Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Never pure, but pure enough

A review of Steven Shapin's new book in the New York Review of Books, by his enthusiastic cheerleader Jenny Uglow. Shapin is a historian of science at Harvard University. A year or two ago I took note of his last book here (although that post seems to have vanished from the archive). The present tome is a collection of essays called Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority. He writes:
As historians of science, we're committed to telling rich detailed, and, we hope, accurate stories about science without believing that it is cognitively or methodologically or socially unique, without believing that it is integral and unified, without believing that it has a special set of values not possessed by other forms of culture, without believing that it divinely inspired, without believing that it is only produced by geniuses, without believing that it is the only progressive force in history, or that its practitioners do not eat chicken.
I'll give this to Shapin: He has wit.

One gets the impression from Uglow's review that she loves seeing science cut down to size. No more genuflection to humanity's "noblest achievement," no more "unquestioning reverence." She asks: "But how have we learned, or been persuaded, to accept the 'facts' presented to us as 'true,' to regard science as a secular enlightenment, in contrast to the obscurantism of religion? Why should we believe in quarks and not in demons?"

Good questions. Deserving answers.

But let's get rid of the straw men first. By the end of the 20th century you'd be hard pressed to find a scientist who does not accept that scientific knowledge is tentative and subject to revision. There is no capital T (for truth) in science. Physicists would gleefully toss quarks in the wastebasket along with the demons if they fail to carry their empirical and theoretical weight.

Likewise, there is nothing new about recognizing the cultural context of science. When I studied the history and philosophy of science half-a-century ago we were already deep into context, reading, among many others, sociologist Robert Merton, philosopher Mary Hesse, linguist Benjamin Whorf, and even the poet Wallace Stevens. What is new with so much of what passes as "science studies" today is an undisguised attempt to relativize science -- to pull it down off its pedestal -- and maybe a touch of science envy.

So from what does the authority of science stem? In a word, It works.

It works in a way that no other knowledge generating system has ever worked. It is the foundation of everything from the iPad to the H-bomb, modern medicine and the Gulf oil spill, the Hubble Ultra-Deep-Field photograph and the ozone hole. How knowledge is used, of course, and what knowledge we choose to pursue, are matters of "ought," not "is," and for that scientists, Shapin, Uglow, and you and I all have a measure of responsibility.

Yes, science is embedded in a cultural context, but it has struggled mightily to minimize parochial influences, by emphasizing empiricism, quantification, reproducibility, mathematical language, peer review, and so on. It is easy enough to snipe, but so far the new critics of science have not proposed a system that works better. And I dare say that in the meantime they will be reluctant to give up their penicillin and laptops.

Does science deserve a privileged position as a generator and guarantor of reliable knowledge? I'll take quarks over demons any day.