Tuesday, May 31, 2005

What we see as evidence

The Art of Science

"The Art of Science will examine how scientists, and a group of artists who collaborate with scientists, construct their extraordinary images and use them in research... Textual material accompanying each group of images will discuss the image-making methods used by the scientists and how they interpret visual data, addressing issues such as colorization, computer manipulation, and the preparation of specimens. The exhibition will consider key questions such as: Are biological specimens altered during the process of preparing and imaging them? How important is subjectivity to scientific interpretation? How significant have images become to the progress of scientific discovery?"

I'm completely fascinated by what Karin Knorr-Cetina calls "technologies of representation" - where scientists use object traces (like photos) to stand in for the objects themselves. This sort of scientific practice requires specific technologies - such as telescopes or cameras - to remove real-world constraints of location and time, and thus allow analysis of the outside world to proceed inside the lab. For example, Knorr-Cetina discusses how astronomy changed from being a field science practiced only at night to an imaging science where astronomers could observe pictures of celestial phenomena anytime, anywhere. In addition to this portability, image processing may include the addition of colour "to enhance an object's detail or to visualize what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye". In these processes of representing nature, the scientist too becomes an instrument: one who recognises and decodes the proper signs in order to 'discover' scientific fact.

This tension between image and interpretation was also at play in the early days of photography. For example, in 1852 Marcus Root described a daguerreotype as a "literal transcript" that "will serve, perhaps, even better than its living original". At the same time, he considered it a "monstrous absurdity to regard the art itself as a mere process of mechanical transcription". In other words, if photographs were to be considered an original art form then a photographer would have to be more than "a mere mechanic".

Another example comes from Thomas Thurston's study of photographic evidence in 19th century American courts, where he notes:

"Photography's initial reception underscored the contradiction between its acceptance as testimonial aid— a reproduction of the real— and as commodity— a production of the photographic artist. Its apparent reflective plagiarism of nature especially recommended its use as evidence. However, as photographic technology advanced and the recognition of the manipulation involved in the production of the photographic work increased, skepticism as to its evidentiary value grew stronger. The legal profession's increasing reliance on expert testimony also tarnished the photograph's reputation for incontrovertibility, for as its use became more common, photographic experts began to face each other across the courtroom."

Sound familiar? Today, we argue about the reliability of DNA evidence, suggesting that it is only as good as the people processing it. I also think about how much of our current scientific knowledge is at a distance - molecular biology, particle physics, nanotech etc. all deal with things invisible to the human eye - and I think we'll increasingly need to critically understand the relationships between the world around us and our representations of it.

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