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Watch your language, Pt. 1 June 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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Or, a notion concerning when, how, and why to nitpick historical writing.

I know it must seem obsequious to praise one’s advisor’s work to high heaven on a blog, but I have to be honest: Peter Galison’s 1997 book Image and Logic on the history of particle detectors is, in my mind, one of the finest works of historiographical craftsmanship I can think of.  The book is well-known in the theory community for the idea of the “trading zone”, and is thus attached to the whole fashion of studying “boundary objects” and things with multiple meanings to different people, etc., etc.  If that’s all you take away from the book, you, like most of its readers, are a “Chapters 1 and 9 person”.  I like to think of myself as a “Chapters 2 through 8 person”, which is to say, someone who is interested in the history of particle detectors, and the way Galison presents it.  MIT prof Dave Kaiser (who was a Galison student in the ’90s and assisted in the assembly of the book and knows it in intimate detail) likes to kid me for citing “chapter and verse”.

(I was discussing the “trading zone” versus “history of particle detectors” issue with my boss, Greg Good, who related to me how he once went to a talk given by Thomas Kuhn, which began with him saying the word “paradigm” and then informing his massive audience that that was the last they would hear of it, and then proceeded to discuss the history of black body radiation theory in loving detail.)

In considering the book; and the relationship between philosophy, sociology, and history; I like to think of Chapters 1 and 9 as laying out useful ideas or principles for coherent historical writing.  Galison joins the sociologists in their rejection of histories written as a succession of theories, or as playing out according to some dialectic between theory and experiment.  However, he has been known to chide sociologists for adhering to their own theoretical points-of-view, especially their concern for demonstrating the impact of the “social” on scientific practice, leading them to espouse a variation on the longstanding philosophical notion of the “theory-laden observation”.

Yes, it is true, expectations of what will be seen affect what will, in fact, be seen, meaning that the question of experiment validation and acceptance is a sticky question.  But, if you look at an experimental community, their practice largely follows a tradition independent of that of theorists that harbors its own specific concerns (partially influenced by the “materiality” of their work, but that’s a discussion for another day).  In their interpretations of this or that experimental result, their expectations of what they might see are not (necessarily) subject to an overarching commitment to this or that theoretician’s expectation—a situation especially prevalent in the highly differentiated modern physics community.

Why does this matter?  Well, it’s very important if you want to understand experimenters’ motivations and practices.  Notably, on pp. 540-543, Galison launches into a detailed refutation of an endnote in Andy Pickering’s Constructing Quarks (1984), wherein Pickering detailed how an experiment finding the J/ψ particle—which sparked the “November Revolution” in particle theory, and is considered a key event in the establishment of the quark model of hadrons—was “tuned” to accord with theory.  As I gather, once upon a time it was actually kinda cool to pick fights in the history of science profession, and Galison vs. Pickering dated way back to the 1980s, a conflict that I gather was mainly about which one of them could get further away from the philosophers’ models of how the history of science works.  Pickering felt his “mangle of practice” established a credible alternative to philosophy in comprehending the history of science.  Pickering’s notion of “tuning”, for Galison, “nicely illustrates” his adherence to “the highly influential antipositivist philosophy of science that began in the early 1960s with the work of Kuhn, among others”.

It might seem arcane to worry about getting right these nitpicky details that sometimes seem to boil down to the very minutest problems of history, or the subtlest distinctions in language over peoples’ motivations, but these things can matter.  If the production of J/ψ seems a bit off the beaten track, we might shift the conversation to the case of if we were to describe a climatologist as having “tuned” their interpretations of recent climate data: things can get nasty pretty quick.  Characterizations of scientific practice matter.

Are such matters ultimately about the “science and policy” question, then?  Not necessarily.  When I asked Harry Collins and Rob Evans last year if these issues were centrally motivated by policy concerns, I liked their reply: “chacun a son gout”, to each their own.  Policy is something everyone can get excited about, but these things also matter if you’re interested in getting sophisticated answers to the question of how individuals and groups of people can claim to know something, or if you’re interested in the quality of historiographical craft where details such as how high energy physicists manage their experiments should be gotten right.

So, then, what calculation determines when one is making a good point by picking apart the adjectives, and when one is just being difficult? Some thoughts on this in Pt. 2 later this week.

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Comments»

1. Thony C. - June 9, 2009

I know it must seem obsequious to praise one’s advisor’s work to high heaven on a blog, but I have to be honest: Peter Galison’s 1997 book Image and Logic on the history of particle detectors is, in my mind, one of the finest works of historiographical craftsmanship I can think of.

I haven’t read Image and Logic but if you substitute Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poncaré’s Maps: Empires of Time in your statement then I will second that judgement.


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