The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, April 30, 2012

Putting the Science in Fiction

Last Wednesday's day-long workshop Putting the Science in Fiction was a big success, drawing about a hundred participants of whom many were new faces to jaded old hands like me. It was so cool it even had a hashtag, #SciFicManc. A press release got picked up by The Guardian, where, in a further demonstration of the event's cool cutting-edginess, it got the predictably depressing and idiotic stream of comments that no worthwhile idea or initiative should fail to attract.

At lunch-time I found a handful of people from the disciplines of media studies and science studies in a huddle, aghast at the naivety of the ideas the rest of us had about science and fiction. As mere practitioners of one or the other (or both) we were treating each in their different ways as quite unproblematic representations of reality, and the problem as matching them up. I saw their point, but it was somewhat blunted by an earlier coffee-break conversation I'd had with a science studies guy who assured me that all scientific knowledge was confirmed by social processes, not by further experiment (or words to that effect). When I protested that a lot of scientific discoveries had become established fact, literally solidly proven by (e.g.) the very floor we stood on, he assured me that that sort of thing (what goes into making trains, planes, and automobiles, etc) was 'engineering knowledge' and not science at all. Nevertheless I tossed a plea for some attention to critical media and science studies into the afternoon's discussion, where it sank without a ripple.

My own preferred model (sketched out in late-night conversations with Iain Banks, long ago) for how scientists and SF writers should interact with movies and television is the approval-stamp from the American Humane Society that you see in the credits. A little line saying 'No elementary scientific truth or serious science-fictional speculation was harmed, distorted, or mangled beyond all recognition in the making of this motion picture' would not be much, but it would be a start.

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I audited a philosophy of science course once which stated the problem was discovering a philosophical justification for the technological success of science.
Turns out philosophy can't.
But that doesn't make science bad, it makes philosophy incomplete.

During my senior year I took two semester courses dealing with the Philosophy of Science. One thing you learn, and is fairly obvious, is that the scientific method has no hope of ever establishing beyond all doubt much of anything. However, once you get beyond that you can still rest pretty firmly on the scientific foundations. The problem, for philosophers, is that science is threatening areas that were thought to be the exclusive domain of intellectual masturbators (Epistemologists and even Metaphysicists though the later is a pretty dead area). My first philosophy prof, and advisor, became heavily involved with Evolutionary Biology, and, in fact, you see more philosophers taking this same interdisciplinary tract, and less taking the Analytical route (what used to be, at least in the US, THE acceptable approach).
So, in short, don't feel bad. The person you were speaking with doesn't represent the mainstream (in fact, he sounds like he's of the Deluze school...never trust the French! ;) ).

Turns out philosophy can't.

Sounds like you took the wrong philosophy of science course.

The problem, for philosophers, is that science is threatening areas that were thought to be the exclusive domain of intellectual masturbators (Epistemologists and even Metaphysicists though the later is a pretty dead area).

Metaphysics is a lively and booming area of research, thank you very much. But it's not threatened by (or a threat to) science when both are done right, because they address mostly different questions. I say more here.

I think I'm the science studies person who you were talking to; it sounds like I'd not had enough caffeine to make any sense at that point. (For the record, I can confirm I am neither a French philosopher, nor indeed a philospher of science [though I don't think my position's particularly controversial] - I'd class myself as an historian of technology. I also have an aeronautical engineering degree from Imperial, for what that's worth.) The point I was trying to make is that all scientific knowledge is ultimately social, because we don't have unmediated access to the natural world, and knowledge has to be constructed within the scientific community.

In particular, decisions about whether a new discovery counts or not are informed by judgments about the credibility of the experimenters; there are a large number of case studies in the sociology of science literature about this. These tend to focus on controversies, because it is easier to see the credibility arguments being made when there is explicit disagreement. Once the science becomes textbook, all these disagreements are smoothed away in the service of scientific unity; this is part of Kuhn's normal science/revolutionary science distinction. What seems like normal, settled, uncontroversial, can be overturned by new discoveries, at which point it all opens up again.

My comment about engineering knowledge wasn't meant to be at all dismissive (as the joke goes, I is wun!) but rather to point out that whether aeroplanes work or buildings stand up isn't necessarily proof as to whether science is true. Engineering knowledge is pragmatic and shaped by the needs of practice; indeed it often runs ahead of scientific knowledge (eg. a workable aerofoil theory dates from the 1920s, by which time aircraft had been flying more or less happily for a couple of decades; I gather that metallurgy and materials science are still to a great degree trial and error, albeit informed by theory.) Engineering theory is also often built on judicious approximations (can Newtonian mechanics still be considered 'true'?), and can use the kind of fudge factors that give scientists kittens.

This isn't to suggest that the science isn't in some sense true (or indeed better than all the alternatives) but that as a human endeavour, it is subject to the same social forces as anything else. Which seems to me to be an interesting and important point when writing about science.

As someone who has a bit of materials science training in the last 13 years, I can assure you that more is done using scientific means than trial and error. Maybe not 20 years ago mind you. The fact that a lot of PhD's I see all seem to be on the modelling side of things rather than the getting your hands dirty side of things that I prefer, also suggests that things are quite well understood, for various tones of 'quite'.

That is a bit of a problem, when people speak outside their area of direct knowledge, they are often referencing memories or impressions from 10 or 20 years earlier, and people often forget to allow for the intervening decades.

Mind you that reminds me of the BBC4 program on metals recently, where the prof of Materials science was ok on the materials stuff, but jumped straight into the old copper axe thing, whereas I was under the distinct impression that the last decade or so archaeologists have found that the first metal artefacts were jewellery, not tools. A lot more native gold and suchlike lying around in those days, and enough people liked shiny things that they worked out how to make jewellery out of it.

I stand corrected wrt materials science - this is the problem when most of the work you're most familiar is by definition historical! The contemporary people I knew were mostly doing more macro stuff like composites analysis; I was under the impression that though the models were more sophisticated you still couldn't reliably predict macro-properties from the microstructure, which meant that materials development was still (to a degree) informed trial and error.

thrustvector - many thanks for turning up and commenting. I realise I may be out of my depth here, but the point I was trying to make is that some scientific knowledge becomes as factual as what in everyday usage we'd not hesitate to call truth. For example, the Copernican hypothesis becomes really pretty unassailable when we land a probe on Mars, and likewise the hypothesis that the Moon is a small planet in orbit around the Earth when (as the Onion so memorably puts it) HOLY SHIT! MAN LANDS ON THE FUCKING MOON.

Or am I missing something?

Thrustvector - well yes, you can't quite predict exactly where a composite will fail and the precise strength etc. But surely following that logic evolutionary biology has a few issues. And there are of course other areas of materials science other than composites.

There is however something I would like clarified as well. Thrustvector wrote:
"The point I was trying to make is that all scientific knowledge is ultimately social, because we don't have unmediated access to the natural world, and knowledge has to be constructed within the scientific community."

Now, whilst I agree that due to known limitations etc, not everyone can know all scientific knowledge that is relevant to them, the way the above is written suggests that the scientific information itself, that X reacted with Y gives Z, is somehow dependent upon the social situation. Whereas of course thousands of years before people thought like that, you could drop malachite into a hot fire and find beads of copper in the ashes later. Now we have a good explanation for the reactions going on, one that is scientifically robust. So can you clarify where the knowledge resides and how that is related to the actual physical world?

Ken: a fair point. I suppose the supporter of strong relativism would say that the social consensus was presumably pretty firm in order to support the space missions in the first place, but yes, in everyday usage it's indistinguishable from truth.

guthrie: we don't have simple access to the 'actual physical world', as observations are conditioned by theory, and we then have to frame them in language. The knowledge then resides in this social system constructed by and between scientists, which becomes an arbiter of what experiments mean.

A now classic example is the existence/non-existence of gravitational waves. These are implied by some cosmological theories, but they require ultra-sensitive detectors. Unfortunately these detectors are so finicky that the interpretation of the results tends to revolve around which cosmological theory you follow; if you don't believe in them, then any positive results from the detectors must be the result of experimental error (what is known as 'the experimenter's regress'). Crucially, neither side's appeal to 'actual physical knowledge' is taken as conclusive by the other side; what caused the consensus to shift away from the existence of waves were the social judgements about the expertise of the scientists involved.

Part of the issue here is one of scope; social studies of science tend to concentrate on local arguments, where the social construction is most visible, rather than on long-established broad fields.

If you're interested, the best single introduction to the philosophy of science is Alan Chalmers' _What is This Thing Called Science_, which is on every history and philosphy of science reading list ever. (Truth be told, it's probably as much philosophy of science as most historians of science ever read, because it's so clear and comprehensive.) The book that gives the best introduction to social studies of science (far clearer than I've managed here) is Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch's _The Golem: What You Should Know About Science_.

I think I have Chalmers book somewhere in my library, I am not sure where.

Whilst yes, we obviously don't have direct simple access to reality, nevertheless I find your stance difficult, because ultimately how do you explain everything from the periodic table to our understanding of DNA?
What is the important thing(s) that allows us to make predictions, testable hypotheses etc, that give us such power over 'reality', despite such restrictions as channeling of research because of social conditions and ideas?

You see, the bit many people such as myself have trouble with is the assertion that all knowledge is ultimately social, when in fact we use such social knowledge to affect things on a regular basis. Do the theories not match reality in some way or another?

Since you are so good as to reply, I feel I aught to poke you until I can get understandable answers.

guthrie: good question, and not one that I have an easy answer to. I'm not sure what the strong relativist position is; I'd have to go and dig up the books.

My answer would be related to the scale issue I mentioned above: the process by which knowledge accretes is entirely social, as borne out by numerous empirical studies of individual cases.*

In the long term, however, the community selects for solutions that have greater explanatory power, which means that over time the body of knowledge becomes a better fit to the natural world out there (whatever that means.)

Hope that makes sense - I'm currently fighting a head cold so apologies if it doesn't...

*I forgot to mention the methodological point about symmetry above: given that the process of closure around scientific controversies is social, one must use the same kinds of explanation for both sides of a debate - that is, one cannot say one side takes one ('wrong') position because of social factors, and the other a ('correct') position because they got the science right.

Fair enough, get well soon. I'm sure I'll have other questions at some point but will have to get back to Chalmers.

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