Saturday, September 08, 2007


I left the following as a comment on another blog:
I have a buddy who is a communications professor. He speaks the Gramsci/Foucalt lit crit hegemony stuff all the time. Mostly, I haven't got the first goddammed idea what he's talking about, though I have given it enough of a try to encounter the Sokhal hoax and stuff like that. But once, he asked me what it would take to 'overthrow' the periodic table. I tried to make the point that, fundamentally, the periodic table is an organization of experimental observation, that has since been backed up with theory. He wondered why we 'privilege' this particular structure.

After trying really hard to understand what the hell he meant, I got the impression that he thinks, honestly, that scientists just make shit up and all agree to discuss it in a certain way. I basically told him that he had the luxury of this because he didn't interact with things that would mercilessly render him dead as a rock if didn't privilege the knowledge that has been gained over time, different ways of knowing be damned.

He thought, and then said, "Yeah, if I write down something that doesn't conform to the narrative of my field, my papers won't explode." I think that we may have understood one another for a few minutes, at least.

I used to think that it was just a caricature of loony professors that allegedly actually believed that science has no basis outside the conversations that scientists engage in. Admittedly, this is the strongest of a continuum of such positions, but I am beginning to realize that some people really think that this is true. I can't relate, but it is intriguing. I suspect that this is actually a posture that some affect, and that with experimentation, one could uncover a basic belief in physical reality that would belie this academic position.

update:Thanks to Ms. PsiStarPsi for catching a broken link. It looks right in HTML, but apparently, blockquotes baffle Blogger. Or maybe it's just me. The Sokal Hoax I refer to above was the demonstration by Alan Sokal, a physicist, that much of the 'scholarship' in the literary criticism and social sciences fields is little more than posturing, especially when they try to apply scientific concepts. The affair is still stinging to some, and some legitimate questions have been raised about exactly what Sokal proved. It just shows, in my mind, that if one follows the dominant narrative in social sciences, they don't care whether what you proffer as arguments are correct, or even meaningful.

In fairness, I do acknowledge that plenty of science is, in fact, socially constructed, and scientist are pretty naive about this. It is the prevailing consensus that drives what people choose to research, which de facto decides what gets funded. There are also plenty of gender and race issues in science that others are far more eloquent in describing. So I don't mean to suggest that social science is all bunk. In fact, I think physical scientists would do well to learn a bit about it, especially economics and sociology.

What I really object to is that the strongest holders of the position that all knowledge is socially constructed ignore the fact that we do, in fact, spend most of our time being wrong in science. If it were possible for a cabal of scientist to decide, by consensus, what counts as scientific fact, falsifiability would not be the center of our discipline. This lack of responsibility to something external to the community, and the lack of falsifiability, are really the points where other academic fields diverge from science. So far as I can tell. Maybe I'm deluded by the patriarchal, capitalist hegemony into believing that I shouldn't mix elemental Fluorine with Cesium metal, and perhaps a Wiccan High Priestess could do so because she isn't bound by my reductionist blinders. I'm still going to leave the room, just in case. And, in the end, science wins, because even this would be empirical knowledge. Next, we figure out which solvents dissolve Wiccan Priestesses...


At Sunday, September 09, 2007, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

A friend of mine has trouble understanding exactly what I do because he can't get past the idea that we don't physically "see" the molecules we make. I tried to explain that we have instruments that do this for us, but I think he stopped listening when I said I couldn't explain NMR without math...
(by the way, you have a broken link)

At Sunday, September 09, 2007, Blogger David Eaton said...

Thanks for catching the link; I fixed it. Blogger hates me, I think.

I think that it is well worth the effort to get across to people how cumulative the evidence is for our molecular view of the world, while still pointing out that if we find out that something else explains it better, we'll go with that.

We are not stuck to our models because we think we know everything, we keep them because they work, and really, really well.

I told one of my lit crit friends that NMR is like blowing across a beer bottle opening. The sound is a function of how much beer is in the bottle (which I proceeded to demonstrate, since we were at a party). The I related the beer to shielding of the nuclei, and lost her again. But by that time, everyone was drunk and making beer-bottle music, so everbody won...

At Monday, September 10, 2007, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

Mmm. I think all science would do well with more beer analogies. (And more beer.)

At Tuesday, September 11, 2007, Blogger David Eaton said...

Speaking of beer, we have a group at work that home-brews every year. We just had the yearly party (where multiple kegs of said homebrew are consumed at a cookout for the entire chemistry dept). We call ourselves the (wait for it) Ale-chemists. This year I think I'm going to focus on an india pale ale.

I had to re-fix the links in this entry. It isn't easy being completely clueless.

At Wednesday, September 12, 2007, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

As far as blogger links go, you have to go to the HTML tab and type them in. Strangely enough, if you type in a link in the rich text tab, it will never work. I don't know why. It's a little annoying.

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