Doctor Science Knows

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Postmodern Science

Slacktivist wrote:
Civility has to do with citizenship, which is to say it has to do with responsibility. To speak as civilized people, as citizens, requires that we be responsible -- to one another and to the truth (and the good, and the beautiful). It requires that we be responsible for our words, that we be willing to stand by them.

This is why I'm impatient with the whole "'I' statements" approach. It has its place, I suppose, in family therapy and the like, but it undermines responsibility. It aims to force us to phrase statements in a way that cannot provoke offense, but it winds up also forcing us to phrase statements in a way that makes their content irrelevant.

. . .

This seems to me to be is a cowardly, irresponsible way to talk. It is, in other words, uncivil.

Let me repeat this with a less significant example. "The Ramones rock!" is a statement, albeit an ambiguously defined one, about the world, about our shared reality. "I enjoy the music of The Ramones," is a statement about me. You can agree or disagree with the former, but not the latter, which is irrefutable but also -- as far as the world and our shared reality goes -- irrelevant.

To be civilized -- to live together -- we need to be able to talk about the world we share. We need to be able to talk about art, politics, religion, economics, science and all the other vital components of our civilization and not just about our own feelings. This conversation doesn't always have to be nice, but it has to be honest and it has to be responsible. That is what "civility" means.

I wrote:

Putting on my scientist and historian of scientist hats:

Science is *all* about I-statements. It is *all* about conversation. There is no conflict between "searching for objective truth" and "comparing personal experiences", because scientists search for objective truth *by* comparing personal experiences. These personal experiences are called "experiments" or "scientific observations". The experiences are limited and controlled, we describe them in exacting (frequently mind-numbing) detail -- the better to compare them to other experiences, while knowing exactly what all parties are talking about.

Every experience is personal. The first step in getting to an objective, impersonal truth is to know the personal: to know where you stand, to know what your lab chemicals are made of, to know what time it is and how fast the wind is blowing. That's why it's so important that scientific results be reproducible: when we do that, we're saying that two people can have the same experience.

a little further on, when an example of temperature-measurement came up, I wrote:

What I'm trying to say is that the statement

The temperature in the room is 22°C

is *also* a description of personal experience. These days, it's the experience of looking at a thermometer that you know has been calibrated, so it's a very restricted, controlled personal experience. Back in 1700, when there was no generally accepted scale for measuring temperature or technology for doing so, scientists had to specify their personal experiences measuring temperature in great detail before a fact like that could be agreed upon.

Ludwig Fleck's Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact is a detailed examination of how a specific "objective scientific fact" (in this case, the Wasserman Reaction for syphilis) has to be developed through communication and consensus -- by comparing personal experiences, in other words.

in response to ako, who said:
Second, prefacing things with "I feel" has a completely different effect than adding specifics.

I said:

Not when we're talking about human emotions. The different kinds of I statements used to talk about thermodynamics ("I observed the thermometer") versus morality ("I feel abortion is murder") versus culture ("I feel The Ramones rock") can be varieties of the same basic approach: working toward objective knowledge by comparing experiences.

The statement "I feel The Ramones rock" is *more specific* than "The Ramones rock", and opens the door to adding yet more specifics: "I feel The Ramones rock because . . .", "I like 'Sheena Is a Punk Rocker' better than 'Rock n Roll High School' because . . ." "Personally, I think Keds are stupid because . . ."

and then added:

Here's another way of phrasing it:

Personal, subjective experience is repeatable. For instance, a lot of people personally feel The Ramones rock. However, there are also people who feel The Ramones suck. The important question for a Ramones-lover isn't "why do some people have wrong feelings about The Ramones?" but, "What is different between us, such that we listen to the music together but have different reactions?" And because we're talking about complex human reactions, we have to start with I-statements.


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