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Galison’s Questions #2: The Basic and the Pure May 15, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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In his second question Peter Galison asks us to figure out what we mean when we speak of “basic” versus “applied” science. I don’t like this question as much as I did the context question. First, because I think he’s pretty blithe about conflating two separate issues: the question of foundations in science, and the perennial R&D issue, which has little, if anything, to do with fundamental knowledge in any strict sense. Second, ultimately, I think this issue is less worth debating than the externalist vs. internalist debate (which I think is worth having, not to settle the question of which one really matters, but to put a little respect back into internalist histories).

Peter’s very clear about why he thinks the “basic” issue is important–it’s the Cold War.

“So much seemed at stake in these Cold War battles. Superlunary science seemed the only hope for a model of democracy. Enlightenment reason, argued many, carried just that mixture of rigor and courage that could block the ferocious and demeaning demands of Hitlerism and Stalinism as they pounded on the gates of the academy…. But as the Cold War aged, as “the war” increasingly called to mind Khe Sanh rather than El Alamein, the symbolic register of science began to slip. For a generation of scholars [“scientists, philosophers, and historians”] who came of age after the 1960s, rather than in the 1940s and 1950s, science appeared not so much the last bulwark of reason against brute force as, instead, the sharp edge of endless war.”

This is a classic case of the Twentieth Century Turning Point Presumption, which I reject. Whose arguments are these? Why are they important? Did anyone actually, seriously think that pure, unadulterated science was a bulwark of democracy? Did anyone seriously feel pure science was under immediate threat? Why? Because it had large amounts of government funding? Because its funding later retreated somewhat from outrageously high record levels? Didn’t the exact same disillusion occur after World War I? What happened, did everyone just kind of forget about that Post-WWI malaise? (I just saw a talk by Michael Adas on a project claiming that Vietnam was to America as World War I was to Britain–the historiographical “Britain/America discordance” is a topic I’d like to address some time). Or, maybe, the disillusion has been played up by commentators against the grain of historical reality? Let’s challenge the “symbolic register of science” as a category of historical analysis, and see what’s really behind it.

Edit: Peter uses so many vague statements here, I can’t truthfully tell if he’s referring to some general attitude about science, or an extremely narrow range of philosophers and commentators on science. His reference (hidden in my ellipsis) to the “Unity of Science” movement seems to suggest he’s talking about a sideshow that has a bearing on how we, the readers of Isis, talk about these issues. In this case, maybe he’s making a related point to the one I’m making??

One more thing: I’ve previously noticed Peter’s frequent use of the phrase “at stake”, and I’ve tended to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m wondering, if we were really to boil the issue down every time this phrase is used, if we can really make the case that what is claimed to be at stake is really at stake, or (as Peter’s qualification “seemed to be at stake” implies) if anyone who might have used this rhetoric at some point or another seriously thought that these things were at stake. Did a new “generation”–a whole generation–really feel differently? If we’re going to move forward productively, we’re going to have to be careful about discordances between rhetoric and practice–“at stake” tends to blur the boundaries. It’s going on my yellow flag list, along with “Randomly Chosen Science as Having Some Association with a Caricature of a Broad Historical Trend”. (I’m a bit sensitive to this at the moment, because I just read a paper last night that made particularly egregious use of the phrase “at stake”).

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