On Post-Modernist Philosophy of Science

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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One of the most widely-cited modern comments on science is this one by AndrewPickering:

On the view advocated in this chapter, there is no obligation upon anyone framing a view of the world to take account of what twentieth-century science has to say.

The quote is so widely cited because, first of all, if it didn't exist, scientistswould be accused of constructing a straw man by stating that philosophers of science heldany such views. Second, it neatly encapsulates a widespread view of science held by manyphilosophers.

My response to Pickering is short and blunt. He pretty much mirrors my view oftwentieth-century philosophy, so I am neither surprised, offended, or impressed. In acentury that produced Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Slobo Milosevic, we still seephilosophers and sociologists seeking the roots of evil in externals like family violence,poverty, television, even circumcision and lack of breast-feeding (and no, I am not making those up!). Calling twentieth-century philosophy superficial gives it too muchdignity; vacuous is the closest term.

This is a bit unfair to Pickering, who is actually paraphrasing a viewpointthat is not really stated so explicitly by its proponents. Pickering's ownobservations on the history of particle physics are, as far as I have seen,pretty moderate.

Unfair to Postmodernists?

After a heated exchange with a sociologist of science, I looked abit deeper into the "science wars." Post-modernist philosophers andsociologists of science do have some legitimate complaints. First of all, alarge part of their work is, in the words of Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers'Guide to the Galaxy, "mostly harmless." There's nothing at allthreatening to the legitimacy of science about attempting to unravel how personal interactions,group beliefs and prejudices, cultural biases, and unspoken assumptions haveaffected the process of scientific discovery; if anything, it makes the historyof science a lot more interesting.

Also, and more seriously, they have a legitimate grievance about quotationsbeing taken out of context, sometimes inaccurately, and quoted at second andthird hand. For example, one of the most widely quoted remarks was anextemporaneous remark made in 1966 by JacquesDerrida who appears, on the face of things, to be denying the absoluteness ofthe speed of light.  What Derrida actually said was:

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the veryconcept of variability--it is, finally, the concept of the game [jeu - probablybetter translated as "play"]. In otherwords, it is not the concept of something--of a center starting from which anobserver could master the field--but the very concept of the game which, afterall, I was trying to elaborate.

More accurate and contextual quotations suggest that he wasmostly speaking metaphorically. He seems to be saying that "the Einsteinianconstant" (speed of light) is not a static physical frame of reference buta very different, dynamic frame of reference. Also, inaccuracies in several other quotationshave been uncritically repeated by later writers. It's significant that a single paragraphout of forty years' work has generated so much notoriety. On the other hand, intellectually slovenly metaphysical extrapolations from modern physics clutter the intellectual landscape liked junked cars, so Derrida is being at the very least irresponsible.

So in an effort to clarify what bothers scientists about this field, here areexcerpts and commentaries on a few recent articles. Brevity and copyrightrestrictions preclude my quoting the articles in their entirety. Readers areencouraged to consult the original articles to determine whether I have fairlyquoted the authors (all the quotes come directly from full-text databases).

Bruno Latour, TheScience Wars

Thisarticle, from CommonKnowledge 8.1 (2002), pages 71-79, is in the form of a dialog between asociologist (He) and an (astro)physicist (She).

She:So you're a sociologist and you do research on scientists? Well, then you canexplain something to me. People in my lab are forever talking about the"Science Wars." What's all the fuss about?

He:If only I knew! I'd know what front to fight on, what equipment to carry, andwhat camouflage to wear. As things are, people are firing in all directions. Itisn't easy to know what's going on.

She:I've heard that the main thing is to avoid relativism. But I'm a physicist, andthat presents a real difficulty. Without relativity there'd be no possibility ofmaking measurements and we'd each be prisoners, to all eternity, in some singlepoint of view. In my discipline, we need the relativity of frames of referencein order even to begin work. I have a special need for relativity because I workon events close to the Big Bang. You don't need relativity, too?

Ireproduced the first three paragraphs verbatim to preclude any debate aboutquoting out of context. Anybodywho would put words like this into the mouth of a scientist has no businesscomplaining that scientists are uninformed! First of all, note the conflationbetween relativism and relativity. Science had no difficulty determining thesize of the Earth and the distances to the planets and stars before relativity,so saying there would be no possibility of making measurements withoutrelativity is simple gibberish. It's almost as if the author equates relativitywith the ability to move from place to place.

He:...in the humanities and in ethics, [relativism] is an insult, implying:"you think that all points of view are valid, that all cultures are equal,that truth and error are on the same plane, that Rembrandt and graffiti have thesame value, and that we can't distinguish between creationists and evolutionistsbecause everything's valid and anything goes." .... The difference betweendepartments of geology or geoscience and the curio cabinets of the creationists(I've visited some in San Diego--the "creationist research centers"!)is so huge that I don't see the point of adding an even more absolutedistinction between true and false.

Onthe other hand, if the gulf is really that wide and clearly defined, is thereany harm in saying the distinction is absolute? What serious intellectualpurpose is served here by denying the existence of an absolute framework?Admittedly there are profound problems in defining how we know a framework isabsolute, but the fact that a problem is difficult doesn't justify avoiding theproblem or asserting there is no solution.

The fundamental problem posed by Latour in this paragraph is this: which of the two alternatives is more valid? Without a defining direction for truth and falsity, what reason does Latour have for dismissing the creationist research as less valid? He can see there's a wide difference, but so what?

Onthe one hand, there are those who, for the last two centuries, have constructedthe history of a world several billion years old, and on the other, there arethose obsessed by the Bible and at war with abortion. There's no connectionbetween the two. They live in incommensurable worlds.  

There'senough here for a whole book. First of all, note the ideological slant:"obsessed by the Bible," and the wholly gratuitous injection of theabortion issue. Latour has obviously never studied the arguments and literatureof creationism (I have). There could actually be no more perfect example ofdeconstruction and construction than the creationist attempt to redefine geologyand biology in terms compatible with a literal interpretation of Genesis .In fact, I would argue that the activities of creationists are such perfectexamples that they raise grave doubts about the entire intellectual validity of"deconstruction" and "construction." And Biblicalfundamentalists do not regard themselves as "obsessed" with the Bible.They regard the Bible as an accurate and scientifically legitimate record ofevents on a par with the Bayeux Tapestry's depiction of the Battle of Hastingsand Halley's Comet. They regard their critics as "obsessed" by theBible since they are unwilling to treat it as even potentially admissibleevidence.

Butlet's deal with "construction." It bears an obvious similarity to thedescription of science as "myth." Both terms, users hasten to assert,are not meant to connote artificiality or unreality. But in that case, why usesuch semantically loaded words when equally neutral terms are readily available?Why not use "interpretation" in place of "myth," or "generation" instead of "construction?" At the very leastthe use of semantically loaded terminology is sloppy, at worst it'sintellectually dishonest.

Andexactly what purpose is served by creating a category that lumps both the PeriodicTable on the one hand, and Persephone and the seasons together on the other, under the single concept of"myth," or the development of the geologic time scale and creation of schoolsof literary criticism under the single rubric "construction?" Nobody,to my knowledge, ever attempted to test whether the seasons were linked toPersephone returning from the underworld, or ever built a technology around theidea. The two types of "myth" are different in kind . So whatvalue is there in lumping them into a single category? It's like lumping NotreDame cathedral and a tin shed together because they're both"constructions." It's true, but trivial.

Truestory: I once had a discussion with a philosopher of science who said he had notrouble at all imagining science junking the Periodic Table and adopting someradically different conception. So I asked him if he thought it possible that,had Germany won World War II, Mein Kampf might now be considered thedefinitive analysis of history with Marx relegated to the realm of crackpotliterature. Oh no, he answered, that was inconceivable (this was before the endof the Soviet Union). But surely if any kindof idea is a "construction" it would be theories of history. On theother hand, asserting that it was in principle possible for science to junk thePeriodic Table and go to something totally different, amounts to building amassive philosophical edifice on something whose existence is entirelyunproven . Despite the glib talk (more in popular discourse than formalliterature) about "alternative realities," nobody has everdemonstrated the existence of another reality . (If you're about to say"wave-particle duality," or "1+1 = 2 in decimal notation but 10in binary," you're too illiterate to be reading this page.)

She:So if I understand you correctly, you reject the accusation of relativism butclaim there's no need for an absolute distinction between true and false inorder to distinguish between this case and that. [but isthere any positive value in denying an absolute distinction? - see above] In my field, if you rejectabsolute frames of reference, you're a relativist. But for us, that's a positivedesignation, and relativity's the only means of achieving commensurability.

Thisis such a garbled description of relativity I hardly know where to begin. Evenbefore Einstein, there never was any "absolute framework" since wecouldn't tell whether the entire universe itself might not be moving. Acceptingrelativity in science isn't "a positive designation," it's minimalliteracy. What that final sentence means is open for conjecture since it has nodiscernible scientific meaning. And even with relativity we cannot be sure thereis no absolute framework. We just haven't found one, nor does any theory requireone, which is not at all the same thing as proving the nonexistence of such aframework. Nevertheless, the cosmic background radiation suggests that we arenearly stationary with respect to the large-scale universe as far out as we can see.

Actually,what Einstein showed was that the speed of light was invariant, not time orspace. In relativity, there is an absolute reference, the speed of light.

He:Very well, if you wish: I'm a relativist in the sense that I, like you, rejectan absolute point of reference. I agree that this rejection permits me toestablish relations and distinctions, and to measure the gaps between points ofview. For me, being a relativist means being able to establish relations betweenframes of reference, and so, being able to pass from one framework to another inconverting measurements (or, at least, explanations and descriptions). It's apositive term, I agree, to the extent that the opposite of relativist isabsolutist.

Iknow a fair number of Biblical fundamentalists who are absolutists in any senseof the word, and they have no difficulty whatsoever "measuring the gapsbetween points of view." The more literate among them can even "passfrom one framework to another" with some facility. They just don't believethat those other frameworks have any validity. So claiming you have to be arelativist to work with or evaluate other frameworks is flatly fallacious.

Incidentally,the sociological comments I've seen on creationism and fundamentalism have beensimplistic and uninformed in the extreme. Most of the sociologists that havecommented on creationism seem to have been so blinded by their own hostility tofundamentalism for its stance on issues like abortion or homosexuality that theyfail utterly to"establish relations betweenframes of reference, and pass from one framework to another."

Ultimately though, what in the world is Latour talking about? How does rejecting an absolute framework allow him to "to establish relations and distinctions, and to measure the gaps between points of view" any better or any differently than having an absolute framework would? Given two maps, one with and one without grid coordinates, I would have no problem measuring the distance between points just as accurately on either map. Long before we designated Greenwich as zero longitude, we had no problem determining whether one point was east or west of the other. On the other hand, the grid coordinates would certainly help me measure my location relative to distant places much better, and an absolute framework in philosophy certainly helps measure the distance between ideas and truth or falsity much better than no framework. At bottom this paragraph is just gibberish.


He:You see, this is what the Science Wars amount to: two intelligent academicsposing stupid questions to each other. First of all, "socialconstruction" doesn't mean a thing. And second, I'm not the one who usesthe term--some of my colleagues do. [Is this an admissionthat his field includes people who employ meaningless terminology? If so, whydoesn't he address the issue straight on and admit that some sociologists ofscience are at the root of the problem, that the "Science Wars" arenot entirely one-sided?] At any rate, it's not the term that's theproblem, it's your perversity and your scandalous double standards. ... Look, when you use a radio telescope, when you do simulationson your computers, when you print your maps in "false colors," whenyou calculate the redshift, when you apply the theories of particlephysicists--do these instruments, theories, methodologies play a role or not inthe conclusions you reach? ... Picture, if you would, aledger, consisting of a credit column and a debit column. If I understand youcorrectly, you'd place your instruments, radio telescopes, budgets, theories,etc., in the credit column.

She:Of course, because they allow me to have my say about quasars.

He:Then what would you place in the debit column?

She:I don't know. Whatever prevents me from talking about quasars: poor instruments,confused data, disputes among theoreticians--above all, an inadequate budget. 


He:.... I'm listening with great satisfaction as you entangle yourself incontradictions. ...What's wrong, my dear physicist, is that you change your accounts ledgerdepending on your audience--whether it's me or the general public. You alwayshave two columns, one for credit and one for debit. But on the credit side, younow place the quasars, as if they're beyond discussion, and on the debit sideyou place your instruments, your budgets, theories, papers, colleagues--and youwhine: "If only I didn't have all these machines and impediments, I couldat last talk plainly and without obfuscation about my quasars."

Ifyou have any doubts about the fairness of the quotations here, please consultthe original article. The logic here is so tortured it defies belief. Thephysicist claims that her data and the facilities that aid her in acquiring themare assets, and insufficient funds, instrumental limitations, and poor data areimpediments or debits. The sociologist puts the data (the quasars) on the assetside of the ledger and all the human factors on the debit side. Butthat is not what the physicist said! She very clearly put her instruments onthe asset side as well, and most certainly she would place a healthy budget andmany of her colleagues there as well. And Latour is perfectly well aware of itbecause he has the physicist respond:

She(coldly):I said ex-act-ly the opposite. I said that without radio telescopes we couldn'tspeak about quasars.

He:Why, then, did you pretend, in making fun of me, that there's a choice to bemade between politics and reality? Either you play politics and arbitrarilydecide, abracadabra, by consensus at a meeting of your lab colleagues, on theexistence of the four quasars of the constellation of Betelgeuse or else thequasars determine what you say about them in print. You were the one who imposedthis awkward choice on me, this choice of "language game" versus"reality." There are indeed two columns here: a debit column and acredit column; a column of language games, social construction, and discourse, acolumn of reality, truth, and exactitude. You have two languages, and yourtongue is as forked as a viper's. When it suits you, when you're asking formoney, you say, "The instruments permit quasars to speak." And on theother hand, when it suits you, you say, "We must choose between socialconstructions and reality." Personally, I think that's the epitome offraud....  

No, the epitome of fraud is thisparagraph. On the one hand Latour says "There are indeed two columns here: a debit column and acredit column; a column of language games, social construction, and discourse, acolumn of reality, truth, and exactitude." There could not be a moreexplicit opposition of social construction and reality. But he then criticizesthe physicist for saying "We must choose between socialconstructions and reality" -- after he himself put the two inopposing columns!

Thereal problem here is the creation of a simplistic false dichotomy, not byscientists critical of post-modernist thought, but by the post-moderniststhemselves. According to the paragraph above, we have data and external reality,and we have what people say about them. But that's an utterly meaninglessdichotomy. It's as pointless as arranging books on a shelf by color instead ofcontent. On the one hand, there is bad data masquerading as good, so not alldata is an asset. On the other hand there are social constructs that lead towardimproved understanding of reality and those that don't, so some are assets andothers are debits. Studying social constructs in general makes as much sense asresearching books with green covers.

[Afairly lengthy discussion follows leading to Alan Sokal's infamous hoax. Sokal submitted a paper consisting entirely of gibberish to a leading journal on philosophy of science and got it published!]

He:Of course we represent a danger. We're the Sokalists' political adversaries.

She:So you admit, after all, that you want to politicize the sciences.

He:No,I attest I want to depoliticize the sciences so that they can't be used in thisunsavory way as a tool for silencing political discussion.  

Okay,who are the "Sokalists?" How exactly are they attempting to silencepolitical discussion? What's their agenda? Scientific journals are rife withpolitical discussion as scientists debate falsification of evidence, curbs onDNA research, research ethics, implications of 9-11 security measures, depletionof energy resources, intellectual property rights, and so on. So exactly whatpolitical discussion are the Sokalists trying to silence?

I'venever met a scientist who has a problem with studying the history of science,which certainly includes the social interactions within it. The account of howDarwin came to be aboard the Beagle is fascinating. And nobody familiarwith the story of how long it took to get from "a quantity of motion"to velocity, momentum, energy and acceleration can object to studying the roleof language in clarifying or obscuring scientific thought. As I stated above,the vast majority of what post-modernists do poses no threat to science (thoughI reserve the right to debate its long-term contribution).

Butlumping critics of post-modernism together as "Sokalists" andinjecting the specter of "silencing political discussion" suggeststhat there is a hidden agenda here. Science, and rationalism in general, havebeen attacked on a number of fronts as means of supporting the hegemony of whitemale Europeans or justifying colonialism, war, economic exploitation, sexism,environmental injustice. The problem is there just doesn't seem to be any viablemethodological alternative to science and rationalism. So the only alternativeseems to be an ideological one: create a "feminist" or "Afrocentric"or "green" science and assert its validity by fiat, using the claim that traditionalscience is rooted in imperialistic language and thinking, and asserting theright (again by fiat) to reject traditional findings or accept unsubstantiatedmethods and data if they serve certain ideological ends.

Latourwould never be that crass. But there's a fine line here between teasing out thereal unspoken biases in terminology and practice (for example the naiveassumption that IQ tests accurately measure intelligence, "validated"by the fact that white males outscored everyone else) and using language as apretext for simply creating a parallel universe of your own. And if responsiblepost-modernists wouldn't do that, plenty of other people are doing it, and theresponsible post-modernists are either unaware of it (which is ignorance) or silent while ithappens (which is complicity).

Ican't help recalling the gratuitous insertion of abortion near the start of thearticle and the remark about creationists being "obsessed" with theBible. Is it possible that some post-modernists see criticism of their work assomehow tied to right-wing politics, or equate the existence of an absoluteframework of reality with moral absolutism?

He:I'm using an image to show you the extent of their incomprehension. They haven'teven begun to pose the question that we're trying to resolve in the history,sociology, and anthropology of science: how human beings can speak truly aboutevents, about the irruption of new objects into the world. 

This statement goes beyond therealm of merely mistaken concepts of science into the domain of deliberatelibel. If you believe this, no scientific critic of post-modernism has ever wonderedabout these things.

Also note the conflation of"speaking truly" and the "irruption of new objects." The twoare simply not the same thing. Flying saucers and Immanuel Velikovsky"irrupted" into the world around 1950. Neither constituted speakingtruly about events.

He:For the sciencewarriors, there simply isn't a problem. They think that I'm playing the fiend,that I'm avoiding difficulties. Whereas I'm actually studying what they'rescrupulously avoiding with their fraudulent accounts--and that is: how humanbeings imbue and fill the world with language.

"How humanbeings imbue and fill the world with language" is a long way removed from"speaking truly." Now a study of language and its uses would certainlyinclude a study of the abuses as well, but a study of the uses of language thatfailed to take account of use and abuse strikes me as having no imaginablevalue.

He:How do you yourself, my dear, setabout to speak the truth about quasars, which are scarcely a billion yearsyounger than the Big Bang itself? But instead of listening, understanding, andreconstructing the difficulty involved, the science warriors deny the difficultyaltogether. They arrive in the middle of the discussion in their clumsy clogsand shout, "The question shall not be posed! Over here we have the quasarsof Betelgeuse and over there is Mme. X, the physicist. Those who wish tocomplicate this matter are dangerous relativists." For my part, I say,"Let us do our work. You go do your dirty business elsewhere. If you don'tunderstand the problem we're posing, don't disturb those of us who do." 

Myquestion is not "do scientists understand the problem sociologists areposing" but "do sociologists understand the problem sociologists areposing?" Not the local problems they seek to answer in their individualresearch, but the broader problems they create.

1.If, as sociologists and philosophers of science claim to believe, it is possibleto "speak truly," then that belief needs to be implicit in everythingthey do and write, and central to all their research. Nobody could read ascientific journal and come away with the impression that scientists doubt theobjective reality of nature. The same needs to be true of everything thatsociologists and philosophers of science write. People are quite capable ofdevising reasons to make literature say what they want it to say. Writing in away that ignores, or worse yet, abets this process is not responsiblescholarship.

2.For people who claim to be fascinated with the use of language, sociologists andphilosophers of science employ sloppy, semantically loaded language. If they donot mean to support relativism, then of all people it is absolutely inexcusablethat their literature and discourse should create that impression. I couldforgive an ordinary person for using inaccurate terminology, not someone whoclaims to make the study of language and its uses the entire focus of his work.

3.For my entire professional career I have heard it said that scientists shouldaccept responsibility for their work. I am not about to cut sociologists andphilosophers of science any slack. Where is their equivalent of SkepticalEnquirer, a periodical for general readers wherein sociologists andphilosophers of science deconstruct popular relativism? For that matter, whereare the articles by sociologists and philosophers of science in SkepticalEnquirer itself? Are these people such ivory tower elitists that they don'tconsider themselves as having any responsibility for popular misapplications oftheir ideas?

Jacques Derrida and Language

From A Discussion with Jacques Derrida, Theoryand Event 5:1 

"a culture is a colonisation, there is alwayssomeone else having more power than the other, who imposes his language, hisforce, his name and so on and so forth."

JacquesDerrida is a leading post-modernist philosopher and, if anyone is an expert inhow language shapes ideas, it is he. So seeing him broaden the term "colonisation"to include every power differential casts serious doubt on the intellectualvalue of the whole enterprise.

I try to show or to affirm that a pure act offorgiveness should be totally dissociated from any horizon of reconciliation,salvation, or the economy of 'healing away' as they say in South Africa. We arereconciled or we forgive or declare amnesty and so on and so forth, we establisha commission of truth and reconciliation in view of 'healing away' or curing thetraumatism, which is a good thing, but I wouldn't call this forgiveness. Ofcourse we have to do whatever we can to reconcile, to heal away, to make thesociety work and so on and so forth, if it is possible, but we shouldn't callthis forgiveness. A pure act of forgiveness should be totally free from anyperspective or attempt or research of reconciliation or salvation, from any suchform of benefit. It should be absolutely gratuitous, gracious.

"WhenI use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more, norless." Some philosophers indeed argue that actions are devoid of meritunless there is no hint of self-advantage in them. If we extend this logic toits conclusion, you really can't claim to have forgiven someone unless you aresimultaneously seething with violent hatred toward that person, because anylessening of hatred benefits the one who forgives and therefore lessens thevalue of the forgiveness.

Ifthis is how one of the leading thinkers in the field uses language, arescientists really to blame for not taking post-modernism seriously?

I have to concur with the critic who, responding topost-modernist criticisms that Derrida's words were taken out of context,replied "Derrida in context is worse than Derrida out of context."

One of Derrida's defenders is Arkady Plotnitsky, whowrote the following in "But It Is Above All Not True": Derrida,Relativity, and the "Science Wars" (Postmodern Culture , Volume7, Number 2, January 1997)

The accuracy of quotations from Derrida and others bytheir critics in the scientific community, such as Sokal or Gross and Levitt,has been stressed by many scientists involved in the debates at issue, and theyare right to do so. As we have seen, not all of these quotations proved to be asaccurate as these scientists believed. [true]However, even assuming that such quotations are accurate, their literal accuracyis meaningless if the reader is not provided with the meanings of the termsinvolved (such as "play/game" or "the Einsteinianconstant"), is deprived of the possibility of establishing them from thequotation itself, or is free to construe them on the basis of othersources--say, one's general knowledge of physics, as opposed to the meaninggiven to these terms by Derrida's essay or by Hyppolite's question.

Horrors! Physicists interpretterms like "Einsteinian constant" based on their actual meanings inphysics rather than how some non-physicist chooses to redefine the terms. Thisis about as close to "WhenI use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more, norless" as one could ask for. 

Let me suggest an alternative:that responsible scholarship, especially by people who claim to be experts indeconstructing texts, requires the scholar to find out what a term meansand use the term correctly. If there's no suitable English term, find one fromanother language or coin one. If you do have a good reason to use an existingterm in a novel or unconventional sense, define the usage rigorously. But don'tthrow out a phrase like "the Einsteinian constant is not a constant"and then complain when physicists blast you for it. 

Actually, this quote cuts to the central intellectual vacuity of "deconstruction." You can "deconstruct" a Ferrari and use the chassis for a hay wagon and the body panels to build an outhouse, but so what? You can sing O Little Town of Bethlehem to the tune of House of the Rising Sun (try it!) but that doesn't make House of the Rising Sun a Christmas carol. And you can deconstruct relativity into a metaphor for relativism, but that doesn't make relativism scientifically or philosophically valid. And these analogies are dead on; deconstructionists never build something more true or more beautiful from what they've deconstructed.

A few more comments by Plotnisky:

Derrida has commented more extensively and in moregrounded ways on mathematics and science, and on the philosophical grounding ofboth. 

The footnote here references a grand total of twoworks.

He also makes use of mathematical and scientifictheories, concepts, metaphors, and so forth (most famously, Gdel's concept ofundecidability) in his work.

So what? If he doesn't make use ofthem in an accurate and informed manner, who cares?

In addition, his work is fundamentally linked to thequestion of technology via the question of writing, which defines his workthroughout.

We can say this of everyone whowrites about writing, or even uses a pencil. Why is Derrida's understanding oftechnology more worthy of serious consideration than that of Edward Constant(below), an actual technologist? The thing that unites Plotnitsky's remarks hereare their utter banality and triviality. Derrida writes about writing, andwriting is a form of technology, and therefore his work is "linked to thequestion of technology?" College freshmen write like this; scholars don't.

Philip Scranton: A Defense of Sociology

Thisis from Missingthe Target? A Comment on Edward Constant's "Reliable Knowledge andUnreliable Stuff"  by PhilipScranton in Technologyand Culture 41.4 (2000) pages 752-764 .


InTechnology and Culture 's April 1999 issue, Edward Constant offers an essaybroadly critical of the social constructionist approach in the history oftechnology.....Inreflecting on his presentation, I have fashioned seven objections and comments,the last of which briefly treats its implications for future work in the field.

Myanalysis will deal with most but not all of Scranton's points. This essay is quite abit more technical than Latour's dialog and doesn't lend itself as easily tocondensation. I believe the quotes provide sufficient context to representScranton's thoughts accurately and fairly.

Underspecificationof a Core Concept

What"spatiotemporally universal knowledge" means is far from evident.Constant opposes it to "spatiotemporally particular" knowledge, whichhas an indeterminate relation to "local knowledge," but the parallelmodifiers make for no little confusion. Are there different spatiotemporalshells or domains for particular and universal knowledge, and how are theydifferentiated? 

There may be shortcomings inConstant's terminology, but the confusion here strikes me as more tendentiousthan real. "Spatiotemporally universal" obviously means universal inspace and time, and therefore not dependent on individual preference or culturalconditioning. To use a simpler term, objective. "Spatiotemporallyparticular" just as obviously means ideas that are true in particularsituations ("it's raining") but not generally.

Jumping here to a footnote ofScranton's, he poses an example.

Consider these domains: nineteenth-century American engineering,nineteenth-century American mechanical engineering, nineteenth-century Americanlocomotive engineering, nineteenth-century Philadelphia locomotive engineering,Philadelphia locomotive engineering from 1840 to 1900, Baldwin Companylocomotive engineering from 1865 to 1900, Baldwin Company drawing room practicefrom 1865 to 1900. Where in this set of successively narrower domains do weshift from encountering spatiotemporally universal knowledge to findingspatiotemporally particular knowledge?  

Sounds reasonable, but it's soobviously asking a contrived question that it borders on willful obfuscation. Atevery level here there is both universal knowledge and particularknowledge. Universal knowledge would be the physical properties of iron, theforce of gravity, thermodynamic properties of steam, and so on. Even at theoutermost level, nineteenth-century American engineering, there is also particular knowledge (use of English as opposed to metric units, for example)

At progressively more locallevels, the knowledge would also become more local. "Follow theseprocedures when cutting a gear, make this part to such and such a tolerance, usea dotted line to indicate hidden lines on the blueprint, see George aboutgetting drafting supplies," and so on. But some of this knowledge would berooted in more universal knowledge. "We make gear teeth as involutes ofcircles because that shape allows smooth gear motion with less wear, and thatproperty in turn is rooted in the geometry of the involute curve." Otherknowledge is purely conventional. "We use 1/4-20 threads" becausesomeone rather arbitrarily defined the inch centuries ago and someone elsedecided 20 threads to the inch on a 1/4 inch bolt would be a convenient threadsize. "See George about getting drafting supplies" because he can betrusted to keep the supply room stocked and not tolerate pilferage.

In fact, probably the bestdefinition of Constant's term "spatiotemporally universal" isknowledge that applies (or potentially can apply) at every domain level.Suffice it to say here that we can consider everyday reality to be a specialcase of relativistic and quantum reality that applies at low velocities andlarge quantum numbers, just in case you were inclined to raise that objection.Returning to the main paper:

What is the relationship between spatiotemporally universalknowledge and other sorts of universal knowledge? Are there any other forms ofuniversal knowledge--that is, knowledge that transcends historical and spatialcontexts instead of generalizing across some set of them? 

More or less by definition, no.The extra qualifier "spatiotemporally" is needed because apparentlystraightforward terms like objective and universal have been so muddled byvaried usage that they no longer serve in unadorned form.

Does that sort ofuniversal knowledge, presumably of nature, apply in an immanentfashion before it is discovered, formalized, and disseminated, and if so, howso? Could it be knowledge before being known?

This could very well be one of the central issuesbetween sociologists of science and scientists and bears an obvious relationshipto the ancient question about a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear.(Yes, the tree does make a sound. It says "Oh $#!+"). To almost anyscientist, the answer to the first question has to be yes. There are innumerablephenomena that acted indistinguishably from their present behavior before thephysical processes underlying them were understood. People were killed bycannonballs long before the elements in gunpowder and the chemical reactionsinvolved were known. Troy did not appear in the ground when Heinrich Schliemanndecided to dig there.

Asto the second question, if we define knowledge as "what people know", the answeris tautologically no. If we define knowledge as information about the universethat can be known, then yes. Here's a wonderfully and terriblybizarre example. Amazingly enough, it was not widely understood in the early20th century that ammonium nitrate itself was explosive, despite its use as aningredient in explosives. It was considered an inert material, often stored inpiles or storage bins where it would absorb moisture and become hard as a rock.It was often broken up by pickaxes or even - this is not a misprint - blasting.Sooner or later, someone was bound to discover that ammonium nitrate was indeedexplosive. It happened at the German town of Oppau in 1921. A solidified storagebin was attacked with pickaxes and then dynamite. As one of the German languagesites puts it with sublime understatement, "das war keine gute Idee."The factory and town were leveled and nearly 600 people died. The crater was 100meters across and 20 meters deep. I think that qualifies as "applying in animmanent fashion."

Inthis context, let me refer to a recent discussion on the Internet listH-Business, focused on the effort to fashion global accounting procedures anddefinitions and thus on the history of accounting. In the course of a series ofexchanges, it became evident that national histories, legal traditions,divergent forms of business organization, and differing expectations ofaccountability influenced the creation of disparate, noncongruent systems ofaccounting. Reaching for a "universal"--that is, global--model demandsdisplacing national and, in some cases, cross-national, systems that havereached high levels of sophistication. Becoming universal here is a goal,fraught with political and economic implications, yet nations (and groups ofnations following similar procedures) are certainly "translocal,"absent a firmer definition of "local."

Topush further, we need to appreciate how accounting practice is different from(or analogous to) technological practice....

This is actually an excellentexample. Accounting is "constructed" in the sense that many of theconventions in use could be equally well replaced by a different choice ofconventions. But underlying the conventions are more universal facts andprinciples. Any accounting system exists to provide its users with an accuratepicture of the financial state of an institution. There are inputs and outputs.At the most basic level are the laws of thermodynamics (you can't create goodsout of nothing) and the laws of mathematics. I suspect at a fairly triviallevel, accountants wouldn't have too much trouble identifying universal unifyingconcepts. It's at the application level that things get sticky. And why would weexpect otherwise? A system that works at a company whose efforts mostly dealwith making inanimate objects wouldn't necessarily work at one that providesservices.

Perhaps, given this article, Constantmight argue for technological practice's rootedness in nature,... But this stance forces us toward a tough decision:drawing a line, somewhere, between the human and the natural.

Hereagain we have this false dichotomy: that belief in objectivity implies adichotomy of human versus natural. Linguistics is human, but very much rooted inobjectivity. It is objectively, historically true that French evolved fromLatin, that English and German evolved from a common ancestor and that allevolved from Proto-Indo-European. History is also human, but rooted inobjectivity. It is objectively true that Lee surrendered toGrant at Appomattox. It is objectively false that the myths collected byImmanuel Velikovsky are records of an early historical planetary catastrophe.The dichotomy is not between nature and human. Actually, it's not a dichotomy atall but a spectrum of spectra. It is first of all the spectrum from the ideas that can insome sense be confirmed by independent observers to those that hold only in themind of the individual. Second, it is the spectrum from ideas that have beenconfirmed, through those that are indeterminate, to those that have beendisconfirmed.

Structures may bemore or less durable in planetary space; flows may accord more or less with ourformulae. If spatiotemporally universal knowledge directly applies in space,then the claim for spatiotemporal universality does reach to plant its flag onthe entire universe, and the modifier becomes weightless. 

This isn't the first time I've encountered asociologist or philosopher of science who expressed doubts about whetherterrestrial laws of science apply in space, and it bothers me. It points to alevel of scientific literacy so low it beggars description. At least AlanSokal knew enough about post-modernism to fashion a hoax that fooled reviewers.

  • First, it's trivial. Of course physical conditions are going to be different in space. "Wings generate lift" doesn't work in space. Constructs too flimsy to support their own weight on earth function nicely in space, and so on.

  • Second, it reveals gross ignorance of what has actually been done in space. To get the Cassiniprobe to Saturn, we used two flybys of Venus and Earth and one of Jupiter. This would hardly be possible if we didn't understand the laws of motion to extremely high precision. All the components on Cassini are working exactly as designed. The mission may fail because of an equipment failure but it will not fail because knowledge in space applies differently than on earth. (That was written before Cassini arrived - it has worked flawlessly.)
  • Third, the very non-trivial question of whether the laws of nature apply on the largest scales of space and time has been researched in great depth by astrophysicists using a wide variety of observational tests. Scranton's comment suggests he's completely unaware of this work.

ReliableKnowledge and Technological Practice

Throughouthis exposition, Constant takes pains to show that reliable knowledge oftechnologies exists and is shared widely and utilized constantly. One can hardlyobject to this claim, but from the enthnomethodological perspectives he notes asrelated to social constructivism (but does not cite specifically) reliableknowledge is a condition of all human activity, a ground for language coherence,gestural understanding, and behavioral sequencing, within which knowledge abouttechnologies can surely take its reliable place.

Thisis a comparison of apples and oranges. English and Japanese are reliable modesof communication with quite different ways of classifying words, and neithersystem is necessarily better than the other. But underlying the workability ofEnglish and Japanese are certain more universal requirements. They have to becapable of expressing a wide range of concepts with precision and withoutambiguity (that's why dictionaries are even possible). They are objectivelysuperior to languages with limited vocabulary for communication or ambiguouswords and grammatical constructions. Even in theenvironment where the limited language developed, English and Japanese willprobably be superior, capable of expressing ideas about the local environmentnot expressible in the local language. (Prove the Pythagorean Theorem inEbonics) Most languages implicitly recognize that other languages express somethings in an objectively better way; that's why languages borrow words.

Thefunctionality of languages is rooted in underlying concepts of informationtheory and there is broad latitude for variation in practice. You can't go fromthe basics of information theory to conclude that "I saw" is morecorrect than "I seen." As long as the conventions are observed andpreserved, the language will be a reliable mode of communication. But theconventions themselves can be quite arbitrary. Who decided that the sound"dog" was a logical sound to associate with the animal? 

Technologyof course has its own conventions (line styles on blueprints; tying the meter tothe dimensions of the earth is every bit as parochial as defining the yard interms of the length of a king's arm span) but what makes the technology work isa dense layer of physical laws that do not depend on personal preference orcultural conditioning. You can express them in different terms, but once youknow, say, the Japanese words for English concepts, or how to convert BTU's tojoules, you can show that the different systems of expression are rooted in acommon substrate. Youcan't go from the basics of information theory to conclude that "Isaw" is more correct than "I seen." You can go from theSecond Law of Thermodynamics to conclude that a machine that purports to extractenergy from ambient room air, without exchanging heat elsewhere, will not work.

Ifthis is not the case, then what is the warrant for arguing that technology-basedreliable knowledge is distinctive? [See the precedingparagraph] What would constitute the significantdifferential in effectiveness and reliability of the knowledge we each use incommunication, strategizing, and so on, in conversations, shopping, meetings,from what engineering scientists employ to sort signal from noise? Whence wouldcome the metric that would gauge comparative reliability? Moreover, bothshoppers and engineers misspecify situations and adjust practice, recursively,on the basis of outcomes. 

Thisisn't so much a matter of comparing apples and oranges as comparing Macintosheswith Delicious. The kind of knowledge Scranton describes here is essentiallytechnological in the broad sense, in that it is geared toward achieving aconcrete goal. "Adjusting practice, recursively,on the basis of outcomes" is a pretty good capsule definition oftechnology. Does anybody not do this? Well, consider the aphorism thatinsanity consists of doing the same thing and expecting different results.Consider the people with strings of failed relationships, failed jobs, faileddiets.

Thequestions about the standards or metrics that would be used are quitelegitimate. But they do not prove anything. The fact that standards arehard to define shows only that standards are hard to define; they do not showthere are no standards or that one is free to ignore the issue. Indeed, we mightterm this The Fundamental Fallacy of Philosophy. Philosophers through the ageshave been obsessed with the problems of human reasoning. The difficulties humanshave in defining and identifying truth tell us a great deal about how our mindswork. The one thing they do not and cannot do is tell us anything at all aboutthe nature of reality.

OversocializedVersus Undersocialized Accounts

Constantobjects to [sociological] analyses as being "almost purely social rather thanmaterial, which of course reflects the first axiom . . . of socialconstructivism, that material results--facts--must be explained by socialprocesses"

Insofaras Constant scores  [sociology] as exemplifying an oversocialized mode of scholarship(the "social turn"), I must suggest that his exemplary cases are, bycontrast, undersocialized. Beth, the figurative engineer working on"writing a computer program to simulate the behavior of a waterdesalinization system powered by photovoltaic cells" is ashadow person, a rational agent charged with a task. She relates to no deadline,no budget-conscious firm seeking results, no set of competitors working onanalogous technological problems. We have instead a fine mind, a researchapparatus, a foundational bundle of knowledges, and a decision framework thatprivileges, rightly it turns out, noise over signal. (sic)

Asmuch as any passage I've seen, this one cuts to the heart of the "ScienceWars." To the scientist, even one as interested in the history of scienceas I am, the process of science is basically one of adding information andconcepts to the existing body of scientific knowledge. As fascinating as thecooperation of Darwin and Wallace was, the important thing was naturalselection.

Also,as fascinating as I personally find pseudoscience, it is an impediment toscience, nothing more. Immanuel Velikovsky and creationism are fascinatingsociological phenomena, and they have interesting things to tell us about howscientists differ from non-scientists in their reasoning, and how society andscience interact. They do not, in any sense of the word, contributeconstructively to science, any more than arson contributes to fire safety by giving firemen on-the-job practice. 

Sofrom the perspective of many scientists these sociological phenomena areepiphenomena, side shows to the main event of increasing the knowledge base ofscience. Some, like Darwin and Wallace, are constructive, others, likecreationism, are destructive. They may be fascinating, may even be capable ofshowing how to speed the process up or make it more reliable, but they areessentially peripheral.

Tothe sociologist, the established corpus of scientific knowledge is a substrateon which the interesting stuff happens. I don't have the slightest problem withthis. The sociologist and I are examining two related parts of the same process;we even find some of the other's findings interesting. I start to see problems,though, when Scranton dismisses Constant's hypothetical engineer as "ashadow person." It smacks of tunnel vision and bears an obvious similarityto the way movie and literary critics frequently dismiss rational characters as"one-dimensional."

It'sa bit like going to the reconstructed Globe Theater in London. An engineer mightbe fascinated by the reconstructed building without caring what was on stage. Adrama student might focus on the play without caring about the building.Although I frankly find it hard to imagine anyone so one-dimensional as to be ateither extreme.

Thehistory of science as presented in science texts, especially older ones, isrightly unsatisfactory to sociologists. In the interests of providing studentswith a heuristic framework (frequently a historical approach is the best way toexplain a complex concept) and a sense of historical orientation, the accountswere streamlined to the point where they presented a highly linear view ofscience devoid of false starts, blind alleys, and personality clashes. Thereason textbooks do it perhaps a tad better than they used to, by the way, ispartly due to the insights of sociologists. (But textbooks probably aren't thatmuch better nowadays; my experience as a textbook author was that reviewers wantedhistory gutted entirely either to slim down the text or to make room for theirown pet nanospecialties.)

Sociologists,on the other hand, need to realize that the way they present the historyof science can seem just as distorted. However honorable their intent, theirlanguage seems at times to deny the existence of objective knowledge.


Thequestion of objectivity has been an animating element of what has been termed,perhaps too casually, the "science wars," a continuing, acid exchangebetween some humanities and social science scholars on one hand and a group ofsocial science and physical science scholars on the other. Constant is concernedthat "crosscurrents of doubt" about the objectivity (and otheraspects) of "scientific and technological knowledge hold profounddangers." Itis worth registering a request for a fuller discussion of what is endangered,why, and how, but that is not my aim. 

But it's worth answering. Atthe opposite end of the intellectual spectrum from the "Science Wars"(both camps), we have magic, a mode of thinking widespread in the world at largeand even in American society. The magical thinker actually believes language canchange reality; that wishing can make it so. Any mode of expressing ideas thatencourages magical thinking is bad scholarship whatever its local academicmerits might be.

Rather, I'd like to focus on what we meanby "objective knowledge." As I understand it, this refers to knowledgederived from observer-independent inquiry that also proves context-independent, hence reliable everywhere, transhistorical, and universal in the strongsense--at base, visions into the workings of nature. (In the strong model,humans are natural subjects.) 

That'sas good a definition as I've ever seen. But notice all the descriptive termsfrom a writer who earlier complained about coupling "spatiotemporal"to "universal." It rather suggests that Scranton knew perfectly wellwhat was meant.

Anundercurrent in this specification of objective knowledge is the question ofwhether "knowledge" is unitary or diverse. The unitary motif wouldcount only the most fundamental of scientific findings as constitutingknowledge, the rest as probabilistic, limited, and imperfect (though usuallyreliable) "information," some segments of which, with resoluteefforts, might rise to the clarity and generality of mathematics, physics, andperhaps sections of engineering science. Referencing "diversity"instantly pluralizes "knowledge" into "knowledges," an arrayof situated information sets that describe environments and inform intentionalactions, consistently but not uniformly. 

On the whole this is pretty sound.One major problem I see here is the total absence of content . Science ispictured as fundamental laws or working principles. Where would we put the speedof light, the structure of table salt, the topography of Venus, cell mitosis andphotosynthesis? These don't merely describe environments but are constant in allenvironments. And they inform intentional actions uniformly, not merelyconsistently. When I want to know how something works in biology, I don't gorediscover it myself; I go ask a biologist or read a book by one. If it's truefor him it's true for me.

Earlier I described what I calledThe Fundamental Fallacy of Philosophy: the idea that the limitations of ourminds tell us anything about the nature of reality. What we can call TheFundamental Fallacy of Modern Philosophy might be defined as the idea that itmakes sense to study structure divorced from content. This is the idea that hasgiven us businessmen who think they can "manage" without knowinganything about what they manage, critics who claim that only the technicalexcellence of a work of art matters, not its content, and sociologists ofscience like the one with whom I corresponded who think you can study theVelikovsky affair without regard to the scientific validity of Velikovsky'sideas.

In this frame, articulating a hierarchyfrom objective knowledge, "apprentice" objective knowledge (much ofbiology and medicine, mathematical economics), down to subjective information(our ways of going on in daily life, plus the rest of the academic disciplines)becomes irrelevant. Reliable knowledge exists in a variety of venues, each ofwhich has linked values, expectations, and normative procedures for validatingsituated "truths." 

Whoa!Non-sequitur alert! Huge non-sequitur!

Firstof all, probably for reasons of space limitations in Scranton's paper, thisclassification is extremely simplistic. There isn't a hierarchy - thereare multiple ones all operating at once. First, there's the level ofconfirmation of ideas, with things like the Periodic Table at a very high leveland, say, extraterrestrial intelligence at a very low level, and things likeImmanuel Velikovsky at a negative level (that is, disconfirmed). Then there'sthe degree of completeness of theories, with again the Periodic Table very high,evolution and plate tectonics definitely less complete, and extrasolar planetsway less complete. What Scranton terms "apprentice" fields are low onthis hierarchy. This isn't the same as yet another hierarchy, the continuum from objectiveto subjective, with things like mathematics at one end and wholly personaltastes and preferences at the other. Nor is it true that "the rest of theacademic disciplines" equate with "subjective." Historianscertainly work with a fairly high degree of objectivity. Custer's Last Stand iscertainly on a par with plate tectonics in terms of completeness, confirmation,and so on. Finally, there's the scope of applicability of ideas. Relativity andquantum mechanics apply to everything we know of in the physical world.Newtonian physics applies to low velocities and large quantum numbers. Platetectonics applies to the Earth but not Venus. Photosynthesis applies only toplants, and so on.

Thenon-sequitur is in the jump from diversity to the assertion that hierarchies areirrelevant. If anything, the recognition of diversity demands therecognition of hierarchy in order to avert the slide into solipsism that manyscientists fear from sociologists.

Recognizingdiversity of hierarchies even helps us address one of the problems posed by Thomas Kuhn in Structureof Scientific Revolutions . Kuhn suggested that during a paradigm shift, therules broke down and there was an interval during which there were no rules fordeciding among rival paradigms. That might be true for people so close to thedebate that nothing else mattered, but that would be only a tiny minority ofscientists. The rest might not care about the specific debate but they wouldmost assuredly care about its ramifications for their own disciplines.Oceanographers might not care about the distribution of fossil organisms or thedistribution of earthquakes butthey definitely were happy about the way plate tectonics did away with the needfor vanished "land bridges" in the ocean basins. The rules might break down in a small area but that area is circumscribed by strict boundary conditions that must be satisfied.

Athird perspective might be specified, wherein all claims to knowledge areequally immune to being certified or established as even"spatiotemporally" valid, much less objective--that is, knowledge asconvention: arbitrary, grounded in exercises of power. It is this neo-sophistnotion of knowledge as "whatever goes" against which, I think,Constant mounts his critique; but perhaps again he mistakes his target.

Thisis pretty disingenuous. Scranton knows perfectly well that this viewpoint existsor he wouldn't have mentioned it, and he describes it explicitly enough, usingenough of the relevant buzzwords, that I think he knows perfectly well that thiswas the target Constant was critiquing.

Implicationsfor Research

Howdo the arguments and principles Constant brings forward in his article provide abasis for research initiatives in the history of technology? 

This is a valid question but it'snot the problem most scientists have with contemporary sociology and philosophyof science. We are not concerned with providing sociologists with a basis for aresearch program. Recall the end of Latour's dialog above:

"Let us do our work. You go do your dirty business elsewhere. If you don'tunderstand the problem we're posing, don't disturb those of us who do." 

Thisapplies equally well against the extreme solipsist school of sociology andphilosophy of science, as well as those in and out of academia who want to pushan extreme relativist agenda for their own ideological reasons. These people areto sociology and philosophy of science what the "Sokalists" are toscience. (Is it reasonably clear I'm not accusing sociology and philosophy ofscience in general?) To the extremists on the other side, science has a right tosay: "If you don'tunderstand why science has a valid claim to objective knowledge, and whyundermining the belief in objective reality is dangerous not just to science butto society at large, don't disturb those of us who do." 

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