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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
March 25, 2005

Reports and discussion of lab visits


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


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The week prior, participants had visited Elizabeth McCormack's laser lab and Sharon Burgmayer's bioinorganic lab. They gathered to reflect on both their experiences and the differences between doing and reflecting on science. They were assisted by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's "An Anthropologist Visits the Laboratory", from Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton University Press 1979; rev. 1986), pp. 43-90. This book, written by a philosopher and a sociologist, helped to found the new field of anthropology of science. Latour and Woolgar positioned themselves as "participant observers" in the laboratory, neither "totally naive" nor "going nature." What they found was scientists as "tribes," with "mythologies" (=theories). Their study emphasized the "materiality" of the lab. Attending to its architecture and its instruments, they identified two kinds of machines:

  1. those which transform matter between one state and another, and
  2. those which transform matter into written documents.
It was their argument that this second kind of "material" is based on the reified outcomes of past outcomes (as summarized in the literature), and that the point of this work was to allow more papers to be written. They presented papers as the "final products" of the laboratory: constructions of "facts" by recourse to mythologies, material elements, and the usages of persuasion. (The latter was a reminder of Tom Deans' recent presentation on the importance of "rhetoric" in writing).

There were a range of responses to Latour and Woolgar's work, including claims that they presented the laboratory as an "alien place," and that they were disingenious (perhaps even constructing a send-up of the cluelessness of anthropologists?) in their presentation of papers as a lab's end product: papers aim to further knowledge, and are not ends in themselves. To describe the material results of lab work as the production of paper is to reduce to the material what is much larger in scope.

Discussion of last week's experiences in the lab began by emphasizing its "circus side"--student guides wanted to be sure that we "amateurs" understood "how much fun" science is. "Pouring God knows what into God knows what," to "make a slush," for instance, participants found that there was very little they could discover. They wanted more explanation of what they were doing, but took it for granted that it was difficult for the student-scientists to explain what was happening. It was suggested that participants in the lab visits actually didn't get the explanations they wanted because "most scientists can't explain what they are doing." If "knowing" means "having a structure of articulation," most scientists really "don't know" what they are up to, and can only answer questions from "inside their world," that is, within some "shared mythology." "Mythologies are implicit for scientists"; most of them are just "engaged in a process" in their laboratories, without articulated intentions or purposes for why they are doing what they do. Leaving mythology for others, they mimic certain processes, then are hard pressed to account for what they have done.

But there is an important distinction to be made between actually "doing science" and "talking about it." The first is doing manipulations, or "just fiddling"; the second is aimed at creating a useful product. Papers are the end product of a process that will garner more money for further fiddling, etc. An encounter between two cultures (with an anthropologist, for instance, asking questions of a laboratory scientist) can be a process, for both participants in the conversation, of "puzzling out" just what is being done in the lab, and why. "We all make up stories" to explain what we are doing, to trace a "causal relationship between this and that." Scientists make selective observations and symbolic representations of their work all the time, for instance, in order to apply for grants that will enable them to continue their work. For those reasons, it can be very useful for scientists to be asked questions about why they do the work they do: the puzzlement of an "observer from another culture" might encourage them to inquire why they don't do it differently.

Further discussion of such questions is invited to continue in the on-line forum.

The semester's series will continue next Friday, April Fool's Day, when Paul Grobstein (Biology), Elliott Shore (History) and Paula Viterbo (History of Science) will moderate a discussion about "Memory, History, and the Brain II: Whence Nostalgia and the Constraints on Stories?" This is a continuation of last November's discussion led by Paul and Elliott. At that time, some ideas about history and memory were challenged and furthered by the group. The following contributions were especially provocative, and we would like to follow them up:

  • Azade Seyhan asked us to explore the psychological dimension of memory
  • Kalala Ngalamulume wanted us to think about how people marginal to a dominant culture develop alternative memories
  • Paula Viterbo challenged the description of the science underlying the discussion.

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