos are nonetheless places that cause death. Harambe’s life was cut short intentionally and directly, but for many zoo animals, simply being in captivity shortens their lives. We know this is true for whales in SeaWorld. Elephants, too, die prematurely in zoos. So why have zoos?

One of the reasons often given is that zoos protect and conserve endangered wild animals. A few zoos do fund conservation efforts — the Cincinnati Zoo is one of them. These efforts are laudable, and I would hope that in light of the tragedy the Cincinnati Zoo will spend more to help protect lowland gorillas. Their habitat, as is true for so many wild animals, is under threat.

But captive animals, especially large mammals born in captivity, like Harambe, cannot be “returned to the wild.” These sensitive, smart, long-lived gorillas are destined to remain confined, never to experience the freedom of the wild. They are, at best, symbols meant to represent their wild counterparts. But these symbols are distortions, created in an effort to amuse zoo-goers. Zoos warp our understanding of these wonderful beings and perpetuate the notion that they are here for our purposes.

If we really need someone to blame, maybe we should look at our society, which supports these types of institutions of captivity. If zoos were more like sanctuaries, places where captive animals can live out their lives free from screaming crowds and dangers not of their own making, no one would have had to decide to kill Harambe. Sanctuaries are places where the well-being of animals is of primary concern and animals are treated with respect. Four-year-olds and their families could see gorillas in Imax theaters, where their curiosity could be safely satisfied and gorillas could live with dignity, in peace.

Gruen also is chair of philosophy, professor of environmental studies, professor of science in society, professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies. She also commented in The Christian Science Monitor’s coverage of the gorilla’s killing, and wrote this piece for the Center for Humans & Nature.

Eiko Otake to Present Major Platform at Danspace in NYC, March 11

Eiko performing at Wesleyan's Alsop House.

Visiting Instructor in Dance Eiko Otake performed at Wesleyan’s Alsop House.

Building off research she did for her work “Body in Places” at Wesleyan in fall 2015, Visiting Instructor in Dance Eiko Otake will present a major platform at Danspace Project in New York City on March 11. The free talks include those by Wesleyan faculty members William Johnson, professor of history, professor of East Asian Studies, professor of science in society, professor of environmental studies, and Katja Kolcio, associate professor of dance, associate professor of environmental studies.

March 11 marks the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. A photo collective by Eiko and Johnston will be on display in the St. Mark’s Church sanctuary for 24 hours. Singers and poets will mark each hour with a song and poem.

Johnston will speak at 4 p.m., together with Marilyn Ivy of Columbia University. Kolcio will speak at 6 p.m. together with Yoshiko Chuma, artistic director and choreographer of The School of Hard Knocks and Daghdha Dance Company.

Admission is free, and attendees are encouraged to RSVP here.

Learn more about Eiko’s month-long, multi-disciplinary program here. Read recent coverage of the project in The New York Times here and here. (All photos by William Johnston).

Eiko at Governors Island.

Eiko at Governors Island.

Eiko in Manhattan.

Eiko in Manhattan.

Eiko on Governors Island ferry.

Eiko on Governors Island ferry.

Jennifer Tucker Talks Gun Control in Boston Globe op-ed, on WNPR’s ‘Scramble’

Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker

Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker is the co-author of an op-ed in the Boston Globe titled, “What the Clean Air Act can teach us about reducing gun violence.” Tucker and co-author Matthew Miller of Northeastern University write, “The recent scandal over Volkswagen’s polluting engines vividly illustrates the contrast between the way Americans, and in particular elected officials, treat guns and the way we (and our elected officials) treat cars — both of which kill approximately 32,000 Americans every year.”

The Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, has averted tens of thousands of premature deaths though “a systematic and scientific approach to the impact of the actors of private actors (from auto owners to power station operators) on the health of their fellow citizens. The force of the law was then used to ensure that these externalities were borne by the companies contributing to the problem.”

Tucker and Miller argue the same approach should be applied to regulating firearms. At present, legislation now exempts guns from federal consumer-safety laws and provides immunity for gun manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits. And since 1996, the Centers for Disease Control has been effectively barred from funding research into the cause of firearm-related deaths.

Tucker also was a guest this week on WNPR’s “The Scramble” in a discussion about gun control, following the mass shooting at a community college in Oregon.

“Our nation’s lax attitude toward gun proliferation is partly the result of a Hollywood version of gun technology,” said Tucker. “There’s a 1953 movie ‘Shane,’ which has had a powerful influence. Shane is a gun fighter and in a conversation about gun control, he says ‘A gun is just a tool. It’s as good or bad as the man who uses it. We’ve heard this notion a lot, but that’s certainly not a notion… that we apply to other consumer products in America. We could take, for example, the recent scandal over Volkswagen’s polluting engines to illustrate this difference. So after Volkswagen’s recent admission that it used illegal devices to cheat on admission testing of diesel vehicles in the United States, the company faces billions of dollars of fines along with expensive recalls and class action lawsuits and criminal charges.”

Tucker describes the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 as having a major impact on public health, averting tens of thousands of premature deaths. “It succeeded because it took a scientific approach to the impacts of the activities of private actors on the health of fellow citizens. In contrast to that, while the impact of automobiles on the public’s health and safety is closely regulated, astonishingly, the firearms that are used to kill Americans are not subject to government oversight.”

Tucker is also associate professor of science in society, associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, associate professor of environmental studies. She recently authored an op-ed on the history of gun control published on Inside Sources.

Tucker on the Wild West, Hollywood and Gun Control

Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker

At a time when gun deaths are spiking and Congress has failed to enact significant legislation to tackle the problem, Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker writes an op-ed looking at how we got here. She contends that it is Hollywood’s version of history—not reality—that is behind the belief that guns have been a critical part of American culture over centuries. She writes:

The 1953 movie “Shane” exemplifies the narrative of a “good man with a gun.” Responding to a woman’s wish that guns be banished, Shane replies: “A gun is just a tool, Marian. It’s as good or bad as the man that uses it.”

This notion is central to the National Rifle Association’s worldview. But it is a classic and tragic example of what Oxford professor Margaret McMillan has called “bad history,” or picking only a small part of a complex story.

In reality, the 19th century Wild West was the setting for the passage of some of the nation’s first gun control laws, and it was widely understood that civilized people did not walk around carrying guns. It wasn’t until the 1980s when laws liberalizing concealed carry swept the country, and the most profound changes in gun law occurred in 2008 and 2010.

Tucker concludes:

Our “gun industrial complex” is not the inevitable outcome of two centuries of gun-possession; it is the result of changes in the law and cultural attitudes over the past couple of decades.

Today, 36 states have adopted “shall-issue” laws.

Texas allows unlicensed people to carry semi-automatic rifles in public. In May, the NRA fought the efforts of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to restrict guns at parks, fairgrounds and recreational areas. And with a proliferation of guns in homes — which is associated with a twofold increase in the risk of homicide — 2013 saw 1,670 children die by gunshot and an additional 9,718 injured.

Guns might not kill people but guns get people killed.

Gun owners should familiarize themselves with the true history of the frontier. Regulation advocates should make more of the fact that history is on their side.

Tucker is also associate professor of science in society, associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and associate professor in the environmental studies program.

Johnston Reveals Truth About Bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki in Op-Ed

johnston550Seventy years later, it is widely believed that President Harry S. Truman made a decision to authorize the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The truth, writes William Johnston in the Hartford Courant, is that he never did, at least not explicitly.

Johnston, professor of history, professor of East Asian Studies, examines in an op-ed how history has been rewritten surrounding the bombings. In fact, Truman’s first explicit decision about atomic bombs was to later order that their further use be stopped without his “express authority.” But in summer 1946, Johnston explains, the need arose to write an alternative narrative, as the bomb’s horrific effects on the people of Japan were revealed, and critics started asking whether the atomic bombings had been necessary, or even truly effective in ending the war.

Johnston writes:

The historian’s job is to explain the past using the most complete evidence available. That evidence shows both that Truman’s most substantial atomic decision was to demand his express authority for future bombings and that the bombings’ role in ending the war was ambiguous.

We may not like it when history is fuzzy, but that’s how it is.

It is more important now than ever that we understand history’s ambiguities, especially when it comes to the history of World War II and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Our country today faces many national security threats, from terrorism to global warming. A healthy democracy requires a well-educated populace, and history plays a major role in that education. Science, technology engineering and math cannot replace it.

The 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Japan is a good time to recall their history and meaning. We need to remember where we have been while keeping an eye on the future. It is hard for those who are blind to the past to have a clear vision for the future.

Johnston is also professor of Science in Society, and professor in the Environmental Studies Program.