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How to Think About Science
November 27, 2009 7:35 PM   Subscribe

"Modern societies have tended to take science for granted as a way of knowing, ordering and controlling the world. Everything was subject to science, but science itself largely escaped scrutiny. This situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Historians, sociologists, philosophers and sometimes scientists themselves have begun to ask fundamental questions about how the institution of science is structured and how it knows what it knows." How to Think About Science is a 24-part series from CBC Radio's Ideas, featuring interviews with Steven Shapin, Ian Hacking, Bruno Latour, and others. The streaming audio links on the show's website seem to be out of commission, but direct links to all of the episodes can be found here.
posted by bewilderbeast (77 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite

 
A really good read for anyone interested in this is, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn.
posted by karmiolz at 8:00 PM on November 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


I am a scientist and did not get that memo. Perhaps CBC Radio confused it with the one where people realized that laws and regulations were being enacted based on scientific findings and that said laws & regs impacted their private little fiefdoms or their bottom line. That memo I have received several times.
posted by fshgrl at 8:04 PM on November 27, 2009 [11 favorites]


Great radio! Thanks very much, bewilderbeast, this is a bunch of people I either do have or should have on my bookshelves. Now if only I could download some spare time to listen to them all as well ...
posted by carter at 8:13 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


According to this blogger this series has its fair share of questionable things like Gaia Hypothesis and the plant ESP of Robert Sheldrake. Perhaps we need a "How to think about media presentations about how to think about stuff" too. Joining the contrarian bandwagan for the sake of contrariness doesnt seem to be questioned.

The recent "science wars" and move to relativism is unsettling and looks related to global warming denial and the acceptance of creationism in the US. I can barely turn the TV on without seeing multiple ghost hunter shows, specials about Hitler and UFOs on the "history" channel, and people openly dismissing vaccines as a plot to poison people or at least give their unborn children autism.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:14 PM on November 27, 2009 [10 favorites]


Isn't inquiry into the nature of science, its scope, methodology, epistemology and metaphysical commitments pretty much the starting point of the philosophy of science which has been a topic of conversation amongst philosophers since at least the days of the founding of Erkenntnis?
posted by Wash Jones at 8:23 PM on November 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yes, and the supposition that scientists themselves aren't aware of these arguments and don't take them into consideration as a fundamental part of doing science is specious. I'm not saying all scientists do, but certainly a significant proportion of them are self-aware enough to consider the limitations of their own perspectives and advance their discipline by accounting for these limitations. To pretend otherwise is to deny the history of science.
posted by mollweide at 8:31 PM on November 27, 2009 [8 favorites]


I don't see anything in the linked page about science wars, anti-scientism, global warming denialists, creationism, parapsychology, etc. Although as I said I have not listened to the 24 hours of podcasts; but then again neither has anyone else here.

The point that many of these people are trying to make is that science is carried out within the social/cultural framework of the time in which it is takes place, including political and economic contexts, and technological limitations. That does not make the science that is produced bad science, or not useful science, or irrelevant science, or any other kind of non-science science. It just makes it what it is for the time and context.

Scientists are people engaged in human endeavour. Given the recent 'controversy' over the leaked global warming emails, if the people this series had anything to say, it would not be 'Hah! Global warming does not exist,' but rather that 'This is just the way that scientists behave when they are doing research, competing for grants, competing in publications, etc., while still trying to do good science; and it has nothing to do with a conspiracy to force global warming on an unsuspecting audience.'
posted by carter at 8:35 PM on November 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


For instance, Simon Schaffer, the subject of the first podacst, is a historian at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge University, where one of the current exhibitions is Darwin's Microscope:

In 1847, Charles Darwin purchased a large compound microscope, made by the firm Smith and Beck. He first used this microscope in his study of barnacles; work that was informed by his theory of evolution, and also helped to verify the theory. Darwin's Microscope, and the manuscript documents that accompany it, are the centrepiece of a wide-ranging new display at the Whipple Museum that surveys two centuries of engagement with Darwin and evolutionary ideas.

Doesn't sound like the 'History' Channel to me (even a straw man 'History' Channel).
posted by carter at 8:43 PM on November 27, 2009


Perhaps we need a "How to think about media presentations about how to think about stuff" too.

Doesn't anyone read McLuhan anymore?
posted by hippybear at 8:44 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Science" (and I'm talking about the popular impression non-scientists have of the term) has turned from making promises of vast wealth and future awesomeness (flying cars, robot servants, limitless power) to largely warning of future disaster and major expense (global warming, dying seas, peak oil).

We all make decisions every day which it is now clear have troubling future consequences, from buying cheap goods whose environmental impact is significant to our reliance on petroleum to having kids. "Science" used to be the way we'd shrug and think that the problem would be solved easily a few years down the line--what we do today is of little consequence. ("Hell, how will the plastic-trash-fueled floating fusion reactors of tomorrow even work if the Pacific Ocean didn't have a plastic graveyard?")

Science now not only doesn't offer a way out, it points out that your lousy decisions last week permanently made the world a worse place, and the bad ones you made today only added fuel to that fire.

This (in my opinion) is why the masses now mistrust science. For years, when we asked "do these pants make me look fat?" science said "no, and in the future, all pants will be flattering!" Now, we ask, and science says "Jesus H. Fuckbomb Christ, your ass is so huge it's in danger of gravitational collapse."

No one wants to hear that. Even if it's the truth.
posted by maxwelton at 8:48 PM on November 27, 2009 [37 favorites]


mccarty.tim : All well and good, but how can we go about disproving evolution and embarrassing Darwinist teachers?

Why, nothing easier! Just convince God to appear (or at least publish) and document his hypothesis and methods. And no skipping over those "outlier" data points (lookin' at you, Mars!) that didn't go so well on the first try - Those matter possibly more than the successful runs for the simple fact that it lets future Gods know, continuing the example, not to try to seed life on too-young solar systems.


Wash Jones : Isn't inquiry into the nature of science, its scope, methodology, epistemology and metaphysical commitments pretty much the starting point of the philosophy of science

Yes and no. You can question the specifics of all those things, but "science" means following the (conditionally) well-defined experimental procedure known as "scientific method". You can question the validity of every step of the process, but at its core, you'd better start with a hypothesis, come up with a meaningful test of that hypothesis, run that test, analyze your results to either disprove or fail to disprove your hypothesis, and publish the experiment in sufficient detail for third-party confirmation of your results.

Epistemologically, Science provides one answer "how do we know what we know", and attempts to categorize the collection of "what do we know". Metaphysics amounts to nothing more than Godel's incompletemess theory applied to epistemology - Technically undeniably true, but irrelevant to any practical discussion. Does science describe reality? The answer to every question could quite possibly have the "correct" answer "God did it"; Whether or not true, however, that line of reasoning doesn't lead from fire to boilers to internal combustion engines to space travel - It leads to a bunch of savages worshipping their fire gods.
posted by pla at 8:49 PM on November 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


btw, Schaffer (along with Shapin) is known, in some circles at least, for Leviathan and the Air-Pump.

According to this blogger this series has its fair share of questionable things like Gaia Hypothesis and the plant ESP of Robert Sheldrake. Perhaps we need a "How to think about media presentations about how to think about stuff" too. Well in that case we'd also need "How to think about what bloggers say about media presentations about how to think about stuff" as well.
posted by carter at 8:55 PM on November 27, 2009


The point that many of these people are trying to make is that science is carried out within the social/cultural framework of the time in which it is takes place, including political and economic contexts, and technological limitations. That does not make the science that is produced bad science, or not useful science, or irrelevant science, or any other kind of non-science science. It just makes it what it is for the time and context.

Scientists are well aware of this. They know more about the limitations of their studies than anyone. We all wish we could do more or had better equipment or more money and we know that we're usually only scratching the surface.

The public expect scientists to be all knowing, prescient oracle types that will continue to gift them $500 flat screen TVs and tell them how to fix every situation. And to do that in a week and on a $10 budget. You tell them that isn't going to work and they freak out, call your senator and demand to know why such a bunch of incompetents are given gubmint dollars. They misrepresent or downright lie, you get misquoted in the newspaper. Eventually you stop talking to them unless it's via a formal public presentation or in writing. USGS has gone so far as to formalize this agency-wide; and they did not do it because they enjoy bureaucracy or micro-managing power point presentations. They did it to protect their work.

There is also a large amount of professional courtesy in not talking about your work in terms of your personal life or experiences because the work was undoubtedly created by many people of varied backgrounds and cultures. I've worked in labs where no two people were from the same country or ethnic background. Who says my western European Judeo Christian background has anything to do with the work when my collaborators are a Thai Buddhist and a Filipino atheist? Similarly there is also nothing nefarious about individual disagreements or discussions a) happening and b) not making it into a final paper. That's simply the nature of collaborative work.
posted by fshgrl at 9:20 PM on November 27, 2009 [11 favorites]


I work with a hammer. I like science. I also like pie and film and oldtime country music.
posted by nola at 9:32 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Bruno Latour is awesome.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:37 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why, nothing easier! Just convince God to appear (or at least publish) and document his hypothesis and methods. And no skipping over those "outlier" data points (lookin' at you, Mars!) that didn't go so well on the first try - Those matter possibly more than the successful runs for the simple fact that it lets future Gods know, continuing the example, not to try to seed life on too-young solar systems.

This is all made clear in 4026 when man and manimal open the first driving range on Titan. Later God makes it clear why eating pork bbq is fucked.

Even later Science is proven goofy by incorquorcs using snarfblats and the Silmarillion as the ground work for everything we never needed to want to know about origins and space travel. After this a bold new age of something emerges as the standered for latest thought/no-thought for the everysomething.
posted by nola at 9:50 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


All of this has been widely known among sociologists and philosophers of science for a long time. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions covered this ground expertly in 1962.
posted by Crotalus at 9:57 PM on November 27, 2009


The difference between what what scientists know (it's 3 steps forward, sometimes 2, sometimes 4 steps back) and what the public expects (jet packs! warp drives! cures for cancer! large tellies!) - really, these are more technological achievements than scientific ones - is partly the subject, in a broad research agenda sense, of some of the speakers in the podcasts. All the public tends to see is the science museum displays, journal articles, press conferences, etc., where the finished and polished version is presented. The public tends not to see the messy 'backstage' of science, and all the work that goes into (for example) designing, running and re-running experiments.
posted by carter at 10:03 PM on November 27, 2009


I wonder what Rorty and other relativists, who basically think liberalism ought to be first and foremost before any epistemology, scientific or otherwise, might think about scientists' current occupation with issues like global warming, peak oil, etc. Obviously it is not always easy to separate politics from knowledge (Rorty might even say they go hand in hand), but what if politics compromise knowledge? I'm no climate change skeptic but the leaked emails debacle at the very least shows how scientific data is subject to interpretation from individuals who, like the skeptics, have clear political motivations. The public receives the distilled interpretation, and we trust that what we have received is keeping with the facts. I suppose the relativist might say, "that's why liberalism ought to come first!" At least climate change science has the common good in mind, whereas skeptics are protecting the interests of those who have a lot to lose from necessary changes in economic policy. The climate change scientists, on the other hand, see beyond special interests. They think humanity has a lot to lose.
posted by ageispolis at 10:06 PM on November 27, 2009


The point that many of these people are trying to make is that science is carried out within the social/cultural framework of the time in which it is takes place, including political and economic contexts, and technological limitations.

This is undeniably true, but no one has ever explained to me why this point is interesting.
posted by afu at 10:12 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Scientists are well aware of this. They know more about the limitations of their studies than anyone. We all wish we could do more or had better equipment or more money and we know that we're usually only scratching the surface.

But it's not JUST money and precision that is at issue in thinking critically about science ; it's the nature of the very questions scientists ask and the answers they will accept. Anne Fausto Sterling and Emily Martin, among many others, are good starting points for this kind of criticism.

Whether or not true, however, that line of reasoning doesn't lead from fire to boilers to internal combustion engines to space travel - It leads to a bunch of savages worshipping their fire gods.

Please read Claude Levi-Strauss' The Savage Mind
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:28 PM on November 27, 2009


The reason I think it's interesting (and not necessarily the reason the people in the podcasts might think it is interesting) is that we're now in a position to support large-scale real-time collaboration networks amongst scientists - sharing datasets, making exciting new discoveries, etc. If all scientists are 'on the same page' with regard to scientific practice, this should be easy-ish (concerns about intellectual property and capital aside). But it turns out that it's not easy at all, partly because people do things differently in different places; incompatible forms of data archives and metadata are one very interesting aspect of this.
posted by carter at 10:28 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is cool but it's silly to suggest science/scientists have evaded the scrutiny of other scientists. I mean, that's just a stupid headline looking for a reality check.
posted by pelham at 10:34 PM on November 27, 2009


But it's not JUST money and precision that is at issue in thinking critically about science ; it's the nature of the very questions scientists ask and the answers they will accept.

Science is basically just having an idea, then checking it out as best you can to see if you're right and telling other people what you did. You can criticize the ideas, you can criticize the method of checking or the communication but you can't criticize the process, it's fundamentally sound.

Anyone who follows that process honestly is a scientist of some sort. There are a lot of working scientists. Like millions. And even more grad students and under-grads and interns, post docs and untold numbers of non-research collaborators and keen amateurs. If there's a question that has not been asked it will be. If there's a topic that is not being actively investigated somewhere, by someone, I'd be surprised. You will not find a group of people more open to differently-natured questions and seemingly implausible answers than scientists. It's literally what we are paid to do. (Plus we deeply enjoy coming up with nifty explanations for stuff that our colleagues can't figure out).

People who complain about their work not being accepted by the scientific community generally have done bad work or have fundamental misunderstandings about the "scientific community".
posted by fshgrl at 11:07 PM on November 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


Episode 14 - Eveyln Fox Keller. is really insightful. She outlines how the word "gene" is misleading yet still in use by Big Pharma, science grant writers, science journalists and everyone else because it serves their disparate needs.

The accurate definition of "gene" is so vague as to be meaningless.

Yet in common practice the word is a concise way to assert the existence of all kinds of imagined biological science-fiction phenomena: the genetic basis for behaviour; future gene therapy optomism; the nature vs. nurture dichotomy; hereditary intelligence etc....
posted by dongolier at 12:04 AM on November 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Science is basically just having an idea, then checking it out as best you can to see if you're right and telling other people what you did.

This is actual practice.

start with a hypothesis, come up with a meaningful test of that hypothesis, run that test, analyze your results to either disprove or fail to disprove your hypothesis, and publish the experiment in sufficient detail for third-party confirmation of your results.

This is how you describe what you want to do in order to get a grant.

As an example, Einstein didn't come up with relativity via hypothesis/test/analysis. He thought about what we can actually see, how to describe it in math, and what the implications of that description were. Later, other people figured out ways to test those implications. But we still know that what Einstein was doing was most definitely science.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:35 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


carter: "… concerns about intellectual property and capital aside …"

But the thing to realise is, rightly or wrongly, they are huge concerns - and that's where the "fundamental questions about how the institution of science is structured and how it knows what it knows" from the original post should be directed.
posted by Pinback at 1:08 AM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


> Einstein didn't come up with relativity via hypothesis/test/analysis.

Science is bigger than individual scientists, and many scientists specialize in one or two steps of the scientific process/cycle; cf the theoretician/experimentalist dichotomy.
posted by msittig at 1:46 AM on November 28, 2009


Berkeley: Your beaker, it does not exist!

Scientist: What's that?

Berkeley: The matter of the beaker is intangible!

Scientist: *fills beaker with hydrochloric acid, throws contents in Berkeley's face*

Berkeley: Aaiiieeee!

Scientist: I refute it thus!
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:23 AM on November 28, 2009


"Science" (and I'm talking about the popular impression non-scientists have of the term)...

I'm a non-scientist and my understanding was that "science" is a method of inquiry using evidence and experimentation to extrapolate information about the universe, thereby devising theories to assist our understanding of it. When "scientists" tell me something then, yes, I'm certainly interested in their conclusions, but I'd also like their methodology to be open. I don't look at "science" as self-explanatory category.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:27 AM on November 28, 2009


Science is basically just having an idea, then checking it out as best you can to see if you're right and telling other people what you did. You can criticize the ideas, you can criticize the method of checking or the communication but you can't criticize the process, it's fundamentally sound.

It is precisely because people are willing to consistently scrutinize and criticize the process that it remains fundamentally sound. Just like it is the actions of watchdogs that keeps the democratic process fundamentally sound.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:29 AM on November 28, 2009


On one hand, I appreciate the spirit of interest shown by turgid dahlia and (presumably, when I listen to these broadcasts, as I will, but have not yet) many other seekers.

Almost invariably the scientists I have known personally and professionally are passionate about their work and like nothing better than to talk to other people about the amazingness and relevance of the little slice of life that is their professional focus.

However: My experience as a scientist, and a teacher of science, is that for vast majority of people--even the vast majority of highly educated people--are almost completely ignorant of even the basics of most scientific disciplines. What's the difference between an atom and a molecule, what's the difference between a eukaryote and a prokaryote, what's the relationship between electricity and magnetism, on and on and on.

The reason those conversations don't make it out to the public sphere for the most part is that the issues have to be so simplified and generalized in order to make them approachable to an audience that has limited to no grasp of the fundamentals. The detail and specificity that makes a problem/system interesting necessarily gets stripped away and, surprise, the interest in having the discussion at all diminishes as well--for the scientist, who can't share the whole story, and the layperson, who hears the boiled-down description and thinks, "why in the world would anyone care about that?".

The world needs more and better science education.
posted by Sublimity at 5:41 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is awesome! Thanks for linking to this. Ian Hacking is one of my favorite philosophers.
posted by painquale at 6:04 AM on November 28, 2009


Thanks for this post- I'm downloading the podcasts as we speak. I do some science studies on the side (and did some graduate work in Schaffer's department) and I feel like I can never get enough of this stuff. Most of the people who do this work are incredibly smart, with degrees that cross multiple disciplines, such that it can be intimidating to get started in HPS (or whatever your local abbreviation) without some general introductory work. So kudos to CBC Radio!

The fact that everyone is here debating quite loudly about what they think/know science to be and promoting works that a lot of academic in the field are both indebted to and think are totally outdated and inaccurate speaks to the very unique and interesting time we live in. Something noteworthy that I have gleamed from some of the comments here: there is a funny relationship between aspects of HPS (specifically critique or deconstructionism) and the anti-Darwin intelligent design folks. As Latour has argued, it seems that critique has opened certain floodgates and allowed relativism to seep into things that should more or less be taken as solid (accuracy in news reporting, the science of global warming), and now science studies folks like Latour are quite concerned with what knowledge will look like after deconstructionism.

This odd alliance, though, between critique and teabaggers, seems to have a lot of people running back to science as TRUE and PURE. This is both totally understandable and incredibly unfortunately because it creates an ideological clash where there shouldn't be one, and it's pulling us back into metaphysics which, frankly, we should have overcome by now.

I look forward to these podcasts!
posted by farishta at 6:44 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


fshgrl, it's clear from your posts that you really don't get what Shapin et al are about. If the thread will forgive an extended discourse, I spent about two years studying this stuff in law school, so I'll provide a short summary.

Shapin's argument (A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England), like the one he made with Simon Schaffer (Leviathan and the Air Pump), is that science is not a free-standing, inherently sound set of methodologies. It is one tool which cultures can use to "generate" facts for societal use.

"Facts" are not items which you are not permitted to question, they are rather items which you are permitted not to question. That's an important difference, and it gets at the fact that knowledge exists in community, even for scientists. If you really want to be radically empirical about your experimentation, you need to empirically verify everything about every step of an experiment, including your equipment. No assumptions of verity are permissible. So when you get out your beaker, which has convenient little markings on it, you are not permitted to assume that it holds, in fact, 100ml (+/- .5ml) unless you exist in a culture which permits you to make that assumption. Now you can point out that we do, in fact, exist in such a culture, but that's not the same thing as saying that you are not making a rather significant assumption there.

Because every time you use any piece of experiment you are making two assumptions. First, that someone isn't deliberately trying to screw with you. That's not a very difficult assumption to make, but it is in there. But second, that the person or persons who made your equipment did their jobs competently. Today, what with machine manufacturing, this is not a hard assumption to make either, but when first members of the Royal Society were conducting the first wave truly modern scientific experiments, they were making all their own instruments, because they could not make that second assumption. Not only were there no reliable way of producing exact instruments, but the nature of printing in the seventeenth-century (see Adrian Johns' book The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making) was such that it was very, very difficult to ensure that one's conclusions and methods were accurately communicated to the wider world. As a result, scientific enquiry until about the nineteenth century was conducted almost entirely on the basis of the word of the scientist as a gentleman. Seriously. Not the nature of their methodology, not the status of the scientist, not the process of the discipline, their personal word as a Christian gentleman.

Needless to say, this is not quite the same process by which scientific investigations are established anymore. History has progressed from there, and now our culture contains mechanisms which permit us to recognize bits of scientific data as facts without questioning them at every step. But what Shapin and others like him are arguing is that this is not because science is somehow epistemically irreproachable, but because our culture has a rather intricate system of shared epistemic mechanisms, i.e. mental tools for the generation and recognition of facts, developed over time, which permit us to make the assumptions necessary to do so. Most of these things are completely unscrutinized most of the time, especially by scientists, many of whom assume, as fshgrl and others have argued, that scientific research is subject to question as to its results and conclusions, but not as to the validity of its basic methodology.

This, so far, is not my argument. It is a summary of the arguments advanced across several books and numerous scholarly articles over the course of a decade, some of which is presumably contained in the links in the FPP. I haven't listened to them, so I don't know. But this is what historians of science (not really philosophers of science so much) are saying these days, and have been for about two decades. Arguing with the summary above will almost certainly wind up raising assertions which are dealt with in detail in the body of literature surrounding this subject. I merely report.

Where this gets interesting for us today--and this is my own extrapolation--is precisely in the creationism/pseudo-science/ufology arena, because it suggests that that that system of shared epistemic mechanisms is breaking down rapidly. Not only are unscientific, indeed even anti-scientific ideas flourishing, but if you look at the current state of political conflict in the US you'll see exactly the same thing in other contexts. The Left and the Right no longer share a set of epistemic assumptions which permit them to recognize the factual content of the others' discourse. There is no longer a shared set of assumptions which permit us to recognize truth statements without examination.

This, I suggest, is a problem.
posted by valkyryn at 7:15 AM on November 28, 2009 [32 favorites]


I have a sociology degree, yet as an educator I have found myself teaching science to elementary level students. I listen to this series with a very open mind, as I feel one of the most important principles of science is to always question. Especially those who say they know the facts. As this act, is always connected to structures of social power and influence.
posted by Ark_Light at 7:23 AM on November 28, 2009


Well done valkyryn! To plug another book- Science in Action by Latour is a reader-friendly introduction to the process of science getting made.
posted by farishta at 7:31 AM on November 28, 2009


Am I the first one to comment, other than the original poster, who's heard the whole 24 hour series? (Most of it twice... I know, I really should get a life.)

Each episode is an interview with one or more people, and stands alone. Don't think you have to listen to all 24 parts (though you may want to once you start), or in any special order. The producer, David Cayley, has been making impossibly good series like this for CBC radio's "Ideas" for something like thirty years.

If you think you already know what this is going to teach you, before listening, because you

- read Thomas Kuhn thirty years ago, or
- already laugh at UFOs/creationists/pseudoscience haha amirite!,

you've missed the entire point of what the series offers. In fact, if you're either of these things you're smart and informed enough to make an ideal member of the audience. Prepare to have some of your conscious and unconscious assumptions unsettled in a very healthy and entertaining way.
posted by namasaya at 9:11 AM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Going along with namasaya, Kuhn is now viewed as woefully out of date. No serious scholar of the history of science has thought that way since at least the 1980s.
posted by valkyryn at 9:42 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


There is no longer a shared set of assumptions which permit us to recognize truth statements without examination.

This, I suggest, is a problem.


Considering the kinds of things that have been accepted as truth statements without examination in the past (or even right now), I have to disagree. Examining your premises may take up valuable time, but ignoring them will almost always send you off into a world of fantasy.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:34 AM on November 28, 2009


but science itself largely escaped scrutiny.

"Science" has had intense, hostile scrutiny of methods and results every since scientific inquiry started producing results people, particularly powerful people, didn't like, and, for that matter, ever since it suggested that there are modes of inquiry that allow us to understand the world not predicated on simply accepting what the local holy man (for example) tells you. Ask Galileo about the latter.

And that's before you move on to more reasoned investigations (Kant et al).

To assert that science has no scrutiny is so collossally dishonest or ignorant I have a hard time seeing any credibility for someone adopting it as a premise.

The Left and the Right no longer share a set of epistemic assumptions which permit them to recognize the factual content of the others' discourse.

Given the anti-Vaxers trend left and the anti-biology types trend right, I'd say they do share some beliefs about the nature of reality, the most important of which is: never let the facts get in the way of a good story, and demonise anyone who tries to insert them.
posted by rodgerd at 10:39 AM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


the fact that knowledge exists in community

This is an unnecessarily opaque and utterly misleading bit of pernicious nonsense.

Let us take one class of facts to be physical properties. These physical properties, such as chemical compounds, are community-independent: our entire species could be atomized into oblivion, could go extinct tomorrow, and these physical properties would still be facts about which there can be no doubt.

The Left and the Right no longer share a set of epistemic assumptions which permit them to recognize the factual content of the others' discourse.

Hyperbolic cant. Thank goodness "the Left or Right" (false monoliths, but never mind) don't get to "decide" what counts as lasting science. Furthermore, everyone likes to think the age they live in is special, i.e. is rife with unprecedented, foundation-rattling metaphysical quandaries. A quick look at history might help alleviate such self-importance: there have always been major disagreements about what matters, and despite the best attempts by shallow ideologues and dogmatists to make science fit their view of the world, science has a way of outlasting the vagaries of politics.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:43 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Let us take one class of facts to be physical properties. These physical properties, such as chemical compounds, are community-independent: our entire species could be atomized into oblivion, could go extinct tomorrow, and these physical properties would still be facts about which there can be no doubt.

valkyryn is talking about knowledge not about the properties themselves. Human knowledge of something is not the same as the thing in itself.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:06 AM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


HP LaserJet P10006, you aren't getting it. Shapin et all are not talking at all about whether or not the properties of chemical compounds are dependent upon community consensus. They aren't. They're arguing that whether or not information about chemical compounds will be recognized as knowledge within a particular community. This is less a question about knowledge about the world than about how that knowledge is authenticated and handled within a given society.

The problem is one of trust. If you exhaustively investigated a given phenomenon and conclusively declare a particular state of affairs to be the case, the only way of transferring that knowledge to someone else is for them to trust you.

It's one thing to say that you know x to be true. The problem is getting other people to believe you. If a society does not share a set of epistemic mechanisms for reaching consensus about such things, discussion becomes impossible. You can "do science" to your heart's content, but unless the society in which you are situated has means by which scientific investigation becomes publicly-available knowledge, it's of little practical use.
posted by valkyryn at 11:38 AM on November 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


valkyryn is talking about knowledge not about the properties themselves. Human knowledge of something is not the same as the thing in itself.

I understand the distinction, and I'm not meaning to assert it as unimportant, but I was playing upon the word-choice in the phrase "fact that knowledge exists in community" (where fact had earlier been used in scare quotes).

If this (and by this I mean the proposition "knowledge exists in community") is a fact, and I'm not even sure it is, it's certainly a different class of facts from physical properties. Consider two propositions:

a) knowledge exists in community
b) stable isotopes do not exhibit radioactivity

Perhaps the first proposition is a kind of quasi-rational fact, but I'm not even sure it's intelligible as a proposition. It reads like an assertion, which is ironic considering it is meant to show that the ontology of scientific facts may not be absolute, and b/c we are meant to read it as non-trivial. But the communal genesis of the periodic table may be, from a pragmatic standpoint if not from an absolute one, trivial.

I'm interested in the philosophy of science, but the sociology of science sometimes upsets my preternatural materialism. To me, saying "knowledge exists in community" is not really a fact (although it was phrased as such), and I'm not even sure it's an intelligible assertion. After all, knowledge is just as problematic (even more so) than facticity. My only point was that scientific knowledge transcends the community in which it originates, and if it doesn't then one is on a quick slope to solipsism.

But I may have overstated my case, and if so I apologize. I also agree there are all sorts of thorny epistemological issues when other kinds of considerations (so far not touched upon in this thread) are introduced: such as the status of mathematical objects, or whether or not biology has laws the way physics does.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:50 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


If a society does not share a set of epistemic mechanisms for reaching consensus about such things, discussion becomes impossible.

Speaking sociologically, there are at least two societies or communities at issue here: that of the scientific community, and that of the body politic. The former is a subset of the latter, and the latter tends to misunderstand or hold the former in suspicion. But to say that there is currently a fatal source of misunderstanding between these two communities one has to do more than just assert it. Where are we on the "decline of scientific consensus" spectrum? Most of the noise comes from the body politic, so it's hard to tell. Are we at the point of the much-maligned middle ages, where Aristotle is kept alive by monastics? What I'm trying to say here is that it may look to you as if the sky is falling, but history shows that science is always being attacked from those who don't have the brains to gather what it's up to. At a purely institutional level, the research system is not going away anytime soon. Even in places (like Saudi Arabia) where there is a formal state-bound clergy that condemns a lot of science, actual scientific research (medical, for instance) in academic and corporate settings, continues without a lot of meddling.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 12:06 PM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Valkyrn- with all due respect 2 years of studying something in law school does not equal 15+ years of full immersion. Many of the points you make are nonsenical to a working scientist: of course we check our equipment, of course we question methodology (ever submitted a paper to a major journal?). Of course we question long held assumptions. We are not bound by the cultures we work in, scientists have always communicated widely and benefited from our colleagues in other countries with better public support or more funding or a longer history of work.

It is not my fault if the general public can't be bothered learning enough about science to tell the difference between "facts" and "widely held assumptions" or "popular hypothesis".

And creationism has nothing to do with science except as something to talk about in the pop culture and sociological realm. It has, literally, nothing to bring to the field.

The Left and the Right no longer share a set of epistemic assumptions which permit them to recognize the factual content of the others' discourse. There is no longer a shared set of assumptions which permit us to recognize truth statements without examination.

This, I suggest, is a problem.


As far as I know there never was a set of shared assumptions that allowed seamless decision making based on "known facts" discovered by universally supported scientific inquiry, in the US or elsewhere.
posted by fshgrl at 12:47 PM on November 28, 2009


HP LaserJet P10006, you still aren't getting it. What's being done here isn't really sociology of science but history of science. Shapin, Shaffers, Johns, etc. are looking at how the scientific community itself came to deal with the generation and transmission of facts. Forget for a minute the distinction between the scientific community and the larger society of which the scientific community is a subset. In the seventeenth century, the mechanisms for scientists to take each others' word for things had not been established.

Again, take it down to the most fundamental level. If you are engaged in the project of trying to apply empiricism to the natural world, whether or not you can accept any assertions about the natural world which you have not made yourself is a significant problem. It took a few centuries to develop a scientific methodology which was sufficiently well-established to enable scientists to take each other's work at face value.

Take your example, "Stable isotopes do not exhibit radioactivity." I believe that statement to be true--by definition if for no other reason--but I don't know that in the same way that a physicist knows it, and biologists don't know it in that way either. There is an incredible amount of trust going on in accepting such a statement. Shapin etc. are not attempting to say whether or not this trust is warranted, nor are they attempting to compare it to other forms of trust, e.g. faith. Rather, they are simply pointing out that unless you yourself have made every observation required to reach such a conclusion, you are taking someone else's word for it, and the epistemic mechanisms which permit that trust are neither automatic nor unimportant.

In this sense, scientific knowledge does not transcend community. Indeed, it is impossible without community, because no one has the time to come to direct and personal scientific certainty about very much. You need to take someone else's word for it, and unless society has the mechanism for making that workable, science is impossible.
posted by valkyryn at 12:54 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


fshgrl, I'm not claiming to be an expert. I'm claiming that I have the requisite experience to write a halfway-decent summary of those who are. If you want to argue with Schaffer and Shapin, go right ahead.

You still aren't really getting their points either. The kind of cross-cultural work you talk about is pretty trivial compared to the problems they're dealing with. At some point you need to stop verifying everything directly. That place is where trust begins, and that is where you draw upon the resources of your culture which enable you to skip certain questions as trivial.
posted by valkyryn at 1:01 PM on November 28, 2009


Prepare to have some of your conscious and unconscious assumptions unsettled in a very healthy and entertaining way.

For those debating with themselves whether to invest the time to listen to this series, can you give us an example of an assumption unsettled in such a fashion?
posted by storybored at 1:08 PM on November 28, 2009


In the seventeenth century, the mechanisms for scientists to take each others' word for things had not been established.

I'm well aware of this in all its subtlety, having studied it at the graduate level, but I'm not sure how it's germane to what I was saying.

whether or not you can accept any assertions about the natural world which you have not made yourself is a significant problem. It took a few centuries to develop a scientific methodology which was sufficiently well-established to enable scientists to take each other's work at face value.

Fair enough. Again, I'm not sure what I specifically wrote that makes you think I would disagree with any of this.

There is an incredible amount of trust going on in accepting such a statement.

Here I have a quibble: I think there is a relatively minor amount of trust involved in most empirically verifiable propositions. Either way, however, it's curious how much weight you are now placing on the word incredible. Is there trust in the modern scientific endeavor? Yes, of course so. But whether that trust is somehow greater than trust in law or election reform I can't say.

unless you yourself have made every observation required to reach such a conclusion, you are taking someone else's word for it, and the epistemic mechanisms which permit that trust are neither automatic nor unimportant.

But are they "unimportant" in a metaphysical sense or in a sociological sense? After all, nothing is unimportant, but again it's difficult to see how this is not just a question of emphasis. Certainly the ultimate element of "trust" in the scientific process could be seen as no greater or lesser (and probably even lesser) than in many other human activities.

In this sense, scientific knowledge does not transcend community.

I think this is your money quote, and it all hinges on the clause "in this sense." I am arguing that metaphysically scientific knowledge must transcend community, otherwise it's of no more empirical value or practical comprehensibility than the random output of a monkey at a typewriter. This is what gives science a stab at achieving something like objectivity, and what keeps it from being merely relative to culture.

You need to take someone else's word for it, and unless society has the mechanism for making that workable, science is impossible.

I've already said that the mechanisms are in the institutions (journals, universities, corporate R&D, etc.), and that those institutions are mostly, compared to much of human history, flourishing.

You can't seem to make a cogent argument. If you're arguing science is in danger of disappearing b/c some vague "mechanism" for building public "trust" about its activity has faded, I'm saying you need to provide evidence of your intuition. From my standpoint it seems like a lot of hand wringing confusion.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:19 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


HP LaserJet P10006, if it seems that I'm not making a cogent argument... it's because I'm not really making an argument. My intention was to summarize the Shaffer/Shapin project. Some commenters before me were misconstruing/missing the point of their work, and I felt compelled to offer a correction. Things like peer review and corporate R&D, while important and sophisticated, are not inherent features of scientific enterprise as such. Peer review in particular doesn't go back much more than a century. Science has functioned without it before and there's no reason to attribute it some kind of talismanic authority. "I'm just sayin', is all," as it were.

The only extrapolation I made from that, if you'll go back to my original post, was that a lot of the problems we're seeing with the lack of productive public discourse have to do with a breakdown of shared epistemology. If you'll note, I did not actually direct this at the scientific establishment as such, except to point out that the flourishing of things like creationism and ufology suggest a culture-wide breakdown of universally-recognized methods for assigning credit to truth claims. The scientific establishment's capacity to learn new things about the world seems relatively undiminished, but it's social authority is under attack, which is a symptom of deeper societal problems.
posted by valkyryn at 1:55 PM on November 28, 2009


there's no reason to attribute it some kind of talismanic authority.

Of course not, but it's one example of how modern science has established its own community, and how despite tremendous pressure from the outside world it still is able not include non-scientists in the mechanics of the workaday scientific process.

a lot of the problems we're seeing with the lack of productive public discourse have to do with a breakdown of shared epistemology

This assumes perhaps that the "shared epistemology" between scientists and non-scientists was ever really that dependable. I think history shows otherwise.

it's social authority is under attack

Its. And I both agree and disagree: I agree that it's under attack, but I think this attack has been more or less permanent since Galileo and Copernicanism were both officially condemned as heretical by the Papacy.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 2:03 PM on November 28, 2009


Take your example, "Stable isotopes do not exhibit radioactivity." I believe that statement to be true--by definition if for no other reason--but I don't know that in the same way that a physicist knows it, and biologists don't know it in that way either. There is an incredible amount of trust going on in accepting such a statement.

Um, what?? I'm a biologist and I understand that and could verify it if I had to. Besides it makes sense based on all the many years of chemistry and physics I had to take to get my degrees so there's not some "incredible amount of trust". Most scientists have a working knowledge of related disciplines and don't just taking what we're told at face value. (We save that for the IT guys. I don't even know where my server is, much less how it works.)

Honestly I've read a bit of this stuff now and it's either pretty specious or very badly explained because it seems a bunch of pointless hand-wringing to me too. Some basic assumptions that hundreds of people are basing their research on are wrong? Big deal, in real life that happens all the time. The public is starting to question the foundation of decisions made on science? Again, daily occurrence in my world. Scientists have to deal with nutters who try to subvert the scientific process for their own ends? Get in line.
posted by fshgrl at 2:14 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Things like peer review and corporate R&D, while important and sophisticated, are not inherent features of scientific enterprise as such.

Of modern science? Hell yes they are. I'm sorry but that statement is patently false.
posted by fshgrl at 2:18 PM on November 28, 2009


Things like peer review and corporate R&D, while important and sophisticated, are not inherent features of scientific enterprise as such.

Of modern science? Hell yes they are. I'm sorry but that statement is patently false.


As valkyn explicitly notes above, peer review doesn't go back all that far (and certainly not back to the dawn of modern science as it is usually defined, in the 1600s and 1700s). Corporate R&D depends on how you define corporations (you could throw in guilds, I suppose, if you really wanted to), but in the sense we understand it it's an invention of the 19th and 20th centuries.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:57 PM on November 28, 2009


HP LaserJet P10006, the fact that you're willing to divide scientists and non-scientists into rigorous epistemic categories strikes me as deeply suspicious, particularly in the context of a discipline which is supposed to be agnostic to persons and community.

fshgrl, you're really not engaging the points I'm making at all. Sure, you could verify that. I could too. That's not the point. The point is that most of the time you don't. And when you don't, you're trusting someone or something else. Yes, sometimes it's something you've verified in the past, but most of the time it isn't, so you're relying on someone else telling the truth. When, as was the case in the seventeenth century, society's means for recognizing truth-tellers was contingent upon birth and attendant social status, this is a problem for those trying to do rigorous science.

This is the crux of Shapin and Shaffer's argument, that modern science as a discipline is not some perfect machine for generating truth that sprung from the head of Zeus in the sixteenth century, but rather it gradually developed as a socially-contextualized discipline.
posted by valkyryn at 4:24 PM on November 28, 2009


peer review doesn't go back all that far

What difference does it make? Despite protestations by Valkyn to the contrary, I don't think the history of science really matters here. Valkyn is/was arguing, as best as I can tell, that there is, to use his words, a system of shared epistemic mechanisms that is breaking down rapidly (which sounds very ominous, but is also frustratingly vague).

In other words he is/was arguing something about the way science is currently being absorbed by contemporary society, hence his description of the Left and Right having different criteria for objectivity, etc.

To counter this, fshgrl and myself are arguing that this assertion on his part, at least when it comes to how science is actually practiced, does not match reality: peer reviewed journals are one piece of evidence that a system for evaluating science within the scientific community is in fact in place, and that it is not threatened (in any substantial way) by non-scientists with ideological axes to grind.

The fact that peer review is only a hundred years old is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it represents one way in which science has a "mechanism" in place to keep non-scientific nonsense at bay. Which, frankly, is only a minor part of why peer review matters, but it's the one under discussion here.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:41 PM on November 28, 2009


modern science as a discipline is not some perfect machine for generating truth that sprung from the head of Zeus in the sixteenth century, but rather it gradually developed as a socially-contextualized discipline.

OMG stop the presses! I had no idea! I thought science was infallible. LOL
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:43 PM on November 28, 2009


valkyryn and fshgirl, you seem to be talking past one another, which is frustrating, because you both seem to have interesting, thoughtful things to say based on your professional areas of endeavor.

Me, I got nothin'.
posted by everichon at 5:07 PM on November 28, 2009


That's not the point. The point is that most of the time you don't. And when you don't, you're trusting someone or something else. Yes, sometimes it's something you've verified in the past, but most of the time it isn't, so you're relying on someone else telling the truth.

Scientists know perhaps more than anyone else that there is no such thing as 100% certitude. I sure don't have time to keep up on what theoretical particle physicists for example are doing, but I trust that they are applying the scientific method correctly and coming up with reasonable models that fairly accurately explain how stuff works. I do not know for absolute certain that there isn't some giant conspiracy that substitutes untruth for science. I don't even know that Metafilter here actually exists either. But given my experience, the likelihood of either of those things being true is quite small. Small enough, in fact, that I'm willing to say I'm certain that they are untrue. Certainty has a little bit of uncertainty in it; it has to if it is to be any use at all in describing the universe we actually live in.

Basically, I have a model of the universe I live in, as we all do. It includes the understanding that there isn't some giant conspiracy of scientists just making up some whacko stuff. I have developed enough of an understanding of science and how the institution of science works in our society to believe that this model is very likely correct. Until evidence surfaces to the contrary, it is not worth my time to give the alternative any thought--there is too much other stuff in the universe to think about that actually has a good chance of being relevant.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:09 PM on November 28, 2009


Science is great and everything, but control freak scientists who are trying to win at reality are a colossal drag. Their transparent frustration at not being able to railroad any conversation that strays into their precious intellectual territory! It's sad that so fucking many scientists aren't interested in communicating, they just want to be seen to be pwning.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 6:37 PM on November 28, 2009


Zalzidrax, the thing is that the scientific method is not eternal or immutable. It was developed over time. It's proven to be very useful, don't get me wrong, but there was a time before it existed. The first modern scientists had to basically make it up from scratch.

Today, you can say "Hey, I can trust what that guy tells me, because he's using the scientific method." Shaffer and Shapin's argument is that this couldn't work when there was no such thing, and it worked even less when there were competing versions. It took about 150 years before you could say this uncontroversially, and the result sometimes looks like viewing scientists as a sort of inherently trustworthy priesthood, e.g. HP LaserJet P10006's comment above.

Remember, we're talking about a period in time (roughly 1550-1800) when the idea that you could learn something about the world by observing it directly, independent of the wisdom of the ancients or the Church, was highly controversial. When a new scientist wanted to share his observations with those who had not made those observations themselves, he was essentially asking the audience to trust that 1) the scientist wasn't mistaken about his observation, and 2) his communication of his observation was accurate. Which epistemically isn't that different from asking them to accept it on the basis his authority, which is precisely what the first modern scientists were trying to avoid.

Once the scientific method was established as a regular cultural practice with generally accepted metes and bounds, this worked. But it took time, it wasn't automatic, it required new epistemic structures for recognizing and accepting truth-telling, and it still requires us to accept things which we have not empirically verified ourselves. This may seem trivial, but epistemically speaking it's huge. The justification for trusting scientists does differ from the justification for trusting priests, but both ultimately involve trust unless one duplicates every experiment on one's own.
posted by valkyryn at 6:15 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


viewing scientists as a sort of inherently trustworthy priesthood

You have an uncanny ability to create strawman arguments. I've nowhere advocated for "viewing scientists as a sort of inherently trustworthy priesthood," and frankly this is just such a nonsensical view I doubt you even think I hold it.

we're talking about a period in time (roughly 1550-1800) when the idea

You're not making clear how this history is relevant to science as it's practiced today, and I'm not sure I understand any longer what it is you're arguing (if I ever did). After all, one may trust or mistrust lawyers today, but either way if one aims to consider commonly held contemporary views of law, then the question of how law was practiced in 1550 is not especially helpful to our understanding of how law is viewed in 2009.

The justification for trusting scientists does differ from the justification for trusting priests, but both ultimately involve trust unless one duplicates every experiment on one's own.

Is there some reason you chose the example of priests instead of any other occupation (insurance salesmen, car wash attendants, small town mayors, graphic designers)? After all, one trusts that a car mechanic fixes one's car: is that an instance of the trust in science you are referring to? You seem to want the observation that "we trust 'scientists' not to lie to us" to be a deeply profound observation, but if you replace 'scientist' with tax accountant, veterinarian, hair dresser, journalist, blogger, the observation seems less than profound.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:12 AM on November 29, 2009


HP, he's talking about history because that's what Schaffer and Shapin were talking about and it came up in the discussion, and also because (presumably, sorry for putting words in your mouth valkyryn) that an understanding this history might give us some insight into how to look at science today.

It's been frustrating to watch this thread though; HP and fshgrl, you've seized on the 'present day' part of what valkyryn's brought up and not engaged with the history, and valkyryn, you've retreated to this history when challenged by HP and fshgrl and have not engaged with the present. Thus you're going in circles.

I am kind of surprised that the idea that science works based on some degree of trust in the scientist and in the method and in the equipment - at the very least, in the time period Schaffer and Shapin were discussing in their histories , if not today - is controversial. I kind of agree with valkyryn that if you're not going to take this as a given, you have to produce some pretty compelling reasons why not, and this is likely to be hard given the literatures that have already explored the topic. Since nobody has really attempted that in this thread, let's assume that the question of 'trust' in science in the 1550 to 1800s is settled.

I think it would not be difficult to find examples of "trust" that govern the way science is conducted today. I also think we could have an interesting discussion about how "good" science is distinguished from "bad", because there certainly is a distinction, and yet both can be published in peer reviewed journals. The bad science may be flawed or it may only be uninteresting. Sometimes good science goes in good (respected) journals and bad science in bad journals, but this is not always the case. With the huge volume of literature being produced out there it's really hard to keep on top of your field so you have lots of shortcuts; you read only a few journals you know are good; you monitor a few groups who you know do good work; you go to conferences and interact with your peers who keep you updated on things they've found, and so on.

Problems arise when 'bad' science becomes popularized alongside 'good' science, e.g. in the news media, and I think we can agree we see examples of this all the time. It appears to be possible to create a process that has the appearance of peer review in order to disguise bad science as good. (or, these processes arise by themselves). The problem is that it's not just peer review that acts as a quality check on science; it's peer review by the right peers. I think this is an important part of how science works that is often not mentioned in the discussion.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:28 AM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


I am kind of surprised that the idea that science works based on some degree of trust in the scientist and in the method and in the equipment...is controversial.

I''m kind of surprised you think anyone is arguing against this idea. The question is rather what, if any, relevance this uncontroversial idea has to our understanding of science today, since after all--as I've said several times--it's not at all clear (to me) that there's any more "trust" built into science than there is into things like law, politics, journalism, dentistry (a medical science, yes, but something tells me it's not what's under discussion here), etc. Maybe part of the problem is that "science" is so ill defined.

Problems arise when 'bad' science becomes popularized alongside 'good' science, e.g. in the news media,

I agree, but this is just part of the world we live in. I'm not sure how it could ever be otherwise. It certainly does not alarm me as much as it seems to alarm some people.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:42 AM on November 29, 2009


I've been thinking about making a post like this for quite a while now. It is a brilliant series.

In retrospect, seeing the thoughtless knee jerk reactions this post has inspired, I think it should have gone something more like this:

In 1974 Feynman said:
"Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It's a little bit off because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It's interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit bigger than Millikan's, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn't they discover the new number was higher right away? It's a thing that scientists are ashamed of - this history - because it's apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan's, they thought something must be wrong - and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number close to Millikan's value they didn't look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.
Feynman thought this 'sickness' had been cured, others aren't so sure. How to think about Science, a brilliant 24 part series from CBC's Ideas.
posted by Chuckles at 3:33 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


PercussivePaul, I see what you're saying, but I think the reason we're going in circles is because I started out by saying "History matters," and my interlocutors responded by essentially saying "No, it doesn't." I haven't "engaged" with the present, because it's impossible to do so without first engaging in the history. Both of them are operating as if SCIENCE has no historical background to it, as if its methods and practices are eternal, i.e. the fact that the modern scientific establishment has emerged in a remarkably short period of time is irrelevant because it's so fundamentally right.

So yeah, we are going in circles. I start out by saying "Historically, this has been a problem, and in some sense still is," and they respond by saying "That's not a problem today, and it doesn't matter that the reason we think it isn't a problem didn't exist more than fifty years ago!"

One final shot: HP LaserJet P10006, if you fail to see why trust is a problem for the discipline which is supposed to work precisely because it involves trusting no one, then I'm not sure there's much I can do to help you. The scientific method has at its heart the rejection of anything offered up on the basis of authority. The fact that the only way of sharing its conclusions with others involves doing exactly that was a problem in the seventeenth century and is still a problem today.

Sure, there's trust built into other professions. But they're supposed to operate on trust. A doctor, lawyer, or priest expects you to believe them because they're the experts, and you don't know jack. This is okay, because they are agents of an authority structure. The fact that doctors are starting to look more like natural scientists than natural philosophers, which is what they were until the nineteenth century, is part and parcel to the boom in alternative medicine in the twentieth century, because ironically, people became less willing to accept their physician's word on faith at the same time they were finally justified in doing so. But with priests and lawyers, they have authority as authorized agents of an authoritative entity--either the Church or the State--to issue instructions which you are supposed to accept on trust. Trust is the self-conscious foundation of both professions.

But the fact that there's trust built into the scientific establishment contains a fundamental epistemic contradiction. The scientist purports to gain truth through rigorous observational study, being a good empiricist, but then expects other scientists and non-scientists to believe him on the basis of... what exactly? He can't expect many people to perform the same experiment. Thus, while he himself may be some kind of brave, skeptical, rational empiricist, he expects everyone else to be as credulous as a medieval parishioner. He has to. Yes, of course he wants his results to be confirmed by a few others, but having that confirmed, he doesn't want to have to answer "Why should I trust you? I haven't seen what you've seen," to everyone who comes reads his paper. He can't, really. Because the only available answer is one he can't use himself, i.e. "If you can't do the experiment, you'll just have to trust me." Indeed, objections from those who have not made the observations are rejected as irrelevant. "I did the observation, not you, so you can't object to my conclusions unless you do them yourself."

This is my argument, or rather, the one Shapin and Shaffer have made. You want to deny that it's a problem, that this is in fact very similar to a priesthood, on your head be it. My only extrapolation has been to observe that while the seventeenth century had a rather sophisticated cultural machinery for assigning credit to truth tellers, that machinery does not seem to be operating very well any more, which is a problem for the culture at large and for science in particular. I have not gone into much detail about the nature and contours of that problem, and I have not made any predictions about likely or possible outcomes. Nor will I do so.
posted by valkyryn at 5:58 AM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


But hey, you want evidence of current epistemic problems? I can do that.
posted by valkyryn at 7:56 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


if you fail to see why trust is a problem for the discipline

It's a problem, sure, but I'm very weary of inflating that problem in such a way so as to distort the reality of it.

The scientific method has at its heart the rejection of anything offered up on the basis of authority.

Not really; between arguing there is no SM per se (Feyerabend) and arguing there is a strictly verificationist one (Popper), I tend to take a middle, pragmatic ground.

there's trust built into other professions. But they're supposed to operate on trust.

Says who? We arguably live in an overly litigous socity, and there is a movement for deprofessionalizing and simplifying law in such a way so as to make the justice system fairer in practice (for those unable to afford legal representation). The fact that a lot of people mistrust lawyers shows there is also a problem there; it's not unique to science at all. Law is just the formal codification of normative precedents, but it has an underlying ethical dimension no less than science (which is also nomological, as there are physical laws) has an epistemological or metaphysical one.

The fact that doctors are starting to look more like natural scientists

Medicine is and always has been a branch of science. The distinction between technology and science is also not apparent: plumbers, electricians, and car mechanics are all applied scientists. A doctor or medical researcher is practicing science.

He can't expect many people to perform the same experiment.

And I've never disagreed with you on this; I just don't see it as being as problematic to the practice of science as you take it to be.

You want to deny that it's a problem

I'm not denying "it" is a problem: I'm asking for better clarification of what "it" is, and specifically for recognition that you may (in your earlier comments) have confused the sociological aspect of science-as-applied-practice with the epistemological aspect of science-as-theoretical-knowledge.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:25 AM on November 30, 2009


HP LaserJet P10006, see, this is where your manifest ignorance of the history of science is gonna bite you in the ass. I'd feel bad for you, but I'm enjoying this too much.

Medicine was not really a natural science for most of human history. It was equal parts hokum and mysticism until the beginning of the Renaissance. For crying out loud, Western medicine didn't even involve dissection until the thirteenth century! It was still largely banned in Britain as late as the 18th century. There was no observation of anything. Medical education consisted of the study of Galen, who himself never did any systematic examination of the human body, for the better part of a thousand years. If you were to ask a medieval physician why he believed the body to act in a certain way, he would reply because that's what Galen and/or Aristotle said. Ask why he believed them, and the answer would be "Because he's Aristotle!" To the extent that anyone was doing real investigative work before the sixteenth century, it was in an effort to prove the ancients right rather than to verify their results. Hell, the idea that observation was even relevant to natural philosophy is relatively recent, historically speaking.

You're writing as if people have always thought the way that you do about the world around them and how we know things about it, as if the scientific method is eternally applicable. This is massively false. If you want to lump any and all investigations into natural phenomena under the rubric of "science," hey, you can do that, but that isn't what I mean by the term, and that isn't what most people mean either. By "science," I mean empirical, systematic, inductive investigation into the material universe. No one did this until at least the sixteenth century. The Greeks conducted natural philosophy through the use of thought experiments, e.g. Aristotle "proved" that a heaver object will fall fall faster than a lighter one because he thought it made sense, and everyone believed this until Galileo. Newton and his brethren called themselves "natural philosophers" because that, not "science," was what you called investigations into the natural world. It was only as the discipline attempted to reach certainty through observation that the term "philosophy" was dropped as insufficiently rigorous.

The modern scientific method represents a radical change from the way people knew things about the world in ages past, and it is precisely this radical change which caused so many problems for early scientists. They were self-consciously breaking with a tradition which based its conclusions about the natural world on received wisdom, yet were unable to dispense with the need for belief in things not seen.

As for the clarification you requested: I'm not confusing those two things at all. I'm denying that they're distinguishable. You keep wanting me to say that while the way science gets out into the world may have some problems, science as a discipline is epistemically unencumbered by such issues. You want to split the sociology and history of the scientific enterprise from the practice of science as a means to generating theoretical knowledge, as if the fact that the epistemology is conflicted has no practical bearing on the scientific enterprise. I disagree.

Clear enough?
posted by valkyryn at 12:03 PM on November 30, 2009


It's a shame that this thread became a knockdown-dragout fight about Shapin and Schaffer and the nature of trust in science, because it looks like the radio series is about much more than that. Several commenters appear to have assumed that the point was something about epistemic "relativism" (whatever that is) without noticing that among others (including anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science) the interview series has a few interviews with actual practicing scientists. Listening to these commentators alongside each other should be very interesting and I'm thankful to bewilderbeast for the heads up.

A few missed opportunities, though. Where's Schaffer, Jasanoff, and Haraway? I want my money back from CBC.
posted by col_pogo at 1:15 PM on November 30, 2009


I should point out that I know what relativism is--I just don't think it's a relevant concept for understanding what most STS/science studies people are doing. What I should have underlined above is that the commentators interviewed cover a wide range of approaches to the study of science, and that the Shapin/Schaffer point being argued about here is actually only one fairly small part of that range.
posted by col_pogo at 1:35 PM on November 30, 2009


Medicine was not really a natural science for most of human history. It was equal parts hokum and mysticism until the beginning of the Renaissance.

As opposed to the other natural sciences? Astronomy at that time was still beholden to astrology, and had to wait until the triumph of Copernicanism to overcome its geocentrism. Chemistry was mired in alchemy until Newton. Physics was still locked in the metaphysics of Aristotilean scholasticism until the 17th Century. In short, medicine was no less advanced than the other sciences.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 2:52 PM on November 30, 2009


Please note that I misstated a few key details in my previous comments b/c I wrote it incredibly fast, as I was on my way to class. The class? 17th Century History and Philosophy of Science. It's one of a number of such classes I've taken over the years, and it fulfills a curiosity of mine, since I have read a fair amount in the subject. Which brings me to my next point:

this is where your manifest ignorance of the history of science is gonna bite you in the ass. I'd feel bad for you, but I'm enjoying this too much.

This is really, really ad hominem and patronizing. Please stick to specific facts, as in specific instances of things I've written that indicate to you said "manifest ignorance."

You want to split the sociology and history of the scientific enterprise from the practice of science as a means to generating theoretical knowledge, as if the fact that the epistemology is conflicted has no practical bearing on the scientific enterprise. I disagree. Clear enough?

No, it's not clear enough, b/c you've yet to provide evidence for your claim that an "epistemological conflict" is manifesting itself in the contemporary everyday practice of "science." This is a major claim, and it demands actual evidence, rather than just bald evidence. It's also deeply counterintuitive, since it suggests something most scientists could not even agree on (that science is inherently "epistemologically conflicted" in a deep and unique way) should in fact be of pressing concern to them.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 6:57 PM on November 30, 2009


rather than just bald evidence assertion
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 6:58 PM on November 30, 2009


How about the progression of measurements of the value of e as referenced in my Feynman quote? Isn't that an epistemological conflict?

In episode 24 of the series, they talk about problems around the Occam's Razor like approach assumed in the practice of modern science.. Basically, we choose the simplest or most elegant explanations for a given principle. This is done for expediency, and it works well enough, but it isn't actually well founded in a systematic way. Isn't that an epistemological conflict too?
Note that the ideas program never mentions Occam's Razor, I don't think. I've used it as short hand for a more complex point.
posted by Chuckles at 9:00 PM on November 30, 2009


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