Workshop 1- Brian Wynne, ‘Experiment, memory and social learning’

Brian Wynne’s (CESAGen, Lancaster University) presentation, after the global perspective on experimentality illustrated by previous papers, was focused on the local approach in the context of sheep farmers' history of post-1986 radioactive fall out. Wynne opened his paper by referring to Rheinberger’s concept of experimental persistence, presenting the experimental practises of science as unsystematic, accidental, arbitrary and blind. He presented the system of production as that which does not immediately facilitate learning but obstructs it, mainly through the failure of memory in scientific bodies and groups.

Wynne presented experimental science as consisting of experiments which are not bounded or control uncertainties. He then asked: when has there ever been a designed experiment which was grounded by the parameters of its design? Wynne illustrated that experiments always go beyond their limits, intervening or treading on dimensions of reality that go beyond the preliminary assumptions.

Consequently, Brian Wynne used the example of the post-1986 case of Cumbrian farmers to illustrate the consequences of scientific knowledges as practice.

He followed in asking a question of what scientific knowledge existed when.

Wynne described the Chernobyl explosion as an open air experiment (a 'laboratory without walls' (Szerszynski)). He compared it to Donald MacKenzie's work on missiles being tested in use. Wynne proceeded in positioning society as laboratory and explained how Chernobyl was an experiment where scientists did not know the most important questions about the test, where they were testing their own assumptions.

Brian Wynne then presented a detailed discussion of the post-1986 Cumbrian farmers crisis, subsequently referring to the scientific facts that were overlooked or simply forgotten.

Wynne emphasized the problematic of scientific memory and selective character of experimentation, illustrating how in the outlined example scientists who started off doing work of a regional kind researching soil differences had their research fundamentally transformed when their programme became internationalised to fulfil economical criteria – a case of the political economy of the epistemics of science.

Finally, Wynne returned to the theme of memory, predominantly referring to amnesia in science. He pointed out how differences in memory have different social and cultural implications such as an influence on public policy practice. Brian Wynne also emphasized that this does not imply any deliberate action and amnesia occurs due to accidental historical contingency.

In conclusion, Wynne argued that there are not any clear and mobile tests, pointing to the need for reflexivity.


Arguments following Brian Wynne’s presentation addressed six different themes.

Firstly, the problematic of the geography of knowing and forgetting was considered. Here, questions of scales, organization and degree to which things are systematically forgotten in cultures, countries, societies were considered. The connection was drawn to Melissa Leach paper in form of a question of how inclusive is the experiment going to be if scientists are not aware of all the contingences involved. Several propositions for a development of typology of experimentality were made, such as neo-liberal experimentality, participatory experimentality and craft of experimentality. Pursuing such a typology was considered to be an important task for the Experimentality programme.

Secondly, the theme of the place of the accident and the accidental was explored. It was noticed that not all innovations are down to design, calculation or formulated experiment and sometimes they are just due to forgetting about how it was done last time.

Thirdly, constant changes in the infrastructural organization of the systems were outlined in the light of ‘institutional Alzheimer’s disease’ (institutional forgetting). Here three main problems were posed:

  1. eradicating the expertise of long standing figures
  2. the exclusion of others
  3. repetitions of lots of reinventions – pressure on everyone to invent new things

The third problem was considered in terms of Bogdan Costea’s paper, referring to the managerial requirement for new projects and paradigms with an appearance of novelty when in reality old ground is being covered. In this context the idea of the experimentation on plants and ecological systems was introduced.

Fourthly, it was pointed out that experiment by nature as a classic definition of the monster was a suspiciously absent concept through the discussion. The notion of tradition was investigated, emphasising a relationship between the two.

Fifthly, doing experiments in an environing world – increasingly mapped – we might have to let go of the idea that we ever had a knowledge that we accounted for and let go of the idea that we can ever know certain things. This urged questions about what it means to be fundamentally experimental.