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Strangers and Confidants January 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Much tactile history of science is basically an attempt to get as close to past scientific practices and technical knowledge as possible, so as to transcend the lack of verbalization of tacit knowledge, techniques, material culture, and experience, which we fail to inherit through the textual record alone. Intriguingly, although tactile history is very much the opposite of “playing the stranger”, these motivations are quite similar to those given for treating science with an anthropological remove.

Perhaps our clearest articulation for an anthropological approach is to be found in Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s classic study of a Salk Institute laboratory, Laboratory Life (1979). In their introduction, they make their case for working in an anthropological mode, and are quite clear that this mode is particularly warranted on account of the social fact of the peculiar intellectual power of science, which threatens to subsume any analysis of its culture (29–30, their emphasis on “not”, mine on the last clause):

We take the apparent superiority of the members of our laboratory in technical matters to be insignificant, in the sense that we do not regard prior cognition (or in the case of an ex-participant, prior socialisation) as a necessary prerequisite for understanding scientists’ work. This is similar to an anthropologist’s refusal to bow before the knowledge of a primitive sorcerer. For us, the dangers of ‘going native’ outweigh the possible advantages of ease of access and rapid establishment of rapport with participants. Scientists in our laboratory constitute a tribe whose daily manipulation and production of objects is in danger of being misunderstood, if accorded the high status with which its outputs are sometimes greeted by the outside world. There are, as far as we know, no a priori reasons for supposing that scientists’ practice is any more rational than that of outsiders. We shall therefore attempt to make the activities of the laboratory seem as strange as possible in order not to take too much for granted. 

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Hasok Chang and “Complementary Science” January 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Hasok Chang

In a nice coincidence, my look at “tactile history” winds toward its close with a discussion of historian and philosopher Hasok Chang, who, as it happens, is speaking here at Imperial on Thursday about how “We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston)” (details here; also see his 2009 Centaurus paper of that title).

In this post, I want to talk specifically about Chang’s ideas on what he calls “complementary science” — a vision for a new relationship between the history and philosophy of science and actual scientific work.  You can read more about it on his website, “The Myth of the Boiling Point”.

Drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “normal science,” Chang supposes that in the process of scientific specialization “certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize those items of knowledge that need to be taken for granted” in the day-to-day process of conducting science.  However, this process is “quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent.”  There are simply “limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time.”  Therefore, “Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected.”

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Rudwick and Newman & Principe and the Recovery of Meaning December 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Tactile History.
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Metallic 'vegetation', from The Chymistry of Isaac Newton website

One of the most pernicious obstacles to effective historical research is a phenomenon I like to call “glazing over” — a tendency to dismiss references encountered in documents as unimportant or incidental simply for a lack of familiarity with them, or interest in them. You just glaze over until you run across something you are already interested in.

I suspect glazing over is actually extremely common, but that people don’t like to discuss it, because the lack of familiarity it implies with basic facts still smacks of professional incompetence, or, more snobbishly, interest in overcoming the problem implies a banal interest in empirical history. This is too bad, because not only does systematic glazing over likely skew and limit our historiography in more radical ways than our awareness of our “inevitably subjective perspective” supposes; it prevents historians from taking steps as a profession to readmit factual dexterity back into our practices after a long period of privileging critical reflection.

In today’s post, I want to discuss tactile history that works to restore a familiar or palpable meaning to documentary descriptions of natural or experimental phenomena by actively revisiting or recreating what the text refers to.

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Collins and Tacit Knowledge December 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Before proceeding further in my discussion of “tactile history”, I’d like to take a slight detour back through my discussion of Harry Collins’ “methodological relativism” to his earliest articles, in order to get at some of the ideas underlying his interest in tacit knowledge, which was highly influential in the historiography of science, and continues to play a key role in his current work on the sociology of expertise:

1) H. M. Collins, “The TEA Set: Tacit Knowledge and Scientific Networks,” Science Studies 4 (1974): 165-186

2) H. M. Collins, “The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or The Replication of Experiments in Physics,” Sociology 9, (1975): 205-224

Throughout the history of social constructionism in the history of science, there was never any agreement as to what the relationship between sociology and history was supposed to be.  Some proponents evidently sought to reduce the history of science to a sociological process, effectively replacing philosophical accounts (see especially David Bloor’s “Polyhedra and the Abominations of Leviticus” [paywall]).  Collins attempted to come to purely sociological accounts of scientific knowledge without resorting to philosophical appraisals, but not necessarily replacing philosophy or supposing that sociology should be able to account for the history of science.  Tacit knowledge was crucial to his analysis of how and where sociological factors operate in science.

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Tacit Knowledge and Tactile History: Otto Sibum and “Gestural Knowledge” December 17, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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An 1869 illustration of James Joule's simple, but difficult-to-replicate experiment demonstrating the mechanical equivalent of heat.

This post is the first in a short series on what I call “tactile history”: the practice of historical research that extends beyond examining documents to examining the objects of science and the locations they inhabited, and to the actual reenactment of historical scientific research.  The objective of tactile history is to recover aspects of historical work that would not have survived in the form of a written report.  In this vein, tactile history could be seen as a step beyond “notebook studies” — say, Gerald Holton on Robert Millikan’s oil drop experiments,* or Gerald Geison’s The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (1995) — which look beyond scientific publication to recover the messier day-to-day practices of scientific life.

Where laboratory notebooks merely recover otherwise hidden practices, tactile history attempts to recover something that was never expressed in any form, and is often referred to as “tacit knowledge”.  This could be an inexpressible Fingerspitzengefühl (a fine-tuned hands-on knowledge), a lack of understanding of why an experiment works, pattern recognition, or an unreasoned premonition about what new scientific knowledge will look like.  In the 1980s, tacit knowledge became a crucial part of the “controversy studies” literature, because it was understood to be elemental in successfully replicating an experiment.  By studying controversies surrounding replication, one could uncover the many tacit preconditions underlying successful replication. (more…)