Re-Making Science in Southern Trinidad

In March 2012, the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago held two glass bottles of oil above her head and made a statement about the nationality of the divine, proclaiming that “God is a Trini.” The oil samples from a new find off the coast of southern Trinidad were apparent proof of the island’s divine favor as a blessed land of hydrocarbon wealth and carnival festivities. Nevertheless, a sharp rise in murders, a decrease in oil reserves, and a series of budget deficits for the national petroleum company left many questioning the country of God’s passport in the twenty-first century. The world’s modern oil industry began in southern Trinidad in the 1850s, but with less than two decades of oil and gas reserves remaining, the status of God’s nationality often depended on the seismic exploration and development of invisible reservoirs of energy beneath the earth’s crust.[1] These surveys used buried dynamite and underwater cannons to generate shockwaves powerful enough to penetrate the earth and echo back to geologists and geophysicists. During my long-term field research in a “rural cosmopolitan” area of southern Trinidad between 2010 and 2012, these surveys were a constant presence, severely disrupting the principal local livelihoods of fishing and farming, while also providing short-term jobs in a region with few opportunities for formal employment. While the Prime Minister presented the jars of black liquid as black-boxed signs of the prosperous results of petroleum science and “geological data,” my fieldwork revealed a far messier picture of Trinidad’s petroleum industry and the politics of science.

Opening the black box of petroleum technology in southern Trinidad revealed ethical and conceptual struggles over the limits of “science”—a word that mediated political claims to truth in Trinidad and beyond. At my field site, however, science referred not just to the activities of petroleum geologists and geophysicists, but to the practices of religious healers who also used the medium of sound to seek knowledge about what lay below their feet. Like the Prime Minister, they often looked towards the earth rather than into the heavens for evidence of more-than-human power. Despite their very different positioning in terms of class and educational hierarchies, spiritual workers and petroleum geologists both called their investigations in the subterranean realms science. Unlike the practices of geologists, since the days of British colonial rule, the work of Afro-Caribbean healers had been viewed by authorities as mere superstition. Their healing practices were referred to as “Obeah” and became illegal under colonial laws that began in the eighteenth century in the Anglophone Caribbean. A few anthropologists have puzzled over why science and Obeah are used as equivalents[2] but it was only after I talked to both petroleum geologists and spiritual workers that my own preconceptions about these terms began to unravel. I started to feel that these key terms in discourses about “Western rationality” and “African superstition” only gained coherence in contrast to each other. By taking the comparison between spiritual workers and recognized geologists seriously, the word science began to diffract, taking on new and unexpected resonances.

To this day, Obeah remains illegal in much of the independent Anglophone Caribbean. Despite the heavy stigma of superstition that hangs over contemporary spiritual workers, they continue to refer to their work as science. Although they did not use the seismic shockwaves that petroleum geologists utilized, the healers I knew “sounded” what was below their feet with sung melodies that were the “routes” used to navigate subterranean worlds. These healers elaborated a realm of spiritual and natural powers known in Afro-Trinidadian religious practices as “the Depths.” I worked with healers who avowed varying allegiances to what is often known as the “three-fold path,” which combines complimentary devotion to the three principal strands of African diasporic religious practice in Trinidad: Spiritual Baptism, Kabbalah, and Orisha. The body of the earth for these healers was inhabited by Powers that included an exiled previous creation of beings, the dead, or the Biblical figure of Ezekiel who made dry bones live. In Orisha practice, the body of the earth was Mama Lata, a peculiarly Trinidadian Orisha whose name in French patois literally means “mother earth.” Oil was the carnal blood of this living earth-body, a vital substance whose depletion carried consequences.

 

Science was not simply a legitimating mask—rather, the ideas and theories of experimental practice that spiritual workers used transformed my own preconceptions about what science was.

 

Anthropologists often interpreted Caribbean spiritual workers’ talk of science as mere masking, a legitimating (if superficial) European front for African traditions. They concluded that spiritual workers had nothing substantive to say about “science,” which they assumed was another European mask for Afro-Caribbean religious practices akin to the Catholic saints that supposedly camouflaged African deities. However, I found something different during fieldwork in southern Trinidad. Science was not simply a legitimating mask—rather, the ideas and theories of experimental practice that spiritual workers used transformed my own preconceptions about what science was.

Science is not a unitary object, and I propose neither a project of inclusion nor one of relativism. Inclusive paradigms, such as those proposed by philosopher of science Sandra Harding, argue that the category of science should include any and every culture’s practices of dealing with the “natural world” (though a Western category of “nature” remains the unexamined foundation for the terms of inclusion).[3] Projects of relativism on the other hand, argue for the validity of non-Western “ethnosciences” that are outside of and relative to an ethnically unmarked “modern science.” Cultural relativism, however, maintains colonial oppositions between Europe and Africa, or science and traditional knowledge, as the bases for apparently innocuous projects of recognition.

Rather than either relativism or inclusion, I look for “partial connections” between the practice of petroleum geology and African diasporic healing in Trinidad. I focus on a geologist named Simon Bideau and a spiritual worker named Marianne Granger (also known as Mother Marianne). While Bideau was a recognized scientist and Granger a stigmatized healer, both of them spoke about science as they sounded the depths in Trinidad. Comparing Bideau and Granger helps me highlight the relationship between evidence and proof in the making of scientific authority. In the contemporary world, scientific evidence is often conflated with proof, producing a science that is (I argue) closer to the aims of modern theology than experimental practice. While a recognized geologist, it is actually Bideau who remains unsure as to whether he is practicing science.  He feels as if he cannot produce scientific proof for what lies below the earth or (following national political theologies) the benevolent power that dwells above.  Marianne, in contrast, claims a science in which she has given up on proof.  Following the words of Mother Marianne and the ambivalence of Bideau, I explore how a commitment to the fundamental limits of knowing, rather than an insistence on proof or falsification, can form the basis of an experimental science.

Geology, Spiritual Work, and Proof

Simon Bideau is a foreign-trained geologist, who has served for decades as professor at a national university in Trinidad and as a consultant for domestic and international oil and gas companies. Like the healer Marianne Granger, he has lived almost his whole life in Trinidad and identifies primarily as someone of African descent. Like most of the petroleum geologists in Trinidad (and geologists more generally), he is a man. Granger, on the other hand, is one of the most respected elders in the African-inspired religious practice of Orisha in southern Trinidad, a noted medium for a deity known as Mama Lata, and a talented healer. When I talked with Marianne and Bideau both spoke about science, even though they discussed it differently.

Bideau had all of the credentials of a scientist, but much of the time he was unsure whether he was really practicing science. The first time I asked him if he considered petroleum geology to be a “hard science,” he answered in the affirmative, but as we got to know each other better he revealed to me that he thought of himself “more as an artist than a scientist.” For him, science stopped with the geophysicists who recorded the sound waves bouncing off subterranean surfaces. These recordings were science, he told me, but after that what he called storytelling or art began. He reminded me that petroleum geologists are wrong in their predictions about new oil fields seventy-five percent of the time. It seemed to me that one might get better results by drilling holes randomly in a new field than by listening to the interpretations of geologists.

This, however, was not what oil companies wanted to hear. As Simon knew, they wanted scientific assurance—meaning visual maps, convincing evidence, and ostensible facts—and this was where his work as a storyteller began. He had to move from sound waves bouncing off any number of surfaces towards a convincing narrative that he could tell potential investors. Certainly, this seemed to bother him; he wanted to be a scientist—this was others typically saw him—but he was not sure if he was one much of the time. He often had to convert overwhelming uncertainty into science, which for him and others meant clear and compelling evidence for a certain interpretation. Yet, there was often no definitively compelling seismic evidence that forced him to choose one of the hundreds of possible interpretations over others. Simon told me that over the years he had developed a repertoire of embodied sensations—“gut feelings” he called them—that told him which interpretation he would follow and present to others. After months of computer processing, in which a variety of different filters and complex techniques of computation aimed to separate signal from noise, all he was left with was the sensation of conviction in his abdomen that told him which way to go.

Mother Marianne did not have a science degree from a foreign university, but nevertheless often seemed more comfortable talking about what she did as science. She earned her living by performing spiritual work for a wide variety of clients who came to consult her for readings on Thursdays. These works could range from intervention in the criminal justice system in cases of police brutality to the healing of ailments that she usually interpreted as at once psychological, somatic, and social. While others called what she did obeah, she more often called it science, and while I expected her to call the material practices she performed rituals, she called them “experiments.” Her word choice was not accidental. Anthropologists and religious studies scholars have described ritual as the repetition of actions that maintain convention or affirm order.[4] As a fundamental feature of definitions of religion, the notion of ritual as a performance of subjective proof has established the limits of how scholars interpret the actions of religious practitioners. Marianne’s techniques, however, were experimental.

Importantly, her actions were open to change and improvisation. Like Bideau, she dealt with complex cases in which her gut feelings helped shape her actions. When her clients were sick or in legal trouble, there were a complex set of forces at work, and Marianne relied on the Powers that lived in the earth to guide her actions. The primary Power that she lived with at her home, and which inhabited her body during consultations, was Mama Lata. Marianne’s sensations were the evidence of Mama Lata’s Power. But these feelings were different from the ones that Bideau described to me. For Marianne, her body was not one body, and the sensations were not necessarily hers. They represented the presence of an other-than-human force that was not totally comprehensible to Marianne. She accepted that this presence both inhabited but also went beyond the limits of her own body and her knowledge. For Marianne, this limit to her knowledge separated her science from what she called “laboratory science.” When she was younger, she had greater ambitions to understand how the Power worked, and to come up with some kinds of regular laws that governed the Powers’ actions. As Marianne sometimes reminded me, however, she had, in her science, “give[n] up on proof.”

Giving up on Proof

What is the difference between Marianne and Bideau’s approach to their experiments and the desire for “proof” that we often hope science will give us? Bideau associated science with a good amount of certainty and objectivity that, to his chagrin, he could not always measure up to in practice. He felt that there was a gap between his art of gut feelings and the scientific certainty that he was supposed to represent to oil companies. Despite this situation, and his embrace of a vocation as a storyteller, he had not given up on proof. He believed that as seismic and remote-sensing technologies advanced, petroleum geology would become a “hard science” and knowledge would become more and more certain.

 

Marianne, however, imagined her science as a practice that was about “curing rather than proving.”

 

Marianne, however, imagined her science as a practice that was about “curing rather than proving.” Her approach to her spiritual work was to solve the problems of her patients, not to offer up objective proof of the general validity of her actions or the falsification of other methods. Marianne’s ethos, in other words, was pragmatic. She addressed context-specific problems rather than aiming for a systematic proof of her worldview, which her multiracial and multi-religious body of clients did not necessarily share. Indeed, she felt it was not even possible to fully “know how the Power works,” though it was possible to listen for the evidence of powers that both composed and went beyond her human experience.

We often conflate evidence and proof when we talk about what makes something “science.” But in the case of Marianne and Bideau, I began to realize how evidence and proof diverged in telling ways. Bideau imagined a horizon in which evidence and proof could begin to marry, and this horizon was the science he could not quite reach. His view of “evidence” depended on the root of the word itself, that is “self-evidence”—that which can be seen by all. From its earliest days, the experimental methods of what later became known as “science” were influenced by the role of evidence in legal proceedings. In fact, during the seventeenth-century members of the Royal Society (one of the first scientific societies) argued for the validity of experiments by comparing them to legal trials.[5] The laboratory was a courtroom in which evidence was witnessed and made authoritative, and the Royal Society was influenced by standards of evidence that were developed during the dramatic surge in witchcraft trials in early modern Europe. It was in these trials that the earlier medieval practice of proving guilt by “ordeal” shifted to the use of what were called “experiments.” Utilizing control groups, repeated trials, and randomization, these experiments aimed to produce convincing evidence of an invisible crime—the act of witchcraft. This was the very act whose criminalization helped to form the basis for subsequent anti-Obeah laws in the Caribbean, generating a paradoxical need for the legal evidence of an act of “superstition” whose powers were supposed to be empirically unverifiable.

Both the act of witchcraft and the forces that were the subject of the new Royal Society’s experiments were invisible and doubted by many in early modern Europe. Experimental evidence arose in these situations of uncertainty. Evidence continues to have this profound duplicity—it is offered as irrefutable proof but it is called upon in the very moments when the limits of our knowledge are uncertain.

But is it possible, as Marianne suggests, to give up on proof while listening for evidence? One of the most prominent twentieth-century philosophers of science, Imre Lakatos, saw the association of science with proof as a profoundly theological and (to him at least) stale project. In some way, many of the best-known twentieth-century philosophers of science from Popper onwards were working against the common sense notion that science is simply about accumulating evidence that offers proof.[6] Bideau believed that science should eventually demonstrate this theological project of ultimate causation, but Marianne’s science actually remained agnostic as to proof. Although Marianne’s work is the one that we would most easily label ritual, magic, or superstition, I would argue that her practices were experimental, while Bideau’s work aspired to an evidentiary ritual of proving.

The space of the laboratory, like the space of ritual, arose as a realm in which the variables and vagaries of everyday experience could be controlled. The lab language of Jonathan Z. Smith’s well-known definition of ritual is clearly present: “ritual represents the creation of a controlled environment where the variables (i.e., the accidents) of ordinary life have been displaced precisely because they are felt to be so overwhelmingly present and powerful.”[7] As Smith’s definition suggests, both the laboratory and the ritual have been conceived as spaces of proof that seek to control variables, even as these aspirations to control networked contingencies. This coincidence speaks to the long-standing entanglement of inductive methods in the sciences, evidentiary procedures in state law, and definitions of ritual in modern academic disciplines (a theme that I feel requires much further explication than I can offer here).

 

Perhaps we should think of the scientific laboratory as a space of ritual—as a place in which the variables and vagaries of everyday experience can be controlled.

 

Perhaps we should think of the scientific laboratory as a space of ritual—as a place in which the variables and vagaries of everyday experience can be controlled. It is significant that Granger argued that her spiritual work was different from both laboratory science and religious ritual. Both of these worlds were spaces of proof that try to control the variables of the wider world. Is it a coincidence that these two preeminent (and supposedly opposed) categories of modern activity—science and religion—are both bound to rituals of proving?

Our trust that evidence and proof are synonymous influences many aspects of the modern world. The increasingly legal articulation of the rights claims of social movements, the “audit culture” of aid and development projects, the cognitive turn in a variety of disciplines, or the “evidence-based” evaluation of medical and educational methods demand authoritative evidence that is often mediated by processes of standardization and claims to scientific truth.[8] When the Prime Minister raised the jars of black gold in 2012, she invoked the promise of “new geological data” that would offer more theological proof of God’s nationality. Four years later, the national oil company’s negative earnings and falling oil prices led some to ask whether the Prime Minister had in fact seen God’s passport. Rather than cycles of proof and disillusionment with the theological promises of petroleum science, I have explored, in a very preliminary way, what Marianne’s science of giving up on proof might look like. Would it imply an experimental process of listening in situations of uncertainty rather than simply a ritual enactment of proof?

Marianne first told me that she had given up on proof after a long, five-hour conversation that ended with me attempting to explain my own project in relation to her science. I explained that I wanted to counteract the long-standing and pernicious stigmas of criminality and irrationality that were leveled at her work. I wanted to argue that what most people called obeah was actually part of science. Marianne did not quite agree with my project of inclusion, and she disagreed in a way that evoked physical discomfort and an inability to articulate the source of my disconcertment. It was as if she planted a seed in me that would only ramify and root over a course of months. Rather than agreeing with my attempt to fold obeah into science, she insisted that her science did not seek proof in the same way as what she called “laboratory science.” And she was not sure if she wanted to sign up for a project of rationalization. Rationality can suggest an instrumental logic, in which non-humans acted indeterminate ways. But Marianne insisted that she did not totally understand how the Powers she lived with worked. Sometimes she cussed their unpredictable demands; sometimes she was overwhelmed by their proximity.[9] How might Marianne’s approach to living with the non-human alter the ethics of Bideau’s geology, which artfully tells the story of science’s proof in the abeyance of irrefutable evidence? Rather than a project of inclusion, on the one hand, or relativism, on the other, perhaps we can begin to talk about partially connected sciences, where traversing these partial connections transforms what we can talk about as science and the ethics of evidence.


Brent Crosson is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. He is an anthropologist of religion and secularism who works in the Caribbean.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Amelia Fiske, Stephanie Graeter, Kristina Lyons, and Alberto Morales whose panel on questions of evidence at the 2015 meetings of the Society for Social Studies of Science gave me the occasion and inspiration to write this piece. This research was supported by the American Council of Learned Societies/Mellon Foundation, the Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund, the Fulbright Commission, and UT Austin.

[1] While the 1859 Drake Oil Well in Pennsylvania, amongst other early wells, is often recognized as the world’s first modern oil well, the American Merrimac Oil Company had drilled a commercial oil well two years earlier in the vicinity of Trinidad’s pitch lake. In 1859, Walter Darwent drilled a commercially productive oil well in southern Trinidad that was longer lasting and more productive than the concomitant Drake Well. Over a century and a half later, using the 3P (proven, probable, and possible) reserves of oil and condensate reported in a U.S. firm’s audit, Trinidad and Tobago Minister of Energy Kevin Ramnarine stated in 2015 that there were about 17 years of oil and condensate remaining at current production levels.

[2] See, D.W. Hogg (1961), “Magic and ‘Science’ in Jamaica,” Caribbean Quarterly 1: 1-5 or Stephan Palmié, Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

[3] For two influential examples of this definition of ritual in religious studies and anthropology, see Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) or Jonathan Z. Smith (1980), “The Bare Facts of Ritual,” History of Religions 20 (1/2): 112-127. For a more recent and resonant definition of ritual as a performance of subjunctive order enacted against a contingent world, see Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, Michael Puett, Bennet Simon, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[4] See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).

[5] See, for example, Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (New York: Verso, 2010[1975]); Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012[1962]); Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (New York: Routledge, 2002[1963]).

[6] Smith 1980: 124-125, italics in original.

[7] See, for example, Helen Lambert (2009) “Evidentiary Truths? The Evidence of Anthropology Through the Anthropology of Medical Evidence,” Anthropology Today 25(1): 16-20; Michael Power, The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Marilyn Strathern, ed. Audit Cultures (London: Routledge, 2000).

[8] I am indebted to Julienne Obadia’s title for our 2015 panel at the American Anthropological Association meetings for the felicitous phrase “overwhelmed by proximity.”

Image from Flickr via Shiram Rajagopalan.

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