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controversy and conversation May 29, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Here’s a thought for the day: how do you tell a scientific conversation from a scientific controversy? I was thinking about this while thinking about the problem of limited perspective. Yesterday I discussed C. P. Snow’s two cultures problem–he was concerned that administrators had too narrow a perspective, that they weren’t open to scientific revelations, that scientific knowledge no longer counted as part of intellectual life. The flip side to this argument is the critique of scientism: science’s limited perspective can constrain thinking within the bounds of what has been accepted as adhering to the constraints of certain kinds of scientific models. Of course, these constraints are frequently designed around certain political or technical projects.

I’ve expressed my doubts that these critiques address a realistic portrayal of the place of science in society in any era. Both seem to hinge on a scientific authority that is either ignored or fetishized, in either case supposing a final conclusion that “science” advocates. Studies of scientific controversies also seem to be mostly concerned with the circumstances of their resolution. But little emphasis seems to be placed on the productivity of debate. By emphasizing controversy rather than conversation, by emphasizing the closure of argumentation rather than its opening up, do we assume that issues of science tend to assume a bitter tone? Is this seen as a choice between optimism and pessimism, or hagiography and critique?

I don’t have a good answer, and I’m not sure how long I want to keep asking hand-waving questions. As we move into summer, I want to try and do something different and more constructive with this blog, so, following the conclusion of the responses to Galison’s questions, be on the lookout for more speculation on canon-building. I also want to try and capture some lessons from my class and do some exercises in historical summary along the lines of “if we had to tell the story of, I don’t know, physiology in the latter half of the 19th century in 10 minutes, what would we say about it?” I like reductivist exercises, because they force you to separate what you know from what you don’t.

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