Monday 24 November 2014

Science and Social Ontology at the Russian Academy of Sciences

I recently attended a wonderful conference on “The Social Philosophy of Science” at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Although this was entitled “Russian Perspectives”, there were contributions from a number of major players from the US and UK, including Steve Fuller, Rom Harré (who unfortunately couldn’t present his paper), Inanna Hatayi-Ataya and Sergio Sismondo. It was indeed fascinating to compare the Russian contribution to this field which was always more deeply committed to a social philosophy of science because of its Marxist foundation.

The conference opened with a Keynote from Steve Fuller about transformations in the relationship between the public and scientific knowledge in the light of the web. Fuller was announcing a revolution in the status of scientists, saying that now as the population could access knowledge and make their own minds up about things themselves, the authoritarian status of scientist's knowledge was in doubt. Using examples including the L’Aquila earthquake, he pointed out the difficulties that scientists have in communicating their science, and how the public will form its own opinion of science. My thoughts about this were that Fuller’s use of the term science and scientist needs further inspection. Often, I felt that Fuller was really referring to science teachers, not scientists. Science teachers are not generally scientists; they do not engage in inquiry; they are not producing new theories; they are, on the whole, teaching. However, science teachers often believe themselves to be scientists. However, they do not believe that the teaching activities they engage in – the dominant activity – is actually a science worthy of their attention also. The problem is that ‘authority’ tends to sit in the domain of the science teacher (indeed, they can often be authoritarian), and not the scientist. Authority is an aspect of positioning between individuals (Harré’s Positioning Theory is very valuable here): when one person establishes themselves as knowing the ‘truth’, there is a parallel process of denying the claim to legitimate viewpoints by others: “I am the science teacher and you don’t know anything yet!”. Real scientists, immersed in the cloudy confusion of the laboratory, tend not to be quite so keen of authority. Their work would see all participation as a question. So what idea of science is Fuller pursuing here? Is it the idea of science pertaining to the pursuer of knowledge, or the idea of science pertaining to the science teacher?

There were some parallels with Sergio Sismondo’s talk about ontology in Science and Technology studies. Pointing out the tension inherent in the ‘ontological turn’ in social science between the kind of Nietzschian perspectivism which denies any kind of objective truth, and the dogmatic and authoritarian viewpoint about things that are said to exist, Sismondo argued for a view of multiple ontologies as different ways in which understandings of reality (ontological perspectives) are enacted on objects and social structures. Arguing fundamentally that what we end up with is a form of constructivism, his examples pointed out the different ontological stances of people considered to be Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). These people are basically gurus within professional fields who command high salaries for being experts and attend different conferences and stay close to a corporate script in promoting a scientific view in keeping with the corporate objects of their sponsors. Each enacts their understanding of reality in different ways according to the social situation they find themselves in.

The central issue here concerns truth. The problem is whether situations which enact multiple perspectives do not contain within them universal truths. Here, the practices of “the scientist” as a pursuer of truth is important, and I think distinguishable from the science teacher, and indeed from the ‘science guru’ of Sismodo’s KOLs. The KOL may pursue truth in their scientific work, but their engagement by corporations would lead one to wonder about their intellectual integrity: is empirical practice separable from social structures? The guru and the teacher have certain commonalities. The guru may indeed engage in some science, some kind of inquiry; but they will tend to have to place their inquiry in the back-stage to their public performances. The guru is beholden to the corporate world as the teacher is beholden to education. The teacher is bound by responsibilities to their students and to their institution. What distinguishes these people are networks of rights, responsibilities and obligations.

I can see two fundamentally different ways of addressing the issue of truth. There is an argument which articulates by transcendental reasoning that there must be natural necessity, and causal mechanisms in nature, where Humean reasoning about causes as constructs is basically wrong. The implications of this are a materialist and dialectical ontology that sees the purpose of science as the uncovering and discovery of mechanisms which in turn have a bearing on social structures. True work = true mechanisms. Alternatively, there is a view that Hume was right, that there is no natural necessity, that causes are not real, but that truth is real and revealed through the encounter between being and event. This is basically the position of Badiou and those subscribing to the loose school of “speculative realists”. This position also articulates a dialectical process whereby political action is directly connected to logical revelation of truth, and where science and mathematics serves truth by comprehending the natural ordering of the social. Whilst each position’s ontological stance is impossible to prove, both positions end up in the same place: with the political.

I found myself reflecting on this in Inanna Hamati-Ataya talk on the relationship between empirical practice and social structure. Inanna gave a talk about ontology and post-foundationalism in science studies. She argued for a position which situates empiricism in relation to politics and society to which I am sympathetic. However, I raised the question about the importance of not throwing out empiricism. She replied that she was after a more pluralistic conception of science and methodology. What interests me about this is for all the ontological belly-aching that goes on in social science (particularly arguing for natural necessity or contingency) the ontological position appears to oscillate around central principles:
  • Whether contingency of necessity of nature is the case or not cannot be established beyond doubt. It is not a matter that can be settled by transcendental argument (as I once thought, having pursued a critical realist path). Coherent transcendental arguments can present both necessity and contingency as possibilities (it is the difference between Bhaskar and Badiou) 
  • However, when we ask “what matters?” the answer always is simple: we have to look after each other. 
Inanna’s conclusion is right; however, I think this conclusion can be reached from a deeper engagement with empirical practice - particularly about what we consider to be empiricism as that practice which entwines expectation and explanation.

Moving on to more practical ground, I was very struck by a fascinating presentation by Maria Bereznyak on the transliteration and translation of scientific terminology between the west and Russia, and between Russia and China. "What about cybernetics?" I thought. Indeed, for the more practically useful aspects of scientific inquiry (and cybernetics is one of those), there are more immediate problems concerning communication amongst scientists than ontological concerns. Indeed, the fact of difficulties in communication between Chinese, Russian and Western scientists is perhaps more real than any of this stuff! What would the Chinese do with cybernetics if they knew the literature?

And finally, having been immersed in all this talk of ontology, I learnt on the way home of the death of Roy Bhaskar. That's perhaps a cause for deeper reflection on the issues of natural necessity, but also about the contribution of a philosopher who has had a bigger impact on my own development than anybody else. 

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