Thursday, March 11, 2010

Representation, realism, and relativism

The popular view of the “science wars” of the 1990s is that it involved scientists and philosophers criticizing social scientists for making and accepting absurd claims as a result of an extreme relativistic view about scientific knowledge. Such absurd claims included claims like “the natural world in no way constrains what is believed to be,” “the natural world has a small or nonexistent role in the construction of scientific knowledge,” and “the natural world must be treated as though it did not affect our perception of it” (all due to Harry Collins, quoted in Yves Gingras’ scathingly critical review of his book (PDF), Gravity’s Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves). Another example was Bruno Latour’s claim that it was impossible for Ramses II to have died of tuberculosis because the tuberculosis bacillus was not discovered until 1882. This critical popular view is right as far as it goes--those claims are absurd--but the popular view of science also tends toward an overly rationalistic and naively realistic conception of scientific knowledge that fails to account for social factors that influence science as actually practiced by scientists and scientific institutions. The natural world and our social context both play a role in the production of scientific knowledge.

Mark B. Brown’s Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation tries to steer a middle course between extremes, but periodically veers too far in the relativist direction. Early on, in a brief discussion of the idea of scientific representations corresponding to reality, he writes (p. 6): “Emphasizing the practical dimensions of science need not impugn the truth of scientific representations, as critics of science studies often assume ...” But he almost immediately seems to retract this when he writes that “science is not a mirror of nature” (p. 7) and, in one of several unreferenced and unargued-for claims appealing to science studies that occur in the book, that “constructivist science studies does undermine the standard image of science as an objective mirror of nature” (p. 16). Perhaps he merely means that scientific representations are imperfect and fallible, for he does periodically make further attempts to steer a middle course, such as when he quotes Latour: “Either they went on being relativists even about the settled parts of science--which made them look ridiculous; or they continued being realists even about the warm uncertain parts--and they made fools of themselves” (p. 183). It’s surely reasonable to take an instrumentalist approach to scientific theories that aren’t well established, are somewhat isolated from the rest of our knowledge, or are highly theoretical, but also to take a realist approach to theories that are well established with evidence from multiple domains and have remained stable while being regularly put to the test. The evidence that we have today for a heliocentric solar system, for common ancestry of species, and for the position and basic functions of organs in the human body is of such strength that it is unlikely that we will see that knowledge completely overthrown in a future scientific revolution. But Brown favorably quotes Latour: “Even the shape of humans, our very body, is composed to a great extent of sociotechnical negotiations and artifacts.” (p. 171) Our bodies are not “composed” of “sociotechnical negotiations and artifacts”--this is either a mistaken use of the word “composed” (instead of perhaps “the consequence of”) or a use-mention error (referring to “our very body” instead of our idea of our body).

In Ch. 6, in a section titled “Realism and Relativism” that begins with a reference to the “science wars,” he follows the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey in order to “help resolve some of the misunderstandings and disagreements among today’s science warriors” such as that “STS scholars seem to endorse a radical form of relativism, according to which scientific accounts of reality are no more true than those of witchcraft, astrology, or common sense” (p. 156). Given that Brown has already followed Dewey’s understanding of scientific practice as continuous with common sense (pp.151-152), it’s somewhat odd to see it listed with witchcraft and astrology in that list--though perhaps in this context it’s not meant as the sort of critical common sense Dewey described, but more like folk theories that are undermined or refuted by science.

Brown seems to endorse Dewey’s view that “reality is the world encountered through successful intervention” and favorably quotes philosopher Ian Hacking that “We shall count as real what we can use to intervene in the world to affect something else, or what the world can use to affect us” (pp. 156-157), but he subsequently drops the second half of Hacking’s statement when he writes “If science is understood in terms of the capacity to direct change, knowing cannot be conceived on the model of observation.” Such an understanding may capture experimental sciences, but not observational or historical sciences, an objection Brown attributes to Bertrand Russell, who “pointed out in his review of Dewey’s Logic that knowledge of a star could not be said to affect the star” (p. 158). Brown, however, follows Latour and maintains that “the work of representation ... always transforms what it represents” (p. 177). Brown defends this by engaging in a use-mention error, the failure to properly distinguish between the use of an expression and talking about the expression, when he writes that stars as objects of knowledge are newly created objects (p. 158, more below). Such an error is extremely easy to make when talking about social facts, where representations are themselves partly constitutive of the facts, such as in talk about knowledge or language.

Brown writes that “People today experience the star as known, differently than before ... The star as an object of knowledge is thus indeed a new object” (p. 158). But this is unnecessary given the second half of Hacking’s statement, since we can observe and measure stars--they have impact upon us. Brown does then talk about impact on us, but only by the representation, not the represented: “...this new object causes existential changes in the knower. With the advent of the star as a known object, people actually experience it differently. This knowledge should supplement and not displace whatever aesthetic or religious experiences people continue to have of the star, thus making their experiences richer and more fulfilling” (p. 158). There may certainly be augmented experience with additional knowledge, which may not change the perceptual component of the experience, but I wonder what the Brown’s basis is for the normative claim that religious experiences in particular shouldn’t be displaced--if those religious experiences are based on claims that have been falsified, such as an Aristotelian conception of the universe, then why shouldn’t they be displaced? But perhaps here I’m making the use-mention error, and Brown doesn’t mean that religious interpretations shouldn’t be displaced, only experiences that are labeled as “religious” shouldn’t be displaced.

A few other quibbles:

Brown writes that “all thought relies on language” (p. 56). If this is the case, then nonhuman animals that have no language cannot have thoughts. (My commenter suggested that all sentient beings have language, and even included plants in that category. I think the proposal that sentience requires language is at least plausible, though I wouldn’t put many nonhuman animals or any plants into that category--perhaps chimps, whales, and dolphins. Some sorts of “language” extend beyond that category, such as the dance of honeybees that seems to code distance and direction information, but I interpreted Brown’s claim to refer to human language with syntax, semantics, generative capacity, etc., and to mean that one can’t have non-linguistic thoughts in the form of, say, pictorial imagery, without language. I.e., that even such thoughts require a “language of thought,” to use Jerry Fodor’s expression.)

Brown endorses Harry Collins’ idea of the “experimenter’s regress,” without noting that his evidence for the existence of such a phenomenon is disputed (Allan Franklin, “How to Avoid the Experimenters’ Regress,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 25(3, 1994): 463-491). (Franklin also discusses this in the entry on "Experiment in Physics" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Brown contrasts Harry Collins and Robert Evans with Hobbes on the nature of expertise: The former see “expertise as a ‘real and substantive’ attribute of individuals” while “For Hobbes, in contrast, what matters is whether the claims of reason are accepted by the relevant audience.” (p. 116). Brown sides with Hobbes, but this is to make a similar mistake to that Richard Rorty made when claiming that truth is what you can get away with, which is false by its own definition--since philosophers didn’t let him get away with it. This definition doesn’t allow for the existence of a successful fake expert or con artist, but we know that such persons exist from examples that have been exposed. Under this definition, such persons were experts until they were unmasked.

Brown’s application of Hobbes’ views on political representation to nature is less problematic when he discusses the political representation of environmental interests (pp. 128-131) than when he discusses scientific representations of nature (pp. 131-132). The whole discussion might have been clearer had it taken account of John Searle’s account of social facts (in The Construction of Social Reality).

Brown writes that “Just as recent work in science studies has shown that science is not made scientifically ...” (p. 140), without argument or reference.

He apparently endorses a version of Dewey’s distinction between public and private actions with private being “those interactions that do not affect anyone beyond those engaged in the interaction; interactions that have consequences beyond those so engaged he calls public” (p. 141). This distinction is probably not tenable since the indirect consequences of even actions that we’d consider private can ultimately affect others, such as a decision to have or not to have children.

On p. 159, Brown attributes the origin of the concept of evolution to “theories of culture, such as those of Vico and Comte” rather than Darwin, but neither of them had theories of evolution by natural selection comparable to Darwin’s innovation; concepts of evolutionary change go back at least to the pre-Socratic philosophers like the Epicureans and Stoics. (Darwin didn't invent natural selection, either, but he was the first to put all the pieces together and recognize that evolution by natural selection could serve a productive as well as a conservative role.)

[A slightly different version of the above was written as a comment for my Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology core seminar. Thanks to Brenda T. for her comments. It should be noted that the above really doesn't address the main arguments of the book, which are about the meaning of political representation and representation in science, and an argument about proper democratic representation in science policy.]