Friday, November 16, 2007

No uncertain terms. All uncertain terms.

Clive Thompson - Why Science Will Triumph Only When Theory Becomes Law

"Turns out, the real culture war in science isn't about science at all it's about language. And to fight this war, we need to change the way we talk about scientific knowledge ... It's time to realize that we're simply never going to school enough of the public in the precise scientific meaning of particular words. We're never going to fully communicate what's beautiful and noble about scientific caution and rigor. Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle in no uncertain terms."

In this short article, Thompson talks about how the deliberately nuanced and tentative language of science is exploited by creationists and others who take advantage of the vernacular sense of theory, as in "Oh, so that's just your theory, not a fact!" Although he seems to have little faith in the public, he recognises connections between language and power, and in the process touches on important critiques of hyper-relativist social constructionism, as well as much older questions about truth, including the possibility of codifying it. I've heard it explained that people become desperate for certainty in times of uncertainty. And as much as I disagree with creationists, I can't help but think Thompson's plan would come back to seriously bite us on the ass.

Update 16.11.07 - In the comments Nick left a link to a Guardian story about Steve Fuller, who I think is a super interesting sociologist. Check out his take on ID, and the explicit attention given to authority and power.

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Anonymous nick knouf said...

And the nuanced language of science studies can be used by intelligent design supporters: see the case of Steve Fuller and the Dover ID case.

Also, in many legal settings, all of the nuance of science and technology studies gets thrown out the window; Lynch and Cole have a paper about this from a couple of years ago ("STS on Trial: Dilemmas of Expertise").

So, as is the case in so many situations, entrenched powers try and force people into untenable binaries. Even if one might not want to be placed into those binaries, as in the case of Lynch and Cole, the legal system requires it. And when I extrapolate and see this as in endemic structural problem, it really depresses me...I don't have a way to deal with it, and we see, in the ID debate, what happens when we do allow nuance into the discussion. The difficulty is almost overwhelming...

Anonymous anne said...

nick - indeed! i've been thinking about what kinds of science, and what kinds of science studies, have their nuances turned against them. to some degree, it's a methodological issue. while ethnomethodology, for example, focuses very well at the micro or everyday level, it tends to do so without a critical eye towards the power relations at stake. what i think i mean is that maybe nuance isn't the problem, but rather how the researcher treats the politics at hand?

Blogger Chris said...

I remember seeing this before on Clive's blog. Thompson often overreacts to Creationist issues, in my opinion... He has said to me that he doesn't like seeing the US fall behind the rest of the world in the sciences, but I feel this is something of an excuse to explain his anger in the face of something that is clearly not scientific by any conventional measure but which presents itself in those terms.

The answer to metaphysical conflicts can't be to persuade scientists to talk in even more confident terms than their research reflects - we have enough problem with scientists reaching premature certainty without encouraging it!

Best wishes!

Anonymous stet said...

The funny thing is that nuance in language was invented by theology.

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