Experts and the Public – a camera obscura?


In The German Ideology (1845), Marx makes the case that men exist under a, “false conception” of their political and social circumstances (Calhoun, 142). The circumstances within which a man lives and works is a fabrication of his brain – created both from within and from the dominant relationships of other men. Men go through their lives seeing as through a, “camera obscura” – an illusion (ibid., 143). This illusion comes mostly from ideas of the ruling class which when taken up by the working class is called “false consciousness” (Calhoun). Marx’s intent is to teach men to, “exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man” (ibid., 142).  Why did Marx use the metaphor of a camera obscura? Why does Marx extend the metaphor in his critique of idealism and development of historical materialism? And can this metaphor and historical materialism methodology be extended as a lens through which to examine STS concepts – specifically the relationship of experts and the public?

Why does Marx use the metaphor of the camera obscura? In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx details his observations of the inverse relationships of the worker and the capitalist.

“Labor produces wonderful things for the rich – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker deformity. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism” (ibid., 149).

One can understand from this repeating, rhythmic conception, how Marx began to view the differences between the worker and the capitalist as opposites. Marx sees this disparity and in order to express it as a phenomenon which workers can identify and potentially understand better, crafted his metaphor of a camera obscura. He extends the metaphor from the empirical observations of the extreme differences in circumstances between workers and capitalists, to a more esoteric critique of Hegal and idealism (Giddens, 18). “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-processes as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process” (ibid., 144).

Marx extends the metaphor as a way to articulate and differentiate materialism from the contrasting idealism of Hegel. Marx argues that ideology creates a distorted, alienated consciousness in man. Man’s imagination of his circumstances arises from being taught history as a fulfillment of idealistic and universalistic goals. But these goals are socially constructed by the ruling class for the purpose of maintaining the normative power structure. Ideology may make it appear that man’s understanding of his circumstances is true, but what it is actually doing is flipping reality (the materialist understanding) on its head. According to Giddens, Marx flips his camera obscura using the methodology of historical materialism, “as a perspective for the analysis of social development”. (Giddens, 20). In short, historical materialism is a bottom up methodology which examines actual worker circumstances as empirical data. It portends to identify the root causes of conflict and does not allow ideological or normative assumptions to bias results.

Marx’s camera obscura metaphor and methodology of historical materialism would be an effective lens and framework from which to examine power relations among scientific experts and the public. Marx developed his methodology to help us empirically understand our world without the bias of ideology – to make reasoned, observed assessments of our circumstances without a road map created by the ruling class (experts) for the workers (public). As Marx’s workers did in 1845, does the public now also embrace an ideology where experts have the power to determine their circumstances (facts) as it relates to science and technology? Has the public been taught through ideology/idealism to assume the judgements of experts as facts and to alienate themselves from their role in helping to create knowledge? How can the public and experts flip their perceptions and approach using the framework of historical materialism?

Gina McCarthy’s words and deeds

I just heard on NPR an interview with former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (Morning Edition, 12 August 2017) in which she criticized the Trump Administration for not protecting the environment.  Ms McCarthy has been under attack plenty of times herself.  She was asked to resign as EPA Administrator by more than one member of Congress for her agency’s failure to take action in the Flint lead in water crisis.  In today’s interview, she made no mention of the EPA’s botched response to the Flint water crisis, but it prompted me to review that response given McCarthy’s current role as a public critic of the agency.  If she, a supposed champion of ensuring public access to clean drinking water, and with a supposedly supportive Obama Administration backing her up, could be “misled” and “strong-armed” so that they “could not do our jobs effectively,” what hope is there that any agency can or will protect the public’s drinking water?

McCarthy has been vilified by both sides of the debate over environmental regulation.  There is plenty to cheer as well as to jeer about her record on protecting the environment.  On one hand, she championed the Clean Water Rule and the importance of upgrading aging water infrastructure.  On the other hand, she failed to intervene and even defends her agency’s response to Miguel Del Toral’s reports of water contamination in Flint, Michigan in June 2015.  In her testimony before a House Committee in March 2016, McCarthy claimed her agency was “misled” by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.  McCarthy’s subordinate, former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, also blamed MDEQ for covering up the problem, as did the former mayor of Flint Dayne Walling and even the former state appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley (who is facing felony charges in connection with his decisions as Flint Emergency Manager).  All of them claim they did all they could.  And yet the water in Flint is still not safe to drink.

MDEQ’s alleged attempts to mislead, or their failure to ensure corrosion control treatment of Flint’s water is even less shocking to me than the fact that the federal agency charged with overseeing enforcement of the LCR could be “strong-armed” by the agency it is charged to regulate.  McCarthy claimed in a Congressional hearing in March, 2016 that “we had everything in place we needed to prevent this from happening…the state failed to implement and enforce appropriately.”  Really?  This strikes me as blaming the fox for failing to enforce the rules that are supposed to keep foxes out of the henhouse.  The fox didn’t make the rules, it is just being a fox.   At least Governor Snyder apologized and admitted failure of his administration to handle the crisis, and his attorney general has brought charges against several state and city officials involved in the case.  I’ve seen no such attempts at accountability at the federal level.

Curious to know what McCarthy had to say upon leaving her post as EPA administrator, I found an interview by the Washington Post on 21 December 2016 (, just as she was leaving the EPA to be replaced by Trump appointee Scott Pruitt.  McCarthy said her biggest regret as EPA Administrator was the agency’s inability to connect with rural communities in the way it had succeeded in doing with mayors of urban cities.  She made a good point about the need to address source water pollution to prevent the requirement for huge investments in treatment facilities downstream.  Only when pressed by the interviewer did she mention Flint.  She said Flint’s water is getting fixed, but its economic problems continue to contribute to its environmental issues.  “They have neighborhoods where they have one person living in them. You can’t service one person in a system like that without having stagnant water everywhere. Stagnant water is not your friend in a drinking water system. So there are long-term challenges there that have to be fixed. And it’s a real serious question about how the economics work in a city that has such high poverty levels with such high vacancy. It’s like Detroit, only smaller. There needed to be a huge national effort to address that.”

Taking Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou’s class on Experts and the Public helped me to interpret those remarks differently than I would have before. Before taking the class I might have overlooked the shortcomings of people who were otherwise supportive of my position.  But after studying the Flint water crisis and other environmental crises like it I am convinced that good intentions and supportive words are not enough.  I give McCarthy credit for recognizing the nature of the situation in Flint, that the roots of Flint’s water crisis lay in its deep seated economic problems.  But she failed to explain what it was that prevented the EPA from addressing or even acknowledging the problem for so long, whether it was the culture of the EPA or inadequate policy or lack of enforcement tools.  Saying “we had what we needed” and then doing nothing because they were “misled” by MDEQ doesn’t cut it.  The EPA’s own employee, Miguel Del Toral, sounded the alarm about Flint’s water contamination in June 2015.  Even before that, it was Flint resident LeeAnne Walters who alerted Del Toral to the lack of corrosion control treatment in the water.  McCarthy is now in a position to be a strong advocate for changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, to close the loopholes which enabled state agencies to wait over a year before applying corrosion control while claiming Flint’s water was “optimized” as required by the LCR.  Yes, Flint’s economy needs to be fixed, and the new EPA Administrator is rolling back environmental quality regulations, but McCarthy would be more effective by righting what went wrong under her watch rather than ignoring it.


Is there a connection between science ethics and economic ethics?

Reference article:  The relationship between economics and ethics and the light Dooyeweerd sheds on it . by Jeloost Hengstmeng

I think in the back of our minds we would consider the conspiracy of DC water crisis and Flint’s water crisis comes from questionable economic ethics. The people involve place higher value of cost over the human welfare. I think we need a deeper explanation about economic ethics based on my experience in the commercial and government arenas. In both of environment, the economics behind the technology became the deciding factor.   So, what do we really know about the political influence of economics?

We have studied science ethics without an informal connection of economic. However, the questions about ethics in science appear connected the ethics in economics. Although the following article is about economic ethics, further research could show a connection between economic and science ethics. The purpose of researching this connection comes from years of professional experience in the field of technology.

In STS, I have learned the power of science as an actor that impacts society. Traditional STS analysis researches the link between the power of science and social class, especially the low-income social class. So, if the economics separates social classes then maybe we should review the connection between science ethics and economic ethics.

Now we know

I guess we have all heard the comment, “You don’t want to know.”  If it is followed up with “but you need to know”, we usually listen.  I kind of thought of myself relatively well educated.  I felt I understand the risks of modern life relatively well.  I always wear my seat belt.  I go to the doctor regularly for check-ups and cancer screenings.  But, I had no idea about Flint.  Worst, I was living in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area when the lead poisoning went on there, and I remember very little of it.

Last semester I learned that all the creeks and rivers in the Washington, D.C. area are so polluted with PCB’s that the Virginia Dept. of Wildlife recommends you limit yourself to eating only one fish a month caught in this area and you never  eat fatty fish (e.g. carp) caught around here.  Now the bad news is running into my house from the pipes.  My home is no longer a refuge, it is the contaminant.

We started the semester questioning the relationship between experts and the public and how power and justice are distributed.   We learned more and more about the water crisis in D.C. and Flint.  We had engaging and thoughtful  guest speakers.  We were able to interview someone who was on the ground in Flint and get to learn their story.  And yet, I end the class with a feeling of powerlessness.  I even ask myself, wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the ignorant bliss of a few months ago?  I can skip eating fish from the creek.  I cannot skip drinking water.

So, the question is where do we go from here?  Is water quality and environmental justice a new project for everyone?  Was this class a sophisticated recruitment  vehicle?  The problem is this – if a Flint-type situation occurred in our neighborhood in the future, I think we would be better equipped to deal with the situation.  We would at least know to call Yanna.  But, could we forgive ourselves for not doing something about it sooner, because we know.  Now we know.

“Tell me Michigan isn’t crooked . . .”

Image credit:  Pixabay under Creative Commons CC0

. . . said one resident.

The Cyborg metaphor offers an alternative, if partial, explanation for reprehensible conduct by public officials.

Socioecological issues at the intersection of environmental justice concerns and tensions over racism, sexism, classism, ableism (among others) are emerging in public and academic discourse.  The collision of interests along hierarchies of power plays out vividly in Flint, Michigan, where conflicting dialogues about safety of the public water supply pits public officials with authority and responsibility for promoting and protecting safety and sustainability against ordinary citizens. Controversies surrounding land use and gentrification further muddy the water.

Enter the Cyborg.

Sara Louise Muhr (2011) used the classic “cybernetic organism” metaphor to unpack the challenges and consequences of rising above the limits of gendered leadership stereotypes (Clynes and Kline 1960). In Haraways’s Cyborg Manifesto, the Cyborg is presented as an agent for change and liberation from oppression (Haraway 1991).   Muhr explores the dark side of the Cyborg myth. To achieve liberation, Muhr claims, the Cyborg must absorb, adopt and exude an abundance of masculine, feminine, and machine-like attributes. For example, a woman rises to the upper ranks of management through a quest for (machine-like) perfection, acquiring a reputation as a strong, tough (masculinized) leader, coexisting with (feminized) charisma and physical beauty.  To achieve and sustain a liberation from gendered stereotypes, the Cyborg must invest in those stereotypes in excess.

The paradox of the Cyborg is that it may inspire others to follow, but its mechanical perfection is impossible to replicate, so it does not move others closer to liberation.  In fact, by demonstrating that it is superhuman or inhuman, the Cyborg reinforces the boundaries that it attempts to breach in the act of liberation.  Then the Cyborg becomes the oppressor, in symbiosis with the system of oppression and the fellow victims it would ostensibly liberate.

I argue that the Cyborg is present in Flint, manifest in the mechanical denial of citizen experience through a scripted official narrative.  Through this denial, the Cyborg reinforces experiences of oppression; what was once the liberator becomes the oppressor.  For example, city officials of Flint, once citizens sharing the common experience of a public outraged that the city’s water has been poisoned, are elevated to trusted leadership status by citizens through the electoral process.  To achieve elevation, a candidate must present as tough and strong, attractive and personable, trustworthy and hard-working.

Once in office, the Cyborg must maintain.  Muhr likens the Cyborg’s metamorphosis from commanding through respect and adoration to repressing through fear and intimidation to traversing “the uncanny valley” (Muhr, p. 350).  The Cyborg crosses a boundary from humanity to an unnatural state of being frighteningly mechanistic and intimidating.  In Flint, the Cyborg is augmented by militaristic trappings to exaggerate the overwhelming imbalance of power between itself and its constituency.

To see the conduct of oppression through intimidation playing out in Flint, one need only look at patterns of discourse between city officials and the public in town hall meetings.  City officials, buffered by heavy police presence, hold court in a community setting–a church–where citizens are invited to the microphones in two-minute allotments so that every person gets a chance to be heard.  Emotions run high as people share their frustration, their disillusionment, their despair.  Certain participants–the vocal, the dissident, and also the innocuous, the passive–are roughly removed in a bizarre selection lottery and symbolically de-voiced through deprivation of liberty and seizure of their phones, in a display of  heavy-handed policing which shocks and stuns the public, as if it were collectively a prey.   Thus the corpus of the Cyborg is extended to the body of government and all its militaristic accouterment.

Video Credit: Terrence Daniels, Flint arrests at Town Hall 2 4/20/2017

Bullard, R. D. (1990). Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Clynes, M.E. and Kline, N.S. (1960). Cyborgs and space.  Astronautics, September, 29-33, 74-5.
Gustafson, S. (2014). Megapolitan Political Ecology and Urban Metabolism in Southern Appalachia. The Professional Geographer, 66(4), 664-675.
Haraway, D. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In Haraway, D. (ed.) Simians, Cyborgs, and Woman, pp. 149-181. New York: Routledge.
Muhr, S. L. (2011). Caught in the gendered machine: On the masculine and feminine in cyborg leadership. Gender, Work & Organization18(3), 337-357.

What happens when trust breaks down completely

I had an interesting hour long discussion with a pair of Flint residents who had lived through the water crisis.  When they finished telling me their experience, which included repeatedly feeling ignored when they expressed their concerns, I thanked them for their time.  One of them very politely explained that he didn’t think I believed them either, which came as a bit of a shock.  Some of their concerns might have been scientifically incorrect, but they were morally right when they talked about how they had been mistreated?

What happens when people are morally right, but scientifically incorrect?  The thought came up again after reading this story in the Post over the weekend:

The story makes the point that scientists trying to study the melting of glaciers in South America, or engineers trying to install warning devices to deal with the potential flash floods they create, find themselves threatened by communities that believe the technical professionals and their equipment create the droughts caused by climate change.

Science can function internally without public trust, so long as there is just enough trust to pay the bills.  Intellectual credibility will keep policy makers writing the checks.   But science cannot change society without some amount of moral credibility.

The fact that the public may or may not have trusted science in Flint after the lead was detected may or may not lead to a larger health problem.  The issue of science not trusting the public may create another health problem.   These problems are not separable from the larger story of mistrust in a city that was written off before the lead appeared in the drinking water.

Similarly, in Peru we see scientific trust as completely inseparable from public trust.  The scientists and engineers may have been able to do a better job of winning public trust- but that also may have been impossible when trust in other institutions was completely erased by corruption.

Science is not democratic.  But science cannot impact a society without the trust of a truly democratic society.  And for that reason, science is in a forced engagement with the public, and may find it almost impossible to function as an autocracy dictating to the public.

An ethical challenge: should we or shouldn’t we?

I found this article about ethics: The Ethical Challenges in Farming: A Report on Conversations with Missouri Corn and Soybean Producers in the writing style like our research project.

Over the last few weeks, we discussed science ethics as something done ‘incorrectly’ or ‘not all’ by science experts. As an example, we discuss the lack of ethics by science experts that only viewed lead paint as the cause of high BLL in children. Science discarded water as a source for high BLL in children. Personally, I would analyze the science from DC and Flint as known ‘Undone Science’ or ‘Ignored’ science. One description explains ‘Undone’ or ‘Ignore’ science as a choice by scientists who chose not to respond or react to scientific problems in society. By not reacting, science purposely overlooks the problem for the benefit of science politics and at the expense of the public.

But what about the science ethics behind producing ‘food’? Yes, producing food has become an ethical challenge for farmers. The style of writing of H.S James resembles the research project for our class. He wrote the article in the voice of the farmer.

After reviewing this article, I am a little confused about the role of the farmers. Should we consider them experts or laypeople? I would consider a farmer, outside someone studying agriculture, a layperson. As farmers, they are laypeople whose science influence the public through food production.

On Objectivity

Listening to an “On The Media” podcast titled “In Which Brooke Explains OTM’s Secret Sauce to Jesse Thorn” (July 12, 2017), it occurred to me how similar OTM co-host Brooke Gladstone’s views on the objectivity of the media and journalists are to my own views about the objectivity of science and scientists.  In the interview, Brooke explains why the decision was made for the co-hosts to “lay their emotions on the table” as an additional “data point for listeners,” and to reveal their “own points of view” rather than acting as a “voice from on high” style that other media use.  “Being authentic,” and avoiding the “awkward locutions” of pretending to be “passionless priests of objectivity,” explains Brooke, is a way to build trust in their listeners, rather than diminish it.  What worked for Walter Cronkite would not work today because the “playing field has been leveled by the internet.”  Brooke sums it up with the statement used by many others in the field, “disclosure if the new objectivity.”

Perhaps it’s time for science and scientists to acknowledge that the playing field has been leveled by the internet, meaning ordinary citizens have access to all kinds of information that was not available to them in the past, and that information combined with the data that comes from personal experience is a powerful source of knowledge.  That is not to say that my Google search is equivalent to someone else’s PhD or other professional credentials, but even someone with a PhD must recognize the limits of their knowledge and understanding, and be open to input from people with a personal interest in an issue.  Someone directly impacted by something (especially something affecting his or her health) has the benefit of experience and a powerful incentive to gather as much information as he or she can about it.  In the age of the internet, it is far more valuable to know how to access data and learn new things rather than be satisfied with the quantity of what you have learned in the past.