Shem, you don’t understand science! (Helpful hint: just copy and paste that sentence and post it in the comments below.)
I’ve been reading Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. This is a classic of science literature from a sociological perspective. In the 70s, the authors spent two years at the Jonas Salk Institute and observed the everyday workings of the laboratory. From their experiences, they created an anthropological overview of scientific endeavor that makes us see empirical inquiry with new eyes.
For anyone who idealizes science as an ultra-critical, “self-correcting” process which brings us fact-by-fact incrementally closer to Truth, this approach will produce reactions ranging from discomfort to outrage. This flatly contradicts the commonly-held definition of science as a process that discovers facts about reality and asserts that science constructs them. Hindsight distorts this process and gives the false impression that our current mode of understanding phenomena is the right one, and that the entire history of inquiry has led inexorably to a circumstance wherein we’re closer to Truth than humans have ever been. This is mythology that panders to our biases about progress and superiority, nothing more. Furthermore, it sells short the hard work done by researchers to establish facts that we consider self-evident today.
Constructing a Scientific Fact
The centerpiece of the work is the chapter titled “The Construction of a Fact: The Case of TRF(H).” Here the authors make an exhaustive (and some would say exhausting) investigation into the development of our understanding of the hormone TRF(H), produced by the hypothalamus. Using the contemporaneous testimony as well as reminiscences of the experts involved, analysis of the relevant published papers and statistics concerning citation patterns from that literature, and the pronouncements of professional institutions, Latour and Woolgar painstakingly piece together a “literary history” of the fact of TRF(H).
The authors demonstrate the amount of contingent variables involved in the “discovery” of TRF(H), from industry rivalries to international disputes. Up until the 1960s, the existence of this hormone was in the hypothetical stage. This was an era when endocrinology had only recently become established as a specialty, and neuroendocrinology was in its infancy; the way the brain regulated the endocrine system was not fully understood. Even ideology played a part in the saga: research in Prague was suspended due to official opposition to the theory that the hypothalamus regulated the endocrine system via the pituitary.
Researchers competing to clarify the hormone’s regulatory activity weren’t sure whether the substance was a peptide or some other unconfirmed type of factor, or even if the observed effects of the substance were due to another factor such as oxytocin. The trouble with procuring enough hypothalamus matter and sufficiently pure samples to test was a major roadblock in research. Papers published on the subject were only unanimous in the vagueness and equivocation of their conclusions, and researchers all cited one another’s work to try to support a more emphatic stance that never seemed justified by the data. By the end of the 60s, the exorbitant costs of research —as well as suspicion in the industry about its feasibility that motivated a review committee at the NIH to investigate the competence of the practitioners— left only two research groups in the running. The objective itself had also narrowed down, and the goal became determining the molecular structure of the purported peptide; the tension between the physiologists and the chemists had resolved in favor of the chemists. Finally a sample was made volatile enough to be analyzed in a mass spectrometer, and the result was a conclusive description of the amino acid sequence that defined the structure of the hormone. For their efforts, the leaders of the two labs shared the 1977 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Persuasion and Magical ThinkingThe problem, then, isn’t with the facts themselves. It’s with the belief that they exist independent of human endeavor, that they don’t depend on how we define phenomena and act in the world. The authors deliberately approach the lab researchers as members of a foreign tribe whose values and perspective aren’t necessarily our own:
[O]ur observer has begun to make sense of the laboratory in terms of a tribe of readers and writers who spend two-thirds of their time working with large inscription devices. They appear to have developed considerable skills in setting up devices which can pin down elusive figures, traces, or inscriptions in their craftwork, and in the art of persuasion. The latter skill enables them to convince others that what they do is important, what they say is true, and that their proposals are worth funding. They are so skillful, indeed, that they manage to convince others not that they are being convinced but that they are simply following a consistent line of interpretation of available evidence. Others are persuaded that they are not persuaded, that no mediations intercede between what is said and the truth. They are so persuasive, in fact, that within the confines of their laboratory it is possible to forget the material dimensions of the laboratory, the bench work, and the influence of the past, and to focus only on the “facts” which are being pointed out. Not surprisingly, our anthropological observer experienced some dis-ease in handling such a tribe. Whereas other tribes believe in gods or complicated mythologies, the members of this tribe insist that their activity is in no way to be associated with beliefs, a culture, or a mythology. Instead, they claim to be concerned only with “hard facts.”
I think Latour and Woolgar have done something extraordinary here. They’ve humanized the process of scientific inquiry, and demythologized the notion of scientific “facts.” We can no longer look at what we know about natural phenomena except in terms of the work that was involved —and the tools that people used— in creating it.
Sam Harris closed his atheist manifesto with the words, Nothing is as sacred as the facts. But we don’t need to fetishize facts. We need to acknowledge that facts are no more sacred than any other human creation.
What do you think? Are scientific facts sitting out there waiting for us to discover them? Or is our knowledge of the world contingent upon the means we use to create it?