X-Message-Number: 19199
Date: Tue, 04 Jun 2002 01:15:41 +1000
From: Damien Broderick <>
Subject: Re: Constructivism

It's not easy to judge this sort of complex intellectual program from sound
bites. At the risk of hideous overkill, here's a little something on the
topic (I can provide a bibliography offlist should anyone be sufficiently

	The most remarkable advance in our understanding of the cluster of diverse
practices that we call `science' has come about through the realization
that scientific work is done by a socially structured community of men and
women. The science we consume, so to speak, is the final product of the
complex interplay of social forces and material practices. For those whose
philosophy of science is but the result of the analysis of printed
scientific texts, the illusionist trick of the scientific community in
concealing the scaffolding behind a rhetoric of superior rationality has
been almost wholly successful. (Harr , 1986:8)

It is widely supposed that science is, historically, a new and special way
of thinking, quite as startling as upright locomotion in a proto-hominid.
Anthropological field studies done in laboratories tend to refute this
prejudice. For these observers, usually constructivists, science is not
some superior form of cognition happily discovered four centuries ago by
Sir Francis Bacon (`we must lead men to the particulars themselves, and
their series and order; while men on their side must force themselves for
awhile to lay their notions by and begin to familiarise themselves with
facts' [cited in Levine, 1987:9, 10]) and now built into the sinew of our
divided culture. Rather, on this account, science is a species of
story-telling, a kind of narrative (Gilbert and Mulkay, 1984). Science
constitutes the myths and rhetorical power-plays of technocracy. As Bruno
Latour put it:

	Now that field studies of laboratory practices are starting to pour in, we
are beginning to have a better picture of what scientists do inside the
walls of these strange places called `laboratories'. . . . The result, to
summarize it in one sentence, was that nothing extraordinary and nothing
`scientific' was happening inside the sacred walls of these temples.
(Latour, in Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay, 1983: 141)

	Summarising this renaissance of the sociology of scientific knowledge,
Karin Knorr-Cetina discerns a family of analytical positions consonant with
that perspective: ethnomethodological or emic studies of scientific
practice (Garfinkel, 1967); discourse analysis of scientific discussion and
inscription (Gilbert and Mulkay, 1984; Mulkay, 1985); the ethnography of
scientific work (Latour and Woolgar, 1979); the relativist program,
exemplified by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch who follow a radical reading
of the first edition of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
(Collins and Pinch, 1982); and the sociology of knowledge in its `strong'
(Barnes, 1977; Bloor, 1976) and `weak' (Chubin and Restivo, in Knorr-Cetina
and Mulkay, 1983) forms. 
	What these positions have in common is a thorough-going commitment to a
sociological account of scientific activity, founded in careful empirical
attention to that practice (whether emic in the extreme - i.e.,
participatory observation, after the fashion of Collins' and Pinch's
studies of alleged paranormal metal-bending, or etic, in the manner of
Knorr-Cetina's own studies in the biochemistry, microbiology and technology
of plant proteins at Berkeley) and co-ordinated by the twin postulates of
`the underdetermination of scientific theories by the evidence; and the
thesis of the theory-ladenness of observation' (Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay:3).
	The impact of the first thesis is to lend dramatic support to a view of
scientific knowledge as relative, socially-contingent and subject to
(indeed, constituted by) negotiation. Even when Popperian
conjecture-and-test models are elaborated into Lakatosian divisions between
inviolable hard core and protective belt (so that a shaky theory protects
itself from challenge by taking shocks on its ancillary assumptions,
diverting them from its central postulates), the rationalist doctrine seems
vulnerable to the claim that any theory can outface any evidence, since
each theory must perforce be coupled to the adjudicating discourse by
innumerable links, the status of which in turn can always be challenged.
(But see Lakatos's discussion of this `Duhem-Quine thesis' challenge
[ibid.:96-100]: `the well-planned-building of pigeon holes must proceed
much faster than the recording of facts which are to be housed in them'
[ibid.:100, his italics].)
	Despite the myth of the crucial experiment which will separate the wheat
of truth from the chaff of error, nobody really tosses out a favourite
theory purely on the basis of experimental disagreements. Any plausible
theory is apparently supported by a host of facts, and apparently
undermined by a competing host. 
	 As Knorr-Cetina observes, citing Grunbaum:

	no single theory or theoretical hypothesis can ever be extricated from
`the ever present web of collateral assumptions' so as to be open to
conclusive refutation. Rather, if certain observational consequences are
entailed by a Theory in connection with a set of auxiliary hypotheses and
these consequences do not materialize, we can only draw the weaker
conclusion that the Theory and the auxiliary assumptions cannot both be
true. (ibid.:3) 

	Worse, the second thesis entails that

	observations are theory-impregnated in the sense that what counts as
relevant and proper evidence is partly determined by the theoretical
paradigm which the evidence is supposed to test. [Hence, they] cannot serve
as independent arbiters in questions of theory choice if their relevance,
their descriptive identification and their proper measurement depend on the
theories involved. (ibid.:4)

	Knorr-Cetina is quick to stress that the brand of relativism encouraged by
these lines of thought is epistemic rather than judgmental (ibid.:5). While
the former asserts merely that knowledge is culture-bound and never
strictly `representational' of nature, the second goes much further to
claim that any epistemological doctrine is as good as any other. The error
in imagining that the second is entailed by the first, she claims, is to

	that we know exactly what we mean by the assertion that knowledge is
`socially or existentially conditioned'. Yet it is precisely the project of
the sociology of scientific knowledge to work out in what sense and to what
degree we can speak coherently of knowledge as being rooted in social life.

	The pluralism being urged here is, therefore, pre-eminently
methodological. Harry Collins draws the connection nicely:

	[T]o notice that data has no meaning outside its interpretation requires
that interpretations normally given in a matter-of-course, taken for
granted, `natural' way are suspended. . . . What we need is radical
uncertainty about how things about nature are known. . . . Any alternative
view can be crippling to a vigorous exploration of the social construction
of the natural world - and indeed to a proper understanding of the role of
the natural world in forming our view of it. . . . Though this point can be
argued as an epistemological principle the important thing is to adopt it
as a methodological imperative (Collins, in Knorr-Cetina, 1983:91) 

	For Collins at least, this does not inevitably lead to a thorough-going
ludic deconstructive turn. All theories and experiments might be
constructs, built and sustained by discourse traversed by interests, but
not all readers have equal access to the texts so constructed. In a
provocative and crucial passage, Collins and Pinch observe that the stance
of their metal-bending study

	is `interpretivism'. . . a view which accepts that a participant in a
social situation has a privileged understanding when compared with one who
is not a participant.
	[. . .T]o pick on a set of accounts to study - for whatever reason - is to
make a judgment about their quality. Otherwise, it would be possible to
take any set of visual or aural stimuli as an account of anything. In these
circumstances, for example, `The Bluebells of Scotland' played on a comb
and paper might well be taken as an account of the mechanisms of, say,
oxidative phosphorylation. These would not be very productive circumstances
in which to proceed (Collins and Pinch, 1982, Footnote 1:190)

	This is droll, yet it is also profoundly problematic. What warrant do we
accept for dismissing as salient to an understanding of the mechanisms of
oxidative phosphorylation the information structurally coded into `The
Bluebells of Scotland' played on a comb and paper? Why, that of our
collective and established discourse itself, which by hypothesis and
empirical evidence is always subject to radical revision and
reconstruction. After all, when light is understood to be made of
corpuscles, how (prior to quantum theory) might an utterance concerned with
waves be expected to bear on our understanding of light? 
	The difference between the two examples is one of degree, since our native
competence assures us that talk of waves and talk of particles is at least
governed by the same conventions of discourse. Comb-and-paper tunes are
interpreted by a wholly different set of codes and contexts from the
patterns of information inscribed in scientific discourse. The different
semiotic frames generate utterly disjunct schemata or cognitive maps. This
need not be the case (we could imagine an oracular culture deriving its
truths from comb-and-paper blats!). It is contingently so, however, in our
scientific order. And that is a piece of knowledge which can be gained only
by participation in the meta-frame, the field of discourse itself. For as
the discussion of Crane's and Barnes' accounts made clear, the discourse of
science is acquired, like the learning of any language, as much through
informal apprenticeship as through any study of specifiable rules:

	In the sociology of scientific knowledge the researcher will need to
develop as far as possible the native competence of the scientific group
under study. . . . But, since a crucial characteristic of taken-for-granted
rules is that they cannot be fully explicated, an acquaintance with the
area through the technical literature will not suffice. The sociologist
needs, insofar as it is possible, to acquire the tacit knowledge of the
native/scientist members. (ibid.:91-2)

	This is best done, Collins notes, by participation, a procedure which
changes the observer. Hence, any results of such a meta-scientific study
will be inaccessible in important ways - not fully available to
concretisation - to readers who have not gone through this participatory
learning experience. So we find here once more the fundamental problematic
of textual reception which in literary studies gives rise to dogmas of
Intentional and Affective Fallacies, and, in philosophy, of deconstructive
ruptures in any text.
	Just as one cannot readily unpack a poem using an interpretative technique
which is ahistorical, which assumes the `work' to be a jewel-like entity
`in itself' (the error of New Criticism), neither can the products of
scientific practice be understood directly by reference to `nature'. As
Knorr-Cetina and others have stressed, the scientist in the laboratory does
not study nature but a material world already drastically shaped and
constructed by human intervention: 

	What, after all, is a laboratory? A local accumulation of instruments and
devices within a working space composed of chairs and tables. Drawers full
of minor utensils, shelves loaded with chemicals and glassware.
Refrigerators and freezers stuffed with carefully labelled samples and
source-materials: buffer solutions. . . blood samples from the assay rats.
. . . All. . . have been specially grown and selectively bred. . . .
[W]hether bought or prepared by the scientists themselves, these substances
are no less the product of human effort than the measurement devices or the
papers on the desk. It would seem, then, that nature is not to be found in
the laboratory. . . . (Knorr-Cetina, 1982:3-4)

	Once this elementary point is taken, it seems self-evident. Surely the key
to the scientific enterprise is found in two basic background assumptions.
Firstly, that the deep principles of the world within the laboratory can be
mapped one-on-one with the world beyond it. Secondly, that this homology is
to be investigated through the study of simplified and controlled model
cases (sometimes purely mathematical). Yet these assumptions, accepted
without scrutiny, act to disguise the constant negotiations involved in
constituting the laboratory. 
	What's more, for Knorr-Cetina the activities of scientists are directed
pragmatically rather than toward some ideal of `truth':

	If there is a principle which seems to govern laboratory action, it is the
scientists' concern with making things `work', which points to a principle
of success rather than one of truth. Needless to say, to make things work -
to produce results - is not identical with attempting their falsification.

	Indeed, as she stresses, this pragmatic endeavour is as much directed to
attaining recognition of results within the discursive arena of the
scientific community. It is hardly `the concern of the laboratory to
produce results irrespective of potential criticism' (Idem).

	The scientists' vocabulary of how things work. . . is in fact a discourse
appropriate to the instrumental manufacture of knowledge in the workshop
called a `lab'. (Idem.)

	It is a point expanded upon by Bruno Latour in, for example, his analysis
of the rhetorical effects employed by Pasteur in establishing the dominance
of his microbiological account of disease (Latour, in Knorr-Cetina,
1983:141-70). First Pasteur takes his laboratory into the field where
animals are dying from anthrax. Next he takes the bacillus back to his
workplace in the  cole Normale Sup rieure, and learns how to grow these
tiny new animals (the microbes) and vary their virulence. Finally he
reverses his original step and, in a famous experimental demonstration,
takes the field into his laboratory, selectively infecting some animals and
not others. Now the laboratory becomes coextensive with the world, an
achievement (according to Latour's analysis) foreshadowed in, and enabled
by, the prior penetration of France by the discursive field of science in
the form of the institutions of statistical tabulation:

	[I]s `all over France' a social construction? Yes indeed; it is a
construction made by statistics-gathering institutions. Statistics is a
major science in the nineteenth century, as is what `Pasteur', now the
label for a larger crowd of Pasteurians, is going to use to watch the
spread of the vaccine, and to bring to the still uncertain public a fresh
and more grandiosely staged proof of [its] efficacy. . . (ibid.:152)

	This constantly shifting zone of interpenetration of world and scientific
institution is the forum where the realities of science are constructed.
The knowable materiality of the world is what, to paraphrase Hilary Putnam,
prevents the success of science from being miraculous. Yet the `facts' of
that material world are hardly pure and simple. University departments of
science do not assiduously scrutinise the `facts' of astrology and
parapsychology or mystical cures for cancer, and then find them wanting.
These `facts' are simply ignored, because scientists know full well that
facts are always constructs, put together by human minds - and these
particular `facts', because they have been constructed in the context of
ridiculous theories, are too offensive even to trouble debunking.
	To reiterate: this critical razor cuts both ways. Because the `facts' of
science are no less constructed than any other facts, they are equally
partial, fallible, doubtful. Theories precede each one of them - we cannot
even interpret a photograph without a theory of what to see - and theories
follow them, dropping like leaves before the gales of social interests or
revolutionary disdain, as the storm of feminism has blasted away the
once-rockhard `facts' which `proved' male superiority, and the defeat of
institutional racism has obliterated Agassiz's preposterous `facts' about
the brain deficits of blacks.
	So science is, finally, on this account, the kind of story which
industrial and postindustrial sophisticates tell about the universe and the
creatures which inhabit it, including its storytellers. Its laws are not
special laws of `scientific method', sought for so long by anxious
philosophers, but the laws of narrative and myth:

	Science is the totality of the world's legends. The world is the space of
their inscription. . . . The domains of myth, science, and literature
oscillate frantically back and forth into one another, so that the idea of
ever distinguishing between them becomes more and more chimerical. (Harari
and Bell, editors' introduction to Serres, 1982:xxi, xxix.)

	Against this counterintuitive monism, Bruno Latour admits the `naive but
nagging question: if nothing scientific is happening in laboratories, why
are there laboratories to begin with and why, strangely enough, is the
society surrounding them paying for these places where nothing special is
produced?' (ibid.:141-2).
	In many respects it is a naive question, as Latour knows. After all, if
nothing metaphysical was happening in medieval monasteries, as atheists
surmise, why did society pay for them? If nothing of security is being
fostered by the overwhelming multiplication of nuclear weapons and
`conventional' arms, why are we all paying so much for them? The answer, as
always, lies at the intersection of power and knowledge. Religion and the
profession of arms and the exercise of theoretical and laboratory skills
are all arenas for the deployment of authority, the insertion of levers,
the exertion of force.
	But surely more can be said? Is there not a difference between science and
magic, between crude political bullying and cool technical persuasion? As
Latour notes elsewhere: 

	The relativistic position. . . looks ludicrous because of the enormous
consequences of science. One cannot equate. . . the careful procedure of
corpse interrogation in the Ivory Coast and the careful planning of DNA
probes in a California laboratory; the story telling of origin myths
somewhere in the South African bush and the Big Bang theory. . . (Latour,

	Or, to come at it from the rawest, bloodiest bottom-line: is not the
special thing about science that, from an equation, it can build a bomb
capable of exterminating a city? Can a mantra do as much?
	This line of argument will not impress everyone. Lakatos cites a story of
Popper's concerning a social psychologist, Dr X, who studied physicists
interacting in a group. `He observed the "emergence of a leader", the
"rallying round effect" in some and the "defence-reaction" in others, the
correlation between age, sex, and aggressive behaviour. . . . Popper asked
Dr X: "What was the problem the group was discussing?" Dr X was surprised:
"Why do you ask? I did not listen to the words. . . ."' (Lakatos, 1978:87).
While it would be highly surprising if the group dynamics of scientists
failed to echo those of other human groups, surely what is singular about
scientific discourse is its unprecedented power of capturing and
manipulating non-obvious aspects of the brute or non-intentional world.
Interestingly, Lakatos simply cites this tale without comment, evidently
regarding it as a knock-down self-refutation of a sociological methodology
that, after his death, has become increasingly popular.
	Latour does find one invariant factor which characterises the activity of
modern science (and links it to others): its chosen practice of
inscription. A lab, he found, was a place of diverse instruments, some of
which `filled large rooms, employed many technicians and took many weeks to
run. But their end result, no matter the field, was always a small window
through which one could read a very few signs from a rather poor repertoire
(diagrams, blots, bands, columns). . . . When these resources were lacking,
the selfsame scientists stuttered, hesitated, and talked nonsense. . .'
(Latour, 1986:3). Leave them their `rational' minds, their access to
scientific `paradigms' and `methods' - without those specified ways of
writing and diagramming, without the story-telling tools of science,
scientists fall away into a curious tongue-tied loss of power.
	This power which scientific modes of cognition provide is notable, Latour
claims, for 

	the unique advantage they give in the rhetorical or polemical situation.
`You doubt of what I say? I'll show you.' And, without moving more than a
few inches, I unfold in front of your eyes figures, diagrams. . . present
things that are far away and with which some sort of two-way connection has
now been established. I do not think the importance of this simple
mechanism can be overestimated. (ibid.:14)

	It is not altogether clear to me that this segregates scientific from
alchemical or astrological iconographies unless we adduce post facto the
results of their manipulations (which in turn a Feyerabendian relativist
would surely see as unconvincing: don't poisoned Zanade chickens accurately
forecast the future?). Latour skirts this issue:

	The manipulation of substances in gallipots and alembics becomes chemistry
only when all the substances can be written in a homogeneous language where
everything is simultaneously presented to the eye. The writing of words
inside a classification are not enough. Chemistry becomes powerful only
when a visual vocabulary is invented that replaces the manipulations by
calculations of formulas. (Idem)

	The end result of such formal reduction in chemistry is, of course,
Mendeleiev's table of the elements, and thence the quantum theory which,
according to the current canonical reading, underlies it. Such ultimate
inscriptions do not merely condense untold masses of empirical data and
their correlations; they permit algorithmic extrapolations of the formulae
which (to some limited extent at least) can be mapped onto experiential
results. Hence, turning the tables, Wolpert can state that

	The quantitative aspect of science is fundamental. . . . One cannot
imagine a science of motion, a successful science, that does not rely on
the calculus. If the relativists wish to persuade us of social constructs,
they will have to provide, at the least, major counter-examples. (Wolpert,

	I find this objection persuasive. However socially constructed Newton's
theory of gravitation was, it would scarcely have had great success if
(influenced, let us say, by the Holy Trinity) it had proposed an inverse
cube law. Oddly enough, though, in an interesting thought-experiment John
Barrow has recently imagined a kind of empirical computerised mathematics
that an extraterrestrial culture might employ, extremely inelegant by
Earthly standards but perhaps no less powerful (Barrow, 1992:178-81).
Analogously, perhaps, La Perouse's map-making for Louis XVI exemplifies the
power of inscribed visualisation, offering a parable which makes it plain
that political context can be of prime importance:

	Commercial interests, capitalist spirit, imperialism, thirst for
knowledge, are empty terms as long as one does not take into account
Mercator's projection, marine clocks [etc. . .]. But, on the other hand, no
innovation in the way longitude and latitudes are calculated, clocks are
built [etc], would make any difference whatsoever if they did not help to
muster, align, and win over new and unexpected allies, far away, in
Versailles. (Latour, 1986:6)

	In short, these effects are the results of what ecologist Richard Levins
and evolutionist Richard Lewontin term active `dialectical'
co-determination: interaction of the divers explanatory elements (Levins
and Lewontin, 1985). Latour stresses this over-determination:

	To maintain only the second line of argument would offer a mystical view
of the powers provided by semiotic material - as did Derrida [in Of
Grammatology]; to maintain only the first would be to offer an idealist
explanation (even if clad in materialist clothes). (Idem) 

	So, too, argue the discourse theorists of the sociology of scientific
knowledge, for the cognitive tools of contemporary science. These have
their puissant effect within specific and circumscribed social contexts:
first, the forums of scientific construction and reception; secondly,
within the economic and ideological fields which themselves function to
constitute those tools and that practice (Charlesworth, Farrall, Stokes,
Turnbull, 1989).
	There have been a number of attempts to pursue such arguments directly in
literary theoretic terms (as, fleetingly, Latour has done in that killing
swipe at Derrida's deconstructive hubris; see also Rorty, 1989). It is
possible simply to read the published texts of science with an eye to the
rhetorical machinery they employ, and to scrutinise the canonical texts of
literature for the discourses of science which somewhat surprisingly
imbricate their own specialised narrative codes (Beer, 1983; Levine, 1988).
One may go further, as the emerging discipline of `Science and Literature
studies' is doing, and build, as George Levine recommends, from certain
fundamentally monist assumptions:

	first, that science and literature are two alternative but related
expressions of a culture's values, assumptions, and intellectual
frameworks; second, that understanding science in its relation to culture
and literature requires some understanding not only of its own internal
processes, but of the pressures upon it exercised by social, political,
aesthetic, psychological, and biographical forces; third, that the idea of
`influence' of one upon the other must work both ways. . . (Levine, 1987:vii)

	Finally, one might attempt to discern general invariant patterns
underlying the structures of these evidently different enterprises
(Jakobson, in Waugh, 1985:3) - not with a view to sinking both broad
classes of discursive regimes into an uninterestingly blurred identity, but
in the hope of discerning the diffentiae specifica in the way each deploys
common procedures of construing and constructing the world and its texts,
of coding and decoding this information, and of rendering such abstract
information flows, via social, historical and other contexts and frames,
into human meanings. The traditional name for this textual activity is

(THE ARCHITECTURE OF BABEL: Discourses of Literature and Science)

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