June 14, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making sense in science and in public

Over the last few weeks some of my colleagues within the Institute for Science and Society and the Making Science Public programme (and beyond) have probably got pretty annoyed with me, as I have become a bit argumentative in a debate about science and politics and the line between sense and nonsense. In the following I want to provide some reasons for why this happened and why I think talking about these things is so important.

Getting hot under the collar

In my early academic life I read works by Saussure, the father modern linguistics (a lot), Barthes, Ricoeur, Foucault, Bourdieu, Lévi-Strauss and other French thinkers in the fields of linguistics, literary studies, sociology, semiotics, anthropology and so on. I also dipped, much less enthusiastically, into Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, Irigaray and other prominent post-structuralist and post-modern philosophers. Some of the fashionable stuff (or as some would call it ‘nonsense‘) I read at the time was useful, as it unsettled established thinking about science, language, society and politics. However, some of it got me hot under the collar as it seemed to use a lot of words to say very little. I then I came to England, had a brush with analytic philosophy, realised that many of these French emperors of the post-modern kind had no clothes on and I cooled off.

Over the last decade I have engaged with science and society issues, beavering away in my little corner where I look at linguistic (metaphorical) and cultural framings of scientific controversies. I enjoy that. I also interact with a lot of natural scientists and enjoy that too. Once in a while a re-encounter Foucault or Bourdieu, but that’s fine. These people can provide useful thinking tools, in moderation. During that decade I also tried to immerse myself in Science and Technology Studies. As in my previous life, I realised that some of what I read was useful in unsettling established thinking about science, society and politics, but that some of it might also need to be put under a more critical spotlight. This time round this was not because of a brush with analytical philosophy but because of a brush with natural science.

When natural scientists come into contact with STS scholars and discussions of the social or political shaping of science and technology, many remember the Sokal affair of the 1990s, where a physics professor wrote a hoax article in the style of post-modernism for a special issue to which many eminent STS scholars contributed. It was entitled: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity“. For STS people this affair is done and dusted, but for some scientists it is not quite settled yet, as some of what they see, hear or read in and around STS reminds them of this affair.

In the context of various blog discussions following the Circling the Square conference somebody mentioned Karen Barad’s work which I had not encountered before, although it seems to overlap to some extent with work by STS scholars such as Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Andrew Pickering, and Evelyn Fox Keller. Barad’s work makes claims about science, society and politics and plays with language. So I thought I ought to engage with it and try to understand it. As Barad uses quantum physics in her work, a colleague and physicist, Philip Moriarty also tried to understand it.

Interpretation difficulties

Phil tried to interpret some of Barad’s texts, but failed. To give an example: “At least for me it is the incredible satisfaction of taking insights from feminist theory, on the one hand, and insights from physics, on the other, and reading them through one another in building agential realism. And from there going back and seeing if agential realism can solve certain kinds of fundamental problems in quantum physics.” The problem for him as a natural scientist is that claims are being made about science which don’t really hold up to closer scrutiny.

I myself tried to understand a rather Sokalesque text published in 2010,  but also failed. Here is an extract: “Multiply heterogeneous iterations all: past, present, and future, not in a relation of linear unfolding, but threaded through one another in a nonlinear enfolding of spacetimemattering, a topology that defies any suggestion of a smooth continuous manifold. Time is out of joint. Dispersed. Diffracted. Time is diffracted through itself. It is not only the nature of time in its disjointedness that is at stake, but also disjointedness itself. Indeed, the nature of ‘dis’ and ‘jointedness’, of discontinuity and continuity, of difference and entanglement, and their im/possible interrelation ships are at issue.” The problem for me is that I can read this as post-Derridaian, post-Niels-Bohrian poetry, but I can not make sense of it as a social scientist. There might be an important message in this text but the words didn’t lead me to it. To use some long words myself: hermeneutics nil; hermeticism one.

Anyway, when reading such passages (which may be ‘fringe’ but not so fringe), Phil and I got a bit hot under the collar. Why? Why did this matter so much to us?

Hoaxes, errors and obscurantism

In the process of trying to get to grips with these texts and my feelings, I was alerted to another ‘hoax’ paper published in 2013. This post-Sokal hoax paper was written by a scientist in order to expose shortcomings in the scientific peer review process, in particular with regard to wild-west open access journals. “The goal was to create a credible but mundane scientific paper, one with such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable.” The paper’s acceptance by many journals showed that bad papers get into the system. It should be stressed that these papers are ‘bad’ in the sense of ‘full of errors’. This means that, in this instance reviewers COULD have checked the paper thoroughly and could have found the errors, but they didn’t. By contrast, reviewers confronted with Sokalesque articles of the type cited above can not adopt such a procedure. This means it is not easy to distinguish a hoax from a genuine article, whatever that might mean. So how do reviewers (and readers in general) judge the scholarly merit of such articles? And why are there such differences in judgement about their value?

Why is this important?

When I looked into the 2013 science hoax affair, it became clear to me why I was so getting so exercised. First and foremost it’s about upholding intellectual, scholarly, or if you like, scientific standards of some sort. Second, this is about scientific responsibility and of academic honesty. And third, this might be about still quite significant differences in scientific culture or cultures of scientific research that need to be acknowledged and discussed before they can be overcome.

I believe that only when we at least vaguely share some standards of scholarship can we collectively build a body of knowledge that does not disappear into quicksand. This would also be a body of knowledge that, if inspected by our pay-masters, the tax-paying public(s) (and that includes people like Phil and myself), would, in principle, be readable, and would, in principle, with a bit of effort, make sense. If texts that mix natural and social science, (admittedly in very creative, imaginative and thought-provoking ways) fail to make sense to both a natural and a social scientist, then there is something wrong.

I don’t want to say that everything published in fields that flourish in the vicinity of post-modernism borders on the nonsensical (or that STS should be equated with postmodernism!). However, one should have the courage to shout ‘nonsense’ when one sees it and be allowed, even encouraged, to do so. If we don’t do that, how can we distinguish between (natural and social) scientific knowledge and fairy-tales? This is especially important in a context where the natural and social sciences are increasingly asked to become more open, transparent and public.

Hard questions

How can we maintain public trust in the (natural and social) sciences under these conditions? How can we hope to establish a dialogue between social and the natural scientists if there are no shared standards and values of evidence and of how to assess scholarly and scientific merit? And, most importantly, how can natural and social scientists jointly address urgent questions about science and politics, science and policy, science and regulation, science advice and so on in such a situation?

When writing this post, I came across an article by Harry Collins which has just been published in Social Studies of Science entitled ‘Rejecting knowledge claims inside and outside science’. The abstract says: “Citizens, policy-makers and scientists all face the problem of assessing maverick scientific claims. Via a case study, I show the different resources available to experts and non-experts when they make these judgements and reflect upon what this means for technological decision-making in the public domain.”

I want to ask: Could a similar article be written about assessing maverick social scientific claims, and what resources would be available to experts and non-experts to make judgements on such claims? How can we decide which knowledge claims to reject or support? Answers to such questions are important if we want to make science (in) public.

And finally: if we hold others to account, we have to hold ourselves to account too.

Image: Abteiberg Museum in Mönchengladbach – postmodern design, photo by Hans Peter Schaefer (Wikipedia)

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