Conference Report “Critical Life Sciences – Responsibilities, Reflections and the Political under Conditions of ‘Post-Truth’” by Felix Hönnekes, Paula Steinbrenner and Charlotte Schulze-Marmeling
On October 1st and 2nd 2021, the workshop “Critical Life Sciences – Responsibilities, Reflections, and the Political under Conditions of ‘Post-Truth’” took place at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS). The joint event was hosted by Laura Schnieder, Tino Plümecke, Veronika Lipphardt, and Anelis Kaiser Trujillo (all University of Freiburg). It was carried out in a hybrid format with 18 speakers and discussants participating in presence and online. This was the first event of its kind in the German-speaking area, seeking to bring experts from various disciplines of the humanities, life and social sciences into dialogue and debate. Referring to existing forms of critique (theoretical, conceptual, methodological), aligning themselves with feminist movements, critical theory and adapting post- and de-colonial perspectives, participants did not merely reflect upon the relationship between science and society but, in particular, explored the interactions between social conditions and the thought and practices of researchers. Thus, the recurring motive was criticism, ongoing biases and theories of situatedness and perspectivity in the life sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Contributors discussed ambivalent (often negative) effects these issues pose for both scholars and subjects under study.
The workshop was introduced by Deborah Bolnick (University of Connecticut), who in her keynote speech “How Academic Diversity is Transforming Scientific Knowledge in Biological Anthropology” gave an example of the diversifying effects which a retrospective analysis of her work on indigenous populations in the United States had provided. Originally, she had selected blood samples of indigenous people which only included samples deemed “genetically pure.” In hindsight, the researcher asked herself: What constitutes indigeneity and who decides whether a subject is included in or excluded from the analysis? The results of the study changed dramatically when the samples were re-analyzed and many samples formerly excluded were included. Moreover, she came to realize how far off her definition of “indigeneity” in terms of “genetic purity” was from most community members’ understanding. As the latter tend to refer to an individual’s actual involvement with a community instead of their genetic ancestry, “indigeneity” becomes more of a social identity than a genetic category. Hence, by disrupting indigeneity as a genetic category Bolnick was able to show how pre-assumptions caused by western biases had impacted the patterns of genetic diversity her research had originally produced. Using her own work as an example, Bolnick issued an urgent appeal to reconsider and change ethical guidelines when working with indigenous populations. A scientific practice that centers on indigenous perspectives and focuses on the needs of indigenous people will make scientific work more valuable and meaningful, especially (and most importantly) to those most affected by it.
Further, acknowledging the efforts made in academia to increase diversity in recent years and the importance of these changes regarding improved access and justice in academia, Bolnick called for the pursuit of a greater goal: Diversity in academia, which holds the potential for an actual transformation of scientific knowledge. In Bolnick’s view, science and scientific knowledge cannot be classified as neutral or objective. Academic fields are shaped by classist, patriarchal, heterosexist, white supremacist, settler-colonial, and a multitude of other agendas. Biases and pre-assumptions influence scientific work and outcomes. Therefore, the question we ceaselessly need to ask ourselves is: How do we know what we know?
On the following day, more speakers from a broad range of disciplines kept confronting claims of scientific “objectivity.” Malin Ah-King (Stockholm University), whose work combines evolutionary biology with gender studies, placed a strong emphasis on seeing science itself as a deeply cultural and social process. Turning to the field of ornithology, the speaker illustrated how until the 1970s (and beyond) biologists’ descriptions of animal sexual behavior were inherently shaped by a gender bias toward a more active male and a coy female. The underlying systems of knowledge and patterns of research were found to say more about hegemonic androcentrism than about birds’ mating behavior. Ah-King exposed these as an imprint of situated knowledge based on an “epistemology of ignorance.” The speaker also disclosed her position as a feminist biologist, which, in fact, may have affected her historical view. Nevertheless, Ah-King says, “writing history is a negotiation about knowledge.”
The idea of disrupting human categories and scientific variables as proposed by Bolnick was also addressed by other participants, among them Anelis Kaiser Trujillo (University of Freiburg) and Jenny Reardon (UC Santa Cruz). The former presented a rich set of methodological considerations and approaches to the audience, challenging the concept of sex/gender in the neurosciences while simultaneously re-thinking how the variable can be operationalized. On a methodological level, investigations reported by Kaiser Trujillo involved experimenting with statistical thresholds: Whether one considers an alpha level of .01 or .05 as statistically significant in research on gender differences has a great impact on the acceptance or non-acceptance of hypotheses. Also, in an interventionist attempt, the speaker proposed that instead of focusing on a relatively small number of differences neuroscientists should reassess data by highlighting the huge amount of similarities shared by subjects. With her research, Kaiser Trujillo exceeds common notes of critique as she sets out to create a new gender variable that can take into account both social aspects (e.g. self-ascribed gender identities, gender-related behavior) and biological measures (e.g. hormone level, brain anatomy).
Though Kaiser Trujillo manages to implement her ambitious objective of successfully linking neuroscientific methods with concepts from the humanities and social sciences, her research still depends on the term “gender,” as one participant noted in the following discussion. The question of whether and how it might be possible to disrupt and overcome given categories without (re)using the same ones (if only with regard to terminology) would accompany discussions for the rest of the day, which can be interpreted as an emphasis on boundaries set by enclosed and canonized disciplinary knowledge and research routines.
While some presenters focused on the interpretation of data, others aimed to challenge the process of data generation, for example Veronika Lipphardt and Peter Pfaffelhuber (both University of Freiburg) and Chiara Barbieri (MPI for Science of Human History). Lipphardt and Pfaffelhuber’s work is concerned with sampling procedures of Roma people for biogeographical ancestry analysis (BGA). Like Bolnick, these scholars came across significant sampling biases in their respective fields. As a result of the so-called “four grandparents rule” used in BGA (that is, all four grandparents must be born within an 80 km radius of an individual’s birthplace in order for that individual to be defined as a member of the reference population), Roma reference populations are composed only of the most isolated communities.
Not only does this sampling method resemble and reproduce a conception of race and ethnicity as distinct categories, it also responds to an othering image that depicts “the Roma” as a foreign culture living in isolation apart from society. Therefore, Lipphardt and Pfaffelhuber criticize the research practices and sampling methods involving the four grandparents rule as they contribute to stigmatization, discrimination and injustices towards Roma people. Not just the sampling procedure, but other concepts frequently used in BGA can be considered problematic. As Barbieri pointed out, the concept of “admixture” implies the idea of pre-existing “authentic human races.” Therefore BGA research, despite its ambition of delegitimizing racist positions can, in fact, contribute to reproducing racist positions and even be misused to perpetuate injustices and discrimination against marginalized communities.
Throughout the workshop, all participants signaled a great interest in working together with scholars from neighboring as well as more distant fields. They emphasized how the transfer of knowledge and wider collaboration could help to close epistemic gaps and provide new perspectives on existing research questions. In doing so, they collectively called for more interdisciplinarity. However, no explicit proposals were made during the discussion on how this ambition should be achieved against a larger background. One must not forget there is a big difference between outspoken appreciation or explicitly formulated interest and the practical implementation of the same. Hence, it’s not only about communication and sharing knowledge but also about “bringing the world into the lab,” as one participant noted.
Difficulties may also arise in terms of “non-transferable knowledge,” as it may be difficult for some data-driven researchers to objectify and rethink human categorizations themselves. Additionally, once this stage of consensus is reached, methodological adjustments may prove difficult as well (see Kaiser Trujillo). Furthermore, the institutional and economic circumstances under which academic research is organized must also be considered. With universities and private research centers competing for resources, research is valued not just for its ideal worth but also in economic terms.
Finally, we must admit that the workshop did not engage in a deeper discussion of the second half of its subtitle, as the relationship between science and society “under conditions of ‘Post-Truth’” was barely touched upon. This was particularly surprising given the circumstances under which the event took place, at a time when scientific work is receiving significantly more public attention than usual, with scholars frequently asked to vindicate and justify their results not only among other members of the scientific community but also in front of public agents who seek to either delegitimize or instrumentalize them. Only once did a participant report finding themselves in the paradoxical position of “defending” other scientists or the system itself against “attacks from outside,” rather than engaging in the common practice of criticism. Thus, in the light of anti-scientific tendencies evident in current debates on COVID-19, the importance of the workshop and conferences alike is underlined. They provide grounds for critical reflection, debate and controversy without denying the importance and value of science in general.
About the Authors
Felix Hönnekes works as a research assistant at the Chair of Science and Technology Studies at University College Freiburg and is currently studying for a Master’s degree in Sociology at the University of Freiburg. Paula Steinbrenner is enrolled in the Bachelor’s program in Sociology at the same institution, while Charlotte Schulze-Marmeling holds a Master’s degree in Psychology. Both work as research assistants in the Institute of Sociology at the University of Freiburg.