Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

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

October 2
Rob Wozniak
"Methods of Inquiry Across the Disciplines"

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

Rob Wozniak began with an account of his poor performance, as a student, in two courses: numerical analysis and the interpretation of poetry. "Ostrich-like," he may then have chosen as his profession a "middle-status field" which he thought would allow him to avoid both these disiciplinary methods--but instead ("since our weaknesses haunt us") he found himself, as a psychologist, handling both differential equations and the interpretation of dreams. Struggling with the "inquiry diversity" in his own field, Rob generated a list of methods used by psychologists. Taking a "scientistic approach," he then conducted interviews with Bryn Mawr faculty across a range of disciplines, in order to see which of the methods of inquiry each of them employed in their own work. In tabulating the data, Rob found that only a very small number of the methods were not shared, although the tremendous amount of overlap hides the reality of what is "weighted," what "esoteric," in a given field. A review of the data suggested to him a range of "paired epistemic orientations," which might be summarized as the "rational" and the "romantic."

The discussion provoked by Rob's presentation of this data was wide-ranging. He himself asked whether it "made sense to do this"; colleagues suggested the usefulness both of finer subdivisions of his categories and larger groupings of them (such as between the methods which involve a systematic search for stucture and pattern, and those which involve experimentation and manipulation). Questions were raised about the relative emphasis on texts in the humanities, and about the relative emphasis on form and content within disciplines such as mathematics. Is attention given there, for instance, to what is not made manifest, but only latent, in a written account? Why are essays written in a certain way in each discipline? Why do scientists perform their talks, and humanists read theirs? Is it because what is said is, for the latter, not separable from how it is written?

It was suggested that a third category was missing from Rob's data, that of the GOAL of our directed inquiry: do we seek moral good, social change, general knowledge? Can any method be disinterested, separated from the morality we bring to bear to generate it? It was also suggested that Rob's data was difficult to comprehend without concrete examples, that perhaps more useful than this tablation of methods of inquiry would be a notion of how we know when we are done, how we know when we need to move to another level of analysis, and how our work fits into a larger framework. Oliver Sacks (who was uncomfortable when his analysis did not tie back into his training in neurology) and Freud (who never gave up on the ideal of science beyond subjective literary analysis) were offered as examples of those who answered such questions differently.

It was also asked whether there can be a science of subjectivity. Psychology "ran" from the science of consciousness; the critique of introspection as an object of study was that no "reliabilty," and so "no science," was possible in that domain. Although cognitive science has reintroduced the topic of subjectivity using "non-subjective methods," is it really possible to divorce the self from the self? Is it useful to distinquish between what is prescriptive and what is practiced in each of our disciplines? It was suggested, for instance, that descriptions of our methods are never what we say they are: Science uses metaphors, not just as heuristic guides, but in response to certain social issues. For example, Darwin's notions of competition for survival emerged at a time of concern, among his social group, about the overpopulation of the urban underclass; in contrast, the Russian landed gentry, whose reality did not include concerns about "natural selection," explained evolution by means of a socialist idea, that of "mutual aid." Emily Martin's work in the the anthropology of science was offered as another example of the ways in which social assumptions may influence our accounts of reality: she analyzed descriptions of the passive, floating egg attacked by the active forceful sperm, and suggested that they might as accurately be replaced with less conventionally gendered accounts of the egg's activity, which engulfs and pulls in the sperm. Or is there an underlying reality in the fertilization process, which can be described in ways that are relatively culturally independent? Science deals only with appearances, with what is testible. Although trees grow without us, all we have is our understanding of them; they are finally inaccessble to us, and we cannot contain them in our heads.

It was suggested that the distinctions made in Rob's data and in our discussion between "subjectivity" and "objectivity" were not particularly useful ones, that our great-great-grandchildren will give very different accounts of the universe than any we can now imagine. We can acknowledge that narrative trajectory, and the emergence of new stories, without needing to label them subjective or objective. Rather than opposing the two terms, we might actually define "objectivity" as a range of subjectivities taken together. If the subjective is what the individual sees, the objective might mean the overlapping agreements between individual perceptions. But others insisted that objectivity is NOT just a matter of consensus, that consensus does not create the facts. The two are linked, but not symmetrically. Although "subject" and "object" have always existed in paired opposition, the two words actually "switched positions" in meaning during the Renaissance.

It was also suggested that a third term, that of culture, intervenes here, between our self-ascribed intentions and what we produce; Rob's list of methods might be described as an effort to arrive at the inbetween realm of cultural practices; we need to acknowledge the social. Social scientists make science into a social construct; wrong answers remain the "right" ones for a long time because cultural conditions preserve certain answers that are historically contingent. But is this true for mathematics? What was the ontological status of Neptune the night before it was discovered? Was it there? And yet the search for laws, or at least the tendency to feel that you've arrived at an explanation, is still in place; the object of our inquiry is still epistemological.

Do scientists assume that there is a right answer independent of human observation? Why do we turn to celestial bodies to answer that question? Are we searching for an explanation of a different order? Are there cognitive explanations for why we look to the planets? Does doing so activiate some paticular spacial organization in the brain? Do we use different metaphors because our objects of inquiry differ? Is there a useful distinction to be made between the fields which take as their objects of inquiry "what humans do," and those which examine products which are "other than" what humans produce, what is going on "outside" humans? Or is the basic distinction between human experiences, human acts and the human making of symbols of meaning--of which there is a tremendous variation?

How, finally, do we understand the relationship between the paired epistemic orientations Rob presented? Given the current state of epistemological crisis in a number of our disciplines, is it useful to conceive the two orientations in hierarchial relation, with the latter position representing "progress"? Or in ever-recursive dialogue with one another?

The conversation is invited to continue on the On-Line Forum and will pick up again October 9, when Katherine Rowe, a scholar of Renaissance literature with a particular interest in the history of psychology, will open a group discussion about technology, history and the various instincts we have about what counts as progress in the different disciplines. In keeping with the practices of literary study, Katherine asks participants to read a short excerpt from a conversation about technology and time, between Bruno Latour (historian of science) and Michel Serres (hard to classify, perhaps "philosopher of science"). You may download the excerpt from her Ereserve page for English 240, password "englb250". The reading is listed there as "Serres & Latour. 'Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time.'"

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