Kathleen M. VogelApr 17, 2013
Phantom Menace or Looming Danger?
A New Framework for Assessing Bioweapons Threats
Johns Hopkins University Press 2012
Kathleen M. Vogel's new book is enlightening and inspiring. Phantom Menace or Looming Danger?: A New Framework for Assessing Bioweapons Threats (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) uses an approach grounded in deep ethnographic analysis of exemplary case studies to explore the recent and contemporary practices performed by US governmental and non-governmental analysts when considering bioweapons threats. It ultimately uses this foundation to suggest a new way to approach the analysis of bioweapons technology and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. The book is divided into four parts, each showing how social factors at the laboratory, organizational, and political levels have shaped United States bioweapons assessments since the 1990s and continue to do so. Part I introduces the main problems approached by the book, and motivates the application of STS methodologies that emphasize the centrality of understanding social contexts, technological frames, and analytic practices of knowledge-making to resolving those problems. It also illustrates the dominance of a "biotech revolution" frame in determining bioweapons assessments by US policy and intelligence analysts, a frame that emphasizes technological determinism, material end products, a focus on the future while marginalizing the past, and an emphasis on the geographical spread of and threat posed by technological innovation. Part II of the book contrasts this "biotech revolution" approach with a proposed "biosocial frame" that emphasizes the importance of social context to bioweapons development and assessment. It accomplishes this through careful attention to two case studies with ongoing relevance for the US: synthetic genomics experimentation, and Soviet bioweapons development at the Stepnogorsk Scientific and Experimental Production Base. Part III of the book focuses on the CIA's Iraqi bioweapons intelligence assessments, showing how social factors are crucial to knowledge practices not just within organizations and spaces that would potentially create technologies, but also within the organizations responsible for assessing the impact of those technologies. It emphasizes the importance of understanding how expertise, narrative and communicative style, and secrecy shape knowledge-making at the institutional level, and offers a fascinating window into the daily life of an intelligence reporter and the life cycle of the President's Daily Brief. Part IV of the book explores alternative models to the production of bioweapons knowledge, offering a proposal for how to restructure and improve US bioweapons assessments. This is an engrossing book that exemplifies what STS can bring to broader issues of policymaking in the US and potentially beyond, and it is well worth reading. Enjoy!