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Galison’s Q’s #10: Scientific Doubt June 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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In our last episode of Galison’s Questions, we have the issue of scientific doubt. So much good scholarship has gone into showing the social processes by which scientific controversies are resolved that we seem to feed into the tobacco industry/creationism & ID supporters/warming skeptics strategy of nullifying policymaking by introducing the perception of existential doubt rather than uncertainty (of degree, of mechanism, etc…) into questions that scientists are more-or-less in agreement on.

My pithy line on this is that we now know how science looks like politics, but we don’t understand how politics looks like science. We know how we agree, but we don’t know why we are able to agree on anything, whether it is a scientific fact or a policy initiative. (Another repetition on the sociology vs. philosophy tension).

As I’ve mentioned a few times in my historiographical argument about the Twentieth-Century Turning Point Presumption, problems of scientific doubt have been taken to mean the unraveling of a consensus built up in the 17th century by framing science as somehow removed from society. (A problem to which only Bruno Latour has the answer??) As I’ve said before, I don’t believe any such consensus has ever existed in the way we often seem to think it does, and that whatever consensus has existed is in absolutely no danger of unraveling. I don’t believe we’ve reached any sort of postmodern divide wherein the divide between truth and fiction has been destroyed by mastery of discourse, or spin, or what-have-you.

The sowing of doubt has long been a staple of moral history (see the Garden of Eden story), and the relationship between doubt (inaction) and conviction of reason is also a staple of political history (not to mention literary history; see Hamlet). I believe, contrary to any notion of science losing a centuries-old luster, it is a sign of the success of science in, at long last, becoming such an indispensable element of policymaking, that it, too, has now taken its turn in the discourse of doubt in the sphere of decision-making.

Doubt has always been the tool of either overturning or defending the status quo. It is not new (Galison portrays otherwise: “we now face another kind of doubt”). What is new is a newly enhanced role for scientific specialists in decision-making that has (rightfully) never come under serious doubt in the realm of improving private decision. When the private bleeds into the public, as it must do in any political system that ultimately must defend itself to public scrutiny, uncertainty transforms into doubt, and scientific questions are transformed into political questions with a scientific gloss–but they cease to be problems which epistemology can address, and thus questions which historians of science have any special insight on versus political historians. (On this point, here’s another plug for Harvard UP reprinting Ezrahi’s Descent of Icarus, which I disagree with, but which is the essential source on this problem).

Ultimately, I think if we want to understand science in the context of decision-making, the problem of the public versus private (if it’s in the newspapers, it’s too late, we’ve already lost a clear perspective on the role of science in modern society), and the problem of localized versus general responsibility, will come up. We’ll find that science has never played a stronger role in decision-making, but only in areas where responsibility for making decisions under informed uncertainty remains localized. Our friends in the political science departments may come in handy (we have friends in the political science departments, right?)



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