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National Air and Space Museum Talk April 11, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Last night I went down to the National Air and Space Museum to give a talk on some of my current work. What a kick! The NASM and American History Museum crowd are a really lively bunch, and give you very probing questions. I even got a chance to debate at a highly theoretical level with Paul Forman. I was talking with him about the new SEE stuff; he seems to feel it’s a retreat to a modernistic frame of thought, with which I agree, but which I see as inevitable and thus healthy, since there are no really viable alternatives–a topic I’ve also been throwing out in my class as food for thought (you’ll never convince me that postmodernism represents a coherent or original way forward). Of course, this is not interpreting modernism in the same way as, say, Latour. But I digress… It was a good time.

I just wanted to post a few slides from that talk that generated a lot of discussion, since I think they get at why I hold the convictions that I do, which inform a lot of my posts here. A lot of work on mid-twentieth century policy science considers policy scientists and their patrons to have held a rationalistic view of the science-politics relationship (actually, Latour accuses “us all” of that pretty explicitly):
Click on the pictures if you want a bigger version. Anyway, science studies seem to have replaced this picture with an alternative:

My argument is that this still assumes a science-politics barrier: it is we scholars who are wise to how science actually functions in a society. But I think this model totally misrepresents how the policy scientists conceive of themselves, their epistemology, and their intellectual role. In particular, it lumps the sciences together, and assumes that they are all operating on the same epistemological basis (“science”), and that they think they are all producing rationalized conclusions that policymakers are expected to follow. But I claim we really need to fairly portray the intellectual terrain as they actually saw it:

In this picture there are no clear intellectual divides between the scientists and the policymakers. Some, necessarily, speak in idioms very similar to those of the policymakers. Others speak in idioms that are more purely mathematical. Now, this chart doesn’t work algorithmically like a machine. Each entry is self-sustaining, occasionally absorbing insights from the other areas on the charts (roughly in accord with the kind of arrow I’ve drawn)–think Galison on “intercalation”. What is most important is that there is an assignment of responsibilities. This chart represents perspectives on rationality–no one claims to have access to some kind of scientific truth. The social relationships are geared toward critique and improvement, not monolithic proclamation, and each does so in full cognizance of their relationship to the other areas on the chart at least immediately connected to them. (Note that the mathematical theoreticians are in no way directly connected to policy.) My claim is that this is how policy scientists and policymakers actually saw themselves–it is not a prescription; it is a reflection of a historical reality.

Now, this, I think, is just what Collins and Evans are on about with their idea of interactive expertise. Notably, this entire system of critique is predicated on the ideas that 1) decisions must be made (C & E say “the speed of politics exceeds the speed of science” but I think this still places too much emphasis on the science-politics divide); 2) some decisions will fulfill stated goals better than others, and to choose the best means is the operative definition of rationality–not some external access to an objective “true and impersonal” solution; and 3) all decisions will be revised on a subsequent occasion in light of more recent information and analysis.

As I said, fun stuff!


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