On the Politicisation of Science… (FOO ’06)

09/06/2006

One talk from FOO Camp 06 started off fascinating me and end up driving me to distraction with frustration. Chris Csikszentmih√°lyi from the MIT Media Lab did a talk about the implicit politics that lies behind all technology. Initially I found this highly engaging – it reminded me a lot about the cultural studies work that I’d been involved with during my incomplete doctorate – only with a more practical bent. Specifically Emily Martin’s article The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance based on Stereotypical Male-Female roles leapt into my brain – an article that argued that scientific discourse was regularly distorted by cultural prejudices and explained how unexamined assumptions made a mockery of concepts like ‘good science’.

Csikszentmih√°lyi described his work as exploring the implicit assumptions of technological work and science – the difference between what the scientists think they’re doing and what actually happens. One of the interesting facts he revealed was that only 3%-5% of experiments in advanced science are ever reproven (ie. the experiments are successfully replicated) for a whole range of reasons. This is not because the science was wrong (necessarily) but simply because some of the experiments can only be performed using incredibly expensive equipment that might only be owned by one laboratory (CERN’s particle accelerators?) and that many of the experiments could only be replicated with the ‘tacit knowledge’ of the people who had performed the initial experiments – knowledge that often was not successfully captured in the write-ups of the experiments. He argued that, ‘scientific conflict is not resolved by individuals replicating stuff like that, it’s resolved in a remarkable social process’.

Anyway, so far so good. He then talked about tool neutrality and how where you received funding from – and the perspective from which you were viewing the research – inevitably revealed that all work was political, and that ideas like ‘tool neutrality’ (I’m making something neutral and it can be used for good or ill) and ‘technology is out of control’ were both missing the point and were completely irrelevant to the debate. That the politicised nature of science was indisputable, but did not necessarily result in anti-technological standpoints.

The parts that got difficult for me were when – accepting that there was no science that was not political – Csikszentmih√°lyi seemed to me to wander rapidly down into relativism, almost seeming to argue that there was no such thing as empirically ‘better’ or ‘worse’ science, but simply different political takes on the same field. I tried to get him to expand around this and challenged a few points that seemed to be logical extensions of this without much success at all, and left frustrated and irritated by the whole enterprise. It seems to me that the inevitable idea that science is politicised needs to be kept distinct from the quite abhorent concept that there is no qualitative difference between different theories, only perspectival ones. This seems to me to be an idea that’s seeped into the world from my old discipline to the good of precisely no one. It seems to me that there remains some way of arguing that a theory that was demonstrably disprovable was conceptually ‘worse’ than a theory that fitted the available data, and that this metric was implicated in and connected to but orthogonal to the inevitably politicised nature of the science itself. That is to say that the politicisation would inevitably exist and would always and inevitably obfuscate any model of a ‘real world’ that one might wish to posit as a useful mechanism to think against (subject to disproval, of course). But that while we accepted that, there were metrics that could often be used to measure practicality, utility, plausibility or whatever that could be a debased but functional analogue to ideas of ‘what makes good science’.

I have no sense of whether I managed to successfully challenge Chris on these theoretical issues, whether he simply did not get what I was trying to ask him or whether I was just evidencing my stupidity in public again. However, the whole thing did seem to reach a nasty point when I said that he seemed to be arguing for the death of logic itself, only for him to say that he believed in logic – as a fundamentally perspectival and human way of interpreting the world. At which point I could not help but feel he’d managed to destroy the platform on which he himself was talking – running hard into the wall between modernity and post-modernity that left feminism with no concept of a woman left to defend.

I’m still thinking around this talk, and would appreciate any insights anyone else might have on it out there in the world. From talking to many of my ex-colleagues in the humanities it seems that much of the sociological and philosophical frameworks for these kinds of the positions are being rapidly abandoned by community after community – but this is purely hearsay. Anyone got any thoughts?