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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bringing it to a Boyle: Virtual Witnesses to Matters of Fact

Shapin, S. (2010). "Pump and circumstance: Robert Boyle's literary technology." Never Pure: Historical studies of science as if it was produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 89-116.

Recently, I have been thinking about social construction of knowledge.  Shapin's discourse on Boyle underscores this reality.  Before "scientists" came "experimental philosophers" who took on the task of what we take for granted today: creating ethos for "matters of fact."  These matters of fact are the measurements and data that we modern scientists collect as evidence.

Whereas we report our findings as concisely as possible (and in some cases stash a brief methodology at the end), Boyle had to write in great detail to create "virtual witnesses."  His manuscripts were conducted to create the effect that the reader had been there and seen what happened at each step of the way, including mistakes and failures.

Thus, these matters of fact were not dependent on Boyle's word alone, reported through the text, but by consensus of the public community who could, in essence, observe the proceedings vicariously.

Considering Hoffmann's arguments, it is perhaps to a Boyle-style article that he wishes to return.  This would certainly make for a more open scientific community, as Shapiro notes that the modern scientific community is a subculture in which one can participate only after they have mastered the specialized language and form of communication practiced by scientists.

Despite the evolution of the modern article however, there are some Boyle-style elements that have been retained.  Boyle was extremely careful to separate matters of fact and conjecture/theory both through language and layout.  This continues today with the separation of the results (matters of fact) and the discussion (theory/explanation); however, I believe that the onus now lies more on the reader to separate the ideas, as the language we use has become more confident and direct.

The peer-review system is reminiscent of the credible witnesses that actually observed the conduction of the experiment.  We have moved away from the original intent of the budding "scientific community" however, in that our version of "public space" has been reduced to those that practice science and can afford access to scientific journals.  Much of the science that the broader public receives is passed through the oracles of media.

I will leave off with what I think is an interesting juxtaposition of two quotes from Shapin.  The first is on Boyle's principles of offering detailed circumstantial accounts, and the second is quoted from Ludwik Fleck.

"It was also necessary, in Boyle's view, to offer readers circumstantial accounts of failed experiments.  This performed two functions: first is allayed anxieties in those neophyte experimentalists whose expectations of success were not immediately fulfilled...." (p.100)

"Ludwick Fleck noted.... 'The optimum system of a science, the ultimate organization of its principles, is completely incomprehensible to the novice'" (p.115)

Has science gone wrong in the method of reporting its practices?  In Boyle's time, experimental philosophers were largely self-funded and publication, while affecting reputation, perhaps did not affect employment.  Has the switch to external funding and page charges in journals led to the conversion to brief reports of  success alone?


  1. Carrie, thanks for another interesting post. Do you think Hoffmann was more concerned with the creative aspect of scientific investigation, as a human endeavor rather than a robotic method? And that Boyle's concern, as portrayed by Shapin, was with credibility? If so, these are two distinct concerns, but you are right to point out that they overlap. Although they overlap, might they sometimes nevertheless work against each other? That is, might the objective of making an article more credible lead to the diminishing of the human and creative aspects of scientific work?
    Peace, Kerry

    1. Kerry,

      You point out a very important distinction. Indeed, Hoffmann advocated revealing the creative process of science, while Boyle was concerned with demonstrating truth and reliability in experimental results.

      I agree that these two purposes of descriptive writing can be at odds. I would in fact argue that the fear of losing credibility is why many scientific articles are so succinct and devoid of "anecdote." When stripping dead ends, false starts, and failures from the scientific paper, the trail of creativity and human ingenuity is also stripped.

      In other areas, I am also learning about the philosophies upon which science has been built. It seems that in the quest for objectivism, removing the fallibility of human senses often removes the human quality inherent in research.

      Jerome Bruner actually cites science as appearing inhuman and uncaring, thus becoming off-putting to students. He remarks, "Indeed, the image of science as a human and cultural undertaking might itself be improved if it were also conceived as a history of human beings overcoming received ideas... We may have erred in divorcing science from the narrative of culture." (The Culture of Education, p. 42)

      I look forward to reconsidering Bruner's comments in light of Brush's article on the history of science.