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Postmodern equivocation March 26, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Here’s that Zammito quote, Nice Derangement of Epistemes, pp. 262-263; on Stanley Fish’s reply to Alan Sokal at the height of the science wars:

“Stanley Fish, before he resorted to ad hominem self-righteousness [Zammito does not pull punches], also offered a defense of the postmodernist stance. He wrote: ‘What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed–fashioned by human beings–which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing.’ This is a remarkable piece of writing. If, indeed, science studies took the stance that Fish represented, there would be nothing radical whatever about it. That is, in fact, why Fish is unbelievable, for science studies does seek to be radical. Indeed, a careful study of Collins, of Pickering, and above all of Latour–to say nothing of Harding and Haraway–suggests not only that they would repudiate Fish’s intervention but recognize it for what it is–disingenuous rhetoric. There is a characteristic move here, one which features in much postmodernist posturing. Extreme positions are taken; when challenged, authors deny the extremity and affirm they really meant a far more modest posture.”

Zammito is astute here and what he says jibes well with what I’ve seen in my short career in the history of science. It shows the instability of ideas* in the sociology of science, which devolves into one of two states, call them “spin up” and “spin down” to use the idea from physics that “intermediate” quantum states cannot exist.

Spin up is the radical “strong program” that I refer to as a parlor game, which states that science-society relations are understandable without reference to epistemology. The problem is that the stance totally fails to explain historical events, which cannot be understood without reference to the robustness of scientific (or really any) ideas and the incentive to agreement that robustness provides (more on “robustness” later). Hence the need for epistemological “cheats” as I called them yesterday.

Spin down is the banal “science is not context-independent” critique which sets up prior scholarship (and a general “society’s view” often referred to using the pronoun “we”) as a straw man that presumes a naive philosophical (“algorithmic”) viewpoint toward science, that nobody holds (I think we could include even the Wave One’ers here, although Collins and Evans insist on keeping them naive). Spin down informs the majority of professional history of science writing today.

So, by refusing to take any positions between spin up and spin down, sociologists are faced with either being interesting and wrong, or uninteresting and right, and will tend to vacillate between the positions as it suits their interests. However, Zammito goes on: “At least in Collins, Pickering, and Latour we have authors strong enough in their convictions, whatever others think of their claims, to refuse to water them down and escape criticism.”

Notably, all three of these individuals have tried to break out of the constraints of the spin up-spin down duality. Latour with Actor Network Theory, Pickering with the “mangle” (which I want to discuss later), and now Collins and Evans with SEE. I have my reasons for thinking that SEE is actually worth historians’ time.

*I love the term “instability of ideas”; in “Fog of War”, LBJ, in a conversation with Robert McNamara re: Vietnam, quoted a senator saying it.

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