Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

When Science Meets Culture: What do we do with scientific knowledge?

MARK KINGWELL, Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto

What I’m going to do is talk about why there is conflict in this quarter of science and culture; a kind of diagnosis...[a] kind of psychoanalysis of this divide.

What I want to do is start with the touchstone of C.P. Snow, which has been mentioned a couple of times, the two cultures, [and] talk about some more recent touchstones that indicate the problem is not two cultures, but two solitudes; a phrase that will be familiar to Canadians from another context.

I think some of the remarks that we have heard already today would indicate that this is perhaps the case.

Why is it the case?

Margaret mentioned what has come to be called the science wars. I want to just spend a couple of minutes explaining that term to those who are not familiar with it.

The kind of ground zero of the science wars was an article that was published in the spring of 1996 in the academic trade journal, Lingua Franca by a physicist from New York University called Alan Sokal. What Sokal reported in that article [was] that he had perpetuated a quite impressive hoax in the scholarly community.

There is a journal of cultural studies called Social Text and it is considered one of the leading journals in the field of the analysis and theorization of culture. Social Text had announced that it was devoting a special issue to the status of science.

Culture theorists from all the fashionable quarters of that sub-discipline sent in their articles. Sokal did likewise. You can imagine the editors joy as this article comes over the transom.

Here is a respected physicist, who has, first of all, decided to engage in this discourse in their journal. Secondly, when they opened up the package and started reading, they read sentences like:

"The pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone."

I’ve puzzled over those sentences time and again and I actually think there is a way of making sense of them; I really do.

Sokal [then] reported in Lingua Franca that he had made it all up; that it was a parody and he had generated this nonsense as a means of showing the shoddiness of this intellectual attack on science that is being perpetuated by cultural studies.

Sokal accused the cultural studies crowd of intellectual shoddiness and trendy buffoonery; not to mention bad reviewing practices in their journals, which is to say they did not send his article out to any physicist for review. That is quite true.

On the other side some of the people involved in this cultural studies movement came to the publication’s defence.

Stanley Fish, who is a well-known commentator on that side of things, argued in a rather bad article, unfortunately, on the op-ed page of The New York Times, something like the following: all the critics of science are doing, he said, is undermining its sacrosanct status.

Which is to say he would disagree with John Polanyi’s characterization of culture studies of science as absolute scepticism.

On the contrary, Fish and others see it as kind of corrective to an arrogance which scientists and science as an establishment have taken to themselves. So science, Fish said, is not a pure window on reality it is only a contingent social practice – and here is where he went wrong – "like baseball."

The problem, just briefly, [with] saying that science is a contingent social practice, like baseball, is that baseball is not as contingent a social practice, as some people would like us to believe.

The reason for that is simple. Take one of the key elements of baseball; the distance from home plate to first base, or first to second, or second to third, and so on [is] 90 feet.

Now that is a round figure that over time has been agreed upon by the people who govern the practice of baseball.

Is that an arbitrary distance? From one point of view, it looks like it is. When you convert 90 feet into metric, of course, it doesn’t come out to a round number, so this might look like a clue to its arbitrariness.

But it is not arbitrary, for reasons that are obvious to anybody that understands baseball. There is something inherent in the distance 90 feet. You could give or take, but nevertheless, 90 feet is an interesting distance for the purposes of baseball.

Why? Because there is something about the athletic abilities of humans, given the other equipment of baseball, that makes it an open question whether someone gets to first, out or safe, after putting the ball into play. This is obvious to anyone who understands baseball. If it were not the case, then we wouldn’t watch baseball. Baseball would not be the practice that it is.

So, if you were to shorten that distance or lengthen it by too much you would destroy the practice of baseball. So that distance is conventional, but it is not arbitrary. And, social practices may well be conventional, but not arbitrary in the same way. I think this is an important point to make when we try to understand the status of science.

I take it, if you will forgive my co-optation, that John Polanyi’s accepting, as he said, conceding quite happily some of the claims about social constructivism in science is, in essence, to concede the same thing.

The science wars raged on with people often sacrificing nuance for the sake of rhetorical punch. Along the way, many things came into question. The usual suspects of academic malfeasance were condemned. Multiculturalists, anti-canonicalists, deconstructionists – these fashionable critics, most damning, according to some critics, were hurting the very left wing causes – political causes – that they claimed to champion.

For without the notion of capital T truth, as science, among other practices gives it to us, there is no way to call any power to account.

On the other side, of course the critics of science continually pointed out, that scientists were merely trying to elevate their practice from a point of criticism.

Without, I hope of offending anybody from this morning’s session, one could do an interesting rhetorical analysis of the use of the adjective pure, when it comes to elevating science beyond criticism.

Now this controversy has many drawbacks. But it does point to a serious question about the status of science and more deeply about the conflict between cultural and science. To get more deeply into that, I want to take a moment now to look at the way science is popularly conceived in some cultural quarters.

I am moving slightly from the first point, but I think this is instructive.

We have heard mention already of the increasing specialization of science; its divorce from a more holistic educational context and the important historical factors that have led to this. At the same time as that specialization is happening the popular reception of science takes on a more and more quivering character.

There is at once a fear of science and a kind of deification of it, or worship of it.

Here is one indictment of the popularization of science. This is Wyndham Lewis in his book, The Art of Being Ruled:

"It is plainly the popularization of science that is responsible for the fever and instability apparent on all sides. To withhold knowledge from people, or to place unassimilable knowledge in their hands, are both equally effective, if you wish to render them helpless." This is an important point, for us to reflect upon.

We, of course, are rarely withheld knowledge. What is happening almost always is the placing of unassimilable knowledge in our hands. Sometimes, directly contradictory knowledge, too. This goes very deeply to the heart of how people who are not engaged in the practices of science think about it.

Any scientist knows that, as again, John Polanyi said, any result is provisional. This is understood to be a virtue. It is a constitutive value to use Margaret’s term. But of course, those of us who are tracking the results of science as we try to calculate risk in our everyday lives don’t find the provisional status of scientific results reassuring.

On the contrary, when the results are overturned we are not reconfirmed in our regard for what science is doing as a practice, we are cast down and, furthermore, pissed off.

Take a recent example. Two 1992 studies that claimed to find a relationship between electromagnetic fields and cancer incidents, have recently been discredited by the United States Department of Energy. Quite properly, the scientist who promulgated those results have been forced to resign his position and he may even be legally on the hook for the grant money that he garnered for those studies.

You might think that would be a positive result. The electromagnetic power and the fields around power stations and high tension wires is not as dangerous as we thought. Or is at least not as dangerous in the ways that we thought it was.

But, I think most people have a different reaction. They think, damn it, we thought we understood that electromagnetic power caused cancer and now we are thrown back on our heels again and cancer is once more as mysterious as it was before that result. So, we have a problem here about the nature of knowledge as it is given to us in these results.

Consider for a moment the popular depiction of the scientist as a figure. There is a kind of caricature of the scientist that has been stalking the modern age. The caricature, I think derives approximately from the mind-body split as it was so ably defended by Descartes in the early modern period.

An intellectual achievement of the mind-body split is a kind of denial of the distractions of the body, in favour of the powerful ideal of impartial reason. Here the goal of the denial is transformed from its earlier models of, say religious salvation or mystical wisdom, to sheer rational knowledge. Now the true seeker, in addition to denying the body’s routine temptations of desire, must eliminate from his or her mind all extraneous distractions including nuisances like emotions or sentiment.

This is the figure of the impartial observer; the scientist as emotionless hero. It is often thought to be an entirely modern creation, and of course many of its forms are thoroughly modern. But, in fact, it is rooted in much deeper historical ground; the mind’s ancient quarrel with the body which goes back at least as far as Plato.

At lease since Plato’s character, Socrates, the Western icon of the truth-seeker has been someone who as a matter of principle, ignores the bodies needs as much as possible.

It is no coincidence, then, that the popular brain box heroes of our own age are in the main physically and emotionally acidic.

Take some popular examples; I’m not saying of course that any actual scientist is actually like this. Don’t get me wrong. These are expressions of a kind of fear and disquiet.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes for example, with his feats of intense deductive logic that are fueled by pipe tobacco, but not significantly by food or love; or Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, who denies himself emotion and luxury as though they were viruses that would afflict his logical brain.

In effect, the apotheoses of this modern image of the truth seeker as disembodied or hostile to the body might be the robot or the computer. That is why Mr. Data, for those of you who know the Next Generation of Star Trek on television, is a perfect conjoining; he is a computer in human form. He is an android. He even bears the name that means factual information.

The fact value distinction which Margaret rightly pointed out has been put into question is not in question in the person of Mr. Data. By the way, many people have forgotten this, his evil bother, his evil twin was Lore; a darker and more mythological name for knowledge.

Data is a vast storehouse of information and computational power, walking around in what appears to be a body but, which is, in fact, a highly complex machine. He is innocent of desire or passion. He is unaffected by base motives like deceit or revenge. He is not susceptible to easy physical defeat. His astonishing abilities in strength and reasoning are demonstrated again and again.

But notice the image of the non-corporeal seeker; this android scientist is never perfect, because the creators of these hyper-rational images are themselves human. They come out of our culture. Of course in our culture, we are forced to recognize some kind of ineluctable humanity.

So what happens? The plot devices of these cultural images or representations of the seeker are undermined in often comical ways.

Holmes for example, is humanized by his cocaine addiction and by his execrable violin playing and his susceptibility to envy and professional jealously.

In one of the many Star Trek movies, the noble, logical Mr. Spock sacrifices himself in what looks like an act of unmotivated or irrational self-sacrifice. And one of Mr. Data’s running gags is that when some character muses, theoretically, "what are the odds of that happening?" Data actually calculates them to six or seven decimal places.

So, you see here an interesting duality. On the one hand, we take something that is considered valuable impartiality – a constitutive value of truth seeking – elevate it to an absurd degree and then attempt to undermine it.

And what my diagnosis would suggest to this is that it indicates both our regard for the scientist as the provider of knowledge and our fear of what is necessary to make that knowledge possible.

In these moments, Data and these other figures of the seeker become I think a close relative of the ancient philosopher Thales who, Socrates tells us in Plato’s Theaetetus, was so intent in studying the stars above him that he stumbled and fell down a well. The hyper-rational being is made a figure of fun.

Yet, this does not really solve the problem, because the cultural fear and distrust of science combined with the heedless worship of it continues.

What possible solution can there be to this conflict of values that I’ve called the two solitudes? I’m not going to give you what I take to be the obvious answers; like more science education. I want to give you something I think is more philosophical

I think it is unsurprising and, I think furthermore, should be uncontroversial, but scientific theories turn out to be on examination a mixture of cultural predilection of various kinds and respect for the epistemic values, lets call them, that are constitutive of the practice.

I think this simply echoes the point that Margaret made using contextual and constitutive values as both being in play in science.

Constitutive values, by the way, are things like consistency in theory formation, coherence of findings, fertility of findings; that is we prefer ones that generate more results than otherwise. Simplicity or elegance is considered a constitutive value in science and predictive power, of course.

Now, these values do not emerge out of nothing. They don’t descend from the heavens. They have been historically generated as important to certain practices. So, in a sense what we have to say about the conflict between conflict and science is that, at a sufficiently sophisticated level, there should be no conflict.

Science is a cultural practice. It is a special kind of cultural practice, because it has values which purport to generate certain kinds of truths. Where we go wrong and where we end up in the kinds of conflicts I’ve just given you a glimpse of is when we lose sense of the limits of context when it comes to those practices.

What do I mean by that? Some of the debates that are going on now in the science wars go back to very, very old and probably unsolvable debates in philosophy. The debate, for example between what are called nominalists and what are called realists.

What does that mean? Realists are the people who think that the world is just the world. Like you stumble upon it as if it is already out there. In fact, we have a condescending view of people who take that line, we sometimes call them naive realists.

Most of us, most of the time, are naive realists. We walk around and we sit on chairs and we fully expect that they will support our weight. We don’t walk into objects that we perceive because we know that if we do, its going to hurt.

This is naive realism. The world is as it appears and we are all pretty good at navigating its pitfalls.

Nominalists believe, however, that the world is not the world until we start naming it. That is there is no world without the fact of our description of our experience.

This is a very, very deep conflict. I think we have been poking around its edges all day.

Many scientists are by nature, by instinct or by training realists of various kinds. Even the qualified social constructivism that John Polanyi defended has at base a realist philosophical commitment.

That is, there is one world, there is truth about the world and science, among other kinds of language gives, us access to that truth and that world.

Nominalists believe differently. They believe that there isn’t something already out there. But that worlds are created in the act of describing them.

I am not going to attempt to solve that problem here. I merely want to point out its contours and how commitment that are often unquestioned play into the kinds of conflicts that we are talking about.

I will end with an important point which I think speaks, however oddly, to the issue of human destiny.

The ancient Greek philosophers who would not have understood what we have been arguing about in some ways. Certainly, Aristotle [who] would have wondered what all the fuss was about, said something which again has come up several times already. Science begins in wonder. Begins in awe of our own experience. What is all of this?

When we contemplate some of the vast distances and numbers that were articulated last night, we have an experience that David Hume, among others, called the sublime; the natural sublime. It is a kind of sense of our own insignificance with respect to huge scale in time and space.

That is a wonderful literally experience.

Science begins there. I think all pursuit of knowledge begins there. The danger is to think that we can put wonder to rest; that somehow there is a theory big enough, powerful enough, so able to access reality, that we will be able to stop; that the wondering will have come to an end because we will have articulated the final answer.

What I want to suggest to you is, that conflicts we see here are not finally resolvable. We can pass beyond them into greater degrees of sophistication, but we can’t lay them to rest. They are not problems to be solved. They are something about the human condition.

In fact, I would go further, if ignorance is an ignoble condition, and I believe it is, then the loss of wonder is worse.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference