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A “Cocktail of Environmental Toxins”

September 28, 2012

(part one, part two, part three)

One point I failed to address in the last post on the art of the picture was that “Hermaphrodite Polar Bear” was first exhibited in a show called “Art and Climate Change” organized by The Cape Farewell initiative. Hume was a participant on an expedition to Svalbard with Cape Farewell, the first one in 2003. While neither the subject nor the title of the piece references scientific studies of polar bears, endocrine disruptors or climate change, people attending the exhibit or researching it online, might fairly come to the conclusion that Hume’s artwork is a statement about the harmful effects of bioaccumulation related to pollution in the Arctic. I am fine with this rather surface understanding of the piece’s placement in art and politics. But I also think it is rather lazy, schematic, and limiting to only think the piece in the context of its first show or focus on how the subject first came to inspire the artist.

If you have thoughts about art’s relation to science, politics and culture—specifically in reference to what I have discussed is preferred—please continue the conversation in the comments. Now I’m going to turn to the other bee in the blogger’s bonnet—“Bad Science” and the “hysteria” around endocrine disruptors, climate change, and self-serving environmentalism.

What is “bad science” and why does a study that asks for human change almost always get labeled as such? Calling something “bad science” has a history, and it’s not exactly a history of doing science badly. It is, rather, a value judgment on the results, what results were obtained and how these findings fit into already received notions about the world or how the world works (or should work). Much of the science noted by Thomas Kuhn in his study on “paradigm shifts” was labeled bad (or even, at times, heretical). Susan Harding, a noted scholar in the field of science studies, plainly states what is at issue in the label of bad science, of science that is seen to be “too political.” Closely following the historian Thomas Haskell, she writes

Haskell is concerned here with something different from the distorting effects of the intrusion of politics into neutral science. Instead, it is the distorting “politics of the obvious” to which he is drawing attention. Sometimes this can be a matter of idiosyncratic individual assumptions; but these are relatively easily identified by peers who check research designs, sources, and observations. More problematic are the spontaneous perceptions and convictions that are shared by a scientific community and, usually, by the dominant groups in the social order of which the scientists are members by birth and/or achievement. It is reflexivity that is the issue here: self-criticism in the sense of criticism of the widely shared values and interests that constitute one’s own institutionally shaped research assumptions.

“Bad science” challenges the knowledge of the status quo; it asks difficult questions about methodology, ideology and who is served by science. Science is never neutral and value-free. And science (and those who involved in its knowledge practice) should be critiqued. But being critical of science is not the same as being anti-science; being critical opens the possibility for the kinds of paradigm shifts Kuhn documents—shifts in understanding that lead to real advancements, not static confirmation of what we want to believe is true.

The author of the blog in question writes:

Last time I checked we were all getting freaked out by endocrine disruptors condensing over the poles then concentrating up the food chain. We can’t decide on exactly which endocrine disrupting chemical pollutant is the big nasty (it depends on what’s trendy in the research community at a given time) and don’t exactly have comparative data going back very far, but no matter!

And she labels this uncertainty “bad science.” Science is driven by uncertainty, questions, trials, exchanges, and years of study. Science often moves slowly, but I would say people changing their habits change more slowly still. It is no longer a debate that chemicals concentrate at the poles. It is no longer a debate that Inuit mothers’ milk has a higher concentration of industrial chemicals and they live in one of the least industrialized areas of the world. Science is driven by what’s trendy; scientists rely on funding as much as any other academic endeavor. For awhile it was so-called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and every proposal had to include a “native” informant. It was soon realized that not all native people wished their life-histories to be reduced to a few data points and it frustrated “bad” scientists to have to attempt to do so. But for the blogger to end the analysis at this point is disingenuous and misleading. While there continues to be debate about polar bear pseudohermaphroditism (what constitutes abnormal sex organs, exact causes or chemical culprits, is it isolated or widespread), do we really have to wait for the exact chemical compound to be isolated for us to change our behaviors and is it really bad science that points out that we could, in fact, stop some chemical pollutants from being released into the atmosphere while we are trying to come up with the exact data point?

Hume’s drawing is also featured in Buckland’s Burning Ice: Art and Climate Change (2006), a book documenting the “hard work and adventures of all those who have been part of the Cape Farewell.” Next to art work and creative pieces by Cape Farewell participants are short written pieces that either give a context to the art (such as scientific studies or other research projects) or are artist statements on what aspect of the Arctic and climate change the artist is responding to or engaging with. Next to Hume’s “Hermaphrodite Polar Bear,” the only pink page (which catches the eye, which makes one pause) in the entire book contains some text that reads, in part:

It has recently been discovered that Arctic polar bears are being poisoned by certain chemical compounds, commonly used in Europe and North America. Significant deposits of these polybrominated diphenyls or PBDEs, used in flame-retardants for household furnishings, have been found in the fatty tissue of polar bears, especially in eastern Greenland and the Svalbard Islands. The team of scientists who are carrying out studies on the effects of PBDEs on polar bears are concerned because in tests these chemical compounds attack the sex and thyroid glands, motor skills and brain function of laboratory animals. Evidence also suggests that compounds similar to PBDEs have contributed to the astonishingly high rate of hermaphroditism in polar bears. Around one in fifty female bears in Svalbard displays both male and female sex organs.

Citing a study from 2005 (“Brominated Flame Retardants in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) from Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, East Greenland, and Svalbard” in Environmental Science and Technology, 40.2 (2006): 449-455), the accompanying text persuasively uses relevant scientific studies to argue that bioaccumulation up the food chain is happening and chemicals that do not arise in the Arctic are being found in the bodies of arctic residents (both human and animal). There is such a thing as bad science, but it is not science that is reflexive about how it constitutes people and animals in the world and the world with people and animals in it.

Further reading:

After the Neutrality Ideal: Science, Politics, and “Strong Objectivity.” SANDRA HARDING; SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Fall 1992)

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