Science As A Human Practice

Throughout my academic career, I have noticed a certain kind of bias between different academic fields. Many “hard” scientist seem to believe that the work done by “soft” scientists such as cultural anthropologists is less valid or true. Recently, due to a recent post by Maria Brodine on Rebecca Lemov’s “World as Laboratory” , I thought I’d share some of my thoughts. Science as a human practice has always intrigued me, and due to it, I have dedicated much of my time to studying it as such. What I have realized is that “science” (hard and soft sciences), like anything else humans do, is a practice engaged by certain groups of people in myriad ways. The notion that science is something other than a human practice that produces “facts” beyond fallibility, human error, bias, subjectivity, etc… is an outdated idea that many people still believe today.

The majority of people typically think of true statements produced by science (note that the notion of the scientist as a person is absent) as ahistorical, objective, produced by reason and the scientific method, and free from personal bias. Nonetheless, various studies of science have broken down those conceptions, and have painted a view of science as collective, historical, socio-politically negotiated, and contingent on technology (from here on I will refer to this collectively as the contextual dimensions). As Bruno Latour explains in his book Laboratory Life, facts are removed from social and historical circumstances. (LL pg 105). They lose all temporal qualifications, and are incorporated into a larger body of knowledge (LL pg 106). In short scientific activity produces true statements in the form of facts, and in the process of doing so the contextual dimensions are lost.

Typically true statements in the form of facts are the result of two kinds of devices: technological devices and human devices. Both of these devices are the means by which scientist produce their beliefs, claims/statements, and compete with each other (and each other‘s statements), defeat each other, and remove the contextual dimensions. Human devices are any non-technological means which scientist employ that directly contribute to the statements they make.

Aside from lawyers and politicians, rhetorical/persuasive or human devices are used by scientist often. Latour’s naïve anthropologist in chapter 2 of Laboratory Life describes how the participants he/she studied worked to transform statements into more “fact-like” statements (LL pg73-84). The anthropologist at the end of chapter 2 suggests that by using literary inscriptions, photographs, and diagrams a reader of a statement is persuaded into accepting the transformation of a statement into a “fact-like” statement (LL pg88). Additionally, scientific writing is usually extremely technical and does not make use of personal pronouns. In doing so, scientific writing makes the author invisible, and predetermines the reader, which adds to the validity of the claims made.

In addition to using various kinds of rhetorical devices of persuasion such as different kinds of statements and ways of making those statements that render the authors invisible and make their statements appear more fact-like, often times scientist simply eliminate the competition that other scientist pose. For example, in chapter 3 of Latour’s Laboratory Life, the historian’s deconstruction of a fact shows the changes in context that occurred over time. One such change is the redefining of a field into a subspecialty. This redefinition allows the scientist to redefine standards and methodology such that the use of new equipment that is expensive is necessary. The costly equipment eliminates competition by eliminating scientist who are not sufficiently funded (LL pg122). A similar phenomenon is described in H.M. Collins’ introduction to his work The Golem. Collins explains how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in combination with Einstein as a figure of authority, sparked contention within the physics community that eventually led to a refining of standards, which dictated what counted as valid. Once the “culture of life in the physics community changed”, previous experiments that may have been considered relevant, were no longer so (The Golem pg42).

The elimination of competition, as described by both Latour and Collins, is the result of a human device. This human device is the strategic use of the political and social dimensions of science. In Latour’s case study of TRF(H) in Laboratory Life, the political and social work done by Guillemin and Schally was complaining that the field was outdated, that claims were unfounded, and that elegant hypotheses substituted for facts (LL pg122). Their complaining directly contributed to the redefinition of a subspecialty, elimination of scientists who did not meet the new standards, and to the production of scientific facts.

Collins in his work The Golem is more explicit. An interpretation of Collins work in The Golem is that the success of a statement depends on the success of its authors. When an author of a theory or statement becomes extremely successful, their statements, and other statements either derived or implicated, also become successful. This is extremely obvious in the social sciences, but not in the “hard” sciences. Nonetheless, according to Collins, upon close examination we see that because of Einstein’s figure of authority and genius, his theory was successful. After consensus (which is the result of human and technological devices) was established regarding the validity of Einstein’s theory, various confirming data was reported. Discrepancies that previously plagued the work of other researchers, and inhibited them from drawing conclusions supporting Einstein, disappeared (The Golem pg53). Collins writes that scientific consensus moved from the center occupied by Einstein’s theory, and spread in all directions from that center. This was all the result of “agreement to agree about new things” (The Golem pg54). These new things primarily were derived or implicated from the center, which was the result of possibly part genius, and mostly the social and political dimensions of science.

With that we turn to technological devices. Technological devices used in science range from measuring devices (e.g. test-tubes, mass-spectrometers), experimental devices (e.g. prisms, lasers, gravitational radiation detectors), and one can even argue that the tap water in the laboratory is a technological device. We can broadly define technological devices as any non-human means which scientist employ that directly contribute to the statements they make in the ways discussed earlier. In this way, for example, the tap water is a technological device because it directly contributes to the work in the laboratory, and hence the statements produced by the scientists. If the tap water was to be shut off, scientific activity within the lab would stop. Technological devices are a necessary part of scientific activity among scientists today.

Interestingly, technological devices and their use is intimately entangled with human devices. To illustrate this consider the following: Before a statement is deemed true, consensus regarding what counts as a proper experimental device must be made. Without consensus, any scientist can claim that their results obtained by way of technological devices accurately represent reality. Consensus is negotiated using human and technological devices. Negotiations are made regarding which set of experiments and instruments are competent. Various adjustments are made to methodology, standards, and instrumentation. Collins illustrates this process in his work The Seven Sexes. In this work, Collins describes what he calls the enculturational model. Through this model, knowledge regarding instrumentation is passed down through enculturation. He writes that the only criterion to establish that the knowledge necessary to conduct a proper experiment with the competent technological devices is that the experiment works. What counts as working is negotiated. Furthermore, in coming to a consensus through the process of negotiation, the character of the phenomenon that is under investigation is also decided (The Seven Sexes pg219). Once the phenomenon under investigation is decided, any other experimental devices used by others are deemed inadequate if they do not support the decided upon characterization of the phenomenon. In this way the claims made by scientist using different technological devices, which are always entangled with human devices, are unsubstantiated.

Latour in chapter 2 and 3 of Laboratory Life gives a similar account, but more interestingly he discusses how technological devices can lend validity to a claim. According to Latour’s naïve anthropologist and historian‘s deconstruction of a fact, the claims scientist make are all contingent on technological devices they use. The anthropologist describes in chapter 2 how the participants use specialized equipment to transform pieces of matter into written documents (LL pg51). The participants rewrite and edit the output of the recording equipment several times. The documents produced are then inserted within a larger network of actors (LL pg54). A document is said to be a fact or contain a fact when all the actors are convinced that there is no debate about the fact they are reading (LL pg 76).The process of constructing a fact, according to my interpretation of Latour, begins with technological devices and ends with technological devices. The construction of a fact begins with recording equipment described in chapter 2. In chapter 3, only after TRF(H) has been measured using another technological device, the mass-spectrometer (LL pg146), does it become a fact.

In using technological devices and human devices, the contextual dimensions discussed above are stripped away. Both kinds of devices function to produce claims/statements, allow scientist and their statements to compete with each other, defeat each other and remove the contextual dimensions that allowed the fact to be produced. The examples we discussed thus far exemplify how facts are produced and the contextual dimensions erased. For instance, by using technological devices to convert physical matter into output, a scientist can claim that personal bias was eliminated by using human devices. By using human devices that render the authors invisible, the social, political, and historical dimensions (e.g. previous research that was deemed irrelevant or invalid, but yet contributed to the production of the fact) that contributed to the production of a true statement in the form of a fact are erased.

One interpretation of Collins’ The Seven Sexes is that in deciding what the phenomena under investigation is, the nature of the phenomena is characterized and that characterization becomes fact because there is agreement regarding the nature of the phenomena. But what about truth? Does agreement somehow substantiate truth? Is the agreed upon characterization true? According to the common-man, a statement is said to be true when it corresponds to reality. According to this definition of truth there are several statements that can be said to be true, e.g. “you are reading this post” is a true statement because it corresponds to reality. A fact then can be said is a statement that scientist make which corresponds to reality. But which came first, reality or the fact? Was the statement “you are reading this paper” true before you read it? According to my interpretation of Collins, reality would have to come first.

Latour’s work in Laboratory Life takes a more radical step. Latour argues that once the phenomena under investigation is decided and it becomes a fact, nature itself is created. In a way this seems to imply that nature, science, and society are all co-constructed. Furthermore, the answer to the question asked regarding what came first, would be both because in the production of a fact, nature is produced as well. Latour’s answer seems better because it captures the phenomenon of the production of facts and reality more adequately. Before reading this post the statement “you are reading this post” is not true, but has the potential to be true. After reading the statement and the post in its entirety, the statement “you are reading this post” is still not true. Only in the act of rendering the statement true, does the reality become true (and vice versa). As soon as the facts change, the reality changes as well. Interestingly, this co-construction of nature and fact reinforce each other. In co-producing true statements in the form of a fact and nature, nature reinforces the true statement, and the true statement reinforces nature. In a sense, this is the last nail in the contextual dimensions’ coffin. Once “nature-and-true-statements” are produced, both the phenomenon in nature and the true statement work together to completely remove the contextual dimensions by appealing to the common-man‘s conception of truth. True statements in the form of facts correspond to a reality which is created by the production of the true statements in the form of facts. Ultimately, we end up with incontrovertible commonsensical facts such as “of course the world is made up of atoms”, “of course gravity exists”, “of course I believe in reality”, “of course demons aren’t real”, and yes “of course race is real”.

    H. M. Collins (1975). The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or the Replication of Experiments in Physics Sociology, 9 (2), 205-224 DOI: 10.1177/003803857500900202

11 thoughts on “Science As A Human Practice

  1. your “co-construction” is not symmetric. nature is real and strongly constrains and channels human models and heuristics. just because people are stupid and subjective doesn’t mean that nature is amenable to a solipistic metaphysic.

    while you play word games other people are actually trying to understand reality. you should try it sometime, it’s fun and enlightening.

  2. Razib, Latour and similar philosophers are not saying that “nature is not real”. The concept of nature, however, and particularly the binary distinction between that which is considered nature and that which isn’t, is a construction often taken for granted as “fact”. It is actually very political, and fun, and enlightening, to problematize that distinction and consider the constantly dynamic, interconnected nature of things. Ah, there’s that word nature again.

  3. Emanuel wrote,

    “For instance, by using technological devices to convert physical matter into output, a scientist can claim that personal bias was eliminated by using human devices. By using human devices that render the authors invisible, the social, political, and historical dimensions (e.g. previous research that was deemed irrelevant or invalid, but yet contributed to the production of the fact) that contributed to the production of a true statement in the form of a fact are erased.”

    As I understand this, you, Emanuel, are arguing that technologies that are used to understand the genetic differences between populations, like the GeneChip and the analyzing device, along with all the kits and reagents are undeniably human devices. So you mean that loading these chips with DNA and allowing the strands to hybridize, fluoresce, and ultimately be scanned and analyzed have a social, political, and historical bias that affect the result?

    I don’t think so Emanuel. It seems like you don’t understand the technology. So you’re going about claiming that the culture that made them is flawed, thus making the devices flawed. Single strands of DNA vary between person to person. The individual bases that compose a particular strand bind to their complementary strand via hydrogen bonding, an attractive force. The amount of bonding between a sample (from an individual) to template strand can tell us how different the two strands are from one another and ultimately how different an individual’s genetics and evolutionary history is to someone else. Just as a spectrophotometer can analyze the density of particles in a solution, the set of technologies behind genetic analysis contribute to an understanding of the patterns of distributions of alleles. Likewise, going about thinking that since the devices that measure light are creations of humans, we’ll never know if light is real because humans are subjective is similar and naive.

    The humans and culture that makes these technological devices do not imprint a subjective bias on them. You may bring up existential arguments, stating the existence of sub atomic particles, gravity and other invisible forces are ultimately all relative and parts of our understandings of reality since we’re the ones that made the devices and designed experiments to prove them evident. But these analytical devices operate upon the laws of nature. They don’t operate on feelings and predispositions. If you think that is not the case, then please spare yourself the embarrassment and bow out of this discussion.


  4. It is actually very political, and fun, and enlightening, to problematize that distinction and consider the constantly dynamic, interconnected nature of things.

    are you being sarcastic or serious? obviously anyone who works in a lab knows that there’s a lot of fudging and politics and subjectivity and bias. and an analysis of this reality is worthwhile. but this post, and this sort of problematizing scholarship, doesn’t really need to go beyond “science has subjective and biased aspects.” all the extra stuff is just verbiage which exists to foster publication and an academic career. it doesn’t refine, clarify or elevate science in any way.

  5. No Kambiz, that’s not what I think. I think we might agree on one thing. The devices are not human devices, they are technological devices, that are used to measure and give measurements that accurately measure what they are suppossed to. Now, what is suppossed to be measured is negotiated. I’ll get back to this. But first, such technological devices because of such things e.g. as their accuracy, allow one to claim that there was no bias in the production of a fact– that (the ability to make such a claim) is accomplished through the use of human devices. Because, as Razib mentioned, everyone who works or knows about working in a lab knows that bias and subjectivity are always factors, yet most people deny that.

    Now, what counts as an accurate measure is negotiated. And in being so, what follows then is that what counts as a technological device that gives accurate measures is also negotiated. All of such negotiations are prone to bias, subjectivity, and in general human devices.

    For a more detailed look at ethnographic work on this, I suggest you look at Collins “The Seven Sexes”.

  6. In response to Razib’s comment

    “all the extra stuff is just verbiage which exists to foster publication and an academic career. it doesn’t refine, clarify or elevate science in any way.”

    My intention was not to refine, clarify, or elevate science. My intention was to point out that science should not be put on a pedestal, that it is like any other human practice, e.g. religious practice. In my mind science and religion are equally valuable and insightful. And of course, you and many others will criticize me for that, but that’s okay.

    Second, such problematizing is not only fun, but also important. Science and technology are integral parts of daily life for many people in today’s world. Understanding how science effects the objects in our world is extremely important. Take for e.g. the following: Not to long ago, many people beleived that atoms were these round tiny balls that were electrically charged. This idea was “supported” by evidence obtained through the use of various technological devices. Today, many people deny this, and say that atoms are more like clouds, with electrically charged particles popping in and out of existence. Now, to me understanding how science can get it wrong, and right, and wrong again, is extremely important– because after all, science is about “describing” how the world we live in “really” is.

  7. I’m not slamming science at all. Please excuse my error, but the point remains intact. You said,

    “The electron orbit model of the past was established based upon the limitations of the devices that could measure electrons. But we now know because of improvements in the very devices you criticize, that electrons fill shells. ”

    First, I’m not criticizing these devices. I clearly stated that these devices work as intended, and work very well. So well, that scientific theories are built based on the information we obtain from them– scientific theories that give us valuable and insightful information about the world we live in.

    Second, if you agree with my last response about how what counts as an accurate measurement is negotiated, then you would also have to agree that the improvements you speak of must have also been negotiated.

    Third, the point of my response to Razib was simply to show that problematizing science can be informative. It is important to see how science can get it wrong and right. Additionally, I never claimed that science was not “good enough to explain our world”. Rather, my hope was to situate science in the much broader category. I believe that science is good enough to explain our world. However, because of my tendency towards relativism, I think that there might be other explanations that are equally valuable or good enough.

    Last of all, I’m not being naive. In fact, if you think that science still mechanically operates based on the scientific method, then you are the one being naive. The questions posed and answered in labs are extremely complex. The scientific method, although it still is valuable as a basic outline of how to go about posing and answering questions, is simply not “good enough” to produce answers to such complex questions.

  8. Emanuel,

    Your understanding of “atoms as clouds” is yet another example of you don’t know what you’re talking about and still taking snipes at the scientific method.

    Atoms are not considered to be clouds. Electrons, a component of atoms, are not considered to orbit in a fixed pattern around the nucleus of an atom. Before they were. The electron orbit model of the past was established based upon the limitations of the devices that could measure electrons. But we now know because of improvements in the very devices you criticize, that electrons fill shells. These shells do have fixed circumferences, determined by the attractive force of the protons within the nucleus. The electrons move about freely within the sphere of these shells, thus making them move about a cloud. Furthermore, the electron orbit model of the past wasn’t necessarily wrong too.

    But you are wrong in describing whole atoms as clouds and stating that electrons freely ‘pop’ in and out of existence. Electrons can absorb and release energy, a quantifiable measurement. There are phenomena in which electrons are emitted from a shell as photons (wave-particles of light) after the absorption of energy from electromagnetic radiation such as x-rays or visible light.

    So to reiterate, ‘electrically charged particles’ don’t phase thru existence and non-existence. Don’t open up a can of existential worms when decades, if not centuries, of research through modification has explained to us the reality of nuclear physics.

    I’ll return to your issues with the accuracy of measurements, in a later comment. In the mean time, I believe you need to brush up on your basic sciences before you slam it as not being good enough to explain our world.


  9. Dear Emauel,

    An interesting post. Before writing my opinion on your post, I should first confess that I haven’t read Latour or Collins. Usually that would have been enough of a reason to restrain me from commenting on this post, but I nevertheless commenting based on the assumption that what I am going to say is general enough to be not killed by anything that is there in Latour or Collins.

    First of all, regarding the theory of relativity, it’s not clear from your writing whether you are referring to the special theory or the general theory. In either case, to say that Einstein’s authority was influential in establishing them is contrary to whatever I’ve learnt of their history. The statement that this authority was instrumental in acceptance of whatever a successful scientist like Einstein proposed is refuted by two clear counterexamples in the life of Einstein – one, the concept of photon which was valiantly resisted till Compton experiment after which the slowly the idea got accepted. Two, Einstein’s famous objections to the role of probability in Quantum Mechanics some of which were invalidated by observation of violations to Bell inequalities and were never broadly accepted anyway. The history of either of these ideas I would say seriously undermines such a hypothesis at least in the case of Einstein. I would be interested to know whether Collins addresses either of these issues ?

    Regarding the various comments on atomic theory, I can just say that unfortunately, atomic theory can be easily misunderstood if one has not learnt quantum mechanics.

    Regarding your comments on the way scientific theories have been co-constructed, such an hypothesis (however sweet may it may sound to a relativists heart) is most probably untenable given our understanding of human nature. The standard refutation of such an argument is precisely what Razib had offered – when a scientist talks about a fact, he/she doesn’t mean that it is completely uninfluenced by what you call as
    contextual dimensions – what he/she means is that it is sometimes a good approximation to treat it so. I submit that none of the `in principle’ arguments that you advance has the ability to undermine such a position.

    What would undermine such an argument, in case you are interested, is a careful study of when that mentioned approximation is good and when is it bad and establishing that in the current scientific practice(or in a part there of) such an approximation is necessarily bad. Until one has quantified the effect of different social influences, it would be very difficult to understand this argument about they being negligible. (Consider this – it is in principle true that if you jump out of tenth floor of a building in earth you will float for a few minutes – however, such an ‘in principle’ argument is completely misleading since the effects on which such an argument hangs on, are unimaginably negligible for all practical purposes.) I for one would be very much interested in studies which take up this challenge rather than writings which naively construct ‘in principle’ chains connecting human fallibility to current scientific practice and then try to hang some version of relativism without caring how strong these chains are…

  10. The post is devoted to a discussion of the “hard” sciences, but the jumping off point is Rebecca Lemov’s book on the history of the social sciences. Lemov shows convincingly that the laboratory experiments carried out by behaviorists were dehumanizing. Most of them would not be allowed today because of improved ethical standards. It is in the social sciences that we see the hypothesis easily translated into the confirmed experimental result. Lemov brings the “absent scientist” into the discussion with biographical material. Many of these (now discredited) psychologists had psychological problems, which they applied in their experimental methods. That is the scandal. We should be focusing the same insight on all scientists precisely because scientism assumes authority over society and promises to become an anti-human enterprise serving the same controlling agenda the behaviorists pioneered. Scientists imagine they are working for objective truth in the form of theory. Actually, they are always working in a political context. What matters to the scientist is theory, but what matters to the rest of us is, what does somebody do with the knowledge.

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