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Ebola: an opportunity for an interdisciplinary approach to the crisis of the ‘anthropocene’

November 11, 2014

UPDATE 3: An article I wrote for Malaysiakini on this issue. It is less the story of Ebola than what it tells us. Also, sometimes, I think we need footnotes in more ‘general’ pieces to aid those who are less subtle readers.

UPDATE 2: The Hewletts, who did in-depth study into the anthropology of the Ebola, confirm my own uninformed intuition. I am trying to get a copy of their book to read!

UPDATE: Thanks to a friend, here is a link to an article that looks at Ebola from a medical anthropological perspective

Between moving and traveling, I had not always been the most up-to-date with what was going on the world beyond what was most pressing to my immediate circumstance. When I first heard about the Ebola break-out going out in Sierra Leone, then in Guinea and Liberia, there was then a belief that the situation was not that bad because they appeared confined to the poorest African countries, and they appeared to be contained. However, things started to change when the virus was brought onto the shores of the United States, and as the virus circulates, a sense of near hysteria turned it into an international crisis. The same thing had happened with AIDs in the 1980s even if the epidemiology of that disease is different, with a less obvious and visible symptoms due to a longer incubation period.

Of course, Ebola is an international crisis. It is rare for an outbreak to be contained when there does not yet exist a systemic structure for containment (not even if you make it difficult for those from the poorest nations to enter your land of promise). Moreover, we do know that devastation at the health level also means devastation at multiple levels. History has multiple narratives and recollections of the various recorded plagues known to mankind, and their implications in the aftermath. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen more than its share of epidemic, from the SARs to avian flus. Steven Sonderbergh’s Contagion (2011) almost seems like an eerie premonition of what is to come.

But as everyone knows/suspects by now (even Bloomberg has been alternating its news concerning decelerating stocks with tactical concerns surrounding the issues of Ebola), Ebola is not just a healthcare crisis but perhaps a crisis at the level of the anthropoce and humanitarian. Injecting funds and facilities and expertise helps,  but as we know, an insular approach has not been helpful and could potentially be the impediment to finding a solution. However much experience and knowledgeable medical expertise can contribute to combating the disease, the only way to do something different than before is to also engage the interdisciplinary expertise that include not only economists, communication experts, and strategists; but also sociologists and historians of medicine (and perhaps even philosophers of science), as well as cultural geographers, who had made it their business to study the implications of healthcare and medical practices not just within the presentist regime, but across different lifetimes, to lend insights and even provide recommendations that would have escaped the purview of those very much focused specifically on contingencies. Even scientists working in other non-medical areas could use the models and knowledge base they have developed to aid greater understanding of the system surrounding the epidemic, and it is a systemic problem in itself.

However, pure scientism is not going to give the needed holistic view needed to deal with the problem beyond the fire-fighting level.  After all, even those tasked with dealing with the problem are still humans, and we need to understand how to create solutions that work with human nature and predisposition, as well as with cultural and infrastructural conditions. In fact, if interdisciplinary knowledge and application is ever needed, this is the time when it is in greatest dire need, and not merely at a sophistical or rhetorical level. Interdisciplinarity is also needed to break out of the provincialism that inhabits the practices of scientific disciplines, given that localized assumptions about epistemic practices are what can contribute to communication breakdowns

One of the problems with the whole approach to dealing with this outbreak at the policy level is the lack of engagement with the people who study both the sociology and history of infectious diseases, and the lack of ability of the people making policy decisions at the highest level in knowing how to work collaboratively on the issue (or to know how to assemble different cells of expertise) – this probably stems too from a shallow understanding of the meaning of expertise and the lack of epistemic trading between various specialists who are the gatekeepers and the decision-makers. It does not help of course that having in-depth knowledge of a disease without the accompanying ability to compare across different facets of the system of which the disease is a constituent produces half-baked attempts at arriving at any resolutions. Decision makers need to include humanists and social scientists who study the organic/human conditions in relation to the sciences that desire to palliate and alleviate the negative conditions.

That said, there is no easy way to deal with the problem, and that an interdisciplinary approach brings with it new challenges as one has to be willing to take the time to shifts one’s mental framework at a time of high duress and great difficulties. But it also the ripe time to begin forming interdisciplinary teams that would produce recommendations and alternatives through their analyses of whatever information and data there are

Information, Research and Trends: the Malaysian Case

November 9, 2014

Among the things I have been grappling with, upon my return to Malaysia, is in making sense of all the changes that had taken place in my more than two-years of extended absence (as I had not returned since the mid-summer of 2012). However, much of my observations could only be made from my hometown in Perak, as I had not had time to go anywhere much (other than a day-trip to KL with my family). But, thanks to the combination of Astro satellite TV (which became my best friend for the first time since the turn of the century), my rather limited internet access, and newspapers passed on by others (I refraining from buying local magazines for the time being), and also in talking with random people around, I was able to obtain a cultural snapshot of all that had been happening in my absence. It also allows me to see how the exceptionalism of North America has blinded those of us living in it to the capital ascendancy of Asia (though it is up to you to decide how you will view it); glimpses of that could be observed while I was in Europe while the American media is almost blind to much that takes place in Asia. A summary of my observations can be seen here, though you would have to read it in Malay or plug it onto Google Translate.

One thing about Asia, and Malaysia in particular, is the lack of any clearinghouse of information (though that is changing, extremely slowly still, as the newer generation are beginning to put more things onto the Internet) that you can go to for seeing what is going on, regardless of field of investigation you are interested in pursuing. As someone who had years (like a little over a decade) of experience in the research industry (both academic and non-academic) in Malaysia and elsewhere, I can attest to how the concept of the archive is not very much within the consciousness of Malaysia, though as I said, that is changing with the more digitally literate generation coming to fore. China, on the other hand, is trying to make up for its cultural misdeeds, so to speak, by going full-force to document every area of knowledge, historical and current, that it could get its hands on (even if the country has not changed too much in its stance with regard to informational democracy or the rights of its citizens). Here, it is still very much dependent on the grapevine, your contacts, and being part of an insider information group – the oral tradition of handing down information still operates through much of the knowledge economy of Malaysia, and probably much of other South East Asian countries (even if Singapore is becoming more sophisticated in the manner in which it is archival and informational database practices).  Therefore, much of information you want to collect has to come through a keen sense of observational practice, informational interviews, and going out and talking to people within the community. Further, much of the published information of the world are locked up in very expensive databases monopolized by wealthy publishing conglomerates, and not always available even to universities and other bigger research organizations in the country, let alone to an independent or freelance researcher.

However, to have more than a partial view of Malaysia requires one to have a good grasp of the different languages available, which is also what makes doing research in Malaysia both exciting and challenging. One might refer to only resources in languages you are most comfortable with, but that would mean that your knowledge is always partial. In fact, even knowing all languages does not guarantee full access unless one can consider that which is not said. Let’s consider the media for instance: due to stringent control through the Printing and Publications Act, and also Sedition Act, among others, much of media published in English and Malay could afford you only the blandest view of politics. On the other hand, the Chinese newspapers, that are illegible to the majority group of Malaysia, could get away with more and therefore, are able to publish political news sanctioned from most other newspapers. That had been the case until the advent of alternative presses, but even then, one will still get different perspectives. Of course, one would always have to differentiate sensationalism from information, but the history of newspapers in Malaysia, and the multiplicity of languages in which its newspapers come in, is a subject for much interesting research, as one can find in the unpublished master and PhD theses of the universities (unfortunately, I don’t think the idea of a digital thesis has made its ways here yet). That said, in the field I am interested in exploring further, which is intellectual history in relation to the history of science, being able to communicate with more members of the community would assure one the ability to access materials not available in every language, while also building hitherto unobserved connections. This is at least what I am trying to do to understand, for example, the history of alternative medical treatments and therapies in Malaysia that are derived from various cultures and even from centuries old traditions that are beyond the shores of the country.

As far as trends of consumption, I see not much change in that area. Having recently emerged out of the university system (though I might be returning to one soon again) for so long, it still comes as a shock (even if not a surprise), to see how much money that members of the public pay to attend particular talks and seminars, except for political talks, obviously. Some major universities in the country organize talks, but given the fact of the bigger public universities are disproportionately located in one state (Selangor), and that most private universities and colleges are more about providing ‘job and vocational training’ rather than in intellectual advancement, there is not a whole lot of edifying forum for public to engage with ideas. Most of the expensive talks and seminars are related to capital gain (targeted at, corporations, business professionals, or potential customers) and are more about marketing a particular service or product. For certain, there there is unabashed commercialism, that the most interesting public spaces are the shopping malls, even in smaller towns such as my hometown. In fact, for the smaller towns, the taste of cosmopolitanism can only be had at shopping malls; not even at libraries, bookstores or cultural places such as museums and galleries. In fact, I once reviewed a book about the importance of studying shopping malls as a sociological critique in Singapore.

Then, there is the entertainment industry. I do not claim to ever have been always an observant connoisseur of any forms of pop-culture, though my short stint in market research some months prior to commencing my PhD studies opened up my eyes to the importance of cultural critique in all areas of consumer research. The same holds true for understanding the rise and fall of particular pop cultures, such as the ones in Asia. As of now, I was informed that K-pop is all the riot now (that has impacted some members of my extended family as well). However, with the rise of technicolor and sharp images afforded by the HD technology and an increase in the deployment of animated special effects in cinematography (often to offset a not very great script or plot) in the Chinese movie industry, and of course, the increasing robustness of entertainment in, once again, China, we see the advent of C-dramas, especially costumed period dramas, into the overseas market, most particularly in South East Asia. With a few exceptions, it appears that most of the C-dramas that made it into the general channels of the television, such as the Malaysian satellite TV Astro, are kinds that support the status quo rather than ruffle feathers. The same can be said about the local (largely Malay) channels (though I have not spent time looking into the channels catered to Indian-dialect speakers) .That stands in contradistinction to some, though not all, of the American TV dramas that are accessible through the regular behemoths (Fox, HBO etc). There is much that can be said about the onslaught of global celebrity cultures upon the average consumer of entertainment, but I will let scholars or critiques who study such phenomena do the honors instead.

I have only been around for a month, but am looking forward to seeing what new things will I discover, and where my intellectual and research interests will be able to find its niche. At this time, on top of my regular ‘work,’ I am also spending time reading up on Malaysiana and other Asian materials that I had no time to consume while doing the PhD. For sure, understanding cultural implications and affectivity are important to understanding the movement of trends from a qualitative perspective. I welcome further suggestions and recommendations by anyone reading this.

#Cosmoschat for Writing in the Natural Sciences Unit (July 14-18, 2014)

July 18, 2014

We did it the old-fashion way!

We did it the old-fashion way!

cosmoschat 8

#opinions vs #facts

What they thought of the presenters

What they thought of the presenters

Cosmoschat 5


#finale for the new cosmos series.

#finale for the new cosmos series.

All the thoughts came running out, beyond the mandatory questions!

All the thoughts came running out, beyond the mandatory questions!

cosmoschat 7

#origins and #myth-making



Science Fiction as Science Studies on the History of Science

July 17, 2014

What you see in this post are some reactions and thoughts that came to mind in this very intense week as I think about my own larger intellectual interests, my recently completed dissertation, my organization of my ECR research projects and publications, and the class that I have been teaching this week.

If you have seen my previous post and also the tweetchat, most of you reading this probably already know that I have been teaching a week-long intensive class on science communication that tries to bring in a bit of history of science (and some history of technology). What I did not quite emphasize was also the role of fiction in science communication and in communicating the history of science.

On Wednesday this week, I brought in not only some science news magazines, but also two issues of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact. This came in the heel after I assigned them their first homework, which was to analyze between historically scholarly scientific writing with more recent publications, as a way for them to understand that style is not static; neither does academic scientific communication has to be inscrutably unreadable to a non-specialist. That established the historical aspect of the craft, though, had there been more time, we might have gone a little bit more into how that craft develops differently by the content being produced. Even then, I gave them, in the first lecture, the different forms of overlapping science communication, across different platforms, that share similar raison d’etre even if at first glance, they appear different in their purposes.

So, when I ended up bringing those magazines, including the hard SF journals, to demonstrate the humanistic relevance of scientific thinking in the past, despite the divergent direction that the sciences have taken today, I was able to show them videos produced by scientists/science communicators that connect current day science with historical science, and that fiction is the key to tracing that genealogy of science, from a perspective that is irremediably historically contingent. From there, I could also begin to explain that connection to other humanistic studies. I find such a strategy to be more attention grabbing to the students than if I were to spend too much time pontificating about how literature tries to study science or why philosophy and science have strong historical connections. In fact, I am interested in thinking about how I could one day produce a course that is all about learning history of science through works of hard science fiction, or even just fictions that are interested in interpreting science contemporary to the period in which the fictional universe is set in.

As part of understanding the role of fiction not only in scientific pedagogy, but also in humanistic interaction with science, I was amazed at the number of the students readily adopted such forms of thought experiments (even if rather unconsciously on their part), a fictive-factive motif, in their class presentations, after having only had three days of 90 minutes of class, with my having barely scratched the surface of that! One of the joys of teaching science communication is demonstrating not only the multiple ways of conveying what science is about, which is what I have been trying very hard to convince scientists and humanists alike of, but also of other ways of thinking about the production of scientific knowledge, why we choose to produce scientific knowledge only in particular ways, or inhibit the parameters of acceptability and legibility of scientific theories and facts.

A student astutely pointed out that there is nothing new about scientific communication or even the production of science, which seems to follow the same narrative path for decades on end. Fiction allows one to historicize the moments in science that never went down into the history books of science because they remain ‘crazy’ conjectures and a series of what-ifs – through fiction, one is able to bring all of these speculations to light; speculations that are important in the production of the science which made it as the ‘science’ that remain in the fringe or is largely not visible. What I want is not for the students to become creative writers of fiction, though there is nothing barring them from that, but to understand how fiction can be a way of studying facts directly, and that such a method can be deployed even for the production of non-fictional works to allow critical discussions of the science to happen.

Such an experience, in connecting between my own research and an experimental andragogy (I wonder how such an experiment would work when one teaches an interdisciplinary course of science and the humanities to both middle school and high school students), really got me thinking again about whether fiction, through much modifications at a logical, philosophical, and other methodological levels, could become that medium where we can have not only a rich conversation about science-to-science intra/trans/interdisciplinary relations ie bio-physics or medicine and the environment, but what it means to do science studies within the humanities. It means the reconsideration of a landscape that has dictated how the sciences have been discussed by humanists, and the suspicion in which scientists have often viewed humanistic interpretations of their very epistemically hierarchical fields.


P.S. Some of the more opinionated students in the class did not find the Carl Sagan Cosmos to be very compelling (too ponderous and what they thought were not very compelling use of history), at least the pilot episode, so they do not want to watch more. Be interesting to hear more tomorrow,  at the tail end of the class!

Syllabus for Natural Science Writing Unit (July 14-18, 2014)

July 14, 2014

I was offered to teach one week of a larger writing course mainly addressed at freshmen and incoming freshmen on the topic relating to writing in the natural sciences. So, instead of making it into a comp class, which I have no experience of ever doing or teaching, I decided to make it into a science communication and writing class, where I can draw on my actual experience as a professional writer and scholar. I have them look at everything from academic research articles to curated tweets and blog-posts forms of popular and news writing. Oh, we also listened to some rap music and will watch some awesome videos. Then, they are going to use their writing skills to present, orally, their ideas, and try to sell their science ideas to myself and their classmates. We also did a bit of history of science.
Weekend before class: Watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Episode 1, and the new Cosmos series with Neil Tyson de Grasse in preparation for class discussions on Tuesday and Friday. Prompts to guide viewing will be provided on Sakai by Friday (7/11) at 2 pm.

7/14 Introduction to the session.
Lecture 1: Different Modes of Science Writing: Past and Present.
Group work (getting into groups of 3): Text diagnosis and presentation.
Homework: Read only the abstract (if available) and the introduction of two academic science pieces: one historical and another based on the present-day. Use the same article that I have provided you in class (or, you are welcomed to choose another topic and paper of interest to you. Google scholar or your library’s science databases will guide you. I will provide you a list of databases you can investigate. The topic of the historical and current day articles need not be similar. Then produce a 200-word (250 words max) diagnosis comparing both articles based on the elements discussed in the lecture and from class practice. Print and bring to class. I will post links to sites where you can obtain articles published before the 1950s. Only research articles (no letters, or review essays, or news reviews, even if they might be of an academic nature) such as the ones you have seen in class are acceptable for the purpose of this exercise.

7/15 Class discussion, free-writing, and peer-reviewing.
Homework: Group work (group will be formed before the end of class). Each group will select a theme that their members can agree upon, then each member of each group will find an article that will work in relation to the theme that their respective groups have decided on. Come to class prepared with a summary of the selected article.

7/16 Lecture 2: Science Communication: In and Beyond Academia
Discussion of the Carl Sagan Cosmos episode.
Group work: get into the groups that were formed the day before and discuss selected articles among group members in preparation for group presentation the following day. Guidelines for the presentation will be posted on Sakai the day before.
Homework: Meet with your group members to complete the presentation. Presentation can take any form, but involves communicating and selling your ideas to the instructor and coursemates.

7/17 Class Presentation. A jury of your peers will judge your group. A rubric for evaluation will be provided.
Homework: Complete a draft of a piece of 500-800 words writing (it can be in any of the format we would have discussed in the past few days and during lectures). You can revise from the writing you have already done on Monday, or produce writing based on your group presentation that is independent of the presentation material. Also, watch the Degrasse Tyson Cosmos episodes if you have not done so already in preparation for the next day.

7/18 Work-shopping of the drafts – first 30 minutes.
Final discussion of the Cosmos Episodes – tweetchat or chalkboardchat – the students decide.
Wrapping up class.
Homework: Finalize the drafts and hand them via Sakai’s dropbox before midnight of the same day.

Storified Tweet Chat on My Experience Finishing Up (Formally) that Interdisciplinary Dissertation

June 4, 2014

UPDATE 2: Wow, the veritable slashdot has a reader posting about the MLA. See final sentence “The MLA doesn’t want to reduce enrollments, but they think the grad school programs should be quicker to complete and dissertations should be shorter and less complex.” Knowing what I know today, I probably would not have taken the humanities PhD. I would just take a PhD program that gives me strong training in methodology (in the different forms), project management, as well as to learn something I probably would not have been able to were I just an auto-didact. Then use that to apply to a humanities project if I see fit, while remaining aware of the thinking process, including working on complex projects for the purpose of learning without all that politics. Somehow, I feel that all attempts to deal with the humanities crisis merely makes the humanities even less attractive than what it is, and I can begin to sympathize with views that see the humanities as becoming irrelevant within the US.

UPDATE: For all the difficulties encountered, I am thankful for having been given a two-year no-service-required fellowship. Without that, I would not even have gotten to the point I am in right now such as being able to finish the dissertation. Or, maybe, if that had been the case,  I would  just have been more practical and less ambitious, therefore producing a more definable, smaller, but still good enough (if not great) dissertation, one that follows most naturally from all that I have read for my prelims, with mostly other add ons to improve arguments. But then, I would not have discovered my true love for history of science, a love that eluded me when I first took a class that meshes that with philosophy of science as an undergraduate science major requirement (a love that became evident during my defense).  Or, maybe, if I had tackled the original object of my research choice, I might still have ended up doing some history of science. Who knows. Life, and its unpredictable events, do strange things to your mind, body, and soul. At the end of the day, I find myself coming full circle in a way that is dramatic yet anti-climatic, with the ingredients synthesized to become the me that is now. I never think that grad school can actually be a way to find oneself, especially since it is supposed to be so punishing that your personal identity fades away, leaving only a shell  to be filled with academiaspeak. This is illustrated by how ‘former’ academics keep obsessing about the structures of academia more than a year after leaving academia. Let’s not even begin with the academics within the system.

The defense is done, an experience in itself. A few months later, I will be formally conferred. But that part is not interesting, and not worthy of much discussion.

Rather, it is the process, the stumbling, the small victories, the learning experience, the doing what is right, or not right for you, the fit, the drama…When I have more time, and when more thoughts have sunk through, I will develop a fuller post. As of now, the process of intellectually living and pursuing the life of the mind, whatever that means, has just begun. The apprenticeship has come to an end, but the real challenges just got started.

#Humblebrag: when your recently submitted dissertation made the headline of your university’s news

May 16, 2014



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