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2004-2005 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
" Science's Audiences "

September 17, 2004

Paula Viterbo (History of Science)
"What's Important About Science's Audiences?"

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

Paula began the discussion by following a "scientific fact" from the laboratory into the social world (although the laboratory is also part of the social world...): the movement included multiple levels of filtration, discussion, conversation, translation, and adaptation to accessible language. Each shift is a complex one of considering how the work will be used, and can best be expressed, in a different context; many of the brown bag discussions planned for the remainder of the semester will highlight one or another of these stages. The pathway Paula traced was a linear one; she also invited us to imagine others that might follow a different order, or different trajectories. It was suggested that a parallel chart might be drawn which tracked the ways in which science becomes "what people do"; alongside these various stages in understanding and translation could be laid various steps in "enactment."

Paula explained that in a historical "moment" (of several centuries' duration) science legitimized itself by becoming a public activity and finding an audience. This was a process of negotiation in which the acquisition of "virtual audiences" was essential. The example she used was that of Boyle's experiments with a vacuum, which he performed initially for witnesses, and then--needing a broader audince for legitimacy--in writing which was distributed to the society of mechanical philosophers. (She noted that these written accounts were all in words; Boyle's famous proceedings did not include any equations or mathematics.) Because the audience, in this process of virtual witnessing, was "not in front of the air pump," Boyle had to use descriptions to convince them of what he had done. But those audiences were actors with their own agendas, interpretations and reactions; a feedback process was thereby initiated, and the explanations changed in reaction to audience response.

Paula moved next to describe the limits on the science stories we tell. Some of them, like death, are natural and unavoidable; others are technical, relying on the availability of certain instruments (kymographs, for example, could detect mechanical but not chemical effects, and so limited what was measureable); a third sort of limit is set by the agendas and interpretations of both authors and audiences. Asked whether "limit" could mean simply "influence," Paula asserted that "some stories are not possible." Science is a resource, and the information it gathers and disseminates can be used different ways (information about ovulation, for example, is applied differently by those for and against birth control). Does the story actually limit what we see, or just how we tell it? In Mertonian philosophy of science, the story is shaped by the direction and attention of the observer; in more recent (and debatable) trends toward social construction, the scientist is understood to create where she going; she makes the facts she establishes in the lab; they are not there in nature. Contextualist and social constructionist historians, sociologists and philosophers of science give different answers to these queries.

We were asked to think of the history of physics as a path of discovery, like a river cutting through a valley: the valley is both "visited by" the river and made by it. The river flows--and it cuts its own path as it goes. How much it is the maker of the valley it visits may depend on whether it is passing through "granite" or a "sandbed." Insofar as science originated in physics, it studies what most resists human manipulation. But the objects of science range from those that are more resistent to those that are more sensitive to human disturbance. Context limits the extent of our manipulation.

The claim was made that we were confusing "fact" and story." Various definitions of "fact" followed:

  • I do something in the lab, and it "clicks" ("like a geiger counter"); that click is not a construction, but the story which expands on it is
  • it is not just the explanation of the facts, but the facts themselves which are constructed (there was a debate about whether the time of ovulation constitutes the former or the latter)
  • a fact is an "operational defintion"
  • humans like certainties: a fact is the construction of an absolute (done by outsiders, not scientists)
  • what is debatable is not the fact, but what outsiders do with the observations made by scientists
  • facts are repeatable observations
  • facts are consensual and social; they express agreement
  • a fact is a property (but what is a property?)
  • a fact is a property that exists independently of measurable observations
  • a fact (like a solar eclipse) only exists within certain geographical limits
  • a fact is always contextual
  • a fact is an undeniable event
  • a fact only becomes a fact after the fact
  • a fact determines behavior
  • a fact enables a prediction
  • a fact is what remains when we have checked for variety, and run large numbers of experiments controlling for interference
  • all math facts are operationally defined
  • facts are about things that are not changeable.
Paula closed with the observation that "all stories are not science. Some are fairy tales, and there are "no best fairy tales"; there are many more possible stories in the humanities than in science. Science involves problem posing and solving, following rules and pursuing meaningful questions (and "making one's spurs by solving the big questions"). What is it, then, that drives the history of science?

Our discussion of "science's audiences" will pick up again in person next Friday. September 24, @ 1:15, when Liz McCormack of the Physics Department will discuss "The Trials and Tribulations of Academic Writing: The Case for Cross-Training." In the interim, the conversation is invited to continue online.

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