Saturday, May 14, 2005

Scientists are people too, and this is how science is done

One of my students last term said that the best thing he got out of the class was the knowledge that "scientists are people too". He didn't mean that scientists appear inhuman, but rather that we are taught to see experts and authorities as somehow superhuman - and it was good to understand that, in many important ways, scientists are just people, that they can be understood sociologically and anthropologically, just like everybody else.

We had just finished reading laboratory ethnographies by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Sharon Traweek, and we spent quite a bit of time talking about Traweek's descriptions of becoming a physicist. It would have been brilliant to discuss Richard Feynman's letters as well as they almost perfectly enact Traweek's "male tales of a life in physics".

Not only do the excerpts demonstrate the versatility, humility, wit and compassion we've come to expect from our heroes (or what Traweek calls statesmen), but we also get a glimpse of the values attached to the practice of science, of physics. Perhaps none of the letters put forth these mangles and values so clearly as one to James Watson after reading a manuscript of what would become The Double Helix:

"Don't let anybody criticise that book who hasn't read it through to the end. Its apparent minor faults and petty gossipy incidents fall into place as deeply meaningful and vitally necessary to your work (the book the literary work I mean) as one comes to the end. From the irregular trivia of ordinary life mixed with a bit of scientific doodling and failure, to the intense dramatic concentration as one closes in on the truth and the final elation (plus with gradually decreasing frequency, the sudden sharp pangs of doubt) that is how science is done. I recognise my own experiences with discovery beautifully (and perhaps for the first time!) described as the book nears its close. There it is utterly accurate.

And the entire "novel" has a master plot and a deep unanswered human question at the end: is the sudden transformation of all the relevant scientific characters from petty people to great and selfless men because they see together a beautiful corner of nature unveiled and forget themselves in the presence of the wonder? Or is it because our writer suddenly sees all his characters in a new and generous light because he has achieved success and confidence in his work, and himself? Don't try to resolve it. Leave it that way. Publish with as little change as possible. The people who say "that is not how science is done" are wrong.

In the early parts you describe the impression by one nervous young man imputing motives (possibly entirely erroneous) on how the science is done by the men around him. But when you describe what went on in your head as the truth haltingly staggers upon you and passes on, finally fully recognised, you are describing how science is done. I know, for I have had the same beautiful and frightening experience."

February 10, 1967

In this letter we get a glimpse of science being done - and not just science as product. We can see the awe, the privilege and confidence, the uncertainty and the fear, the competing views. All those relations, all those emotions, that do not make it into the product that earns one a Nobel Prize but nonetheless continuously shape the scientist's "discoveries".

Now, I don't want to suggest that autobiographical accounts are the best or only way to understand scientific practice, but they do challenge us with other perspectives to consider. For example, discussion threads like this one from an evolutionary biology post-doc raise intriguing questions about how science is practiced. We can see things like competition amongst the ranks, arguments over ownership, gendered problem-solving, value differences between industry and academia, and people's experiences conflicting with expectations.

What makes this forum - and Feynman's letters - most interesting to me is the social and conversational aspect. They make it difficult to interpret scientific practice outside of its sociality, outside of the stories people tell about other people. But this, in and of itself, isn't special. Most scientists will tell us that Kuhn was right to point out that scientific communities produce scientific knowledge. What Kuhn's account misses though is how scientific communities are not isolated from the world-at-large.

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