November 2, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

People Doing Science, Sometimes Badly

Harvard historian of science Steven Shapin has a really long subtitle for his latest book, but it reveals all.  The title is very short: Never Pure.1  Here’s the long subtitle: “Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority.”  Now you know what it is about.
    Shapin’s book tries to “naturalize” science – to show that it is inextricably wound up with human nature and human history, explained Robert E. Kohler in his review of the book for Science magazine.2  Science is not some pure entity out in space.  “Naturalizers offer us instead a vision of science as a cultural activity that is an integral element of the societies in which it is practiced, and whose basic mores and conventions it shares,” Kohler explains.  “To understand the science of a time and place, one must understand the society whose way of knowing it is.”
    Kohler, in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, enjoyed the thought-provoking book and respects the author, but he tried at the end to hang on to some scientific realism – the view that science provides a more-or-less objective measure of external reality.  He thinks Shapin throws out the baby with the bath water and knocks down some straw men.  “I think there was in fact a scientific method—just not what its later advocates and deconstructors said it was,” he said.  “I also believe that ‘pure science’ realistically describes the science most valued in the first, academic, market for career scientists.”  But he could not deny that Shapin’s trenchant analyses of science as actually practiced by real people in history have “lasting power to inform and provoke” the beliefs of scientific realists.
    The Climategate controversy (11/26/2009, 03/04/2010, 05/13/2010, 02/18/2010) provides an opportunity to test Shapin’s views.  This strident debate, pitting an intransigent consensus against conspiracy-theory bloggers, with a range of positions between the extremes, and the future of the globe and the wealth of nations at stake, is perhaps the clearest recent example of science’s inescapable dependence on human frailty.  There’s plenty of fodder for the fires on both sides.
    A revealing look into the state of “science as if it was produced by people” is shown in Michael Lemonick’s news feature, “Climate heretic: Judith Curry turns on her colleagues,” from Scientific American (published online by Nature News).  It’s the story of a prominent meteorologist at a prestigious university going over to the “dark side” of the anti-consensus view after her pro-consensus paper was criticized, she thought legitimately, by climate skeptics.  Lemonick, a former science writer for Time Magazine and a senior science writer at Climate Central, a nonprofit, nonpartisan climate change think tank, portrayed two storylines about Curry: the peacemaker, trying to bring understanding between both sides, and the dupe – “someone whose well-meaning efforts have only poured fuel on the fire.”  Lemonick, who worries about the fate of the planet if something is not done, is not sure which is the correct storyline.  Notice that both have intense human elements:

In a sense, the two competing storylines about Judith Curry—peacemaker or dupe?—are both true.  Climate scientists feel embattled by a politically motivated witch hunt, and in that charged environment, what Curry has tried to do naturally feels like treason—especially since the skeptics have latched onto her as proof they have been right all along.  But Curry and the skeptics have their own cause for grievance.  They feel they have all been lumped together as crackpots, no matter how worthy their arguments.  The whole thing has become a political potboiler, and what might be the normal insider debates over the minutiae of data, methodology and conclusions have gotten shrill.  It is perhaps unreasonable to expect everyone to stop sniping at one another, but given the high stakes, it is crucial to focus on the science itself and not the noise.

But is there such a thing as “the science itself” when it must be mediated by human beings?  Lemonick’s assumption of scientific realism cannot avoid the very issues of Shapin’s naturalist/historicist vision apparent in Lemonick’s own article: how are scientific facts determined?  What should scientists do with uncertainty?  What is the role of a consensus?  How does science convince a wary public?  How do political dynamics influence science?  How does a skeptic of the consensus avoid the stigma of being branded a heretic? 


1.  Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority by Steven Shapin, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2010. 564 pp. $70. ISBN 9780801894206. Paper, $30. ISBN 9780801894213.
2.  Robert E. Kohler, “History of Science: A Naturalizer’s Vision,” Science, 22 October 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6003, pp. 450-451, DOI: 10.1126/science.1196506.

That’s all we need – another use of the word naturalist.  Riddle: What is a naturalist naturalist naturalist naturalist?  Answer: A materialist who worries about human cultural affects on science while categorizing wildflowers and munching an organic banana.  When using the equivocal word natural, be sure to define your terms.
    These issues are crucial for understanding the origins debate.  While CEH does not take a position on the human-caused global warming controversy, issues of philosophy of science and history of science deeply infect the origins debate as well.  One cannot understand evolutionary theory and the behavior of its consensus supporters and outsider critics without taking into account “science as if it was produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority.”

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Categories: Philosophy of Science

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