Monday January 02, 2012
How To Think About Science, Part 1 - 24
If science is neither cookery, nor angelic virtuosity, then what is it?
Modern societies have tended to take science for granted as a way of knowing, ordering and controlling the world. Everything was subject to science, but science itself largely escaped scrutiny. This situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Historians, sociologists, philosophers and sometimes scientists themselves have begun to ask fundamental questions about how the institution of science is structured and how it knows what it knows. David Cayley talks to some of the leading lights of this new field of study.
Episode 1 - Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer
In 1985 a book appeared that changed the way people thought about the history of science. Until that time, the history of science had usually meant biographies of scientists, or studies of the social contexts in which scientific discoveries were made. Scientific ideas were discussed, but the procedures and axioms of science itself were not in question. This changed with the publication of Leviathan and the Air Pump, subtitled Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, the book's avowed purpose was - "to break down the aura of self-evidence surrounding the experimental way of producing knowledge." This was a work, in other words, that wanted to treat something obvious and taken for granted - that matters of fact are ascertained by experiment - as if it were not at all obvious; that wanted to ask, how is it actually done and how do people come to agree that it has truly been done. The authors of this pathbreaking book were two young historians, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, and both have gone on to distinguished careers in the field they helped to define, science studies. Steven Shapin will be featured later in this series, but How to Think About Science begins with a conversation with Simon Schaffer. David Cayley called on him recently in his office at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge where he teaches.
Episode 2 - Lorraine Daston
The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science occupies an elegant and airy new building in a leafy suburb of Berlin. It houses approximately a hundred scholars whose research extends from medieval cosmology to the role of experiment in 19th century German gardening to the ways in which medical technology has reshaped the contemporary boundary between life and death. The director is American Lorraine Daston.
David Cayley interviewed her recently in her office at the institute, and told him that there was a time when she would not even have dreamed of a hundred historians of science under one roof. When she was a graduate student at Harvard in the 70's, she says, the history of science was more a collection of strays from other disciplines than it was a discipline in itself. But a crucial challenge had been issued. In 1962 philosopher/historian Thomas Kuhn had published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the book that suddenly put the previously unusual word paradigm on everybody's lips. Kuhn rejected the assumption of a continuous linear progress in science. And thereby, Lorraine Daston says, he framed the question with which her generation grew up, how to write the history of science as something other than a triumphant progress to a foregone conclusion.
Episode 3 - Margaret Lock
In 1993 medical anthropologist Margaret Lock published Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. The book explores dramatic differences in the way women experience menopause in each place. Such variation is usually taken as purely cultural, but, in her book, Margaret Lock makes a surprising suggestion. She proposes that there are biological differences between Japanese and North American women. Culture doesn't just interpret biology, she says, it also shapes it. Margaret Lock is a professor in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine at McGill. In this episode you'll hear her current reflections on what she calls "local biologies" later in the hour. David Cayley begins his conversation with a discussion of another pathbreaking book of hers called Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death.
Episode 4 - Ian Hacking & Andrew Pickering
Philosophers of science tended, until quite recently, to treat science as a mainly theoretical activity. Experiment - science's actual, often messy encounter with the world - was viewed as something secondary, a mere hand-servant to theory. Popular understanding followed suit. Theories were what counted: one spoke of the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity, the Copernican theory and so on. It was as thinkers and seers that the great scientists were lionized and glorified. But this attitude has recently begun to change. A new generation of historians and philosophers have made the practical, inventive side of science their focus. They've pointed out that science doesn't just think about the world, it makes the world and then remakes it. Science, for them, really is what the thinkers of the 17th century first called it: experimental philosophy. In this episode we hear from two of the scholars who've been influential in advancing this changed view: first Ian Hacking, widely regarded as Canada's pre-eminent philosopher of science, and later in the hour Andrew Pickering, author of The Mangle of Practice.
Episode 5 - Ulrich Beck and Bruno Latour
Few people ever apply a name that sticks to an entire social order, but sociologist Ulrich Beck is one of them. In 1986 in Germany he published Risk Society, and the name has become a touchstone in contemporary sociology. Among the attributes of Risk Society is the one he just mentioned: science has become so powerful that it can neither predict nor control its effects. It generates risks too vast to calculate. In the era of nuclear fission, genetic engineering and a changing climate, society itself has become a scientific laboratory. In this episode, Ulrich Beck talks about the place of science in a risk society. Later in the hour you'll hear from another equally influential European thinker, Bruno Latour, the author of We Have Never Been Modern. He will argue that our very future depends on overcoming a false dichotomy between nature and culture.
Episode 6 - James Lovelock
Forty-years ago British scientist James Lovelock put forward the first elements of what he would come to call the Gaia theory. Named for the ancient Greek goddess of the earth, it held that the earth as a whole functions as a self-regulating system. At first many biologists scoffed. Today, Lovelock's ideas are more widely accepted, even in circles where he was initially scorned.
But even as he has been winning scientific honours, James Lovelock has been growing more pessimistic about the prospects for contemporary civilization. In this episode David Cayley presents a profile of James Lovelock. It tells the story of a career in science that began a long time ago.
Episode 7 - Arthur Zajonc
One of Arthur Zajonc's inspirations is the great German poet Goethe. Goethe died nearly two centuries ago. Arthur Zajonc works at the cutting edge of contemporary quantum physics. But it is the old poet, Zajonc thinks, who can best show us how we ought to contemplate the puzzling discoveries of modern physics.
In this episode, physicist Arthur Zajonc talks to David Cayley about Goethe's way of knowing, about the philosophical challenge of contemporary physics, and about the role of contemplation in science. And since his name so closely resembles the name of his subject, you also hear many unintentional rhymes as Zajonc discusses science.
Episode 8 - Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry is known to the reading public mainly for his poems, essays and novels, not his commentaries on science. But in the year 2,000 he published a surprising book called Life Is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. The superstition the book denounces is the belief that science will one day give us a complete account of things.
Science is admirable, Wendell Berry says, but it can only be deployed wisely when we recognize the limits to our knowledge. Science must submit to the judgment of Nature. In this episode, Wendell Berry unfolds this philosophy to Ideas producer David Cayley.
Episode 9 - Rupert Sheldrake
In 1981 British biologist Rupert Sheldrake published A New Science of Life. The book argued that genes alone were not enough to account for life's intricate patterns of form and behaviour. There must be, Sheldrake suggested, some sort of form-giving field that holds the memory of each thing's proper shape - he called it a morphogenetic field. This intriguing idea was widely discussed in the months after the book's publication. Then the editor of the prestigious scientific journal Nature, Sir John Maddox, wrote an editorial in which violently denounced Sheldrake's work and called it "the best candidate for burning there has been for many years."
Years later in an interview with the BBC, he defended his denunciation on the grounds that Sheldrake's view was scientific "heresy." Maddox's attack stuck Sheldrake a reputation for flakiness that still lingers. A few years ago Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg was still referring to the theory as "a crackpot fantasy." But, for Rupert Sheldrake, this zealous policing of the boundaries of science only proved that scientific materialism had hardened into a rigid and inhibiting dogmatism. He carried on with the research programme he had put forward in A New Science of Life. In this episode he shares the story of his journey with Ideas producer David Cayley.
Episode 10 - Brian Wynne
Technological science exerts a pervasive influence on contemporary life. It determines much of what we do, and almost all of how we do it. Yet science and technology lie almost completely outside the realm of political decision. No electorate ever voted to split atoms or splice genes; no legislature ever authorized the iPod or the internet. Our civilization, consequently, is caught in a profound paradox: we glorify freedom and choice, but submit to the transformation of our culture by technoscience as a virtual fate.
In this episode we explore the relations between politics and scientific knowledge. David Cayley talks to Brian Wynne of the University of Lancaster in the north of England. He's the associate director of an institute that studies the social and economic aspects of genetic technologies, and one of Britain's best-known writers and researchers on the interplay of science and society.
Episode 11 - Sajay Samuel
In 1543 Nicolai Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, the book that displaced the earth from the centre of the cosmos. Ninety years later, in his Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, Galileo Galilei praised the achievement of his predecessor. Copernicus, he said, had made reason conquer sense.
Today it is a commonplace that science requires us to renounce the evidence of our senses if we are to understand the true nature of things. The truth lies behind or beneath the appearances. This loss of the senses has fateful consequences, according to Sajay Samuel, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University. Without common sense, he says, science fills ours entire horizon - leaving us no place to stand outside of science, and no basis on which to judge what science produces. Sajay Samuel shares his reflections on science and sense with David Cayley.
Episode 12 - David Abram
From time to time, researchers test the public's understanding of science. The public, predictably, turns out to be woefully ignorant: 20% think the moon is made of green cheese, 30% think an electron is bigger than a molecule and so forth. But, for David Abram, this demonstrably shaky grasp on the details misses the point. He thinks we are conditioned by scientific understandings at a much deeper level, and that the main effect of this conditioning is to make us distrust our senses. For citizens of the republic of techno-science, he says, the real world is not the one we can touch and taste - it is the one that is disclosed by particle physics or radio astronomy.
David Abram is a teacher and a writer, whose book The Spell of the Sensuous has been widely read and much praised. He believes that we ought to snap out of our technological trance and, literally, come to our senses. He shares his thoughts with Ideas producer David Cayley.
Episode 13 - Dean Bavington
On July 3, 1992 Fisheries Minister John Crosbie announced a moratorium on the fishing of northern cod. It was the largest single day lay-off in Canadian history: 30,000 people unemployed at a stroke. The ban was expected to last for two years, after which, it was hoped, the fishery could resume. But the cod have never recovered, and more than 15 years later the moratorium remains in effect. How could a fishery that had been for years under apparently careful scientific management just collapse?
David Cayley talks to environmental philosopher Dean Bavington about the role of science in the rise and fall of the cod fishery.
Episode 14 - Evelyn Fox Keller
Science, according to its first practitioners, was a masculine pursuit. Francis Bacon writing in the early 17th century invited "the sons of knowledge" to pass through "the outer courts of nature" and on into "her inner chambers." Science was male, nature female. And, according to Evelyn Fox Keller, this was no mere figure of speech - it had a shaping influence through the centuries on how science was imagined and how it was done. Evelyn Fox is emeritus professor of the philosophy and history of science at MIT, and a keen observer of the ways in which models and metaphors condition our understandings.
In recent years she has been particular critical of the ways in which simplistic models of the all-powerful gene mislead public understanding of genetics and developmental biology. And her proposal with regard to what she calls "gene talk" is the same one she made in her pioneering Reflections on Gender and Science in the 1980's: "change the terms of the discussion." Evelyn Fox Keller shares some of her story and some of her thoughts on how gender, language, model and metaphor have coloured the practice of science.
Episode 15 - Barbara Duden & Silya Samerski
When Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen coined the term gene, in the early years of the 20th century, he described it as "a very applicable little word." And so it has turned out. Once a purely scientific and technical term, it has now spread into common, daily use. People speak familiarly of "my genes" or "your genes", newspapers report the latest "gene find," and an American company - 23 and Me - now offers anyone with a thousand dollars and a saliva sample the chance to have their genome mapped.
Under the slogan "Genetics Just Got Personal," the company's website invites browsers to find out "what...your genes say about you." But what happens when a scientific term migrates from the laboratory to the street in this way. What does the word gene signify in everyday speech? The question is posed by two German scholars: Barbara Duden and Silya Samerski. For several years they've been pondering what they call the pop-gene, the gene in popular culture.
Episode 16 - Steven Shapin
Some years ago, philosopher Ian Hacking compiled a list of books whose titles used the term social construction: the social construction of deviance, sexuality, high blood pressure. There were a great variety of such titles, Hacking found, but most used the expression with the same intent: to diminish the reality of the category that was said to be socially constructed. To say that knowledge is formed by a social process is still, very often, to say that that knowledge is compromised in some way. Something is either true or it's socially constructed, but not both.
Historian Steven Shapin thinks this is the wrong approach. He has argued in books like A Social History of Truth, and Science is Culture that science is social all the way down, and that this in no way undermines its truth claims, truth also being, by nature, social. In this episode, Steven Shapin shares his thoughts on the history of science and the sociology of scientific knowledge.
Episode 17 - Peter Galison
Changes in science provoke anxiety. Science is supposed to be the bedrock of the modern world - the unified procedure that secures and guarantees our knowledge. But science, in practice, is composed of many sciences. It's a kaleidoscope of diverse, constantly recomposing parts, each with its own language and its own conventions. This circumstance has often led scientists and philosophers to seek the underlying unity of science, and even to imagine that a free society will only be able to withstand totalitarian myths if it rests on such a secure foundation.
Peter Galison belongs to a generation that has put forward a more pragmatic, more pluralistic, and less anxious definition of science. He's a physicist, and a professor of the history of science at Harvard, and, among the many books he's written and edited, is a volume called The Disunity of Science. Peter Galison talks about how the different subculture of science find ways of getting along.
Episode 18 - Richard Lewontin
Some years ago, on Ideas, American evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin delivered our annual Massey Lectures under the title Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. In his lectures Lewontin argued that science had replaced religion as what he called "the chief legitimating force in modern society." Science sanctions the existing social order, he claimed, by telling stories about a universal "struggle for existence," or about how we are all blindly programmed by our selfish genes.
These stories, in Lewontin's view, constitute the ideology of biology, and he has devoted much of his long career to trying pry the ideology apart from the science. In this episode he talks about how over-extended metaphors distort our understanding of both science and society.
Episode 19 - Ruth Hubbard
Ruth Hubbard spent the first almost 20 years of her scientific life at a lab bench investigating the biochemistry of vision. Her late husband, George Wald, who directed the research, won a Nobel Prize for the discoveries their team made about how the eye works. In the 1960's, during the Vietnam War, her horizons expanded to include the politics of science. She took a leading part in the emerging feminist critique of the situation of women in science. And she became a fierce opponent of the direction biology was taking in developing new genetic and reproductive technologies that amounted, in her view, to an experiment on human being.
Ruth Hubbard is professor emerita of biology at Harvard, and the author of The Politics of Women's Biology, and Exploding the Gene Myth, written with her son Elijah Wald.
Episode 20 - Michael Gibbons, Peter Scott, and Janet Atkinson Grosjean
"Science has spoken... to society for more than half a millenium... In the past half century science has begun to speak back." So say the authors of a book called Rethinking Science. In this episode, Michael Gibbons and Peter Scott share their thoughts on the growing integration of science and society.
Then later in the hour David Cayley speaks to Janet Atkinson Grosjean of the University of British Columbia. She's the author of recent book called Public Science, Private Interests, which looks at Canadian science policy, and its attempt to harness science to social and economic goals.
Episode 21 - Christopher Norris and Mary Midgley
- "I refute it thus."
In this episode of How To Think About Science, philosopher Christopher Norris takes his stand with Dr. Johnson. He believes that the best philosophy of science is a robust realism.
Christopher Norris talks to David Cayley about why he thinks realism makes for the best philosophy, and the best politics. Then later in the hour, British philosopher Mary Midgley argues that science always sees the world through the lens of some orienting story.
Episode 22 - Allan Young
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a disease first diagnosed in Vietnam veterans in 1980 and is now part of our everyday vocabulary. In this episode, David Cayley speaks to Allan Young, Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine at McGill. He's the author of The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The book traces the idea of traumatic memory from the 1860's, when a British surgeon first described the lingering after-effects of railway accidents, to our own time when the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S. estimates that every year 7.7 million Americans suffer from PTSD. More than that, Dr. Young's work examines how a scientific object, like a psychiatric diagnosis, comes into existence, and how it then feeds back into the experience of those who have the diagnosis. Allan Young talks about his research, and about his intellectual journey.
Episode 23 - Lee Smolin
In this episode, theoretical physicist Lee Smolin talks about string theory - the theory that matter is ultimately composed of tiny vibrating strings. It's a conjecture, he says, that now dominates his field but can't be test experimentally. Lee Smolin explores the unprecedented character of the string revolution, as it's called, in a book he brought out in 2006. It's called The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of Science and What Comes Next. And it's much more than just a complaint about string theory hogging the limelight in theoretical physics.
The book also takes a wide-ranging look at the unresolved questions that have perplexed physics for the last century, and makes a plea for a return to the more philosophically adventurous style that Smolin thinks characterized the physicists of the early 20th century. Lee Smolin is a member of the faculty of the Perimeter Institute at the University of Waterloo.
Episode 24 - Nicholas Maxwell
Science has been very successful at producing knowledge. But knowledge without wisdom, or science without civilization, is a dangerous thing, according to Nicholas Maxwell. And the reason we have the one without the other, he believes, is that science, as now practised, does not question its own purposes or investigate its own presuppositions. It transforms the world but cannot transform itself.
Nicholas Maxwell is a philosopher of science, now retired from University College, London, and the author of From Knowledge to Wisdom, first published in 1984 and just reissued in a revised edition. He argues - these are his own words - that: "We need a revolution in the aims and methods of academic inquiry, so that the basic aim becomes to promote wisdom by rational means, instead of just to acquire knowledge." Nicholas Maxwell makes his case In the final episode of our series.