Looking twice at the history of science

Thursday, November 20, 2014

How to end the science wars: a review of Harry Collins and Jay Labinger, The One Culture? A Conversation About Science, part I/II

The science wars were a series of skirmishes that took place between scientists and sociologists (loosely speaking) in the 1990s. Sociologists of science were accused of using bad arguments and shoddy scholarship to undermine science; scientists were accused of misunderstanding the sociologists, idealising science, and conspiring to shut down legitimate debate. In 1997 some of the protagonists met at a ‘Science Peace Workshop’ in the hope of finding common ground and clarifying the issues at stake. The result was The One Culture? A Conversation About Science (2001), edited by the sociologist Harry Collins and the chemist Jay Labinger. It has been said, not without justice, that the book spelled the end of the science wars. But the book has its flaws, including several irritants and two serious omissions. This post and the next one are a guide to the 'science peace process.' These remarks are cobbled together from insights I found in the book and from my own reflections on such things as the symmetry principle and the internal/external distinction. Expand post.


  1. I agree with much that is here, and was interested to see that Collins mentioned his reversal on epistemological relativism in a footnote. I have just a couple of quick thoughts:

    1) It's worth mentioning that the possibility of evidence/reality/truth influencing arguments was the key bone of contention between the Bath (Collins) School and the French (Latour) School (not sure where Edinburgh stands, if anywhere, here), with the French School taking a more moderate stance on the question, while insisting that the real and the social could never be meaningfully disentangled. Notably, neither school (unlike the "historical sociology" of Edinburgh) claimed to be interested in the proper methodology of history-writing.

    2) The truth/evidence distinction may not be as important as you make it out to be, since SSK was preoccupied with the validity of evidence, specifically, i.e. "matters of fact," as essentially being another form of truth subject to relativistic interpretation.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Will. I was pleased to find the Collins footnote, not least because it confirmed what you had found out from Collins himself and reported here: Oddly, none of the other contributors in The One Culture refer to that footnote.

      1) Yes to your characterization of the Bath/French conflict, though I would exclude 'evidence' from this characterization (see below), and add the obvious caveat that the French did not just think that natural entities can effect arguments but that they can do so intentionally (the latter being a highly controversial addition, without which Latour's radical-seeming position would collapse into the pre-SSK position).

      I exclude 'evidence' because Collins and Latour seem to have the same view about the role of evidence, and of reasoned argument in general, which is to say that they both say very little about how it fits into their explanatory picture. Both of them imply that 'the natural' and 'the social' are the only causes of belief (even if Latour thinks that these two things are inextricable). This suggests either that they see no causal role for evidence, or that they subsume it under 'the natural' or under 'the social.' All of these views promote confusion, as I hope to show in my next post.

      I do not share your impression that Collins is/was uninterested in the methodology of history-writing. When he says that his is a distinctly 'sociological' kind of relativism, he seems to me to be distinguishing himself from philosophers, not from historians. His discussion of methodological relativism in the second edition of The Golem--which I have not read, but which he refers to in The One Culture--is apparently a summary of different ways of writing the *history* of science. Certainly, neither Collins or anyone else in The One Culture suggest that there is one rule for sociologists and one for historians.

      I would not want to place too much weight on the Edinburgh/Bath distinction, at least with respect to methodological relativism, since Collins claimed to *derive* his version of methodological relativism from (one version of) the symmetry principle of Barnes and Bloor. Here I am thinking of Collins' 1981 paper, 'What is TRASP?'. In lieu of any signal to the contrary from Collins, I conclude that he intended methodological relativism to have exactly the same range of application as the symmetry principle had had in the hands of Barnes and Bloor.

      Insofar as Collins does give the impression that he is only talking about sociologists, I think that this is because of his peculiar use of the term 'social.' As I just mentioned, he seems to use 'the social' to mean 'everything apart from nature that can cause beliefs' and not to mean 'social interests, as opposed to arguments and experiments'.

    2. 2) I think you have put your finger on a key point, namely that evidence can (and usually does) consist in claims about the natural world, eg. claims about the fossil record are part of the evidence for biological evolution.

      Here is how your argument goes, if I understand you right. If it is illegitimate to appeal to the fact of evolution to explain the theory of evolution, then it is surely illegitimate to appeal to facts about the fossil record to explain beliefs about the fossil record. Hence it is illegitimate to appeal to facts about the fossil record to explain the theory of evolution, since the only way to get from the facts of the record to the theory of evolution is via beliefs about the record. In short, what holds for the truth of a belief also holds for the truth of supporting beliefs.

      This point is well taken. It means that I will have to think of another way of characterising the truth/evidence distinction. But I think that my point about the real source of SSK's novelty will remain. The reason I say this is that the point you have made--what holds for a belief also holds for supporting beliefs--applies just as well to traditional historiography as it does to SSK.

      Let me put it this way. Few historians have appealed to the truth of evolution to explain the theory of evolution--instead they have described the concepts, observations, and experiments that convinced people of the truth of that theory. Does this mean that they have naively appealed to facts about (for example) the fossil record in their explanations of the theory of evolution? No--they have done for the fossil record exactly what they have done for evolution, namely describe the concepts, observations and experiments that led to beliefs about the fossil record.

      Perhaps the lesson to take from this is that the term 'evidence' is ambiguous. It can refer to a state of affairs in the natural world (eg. a pattern in the fossil record), but it can also refer to the belief that the state holds (eg. the belief that the fossil record has the pattern). This ambiguity may explain the confusion between truth and evidence that I discuss in my post, but the ambiguity does not excuse the confusion: there really is a distinction to be made here, and the failure to make it has led the authors of The One Culture down a blind alley.

    3. re: 1) In any event, I think you are right that Collins has not stressed that his position is "for sociologists only". Nor has it ever been exactly clear what ANT is up to (if it's not history, and it's not sociology, and if it's opposed to epistemology, then what exactly is it for?). But both positions -- and science studies more generally -- has always benefited from the idea that their work is not scholarly, but that, in its critical content, it has broad benefits for many disciplines, and for society's discourse about science more generally.

      So, I would agree, that while we can read *very* deeply into Collins and in a sense "rescue" his position by pointing to the specifically methodological uses of his relativism, he himself has not done much to make this position clear.

      In fact, I would go further to argue that, if we are to face facts, we have to admit that the various intellectual projects of science studies have simply not done a very good job of clarifying, or even defining their methods and their goals, and the relations between their and others' methods and goals.

      Moreover, I would further claim that, if this lack of clarity has not been intentional, it has at least been beneficial to the individuals involved, in that the ambiguities of these projects and their implications have served to keep people talking about these projects for decades now. Unfortunately, this is only true to a limited extent. The One Culture marked the end of its broad influence; the Mermins of the world, who were actually willing to put in the time to comprehend all this, simply moved on, leaving an exceedingly parochial set of discussions in their wake. I would argue that even people within science studies exhibit a vanishing interest in these discussions' intricacies.

    4. Just to clarify, in the first paragraph, "not just scholarly" would be a more appropriate phrasing.

    5. I share your skepticism about the value of some of these debates for working historians, especially when the scope and aims of the various projects are not very clear. The reason I keep sifting through these issues is because I think there are methodological nuggets to be found among the shifting sands of socio-cum-epistemic projects like Collins' and Latour's.

      A lot of nonsense has been written about methodological relativism, for example, and even when it the debate is sensible, it is not always relevant to what historians do (the debate about whether truths can explain beliefs seems to fit into the latter category, as explained in the above post). But there is at least one an important point that we can rescue from the slagheaps of the science wars, and it is that we cannot assume in advance of inquiry that true beliefs are best explained rationally and that false ones are best explained irrationally (this is the symmetry principle that I talked about 'saving' in my series on that principle).

      Historians might not have much taste for conceptual hogshearing -- as John Locke called the process of teasing out the fine distinctions that determine the outcome of a debate that seems simple on the surface -- but that is what they have to do if they want to formulate methodological tenets that non-historians can accept and that (more importantly) do not end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

      Regarding historians' present indifference to the science wars, we need to distinguish between philosophers' questions such as whether the experimenters' regress is tractable or not, from historians' questions such as how to formulate the symmetry principle. My impression is that historians of science have turned away from the former questions but not from the latter. At least, many of us are quite happy to parade the symmetry principle as a major discovery of historians of science -- witness Vanessa Heggie's post that originally triggered by posts on the symmetry principle, or Jan Golinksi's identification of the symmetry principle with 'constructivism' in 'Making Natural Knowledge'.

      Some might say that we should just ignore the historians' questions as well, forget the symmetry principle, and spend the time thus saved in the archive. This would not be wise, in my view. In the case of the symmetry principle, there is a genuine risk that we can guard against by adhering to that principle, and if only we could get clear about what the danger is, then the time spent doing so would be justified by the consequent reduction in the risk, not to mention a reduction in the bad habits--such as tacit slighting of internal history of science--that we encourage if we endorse some of the more pervasive versions of the principle.

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