The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Retorts fizz in sociology discussion

The first of our Social Sessions (below) went well. More people signed up than we could accomodate, though in the event every seat was taken and (as far as I know) no one had to be turned away at the door. The Forum's admin staff and the University's service staff had worked hard to turn the main meeting room in the offices into an informal discussion venue, with low lighting, seats and small tables arranged in curving rows and drinks and nibbles strategically placed.

The crowd was more or less the mix I'd hoped we would attract - some social science people, several 'actual scientists' (a phrase which, as I mentioned later, I keep having to stop myself saying when there are social scientists around), and a very creditable showing from Edinburgh SF fandom and the Edinburgh literary scene.

After about half an hour of informal mingling, during which Mike Calder from Transreal set up a book table in the foyer outside, we all took our seats. I introduced the opening speakers and the subject: the portrayal of scientists in SF and science studies. Andrew Wilson drew on his long experience with Writers' Bloc to give a lively reading of relevant snippets from Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau, Gregory Benford's Timescape and Paul McAuley's The Secret of Life. Steve Yearley outlined what science studies tries to do, why in the 1990s some scientists felt that it was an enemy within academia (hence the Science Wars), and why the issues it tackles - such as defining what exactly distinguishes science from non-science - have some importance in the wider world, including law (who counts as an expert witness?) and education. Emma Frow then brought the interaction of science and science studies into focus in her own work with a group of scientists working in the new field of synthetic biology. The view from the other end of the sociologists' microscope was given by Dr Chris French, who'd not just prepared a five-minute talk as requested but in true scientific spirit run a survey among his colleagues on the question.

The discussion that followed was still going strong when I finally had to call a halt about two hours after we'd started, and it continued in a local pub (The Canon's Gait) and in the smoke-huddle around its doorway.

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Glad to hear it was so well attended! It was fun to be hearing about it from multiple angles (I received Dr. French's survey via a mutual friend). Looking forward to hearing more.

I read parts of one really fine Science Studies book. It was called, I think, "The Mind's Eye," and detailed the debates between Ewald Hering and Hermann von Helmholtz on spatial vision and colour vision. I was only interested in the latter material. This book succeeded in describing the actual ideas and tested accounts of the two giants and placing them in a context of the history of 19th century academic life in the German-Speaking world. Although it worked, the history wasn't my cup of tea. I wasn't interested in how many students X had as compared to Y( for example), and what this meant for university organisation. This is important though, and the book showed me that not all Science Studies was "mere" science-bashing.

More, Ilorien? Well, there's not much more to say about the event that isn't sort of covered by the statute of limitations or the laws of libel. It would be a bit unfair to mention how a Marxist friend of mine stood up to deplore on-the-one-hand New Age woo, animal lib, deep greenery and on-the-other-hand Dawkins, scientism, etc, and proclaim the need to get beyond that, and my heroic restraint (actually, red-wine-mellowed tolerance) in not saying that the need to struggle against both vitalism and mechanism was a tune some of us had heard before and furthermore was not entirely on topic. It would be likewise a bit unkind to say anything about the episode outside the pub afterwards when I was rescued by Andrew Wilson and Stuart Kelly from a (red-wine-non-mellowed) exposition of the ontological argument by a poet and tragedian who was outside because the bar staff had quite rightly declined to serve him on the grounds that he had already had a few too many. Or anything at all about a libertarian friend's determination to get the last word in before I closed the discussion, said last word being the wonderfulness of the commodification of knowledge through idea futures markets.

Yes, that's exactly the juicy sort of "more" I wanted. Actually though, what I didn't state very clearly above is that I'm looking forward to hearing about the event from the perspective of the token scientist (as he called himself), assuming that Dr. French reports back to the scientists that he surveyed.

There was more than one 'actual scientist' there. Us scientists enjoyed it all, although I was amazed to see people drink even more than astronomers do on a night out.
It was a good discussion, although at times it felt like there was a whole bunch of parallel discussions going on at once.
I guess that's inevitable with such an enormous and interesting subject.

Sounds wonderful. I wish I was there, although those repetitive political position statements, oops I mean "discussions," would have sent me straight back to the bar.

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