The US Chemical Safety Board

The Federal agency responsible for investigating chemical and petrochemical accidents in the United States is the Chemical Safety Board (link). The mission of the Board is described in these terms:

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the agency’s board members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
The CSB’s mission is to “drive chemical safety change through independent investigation to protect people and the environment.”
The CSB’s vision is “a nation safe from chemical disasters.”
The CSB conducts root cause investigations of chemical accidents at fixed industrial facilities. Root causes are usually deficiencies in safety management systems, but can be any factor that would have prevented the accident if that factor had not occurred. Other accident causes often involve equipment failures, human errors, unforeseen chemical reactions or other hazards. The agency does not issue fines or citations, but does make recommendations to plants, regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), industry organizations, and labor groups. Congress designed the CSB to be non-regulatory and independent of other agencies so that its investigations might, where appropriate, review the effectiveness of regulations and regulatory enforcement.

CSB was legislatively conceived in analogy with the National Transportation Safety Board, and its sole responsibility is to conduct investigations of major chemical accidents in the United States and report its findings to the public. It is not subordinate to OSHA or EPA, but it collaborates with those (and other) Federal agencies as appropriate (link). It has no enforcement powers; its sole function is to investigate, report, and recommend when serious chemical or petrochemical accidents have occurred.

One of its most important investigations concerned the March 23, 2005 Texas City BP refinery explosion. A massive explosion resulted in the deaths of 15 workers, injuries to over 170 workers, and substantial destruction of the refinery infrastructure. CSB conducted an extensive investigation into the “root causes” of the accident, and assigned substantial responsibility to BP’s corporate management of the facility. Here is the final report of that investigation (link), and here is a video prepared by CSB summarizing its main findings (link).

The key findings of the CSB report focus on the responsibility of BP management for the accident. Here is a summary of the CSB assessment of root causes:

The BP Texas City tragedy is an accident with organizational causes embedded in the refinery’s culture. The CSB investigation found that organizational causes linked the numerous safety system failures that extended beyond the ISOM unit. The organizational causes of the March 23, 2005, ISOM explosion are

    • BP Texas City lacked a reporting and learning culture. Reporting bad news was not encouraged, and often Texas City managers did not effectively investigate incidents or take appropriate corrective action.
  • BP Group lacked focus on controlling major hazard risk. BP management paid attention to, measured, and rewarded personal safety rather than process safety.
  • BP Group and Texas City managers provided ineffective leadership and oversight. BP management did not implement adequate safety oversight, provide needed human and economic resources, or consistently model adherence to safety rules and procedures.
  • BP Group and Texas City did not effectively evaluate the safety implications of major organizational, personnel, and policy changes.

Underlying almost all of these failures to manage this complex process with a priority on “process safety” rather than simply personal safety is a corporate mandate for cost reduction:

In late 2004, BP Group refining leadership ordered a 25 percent budget reduction “challenge” for 2005. The Texas City Business Unit Leader asked for more funds based on the conditions of the Texas City plant, but the Group refining managers did not, at first, agree to his request. Initial budget documents for 2005 reflect a proposed 25 percent cutback in capital expenditures, including on compliance, HSE, and capital expenditures needed to maintain safe plant operations.[208] The Texas City Business Unit Leader told the Group refining executives that the 25 percent cut was too deep, and argued for restoration of the HSE and maintenance-related capital to sustain existing assets in the 2005 budget. The Business Unit Leader was able to negotiate a restoration of less than half the 25 percent cut; however, he indicated that the news of the budget cut negatively affected workforce morale and the belief that the BP Group and Texas City managers were sincere about culture change. (176)

And what about corporate accountability? What did BP have to pay in recompense for its faulty management of the Texas City refinery and the subsequent damages to workers and local residents? The answer is, remarkably little. OSHA assessed a fine of $50.6 million for its violations of safety regulations (link, link), and it committed to spend at least $500M to take corrective steps within the plant to protect the safety of workers. This was a record fine at the time; and yet it might very well be seen by BP corporate executives as a modest cost of doing business in this industry. It does not seem to be of the magnitude that would lead to fundamental change of culture, action, and management within the company.

BP commissioned a major review of BP refinery safety in all five of its US-based refineries following release of the CSB report. This study became the Baker Panel REPORT OF THE BP U.S. REFINERIES INDEPENDENT SAFETY REVIEW PANEL (JANUARY 2007) (link). The Baker Panel consisted of fully qualified experts on industrial and technological safety who were in a very good position to assess the safety management and culture of BP in its operations of its five US-based refineries. The Baker Panel was specifically directed to refrain from attempting to analyze responsibility for the Texas City disaster and to focus its efforts on assessing the safety culture and management direction that were currently to be found in BP’s five refineries. Here are some central findings:

  • Based on its review, the Panel believes that BP has not provided effective process safety leadership and has not adequately established process safety as a core value across all its five U.S. refineries.
  • BP has not always ensured that it identified and provided the resources required for strong process safety performance at its U.S. refineries. Despite having numerous staff at different levels of the organization that support process safety, BP does not have a designated, high-ranking leader for process safety dedicated to its refining business.
  • The Panel also found that BP did not effectively incorporate process safety into management decision-making. BP tended to have a short-term focus, and its decentralized management system and entrepreneurial culture have delegated substantial discretion to U.S. refinery plant managers without clearly defining process safety expectations, responsibilities, or accountabilities.
  • BP has not instilled a common, unifying process safety culture among its U.S. refineries.
  • While all of BP’s U.S. refineries have active programs to analyze process hazards, the system as a whole does not ensure adequate identification and rigorous analysis of those hazards.
  • The Panel’s technical consultants and the Panel observed that BP does have internal standards and programs for managing process risks. However, the Panel’s examination found that BP’s corporate safety management system does not ensure timely compliance with internal process safety standards and programs at BP’s five U.S. refineries.
  • The Panel also found that BP’s corporate safety management system does not ensure timely implementation of external good engineering practices that support and could improve process safety performance at BP’s five U.S. refineries. (Summary of findings, xii-xiii)
These findings largely validate and support the critical assessment of BP’s safety management practices in the CSB report.

It seems clear that an important part of the substantial improvement that has occurred in aviation safety in the past fifty years is the effective investigation and reporting provided by the NTSB. NTSB is an authoritative and respected bureau of experts whom the public trusts when it comes to discovering the causes of aviation disasters. The CSB has a much shorter institutional history — it was created in 1990 — but we need to ask a parallel question here as well: Does the CSB provide a strong lever for improving safety practices in the chemical and petrochemical industries through its accident investigations; or are industry actors largely free to continue their poor management practices indefinitely, safe in the realization that large chemical accidents are rare and the costs of occasional liability judgments are manageable?

Testing the NRC

Serious nuclear accidents are rare but potentially devastating to people, land, and agriculture. (It appears that minor to moderate nuclear accidents are not nearly so rare, as James Mahaffey shows in Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima.) Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are disasters that have given the public a better idea of how nuclear power reactors can go wrong, with serious and long-lasting effects. Reactors are also among the most complex industrial systems around, and accidents are common in complex, tightly coupled industrial systems. So how can we have reasonable confidence in the safety of nuclear reactors?

One possible answer is that we cannot have reasonable confidence at all. However, there are hundreds of large nuclear reactors in the world, and 98 active nuclear reactors in the United States alone. So it is critical to have highly effective safety regulation and oversight of the nuclear power industry. In the United States that regulatory authority rests with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. So we need to ask the question: how good is the NRC at regulating, inspecting, and overseeing the safety of nuclear reactors in our country?

One would suppose that there would be excellent and detailed studies within the public administration literature that attempt to answer this question, and we might expect that researchers within the field of science and technology studies might have addressed it as well. However, this seems not to be the case. I have yet to find a full-length study of the NRC as a regulatory agency, and the NRC is mentioned only twice in the 600-plus page Oxford Handbook of Regulation. However, we can get an oblique view of the workings of the NRC through other sources. One set of observers who are in a position to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the NRC are nuclear experts who are independent of the nuclear industry. For example, publications from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists include many detailed reports on the operations and malfunctions of nuclear power plants that permit a degree of assessment of the quality of oversight provided by the NRC (link). And a detailed (and scathing) report by the General Accounting Office on the near-disaster at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant is another expert assessment of NRC functioning (link).

David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, and Susan Stranahan fit the description of highly qualified independent scientists and observers, and their detailed case history of the Fukushima disaster provides a degree of insight into the workings of the NRC as well as the Japanese nuclear safety agency. Their book, Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, is jointly written by the authors under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the best informed networks of nuclear experts we have in the United States. Lochbaum is director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Project and author of Nuclear Waste Disposal Crisis. The book provides a careful and scientific treatment of the unfolding of the Fukushima disaster hour by hour, and highlights the background errors that were made by regulators and owners in the design and operation of the Fukushima plant as well. The book makes numerous comparisons to the current workings of the NRC which permit a degree of assessment of the US regulatory agency.

In brief, Lochbaum and his co-authors appear to have a reasonably high opinion of the technical staff, scientists, and advisors who prepare recommendations for NRC consideration, but a low opinion of the willingness of the five commissioners to adopt costly recommendations that are strongly opposed by the nuclear industry. The authors express frustration that the nuclear safety agencies in both countries appear to have failed to have learned important lessons from the Fukushima disaster:

“The [Japanese] government simply seems in denial about the very real potential for another catastrophic accident…. In the United States, the NRC has also continued operating in denial mode. It turned down a petition requesting that it expand emergency evacuation planning to twenty-five miles from nuclear reactors despite the evidence at Fukushima that dangerous levels of radiation can extend at least that far if a meltdown occurs. It decided to do nothing about the risk of fire at over-stuffed spent fuel pools. And it rejected the main recommendation of its own Near-Term Task Force to revise its regulatory framework. The NRC and the industry instead are relying on the flawed FLEX program as a panacea for any and all safety vulnerabilities that go beyond the “design basis.” (kl 117)

They believe that the NRC is excessively vulnerable to influence by the nuclear power industry and to elected officials who favor economic growth over hypothetical safety concerns, with the result that it tends to err in favor of the economic interests of the industry.

Like many regulatory agencies, the NRC occupies uneasy ground between the need to guard public safety and the pressure from the industry it regulates to get off its back. When push comes to shove in that balancing act, the nuclear industry knows it can count on a sympathetic hearing in Congress; with millions of customers, the nation’s nuclear utilities are an influential lobbying group. (36)

They note that the NRC has consistently declined to undertake more substantial reform of its approach to safety, as recommended by its own panel of experts. The key recommendation of the Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) was that the regulatory framework should be anchored in a more strenuous standard of accident prevention, requiring plant owners to address “beyond-design-basis accidents”. The Fukushima earthquake and tsunami events were “beyond-design-basis”; nonetheless, they occurred, and the NTTF recommended that safety planning should incorporate consideration of these unlikely but possible events.

The task force members believed that once the first proposal was implemented, establishing a well-defined framework for decision making, their other recommendations would fall neatly into place. Absent that implementation, each recommendation would become bogged down as equipment quality specifications, maintenance requirements, and training protocols got hashed out on a case-by-case basis. But when the majority of the commissioners directed the staff in 2011 to postpone addressing the first recommendation and focus on the remaining recommendations, the game was lost even before the opening kickoff. The NTTF’s Recommendation 1 was akin to the severe accident rulemaking effort scuttled nearly three decades earlier, when the NRC considered expanding the scope of its regulations to address beyond-design accidents. Then, as now, the perceived need for regulatory “discipline,” as well as industry opposition to an expansion of the NRC’s enforcement powers, limited the scope of reform. The commission seemed to be ignoring a major lesson of Fukushima Daiichi: namely, that the “fighting the last war” approach taken after Three Mile Island was simply not good enough. (kl 253)

As a result, “regulatory discipline” (essentially the pro-business ideology that holds that regulation should be kept to a minimum) prevailed, and the primary recommendation was tabled. The issue was of great importance, in that it involved setting the standard of risk and accident severity for which the owner needed to plan. By staying with the lower standard, the NRC left the door open to the most severe kinds of accidents.

The NTTF task force also addressed the issue of “delegated regulation” (in which the agency defers to the industry in many issues of certification and risk assessment) (Here is the FAA’s definition of delegated regulation; link.)

The task force also wanted the NRC to reduce its reliance on industry voluntary initiatives, which were largely outside of regulatory control, and instead develop its own “strong program for dealing with the unexpected, including severe accidents.” (252)

Other more detail-oriented recommendations were refused as well — for example, a requirement to install reliable hardened containment vents in boiling water reactors, with a requirement that these vents should incorporate filters to remove radioactive gas before venting. 

But what might seem a simple, logical decision—install a $15 million filter to reduce the chance of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of land contamination as well as harm to the public—got complicated. The nuclear industry launched a campaign to persuade the NRC commissioners that filters weren’t necessary. A key part of the industry’s argument was that plant owners could reduce radioactive releases more effectively by using FLEX equipment…. In March 2013, they voted 3–2 to delay a requirement that filters be installed, and recommended that the staff consider other alternatives to prevent the release of radiation during an accident. (254)

The NRC voted against including the requirement of filters on containment vents, a decision that was based on industry arguments that the cost of the filters was excessive and unnecessary.

The authors argue that the NRC needs to significantly rethink its standards of safety and foreseeable risk.

What is needed is a new, commonsense approach to safety, one that realistically weighs risks and counterbalances them with proven, not theoretical, safety requirements. The NRC must protect against severe accidents, not merely pretend they cannot occur. (257)

Their recommendation is to make use of an existing and rigorous plan for reactor safety incorporating the results of “severe accident mitigation alternatives” (SAMA) analysis already performed — but largely disregarded.

However, they are not optimistic that the NRC will be willing to undertake these substantial changes that would significantly enhance safety and make a Fukushima-scale disaster less likely. Reporting on a post-Fukushima conference sponsored by the NRC, they write:

But by now it was apparent that little sentiment existed within the NRC for major changes, including those urged by the commission’s own Near-Term Task Force to expand the realm of “adequate protection.”

Lochbaum and his co-authors also make an intriguing series of points about the use of modeling and simulation in the effort to evaluate safety in nuclear plants. They agree that simulation methods are an essential part of the toolkit for nuclear engineers seeking to evaluate accident scenarios; but they argue that the simulation tools currently available (or perhaps ever available) fall far short of the precision sometimes attributed to them. So simulation tools sometimes give a false sense of confidence in the existing safety arrangements in a particular setting.

Even so, the computer simulations could not reproduce numerous important aspects of the accidents. And in many cases, different computer codes gave different results. Sometimes the same code gave different results depending on who was using it. The inability of these state-of-the-art modeling codes to explain even some of the basic elements of the accident revealed their inherent weaknesses—and the hazards of putting too much faith in them. (263)

In addition to specific observations about the functioning of the NRC the authors identify chronic failures in the nuclear power system in Japan that should be of concern in the United States as well. Conflict of interest, falsification of records, and punishment of whistleblowers were part of the culture of nuclear power and nuclear regulation in Japan. And these problems can arise in the United States as well. Here are examples of the problems they identify in the Japanese nuclear power system; it is a valuable exercise to attempt to determine whether these issues arise in the US regulatory environment as well.

Non-compliance and falsification of records in Japan

Headlines scattered over the decades built a disturbing picture. Reactor owners falsified reports. Regulators failed to scrutinize safety claims. Nuclear boosters dominated safety panels. Rules were buried for years in endless committee reviews. “Independent” experts were financially beholden to the nuclear industry for jobs or research funding. “Public” meetings were padded with industry shills posing as ordinary citizens. Between 2005 and 2009, as local officials sponsored a series of meetings to gauge constituents’ views on nuclear power development in their communities, NISA encouraged the operators of five nuclear plants to send employees to the sessions, posing as members of the public, to sing the praises of nuclear technology. (46)

The authors do not provide evidence about similar practices in the United States, though the history of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio suggests that similar things happen in the US industry. Charles Perrow treats the Davis-Besse near-disaster in a fair amount of detail; link. Descriptions of the Davis-Besse nuclear incident can be found herehere, here, and here.

Conflict of interest

Shortly after the Fukushima accident, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported that thirteen former officials of government agencies that regulate energy companies were currently working for TEPCO or other power firms. Another practice, known as amaagari, “ascent to heaven,” spins the revolving door in the opposite direction. Here, the nuclear industry sends retired nuclear utility officials to government agencies overseeing the nuclear industry. Again, ferreting out safety problems is not a high priority.

Punishment of whistle-blowers

In 2000, Kei Sugaoka, a nuclear inspector working for GE at Fukushima Daiichi, noticed a crack in a reactor’s steam dryer, which extracts excess moisture to prevent harm to the turbine. TEPCO directed Sugaoka to cover up the evidence. Eventually, Sugaoka notified government regulators of the problem. They ordered TEPCO to handle the matter on its own. Sugaoka was fired. (47)

There is a similar story in the Davis-Besse plant history.

Factors that interfere with effective regulation

In summary: there appear to be several structural factors that make nuclear regulation less effective than it needs to be.

First is the fact of the political power and influence of the nuclear industry itself. This was a major factor in the background of the Chernobyl disaster as well, where generals and party officials pushed incessantly for rapid completion of reactors; Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. Lochbaum and his collaborators demonstrate the power that TEPCO had in shaping the regulations under which it built the Fukushima complex, including the assumptions that were incorporated about earthquake risk and tsunami risk. Charles Perrow demonstrates a comparable ability by the nuclear industry in the United States to influence the rules and procedures that govern their use of nuclear power as well (link). This influence permits the owners of nuclear power plants to influence the content of regulation as well as the systems of inspection and oversight that the agency adopts.

A related factor is the set of influences and lobbying points that come from the needs of the economy and the production pressures of the energy industry. (Interestingly enough, this was also a major influence on Soviet decision-making in choosing the graphite-moderated light water reactor for use at Chernobyl and numerous other plants in the 1960s; Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe.)

Third is the fact emphasized by Charles Perrow that the NRC is primarily governed by Congress, and legislators are themselves vulnerable to the pressures and blandishments of the industry and demands for a low-regulation business environment. This makes it difficult for the NRC to carry out its role as independent guarantor of the health and safety of the public. Here is Perrow’s description of the problem in The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (quoting Lochbaum from a 2004 Union of Concerned Scientists report):

With utilities profits falling when the NRC got tough after the Time story, the industry not only argued that excessive regulation was the problem, it did something about what it perceived as harassment. The industry used the Senate subcommittee that controls the agency’s budget, headed by a pro-nuclear Republican senator from New Mexico, Pete Domenici. Using the committee’s funds, he commissioned a special study by a consulting group that was used by the nuclear industry. It recommended cutting back on the agency’s budget and size. Using the consultant’s report, Domenici “declared that the NRC could get by just fine with a $90 million budget cut, 700 fewer employees, and a greatly reduced inspection effort.” (italics supplied) The beefed-up inspections ended soon after the threat of budget cuts for the agency. (Mangels 2003) And the possibility for public comment was also curtailed, just for good measure. Public participation in safety issues once was responsible for several important changes in NRC regulations, says David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, but in 2004, the NRC, bowed to industry pressure and virtually eliminated public participation. (Lochbaum 2004) As Lochbaum told reporter Mangels, “The NRC is as good a regulator as Congress permits it to be. Right now, Congress doesn’t want a good regulator.”  (The Next Catastrophe, kl 2799)

A fourth important factor is a pervasive complacency within the professional nuclear community about the inherent safety of nuclear power. This is a factor mentioned by Lochbaum:

Although the accident involved a failure of technology, even more worrisome was the role of the worldwide nuclear establishment: the close-knit culture that has championed nuclear energy—politically, economically, socially—while refusing to acknowledge and reduce the risks that accompany its operation. Time and again, warning signs were ignored and near misses with calamity written off. (kl 87)

This is what we might call an ideological or cultural factor, in that it describes a mental framework for thinking about the technology and the public. It is very real factor in decision-making, both within the industry and in the regulatory world. Senior nuclear engineering experts at major research universities seem to share the view that the public “fear” of nuclear power is entirely misplaced, given the safety record of the industry. They believe the technical problems of nuclear power generation have been solved, and that a rational society would embrace nuclear power without anxiety. For rebuttal to this complacency, see Rose and Sweeting’s report in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “How safe is nuclear power? A statistical study suggests less than expected” (link). Here is the abstract to their paper:

After the Fukushima disaster, the authors analyzed all past core-melt accidents and estimated a failure rate of 1 per 3704 reactor years. This rate indicates that more than one such accident could occur somewhere in the world within the next decade. The authors also analyzed the role that learning from past accidents can play over time. This analysis showed few or no learning effects occurring, depending on the database used. Because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has no publicly available list of nuclear accidents, the authors used data compiled by the Guardian newspaper and the energy researcher Benjamin Sovacool. The results suggest that there are likely to be more severe nuclear accidents than have been expected and support Charles Perrow’s “normal accidents” theory that nuclear power reactors cannot be operated without major accidents. However, a more detailed analysis of nuclear accident probabilities needs more transparency from the IAEA. Public support for nuclear power cannot currently be based on full knowledge simply because important information is not available.

Lee Clarke’s book on planning for disaster on the basis of unrealistic models and simulations is relevant here. In Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster Clarke argues that much of the planning currently in place for largescale disasters depends upon models, simulations, and scenario-building tools in which we should have very little confidence.

The complacency about nuclear safety mentioned here makes safety regulation more difficult and, paradoxically, makes the safe use of nuclear power more unlikely. Only when the risks are confronted with complete transparency and honesty will it be possible to design regulatory systems that do an acceptable job of ensuring the safety and health of the public.

In short, Lochbaum and his co-authors seem to provide evidence for the conclusion that the NRC is not in a position to perform its primary function: to establish a rational and scientifically well grounded set of standards for safe reactor design and operation. Further, its ability to enforce through inspection seems impaired as well by the power and influence the nuclear industry can deploy through Congress to resist its regulatory efforts. Good expert knowledge is canvassed through the NRC’s processes; but the policy recommendations that flow from this scientific analysis are all too often short-circuited by the ability of the industry to fend off new regulatory requirements. Lochbaum’s comment quoted by Perrow above seems all too true: “The NRC is as good a regulator as Congress permits it to be. Right now, Congress doesn’t want a good regulator.” 

It is very interesting to read the transcript of a 2014 hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works titled “NRC’S IMPLEMENTATION OF THE FUKUSHIMA NEAR-TERM TASK FORCE RECOMMENDATIONS AND OTHER ACTIONS TO ENHANCE AND MAINTAIN NUCLEAR SAFETY” (link). Senator Barbara Boxer, California Democrat and chair of the committee, opened the meeting with these words:

Although Chairman Macfarlane said, when she announced her resignation, she had assured that ‘‘the agency implemented lessons learned from the tragic accident at Fukushima.’’ She said, ‘‘the American people can be confident that such an accident will never take place here.’’

I say the reality is not a single one of the 12 key safety recommendations made by the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force has been implemented. Some reactor operators are still not in compliance with the safety requirements that were in place before the Fukushima disaster. The NRC has only completed its own action 4 of the 12 task force recommendations.

This is an alarming assessment, and one that is entirely in accord with the observations made by Lochbaum above.

Hegel on labor and freedom

Hegel provided a powerful conception of human beings in the world and a rich conception of freedom. Key to that conception is the idea of self-creation through labor. Hegel had an “aesthetic” conception of labor: human beings confront the raw given of nature and transform it through intelligent effort into things they imagine that will satisfy their needs and desires.

Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel is especially clear on Hegel’s conception of labor and freedom. This is provided in Kojève’s analysis of the Master-Slave section of Hegel’s Phenomenology in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. The key idea is expressed in these terms:

The product of work is the worker’s production. It is the realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it…. Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. (Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel)

It seems to me that this framework of thought provides an interesting basis for a philosophy of technology as well. We might think of technology as collective and distributed labor, the processes through which human beings collectively transform the world around themselves to better satisfy human needs. Through intelligence and initiative human beings and organizations transform the world around them to create new possibilities for human need satisfaction. Labor and technology are emancipating and self-creating. Labor and technology help to embody the conditions of freedom.

However, this assessment is only one side of the issue. Technologies are created for a range of reasons by a heterogeneous collection of actors: generating profits, buttressing power relations, serving corporate and political interests. It is true that new technologies often serve to extend the powers of the human beings who use them, or to satisfy their needs and wants more fully and efficiently. Profit motives and the market help to ensure that this is true to some extent; technologies and products need to be “desired” if they are to be sold and to generate profits for the businesses that produce them. But given the conflicts of interest that exist in human society, technologies also serve to extend the capacity of some individuals and groups to wield power over others.

This means that there is a dark side to labor and technology as well. There is the labor of un-freedom. Not all labor allows the worker to fulfill him- or herself through free exercise of talents. Instead the wage laborer is regulated by the time clock and the logic of cost reduction. This constitutes Marx’s most fundamental critique of capitalism, as a system of alienation and exploitation of the worker as a human being. Here are a few paragraphs on alienated labor from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the sway of his product, capital.

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

So does labor fulfill freedom or create alienation? Likewise, does technology emancipate and fulfill us, or does it enthrall and disempower us? Marx’s answer to the first question is that it does both, depending on the social relations within which it is defined, managed, and controlled.

It would seem that we can answer the second question for ourselves, in much the same terms. Technology both extends freedom and constricts it. It is indeed true that technology can extend human freedom and realize human capacities. The use of technology and science in agriculture means that only a small percentage of people in advanced countries are farmers, and those who are enjoy a high standard of living compared to peasants of the past. Communication and transportation technologies create new possibilities for education, personal development, and self-expression. The enhancements to economic productivity created by technological advances have permitted a huge increase in the wellbeing of ordinary people in the past century — a fact that permits us to pursue the things we care about more freely. But new technologies also can be used to control people, to monitor their thoughts and actions, and to wage war against them. More insidiously, new technologies may “alienate” us in new ways — make us less social, less creative, and less independent of mind and thought.

So it seems clear on its face that technology is both favorable to the expansion of freedom and the exercise of human capacities, and unfavorable. It is the social relations through which technology is exercised and controlled that make the primary difference in which effect is more prominent.

The sociology of scientific discipline formation

There was a time in the philosophy of science when it may have been believed that scientific knowledge develops in a logical, linear way from observation and experiment to finished theory. This was something like the view presupposed by the founding logical positivists like Carnap and Reichenbach. But we now understand that the creation of a field of science is a social process with a great deal of contingency and path-dependence. The institutions through which science proceeds — journals, funding agencies, academic departments, Ph.D. programs — are all influenced by the particular interests and goals of a variety of actors, with the result that a field of science develops (or fails to develop) with a huge amount of contingency. Researchers in the history of science and the sociology of science and technology approach this problem in fairly different ways.

Scott Frickel’s 2004 book Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology represents an effort to trace out the circumstances of the emergence of a new scientific sub-discipline, genetic toxicology. “This book is a historical sociological account of the rise of genetic toxicology and the scientists’ social movement that created it” (kl 37).

Frickel identifies two large families of approaches to the study of scientific disciplines: “institutionalist accounts of discipline and specialty formation” and “cultural studies of ‘disciplinarity’ [that] make few epistemological distinctions between the cognitive core of scientific knowledge and the social structures, practices, and processes that advance and suspend it” (kl 63). He identifies himself primarily with the former approach:

I draw from both modes of analysis, but I am less concerned with what postmodernist science studies call the micropolitics of meaning than I am with the institutional politics of knowledge. This perspective views discipline building as a political process that involves alliance building, role definition, and resource allocation. … My main focus is on the structures and processes of decision making in science that influence who is authorized to make knowledge, what groups are given access to that knowledge, and how and where that knowledge is implemented (or not). (kl 71)

Crucial for Frickel’s study of genetic toxicology is this family of questions: “How is knowledge produced, organized, and made credible ‘in-between’ existing disciplines? What institutional conditions nurture interdisciplinary work? How are porous boundaries controlled? Genetic toxicology’s advocates pondered similar questions. Some complained that disciplinary ethnocentrism prevented many biologists’ appreciation for the broader ecological implications of their own investigations…. ” (kl 99).

The account Frickel provides involves all of the institutional contingency that we might hope for; at the same time, it is an encouraging account for anyone committed to the importance of scientific research in charting a set of solutions to the enormous problems humanity currently faces.

Led by geneticists, these innovations were also intensely interdisciplinary, reflecting the efforts of scientists working in academic, government, and industry settings whose training was rooted in more than thirty disciplines and departments ranging across the biological, agricultural, environmental, and health sciences. Although falling short of some scientists’ personal visions of what this new science could become, their campaign had lasting impacts. Chief among these outcomes have been the emergence of a set of institutions, professional roles, and laboratory practices known collectively as “genetic toxicology.” (kl 37)

Frickel gives prominence to the politics of environmental activism in the emergence and directions of the new discipline of genetic toxicology. Activists on campus and in the broader society gave impetus to the need for new scientific research on the various toxic effects of pesticides and industrial chemicals; but they also affected the formation of the scientists themselves.

Also of interest is an edited volume on interdisciplinary research in the sciences edited by Frickel, Mathieu Albert, and Barbara Prainsack, Investigating Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Theory and Practice across Disciplines. The book takes special notice of some of the failures of interdisciplinarity, and calls for a careful assessment of the successes and failures of interdisciplinary research projects.

 We think that these celebratory accounts give insufficient analytical attention to the insistent and sustained push from administrators, policy makers, and funding agencies to engineer new research collaborations across disciplines. In our view, the stakes of these efforts to seed interdisciplinary research and teaching “from above” are sufficiently high to warrant a rigorous empirical examination of the academic and social value of interdisciplinarity. (kl 187)

In their excellent introduction Frickel, Albert, and Prainsack write:

A major problem that one confronts in assuming the superiority of interdisciplinary research is a basic lack of studies that use comparative designs to establish that measurable differences in fact exist and to demonstrate the value of interdisciplinarity relative to disciplinary research. (kl 303)

They believe that the appreciation of “interdisciplinary research projects” for its own sake depends on several uncertain presuppositions: that interdisciplinary knowledge is better knowledge, that disciplines constrain interdisciplinary knowledge, and that interdisciplinary interactions are unconstrained by hierarchies. They believe that each of these assumptions is dubious.

Both books are highly interesting to anyone concerned with the development and growth of scientific knowledge. Once we abandoned the premises of logical positivism, we needed a more sophisticated understanding of how the domain of scientific research, empirical and theoretical, is constituted in actual social institutional settings. How is it that Western biology did better than Lysenko? How can environmental science re-establish its credentials for credibility with an increasingly skeptical public?  How are we to cope with the proliferation of pseudo-science in crucial areas — health and medicine, climate, the feasibility of human habitation on Mars? Why should we be confident that the institutions of university science, peer review, tier-one journals, and National Academy selection committees succeed in guiding us to better, more veridical understandings of the empirical world around us?

Earlier posts have addressed topics concerning social studies of science; link, link, link.)

Pervasive organizational and regulatory failures

It is intriguing to observe how pervasive organizational and regulatory failures are in our collective lives. Once you are sensitized to these factors, you see them everywhere. A good example is in the business section of today’s print version of the New York Times, August 1, 2019. There are at least five stories in this section that reflect the consequences of organizational and regulatory failure.

The first and most obvious story is one that has received frequent mention in Understanding Society, the Boeing 737 Max disaster. In a story titled “FAA oversight of Boeing scrutinized”, the reporters give information about a Senate hearing on FAA oversight earlier this week.  Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned the process of certification of new aircraft currently in use by the FAA.

Citing the Times story, Ms. Collins raised concerns over “instances in which FAA managers appeared to be more concerned with Boeing’s production timeline, rather than the safety recommendations of its own engineers.”

Senator Jack Reed referred to the need for a culture change to rebalance the relationship between regulator and industry. Agency officials continued to defend the certification process, which delegates 96% of the work of certification to the manufacturer.

This story highlights two common sources of organizational and regulatory failure. There is first the fact of “production pressure” coming from the owner of a risky process, involving timing, supply of product, and profitability. This pressure leads the owner to push the organization hard in an effort to achieve goals — often leading to safety and design failures. The second factor identified here is the structural imbalance that exists between powerful companies running complex and costly processes, and the safety agencies tasked to oversee and regulate their behavior. The regulatory agency, in this case the FAA, is under-resourced and lacks the expert staff needed to carry out in depth a serious process of technical oversight.  The article does not identify the third factor which has been noted in prior posts on the Boeing disaster, the influence which Boeing has on legislators, government officials, and the executive branch.

 A second relevant story (on the same page as the Boeing story) refers to charges filed in Germany against the former CEO of Audi who has been charged concerning his role in the vehicle emissions scandal. This is part of the long-standing deliberate effort by Volkswagen to deceive regulators about the emissions characteristics of their diesel engine and exhaust systems. The charges against the Audi executive involved ordering the development of software designed to cheat diesel emissions testing for their vehicles. This ongoing story is primarily a story about corporate dysfunction, in which corporate leaders were involved in unethical and dishonest activities on behalf of the company. Regulatory failure is not a prominent part of this story, because the efforts at deception were so carefully calculated that it is difficult to see how normal standards of regulatory testing could have defeated them. Here the pressing problem is to understand how professional, experienced executives could have been led to undertake such actions, and how the corporation was vulnerable to this kind of improper behavior at multiple levels within the corporation. Presumably there were staff at multiple levels within these automobile companies who were aware of improper behavior. The story quotes a mid-level staff person who writes in an email that “we won’t make it without a few dirty tricks.” So the difficult question for these corporations is how their internal systems were inadequate to take note of dangerously improper behavior. The costs to Volkswagen and Audi in liability judgments and government penalties are truly vast, and surely outweigh the possible gains of the deception. These costs in the United States alone exceed $22 billion.

A similar story, this time from the tech industry, concerns a settlement of civil claims against Cisco Systems to settle claims “that it sold video surveillance technology that it knew had a significant security flaw to federal, state and local government agencies.” Here again we find a case of corporate dishonesty concerning some of its central products, leading to a public finding of malfeasance. The hard question is, what systems are in place for companies like Cisco that ensure ethical and honest presentation of the characteristics and potential defects of the products that they sell? The imperatives of working always to maximize profits and reduce costs lead to many kinds of dysfunctions within organizations, but this is a well understood hazard. So profit-based companies need to have active and effective programs in place that encourage and enforce honest and safe practices by managers, executives, and frontline workers. Plainly those programs broke down at Cisco, Volkswagen, and Audi. (One of the very useful features of Tom Beauchamp’s book Case Studies in Business, Society, and Ethics is the light Beauchamp sheds through case studies on the genesis of unethical and dishonest behavior within a corporate setting.)

Now we go on to Christopher Flavelle’s story about home-building in flood zones. From a social point of view, it makes no sense to continue to build homes, hotels, and resorts in flood zones. The increasing destruction of violent storms and extreme weather events has been evident at least since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Flavelle writes:

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that rising temperatures will increase the frequency and severity of coastal flooding caused by hurricanes, storm surges, heavy rain and tidal floods. At the same time there is the long-term threat of rising seas pushing the high-tide line inexorably inland.

However, Flavelle reports research by Climate Central that shows that the rate of home-building in flood zones since 2010 exceeds the rate of home-building in non-flood zones in eight states. So what are the institutional and behavioral factors that produce this amazingly perverse outcome? The article refers to incentives of local municipalities in generating property-tax revenues and of potential homeowners subject to urban sprawl and desires for second-home properties on the water. Here is a tragically short-sighted development official in Galveston who finds that “the city has been able to deal with the encroaching water, through the installation of pumps and other infrastructure upgrades”: “You can build around it, at least for the circumstances today. It’s really not affected the vitality of things here on the island at all.” The factor that is not emphasized in this article is the role played by the National Flood Insurance Program in the problem of coastal (and riverine) development. If flood insurance rates were calculated in terms of the true riskiness of the proposed residence, hotel, or resort, then it would no longer be economically attractive to do the development. But, as the article makes clear, local officials do not like that answer because it interferes with “development” and property tax growth. ProPublica has an excellent 2013 story on the perverse incentives created by the National Flood Insurance Program, and its inequitable impact on wealthier home-owners and developers (link). Here is an article by Christine Klein and Sandra Zellmer in the SMU Law Review on the dysfunctions of Federal flood policy (link):

Taken together, the stories reveal important lessons, including the inadequacy of engineered flood control structures such as levees and dams, the perverse incentives created by the national flood insurance program, and the need to reform federal leadership over flood hazard control, particularly as delegated to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Here is a final story from the business section of the New York Times illustrating organizational and regulatory dysfunctions — this time from the interface between the health industry and big tech. The story here is an effort that is being made by DeepMind researchers to use artificial intelligence techniques to provide early diagnosis of otherwise mysterious medical conditions like “acute kidney injury” (AKI). The approach proceeds by analyzing large numbers of patient medical records and attempting to identify precursor conditions that would predict the occurrence of AKI. The primary analytical tool mentioned in the article is the set of algorithms associated with neural networks. In this instance the organizational / regulatory dysfunction is latent rather than explicit and has to do with patient privacy. DeepMind is a business unit within the Google empire of businesses, Alphabet. DeepMind researchers gained access to large volumes of patient data from the UK National Health Service. There is now regulatory concern in the UK and the US concerning the privacy of patients whose data may wind up in the DeepMind analysis and ultimately in Google’s direct control. “Some critics question whether corporate labs like DeepMind are the right organization to handle the development of technology with such broad implications for the public.” Here the issue is a complicated one. It is of course a good thing to be able to diagnose disorders like AKI in time to be able to correct them. But the misuse and careless custody of user data by numerous big tech companies, including especially Facebook, suggests that sensitive personal data like medical files need to be carefully secured by effective legislation and regulation. And so far the regulatory system appears to be inadequate for the protection of individual privacy in a world of massive databases and largescale computing capabilities. The recent FTC $5 billion settlement imposed on Facebook, large as it is, may not suffice to change the business practices of Facebook (link).

(I didn’t find anything in the sports section today that illustrates organizational and regulatory dysfunction, but of course these kinds of failures occur in professional and college sports as well. Think of doping scandals in baseball, cycling, and track and field, sexual abuse scandals in gymnastics and swimming, and efforts by top college football programs to evade NCAA regulations on practice time and academic performance.)

Soviet nuclear disasters: Kyshtym

The 1986 meltdown of reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was the greatest nuclear disaster the world has yet seen. Less well known is the Kyshtym disaster in 1957, which resulted in a massive release of radioactive material in the Eastern Ural region of the Soviet Union. This was a catastrophic underground explosion at a nuclear storage facility near the Mayak power plant in the Eastern Ural region of the USSR. Information about the disaster was tightly restricted by Soviet authorities, with predictably bad consequences.

Zhores Medvedev was one of the first qualified scientists to provide information and hypotheses about the Kyshtym disaster. His book Nuclear Disaster in the Urals was written while he was in exile in Great Britain and appeared in 1980. It is fascinating to learn that his reasoning is based on his study of ecological, biological, and environmental research done by Soviet scientists between 1957 and 1980. Medvedev was able to piece together the extent of contamination and the general nature of the cause of the event from basic information about radioactive contamination in lakes and streams in the region included incidentally in scientific reports from the period.

It is very interesting to find that scientists in the United States were surprisingly skeptical about Medvedev’s assertions. W. Stratton et al published a review analysis in Science in 1979 (link) that found Medvedev’s reasoning unpersuasive.

A steam explosion of one tank is not inconceivable but is most improbable, because the heat generation rate from a given amount of fission products is known precisely and is predictable. Means to dissipate this heat would be a part of the design and could be made highly reliable. (423)

They offer an alternative hypothesis about any possible radioactive contamination in the Kyshtym region — the handful of multimegaton nuclear weapons tests conducted by the USSR in the Novaya Zemlya area.

We suggest that the observed data can be satisfied by postulating localized fallout (perhaps with precipitation) from explosion of a large nuclear weapon, or even from more than one explosion, because we have no limits on the length of time that fallout continued. (425)

And they consider weather patterns during the relevant time period to argue that these tests could have been the source of radiation contamination identified by Medvedev. Novaya Zemlya is over 1000 miles north of Kyshtym (20 degrees of latitude). So the fallout from the nuclear tests may be a possible alternative hypothesis, but it is farfetched. They conclude:

We can only conclude that, though a radiation release incident may well be supported by the available evidence, the magnitude of the incident may have been grossly exaggerated, the source chosen uncritically, and the dispersal mechanism ignored. Even so we find it hard to believe that an area of this magnitude could become contaminated and the event not discussed in detail or by more than one individual for more than 20 years. (425)

The heart of their skepticism depends on an entirely indefensible assumption: that Soviet science, engineering, and management were entirely capable of designing and implementing a safe system for nuclear waste storage. They were perhaps right about the scientific and engineering capabilities of the Soviet system; but the management systems in place were woefully inadequate. Their account rested on an assumption of straightforward application of engineering knowledge to the problem; but they failed to take into account the defects of organization and oversight that were rampant within Soviet industrial systems. And in the end the core of Medvedev’s claims have been validated.

Another official report was compiled by Los Alamos scientists, released in 1982, that concluded unambiguously that Medvedev was mistaken, and that the widespread ecological devastation in the region resulted from small and gradual processes of contamination rather than a massive explosion of waste materials (link). Here is the conclusion put forward by the study’s authors:

What then did happen at Kyshtym? A disastrous nuclear accident that killed hundreds, injured thousands, and contaminated thousands of square miles of land? Or, a series of relatively minor incidents, embellished by rumor, and severely compounded by a history of sloppy practices associated with the complex? The latter seems more highly probable.

So Medvedev is dismissed.

After the collapse of the USSR voluminous records about the Kyshtym disaster became available from secret Soviet files, and those records make it plain that US scientists badly misjudged the nature of the Kyshtym disaster. Medvedev was much closer to the truth than were Stratton and his colleagues or the authors of the Los Alamos report.

A scientific report based on Soviet-era documents that were released after the fall of the Soviet Union appeared in the Journal of Radiological Protection in 2017 (A V Akleyev et al 2017; link). Here is their brief description of the accident:

Starting in the earliest period of Mayak PA activities, large amounts of liquid high-level radioactive waste from the radiochemical facility were placed into long-term controlled storage in metal tanks installed in concrete vaults. Each full tank contained 70–80 tons of radioactive wastes, mainly in the form of nitrate compounds. The tanks were water-cooled and equipped with temperature and liquid-level measurement devices. In September 1957, as a result of a failure of the temperature-control system of tank #14, cooling-water delivery became insufficient and radioactive decay caused an increase in temperature followed by complete evaporation of the water, and the nitrate salt deposits were heated to 330 °C–350 °C. The thermal explosion of tank #14 occurred on 29 September 1957 at 4:20 pm local time. At the time of the explosion the activity of the wastes contained in the tank was about 740 PBq [5, 6]. About 90% of the total activity settled in the immediate vicinity of the explosion site (within distances less than 5 km), primarily in the form of coarse particles. The explosion gave rise to a radioactive plume which dispersed into the atmosphere. About 2 × 106 Ci (74PBq) was dispersed by the wind (north-northeast direction with wind velocity of 5–10 m s−1) and caused the radioactive trace along the path of the plume [5]. Table 1 presents the latest estimates of radionuclide composition of the release used for reconstruction of doses in the EURT area. The mixture corresponded to uranium fission products formed in a nuclear reactor after a decay time of about 1 year, with depletion in 137Cs due to a special treatment of the radioactive waste involving the extraction of 137Cs [6]. (R20-21)

Here is the region of radiation contamination (EURT) that Akleyev et al identify:

This region represents a large area encompassing 23,000 square kilometers (8,880 square miles). Plainly Akleyev et al describe a massive disaster including a very large explosion in an underground nuclear waste storage facility, large-scale dispersal of nuclear materials, and evacuation of population throughout a large region. This is very close to the description provided by Medvedev.

A somewhat surprising finding of the Akleyev study is that the exposed population did not show dramatically worse health outcomes and mortality relative to unexposed populations. For example, “Leukemia mortality rates over a 30-year period after the accident did not differ from those in the group of unexposed people” (R30). Their epidemiological study for cancers overall likewise indicates only a small effect of accidental radiation exposure on cancer incidence:

The attributable risk (AR) of solid cancer incidence in the EURTC, which gives the proportion of excess cancer cases out of the sum of excess and baseline cases, calculated according to the linear model, made up 1.9% over the whole follow-up period. Therefore, only 27 cancer cases out of 1426 could be associated with accidental radiation exposure of the EURT population. AR is highest in the highest dose groups (250–500 mGy and >500 mGy) and exceeds 17%.

So why did the explosion occur? James Mahaffey examines the case in detail in Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima. Here is his account:

In the crash program to produce fissile bomb material, a great deal of plutonium was wasted in the crude separation process. Production officials decided that instead of being dumped irretrievably into the river, the plutonium that had failed to precipitate out, remaining in the extraction solution, should be saved for future processing. A big underground tank farm was built in 1953 to hold processed fission waste. Round steel tanks were installed in banks of 20, sitting on one large concrete slab poured at the bottom of an excavation, 27 feet deep. Each bank was equipped with a heat exchanger, removing the heat buildup from fission-product decay using water pipes wrapped around the tanks. The tanks were then buried under a backfill of dirt. The tanks began immediately to fill with various waste solutions from the extraction plant, with no particular distinction among the vessels. The tanks contained all the undesirable fission products, including cobalt-60, strontium-90, and cesium-137, along with unseparated plutonium and uranium, with both acetate and nitrate solutions pumped into the same volume. One tank could hold probably 100 tons of waste product. 

In 1956, a cooling-water pipe broke leading to one of the tanks. It would be a lot of work to dig up the tank, find the leak, and replace the pipe, so instead of going to all that trouble, the engineers in charge just turned off the water and forgot about it. 

A year passed. Not having any coolant flow and being insulated from the harsh Siberian winter by the fill dirt, the tank retained heat from the fission-product decay. Temperature inside reached 660 ° Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead and cast bullets. Under this condition, the nitrate solutions degraded into ammonium nitrate, or fertilizer, mixed with acetates. The water all boiled away, and what was left was enough solidified ANFO explosive to blow up Sterling Hall several times, being heated to the detonation point and laced with dangerous nuclides. [189] 

Sometime before 11: 00 P.M. on Sunday, September 29, 1957, the bomb went off, throwing a column of black smoke and debris reaching a kilometer into the sky, accented with larger fragments burning orange-red. The 160-ton concrete lid on the tank tumbled upward into the night like a badly thrown discus, and the ground thump was felt many miles away. Residents of Chelyabinsk rushed outside and looked at the lighted display to the northwest, as 20 million curies of radioactive dust spread out over everything sticking above ground. The high-level wind that night was blowing northeast, and a radioactive plume dusted the Earth in a tight line, about 300 kilometers long. This accident had not been a runaway explosion in an overworked Soviet production reactor. It was the world’s first “dirty bomb,” a powerful chemical explosive spreading radioactive nuclides having unusually high body burdens and guaranteed to cause havoc in the biosphere. The accidentally derived explosive in the tank was the equivalent of up to 100 tons of TNT, and there were probably 70 to 80 tons of radioactive waste thrown skyward. (KL 5295)

So what were the primary organizational and social causes of this disaster? One is the haste created in nuclear design and construction created by Stalin’s insistence on moving forward the Soviet nuclear weapons program as rapidly as possible. As is evident in the Chernobyl case as well, the political pressures on engineers and managers that followed from these political priorities often led to disastrous decisions and actions. A second is the institutionalized system of secrecy that surrounded industry generally, the military specifically, and the nuclear industry most especially. A third is the casual attitude taken by Soviet officials towards the health and wellbeing of the population. And a final cause highlighted by Mahaffey’s account is the low level of attention given at the plant level to safety and maintenance of highly risky facilities. Stratton et al based their analysis on the fact that the heat-generating characteristics of nuclear waste were well understood and that effective means existed for controlling those risks. That may be, but what they failed to anticipate is that these risks would be fundamentally disregarded on the ground and in the supervisory system above the Kyshtym reactor complex.

(It is interesting to note that Mahaffey himself underestimates the amount of information that is now available about the effects of the disaster. He writes that “studies of the effects of this disaster are extremely difficult, as records do not exist, and previous residents are hard to track down” (kl 5330). But the Akleyev study mentioned above provides extensive health details about the affected population made possible as a result of data collected during Soviet times and concealed.)


Safety and accident analysis: Longford

Andrew Hopkins has written a number of fascinating case studies of industrial accidents, usually in the field of petrochemicals. These books are crucial reading for anyone interested in arriving at a better understanding of technological safety in the context of complex systems involving high-energy and tightly-coupled processes. Especially interesting is his Lessons from Longford: The ESSO Gas Plant Explosion. The Longford refining plant suffered an explosion and fire in 1998 that killed two workers, badly injured others, and interrupted the supply of natural gas to the state of Victoria for two weeks. Hopkins is a sociologist, but has developed substantial expertise in the technical details of petrochemical refining plants. He served as an expert witness in the Royal Commission hearings that investigated the accident. The accounts he offers of these disasters are genuinely fascinating to read.

Hopkins makes the now-familiar point that companies often seek to lay responsibility for a major industrial accident on operator error or malfeasance. This was Esso’s defense concerning its corporate liability in the Longford disaster. But, as Hopkins points out, the larger causes of failure go far beyond the individual operators whose decisions and actions were proximate to the event. Training, operating plans, hazard analysis, availability of appropriate onsite technical expertise — these are all the responsibility of the owners and managers of the enterprise. And regulation and oversight of safety practices are the responsibility of stage agencies. So it is critical to examine the operations of a complex and dangerous technology system at all these levels.

A crucial part of management’s responsibility is to engage in formal “hazard and operability” (HAZOP) analysis. “A HAZOP involves systematically imagining everything that might go wrong in a processing plant and developing procedures or engineering solutions to avoid these potential problems” (26). This kind of analysis is especially critical in high-risk industries including chemical plants, petrochemical refineries, and nuclear reactors. It emerged during the Longford accident investigation that HAZOP analyses had been conducted for some aspects of risk but not for all — even in areas where the parent company Exxon was itself already fully engaged in analysis of those risky scenarios. The risk of embrittlement of processing equipment when exposed to super-chilled conditions was one that Exxon had already drawn attention to at the corporate level because of prior incidents.

A factor that Hopkins judges to be crucial to the occurrence of the Longford Esso disaster is the decision made by management to remove engineering staff from the plant to a central location where they could serve a larger number of facilities “more efficiently”.

A second relevant change was the relocation to Melbourne in 1992 of all the engineering staff who had previously worked at Longford, leaving the Longford operators without the engineering backup to which they were accustomed. Following their removal from Longford, engineers were expected to monitor the plant from a distance and operators were expected to telephone the engineers when they felt a need to. Perhaps predictably, these arrangements did not work effectively, and I shall argue in the next chapter that the absence of engineering expertise had certain long-term consequences which contributed to the accident. (34)

One result of this decision is the fact that when the Longford incident began there were no engineering experts on site who could correctly identify the risks created by the incident. Technicians therefore restarted the process by reintroducing warm oil into the super-chilled heat exchanger. The metal had become brittle as a result of the extremely low temperatures and cracked, leading to the release of fuel and subsequent explosion and fire. As Hopkins points out, Exxon experts had long been aware of the hazards of embrittlement. However, it appears that the operating procedures developed by Esso at Longford ignored this risk, and operators and supervisors lacked the technical/scientific knowledge to recognize the hazard when it arose.

The topic of “tight coupling” (the tight interconnection across different parts of a complex technological system) comes up frequently in discussions of technology accidents. Hopkins shows that the Longford case gives a new spin to this idea. In the case of the explosion and fire at Longford it turned out to be very important that plant 1 was interconnected by numerous plumbing connections to plants 2 and 3. This meant that fuel from plants 2 and 3 continued to flow into plant 1 and greatly extended the length of time it took to extinguish the fire. Plant 1 had to be fully isolated from plants 2 and 3 before the fire could be extinguished (or plants 2 and 3 could be restarted), and there were enough plumbing connections among them, poorly understood at the time of the fire, that took a great deal of time to disconnect (32).

Hopkins addresses the issue of government regulation of high-risk industries in connection with the Longford disaster. Written in 1999 or so, he recognizes the trend towards “self-regulation” in place of government rules stipulating the operating of various industries. He contrasts this approach with deregulation — the effort to allow the issue of safe operation to be governed by the market rather than by law.

Whereas the old-style legislation required employers to comply with precise, often quite technical rules, the new style imposes an overarching requirement on employers that they provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees, as far as practicable. (92)

He notes that this approach does not necessarily reduce the need for government inspections; but the goal of regulatory inspection will be different. Inspectors will seek to satisfy themselves that the industry has done a responsible job of identify hazards and planning accordingly, rather than looking for violations of specific rules. (This parallels to some extent his discussion of two different philosophies of audit, one of which is much more conducive to increasing the systems-safety of high-risk industries; chapter 7.) But his preferred regulatory approach is what he describes as “safety case regulation”. (Hopkins provides more detail about the workings of a safety case regime in Disastrous Decisions: The Human and Organisational Causes of the Gulf of Mexico Blowout, chapter 10.)

The essence of the new approach is that the operator of a major hazard installation is required to make a case or demonstrate to the relevant authority that safety is being or will be effectively managed at the installation. Whereas under the self-regulatory approach, the facility operator is normally left to its own devices in deciding how to manage safety, under the safety case approach it must lay out its procedures for examination by the regulatory authority. (96)

The preparation of a safety case would presumably include a comprehensive HAZOP analysis, along with procedures for preventing or responding to the occurrence of possible hazards. Hopkins reports that the safety case approach to regulation is being adopted by the EU, Australia, and the UK with respect to a number of high-risk industries. This discussion is highly relevant to the current debate over aircraft manufacturing safety and the role of the FAA in overseeing manufacturers.

It is interesting to realize that Hopkins is implicitly critical of another of my favorite authors on the topic of accidents and technology safety, Charles Perrow. Perrow’s central idea of “normal accidents” brings along with it a certain pessimism about the ability to increase safety in complex industrial and technological systems; accidents are inevitable and normal (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies). Hopkins takes a more pragmatic approach and argues that there are engineering and management methodologies that can significantly reduce the likelihood and harm of accidents like the Esso gas plant explosion. His central point is that we don’t need to be able to anticipate a long chain of unlikely events in order to identify the hazard in which these chains may eventuate — for example, loss of coolant in a nuclear reactor or loss of warm oil in a refinery process. These final events of numerous different possible accident scenarios all require procedures in place that will guide the responses of engineers and technicians when “normal accidents” occur (33).

Hopkins highlights the challenge to safety created by the ongoing modification of a power plant or chemical plant; later modifications may create hazards not anticipated by the rigorous accident analysis performed on the original design.

Processing plants evolve and grow over time. A study of petroleum refineries in the US has shown that “the largest and most complex refineries in the sample are also the oldest … Their complexity emerged as a result of historical accretion. Processes were modified, added, linked, enhanced and replaced over a history that greatly exceeded the memories of those who worked in the refinery. (33)

This is one of the chief reasons why Perrow believes technological accidents are inevitable. However, Hopkins draws a different conclusion:

However, those who are committed to accident prevention draw a different conclusion, namely, that it is important that every time physical changes are made to plant these changes be subjected to a systematic hazard identification process. …  Esso’s own management of change philosophy recognises this. It notes that “changes potentially invalidate prior risk assessments and can create new risks, if not managed diligently.” (33)

(I believe this recommendation conforms to Nancy Leveson’s theories of system safety engineering as well; link.)

Here is the causal diagram that Hopkins offers for the occurrence of the explosion at Longford (122).

The lowest level of the diagram represents the sequence of physical events and operator actions leading to the explosion, fatalities, and loss of gas supply. The next level represents the organizational factors identified in Longford’s analysis of the event and its background. Central among these factors are the decision to withdraw engineers from the plant; a safety philosophy that focused on lost-time injuries rather than system hazards and processes; failures in the incident reporting system; failure to perform a HAZOP for plant 1; poor maintenance practices; inadequate audit practices; inadequate training for operators and supervisors; and a failure to identify the hazard created by interconnections with plants 2 and 3. The next level identifies the causes of the management failures — Esso’s overriding focus on cost-cutting and a failure by Exxon as the parent company to adequately oversee safety planning and share information from accidents at other plants. The final two levels of causation concern governmental and societal factors that contributed to the corporate behavior leading to the accident.

(Here is a list of major industrial disasters; link.)

Thai politics and Thai perspectives

One of the benefits of attending international conferences is meeting interesting scholars from different countries and traditions. I had that pleasure while participating in the Asian Conference on Philosophy of the Social Sciences at Nankai University in June, where I met Chaiyan Rajchagool. Chaiyan is a Thai academic in the social sciences. He earned his undergraduate degree in Thailand and received a PhD in sociology from the University of Manchester (UK). He has served as a senior academic administrator in Thailand and is now an associate professor of political science at the University of Phayao in northern Thailand. He is an experienced observer and analyst of Thai society, and he is one of dozens of Thai academics summoned by the military following the military coup in 2014 (link). I had numerous conversations with Chaiyan in Tianjin, which I enjoyed very much. He was generous to share with me his 1994 book, The rise and fall of the Thai absolute monarchy: Foundations of the modern Thai state from feudalism to peripheral capitalism, and the book is interesting in many different ways. Fundamentally it provides a detailed account of the political and economic transition that Siam / Thailand underwent in the nineteenth century, and it makes innovative use of the best parts of the political sociology of the 1970s and 1980s to account for these processes.

The book places the expansion of European colonialism in Southeast Asia at the center of the story of the emergence of the modern Thai state from mid nineteenth-century to the end of the absolute monarchy in the 1930s. Chaiyan seeks to understand the emergence of the modern Siamese and Thai state as a transition from “feudal” state formation to “peripheral capitalist” state formation. He puts this development from the 1850s to the end of the nineteenth century succinctly in the preface:

In the mid-nineteenth century Siam was a conglomerate of petty states and principalities and did not exist as a single political entity…. Economically Siam was transformed into what may be termed, in accordance with our theoretical framework, peripheral capitalism. Accompanying this development was the transformation of old classes and the rise of new classes…. At the political level a struggle took place within the ruling class in Bangkok, and new institutional structures of power began to emerge. As a result the previously fragmented systems of power and administration were brought under unified centralized command in the form of the absolute monarchy. (xiii-xiv)

This is a subtle, substantive, and rigorous account of the politics and economy of modern Siam / Thailand from the high point of western imperialism and colonialism in Asia to the twentieth century. The narrative is never dogmatic, and it offers an original and compelling account of the processes and causes leading to the formation of the Thai state and the absolutist monarchy. Chaiyan demonstrates a deep knowledge of the economic and political realities that existed on the ground in this region in the nineteenth century, and equally he shows expert knowledge about the institutions and strategies of the colonial powers in the region (Britain, France, Germany). I would compare the book to the theoretical insights about state formation of Michael Mann, Charles Tilly, and Fernand Braudel.

Chaiyan’s account of the development of the Thai state emphasizes the role of economic and political interests, both domestic and international. Fundamentally he argues that British interests in teak (and later tin) prompted a British strategy that would today be called “neo-colonial”: using its influence in the mid-nineteenth-century to create a regime and state that was favorable to its interests, without directly annexing these territories into its colonial empire. But there were internal determinants of political change as well, deriving from the conflicts between powerful families and townships over the control of taxes.

The year 1873-4 marks the beginning of a period in which the royalty attempted to take political control at the expense of the Bunnag nobility and its royal/noble allies. I have already noted that the Finance Office, founded in 1873, was to unify the collection f tax money from the various tax farmers under different ministries into a single office. To attain this goal, political enforcement and systematic administration were required. The Privy Council and the Council of State, established in June and August 1874, were the first high level state organizations. … With the creation of a professional military force of 15,000 troops and 3,000 marines … the decline of the nobility’s power was irreversible, whereas the rise of the monarchy had never before had so promising a prospect. (85, 86)

Part of the development of the monarchy involved a transition from the personal politics of the feudal politics of the earlier period to a more bureaucratic-administrative system of governance:

Of interest in this regard was the fact that the state was moving away from the direct exercise of personal authority by members of the ruling class. this raises questions about the manner of articulation between the crown and the state. If direct personal control of the state characterizes a feudal state, the ruling class control of the state in a peripheral capitalist society takes the form of a more impersonal rule of law and administrative practice through which are mediated the influences of the politico-economic system and class interests. (88)

Chaiyan makes superb use of some of the conceptual tools of materialist social science and non-doctrinaire Marxism, framing his account in terms of the changes that were underway in Southeast Asian with respect to the economic structure of everyday life (property, labor, class) as well as the imperatives of British imperialism. The references include some of the very best sources in social and historical theory and non-doctrinaire Marxism that were available in the 1980s: for example, Ben Anderson, Perry Anderson, Norberto Bobbio, Fernand Braudel, Gene Genovese, Michael Mann, Ralph Miliband, Nicos Poulantzas, James Scott, Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, and Immanuel Wallerstein, to name a few out of the hundreds of authors cited in the bibliography. Chaiyan offers a relevant quotation from Fernand Braudel that I hadn’t seen before but that is more profound than any of Marx’s own pronouncements about “base and superstructure”:

Any highly developed society can be broken down into several “ensembles”: the economy, politics, culture, and the social hierarchy. The economy can only be understood in terms of the other “ensembles”, for it both spreads itself about and opens its own doors to its neighbours. There is action and interaction. That rather special and partial form of the economy that is capitalism can only e fully explained in light of these contiguous “ensembles” and their encroachments; only then will it reveal its true face. 

This, the modern state, which did not create capitalism but only inherited it, sometimes acts in its favor and at other times acts against it; it sometimes allows capitalism to expand and at other times destroys its mainspring. Capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it is the state…. 

So the state was either favorable or hostile to the financial world according to its own equilibrium and its own ability to stand firm.


Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism

, 64-65)

It is interesting to me that Chaiyan’s treatment of the formation of a unified Thai state is attentive to the spatial and geophysical realities that were crucial to the expansion of central state power in the late nineteenth century.

A geophysical map, not a political one, would serve us better, for such a map reveals the mainly geophysical barriers that imposed constraints on the extension of Bangkok power. The natural waterways, mountains, forests and so on all helped determine how effectively Bangkok could claim and exert its power over townships. (2)

In actual fact, owing to geographical barriers and the consequent difficulty of communication, Bangkok exercised direct rule only over an area within a radius of two days travelling (by boat, cart, horse, or on foot). (3) 

Here is a map that shows the geophysical features of the region that eventually became unified Thailand, demonstrating stark delineation between lowlands and highlands:

This is a topic that received much prominence in the more recent writings of James Scott on the politics of southeast Asia, and his concept of “Zomia” as a way of singling out the particular challenges of exercising central state power in the highlands of southeast Asia (link, link). Here is a map created by Martin Lewis (link) intended to indicate the scope of the highland population (Zomia). The map is discussed in an earlier post.

And here is a map of the distribution of ethnic and language groups in Thailand (link), another important element in Chaiyan’s account of the consolidation of the Thai monarchy:

It is an interesting commentary on the privilege, priorities, and limitations of the global academic world that Chaiyan’s very interesting book has almost no visibility in western scholarship. In its own way it is the equal of some of Charles Tilly’s writings about the origins of the French state; and yet Tilly is on all reading lists on comparative politics and Chaiyan is not. The book is not cited in one of the main English language sources on the history of Thailand, A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, published by Cambridge University Press, even though that book covers exactly the same period in chapter 3. Online academic citation databases permitted me to find only one academic article that provided substantive discussion or use of the book (“Autonomy and subordination in Thai history: the case for semicolonial analysis”, Inter‐Asia Cultural Studies, 2007 8:3, 329-348; link). The author of this article, Peter Jackson, is an emeritus professor of Thai history and culture at the Australian National University. The book itself is on the shelves at the University of Michigan library, and I would expect it is available in many research libraries in the United States as well.

So the very interesting theoretical and historical treatment that Chaiyan provides of state formation in Thailand seems not to have received much notice in western academic circles. Why is this? It is hard to avoid the inference that academic prestige and impact follow nations, languages, universities, and publishing houses. A history of a small developing nation, authored by a Thai intellectual at a small university, published by a somewhat obscure Thai publishing company, is not destined to make a large splash in elite European and North American academic worlds. But this is to the great disadvantage to precisely those worlds of thought and knowledge: if we are unlikely to be exposed to the writings of insightful scholars like Chaiyan Rajchagool, we are unlikely as well to understand the large historical changes our world has undergone over the past two centuries.

Amazon comes in for a lot of criticism these days; but one thing it has contributed in a very positive way is the easy availability of books like this one for readers who would otherwise never be exposed to it. How many other intellectuals with the insights of a Tilly or a Braudel are there in India, Côte d’Ivoire, Thailand, Bolivia, or Barbados whom we will never interact with in a serious way because of the status barriers that exist in the academic world?

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(It is fascinating to me that one of the influences on Chaiyan at the University of Manchester was Teodor Shanin. Shanin is a scholar whom I came to admire greatly at roughly the same time when I was engaged in research in peasant studies in connection with Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science.)

How things seem and why

The idea that there is a stark separation between many of our ideas of the social world, on the one hand, and the realities of the social world in which we live is an old one. We think “fairness and equality”, but what we get is exploitation, domination, and opportunity-capture. And there is a reasonable suspicion that this gap is in some sense intentional: interested parties have deceived us. In some sense it was the lesson of Plato’s allegory of the cave; it is the view that Marx expresses in his ideas of ideology and false consciousness; Gramsci’s theory of hegemony expresses the view; Nietzsche seems to have this separation in mind in much of his writing; and the Frankfurt School made much of it as well. The antidote to these forms of illusion, according to many of these theorists, is critique: careful, penetrating analysis and criticism of the presuppositions and claims of the ideological theory. (Here are several efforts within Understanding Society to engage in this kind of work; link, link, link.)

Peter Baehr’s recent book The Unmasking Style in Social Theory takes on this intellectual attitude of “unmasking” with a critical and generally skeptical eye. Baehr is an expert on the history of sociological theory who has written extensively on Hannah Arendt, Max Weber, and other fundamental contributors to contemporary social theory, and the book shows a deep knowledge of the history and intellectual traditions of social thought.

 The book picks out one particular aspect of the sociological tradition, the “style” of unmasking that he finds to be common in that history (and current practice). So what does Baehr mean by a style?

A style, in the sense used here, is a distinctive way of talking and writing. It is epitomized by characteristic words, images, metaphors, concepts and, especially, techniques. I refer to these collectively as elements or ingredients. (2)

The elements of the unmasking style that he identifies include rhetorical tools including weaponization, reduction and positioning, inversion, deflation, hyperbole and excess, and exclusive claims of emancipation (chapter 1).

The idea of an intellectual style is innocuous enough — we can recognize the styles of analytic philosophy, contemporary literary criticism, and right-wing political commentary when we read or hear them. But there is a hidden question here: is there more than style to these traditions of thought? Are there methods of inquiry and reasoning, traditions of assessment of belief, and habits of scholarly interaction that underlie these various traditions? In much of Baehr’s book he ignores these questions when it comes to the content of Marxist analysis, feminist theory, or the sociology of race in America. The impression he gives is that it is all style and rhetoric, with no rigorous research and analysis to support the claims.

In fact the overarching impression given by the book is that Baehr believes that much “unmasking” is itself biased, unfair, and dogmatic. He writes:

Unmasking aspires to create this roused awareness. The kind of analysis it requires is never conveyed to the reader as an interpretation of events, hypothetical and contestable. Nor does it allow scientific refutation or principled disagreement. True as fiat, unmasking statements brook no contradiction. (3)

Such an approach to theory and politics is problematic for several reasons. Its authoritarianism is obvious. So is its exclusivity: I am right, you can shut up. Yet ongoing discord, unlike slapdash accusation, is a good thing. (131)

Part of Baehr’s suspicion of the “style” of unmasking seems to derive from an allergy to the language of post-modernism in the humanities and some areas of social theory:

To be sure, unmask is a common term in social theory and political and cultural criticism. Find it consorting with illusion, disguise, fiction, hieroglyph, critique, mystification, fantasy, reversal, hegemony, myth, real interest, objective interest, semantic violence, symbolic violence, alienation, domination, revolution and emancipation. The denser this cluster, the more unmasking obtrudes from it. (5)

And he also associates the unmasking “style” with a culture of political correctness and a demand for compliance with a “progressive” agenda of political culture:

Rarely a day passes on Twitter without someone, somewhere, being upbraided for wickedness. When even a gesture or an intonation is potentially offensive to an aggrieved constituency on high alert, the opportunities for unmasking are endless. Some targets of censure are cowed. They apologize for an offense they were not conscious of committing. Publicly chastened, they resolve to be better behaved henceforth. (7)

A third salient difference between unmasking in popular culture and in academic social theory is that in the academy unmasking is considered progressive. Detecting concealed racism, white privilege, patriarchy, trans-gender phobia and colonial exploitation is the stock in trade of several disciplines, sub-disciplines and pseudo-disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. The common thread is the ubiquity of domination. (8)

Marxism lives on in sociology, in the humanities and social sciences, and in pockets of the wider culture. And wherever one finds Marxism, typically combined today to race and gender politics, and to postcolonial critique, one finds aspects of the unmasking template. (91)

These are currents of thought — memes, theoretical frameworks, apperceptions of the true nature of contemporary society — with which Baehr appears to have little patience.

But here are a few considerations in favor of unmasking in the world of politics, economics, and culture in which we now live.

First, Baehr’s aversion to active efforts to reveal the pernicious assumptions and motives of specific voices in social media is misplaced. When the language of hate, white supremacy, denigration of Muslims, gays, and audacious women, and memes that seem to derive directly from the fascist and neo-Nazi toolbox, is it not entirely appropriate to call those voices to task? Is it not important, even vital, to unmask the voices of hate that challenge the basis of a liberal and inclusive democracy (link)? Is it the unmaskers or the trolls conveying aggressive hate and division who most warrant our disapproval?

And likewise in the area of the thought-frameworks surrounding the facts of modern market society. In some sense the claim that class interest (corporate interest, business interest, elite interest) strives hard to create public understandings of the world that are at odds with the real power relations that govern us is too obviously true to debate. This is the purpose of much corporate public relations and advertising, self-serving think-tanking, and other concrete mechanisms of shifting the terms of public understanding in a direction more favorable to the interests of the powerful. (Here is an article in the New York Times describing research documenting sustained efforts by ExxonMobil to cast doubt in  public opinion about the reality of global warming and climate change; link.) And there is no barrier to conducting careful, rigorous, and intellectually responsible “decoding” of these corporate efforts at composing a fantasy; this is precisely what Conway and Oreskes do with such force in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming in the case of corporate efforts to distort scientific reality concerning their products and their effects (link).

Baehr’s statements about the unavoidable dogmatism of “unmasking” analysis and criticism are also surprisingly categorical. “The kind of analysis it requires is never conveyed to the reader as an interpretation of events, hypothetical and contestable.” Really? Are there no honest scholars in the field of critical race theory, or in feminist epistemology and philosophy of science, or in the sociology of science and technology? What is this statement other than precisely the kind of wholesale rejection of the intellectual honesty of one’s opponents that otherwise seems to animate Baehr’s critique?

The Unmasking Style is a bit of a paradox, in my view. It denounces the “style” of unmasking, and yet it reads as its own kind of wholesale discrediting of an intellectual orientation for which Baehr plainly has no patience. This is the orientation that takes seriously the facts of power, privilege, wealth, and racial and gender domination that continue to constitute the skeleton of our world. It is fine, of course, to disagree with this fundamental diagnosis of the dynamics of power, domination, and exploitation in the current world. But Baehr’s book has many of the features of tone and rhetoric that the author vigorously criticizes in others. It is perplexing to find that this book offers so little of what the author seems to be calling for — an intellectually open effort to discern the legitimate foundations of one’s opponent’s positions. For my view, readers of The Unmasking Style would be well advised to read as well one or two books by scholars like Frédéric Vandenberghe, including A Philosophical History of German Sociology, to gain a more sympathetic view of critical sociological theory and its efforts to discern the underlying power relations of the modern world (link).

In general, I find that there is much more intellectual substance to efforts to uncover the interest-bias of various depictions of the capitalist world than Baehr is willing to recognize. How do energy companies shape the debate over climate change? How did Cold War ideologies influence the development of the social sciences in the 1950s? How has pro-business, anti-regulation propaganda made the roll-back of protections of the health and safety of the public possible? What is the meaning of the current administration’s persistent language about “dangerous immigrants” in terms of racial prejudice? These are questions that invoke some kind of “demystifying” analysis that would seem to fall in the category of what Baehr classifies as “unmasking”; and yet it is urgent that we undertake those inquiries.

A companion essay by Baehr, “The image of the veil in social theory”, appears in Theory and Society this month (link), and takes a nuanced approach to the question of “mask” and “veil”. The essay has little of the marks of polemical excess that seem to permeate the book itself. Here is the abstract to the essay:

Social theory draws energy not just from the concepts it articulates but also from the images it invokes. This article explores the image of the veil in social theory. Unlike the mask, which suggests a binary account of human conduct (what is covered can be uncovered), the veil summons a wide range of human experiences. Of special importance is the veil’s association with religion. In radical social thought, some writers ironize this association by “unveiling” religion as fraudulent (a move indistinguishable from unmasking it.) Baron d’Holbach and Marx offer classic examples of this stratagem. But other writers, notably Du Bois and Fanon, take a more nuanced and more theoretically productive approach to both religion and the veil. Refusing to debunk religion, these authors treat the veil—symbol and material culture—as a resource to theorize about social conflict. Proceeding in three stages, I, first, contrast the meanings of mask and unmasking with more supple veil imagery; second, identify anti-religious unveiling that is tantamount to unmasking; and, third, examine social theories of the veil that clarify the stakes of social adversity and political struggle. Du Bois’s and Fanon’s contributions to veil imagery receive special attention.

The Unmasking Style is erudite and interesting, and plainly designed to provoke debate. I only wish that it gave more consideration to the very real need we have to confront the lies and misrepresentations that currently pervade our contemporary world.

ABM fundamentalism


I’ve just had the singular opportunity of participating in the habilitation examination of Gianluca Manzo at the Sorbonne, based on his excellent manuscript on the relevance of agent-based models for justifying causal claims in the social sciences. Manzo is currently a research fellow in sociology at CNRS in Paris (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), and is a prolific contributor to analytical sociology and computational social science. The habilitation essay is an excellent piece of work and I trust it will be published as an influential monograph. Manzo has the distinction of being expert both on the philosophical and theoretical debates that are underway about social causation and an active researcher in the field of ABM simulations. Pierre Demeulenaere served as a generous and sympathetic mentor. The committee consisted of Anouk Barberousse, Ivan Ermakoff, Andreas Flache, Olivier Godechot, and myself, and reviewer comments and observations were of the highest quality and rigor. It was a highly stimulating session.

One element of our conversation was especially enlightening to me. I have written a number of times in Understanding Society and elsewhere about the utility of ABM models, and one line of thought I have developed is a critique of what I have labeled “ABM fundamentalism” — the view that ABM models are the best possible technique for constructing social explanations for every possible subject in the social sciences (link). This view is expressed in Joshua Epstein’s slogan, “If you didn’t grow it, you didn’t explain it.” I maintain that ABM is a useful technique, but only one of many methods appropriate to the problem of constructing explanations of interesting sociological outcomes (link). So I advocate for theoretical and methodological pluralism when it comes to the ABM program.

I asked Gianluca whether he would agree that ABM fundamentalism is incorrect, and was surprised to find that he defends the universal applicability of ABM as a tool to implement any sociological theory. According to him, it is a perfectly general and universal modeling platform that can in principle be applied to any sociological problem. He also made it clear that he does not maintain that the use of ABM methods is optimal for every sociological problem of explanation. His defense of the universal applicability of ABM simulation techniques therefore does not imply that Manzo privileges these techniques as best for every sociological problem. But as a formal matter, he holds that ABM technology possesses the resources necessary to represent any fully specified social theory within a simulation.

The subsequent conversation succeeded in clarifying the underlying source of disagreement for me. What I realized in the discussion that ensued is that I was conflating two things in my label of ABM fundamentalism: the simulation technology and the substantive doctrine of generative social science. Epstein is a generativist, in the sense that he believes that social outcomes need in principle to be generated from a representation of facts about the individuals who make it up (Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling). Epstein is also an advocate of ABM techniques because they represent a particularly direct way of implementing a generativist explanation. But what Gianluca showed me is that ABM is not formally committed to the generativist dogma, and that an ABM simulation can perhaps incorporate factors at any social level. The insight that I gained, then, is that I should separate the substantive view of generativism from the formal mathematical tools of ABM simulations techniques.

I am still unclear how this would work — that is, how an ABM simulation might be created that did an adequate job of representing features at a wide range of levels — actors, organizations, states, structures, and ideologies. For example, how could an ABM simulation be designed that could capture a complex sociological analysis such as Tilly’s treatment of the Vendée, with peasants, protests, and merchants, the church, winegrowers’ associations, and the strategies of the state? Tilly’s historical narrative seems inherently multi-stranded and irreducible to a simulation. Similar points could be made about Michael Mann’s comparative historical account of fascisms or Theda Skocpol’s analysis of social revolutions.

So there is still an open question for me in this topic. But I think I am persuaded that the fundamentalism to which I object is the substantive premise of generativism, not the formal computational methods of ABM simulations themselves. And if Gianluca is correct in saying that ABM is a universal simulation platform (as a Turing machine is a universal computational device) then the objection is misplaced.

So this habilitation examination in Paris had exactly the effect for me that we would hope for in an academic interaction — it led me to look at an important issue in a somewhat different way. Thank you, Gianluca!

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