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other than a human practice that produces “facts” beyond fallibility, human error, bias, subjectivity, etc… is an outdated idea that many people still believe today.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