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Molecular Detector (Non)Technology with Luis Reyes-Galindo: New Research in ST&HV

Aleka Gurel

05 October, 2016

In this series of Backchannels posts, we’ll be highlighting new research in the 4S journals, ST&HV and ESTS. Here, Backchannels interviews Luis Reyes-Galindo, author of the recent ST&HV paper, "Molecular Detector (Non)Technology in Mexico." He has an undergraduate degree in physics, a master’s in philosophy of science from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and a PhD in sociology from Cardiff University. His main research topics are the sociology of physics –particularly theoretical and computational physics – as well as open access publishing and policymaking. He is currently a British Academy Post Doctoral Fellow and Research Associate at Cardiff University and a visiting scholar at the University of Brasília. He  will soon start a second postdoc at the State University of Campinas, Brazil.

Backchannels: What brought you to this research topic?

LR: I first heard about the bogus molecular detectors during one of my fieldwork trips to Mexico during my PhD. I was interviewing theoretical physicists from the Mexican National Autonomous University's (UNAM) Physics Institute, where I worked as a physics research assistant during my undergraduate and master’s studies (I specialised in a quantum effect called the 'Casimir force.’)

During one of my visits to the Institute, I was having a casual chat with my physics undergraduate supervisor Prof. Raúl Esquivel-Sirven about my sociology work, when he mentioned that since I was interested in scientific “social issues” I should speak with his colleague Prof. Luis Mochán about an outlandish case in which the Mexican military had apparently been duped into buying junk drug detection 'technology.” I was intrigued, so I contacted Luis and a few days later I was on my way to interview him at the UNAM institute in Cuernavaca, “the city of eternal spring”. After a long interview with Luis and some online research, I was convinced that this was not just an interesting case, but also a paradigmatic illustration of how Mexico’s increasing rates of violent crime, so-called ‘Drug Wars’, putrid political environment and serial gross injustices against stigmatised social groups are tied to the country's contemporary political, social and cultural fracturing.

Backchannels: What challenges did you overcome to complete the study?

LR: Before publishing the paper I’d already worked on the case for several years and had presented different versions of it at several fora in the UK, Singapore and Mexico. If one looks at how the molecular detector fraud is described by the scientists and ‘skeptic’ online activists that have tenaciously fought against it around the world, the story that is often told is that government and authorities in developing countries were fooled or conned into buying it through the ‘ideomotor effect’, which is a 19th century concept that is sometimes used in the psychology literature to explain why people can be tricked into believing in supernatural phenomena such as ouija boards and dowsing roads.

Basically, the ‘effect’ means that bogus devices appear to work for the users because people believe that they work and then they unconsciously use the device in order for actions to agree with expectations. Another ‘explanation’ that is often used is that because there is a lack of ‘scientific culture’ in developing nation contexts, sellers of a device that any scientifically-literate person should immediately see is a fake can get away with fraud by preying on ‘scientific ignorance’. Manufacturers would go as far as claiming the devices could detect nanograms of any explosive substance half a mile underwater powered only by static electricity from the user’s body!

As an STS scholar, however, I knew that while these explanations might account for some individuals' actions at the collective level it just didn’t add up. Technology – or in this case, what I call ‘non-technology’ in the paper – requires a social matrix to thrive, and the detectors were indeed thriving in Mexico and around the developing world. Once I really got into the analysis it grew ever more complex, so that in the end I was pulling literature from STS itself but also from postcolonial theory, law studies, communication studies, social psychology, while still trying to keep the manuscript at a publishable length. Later in the process I became aware of the British government’s direct involvement in the fraud and criminologist Mike Levi’s work on the conditions necessary for large-scale international fraud to occur added one more level of analysis that I had not expected. 

There were also difficulties in terms of the types of fieldwork I could do. Anything related to the military and the drug cartels in Mexico is a pretty tough – if not outright deadly – subject to investigate. In a ‘normal’ STS case, I would have gone and interviewed as many of the actors involved as possible and in an ideal scenario I would have carried out interviews with both sides of the ‘controversy’ including police forces, military users, judges involved in the cases, politicians, amongst many other actors involved in the story. Instead, I had to trawl through lots of online material and get only indirect glimpses of what was going on through people like Luis, online activists who I’ve been in touch with and journalists, about what both was and was not reported in the news. Silence, particularly institutional silence, is one of the main actors in the story.

Backchannels: What lesson would you like people to take away from the paper you’ve just published?

LR: I start the paper by pointing out that STS scholars in the ‘Global North’, the West, or whatever you wish to call it, should not assume that science and technology play the same sociocultural role everywhere else in the world as they do in scientifically-highly-developed nations. While nowadays things like governance and innovation are big STS buzzwords, a large part of the world’s preoccupation with science and technology lies on its lack of impact in cases where it is needed most. I think STS can learn a lot from cases in ‘anomalous’ cultural terrains like the Mexican environment which is a completely different scenario scientifically and technologically, as I argue in the paper.

This year I’ve also I’ve been in dialogue with colleagues involved in postcolonial and decolonial studies, which has made me wonder where exactly a country like Mexico fits in, mainly regarding its scientific and technological characteristics. In the molecular detector case, rather than postcolonial, the relationship that was established between Mexico and the United Kingdom was entirely colonialist. Finally, I think that it is important that cases like this in my country begin to be seriously studied, because Mexico is living through a terrible political climate about which no-one seems capable of providing a glimpse of hope. The past decade has seen the country deeply scarred by organised crime, corruption, the drug wars, violence of unimaginable dimensions and a growing hopelessness about the possibility to produce change. Writing about these cases provides room for deep analy

ses and reflection. I don’t have any wild dreams that this will change anything in the country, but I’ll do my best to have people reflect about the situation and point to what I believe are some of the causes.

Backchannels: What is next on your research agenda?

LR: My main research topics will continue to be the cultural universe of physics and the sociological dimensions of open access and open science, this time through the lens of Responsible Research and Innovation frameworks in a postdoc I’ll soon be starting in Campinas, Brazil. However, I’m always looking out for interesting cases in Mexico. I am currently carrying out documentary research into the case of the 43 murdered students in Iguala in order to analyse the mixed and often contradictory discourse of the Mexican state regarding forensic evidence, controversy and testimony. It is a case that shocked the nation, indeed the world, and I hope that pairing it with the molecular detector story and other recent STS works about Mexico will drive home the points I’m trying to make even harder.

Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.