It seems like just yesterday we were listening to Professor Cohen giving his talk about the Scientific Revolution not actually being as revolutionary as we have thought. Fast forward to December 6th and Professor Marcos Perez’s talk about actually being a revolutionary on the front lines of a revolution with his experience in Argentina with the Unemployed Worker’s Movement. Professor Perez’s talk was the perfect way to end this semester’s theme of Revolutions. We talked a lot about “revolutions” in plenty of contexts: the scientific revolution, Darwinian evolution, Big Data, Haitian Revolution, Political cartoons, etc.. Maybe except for Khalid Albaih, no other presenter had any personal experience with what I consider a real political “revolution” except for Professor Perez.
Perez asked the question I have often thought about when I see revolutions today covered on the news in different countries. Why do people risk their well being and even their lives to be on the front line of a revolution? Of course I am a privileged bystander watching the news of countries like Argentina and Ukraine who recently have had massive protests calling for a revolution. By living in the United States, I have the privilege of political stability that some areas of the world do not have. The United States itself, however has seen its share of revolutions over its brief history. The American Revolution birthed this country back in the late 1700’s, The Civil War during the 1860’s “gave” the right of citizenship to all Americans and abolished slavery, in 1920 the women’s suffrage movement achieved their ultimate victory with their right to vote and the 1960’s saw the Civil Rights Movement finally grant people of color equal and fair citizenship. All of these movements seem so far in the past, but given Professor Perez’s talk, could another revolution happen soon in the United States? These revolutionary periods, especially the Civil Rights Movement, occurred during what many consider America’s “modern” era, so the argument that America’s “modern” society could not have another revolution is difficult to evidence. Racism and brutality within the police force is still an issue we face today that needs change. I would argue that the Black Lives Matter movement could be considered a revolution, however we have yet to see the benefits of this movement. Given that Donald Trump is the President-Elect, I would not be surprised to see some form of revolutionary movement within my lifetime.
So back to the original question, why would someone risk their well being when often revolutions do not often reap immediate benefits? If people truly believe in a movement’s cause, they will join it regardless of what can happen to them. Revolutionary movements do not often look at the costs of getting their message across, they want change and they want it immediately. Giving up or lessening their aggressive methods means failure and the possible disruption of their movement. No revolutionary wants their cause to die out, so they keep fighting for a cause that is often larger than themselves. Of course the dangers vary from the setting and political environment a revolution is carried out in, but for some people a certain cause could mean life or death anyways.
What if the very idea of being revolutionary was a false, disillusioning ideal? That is what Keith Peterson explored through the work of science and technology studies theorist Bruno Latour, a philosopher and sociologist by trade. Peterson focused mainly on Latour’s book We Have Never Been Modern, Peterson posed and answered questions about it. A whole field of study in philosophy focuses on the true meaning of words and how certain words that are used too frequently can really diminish their true meaning. In Latour’s book he asks the question, “what if we have never been modern?”, a very interesting and provocative question.
Perhaps part of this narrative that we have never been modern or revolutionary is this idea that those two words (modern and revolution) have been used too much in the world, but more egregiously in the west. In television commercials and in science, the word “revolution” is used almost too frequently to describe products and discoveries. For example, I know I’ve heard “A revolution in toothpaste” in a dental care company’s commercial before when they’re only describing a small change. “Modern” is usually used to place more value on whatever entity it is describing. Countries describe themselves as “modern” or “modernizing” when they want to say they are moving up in the world. Should being “modern” necessarily place more value on countries or areas of the world than less “modern” countries? Why is “modernizing” usually always considered a “good” thing? Latour asks this in his book when he questions why nature and culture have drifted so far apart in the “modernist” movement. He argues that modernity’s split between culture and nature is not actually how it is.
But back to the question I posed earlier, should more value be placed on more modern countries? Or is a less “modern” civilization better? What exactly constitutes “modernity”? In certain measures, “modernity” is a great thing. In the west, modern medicine has eradicated deadly diseases like smallpox, malaria, polio, and typhoid fever. As medicine has “modernized” people live longer, healthier lives. In less developed places in the world, malaria and typhoid fever, among other diseases, devastates populations and creates less quality of life. However, it seems nowadays that “modernizing” comes with social and cultural consequences in which many people nowadays cannot stay from electronic devices like computers, smart phones, tablets, televisions and more. Modernized countries have seen their time spent outside reduced considerably in recent years. Modernity has also come with a rise in obesity from lack of exercise and moving around, which has increased the risk of heart disease and diabetes. In the west culture has transitioned to “pop culture” in which entertainment is valued for money intake instead of culture for culture’s sake. Meaning that songs, stories, news, events, etc. are all put on for profit’s sake instead of their intrinsic value. Other “less modern” countries value their culture’s song, dance and other aspects intrinsically.
Latour seemed to be harsh of this new lifestyle of “modern” countries that has developed in recent years. “Modern” and “Revolution” are words whose connotations can mean different things to people in different contexts.
I remember during my freshman year of high school our history class was called “Global Studies” and the class focused on forgotten or often neglected history. One of the first topics we studied was the Haitian Revolution and I remember being very interested in it. Hearing Professor Jeremy Popkin’s talk brought me back to freshman year of high school learning about important historical figures like Toussaint Louverture. Like other history in that class, the Haitian Revolution is usually pushed to the side in favor of the American Revolution and the French Revolution even though all of these revolutions took place in the same twenty year span. The American Revolution occurred first and in part inspired the Haitian and French Revolutions. The French Revolution, however became the spark for the Haitian Revolution after the French revolutionaries declared that all men be free and equal and when word spread to Haiti, a French colony, the African slaves of the island agreed and decided to rise up. The Haitian Revolution was the first and only slave uprising that led to the establishment of a free state without slavery and ruled by non-whites and former slaves. This feat needs to be recognized more in today’s society as one of the marquee revolutions in history.
The American and French Revolutions are praised as marking the beginning of the end of many absolute monarchies and ushering in liberal democracies and republics. However, the American Revolution did not abolish slavery and even though the French Revolution did, Napoleon Bonaparte brought it back when he rose to power. When the word “revolution” is brought up in a historical context, these are the first two revolutions that come to mind. The Haitian Revolution is less recognized in today’s society and in history, even though it did more by establishing a free state AND truly creating a free society for all men (women is a different story unfortunately) by abolishing slavery. What does this say about our society? At a liberal arts school, the first inclination is to blame it on inherent and institutionalized racism throughout our society. And do not get me wrong, I consider myself liberal and I believe there is institutionalized racism in our world. However, I find it difficult to put all the blame for societal negligence of the Haitian Revolution on racism. I believe it has a role given that the most studied history has been about white men.
Instead of blaming racism for ignoring the Haitian Revolution, I think it is important to follow Professor Popkin’s model and emphasize the Haitian Revolution as being as important as it needs to be when discussing historical revolutions. By being proactive and getting the word out instead of blaming these theoretical, wide-ranging entities like “society”, the Haitian Revolution will have a better chance of getting the historical credit it deserves. Popkin emphasized that the scholarship of the Haitian Revolution has blown up in recent years, which is an avenue of recognition that can place it in its appropriate place in world history.
Professor Schnapp’s captivating talk discussed the role of symbols and monuments in “uncomfortable” revolutions and used the specific example of the Monument to Victory, which was erected in Italy by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1928. It had come to be somewhat of an embarrassment to Italians after World War II as it came to represent Mussolini and fascism because of the period it came from. Schnapp is part of a team that set a goal of modernizing the Monument to Victory and alter and reshape its meaning. Schnapp and his team set out to recreate an image of cultural tolerance and pluralism by placing a three-banded LED ring around the third column of the Monument, which had previously been fenced off for decades. Even if con-artists tried to dismantle the LED screen, the attempt by Schnapp was to bring the symbology to represent the local people.
Professor Schnapp’s work is commendable and inspiring, as I have not heard of anything like this occurring in the United States. It seems that controversial American monuments and symbols are simply left alone, torn down, or moved away without any attempt to remedy what they mean or represent. For example, as recent as a few weeks ago, the University of Louisville ordered a monument serving as a memorial site for Confederate Kentucky soldiers who served in the Civil War to be moved into storage or to another area. It eventually moved to Brandenburg, Kentucky, about forty-five miles from the University. Not that it is easy to do, but the University made no attempt at remedying the monument to represent something else, perhaps not associating with the Confederate Army.
An issue along the same lines whose meaning will not be easily revised is the Confederate Flag. In recent years, the Confederate Flag has been removed from places like off of the South Carolina Capitol Building. The Confederate Flag has come to represent slavery, hate and oppression in recent history as it was the flag of a state that threatened to leave the United States to keep slavery as a cornerstone of its society. It’s easier to alter the meaning of a generic monument such as the Monument to Victory when it was not explicitly the main symbol of the fascist movement. The Monument has only come to represent fascism because of the period it was built in. The Confederate state and most of the symbols and monuments that have come to represent its movement are hard to revamp in meaning. It is almost impossible to modify the meaning of the Confederate Flag and monuments of Jefferson Davis, for example, because they represent such an intense and controversial part of our history. Another controversial symbol example includes the Ten Commandments being put on monuments on public school grounds, too specific to change. It may be important in the future to not have an all or a nothing approach to contentious symbols, as Schanpp shows that a compromise can be usually always be reached.
In his talk about Big Data, Aaron Hanlon most interesting points centered around using Google Trends and another Google function that analyzed how many times electronic books mentioned certain words. Hanlon noted that the word “data” has been used much more often in books published in recent years while words like “truth” and “fact” have been used less often on a downward trend. Now, these are only words in books that have been electronically transferred to Google Books, but it brings up an interesting point. He discussed how truths were known on a theoretical basis in the early literary years (1600’s and before). Truths and facts were primarily used interchangeably with the word “evidence”, but in recent years it seems that “data” is becoming the new word to interchangeably use with evidence. To paraphrase Hanlon, “When data become the main form of evidence, that’s revolutionary”. However it may be problematic with using data as the main phrase associated with evidence. Depending on the subject matter, almost all data taken can be taken with a certain bias to create and back up an argument. For example, most surveys have an inherent bias depending on whether it’s an online survey or whether it’s taken in person, who answers the survey and where the survey is taken amongst other biases. While all data is not based on human response, where data is taken can be biased to “prove” an argument.
I cannot help but think about the 2016 Elections when I think about this talk about Big Data and how data is used to argue so many issues that presidential, senatorial, and congressional candidates stand for and against. Not only on arguing issues, but the reliance on “Big Data” can be and was disillusioning for predicting the president-elect in 2016. Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States and almost no political analysts or pollsters saw it coming. Hillary Clinton was expected to win (some said by a landslide) in almost every “legitimate” poll released and many millions of Americans were disillusioned when the result of the election went the opposite way. While it is hard to think of a different method of trying to figure out who will win elections, the over reliance on data and its inherent bias can be extremely misleading in some cases.
During this election season I have noticed that on social media, most prominently Facebook, users bicker back and forth about politics using data to argue points about race, violence, the environment, and many other prominent issues. There is an overabundance of information sources in this day and age online, which allows people to pick and choose which sources to follow on their Facebook “feeds”, instilling certain ideas and values depending on what side of the political spectrum the user falls on. Most sources I see shared about politics come from biased sources whether that be on the right or left. While I definitely fall on the left side of the political spectrum, it can be annoying and concerning to see fellow “liberals” share posts about some of these issues that are blatantly wrong with biased data to further their argument. However, it can be more frustrating to me when people on the other side of the “aisle” share very biased sources talking about things like “black-on-black violence in inner cities” to argue that police officers are not abusing their power in certain parts of the country. Either way, data needs to be looked at carefully when making arguments.
I found this semester’s second Revolutions talk about Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution more interesting than the first talk on it. This second talk looked at the Darwinian Revolution and how it has been misinterpreted in modern times to mean several things that Charles Darwin’s original theory did not state. The most telling example of how Darwin’s revolutionary theories on evolution and natural selection are misunderstood is the image of the apes turning into a man as he walks along in a straight line. This image is very misleading to audiences because it depicts evolution as simply ladder-like rather than a complex process of branching out and evolving over tens of thousands of years. This image also reinforces typological thinking of Darwin’s scholarly work; it misrepresents evolution as a process of only one kind, certain species can only evolve into certain animals. This image also depicts evolution as moving towards a goal, as if evolution is a goal-oriented process with a clear end. Evolution does not have a clear end, no scientist or evolutionary biologist knows for certain how the evolutionary process will “end”.
I found this talk about the Darwinian revolution much more engaging than the first one because it gave me a new perspective of Darwin’s work in today’s society. I understood his discoveries as being complex and not completely set in stone, but popular images and other media can misrepresent what Darwin actually studied and discovered. The first talk about Darwin did not give me any new revelations, the speaker, Janet Browne, basically discussed Darwin in a way that I have heard several times before in my biology classes in high school and college. Another misrepresentation of evolutionary science that Judy Stone discusses in her talk is the ascendance of the “gene” in typological thinking in the public mind. Headlines like “Schizophrenia Gene Discovery Sheds Light on Possible Cause” misrepresents the science behind genes. For the most part, individual genes do not affect bodily systems enough to cause diseases like Schizophrenia; genes work in extremely complex tandem with other genes to cause hereditary and other diseases. Environmental factors can also be influential in the onset of disease. One last misrepresentation that Judy Stone discusses is that in the study of fruit flies, any fly without a visible mutation are referred to as “wild type”, there is no such thing as a specific “wild type” in nature. There is no perfectly “wild” fruit fly, no two fruit flies have the same genome, so declaring certain flies as wild types carries no valid connotation.
This talk was very interesting and I will not look at popular representations of evolution and of Charles Darwin the same. His works are so critical to our understanding of how humans came to be, but many people in today’s society may have a partially skewed idea of what evolution really is because of popular media’s misinterpretation of Darwin’s key ideas.
We were lucky to have Professor Emanuel from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology come up to Colby to discuss his knowledge on Hurricanes and the Climate in general. I am a part of Professor Fleming’s Weather, Climate & Society class and I found his question and answer session with us much more engaging than his talk on Tuesday night. During this session I asked him a question that is very important to me. I had read an article the day before on New York Times’s website about we, as a country, could be in for an unprecedented ecological disaster if another major storm hit the coast of Texas due to the large number of petrochemical companies that have set up there since the last major hurricane passed through the area directly. Hurricane Ike narrowly missed the key area near Houston in 2008, but was originally predicted to go through and cause this aforementioned damage, so we got lucky. I asked Professor Emanuel if he had heard of this potential disaster of a situation and he had said that he did. Unfortunately storms like hurricanes cannot have their courses altered with our current technology without setting off a major explosion of some sort. Professor Emanuel said that there is definitely a possibility that it could occur since hurricanes occur around Texas usually around once every six years.
He also discussed how Hurricane Matthew was one of the worst predicted hurricanes that he has ever seen. Matthews was projected to go on so many different paths. At one point it was supposed to go through North and South Carolina and then another point up the St. Lawrence River and directly through New York City. It ended up barely hitting the Carolinas and not doing nearly as much damage as was thought. However, another hurricane that generated around the same time, Nicole, was much further off the coast and meteorologists predicted its path almost perfectly. When asked about this prospect, Professor Emanuel responded that When asked why this forecasting was the case, he said that it was due to variance in weather models in different forecasting zones, adding that sometimes hurricane path predictions are incredibly sporadic. Hurricane predictions can vary for a wide variety of reasons including pressure zones, water temperature, wind flows, etc.
Other topics in our question and answer session included how one theoretical way to stop a hurricane or other major storm is to set off a nuclear bomb/explosion in order to disrupt the flow. The most interesting thing Professor Emanuel said was that he actually set the world record for most time spent flying in the eye of a hurricane. The best part was that he did it by accident. Professor Emanuel is an amazing scholar and I appreciated his presence through this course.
While not often talked about, the Tambora explosion is one of the most important climate-altering events in recent history. Gillen Wood is the first person to look at the Tambora explosion on a global level. While it has been acknowledged that the explosion itself altered the global climate, he is the first one to go into great detail and discuss the connections some people didn’t know existed. Tambora is a small sample-size for the drastic effects of fast onset climate change including devastating famine, complete seasonal climate alterations and more. Tambora also shows that any event around the world could potentially have radically negative effects and not recognizing these potential effects could be detrimental.
For example, the 2011 Fukushima disaster following a tsunami caused by an earthquake led to probably the worst nuclear meltdown of the 21st century so far. While the situation was contained A LOT of nuclear material and radiation was released, which is still affecting the Japanese landscape and its citizens. Most of the damage from this disaster won’t be seen for years as different types of cancer will develop and other adverse effects will evolve. What hasn’t been studied closely that should be are the effects of the radiation from the Fukushima site drifting across the Pacific Ocean and reaching places like Australia, the United States, Mexico and parts of Central and South America. It will take years to exactly delineate the longterm effects, but organizations like the Centre for Research on Globalization already have discovered some things like the fact that there is a field of radioactive debris the size of California that collided with North America at various points from the disaster and one test in California found that 15 out of 15 bluefin tuna were contaminated with radioactivity from Fukushima. Many tests on various fish species have been conducted and many come back with alarmingly raised levels of carcinogens, radioactivity, and nuclear material. Fukushima is just one example of how a single negative event, no matter how big or small, can effect the world on a global scale and we still do not know the extent to which Fukushima has affected the world.
Tambora gave the world “A Year Without a Summer” in New England, it reportedly even snowed in Dennysville, Maine at the end of June, 1816. The current trend of climate change is heading towards drastic warming rather than cooling, but with climates rapidly changing because of the pouring of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the climate could go to either end of the temperature spectrum. Tambora serves as a cautionary tale of researching specific events to monitor their long term consequences and as a tale of what could happen if global warming and climate change are not addressed immediately.
While Professor Cohen gave his talk that questioned how revolutionary, how scientific and how unique The Scientific Revolution was, a question popped in my mind. That question was, are we, as a human race, taking for granted the “knowledge” we think we know? In other words, are we being misled when we think we know almost all there is to know in the science realm. How is the mindset of our predecessors in the era of The Scientific Revolution any different than the mindset we currently have today? For example, for a long time people took for granted that the Earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the Earth. How do we know whether or not we believe in something that is completely false but is taken for granted to be true or that something thought to be ridiculous is actually true?
While modern technology and science allow us to understand much more about life and the Earth than was known around the time of The Scientific Revolution, there could be knowledge to be discovered that may seem completely false and impossible. One such notion could be the concept of extraterrestrial life. While in no way has it been proven that aliens do not exist, there seems to be a general consensus that it may be a bit ridiculous to believe in them. Someone who claims to have been abducted by aliens or claims to have seen a U.F.O. is generally considered crazy, but that may not be the case once technology improves and the vast reaches of space are discovered.
My favorite part of Professor Cohen’s talk came when he discussed discoveries of The Scientific Revolution that were not all too scientific. Copernicus reasoned that the sun should be at the center of the “universe” because it’s so noble, Kepler invoked the beauty of the Platonic solids to explain the organization of the planets, and Francesco Sizzi argued by analogy that there could not be more than the seven known planets. It’s fascinating to think some of the era’s most revolutionary discoveries were first deemed true based on absurd explanations. To revert back to the alien example, someone may have a ridiculous explanation for why they “know” alien life exists, but technology is not at a level to prove it yet. Some amazing revelations may be currently ignored or put down because the believer’s reasoning is bizarre or foolish or the idea itself is far-fetched to our understanding.
This is not meant to be a piece obsessing about the possibility of life outside Earth, but the point is that current scientific beliefs or understandings could be wrong. Seemingly ridiculous proposals could be true, our technology just may not be at a level to prove them yet. In just the past century, science and technology have developed greatly and will continue to do so. Many scientific subjects encourage questioning life’s many aspects, we have not made every discovery and some “discoveries” we have made could be wrong. Don’t take science for granted.