Science in Society Archive

From the Editor: In his speech to London's Royal Society, Prime Minister Tony Blair effectively branded any objection to anything scientists do as anti-science. "The fundamental distinction is between a process where science tells us the facts and we make a judgement; and a process where a priori judgements effectively constrain scientific research," he said, "So let us know the facts; then make the judgement as to how we use or act on them."

Blair's view of science is positivism of the most naïve and anachronistic kind. He sees science as a collection of irrefutable, neutral 'facts', divorced from ethics or politics, and independent of how we observe at the fundamental level. He is thereby giving scientists carte blanche to do as they please. This view, endemic to the scientific establishment, has a lot to do with why irresponsible, unaccountable, discredited science and dangerous, useless technologies are being foisted on society in the name of progress.

We are very fortunate to be able to present a cogent review of Ian Hacking's book by Prof. P.N. Furbank, which deconstructs both "social construction" and "scientific fact". This is the most exciting piece I have read in a long time, and certainly makes me want to read Hacking himself.

Say What?

P.N. Furbank

The Social Construction of What? By Ian Hacking, Harvard University Press, 1999.

The Social Construction of What?

The very first book to have "social construction" in the title, it seems, was The Social Construction of Reality (1966), by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. After that, the deluge, "What a lot of things are said to be socially constructed!" Ian Hacking remarks; and he begins his admirable book with an alphabet of them, drawn from a library catalogue. It runs from "Authorship", "Brotherhood", "The Child viewer of television" via "Emotions", "Quarks" and "Serial homicide" to "Women refugees", "Youth homelessness" and "Zulu nationalism".

Simply as a phrase, "social construction" has become a vogue, a tic, a pest. Hacking is frank about not really liking it. He indeed sees much wrong in the expression itself. "Most items said to be socially constructed could be constructed only socially, if they are constructed at all", he says. Thus, at least in their case, the term "social" is tautologous. ("If lesbianism is constructed, how other than socially?") It is different when what is said to be "socially constructed" is something the average person would never have supposed to be connected with the "social": for instance the concept of "quarks" in high energy physics, or Einsteinian relativity. The word "social" is doing some useful work here.

Nevertheless, Hacking maintains, it is the word "constructed" that is the important one. Is gender innate or is it constructed? Are the subatomic particles known as "quarks", or "nanobacteria", which are a thousand times smaller than the one usually studied by bacteriologists, real? Or are they merely "constructed", i.e., no more than theoretical conveniences? These, if understood rightly, are certainly worthwhile questions, and they amount basically, to the same question. But if we go on to ask, "Are these things socially constructed?" though this could be a reasonable question too, the answer - and this is a trouble - would use the word "social" in all sorts of different senses.

It is Andrew Pickering's contention in Constructing Quarks (1984), that the concept of "quarks" was arrived at because this was what a group of scientists, getting on very well together and in great favour, felt enthusiastic about. It was what archetypal precedents suggested to them was the likely way that things would be in Nature, and it was what the particular laboratory apparatus they were using encouraged them to focus upon. Nothing derogatory is suggested here, merely an insistence on contingency and the notion that theory given other circumstance, might have gone quite another way, with no "quarks".

Other "social construction" theories about science would, by contrast, impute sinister social or political motives. They take the form of an "unmasking" of the social forces at work unseen behind so-called scientific "objectivity". The name of Bruno Latour comes in here. Latour, acting as an ethnographer and participant observer in the Salk Institute in San Diego, gave a firsthand account of a research project in endocrinology (concerning a certain hormone or peptide called thyrotropin) which won a Nobel Prize. The book, which he wrote with Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), argued that the "fact" about thyrotropin emerging from this research was socially constructed: that, moreover, such is in general the truth about scientific "facts". Contingency and "external" factors enter into laboratory life at every point, and the direction a given of scientific research takes is by no means governed by pure logic, though this is the impression that scientific papers like to give.

The book caused a considerable stir. But according to Hacking, Jonas Salk, of the polio vaccine, wrote a preface for the book, indicating he had no problem with Latour and Woolgar's description of activities in the laboratory he founded.

Latour claims, at least, not to be denying the objectivity of science and "the reality of the laws of nature", he is merely asking us to rethink the word "fact". Moreover, in the second edition of the book, the word "Social" was dropped from the title.

However, in an article, "A relativistic account of Einstein's relativity" (in Social Studies of Science 18 (1988), Latour writes in a very different spirit. Here he is visibly wishing to unmask sinister motives. He maintains that the theory of relativity is itself (his italics) "social". Basing his work on Einstein's popular exposition, Relativity: the Special and General Theory, he portrays an Einstein with a panic fear of untrustworthy human "observers" of spatio-temporal events and a desperate determination to preserve the privileges of an "enunciator" or author. He depicts Einstein as, patriarchally, introducing this figure as third and authoritative system of reference in the system. But in fact, Einstein nowhere mentions any such third system of reference. Indeed, surely the very meaning of Einstein's term "relativity" is that no system of reference is privileged? The only appropriate word for this article of Latour's seems to be "dotty".

I mention this because it reinforces Hacking's point that in "the social construction of…" he is studying not a concept but a phrase, used to express widely or even wildly different ideas, some of them sensible and others not.

For Hacking, it is Kant who is "the great pioneer of construction". He is thinking of Kant's explanation, in The Critique of Pure Reason, for the fact that we know the truths of arithmetic and geometry just by thinking and yet can apply them in the real world, which exists independently of thought. Kant's answer, as we know, is that all experience takes place in space and time, which is not a fact about experience but a precondition of it; and that space is structured by the laws of geometry and time by the laws of arithmetic, structures derived from the nature of thought itself. This was, unquestionably, an epoch-making piece of "construction".

Certainly, Andrew Pickering's account in his book, of the decisive change in the direction of high energy physics in the 1970s is most intriguing. It involved a redirection not only in theory but in interpretative practices and in instrumentation (the bubble chamber being partially replaced by new kinds of detectors). "The old physics," says Pickering, "focused upon the most common processes encountered in the HEP laboratory: resonance production at low energies, soft-scattering at high energies. The new physics instead emphasises rare phenomena: the weak neutral current, hard-scattering, and so on." This reorientation involved many judgements and decisions which were far from simply following, in inevitable fashion, from the logic of theory. There was in them a very considerable social element - using the word "social" to refer to the pressures and prejudices at work within a small and closely united group of scientists.

One would never have guessed this from the retrospective accounts of its work; but in fact, there was so much mere contingency in the way that the new physics developed - it seems so possible and even likely that things might have gone in a different direction - that, so it could be argued, one is forced to think of the new physics and its world-view as simply "incommensurable" with the old.

What caused most stir was Pickering's final chapter, which is the one I have been quoting from; and it is plain from this chapter that, in the end, there is something wrong with Pickering's reasoning. For in his very last paragraph he drops a bomb. He writes, "On the view advocated in this chapter, there is no obligation upon anyone framing a view of the world to take account of what twentieth-century science has to say." This, surely, is absurd.

Moreover, one can point out what has gone wrong. It lies in that world "incommensurable", especially when allied to the word "world". The point about this came home to me, originally, in a quite different context: Isaiah Berlin's theories regarding "pluralism". Berlin argues that there is no single overarching value or set of values of a particular culture: the values of different culture or societies, he says, are, or may be, simply, "incommensurable". It is an appealing proposition, but when one examines it, it turns out to be meaningless. For values can be, and frequently are, incompatible, but no sense can be attached to the idea of measuring them against one another. The expression "incommensurable" is being used here with the sole purpose of avoiding using the word "incompatible".

Now, much the same is true of "incommensurable" as used by Pickering. Pickering's talk of "incommensurability" and of "worlds" clearly derived in a considerable degree from Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolution, where such terms play an equally important role. Kuhn, however, uses them more hesitantly. He says, of his own remark that "after discovering oxygen Lavoisier worked in a different world," that this is a "strange locution" which he would avoid if he could. Again, when speaking of "the incommensurability of competing [scientific] paradigms," he says: "In a sense that I am unable to explicate further [my italics), the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds."

I think that, despite the reservations, this is the weak spot in Kuhn's memorable book. He likens what occurs at a scientific "revolution" to a Gestalt switch, as when one first sees some marks on a piece of paper as a duck, and then as an antelope or rabbit. With his usual caution, he admits that the parallel can be misleading, since "Scientists do not see something as something else; instead they simply see it." But the mistake lies, rather - I would suggest - in his using the word "seeing" and physical vision as a metaphor for how a scientists studies phenomena. I am thinking of a characteristic passage like the following, apropos of physicists before and after Galileo:

"Practicing in different world, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look in the same direction. Again, that is not to say that they can see anything they please. Both are looking at the world, and what they look at has not changed. But in some areas they see different things, and they see them in different relations one to the other."

Or again, when he writes that "when Aristotle and Galileo looked at swinging stones, the first saw constrained fall, the second a pendulum", but actually, according to legend (and a very plausible one) what Galileo was seeing when he constructed the theory of the pendulum was a lamp - a swinging bronze lamp in the cathedral at Pisa. He interpreted it as a pendulum, indeed it helped him to invent the concept, but it simply creates confusion to say that he "saw" a pendulum.

For the point is, to see a lamp is itself an act of interpretation, and this is true of all seeing. Seeing is a matter of classification and recognition. What we see is not a coloured patch but a lamp or a house or a table. Admittedly, we sometimes say that we cannot make out what something that we are looking at is. But this merely goes to confirm the crucial point that all seeing is a matter of "seeing as". Thus, Kuhn's analogy of the Gestalt switch - "the duck-rabbit shows that two men with the same retinal impression can see different things" - is beside the point.

Equally he is surely wrong to suggest that, even hypothetically, one might get behind mental "paradigms" to the "raw data" of experience and construct some neutral observations language "designed to conform to the retinal imprints that mediate what the scientist sees."

(This is an abridged version of a longer review first published in The Threepenny Review, Summer 2000, 5-7.)

Article first published 30/06/02

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