Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, July 13, 2007

Pragmatic Science, Not Priestly Science

Upgraded and adapted from Comments:

Very good and long-standing Friend of Blog Martin Striz objects to my too-pragmatic characterization of scientific practice and belief-ascription. He begins by quoting this passage from an earlier post of mine:
[L]iterally every technoscientific and technodevelopmental outcome is historically specific, arriving on the scene through historically specific articulations (via disputation, social struggle, vicissitudes in matters of funding, and regulation, serendipities in the lab, eddies in communication, fashion, education, and so on) all of which are in some measure accidental and any of which could easily have been otherwise. These outcomes settle -- to the extent that they manage the feat -- into institutional, factual, normative, customary formations that are quite likely, however natural(ized) they seem for now, to become otherwise in the future through the very same sorts of articulative forces, as these incessantly sweep a world shared by free, intelligent, creative, expressive, provocative, problem-solving peers.


Martin objects: While it is true that social and political elements shape the kind of science that gets done, it is not true that these elements alter scientific truths -- at least not if science is done right.

But it seems to me that "science getting done" is social and political practices, which Martin quite properly concedes himself by the end of that very sentence of his. By "scientific truths" I presume Martin means beliefs justified by the protocols and criteria that have emerged over centuries of practice as the ones most apt to deliver powers of prediction and control to those who are guided by them. But that's what I would mean by "scientific truths," too. There is nothing proper to science that is threatened by my formulations.

However, temptations to rewrite warranted scientific belief in the image of a finality, a certainty, or a non-human autonomy to which humans are beholden -- what amounts in my view, in essence, to a rewriting of pragmatic consensus science in the image of a priestly religiosity we would all do better to leave behind us -- fare less well once one takes up my attitude. That's what I like about it. I prefer my science useful, rather than authoritative.

He continues on: [T]he history of science is replete with new truths that go against intuition and sociopolitical norms.

We are definitely in agreement there. As I said at the end of the passage he himself quoted: "[C]ustomary formations... are quite likely, however natural(ized) they seem for now, to become otherwise in the future through the very same sorts of articulative forces, as these incessantly sweep a world shared by free, intelligent, creative, expressive, provocative, problem-solving peers."

None of that denies the force of conservative resistances and the costs they exact on innovators, of course. Thomas Kuhn provided some of the classic theoretical and ethnographic discussions of this sort of thing (not that I agree with everything he says, I'm just assuming most folks interested in these questions will know Kuhn well enough to slot in his insights here, so that I don't have to).

Later, Martin proposed an amplification of this point (about which he seems to think my own pragmatic characterization of science forces me into a position of disagreement with him):

We know [science] works when we are surprised. If you were never surprised by a discovery, if a discovery never challenged your expectations, if every discovery simply validated the accepted paradigm, then science wouldn't be doing its job. It would just be another avenue to validate our biases. But science has continually surprised us.

When people are free they will surprise us. That is because human beings are different from one another, responsive to one another, and endlessly inventive.

But Martin proposes a different explanation for such surprises: As long as they stuck to the data, the truths would be the same. Good science is sticking to the data.

Now, as far as I can see, one can easily account for human inventiveness without making any recourse at all to what looks to me like the rather curious notion that the Universe has preferences in the matter of the words humans use to describe it, imagined "preferences" that cause some of us to describe some words not just as the best justified candidates for instrumental belief presently on offer but as mysterious incarnations of some suprajustificatory externality that they will call, for want of anything better on hand, "the data" (NB: the data -- even if, as so often happens, the description identified with this exclusive the is subsequently supplanted by another better justified claim because our knowledge changes or our priorities change).

I'm pretty sure that this takes us to the heart of our dispute here. Martin writes: [T]here is an objective external reality which preceded the arrival of humans, and by necessity, any sociopolitical bias.

This claim seems to me pretty harmless, as far as it goes, but also completely uninteresting. I'll cheerfully agree with it, for whatever it's worth. But it seems to me that the moment one tries to use this claim as a hat-hook on which to hang an "explanation" as to why the criteria we use to justify scientific beliefs actually deliver the goods of prediction and control with which we entrust them, well, then this claim begins to do untold mischief as far as I'm concerned. That's when an otherwise innocuous claim becomes a crow bar that opens the door and invites the Priests in to spoil the party.

I don't see how one could deny that there is an ineradicable gap between the world and the words that describe it without losing one's competence as a language user. Which means that of course I agree with Martin and everybody else who uses language on the utterly noncontroversial "question" of the existence of "external reality." But, not to put too fine a point on it, I don't believe that anybody on earth, outside a few lunatics and substance experimentalists on a real bender, possibly, really does deny this truism. This is so, I'm afraid, even when people are offering up theoretical accounts of justification that enrage epistemological realists.

But neither do I see any difference between those who would use this grammatical truism to invest declarations by proper scientists with sociocultural autonomy or with a decisive authority (prioritized, say, over ongoing democratic stakeholder disputes over the actual diversity of desired outcomes), and those who would invest declarations by Priestly authorities about the existence of supernatural beings and their presumed wants in respect to human conduct and historical outcomes with a similar priority over democratic contestation.

Martin offers up as an olive brance of sorts, that, whatever the solid stolid "truths" disinterred by science, [t]here is always room for interpretation.

But, for me, that's what scientific practices of warranted description are. I agree that we properly distinguish scientific or instrumental modes of reasonable belief-ascription from other modes (moral, ethical, esthetic, political, and so on). Indeed, offering up such distinctions was right there at the heart of the discussion to which Martin was objecting in the first place. But just as strongly as I agree that we rightly distinguish the forms, ends, and warrants of instrumental rationality from other modes, I disagree that we rightly prioritize any one mode of rationality over the others or seek to reduce the terms of any one indispensable mode to the others. It is just such a project of hierarchization or reductionism which is likely afoot when those who prioritize instrumentality like to distinguish "it" from interpretation, or propose that "it" can be socioculturally biased or, somehow, "not" in some enormously fraught sense.

Martin proposes that: Nuclear physics can be used to power cities or blow them up. That doesn't change the truths of nuclear physics.

But certainly our understanding of these differences does indeed change at least some "truths" of nuclear physics, if only (at the very least) because people's attitudes to blowing up cities (or, as it happens, recommendations that we "power" them in pointlessly dangerous and poisonous ways even if better, renewable alternatives are available for such purposes) will inspire programs of funding, regulation, publication, education, and research that will nudge scientists in different directions than they otherwise would with the consequence that the candidates for belief that they propose and which subsequently will pass justificatory muster will differ from one another.

But quite apart from all that, the actual thrust of my argument in the original post that inspired Martin's marvelous interventions was less to discuss the social, cultural, and political articulation of scientific and justificatory practices at the general level that has preoccupied this particular, and very rewarding, series of exchanges, but just to insist that technoscientific progress is articulated by such factors. I daresay he would probably agree with that point even if he doesn't particularly like my insistently historicized and pragmatic characterization of justified scientific belief. But if I had focused on just that aspect, I wouldn't have had occasion to delve into these other wonderfully interesting topics!

9 comments:

jfehlinger said...

Dale Carrico wrote:

> . . .what looks to me like the rather curious notion that
> the Universe has preferences in the matter of the words humans
> use to describe it. . .

Physicists and their friends (i.e., Mathematicians) do rather
strongly adhere to this notion, though. The Universe smiles
on math, dontcha know.

The friend I visited last holiday week, a physicist by
training, though he's spent most of his working life as
a technical copy editor, always harrumphs at attempts to
"popularize" physics (e.g., by means of articles in the
Science Times) as "hand-waving". "If you don't know
the math, you don't really know a damn thing about
the physics." is his motto.

This has, of course, rather famously led to what's been
called "math-envy" among the less "hard" sciences, and
has led folks to lust after quantitative formulations
in their fields even irrespective of their pragmatic
value in those particular areas of study. You don't
want the physicists and mathematicians sniggering up
their sleeves at you!

Martin Striz said...

But it seems to me that "science getting done" is social and political practices, which Martin quite properly concedes himself by the end of that very sentence of his.

If anybody can uncover the same truths, regardless of his or her social and political context, then the truths are sociopolitically neutral. That is the mode of rationality that science provides.

When people are free they will surprise us. That is because human beings are different from one another, responsive to one another, and endlessly inventive.

I think you missed the point. People surprise themselves, which means the outcomes of the experiments challenge their intuitions and biases.

Sure, we could all surprise each other with our different sociopolitical biases and still learn nothing.

...mysterious incarnations of some suprajustificatory externality that they will call, for want of anything better on hand, "the data"...

Our beliefs are a model of external reality, and data -- evidence -- is the causal link between the two. Beliefs devoid of evidence have no causal relationship to reality. That's the justification for the primacy of data.

But, for me, that's what scientific practices of warranted description are.

Then you've never designed a scientific experiment.

I disagree that we rightly prioritize any one mode of rationality over the others or seek to reduce the terms of any one indispensable mode to the others.

I don't claim that science is the best rationality in all cases. Certainly, it is not useful for ethical considerations, although it may inform them.

It is just such a project of hierarchization or reductionism which is likely afoot when those who prioritize instrumentality like to distinguish "it" from interpretation, or propose that "it" can be socioculturally biased or, somehow, "not" in some enormously fraught sense.

Again, you've obviously never designed an experiment.

But certainly our understanding of these differences does indeed change at least some "truths" of nuclear physics, if only (at the very least) because people's attitudes to blowing up cities (or, as it happens, recommendations that we "power" them in pointlessly dangerous and poisonous ways even if better, renewable alternatives are available for such purposes) will inspire programs of funding, regulation, publication, education, and research that will nudge scientists in different directions than they otherwise would with the consequence that the candidates for belief that they propose and which subsequently will pass justificatory muster will differ from one another.

Every point you enumerate as "some 'truth' of nuclear physics," has nothing in fact to do with nuclear physics.

But quite apart from all that, the actual thrust of my argument in the original post that inspired Martin's marvelous interventions was less to discuss the social, cultural, and political articulation of scientific and justificatory practices at the general level that has preoccupied this particular, and very rewarding, series of exchanges, but just to insist that technoscientific progress is articulated by such factors.

Most certainly, because technoprogressivism is a social and political response to scientific progress.

Martin Striz said...

BTW, I do agree with most of the rest of that post, which I why I singled out paragraph that I most disagreed with for review. Disagreement fuels our public discourse and allows us, in the best cases, to come to a new consensus. Quoting the rest of the paragraphs and writing "I agree" under them wouldn't yield any new information.

But let me go on record: I agree. :)

I agree with you that staying apolitical is a form of politics itself. There's no better to get screwed by somebody than to ignore them.

Martin Striz said...

"which is why I singled out the paragraph..."

Dale Carrico said...

BTW, I do agree with most of the rest of that post, which I why I singled out paragraph that I most disagreed with for review. Disagreement fuels our public discourse and allows us, in the best cases, to come to a new consensus. Quoting the rest of the paragraphs and writing "I agree" under them wouldn't yield any new information.

Just in case I wasn't clear, I really enjoyed your interventions. I live for this stuff. More to come.

jfehlinger said...

> > But it seems to me that "science getting done" is social and
> > political practices, which Martin quite properly concedes himself
> > by the end of that very sentence of his.
>
> If anybody can uncover the same truths, regardless of his or her
> social and political context, then the truths are sociopolitically
> neutral. That is the mode of rationality that science provides.

The very fact that a "truth" has been publicly acknowledged
to **have been** "uncovered" requires a social and political context.

Some truths -- ironically some of those conventionally
considered the most revolutionary and abstruse (Einstein's
discoveries, let's say) come into the world with relatively little
resistance.

And some other truths, statements of which it is
easy for anyone of normal intelligence to understand (such as,
for example, "cigarette smoking increases the risk of lung cancer"),
have not been easy to "uncover", even at great expense.

It seems to be typical that the closer any field of study comes
to direct inquiries about human nature, the harder it is to
apply "the mode of rationality that science provides". See,
for example, _Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate_
by Ullica Segerstrale
http://www.amazon.com/Defenders-Truth-Sociobiology-Ullica-Segerstrale/dp/0192862154
for a good example of this (and one which bears on some
contemporary transhumanist discourse, for that matter).

One of the amusing details about the Objectivists -- the followers
of Ayn Rand -- at least in their heyday when the lady herself
was still alive, is that those self-proclaimed paragons of
rationality had some mighty peculiar ideas (at least, from the
perspective of those not locked into **their** "social
and political context") about what constitutes scientific "truth",
all deriving ultimately from Ms. Rand's own quirks of thought.
They did **not** believe (or, at least, were not permitted to
publicly acknowledge it if they did believe) that cigarette smoking
might be harmful to one's health. This is because Rand did
not think that statistical evidence should have any bearing
on the choices or expectations of a single individual.
Also, Rand didn't like modern physics (not that she's likely
to have understood much of it). The very name "Theory of
Relativity" must have given her the shudders -- she
thought it was the product of corrupt metaphysics. Oh
yes, and she didn't like the theory of evolution either.

Martin Striz said...

jfehlinger: Whether it's relativity, cigarette smoking, or sociobiology, the data speaks for itself, and various recalcitrant parties, biased by their sociopolitical milieu, will begrudgingly acquiesce to the data -- at least if they have any integrity at all.

What I'm saying is that there is an ideal to aspire to, which is not impossible to achieve. Good scientists practice it quite often.

As for Rand, I think we can all agree she was a cultist moron.

jfehlinger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jfehlinger said...

Martin Striz wrote:

> As for Rand, I think we can all agree she was a cultist moron.

One might wish it were so!

In >H circles, to my dismay, she's still often held up as a model
of rationality -- and there is generally no debate when she
is. If one dares to suggest otherwise, one is likely to be confronted
by the "hyperscreech" (as one author calls it:
http://home.att.net/~bob.wallace/rand1.html ) of her
most rabid fans, and deafening silence from the rest of the
company.

Most disturbingly, from a purely scientific point of view, is
that her "philosophy" continues to influence assumptions
in >Hist circles about the nature of intelligence and the
possibilities for **artificial** intelligence. See, e.g.,
http://www.theatlasphere.com/columns/050601-zader-peter-voss-interview.php

OK, so some of these people are probably out-and-out crackpots.
But again, their assumptions are never challenged outright,
and some form of the Randian view of intelligence seems
to form a de facto, unexamined and unexaminable, paradigm
for almost all on-line >Hist discussion.

For example, John C. Wright's "Golden Age" SF trilogy was
received with great enthusiasm in >Hist circles. The books
contain AI characters called "sophotechs", and there's a
great deal of exposition in the books about how they
work -- all painfully Randian (the author was a self-avowed
Objectivist before he converted to Christianity --
**after** the completion of the Golden Age books).
Yet the undue Randian influence was never objected to on
the lists; on the contrary, it no doubt accounted
in no small measure for the books' appeal. Wright himself
appeared briefly on the Extropians' list following the lavish praise
of his Golden Age books, only to be chased away as
a result of his new-found Christianity.

Fortunately, the folks on rec.arts.sf.written are not
beholden to >Hist sacred cows.
http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.sf.written/browse_thread/thread/d7aa593fb0d7854a/698c7eb6d209e5be?#698c7eb6d209e5be