Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

2002-2003 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"The Culture of Science"

September 18
Samantha Glazier
"Isolation, Persuasion and Conviction: Sustaining the Culture of Science"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Samantha Glazier, a Keck Fellow in Chemistry, began her presentation with a cartoon of "imprinting gone awry," before asking what qualities sustain the culture of science. She suggested three: isolation, persuasion and conviction. Isolation, she posited, is enforced by complex language and select membership. Under persuasion she listed discoveries that save lives; asking big questions like "What are the origins of life and the universe?"; exalting humans (as the endpoint of evolution); and predicting the future (natural disasters, meteors, famine, flood). Conviction entails seeking certainty. Sam then told several personal stories about her own socialization into this culture, a process which included the "washing away" of the body, physicality and a class location which differed from that of her instructors.

Discussion quickly turned to the observation that such qualities were not particular to science: all cultures share norms, beliefs and values; each culture enculturates its practitioners to become like-minded. Perhaps what Sam was offering us was less a critique of science than a critique of culture? Or does science differ from other cultures by being "culturally imperialistic," by its claims that its methods of inquiry lead to truth and progress? Or by its denial that it is a culture?

Humanists in the group suggested that their disciplines did not value certainty, predictability or progressivism (the belief that subsequent accounts are ever more accurate than those which have preceeded them). Although those working in the humanities value originality, and always launch their projects from, or embed them in, what has gone before, they do not see themselves as replacing old ideas with new ones. A central difference between the two cultures seemed to involve this matter of progress: while humanists keep multiple stories in play, science is motivated by a progressive ethics which subsumes the old with the new.

There was considerable debate, however, about the meaning of progress. Most scientists no longer think in the 19th century terms of coming closer to an accurate description of reality; now they attempt to come up with a story that suffices to make sense of (always increasing) numbers of observations. The more observations that can be made sense of, the more progress has been made (although all evolving systems go through oscillating phases of increasing and declining complexity). Does progress involve increased precision? Throwing away those stories which are seen to be flawed? (In what ways, for instance, is the description of the earth going round the sun preferable to that of the sun circling the earth?) We also discussed what constitutes a story: can we separate observations from accounts?

The narrowing of science was another topic of discussion: subcultures, even "lab cultures" (pun intended?) were described. Participants observed that only when they started to teach were they able to "make the loop back" from their specialized work into large cultural questions. Although it was acknowledged that it was supportive to have a culture, we also considered what practicitioners were asked to give up in order to practice science. Why did Samantha's list not include "fun"? What conflicts are there between science and other cultures, or other cultural values? How culturally specific are the sacrifices scientists are required to make? Is it suspicious for a scientist to have a body? Are women asked to give up expressions of femininity?

In contradistinction to scientists, who are trained to extract their personal whims and values from the inquiry process, humanitists valorize subjectivity. Also distinguishing science from the humanities are the power and money accruing to the former, as well as the justification of research by its contributions to culture (by its potential, for instance, to salvage the economy). This range of observations brought us back to our prior week's discussion with Ralph Kuncl about the commercialization of inquiry.

Those who participated in this conversation, as well as those who are joining us now, are invited to continue the discussion our on-line forum, and to join us next Wednesday for its continuation, when Ted Wong will pick up the conversation with some comments on "Metaphor and Metonymy: The Two Cultures of Science."

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