Home | Away

Footnotin’ frenzy

Hi everyone!  It’s me again, checking in from the depths of Footnote Hell.

Of course, even though footnotin’ is hard work, it’s not all tedium and Googling and visits to the stacks.  Not at all!  Some of footnotin’ involves real argumentin’, just in a tinier font at the back of the book.  And I thought I’d share an example with you this evening, not least because two or maybe three people have written to me to ask me how the book’s going and what it will look like when it appears next fall.

Well, the book is going fine, and when it appears it will almost surely be rectangular.  But for those of you who might like a small taste of what one of the more substantial footnotes will look like—and it just happens to follow from yesterday’s post—I’m posting a draft version for your perusal.

Here’s the back story.  After disposing of David Horowitz and his like for once and for all, and then checking out some of the more widely-reported tales of conservative students being persecuted by their Stalinist professors, I get around to explaining what I do in some of my classes.  Now, the last time I got together with my editor, on a weekday evening in a midtown restaurant in New York, he flagged the opening pages of the chapter on my postmodernism seminar and said, you might want to watch the mention of Kuhn—because, as you know, there are any number of readers out there who are really tired of humanities professors citing Kuhn and getting him wrong.  Likewise with Gödel and Heisenberg on “incompleteness” and “uncertainty.”

As you might imagine, this remark made me violently angry.  Yanking the bottle of pinot grigio from the ice bucket to my right, I smashed it on the edge of the table, stood up, and said, “All right, man.  I know all about those readers.  And I’m as pissed off about sloppy appropriations of Kuhn as anyone.  But let me say one thing.” At this point I had drawn the alarmed attention of all the diners-and-drinkers in the place, not least because I was waving the broken bottle around and making random stabbing motions.  “I’ll put my reading of Kuhn up against anyone’s.  Anyone’s, do you hear me?  DO YOU HEAR ME?  I’m serious, man—I don’t just go on about ‘paradigm’ this and ‘incommensurability’ that, people.  I can take Kuhn’s examples about phlogiston and X-rays and shit, and I can extrapolate them to Charles Messier’s late-eighteenth century catalog of stellar objects, or the early controversy over the determination of the Hubble constant, or the 1965 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson.  GET IT?  So don’t mess with my goddamn reading of Kuhn.  Any of you.”

There were a few moments of silence, punctuated only by some nervous clattering of silverware.  Then a conservatively-dressed man in his early fifties got up from a table fifteen or twenty feet away.  “People like you,” he said, trying to stare me down, “read Kuhn backwards by means of Feyerabend’s Against Method, and as a result, you make him out to be some kind of Age of Aquarius irrationalist who thinks that scientists run from paradigm to paradigm for no damn reason.” Then he tossed his napkin across the table.  “And if you want to deny it, I suggest we step outside.”

Fortunately for that guy, the maitre d’ intervened at just that moment, imploring me to “settle this peacefully,” preferably with a footnote to the sixth chapter.  And cooler heads prevailed.

So here’s the goddamn footnote already.

********

the many misreadings of Kuhn among humanists: partly because humanists’ work does not proceed under the same protocols of “verifiability” as those of the natural sciences, our interpretations of Kuhn have been somewhat looser than they should be.  It is commonly charged that humanists embraced Kuhn so enthusiastically because he seemed to have undermined the authority and the objectivity of the sciences, and the charge may have some merit; but I believe humanists, as well as social scientists, were attracted primarily to the idea of paradigm shifts as a way of explaining epistemic change (for it is a very good explanatory scheme) and less concerned with what Kuhn calls “normal science,” which, after all, is where all the important paradigm-building and -challenging work gets done.  So, for example, humanists tend to overlook the specificity of Kuhn’s examples with regard to the discovery of oxygen or X-rays, not least because we have no direct analogy for Roentgen’s realization that, in the course of his experiments with cathode rays, something was causing a barium platinocyanide-coated screen to heat up across the room. 

Because of his emphasis on the importance of “normal science” and the protocols under which it operates, Kuhn is not a relativist; on the contrary, he argues that there is such a thing as scientific “progress,” though he insists that it can only be gauged retrospectively, for it is not proceeding toward any preordained goal.  For Kuhn, science is therefore evolutionary in precisely the same sense that evolution itself was evolutionary for Darwin: in an anti-teleological sense. 

The developmental process described in this essay has been a process of evolution from primitive beginnings—a process whose successive stages are characterized by an increasingly detailed and refined understanding of nature.  But nothing that has been or will be said makes it a process of evolution toward anything.  Inevitably that lacuna will have disturbed many readers.  We are all deeply accustomed to seeing science as the one enterprise that draws constantly nearer to some goal set by nature in advance. . . .

For many men the abolition of that teleological kind of evolution was the most significant and least palatable of Darwin’s suggestions. The Origin of Species recognized no goal set either by God or nature.  Instead, natural selection, operating in the given environment and with the actual organisms presently at hand, was responsible for the gradual but steady emergence of more elaborate, further articulated, and vastly more specialized organisms.  Even such marvelously adapted organs as the eye and hand of man—organs whose design had previously provided powerful arguments for the existence of a supreme artificer and an advance plan—were products of a process that moved steadily from primitive beginnings but toward no goal.

T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d. ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970): 170-72.  This passage aligns Kuhn quite clearly with philosophers like Rorty, who similarly see human deliberations about things like “justice” in an antiteleological way: though Rorty prefers trial by jury to trial by ordeal, he believes it is fruitless to conceive of this progress in human affairs as proceeding toward some antecedent goal.  As we will see later in the chapter, this stance puts Rorty at odds with philosophical foundationalists for whom the idea of an antecedent goal provides a benchmark, a “ground,” for notions of human progress.

In a recent complaint about humanists’ appropriation of Kuhn’s work, Thomas Nagel writes:  “Much of what Kuhn says about great theoretical shifts, and the inertial role of long-established scientific paradigms and their cultural entrenchment in resisting recalcitrant evidence until it becomes overwhelming, is entirely reasonable, but it is also entirely compatible with the conception of science as seeking, and sometimes finding, objective truth about the world” (547).  Nagel, “The Sleep of Reason,” rpt. in Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, ed. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral (New York: Columbia U P, 2005): 541-52.  I agree with this if, and only if, “objective” is understood as “mind-independent,” and (as I will explain in more detail in the course of this chapter) I decline to believe that this standard of “objectivity,” as it pertains to objects like quarks and quasars, can be usefully applied to mind-dependent matters such as justice or anxiety.  See, e.g., my entry on “Objectivity” in New Keywords, ed. Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris (London: Blackwell, 2005): 244-46.  Finally, like Kuhn, I see no need to tie this idea of mind-independent objectivity to a teleological idea of human or scientific progress.

********

Well, now.  I trust that solves everything. 

I hope some of you are wondering how in the world I get from the world of David Horowitz, George Will, and Sean Hannity to the world of Kuhn and Nagel and then back again, defending liberalism all the way.  Because the best way for y’all to find out is to buy the book when it appears.

But first, I have to go finish it.  And so back to work.

Posted by on 10/20 at 08:43 PM
  1. I love you.  Please marry me.

    Yeah, I am too.  So what?  (That’ll show Rick Santorum.) He’s a rocket scientist.  I need a humanist for balance.

    MKK

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  10:52 PM
  2. I think that your book would benefit greatly if the footnotes would “pop up” (with accompanying illustrations of you in the restaurant brandishing a broken bottle and such) when the page is turned.

    Really, I think the Pop Up Book is underrated as an example of the future of modern academic theory literature. If you think about it, it really does open new doors to the communicative process.

    Why hide them away in small type at the foot of a page (or worse) in the back of the book. It really doesn’t help anyone understand anything any better to do it that way.

    Happy Pop-Up-Noting!

    Love,

    Hanna

    Posted by Hanna  on  10/20  at  11:02 PM
  3. Mary Kay, Rick Santorum is toast.  We need no longer gauge our moral universe by reference to his.  You know what I’m sayin’?  It’s like a guy whose name I can’t be bothered to look up once said— Little Ricky is toast, and everything is permitted.

    Hanna, I will pass on your suggestion to my editor, because I love it so much.  In fact, I think publication of the book should be made contingent on the provision of pop-up footnotes.

    Though I think I should be brandishing a bottle of pinot noir in the final version.  Pinot noir is more “street,” you know.

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  11:22 PM
  4. You had me at “dispense of David Horowitz” and “chapter on my postmodernism seminar.” Please tell me you include the “keep your hands off my bong politics” line from that *other* article. 

    When does this come out?

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  12:46 AM
  5. "a process that moved steadily from primitive beginnings but toward no goal.” But I would say “is moving"…
    This is why I pray “from” God rather than “to” God. Besides you can’t pray “to” something that you are a part of, i.e. God is the spirit-ground of the entire universe. Glad to have that settled. Huh? blank stare

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  02:42 AM
  6. Michael, don’t you know that Pinot Noir lost all its Street Cred when it gained mass popularity with the movie, “Sideways”?  May I suggest brandishing bold Super Tuscan instead? That says to the world, “You want a piece of me, punk?”

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  05:59 AM
  7. Love the picture of the Hansons up top!  A hillarous movie!

    Pop-up books - sounds like a blog with links! Great idea, Hanna.

    Posted by c  on  10/21  at  08:39 AM
  8. Hanna--nothing like making footnotes “come to life”, it will make it more difficult for the Horowitzs of the world to ignore them.

    Michael--this is a very nice summary about Kuhn. He’s really about evidence and acceptance of “normal science”. He’s no post-modernist and, if he ever read Rorty, probably him too woolly (as I do). He’s not too far from Dewey (who dabbled in experimental psychophysics, as well as naturalistic observation and experimentation) and, in many ways, is party of the Popperian paradigm (I think I had to write about all of this in my philosophy of science course). Dewey was an oddity in that he actually did research (although not very much of it, he was more an advocate than a doer) as well as epistomology, plus he was a pedagogue, an early psychologist, and an outspoken Lefty reformer.

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  08:58 AM
  9. I’ve been meaning to misread Kuhn for ages, but never seem to find the time.

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  09:18 AM
  10. How can I reconcile these two statements:
    “The developmental process described in this essay has been a process of evolution from primitive beginnings—a process whose successive stages are characterized by an increasingly detailed and refined understanding of nature.”
    And:
    “But nothing that has been or will be said makes it a process of evolution toward anything.”
    If it has been getting increasingly detailed and refined (better), it has been working towards maximum detail and refinement (best).  Unless you want to maintain that there is not currently a best paradigm, or, to extrapolate, there will not be a best paradigm (positions with nothing to support them) Kuhn appears to be choosing his words very carefully to dress up a rather pedestrian conclusion.  Is there a better way to explain this?
    Bonus points for explanations avoiding analogies to biological evolution and the word teleological.

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  10:36 AM
  11. ” If it has been getting increasingly detailed and refined (better),”

    It is a bit of a jump to claim that “increasingly detailed and refined” is “better”.

    If you need to get accuracy to the millimeter with GPS satellites, you better use general relativity.  In that instance, increasingly refined and detailed is better.  If you want to make sure your elevator cables don’t snap, use Newton, not Einstein.  In the latter case, the complexity makes things worse because you are more likely to make a mistake.  Newton’s less accurate simplification of gravity is “better”.

    Consider this:  If General relativity had existed before Newtonian mechanics, some bright young student could make a name for himself by discovering some very nifty simplifications that made calculations much easier for mundane velocities. The simplifications would be considered progress.

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  11:34 AM
  12. That seems to be an argument that there is no progress in science.  More specifically, what might be progress under one definition of “better” (refinement) might not be under another (simplicity).  Setting aside the issue that Newtonian techniques are not abandoned or forgotten with the adoption of GR (and thus your simplifications are still valid within a subset of the new paradigm) if you use science’s definition of progress it clearly has occurred.
    My point (and this disagreement seems to illustrate it) was that while Kuhn may have been simply pointing out that scientific progress is halting, his language (at least what I quoted) was chosen in a way that encourages people to slide smoothly from that fact to the idea that progress is a social construct.

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  01:17 PM
  13. If the above footnote is representative, you may need to add some sort of hydraudric device to your book to allow smooth pop-up action.
    While some may object that this would add cost and additional weight to the product, such requirements are an excellent way to find out if your publisher really loves you.

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  02:25 PM
  14. The inclusiong of this part:

    “For many men the abolition of that teleological kind of evolution was the most significant and least palatable of Darwin’s suggestions. The Origin of Species recognized no goal set either by God or nature.  Instead, natural selection, operating in the given environment and with the actual organisms presently at hand, was responsible for the gradual but steady emergence of more elaborate, further articulated, and vastly more specialized organisms.  Even such marvelously adapted organs as the eye and hand of man—organs whose design had previously provided powerful arguments for the existence of a supreme artificer and an advance plan—were products of a process that moved steadily from primitive beginnings but toward no goal.”

    Is the literary equivalent of waving around the broken bottle, I guess?  grin

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  03:17 PM
  15. Emma Anne, if Terrible Tom Kuhn were with us today I like to think he’d be waving that bottle at Michael Behe right now in the streets of Dover, PA.

    Of course, for his part, Behe prefers knives and chains.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/21  at  03:40 PM
  16. Apparently Michael decided that this would be the week to lure me into the open.  With effort I resisted the post on objectivity, but a fight over Kuhn is pure catnip.

    upper class twit, I think Michael addressed your comments with the following:

    “Because of his emphasis on the importance of ‘normal science’ and the protocols under which it operates, Kuhn is not a relativist; on the contrary, he argues that there is such a thing as scientific ‘progress,’ though he insists that it can only be gauged retrospectively, for it is not proceeding toward any preordained goal.”

    Kuhn argues that the current paradigm inevitably views the previous paradigm as a subset of itself (as you note with respect to Newtonian physics and GR).  From that perspective, the current paradigm is by definition the most complex and is the result of “progress.” But in envisioning the previous paradigm as a subset of the current one, scientists disregard whatever does not appear to have led to the current paradigm; this disregard entails a loss of complexity.  Kuhn’s project is to examine what has been discarded from a previous paradigm and to reconstruct it as it was understood at the time - which is different and more complex than how it is now imagined, and which did not lead in a predictable fashion to the current paradigm.

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  05:29 PM
  17. Hey, d’ja miss me? Howdy Michael! It’s been a
    while since I’ve posted, but, as Count Dracula
    says… “rest is good for da blog.”

    Heh, Michael is the only person I know who gets
    stud muffin points for his footnotes.

    Maybe you just need a gruffer editor, scilicet:

    1.jpg

    Posted by david ross mcirvine  on  10/21  at  10:54 PM
  18. Mmmmm...footnotes.1

    When I think of footnotes, it makes me sing:

    “I love footnotes in the springtime
    I love footnotes in the fall
    I love footnotes on the bottom
    Or the top
    I’m bi-footnotable after all..."2

    1 Apologies to Homer Simpson, or is it Harry Shearer?

    2 Apologies to Cole Porter, “I Love Paris.” Or is it “I Love Freedom,” by Congressmnan Walter B. Jones (R-NC)?

    Posted by Mitchell Freedman  on  10/22  at  12:36 AM
  19. You lost me until you joined Kuhn with Nagel.  Now that’s something that sounded familiar as I have had to deal with Kuhn and Nagel, Freight Forwarders, for many years, to my utter dismay.

    Posted by  on  10/22  at  06:21 AM
  20. The restaurant scene needs to be made into a short film, preferably animated in the Waking Life style (co-opted now by the Schwab advertising department).  Then i could get the full impact of Michael channelling “Hunter S. Thompson!” Raging raving rants fueled by wine and whatever else has been consumed to survive NYC. 

    It would of course be awfully nice, as well as representative of technological progress, if this book were to appear online.  Then the footnotes could be linked in so many wondrous ways w/ little videos and audio files that carry the messages in multiple formulations, much like Ayers’ Valley of the Shadow Civil War project--
    http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/usingvalley/valleyguide.html

    then you could have all those nifty popup windows w/ campy pop songs and sweeping campus panoramas.

    Posted by  on  10/22  at  04:32 PM
  21. Speaking of footnotes, all Kuhn is a footnote to Kant.

    Posted by  on  10/22  at  06:57 PM
  22. Michael, the wine has to be white, because it absolutely must be yanked from the ice bucket to your right.  The whole scene is brilliant but that is *the* *most* brilliant part, it yanks the reader from her chair at home to a seat in the restaurant (next to the ice bucket)...lovely!!

    Also, you are one of the only people in the world who writes for the best of us - meaning the best in us - who I can stand.  I usually prefer writers writing for the rest of us (e.g. Shakespeare).  A footnote containing:

    “So, for example, humanists tend to overlook the specificity of Kuhn’s examples with regard to the discovery of oxygen or X-rays, not least because we have no direct analogy for Roentgen’s realization that, in the course of his experiments with cathode rays, something was causing a barium platinocyanide-coated screen to heat up across the room.”

    in lesser hands would make me close the tab right away (or flatten the pop-up), but instead, I love it and can feel my mind sharpening itself up on it.  Fabulous!

    Posted by  on  10/22  at  08:21 PM
  23. I was completely lost in the discussion of Kuhn, but I do have one little nit to pick.  If the notes are “just in a tinier font at the back of the book” wouldn’t that be endnotin’ rather than footnotin’? 

    In any case, keep up the notin’ and the bloggin’!!  I love to read your o-pine-in’… wink

    All the best

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  12:29 AM
  24. I wonder if you haven’t invented the genre you said didn’t exist? ( re: “Teaching Post Modern Fiction Without being Sure the Genre Exists”): here you have the dramatic/comic, multi-media foot-note; the cinematographic, rizomatic footnote, with pop-ups, links, hyper-links. Who would have imagined the poor misbegotten footnote as a literary genre?! If this isn’t post-modern what is??! Deleuze must be screaching: “Why didn’t I come up with this???!!!” in his grave.

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  08:35 AM
  25. Sigh.... Once again a big-name academic appears to have taken on Horowitz without citing the definitive text, which just happens to be my very own “Right-wing colleges reject ‘God is an abortionist’ ads,” even though it’s still available here:

    http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2001/04/27/censorship/index.html

    BTW, if we can trust the Holy Word, God really IS an abortionist.

    Posted by David Mazel  on  10/23  at  01:29 PM
  26. What hast thou wrought??? Over at Cosmic Variance they picked up this thread and are encouraging science types to comment.  Goodness scracious saints almight…

    http://cosmicvariance.com/2005/10/22/i-just-like-saying-phlogiston/

    Posted by  on  10/23  at  06:31 PM
  27. What hath I wrought?  Spyder, it looks like I wrought a genre I said didn’t exist!  Ana, this here footnote is gettin’ more rhizomatic by the minute.

    Though I have to say I never really got why Deleuze and Guattari had it out for arborescence.  Me, I kinda like trees and think some of them are quite beautiful.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/23  at  08:39 PM
  28. Maybe this belongs under the objectivity post but have you seen this?

    Posted by  on  10/24  at  07:04 PM
  29. Thanks, Tom!  I went and read the whole thing, as they say in the blogosphere.  I think I’m with the “what, Fashionable Nonsense again?” crowd.  And, as usual, sympathetic to some aspects of pomo and exasperated with others.  But when I got to DeRose’s approving citation of Brian Leiter’s one-sentence dismissal of someone’s abstract, I began to think:  you know, sometimes, professional philosophers can sound awfully harrumphy when they come across people who study literature.  “See here!” they say.  “An entire department of people who read about things that never happened!  Look at the kind of writing they tolerate!  Why, some of it doesn’t even rhyme!  What poppycock!  What absolute rubbish!” DeRose’s post is more thoughtful than that, of course (and fwiw, I’ve taken apart Fish’s post-Sokal op-ed as well), but honestly, I don’t know what to say about Leiter’s or DeRose’s reading of that abstract.  Perhaps they didn’t catch the allusion to Emily Dickinson in the first line?  Ah, but Dickinson was one of those oddballs whose writing sometimes doesn’t seem to make any damn sense at all. . . .

    Posted by Michael  on  10/25  at  08:52 AM
  30. professional philosophers can sound awfully harrumphy when they come across people who study literature.  “See here!” they say.  “An entire department of people who read about things that never happened!  Look at the kind of writing they tolerate! 

    Isn’t there at least some issue here? The literature faction immediately assumes the “suspicion of disbelief” is warranted if not necessary. I dimly recall a quote of Russell’s regarding Hamlet: “the propositions in the play are false because there was no such man.” This may be a too extreme type of reductionism, but there is something to be said for inquiring into what a fictional narrative or dramatical events actually refers to.  I am sure some lit. snobs realize this, but if literature is not comprised of “true” statements in the way that history or economics is, what is it? Obviously, in regards to content, one could bring up archetypes (or historical events) which literature supposedly makes use of --the question being then whether any such archetypes hold, or whether the history is “correct”; but I suspect that humans are able to enjoy say Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar regardless of its doubtful historical accuracy; does Russell then say Julius Caesar is superior to Hamlet because such a person did exist? Julius Caesar’s good or acceptable only in so far as it can be said to refer to actual or assumed to be--probable--events....

    So perhaps there is no text in the class, at least in the literature class; there may be some syntactical music or patterns.

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/25  at  01:30 PM
  31. Not to be pedantic or anything, but if they’re at the end of the book, aren’t they “endnotes,” not “footnotes”?  Footnotes are at the bottom of a page.

    Posted by Bourgeois Nerd  on  10/25  at  06:19 PM
  32. No, you’re quite right, Mr. Nerd.  But I thought I would refer to them as footnotes anyway, because footnotin’ is a widely-used and widely-respected term in the cowboy bars where I hang out, whereas “endnotin’” is considered kinda pretentious.

    And Mister Toad, I meant only that some philosophers express amazement at the kinds of language we literary folk “tolerate,” as if many of the avant-garde writers of the past 150 years aren’t far weirder than most of your garden-variety incomprehensible literary theorists.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/25  at  06:36 PM
  33. Thanks for response, but I remain convinced that Russell makes a valid point. What is Ulyysees really in comparison to a decent history of WWI batttles? If you are in the Lit. Biz you have an answer; if you are not, an asnwer woud be hard to provide. Should Ulyysees, however marvelous in scope and design and erudition, replace a History of WWI?  It is my contention that much literature has this sort of beguiling if not intoxicating force: students generally are much more acquainted with say Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing or any number of Brit. or American novels than they are with, say, Verdun or the Great Depression or Operation Barbarossa, ‘Nam etc.  Biff and Bunny at Pleasanton College take American Lit. 200 and Modern History 200 ; in one class they’re reading The Sun Also Rises, and the other, a collection of writings on Verdun, The Somme, etc. I assert Biff and Bunny both are generally far more entranced with The Sun Also Rises than with reports of Verdun: and, since I’ve been skimming the Readers Digest Abridged Guide to Postmodernism, we might say that is because they cannot face the Real: the thanatopsis which existed nearly worldwide (except here in Norman Rockwell land) from like 1914 to...when...1972 or so?

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/25  at  07:58 PM
  34. Apologies. That is “Ulysses,” as I note from my “Ulysses for Dummies” with Animated gifs representing each chapter of Ulysses.

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/25  at  08:05 PM
  35. from Cosmic Variance this afternoon:

    Objectivity
    Sean at 6:22 pm, October 26th, 2005

    K.C. Cole, moving force behind the Categorically Not! meetings that Clifford has blogged about, has left an interesting comment on Clifford’s post from September on Point of View. It’s provocative (and I largely agree with it), so I thought I would reproduce it here on the front page.

    Now that it’s time for our October Categorically Not!, I finally have a moment to respond to objections some people raised about my September blurb on the subject of Objectivity, or Point of View.

    As a journalist who writes about science, I thought my colleagues could learn a thing or two about the nature of “objective truth” from physics. Objectivity is a word that journalists use a lot—but in my experience, scientists don’t, because it’s not a very useful term. Journalists believe that it’s possible (and desirable) to have zero point of view—that is, to look at the world from some privileged frame through which they see the unvarnished “truth.” What makes science strong, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t fall into that trap. What scientists say is: I made this measurement, and I got this result. Or, I solved an equation, and I got this solution. To say you have a “result” or “solution” without saying how you got it is meaningless. Even when I say the sky is blue, it’s understood that I am a human being whose retina is detecting certain wavelengths of light which are then being interpreted by my human brain in very specific ways. The sky is not “blue” to a snake or a dog or a bee (or if I look through a red filter).

    Similarly, if I say the universe was created in a Big Bang (never mind the details) 13 billion or so years ago, there’s no reason anyone should believe me unless I point out that this particular “objective reality” is based on evidence from several very different points of view (cosmic microwave background, expansion, nucleosynthesis….). Journalists often fail to explain this—which is one reason I believe the whole ID issue has been so badly handled in the press. It’s not enough to say “most scientists think evolution is correct….” That leaves the reader in the position of choosing who to believe—the NAS, or the president, for example. It’s not so difficult, I think, to explain that evolution is an answer to specific questions about the fossil record, morphology, DNA, embryology, etc. But it’s rarely done.

    What really seemed to get people’s goat (goats?) was my statement that how you look at something determines what you see. I fail to understand the problem. If I look at light with a certain kind of apparatus, it’s a wave; if I look with another, it’s a particle. Reality is always reality, but how we choose to ask the question does determine the answer. So the only way to get an “objective” answer to is say how you asked the question! (And if I’m viewing the world through the eyes of an educated middle aged white woman living in LA–which I am–then I’d better take that into account as well.)

    An astronomer friend told me he was upset because my wording played into the hands of the “relativists” (not that kind); that it was understood as “code” to mean “there’s no reality,” or some such. But I’m really tired of other people telling me what my words mean—whether the subject is objectivity, “family values,” “culture of life,” “liberal,” “feminist,” or any of the rest.

    So, yes. Objectivity—meaning looking at a situation from a supposedly privileged frame from which you can see the unbiased “truth” —is, as I said, “not only unattainable, but intrinsically fraudulent and ultimately counterproductive.” Science understands this; it’s journalism that has the problem.

    Posted by  on  10/26  at  10:17 PM
  36. An immodest proposal, Miss Spyder: try out your “objectivty is just a matter of perspective” hypothesis (not so far from Hume really), by the following procedure. Obtain a few chunks of pure potassium (may take a bit of legwork, but as a top-notch investigative reporter you shouldn’t have any problems). Now grab a bottle of Evian from the ‘fridge and pour into a bowl. Now the careful part--if you really believe that there are no objective natural laws, drop a few nuggest of K into the bowl of Evian. If your hypothesis is correct, you should be fine; if not (and my hunch is that your hunch is wrong) you probably won’t be doing much further writing and may be in need of a new ‘do.

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/27  at  12:16 AM
  37. But I erred, at least slightly. I should say, repeat procedure until you find contradictory results. Then I shall believe you (and Hume).

    Posted by MT  on  10/27  at  12:27 AM
  38. as a top-notch investigative reporter

    Toad, spyder isn’t a reporter.  He was simply quoting a post from the physics blog Cosmic Variance (http://cosmicvariance.com/2005/10/26/objectivity/), in which Sean Carroll cites K. C. Cole.  So if you’re going to spend so many of your waking hours obsessively reading this blog, peppering every post with various snide comments from your 40,000 proxies, do take a few extra seconds and read more carefully.

    Posted by  on  10/27  at  08:35 AM
  39. Whatever. That’s not accurate, since I’ve posted about 3 -4 things in last few days while working at my comptuer. (Or is a certain cynical disdain towards the literary biz not permitted?)

    Spyder was quoting a reporter, yes. That doesn’t negate my point about the objectivity of chemical reactions: put K into H20 you will get a big purple flame. That’s an objective fact. Fossils are an objective fact. So is the current powering your computer. THere may be theories based on the facts, and the theories may be modified occasionally--there are “theories” of evolution but chemistry discussion--the exact process of what happens when K meets with H20 is not really a “theory” but a description.

    The nomenclature and notation could be defined differently, but obviously that doesn’t change the objectivity of the actual event. The fact that K and H20 will cause an explosion is not subject to debate: that is how the great proportion of the empirical facts underlying physical science operate: determinately and objectively, special and general relativity included. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle does operate at subatomic levels, but is nearly always negligible.

    Posted by MIster Toad  on  10/27  at  12:43 PM
  40. Kuhn provides a useful way to examine the history of science.  For this you can read the Structure of Scientific Revolutions itself, or you can get the same insights, along with a fun story about planets and stuff, by reading The Compernican Revolution.

    For a discussion of the broader implications of Kuhn, the must-read article is “The Revolution That Didn’t Happen” by Steven Weinberg in the New York Review of Books, October 8, 1998. 

    Michael agrees with Nagel that what Kuhn says about paradigm shifts is compatible with the idea that science approaches objective truth.  Weinberg points out that even though Kuhn didn’t like Feyerabend’s reading of his work, it is a natural reading of Kuhn’s own words.  That is, that Kuhn himself rules out the idea of science approaching objective truth, as when he says in Structure, “We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion explicit or implicit that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.” Weinberg disagrees with both Feyerabend and Kuhn, and he represents the scientific point of view with great comprehension and clarity.

    The discussion in the next issue was also excellent.  Even though Alex Levine babbles a bit about “irrationality” and accuses Weinberg (for no apparent reason) of believing in the inevitabiliity of the success of science, Weinberg manages to use the conversation to make his already excellent argument even more piercingly clear.

    Posted by Mark Gilbert  on  10/28  at  12:09 AM

Name:

Email:

Location:

URL:

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Submit the word you see below:


Next entry: A stupid proposal

Previous entry: Objectivity

<< Back to main