Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ian S. Mitroff - The Subjective Side of Science (1974)

The author, a practitioner of applied social science, believes that disagreement (rather than consensus) is the essence of scientific inquiry.  He further claims that the causes of the disagreements between scientists are social in kind and that they are also psychological, and that truth is as much psychological as it is logical.  This view is in contrast to the Descartes-Locke view that all humans are endowed with the common capabilities of reasoning and observing, and that if we strip away (purify) the personal and social contamination, then scientific inquiry will necessarily yield results that are acceptable by all who have also achieved this “pure state.”

The aim of the book is to lay a foundation for modeling scientific practice on a critical analysis of the actual behavior of scientists, and to also ask what a science looks like that better understands itself.  The book (and the author) is critical of what he calls “The Storybook Image of Science.”  This myth depicts scientists as emotionally neutral, willing to change their opinions when confronted with reliable evidence, humble about their knowledge and understanding, loyal to the truth above all else, and possessed of an objective attitude and the ability to suspend judgement until the issue under consideration has been investigated.

What Mitroff fails to realize, though, is that myths and archetypes have an important psychological place in our existence.  Would science be better off if the storybook image of science was dispelled?  Or would science, and the world, lose their ideal of what a scientist is supposed to be?  And if that happened, would science suffer as a result?

As a sociologist of science, he is concerned with examining the norms of science, which he defines as: faith in rationality, emotional neutrality, universalism (rational knowledge is the realm of all), individualism (anti-authoritarian), community (knowledge is not private property), disinterestedness (no personal glory), impartiality (concern is with knowledge, not with its consequences), suspension of judgement, absence of bias, group loyalty and freedom of investigation.

And yet he’s willing to accept the norms as ideals.

Mitroff bases the study in this book on the Churchmanian program in the philosophy of science in which the logic of research and the social psychology of research are not viewed as being antagonistic to each other, but rather vital, although partial, components of scientific research as a whole.  He is a supporter of Kuhn, rather than Popper.

After interviewing scientists studying moon rocks he comes to the following conclusions:  1) there are two sets of opposing norms of science; 2) there are distinct styles of inquiry in science and distinct psychological types of scientists; and 3) the method that scientists use to test their ideas involve adversarial proceedings that combine formal and informal elements.

Styles of Inquiry:

Leibnizian:  formal-deductive;
Lockean: experiential, inductive, consensual;
Kantian: synthetic multimodal;
Hegelian or Dialectical: conflictual, synthetic;
Singerian-Churchmanian: synthetic, interdisciplinary, holistic.

Psychological types of scientists (based upon Jung):

Hard experimentalist (sensation);
Abstract theorizer (thinking);
Intuitive synthesizer (intuition);
Humanist scientist (feeling).

Science as a Game possesses the following features: 1) individual players; 2) coalitions, teams; 3) designation of teams as home side and opposing side; 4) special field of play; 5) entrance fees or skills; 6) schedule of games; 7) recruitment and development of talent; 8) rules; 9) umpires; 10) objectives; 11) awards; 12) historians or preservers of the tradition; 13) fans; 14) public sponsors; 15) societal sanction or support.  It is intensely human and personal, and also mostly masculine (conquering nature), and has at least four general aims or ideals: the knowledge ideal (perfect knowledge); the politico-economical ideal (efficient pursuit of knowledge); the ethical-moral ideal (conflict removal between scientists and science and society); the esthetic ideal (enlarge the range and scope of scientific inquiry).  And even though it does have subjective elements, it is not completely subjective, irrational or relativistic.  We have reached Apollonian science that knows how to reach “the starry heavens above,” but we still don’t know how to develop Dionysian science that knows how to reach “the moral law within.”  We may be intellectual giants, but we are still moral dwarfs, and tackling that problem is the task of the future.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

S. Hillgartner - “The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems” Social Studies of Science, V. 20, #3, 519-41

Hillgartner asserts that scientists develop scientific knowledge and after that it is popularized, and that this popularized knowledge is seen (by the scientific community) as either an appropriate simplification or a pollution, something that is distorted or misunderstood.  This view serves scientists by providing a vocabulary of non-science for rhetorical use and by demarcating ‘genuine’ science from ‘popularized’ knowledge.  It asserts that there is a ‘gold standard’ of knowledge, and that only scientists know the ‘truth’ and gives scientists the authority to decide which popularizations are appropriate simplifications and which are distortions.

But there are problems with this view.  Popularized knowledge feeds back into the research process, especially by scientists outside the field, who use it, and whose beliefs about the content and conduct of science are shaped by it.  Simplified explanations of science are used in communicating with students, funding agencies and specialists in adjacent fields.  And scientific knowledge is seen as constructed through the collective statements of the scientific community and popularization is a part of this (social studies of science perspective).

In drawing the line between genuine knowledge and popularization, the scientific community prefers a binary mode.  When scientists communicate with other scientists they are exchanging genuine knowledge, when scientists communicate with the public, it is popularization.  The difference between these two modes is one of content, the nature of the claims, and the precision with which they are stated, and also the difference between ‘original’ knowledge and the subsequent spread.  But drawing the line between appropriate simplification and distortion is not that easy, since virtually every ‘downstream’ retelling involves some simplification.  How do we know when simplification becomes over simplification becomes distortion (the telephone game).

The dominant view of popularization reinforces the epistemic authority of scientists because ‘genuine’ knowledge is only available to them.  It also provides scientists with a rhetorical tool for representing science and communicating it to non-scientists.  Because scientists often control the simplification, they can shape public opinion by how and what they simplify.  They can even use the notion of distortion via popularization to debunk popular claims and reassert their authority.  But...there is no ‘central’ bank to enforce the ‘gold standard’ of knowledge, and there is no ‘police force’ to detect counterfeit claims.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Scott L. Montgomery - Science as Kitsch: The Dinosaur and Other Icons, Science as Culture, Volume 2, part 1, No. 10, 7-58, 1991.

The word ‘kitsch’ may come from ‘verkitschen’, which means ‘to turn out cheaply’, but regardless of its origins, it represents a style of mercenary aesthetics.  For Montgomery, it connects aspects of the role that images play in modern society, and the ability to turn thought and feeling into formula, and hence into products for consumption.  The resulting power of this connection between images and the consumer industry helps ingrain and recycle the existing modes of thought and helps stabilize particular institutional structures.

When applied to science, as in science as kitsch, he is referring to pseudo or crank science and to the use of science to legitimate political ends or culture prejudices.  It also refers to mass-media science (including some popularization), science as myth and as effect, such as tabloid science.  Even the scientist as celebrity falls under the heading of science as kitsch, as does the notion of a national mission of science, or the use of science as intellectual deputies of the state.

(So to popularize anything is to vulgarize it?  Popular culture is obsessed with images and consumption, and to popularize science is to sell out, to turn it into a mass-market consumable, the appearance of which has little if anything to do with the reality?)

According to Montgomery, kitsch is society’s favored discourse about itself, it is ‘integrational propaganda’, and acts through textbooks, films, TV, toys, and any other mechanism that helps to condition or otherwise limit one’s curiosity about and critique of existing concepts and social realities.  The result is that kitsch blocks the will for new insight by dominating our images.  We do not move past the old myths and legends and the inaccessibility and mystery of science is maintained.  “It keeps alive concepts and beliefs that are false and closed, that dazzle or distract with an appeal to distant expertise, and that attempt in every case to satisfy without the benefit of substance.” (56)

Monday, April 5, 2010

John Burnham, How Superstition Won and Science Lost, 1989

The skeptics claims against superstition are that it involves defective reasoning about the natural world or the inexplicable, that certain people encourage superstitious beliefs for their own reasons (usually not altruistic) and that superstition represents the surrender of the rational point of view.  And the skeptics fear that the irrational might destroy civilization.

The major tenet of the religion of science is that scientists offered natural explanations of all natural events, including human beings and their thinking.  In the 1930s, the last days of the undiluted religion of science, the aim of the popularizers was to get the reader to see the world as scientists saw it, orderly and unified, and to get people to think scientifically using the scientific method.  Their goal was the evolution of human beings and society into a progressively scientific civilization.

 In the late 19th century the man of science was someone who was devoted to the scientific method, and who believed that such devotion led to moral superiority.  They upheld a traditional view of culture, while at the same time adding to it, and they believed that science stood for objectivity.  In their pursuit of knowledge, they sought to eliminate the self, forswearing subjective emotional and personal advantage.  They sought to emancipate themselves from the misconceptions and prejudices of society and saw it as their duty to popularize science, to spread the religion of science.  (The myth of the man of science.  Scientists as a priesthood.)

At first popularization was the teaching of what scientists knew, but as science became professionalized and specialized, the function of popularization became the translation between scientists and the public.  Burnham identifies four main phases in the popularization of the natural sciences.

The first half of the 19th century is characterized by the dominance of natural theology and an increase in the number of full-time scientists.  In the 1820s the popularizing activity grew rapidly with schools, colleges, magazines and lyceums, and by the 1830s the popularizing activity was concentrating on the practical applications of science.  In 1850 and 1852 year books were published chronicling the progress of science and technology.  A connection was made between popularization and modernization, promoting a sense of human power connected to the natural sciences and the idea of progress.  After the Civil War there was a period of positivism and scientism, an ante-bellum synthesis of piety and practicality in popular science in which nature began to substitute for God.  The legacy of the early 19th century popularizers was a set of institutions and a concern for meaning and context, with the goal of conveying science to the public and diminishing superstition.

In the late 19th century, these popularizers emphasized facts, progress, practicality, but at the same time science was being more intensely applied to human beings and human affairs.  This was the dawn of the men of science and the beginning of the professionalization of science.  From the 1870s to the end of the century, scientists took the lead in presenting science to the public and science was part of high culture, something to be aspired to.  To love science was to love Truth.  Reductionism followed, and the belief that facts serve to explain the unexplainable, to illustrate discovery and to show the practical contribution of scientific knowledge.  In the 19th century popularization of science was a missionary activity aimed at converting people to the scientific way of life.  (Let’s all become Vulcans, live long and prosper.)

In the first half of the 20th century the religion and ideology of positivistic science peaked and popularization ceased to be under the control of the scientists.  After 1945 the media changed the characteristics of the popularization of science and it no longer supported the religion of science.  In the 20th century, as science becomes specialized, popularization shifts from science to technology (basic to applied).