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Saturday, July 27, 2013


Those of you who have been following the comments section will know that several commentators and I have been discussing the Sokal affair and the response by Stanley Fish, who was at the time the General Editor under whom the journal Social Text fell [but not the editor of that journal itself, as one commentator somewhat inaccurately asserted.]  While taking my daily walk yesterday morning [which was enlivened by sightings of two Blue Herons, two deer, and a rabbit!], I had an extended conversation with an imaginary audience [my preferred mode of thinking] in which I attempted to set the Sokal flap in a larger context.  It occurred to me that some of you might have some interest in what I was thinking.  [This is, of course, the operational hubris on which blogging is premised.  It has a rather uncomfortable similarity to Anthony Weiner's narcissistic sexting, as I am all too aware.  But then, that is a subject for another day.]

Let me begin in 1620 with Francis Bacon's publication of the Novum Organum [right away, you can see this is going to take a while, but then, it is a long walk.]  Bacon laid out a method of investigating nature that consisted, essentially, in making long lists of observations, organizing them into what he called tables of presence and absence, increase and decrease, and then using them to check hypotheses about the nature of natural phenomena.  For example, if I wanted to figure out what heat is, I would first make a list of all the hot things I could think of [soup boiling on a stove, a stone sitting in the noonday sun, my forehead after a vigorous workout, etc.] and all the cold things I could think of [a piece of ice, my feet after a long walk in snow, and so forth], and then collect observations of cases in which something is felt to heat up or cool down.  Then I might try out an hypothesis:  heat is the presence in an object of blood.  Well, that works for my forehead after a vigorous walk, but it does not work for a pot of boiling soup.  So that hypothesis is rejected.  You get the idea.

This scientific method had a number of very interesting and important implications.  Consider  just three, which were vigorously contested by some of Bacon's contemporaries, such as Descartes.  First:  the right way to learn about nature is to observe it with the senses, by looking at  it, listening to it, touching it, even tasting it;  Second, there is an absolute differentiation between the observations we make of nature and the theories we formulate to explain nature -- the theories are, as we would say but Bacon did not, theory neutral;  and Third, scientific knowledge is, by its very nature, ever-expanding, ever growing, because the collection of observations keeps getting bigger, and no old observations ever  have to be thrown away, even though we keep discarding theories as more observations allow us to eliminate them.

This picture of science as a succession of theoretical explanations of an ever-expanding store of observations remained the dominant understanding of science for a very long time, although it was significantly altered and revised by three developments:  The first was the invention of instruments [microscope, telescope, x-ray machine, etc etc] that rapidly expanded and also changed the nature of the observations.  With these instruments, we could gain information about things that were not apparent to the senses, such as microbes, distant stars, atomic particles.  It required both equipment and extensive training even to make these observations, quite apart from the formulation of theories based on them.  The second development was the mathematicization of scientific explanation and theorizing, which altered the sorts of things that scientists attempted to observe.  The third development, which somewhat undermined the original sharp distinction between observation and theory, was the slow realization that some of the states of affairs being observed could not even be described without assuming the correctness of certain theories.  One could, to be sure, report an experiment simply as the hearing of a certain number of clicking sounds being produced by a Geiger Counter.  But that report was scientifically useless, as an observation, unless it was interpreted as an indication of the presence of a certain number of sub-atomic particles.  But that interpretation necessarily presupposed both a theory of the atom and a theory of the nature of sub-atomic particles, theories which it was supposed to be the role of the observations to confirm or disconfirm.

Despite these developments, whose full implications, of course, are quite far-reaching, the central conviction remained unchanged that science is an ever-expanding body of knowledge and explanation resting on an ever-growing accumulation of observations.

Enter Thomas Kuhn, who in 1962 called this story into question with the publication of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.   If we take a close look at the actual history of the development of modern science, Kuhn argued, we see that it does not exhibit that slow, steady growth that the standard account would lead us to expect.  Instead, we see long periods of what he labeled "normal science," during which things progress incrementally as we would expect, punctuated by brief upheavals during which everything changes rapidly and radically -- scientific revolutions, Kuhn called them.  What happens during these moments of revolutionary transformation is that the old, settled way of conducting scientific investigations is replaced by a new model, a striking new experiment or bit of explanation that comes to serve as a new paradigm.  When this happens, the bright young scientists latch onto the new paradigm and imitate it, doing science in a new way.  The established scientists, by and large, are not refuted or proven wrong, and most of them go on doing science as they always have.  But they die out and do not reproduce themselves, because all the young hotshots are enraptured with the new paradigm.  After a while, things settle down, and normal science goes on, but now along the lines of the new paradigm.

A word about "paradigm," which has become a buzzword in modern discussions but is almost always misunderstood.  A paradigm is a concrete specific instance that serves as a model for imitation.  The most familiar example comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition.  In the Old Testament, we read that God handed down to Moses the Law, which Jews were enjoined to obey and to follow.  The Law was not a paradigm.  It was a set of general commands -- the Thou Shalts and Shalt nots.  But then the Word becomes Flesh in the person of Jesus, the Perfect Man, free of Original Sin, and thenceforth rather than obey the Law His followers are called upon to imitate Him, to take Him as the paradigm of the Good Man, whom we must make ourselves as much like as possible.  Hence the medieval practice of the imitatio cristi, the Imitation of Christ. or, in its modern vulgar trivialization, the bumper sticker WWJD -- "What Would Jesus Do?"

According  to Kuhn, ordinary workaday scientists learn how to do science by studying and reproducing in their laboratories or studies paradigmatic experiments or observations that are taken as the quintessential examples of what it is to do science.  When they craft their own experiments or observations, they consciously or unconsciously imitate these classic examples and thus do science as they have been taught to do it.  But when some transformational figure -- Galileo or Kepler or Newton or Faraday or Watson -- does a totally new experiment or devises a totally new sort of observation that yields surprising, powerful, transformational results, it captivates bright young scientists everywhere who begin to imitate it and stop reproducing the old style of work.

Now, if Kuhn's story about the history of science was correct, and it certainly seemed to be, it had an extraordinary implication that totally upended the standard account of the development of science.  For Kuhn was saying that in each of these scientific revolutions, an entire body of existing observations was cast aside, not as incorrect, but as no longer relevant to science at all.  Once the new paradigm of scientific research replaced the old paradigm, these observations simply dropped out of the base of observations on which scientific theories were erected.

For example, for more than two thousand years, following Aristotle, scientists had been working with such observational categories as "hot" and "cold," "wet" and "dry."  The theory of the elements was couched in these categories -- fire is hot and dry, air is hot and wet, earth is cold and dry, water is cold and wet.  The same system of categories was used to describe the "humours" of the body [phlegm, bile, choler, etc.] and medicine set as its task restoring the proper balance of these humours.  With the seventeenth century mathematicization of Physics, observations of hotness, coldness, wetness, and dryness simply ceased to be considered scientific observations at all.

But the implication of this was that there was no gradually expanding body of observations on which a succession of theories could be tested, and that in turn meant that there was no ground for claiming that scientific knowledge was expanding, as opposed simply to changing.

It certainly looked as though modern science was in some sense better than old-fashioned science, but the clear, simple demonstration of that intuition evaporated with Kuhn's account of the evolution of science as a series of paradigm shifts.

Not long after Kuhn shook up our understanding of science, students of the practice of science noted two other profoundly important ways in which actual science differs from the story told by philosophers of science.  First of all, modern science is done by groups of researchers working together in laboratories under the tutelage or leadership of a senior researcher.  Humanists may work alone as they have for two thousand five hundred years, but not scientists.  This simple fact immediately raised questions about the social organization of science, and sociologists began to examine the social structure of scientific activity in the same way that they were accustomed to examining the social structure of the corporation or the government or the army.

Second, the size and scope of the scientific enterprise exploded, with hundreds of thousand, if not millions, of scientists worldwide doing research and producing reports of their work.  This had a rather unexpected consequence.  Since it had become impossible for anyone to monitor and be aware of all the scientific research being done even in a single branch of science, not every experiment, no matter how properly conducted, was noticed and taken up into the general understanding of the field in which it was carried out.  Students of science as a social enterprise discovered that some experimental reports got noticed, footnoted in the work of other researchers, referenced by yet other researchers, and in that way became, in effect, scientific facts, while other experimental reports, not significantly different in the rigor with which the work had been done or the precision with which that work had been reported, failed to gain notice and simply dropped out of the body of experimental facts on which theories were being erected.

In short, what counted as a scientific fact was, or so it seemed, socially determined, which was to say, SCIENTIFIC FACTS ARE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONS.

So there we are with Social Text, Alan Sokal, and Stanley Fish.

Well, all of this pretty much flashed through my mind during the first few minutes of my walk, at which point, more or less when I saw the second Blue Heron, I had to ask myself what I thought about the Sokal hoax and Stanley Fish's attempt to defend the editors for their exhibition of scientific ignorance.

I remained convinced that the editors are horses' asses, not because they think scientific truth is, in some sense, a social construction, but because, if I may allude to Fish's baseball analogy, they are like someone who says, "The thing I really like about baseball is the halftime show."  baseball is a game.  Hence it is, in some pretty simple sense, a social construction.  But anyone who thinks baseball has a halftime show is an idiot, and so is someone who reads the title of Sokal's send-up and thinks it could be a serious, publishable piece of work.


imcdpe said...

I am the one who mistakenly claimed that Fish was Editor of Social Text at the time of the Sokal affaire, while in reality he was only in charge of Duke Univ. Press and later published a passionate defense of the editorial decision.

Having now been shown the error of my ways I proceed to vover my head with ashes in a proper auto-da-fé.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

If you have a little bit of ash left over, pass it to me so that I can atone for not recognizing the name of a Nobel Laueate in literature.

Magpie said...

Prof. Wolff,

I've never seen that subject expounded in such brief and clear manner. Frankly, even I understood everything. Many thanks.

May God (or genes) give you many more long walks.

Don Schneier said...

Perhaps worth noting, as Kant does in the B edition Preface to the 1st Critique, is the emergence of the experimental method in empirical science. An experiment involves more that mere observation, even via the instruments of enhancement--it involves "cooking the books", as Whitehead reportedly put it, in which what is observed has already been modified by human intervention. That intervention renders the observation of 'nature in itself' impossible, and is one channel of the introduction of ideology into the process.