Ideas becoming knowledge: interview with Dr. Rainer Becker (part 1 of 2)

ETA Mar. 11, 2013: I was notified by Rainer Becker that his participation was cancelled and the organizers took the project in another direction. Consequently, much of what follows is no longer relevant. However, the discussion about knowledge and ideas and Becker’s theorists may be of some interest.

I’m very pleased to publish this interview (part 1 today) with Dr. Rainer Becker on a topic (how an idea becomes knowledge in the field of science) that has long interested me. First, some information about the research project and Dr. Becker from the April 22, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,

How do sensational ideas become commonly accepted knowledge? How does a hypothesis turn into certainty? What are the ways and words that bring results of scientific experiments into textbooks and people’s minds, how are they “transferred” into these domains? Science philosopher Dr. Rainer Becker has recently started dealing with such questions. Over the next three years, Becker will accompany the work of Professor Dr. Frank Rösl’s department at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ), which studies cancer-causing viruses. He is one of three scientists in an interdisciplinary joint project which is funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with a total sum of approximately € 790,000.

Becker’s mission in Heidelberg is part of a research project entitled “Transfer knowledge – knowledge transfer. About the past and present of the transfer between life sciences and humanities.” The project is carried out by DKFZ jointly with the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies (Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, ZfL) in Berlin. Project leaders are Professor Dr. Frank Rösl of DKFZ and Dr. Falko Schmieder of ZfL. It comprises three individual projects in which forms of knowledge transfer related to three different constellations of science history are studied in a cultural-scientific approach.

Dr. Becker’s project,

The third and final project, which is pursued by Rainer Becker at DKFZ, deals with the question of the relevance of current knowledge concepts such as the one that understands and experimentally studies cancer as a consequence of viral infections.

“I am pleased that we will explore the relevance of tumor virology across disciplinary borders and I hope we will gain fundamental insights into how scientific discourses develop and how they are ultimately accepted in scientific thought collectives,” said departmental head Frank Rösl about the relevance of the current project.

This is not Dr. Becker’s first such project, his doctoral thesis touched on some of the same themes of how scientific discourse develops,

Rainer Becker wrote his doctoral thesis while he was employed at the Institute of Philosophy of Darmstadt Technical University. There he made parallel studies of the social history of the computer and the “universal science” of cybernetics. Back then he already chose a topic that transcends borders between humanities and natural sciences. “While I was working on my doctoral thesis, I explored the question of ‘transfers’ – namely between technology, natural sciences and philosophy in the 1940s: The development of computers and cybernetics would not have been possible without prior conceptual and metaphorical ‘transfers’ between life sciences and technical sciences.”

In his future project, the philosopher will study in real time, so to speak, how natural science data are being obtained, processed and communicated. As a “researcher of science”, he will observe the laboratory work from the perspective of the humanities and cultural science, he will do research in archives and will interview scientists. It is for good reason that the project is located at DKFZ, because this is the place where findings from basic biological research become relevant for medicine and the public. Thus, the Nobel Prize-winning discovery by DKFZ’s former Scientific Director, Professor Harald zur Hausen, that particular viruses cause cervical cancer has led to a vaccine against this type of cancer.

Now for the interview:

1. First, congratulations on receiving funding for such a fascinating line of query. When does the project start and what is the period of time during which it will run?

A: Indeed, the funding delighted all of us. My sub-project in Heidelberg started in late October 2009, it will be supported for 3 years.

2. Will you be working alone or will you be working with an interdisciplinary team?

A: Currently I am doing my study in Heidelberg on my own, getting assisted locally by one of the project leaders, a biologist highly interested in interdisciplinary work: Prof. Frank Roesl, head of the department where I am doing my research. The other project leader, Dr. Falko Schmieder and two other science philosophers support me in Berlin, at the Center for Literary and Cultural Research (ZfL). Like me, both of them work on their own sub-projects while getting support by Dr. Schmieder: he does ensure the convergence of the sub-projects. We discuss the topics during our regular meetings – but also via email, skype, wikis for sharing documents etc.

Because the main focus of the project is historical, both of the other sub-projects work –like me in the past – in a more historical way: they try to elucidate the current situation in the Heidelberg lab of 2010 – molecular biological work on supposedly tumourgenic viruses – by working in archives, on in part comparable fields, but different time scales: (a) Dr. Birgit Griesecke – mainly doing studies on Ludwig Fleck – is working on the 1930s, (b) PD Dr. Peter Berz – researching contexts esp. around Jacques Monod – is working on the 1970s. Both help me to understand the current scientific situation in the corresponding historical context.

We also try to get additional funding options for one or two other researchers (e.g. sociologists, communication scientists) supporting our work in a interdisciplinary way.

3. Are there any theorists that have influenced how you are approaching this project?

A: The whole project is closely related to the work of the Polish bacteriologist and sociologist of science Ludwig Fleck. Its main theoretical references point to him – by as well trying to ‘refresh’ his approaches in ways more adequate to the current scientific situation: not only everything that happened after the ‘linguistic turn’ and all the concerns on ‘media’, but also dealing with questions on the significance of ‘things’ in the labs around 2010. This confrontation of Fleck with the present research raises several questions, for example:

Do apparatuses reflect or even materialize special sorts of scientific ‘thought-styles’?

Do specific ‘thought-collectives’ gather or even get constituted around special lab equipments to what extent do they form prior styles of thinking – what kind of ‘migration-background’ has each ‘thing’ with what implications and what styles of local adoption?

What exactly is the correlation between assemblages of things, humans, animals, discourses and what Mary Douglas coined ‘worlds of thought’ – and their inhabitants / participants?

What is their contribution to the specific local – and the same time globally connected – scientific way of worldmaking (in the field of cancer research)?

What political implications potentially are embedded in all that fields – from specific ways of problematisation to its effects?

My own theoretical background was mainly influenced by the philosophical tradition of structuralism and so called ‘post-structuralism’, especially Michel Foucault – so phenomenological traditions also interest me. Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, J.-F. Lyotard, M. Serres and M. de Certeau framed my more traditional approaches to political philosophy on the one hand (from Plato, Hobbes, Kant, Nietzsche, Weber, Arendt to the early/middle Frankfurt School, French Postmodernist to current debates on ‘radical democratic’-thinkers as well as philosophical experiments like tiqqun) but on the same time on the other hand to different fields of knowledge, esp. concerning the relation technology – art – bios (I wrote my dissertation on a ‘coevolutionary’ history of the ‚universal machine’/ computers and ‘first’ cybernetics in connection to what Foucault termed ‘biopower’ – coming from Canguilhem and handing this concept over to E. Fox-Keller, I. Hacking, D. Haraway and L. Kay).

In my field, a biological laboratory dealing with viruses and cancer, Michel Serres’ thoughts on different phenomena of ‘inbetween’/’3rds’ as well as Foucault’s spatial approaches in their connection to knowledge/power (heterotopia, taxonomy/order, diagrams like ‘panoptism’) currently form reflections of my experiences more and more – as well as my contention with prominent ‘first wave’ researchers in the field of science/laboratory studies, e.g. B. Latour (esp. the ‘early’), K. Knorr-Cetina, H.J. Rheinberger (esp. beyond his Heidegger-References), P. Rabinow (both theoretical and practical work) and D. Haraway (esp. ‘when species meet’), flanked by what could be coined a wide field of ethnology in the broadest sense (C. Lèvi-Strauss, M. Douglas, C. Geertz, E. Goffman): ethnology of the own, western culture interested me since my first contacts with poststructuralism/Nietzsche. In that range, scientific and everyday practices and their relation to ‘strangeness’ of the field (for the lab-practitioners, for me) more and more comes to focus (think of the concept of ‘problematisation’) – and also theorist of  ‘practice’ keep framing my attention (A. Pickering, K. Sunder-Rajan, M. de Certeau). I hope the projects (my colleagues and mine) will contribute something at least in that latter field.

4. The description in the press release for how you plan to go about your project reminded me of Bruno Latour’s Laboratory Life where he described the creation of a ‘scientific fact’. Obviously you won’t be repeating that work, so I’m wondering if you could describe your process and goals in more detail.

see (3)

Tomorrow: more details about the project and how the research will be disseminated.

3 thoughts on “Ideas becoming knowledge: interview with Dr. Rainer Becker (part 1 of 2)

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