Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Central Experimental Farm as a "Truth-Spot."

Detail from "Soils of the Central Experimental Farm" showing the original 465 acres.

Author's note: this post is a bit of an experiment. In it I use the Central Experimental Farm to explore Thomas Gieryn's concept of "truth-spots." It is written in a particular moment when the Farm is still facing threats to its research fields, and those politics of course carry through. In a sense this post is inspired by the great community of active historians and my desire to draw out the concepts embedded within my other public writings on the subject. Some of the links may lead to articles behind (steep) paywalls.

In the conclusion to his exploration of the interwar Chicago School of Urban Studies, Thomas Gieryn posits that "in the emplacement of its is probably not the exception, but the rule."

Gieryn's current research project focuses on what he calls "truth-spots." Simply put, truth-spots are locations where knowledge about the world is created and, importantly, legitimized. When applied to science this presents a curious "paradox of place and truth" (emphasis in original).*

Science, like all human endeavors, is a cultural process. People do it in places. It involves learned practices and discourses. But objectivity is (often) a central legitimizing discourse in science. The literary abstraction of science from where it is practiced is part of the epistemic scaffolding used to reinforce its status as universal knowledge. As Gieryn notes, "scientific claims are diminished in their credibility as they are situated somewhere, as if their truthfulness depended upon conditions located only there."

At the same time some subjective contexts of science can provide studies performed or published in their gambit with powerful legitimacy. There's prestigious universities (the Ivy League and Oxbridge); journals (Nature or Science); institutions (CERN and NASA); and field stations (Rothamsted Research and Kew Gardens).

Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm is another such institution.

Letter to the Editor: Research faces more determined threats than geese.

Re: What do you do when geese eat all your research?

As Agriculture Canada sends out tenders for non-lethal anti-goose dogs to patrol its research fields at the Central Experimental Farm, another perennial threat looms over this important federal research station: the Ottawa Hospital. After being rebuffed when it asked for land at the Experimental Farm for a new Civic Campus in 2008 because of the Farm’s important scientific and heritage value and unsuccessfully floating the question again in 2012, the Hospital was able to secure a Memorandum of Understanding in November 2014 with the intervention of John Baird as minister of the National Capital Commission. Earlier this year Catherine McKenna told the Hospital to go back and do its homework as it has become increasingly clear that the scientific, green space, and heritage value of the Farm were ignored by Baird in 2014.

Undeterred by evidence of the longstanding scientific value of the Experimental Farm—its climate research was reported as early as 2008—and its proud 130 year history supporting Canadian farmers, recognized by its 1998 designation as a national historic site of Canada, executives at the Ottawa Hospital continue to focus on the Farm as the home for their new campus with three of its four options under investigation at the Farm, and two of those different configurations of the original 60 acres.

It is past time for McKenna and her cabinet colleagues Ministers Melanie Joly and Lawrence MacAulay to take a strong stand in support of Canada’s public science and, given the budget’s strong words linking agricultural research to fighting climate change, protect the Central Experimental Farm against all development.

Peter Anderson
Ottawa, Ontario

Note: I submitted this as a letter to the editor for MetroNews Ottawa. As my commute doesn't usually take me to where MetroNews is distributed, I have no idea if they published it in this or modified form.