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Abstracts for Twentieth Century Think Tank

The Twentieth Century Think Tank offers broad coverage of 20th- and 21st-century topics in the history, philosophy and sociology of science, technology and medicine. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place on Thursdays over lunch.

Think Tank meetings are held fortnightly on Thursdays, 1–2pm in Seminar Room 2. All welcome!

Organised by Mary Brazelton, Joseph Martin and Richard Staley.

Easter Term 2018

Show overview

3 May Siva Arumugam (Cambridge)
Number, probability and community: the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern data model, Monte Carlo simulations and counterfactual futures in cricket
The Duckworth-Lewis-Stern model of cricket, used to set targets in weather-shortened matches, is framed around two distinct concerns — fairness and prediction. These two concerns are somewhat at odds with one another. I will argue that the fact that this is a data model raises issues surrounding number, probability and community. The relationship between this model, subsequent Monte Carlo models, and cricket is worth examining because it both stands in for and performs a way in which 'data governmentality' might be constructed for society at large. Data models are being used to, for example, determine job applications, college entry, insurance rates, access to credit, voter persuasion, and to monitor health. In this paper, I argue that Monte Carlo models work on and through us by forming new kinds of rule-driven, probabilistic communities oriented towards counterfactual futures.
17 May Renny Thomas (University of Delhi)
Science, scientific method and rationality: Nehru's engagement with Ayurveda
This paper, through detailed archival work looks at Nehru's engagement with Indian knowledge systems. It looks at various ways in which Nehru tried imposing the identity of tradition/religion/superstition to knowledge systems such as Ayurveda. He makes a clear distinction between tradition and modernity, wherein western medicine is seen as modern, and Indian as traditional.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, was a spokesperson of modern science and technology and saw elements of emancipation in it. For him, scientific method through laboratory work was the only way to 'validate' any systems of knowledge. The massive institutionalization of modern science and technology invited anger from some politicians and leaders as these projects had totally ignored Indian systems of medicine like Ayurveda and Unani. To become 'modern' the existing knowledge systems were asked to prove their scientificity. There were politicians who thought Nehru lacked an understanding of the 'Indian knowledge system'. Nehru responded to the advocates of Indian systems of knowledge by saying that the Government will not support non-scientific, religious and superstitious beliefs and practices. Indian systems such as Ayurveda was perceived as religious by Nehru, wherein he clearly made a distinction between science and religion; western system as rational and scientific, and Indian systems of knowledge as religious. While one must be conscious of the right-wing Hindutva version of Indian systems of knowledge, one needs to also look critically the way in which modern science and medicine was used to marginalize Indian systems such as Ayurveda during Nehru's time.
Wed 30 May Sonja Amadae (MIT)
Before Trump: the neoliberal–illiberal alliance of the IMF and WTO with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
5.00–6.30pm (note unusual day and time)
Western commentators scratch their heads over the new phenomenon of illiberalism that has recently gained ground in Europe and North America. This trend toward illiberalism has been identified as a particular feature of developmental progress of states without sufficient constitutional safeguards to offer institutional defenses against illiberal tendencies (Zakaria 1997). Yet we now can see that even fully developed constitutional democracies, most prominently the US, have taken this turn. This paper hypothesizes that neoliberalism, specifically in the form promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, forms an ideological and practical alliance with illiberal developmental trends in Eurasia characterized by the Shanghai Cooperative Organisation.

While Western institutions tend to at least pay lip service to democratic governance, in fact the IMF and WTO sponsor policies that do not recognize the value of grass roots participation in the organization of politics and civil society. Whereas the WTO and IMF stand in opposing spheres of interest from the SCO, none of these organizations sponsors the celebrated twentieth-century marriage of free markets under the duly constituted rule of law sustained by democratic politics. Thus, perhaps the global trend towards illiberal regimes with various forms of authoritarian rule should not be surprising given the lack of contemporary robust practical and theoretical defense of open and democratic institutions. This paper closes with a preliminary exploration of modes of institutional organization that may support collective socio-technical imaginaries conducive to legitimate participatory governance. It hypothesizes that the price paid for neglecting inclusive public will formation may be deference to authoritarian forms of leadership that resonate with traditional imaginaries of collective purpose and meaning.

[Fareed Zakaria, (1997) 'The Rise of Illiberal Democracy', Foreign Affairs, 76(6), 22–43.]