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Wang on PSAC, Pt. 2: Enthusiasm, Skepticism, and Theodicy August 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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In Part 1 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America, I suggested Wang’s use of a dichotomy between technological enthusiasm and technological skepticism as his central analytical rubric held the book back from being as illuminating as it might have been.  Part 2 explains how it does so.

As I noted in Pt. 1, the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric clearly has a moral resonance: enthusiasm is bad, skepticism is good.  Once a moral dichotomy has been established, historiography easily fades into “theodicy” — an explanation for why there is evil in the world.  The theodicy of science basically goes like this: if science, or indeed knowledge, is supposed to make the world a better place, then why does it fail to do so?  Why does it sometimes seem, or threaten, to make the world worse?  A common mid-to-late-20th-century version is: why did scientists fail to stop the Cold War?

No sane historian would actually phrase the question this way, but using the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric more-or-less implies the question, simply because the rubric’s terms are one answer to the problem of theodicy.  Blind enthusiasm for science and technology as a simple “fix” can result in evil.  Skepticism can prevent that evil.  Where skepticism fails, enthusiasm may prevail.  This line of reasoning rose in reaction to Enlightenment thought, often to reinforce the legitimacy of religious ethics and tradition-based government in the face of an idolatry of reason (see, for example, Chris’ post on Maistre, or Schaffer and Golinski on attempts to constrain scientific “genius”, or Schaffer on the criticism of Whewell).  Importantly, though, this critique is mainly just a modification or inversion of the Enlightenment argument.  Where the Enlightenment pitted the potential of rational governance against superstition and arbitrary authority, the enthusiasm of rationality and technology is simply recast as an impostor, a new form of “faith” to be overcome by those purporting to represent a truly rational response to the evils of the world.

What this rather elaborate critique has to do with PSAC is that the instantiation of a group scientists at the highest level of power, the White House, becomes the scene for an  important confrontation of good and evil, or reason and blindness.  Historiographically, this rubric translates into mundane, but still very important, consequences that manifest themselves in style and composition: it defines what questions are worth asking, which explanations and descriptions of historical events and ideas suffice, and which ones will suggest the need to ask other questions and bring in additional context in order to feel satisfied that an adequate understanding of past events has been reached.


SEE Q&A (7): Private Deliberation and Public Controversy November 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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Thanks to Jenny (and John!) for holding down the fort while I was away at HSS. I attended some really interesting sessions, and will share some general-interest highlights presently. Today, though, we present our penultimate entry in our Q&A series with sociologists Harry Collins and Rob Evans about their “Wave 3” Sociology of Expertise and Experience program.  Take note that Collins and Evans crafted their response jointly.

Will Thomas: What is the role of the public/private divide when assessing the uses of expertise, i.e. does the periodic table of expertises function differently in public versus in private?  Returning to themes from questions 2 and 3, would you agree that the sociology of science literature has more of a focus on issues of public authority as opposed to private decision?

Asked to clarify what I meant, I explained:

What was tacit in my question … is the differing standards of consensus in private versus in public, which has a lot to do with the speed of science and the speed of politics …  I would say that in private experts can inform policymakers about what is at stake, what possible options are, what uncertainties are involved, and what the terms of disagreement between experts are.  This (more…)

SEE Q&A (5): Policymaking in Waves 2 and 3 October 20, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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We continue our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project.  Once again, we note that Collins and Evans crafted their answers jointly.  This is not a spontaneous exchange.

Will Thomas: The problem of expertise in policymaking has long been a concern to scholars such as Sheila Jasanoff (The Fifth Branch, Science at the Bar, etc.) and Yaron Ezrahi (Descent of Icarus [out of print]), and, more recently, for Bruno Latour (The Politics of Nature).  Drawing on the insights of SSK, they have argued that scientific experts cannot be called on to offer non-politicized policy recommendations, because scientific consensus-building is itself a political process.  Instead (to paint with a broad brush), effective policymaking can only take place when facts and political concerns are negotiated simultaneously.  Pretending otherwise only opens the door to the systematic sowing of doubt concerning the validity of even a large-majority consensus (as we can see on classic issues such as global warming, the cigarette-cancer link, and evolution in science education).

I notice you don’t engage with this literature directly.  Is this a fair reading of the literature, and do you see yourselves as extending it, addressing difficulties presented by it, or answering different questions entirely?

Rob Evans

Rob Evans

Rob Evans and Harry Collins: To repeat, Wave 2 of Science Studies shows (and Collins has made a considerable contribution to showing it) that it is impossible to have a pure science free of the influence of ‘extra-scientific factors’ including politics.  To that extent all technological decisions in the public domain must be influenced by politics whether we notice it or not.  Where Wave 3 departs from the previous work is in what are taken to be the implications of these discoveries.  The predominant mode of thinking coming out of Wave 2 is that, because scientific and technological decisions are a continuation of politics, the ideas of a scientific/technological decision on the one hand, and a political decision on the other, cannot be separated.  It follows that Wave 2 treats the very notion of the scientific and the political as constructed.

Wave 3 says it is a mistake to draw this implication.  Though it is the case that there can be no pure science separate from politics it does not follow that politics and science are the same or that institutions for technological decision-making are simply political institutions albeit with (more…)

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?)

The 20th century turning point presumption January 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Picking up on the thread about science and polity, let’s take a look at the granddaddy book on the subject, Leviathan and the Air Pump, and specifically that famous final paragraph ending in “Hobbes was right” (in a chapter entitled “The Polity of Science” by the way):

[In the seventeenth century] a new social order emerged together with the rejection of an old intellectual order. In the late twentieth century that settlement is, in turn, being called into serious question. Neither our scientific knowledge, nor the constitution of our society, nor traditional statements about the connections between our society and our knowledge are taken for granted any longer. As we come to recognize the conventional and artifactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know.

We can find a similar argument in Yaron Ezrahi’s (lamentably out of print) The Descent of Icarus, and at least implied in numerous other works (thanks to Paul Erickson for turning me on to Ezrahi, by the way). Tom Hughes, for example, in Rescuing Prometheus, argues that large engineering projects had to be augmented by “postmodern” methods, such as participatory planning.

Now, these are some really good books, but I really think that this underlying idea about some mid-to-late twentieth century turning point (beyond modernity/faith-in-sci-tech?) is a really, really weird argument. I want to speculate it has to do with an academia-based focus on Enlightenment models of knowledge, as well as presumptions, such as those alluded to in the post about “Cold War” science. This focus contrasts with broader attitudes that seem to be based on alternative presumptions about institutional arrangements (rather than being totally naive of postmodern insights, as the literature often seems to imply). This gets back to Continental vs. English systems of governance and law, but, as usual, I’ll leave this point dangling.