What Can We Do with Uncertainty?

I always seem to be having lunch with neuroscientists. I’m not entirely sure why – maybe it’s simply because it fits into our shared professional, adult schedules that make a noontime meeting particularly convenient. And this time Dr. Gibson and I are talking about his lab’s most recent experiments, attempts to measure the emotional experiences individuals have as they are exposed to a variety of stimuli. As he explains to me, the individual test subject sits in what looks a bit like a sound recording booth – small, soundproof, painted black, with a one-way mirror so that the subject can be observed without feeling explicitly watched. The subject is hooked up to a variety of equipment to record their physiological responses – blood pressure, heart rate, brain waves, etc. It seems simple enough. The goal is to get a sense of what affective states – happiness, sadness, and boredom, especially – look like neurophysiologically. Or, rather, numerically, since the observation of the individual test subject’s emotional response is left to the machines, not the graduate students and postdoctoral researchers overseeing the experiment. Gibson tells me, plainly, “I know this isn’t really telling me what I need to know. You can’t really remove a person from their social environment and measure these things meaningfully. But this is the way that science is done, and this is what we have funding for.” We talk for a while – what would a neuroscience that makes the world its laboratory look like? What kinds of interdisciplinary explorations might be possible if the National Institutes of Health took an interest in really experimental research? – but we have no answers to these questions. What we do have, what we share, is a sense that neuroscience is not really living up to its potential; it could be doing so much more, and yet, the political economy of scientific knowledge production in the U.S. has led to a neuroscience that is sadly reductionist, in search of simple answers to complex, deeply human problems. Certainty seems to be what everyone is after, at least those people who dole out scientific funding, but certainty is hard to come by, especially in the lonely laboratory.

Des Fitzgerald points our attention to the “uncertainty” of participants in contemporary neuroscience – Ph.D. students, postdoctoral researchers, research and teaching faculty, all in the U.K., all unsure that neuroscience as it is developing at the turn of the 21st century is able to capture the diverse phenomena that comprise autism. Nor are they sure what autism even is; is it merely a convenient diagnostic category to motivate clinical action and laboratory research, or some deeper, biological thing as yet undiscovered in its entirety? But they seem sure that it is some combination of the two, something informed by social necessity and convenience and based in human physiology. I have been thinking about something similar for a while, which I referred to as “doubt” (see Chapter 3 in Wolf-Meyer 2012), generally in clinical practice, and which found its roots in Murray Last’s discussion of the “importance of knowing about not knowing” (Last 1992). There is something generative about doubt; doubt and uncertainty keep the wheels of science and medicine spinning, yet they also make everyone at least a little anxious about what they’re doing. So, there is something dialectical here: physicians, scientists, patients, their families, funding agencies, everyone, really, living between the drive toward certainty, hoping for some kinds of liberation – maybe a cure – in knowing. Yet, they all live in a landscape of ongoing uncertainty, doubt about whether this diagnostic category – “autism,” at least, but so many more as well – captures what it is intended to capture, wondering if it is sufficient to motivate sensible inquiry. A little uncertainty, a little doubt, is sufficient; too much and the whole project starts to come into question. If you can accept the neuroscientific pursuit of autism’s etiology at face value, you should be fine, but if you squint too hard – if you think too critically – things start to fray, and something unsettling starts to happen.

I couldn’t help but think of Jacques Derrida’s discussions of the “trace” (Derrida 1980, 1998) throughout Tracing Autism, but I doubt that the neuroscientist that inspires Fitzgerald to use the phrase in the title and throughout the book was haunted by the same discussion of semiotics. Derrida’s “trace” is the underside of every symbol, those spectral inferences and suppressions that lie beneath or beyond the language used in a text or in speech; language is full of traces that point to other possibilities, to other histories, other audiences. Fitzgerald explains his use of “tracing” as “the act of pursuing, enacting, and enabling a firm neuroscience of autism precisely through forms of difference, ambiguity, and entanglement…It describes a conviction that you don’t have to carefully pull things apart if you want to establish some kind of scientific singularity or separateness” (29). He goes on to explain that tracing “…describes the difficult connecting, marking, and diagramming work of the neuroscientists” that he works with, “cling[ing] onto an idea of something being traced all the same” (75). Moreover, tracing as Fitzgerald sees it, is a process (167), it is something that is constantly being elaborated from something and moving towards being articulated in something else; moving between material “facts” – however contingent they may be – and towards some social need. Or, finding motivation in socially-motivated curiosities and desires, researchers place their focus on finding some scientific support for understanding autism as a biological thing. Tracing moves back and forth for Fitzgerald and his neuroscientists, not unlike traces work for Derrida, unsettling reading practices that move back and forth between the text and the world.

Maybe it’s my 21st century use of the Retrospectivator, but deconstruction as a practice was too roundly dismissed as needlessly critical, as too nihilistic in its approach to the absence of meaning in texts. What deconstruction always seemed to me to be arguing for was the contingent meaning of texts, how, despite all of the tensions between signs and their traces, texts are still readable, they still conjure some – at least temporary – meaning for audiences. It seems to me that such is the case with the contemporary neurosciences too – and, likely, all scientific practice, laboratory-based or not. Science is able to proceed, despite all of its uncertainties and doubts, precisely in the face of those uncertainties and doubts. Dr. Gibson, my neuroscience interlocutor, can tell me about his doubts about laboratory practice, his surety that how he is designing an experiment is insufficient, because those doubts are integral to his experience of the science that he does – and because I’m not a representative of any agency he is seeking funds from.

The relationship that I have with Dr. Gibson, akin to the interview relationships that Fitzgerald develops with his subjects in Tracing Autism, is indebted to the confessional relationship that Michel Foucault identified as operating in psychoanalysis and which lays the basis for talk therapy of all sorts (Foucault 1990); although I might out Gibson for his doubts, this is a risk that is ameliorated by anonymity. More importantly, I’m a sympathetic listener, not unlike Fitzgerald. Confessing one’s doubts to a non-expert, to someone not even in one’s field, lacks any real risks, and might have the benefit of unburdening with a like-minded peer who already is seen as a representative of a critical cognate field – but one that lacks any real power to change how neuroscience is funded or done. Consider what George Marcus and Doug Holmes have talked about as “para-ethnography” in this context (Holmes and Marcus 2005); “para-ethnography” depends upon a reciprocal relationship between ethnographers and their interlocutors, experts in their own rights, with each finding in the other a resource for thinking through their practices and reconceptualizing what each is invested in knowing about the world. In the para-ethnographic relationship, like the psychoanalytic relationship, changes are possible in both participants, their practices, and the worlds they represent. Gibson opens up to me like Fitzgerald’s interlocutors open up to him because it is relatively safe – there’s no potential loss of funding, no knee-jerk critique that is existentially debilitating – and because, together, there might be a way forward, a way to rethink what the neurosciences are doing as much as we might rethink what the social studies of science, technology, and medicine are doing and can do.

Fitzgerald’s impulse in Tracing Autism is to find a “reparative” engagement between science studies and the neurosciences (168-169); can we treat the neurosciences kindly, sincerely, as equal in their critical capacity, and together think about ways forward? I share that impulse; I too am a child of critique, long seeking some kind of rapprochement between what happens in the laboratory, the clinic, and society at large. It is in that spirit that I coined “multibiologism” as a way to think about the emergent, necessary politics of non-pathologization (see the Conclusion in Wolf-Meyer 2012); it’s in that spirit that in a new book about neurological disorders that I make the suggestion that we “rewild” the neurosciences. Rewild is a term that environmental activists – and more recently life style pioneers – have used to think about restoring landscapes (and bodies) to some kind of pre-developed state. Yes, there might be some nature/culture problems to critique there, but what is enticing to me about rewilding the neurosciences is that – as Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached have argued (2013) – up until very recently, the neurosciences were not a unitary neuroscience, but a set of diverse practices in search of an epistemic object. That object – the brain – has solidified to the detriment of the neurosciences, but to the benefit of neuroscience in the singular. Neuroscience is not so far from its more wild past; rewilding it, because of all of the traces embedded in what neuroscience is and does, should be recoverable. What we as STS scholars might take seriously in our para-ethnographic relationships with the scientists that we work with, in the neurosciences and beyond, is helping to rewild their practice, to help move them back to a more capacious, less certain way of working.

The paradox of rewilding is that it depends upon stewardship. Those near-extinct plant and animal species aren’t going to resettle themselves in their pre-development territories, after all; they depend on humans to assist them in breeding, in survival in environments that they have been driven from. Likewise, neuroscientists might need some stewardship in rewilding themselves; they know that something has gone wrong, that something is wrong, but due to the exigencies of education, training, funding, and professionalization, they may be unable to think outside of the worlds that they have built for themselves. Fitzgerald is interested in the kinds of collaborations that might develop out of interactions between STS scholars and the scientists they study, but our tools may be too rarified to help our interlocutors; instead, we might think about how we can help them to rewild their discipline and their practices. What can we give to them that they have lost, what can our methods and theories help us to recover that will enable those we are engaged with to conceptualize their practice, their science, to think less about there being some resolute material fact in need of discovery and focus instead on the processural shared inventions that move us beyond the brain as a discrete material object and towards the neuroscientific as a supple, humane science?


Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques.  1998.  Of Grammatology.   Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rose, Nikolas and Joelle Abi-Rached.  2013. Neuro: The New Brain Science and the Management of the Mind.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wolf-Meyer, Matthew J. 2012. The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University. At the center of Wolf-Meyer’s research projects and teaching are concerns with conceptions of health and disorder, the interactions between bodies and environmental and social forces, and the frictions caused through the mismatches of individual behaviors and society at large. He is currently finishing a book, Unraveling: Neuroscience, Disability, Personhood, which focuses on changing conceptions of neurological injuries and disorders, and their relationships with everyday technologies and institutions in the U.S., all in the shadow of the changing dynamics of the psy-disciplines  and neurosciences in the 20th century. 

One reply on “What Can We Do with Uncertainty?”

Comments are closed.