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R. A. Fisher, Scientific Method, and the Tower of Babel, Pt. 2 February 9, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (1563)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (1563)

In his 1932 lecture, “The Bearing of Genetics on Theories of Evolution,” R. A. Fisher compared the fissures between different scientific techniques to God’s confounding of languages in the Biblical legend of the Tower of Babel. If the fissures in scientific method were assumed to hold the construction of an “edifice” of scientific knowledge back, much as the division of language prevented the construction of the Tower of Babel, then the obvious question was how method could be reunited. According to Fisher,

If we were to ask … what universal language could enable men of science to understand each other sufficiently well for effective co-operation, I submit that there can be only one answer. If we could select a group of men of science, completely purge their minds of all knowledge of language, and allow them time to develop the means of conveying to one another their scientific ideas, I have no doubt whatever that the only successful medium they could devise would be that ancient system of logic and deductive reasoning first perfected by the Greeks, and which we know as Mathematics.

As we saw in Part 1, the bulk of Fisher’s statistical theorization was dedicated to the problem of inductive reasoning, that is, the development of defined conclusions from well-structured observations. But it is clear that Fisher also valued deductive uses of mathematics, because it permitted different observational conclusions to be related to each other through a fully coherent language. It is just not clear what he understood the epistemological status or function of deductive knowledge to be.


Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us.  With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).

A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history.  The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.

However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers.  The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.

By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.  It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.


Merton, the DSB, and the Failed Digital Humanities of the 1960s April 15, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Following up on a reference in Gieryn 1982, I’ve been reading over Robert K. Merton’s long essay, “The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir,” in The Sociology of Science in Europe (1977), pp. 3-141.  I’ll post more on it soon in the context of other recent posts on this blog.  For the moment, I’ll just say that the essay is thin on “norms”, “counter-norms”, “ambivalence”, etc.  It is mainly about the intellectual influences on the sociology of science that developed in the 1960s and ’70s.  It is also about the methods, ambitions, and projects of what Merton still regarded as a nascent discipline. It turns out these projects are well worth a tangential post, or two.

In this post, I want to focus on Merton’s account of his involvement with the planning of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB), and the computerized “data bank” that didn’t accompany it.