Friday, September 09, 2005

Irreproducibility, undecidability....shades of Derrida?

This is an extraordinary book. I’m glad I read in the introduction that Thomas Kuhn was familiar with it; otherwise, I’d have been wondering as I read how Fleck and Kuhn both managed to produce such similar works.

One reason this work is so remarkable to me is that it is written from within the science “thought collective.” “Hard” science has always seemed to me to be solid, fixed, constructed of facts. I’ve been guilty of what Fleck describes as “exhibit(ing) an excessive respect, bordering on pious reverence, for scientific facts.” So when I read Fleck describing the science thought collective as a two–tier social structure (esoteric and exoteric) depending on popular support, it makes me stop and realize I’ve made some faulty assumptions. The idea that the science elite need popular support of their ideas for them to become accepted as “truth” completely turns around how I assumed that worked. I thought scientists discovered facts through research and shared them with the masses.

I also liked Fleck’s characterization of the discovery of the Wassermann reaction as accidental. This debunks, or at least calls into question, the whole scientific method, i.e., that one formulates a hypothesis, conducts and experiment, thereby confirming or rejecting the hypothesis. But Fleck says Wassermann failed to find support for his hypotheses and just kind of stumbled onto the discovery, not really knowing what he had found until much later.

Speaking of debunking, I was reminded of Derrida when Fleck talked about questions which must remain “undecided” and when he described the early experiments as being irreproducible. That is just such a powerful tool, the introduction of uncertainty, and reminds me how important it is in research to be able to reproduce experiments.

I had another thought while reading Fleck’s account of the research leading to the Wassermann reaction becoming scientific fact. It sounded like (p. 77-78) a usable justification for NASA today. NASA seems to me to be a colossal waste of public resources for very little gain. But according to Fleck’s description, the milieu established around the idea, the concentration of thinking on this one idea, set the stage for who knows what “discoveries.” Although I’ve not heard this argument made for NASA, it seems like it could be with the support of Fleck.

One last idea I’d like to remark on is Fleck’s analogy comparing how a “true” finding can arise out of errors to how all rivers happen to reach the sea. Fleck says that by naming the lowest spot of elevation the sea, gravity ensures that all rivers run to the sea. Likewise, by the larger community agreeing after the fact on what is “truth,” whatever meandering path led us there seems pre-ordained!

Fleck is a clever writer. His description of the Wassermann reaction to syphilis is technical enough to persuade me of his scientific knowledge so I become much more susceptible to his sociological arguments.

“Only through organized cooperative research, supported by popular knowledge and continuing over several generations, might a unified picture emerge, for the development of the disease phenomena requires decades.”

“Whatever is known has always seemed systematic, proven, applicable, and evident to the knower.”


Blogger Anthony M. said...

Now that you mention him, I am most reminded of Derrida by the ideas like what is expressed here: "Discovery is thus inextricably interwoven with what is known as error. To recognize a certain relation, many another relation must be misunderstood, denied, or overlooked." If I understand it correctly (and it's very likely I don't), a certain kind of Derridean/deconstructive approach involves showing an experience (of an action, an entity, or a concept) to be so closely related to its what is supposed to be its opposite that one cannot occur without the other, that the two are, in fact, not separate or separable. So, in this case, Fleck deconstructs (maybe not in a strict sense) scientific discovery (or successful science), showing that it is is founded on and grows out of error (or mistaken/failed science), that these two events have a positive relationship to one another.

1:17 AM  

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