Thursday, October 20, 2005

Science vs. Not-Science

NY Times: Scientists Bridle at Lecture Plan for Dalai Lama

"He has been an enthusiastic collaborator in research on whether the intense meditation practiced by Buddhist monks can train the brain to generate compassion and positive thoughts. Next month in Washington, the Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak about the research at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

But 544 brain researchers have signed a petition urging the society to cancel the lecture, because, according to the petition, 'it will highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromised scientific rigor and objectivity'...

'If one reads the published scientific literature, it is not difficult to see that this claim is far from being proven. It will not hurt if the public also realizes that some researchers are declared believers playing dual roles as advocates and researchers'."

This is definitely an article to save for class next term as it rather nicely highlights the ways in which science positions itself against not-science. According to Popper and others, objective or scientific knowledge is understood to be distinct or separate from personal reflection or feelings, whereas subjective or non-scientific knowledge is considered to be biased, irrational or ideological. On the other hand, Kuhn argues that scientific method is a social enterprise where scientific worldviews are collectively agreed upon and changed, and Longino pushes even further by claiming that "it is, of course, nonsense to assert the value-freedom of natural science. Scientific practice is governed by norms and values generated from an understanding of the goals of scientific inquiry ... and contextual values [that] belong to the social and cultural environment in which science is done."

This starts to get at how the radical contingency of science solidifies through processes of excluding whatever is not-science. Typically, whether we talk of science or technology, we say that people shape and are shaped by them. (This comes from the hylomorphic distinction between form and matter, or appearance and essence.) But in this model there is no way of accounting for ongoing processes of formation through which the surfaces and boundaries of science and not-science, or technology and not-technology, are stabilised. A more transductive (following Simondon and Deleuze) account denies that there is something essentially human and something essentially scientific or technological that meet each other in-the-world. Instead, what is 'human' and what is 'science' or 'technology' achieves "internal resonance" not because it exists in relation to something else, but because "individuation is the 'theatre or agent' of an interactive communication between different orders." In other words, the signifiers 'science' or 'technology' do not refer to any single signified or semiotic substance. Instead of understanding technology or science as universal (necessary, inevitable, etc.), I'm interested in how they can be understood as singular and contingent, or how they become 'technology' and 'science' in particular and variable ways.


Anonymous Chris said...

This post is on the threshold of my understanding, but it is so close to issues that are dear to me than I'm going to attempt to comment.

Surely it is not necessary for science to position itself against non-science in order for it to develop and advance? Wasn't Popper claiming that falsifiability was a threshold condition for science? That seems like a reasonable place to put a dividing line. Ergo, everything testable should be legitimate grounds for inquiry - no matter how outside the current paradigm (in Kuhn's sense) it might be.

It seems to me that fervant attempts to dismiss, discredit and exclude certain discussions and viewpoints from "legitimate science" are the result of cognitive dissonance among those people for whom the prevailing scientific paridigm has become their chief belief system. Such people appear to have a similar potential for extreme measures as dogmatically religious people suffering from cognitive dissonance (I'll cite my usual case in point of "science zealots" run amok: Wilhelm Reich), although extreme cases do appear to be somewhat rarer.

Can you expand your position? Is it that the exclusion of non-science is a necessary step to advancing science?

Thanks in advance!

Anonymous lago said...

Or, you know, boundary work.

Anonymous orange. said...

"Is it that the exclusion of non-science is a necessary step to advancing science?"

The hot spots in regards of terms scientific and non-scientific knowledges--not practices aka methods--are the definitions of "what can we know" and "what not".
See rise of encyclopaedias and enyclopaedism.

Blogger Anne said...

Hi Chris

Sorry for the delayed response, but I've never been any good at travelling and blogging...

I think I'll have to back up first, as we may be starting with very different assumptions. I find the notion of "advancement" highly problematic, as I do not subscribe to the idea that there is an ultimate or absolute truth out there that can - and will - be known by better and better methods.

But to answer your first question, yes, I do think that a fundamental way in which an "objective" science emerges is by distinguishing itself from subjective knowledge, amongst other things.

(You're right in pointing out that falsifiability was Popper's criterion, but I follow Feyerabend and his rejection of scientific method as a way to get at the "truth", and its associated privilege.)

In other words, I don't think that it takes a zealot to reject or work around certain ways of understanding - I think that is part and parcel of demarcating scientific knowledge in the first place.

Ultimately, I'm more interested in where and how a line gets drawn than I believe there is some sort of "reasonable place to put a dividing line" in the first place.

Make sense?


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