What role has objectivity played in the history of science and what role does it play today? How are innovations in science possible? What is the interrelation between research practices, epistemic virtues, and the scientific self? How are epistemic virtues affected by relations of science and the public, the state, the funders, the industry, media, etc.? And what impact has the image of science as full of boldness, uncertainty, doubt, on the social legitimacy of science? Alex Pleshkov and Jan Surman discuss these and many other questions with Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, the authors of Objectivity, one of the most important books of the 21st century in the field of the history of knowledge.
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science professor
fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,
corresponding member of the British Academy
Joseph Pellegrino University Professor,
Harvard University professor
Alex Pleshkov: Our discussion today should serve as an initiation of the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities project Frontiers of knowledge, aimed at intensifying theoretical and methodological reflection in the humanities, as well as interdisciplinary and cross-faculty collaborations in Higher School of Economics and Russian Academia in general. The discussion will be focused on Lorraine Daston’s and Peter Galison’s book Objectivity, which, as I believe, became an instant classic. Quite recently, it was translated into Russian in the publishing house Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie. Thus, it is an excellent reason to ask about the authors’ initial ideas, the reception and reactions to the book. In other words, to talk about Objectivity and beyond.
Jan Surman: Your book’s theoretical and methodological center is the conceptual bunch practices–virtues–scientific self. In this sense, the Objectivity can be seen as a part of the general practical turn in the history of knowledge and/or intellectual history, and this approach is crucial for us in the Poletayev Institute as we also strive to work from the perspective not only of great ideas but of concrete practices.
Thus with the distinction between ideas and practices in mind, my question would be about your own idea and your own practice. Almost 20 years passed from the moment you started working on the history of objectivity, to the moment your book appeared. Could you say a bit more about your initial theoretical motivations, which you had for starting such an extensive project in the early 1990-s, and about the situation in the 2000-s, when you were writing it? History of science has changed a lot during this time, and so did the theories of the history of science change, and I was wondering how these changes were reflected in your work.
Lorraine Daston: I came to the project by way of work on probability and statistics, where objectivity is a continuous theme. Peter and I had the good fortune to be together at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in the academic year 1989-90, a year I look back on with very fond memories.
At Stanford, Peter had the thought that one could take a concept like objectivity, which I had been exploring largely in terms of its probabilistic manifestations (e.g., the method of least squares), and think about it in terms of very concrete visual practices.
We started this project at a moment at which the history of science was in tumult. It was a moment of the so-called Science Wars, at least within the Anglosphere, in which the discussion was polarized between realism and social constructivism, between approaches which were considered to be sociological versus philosophical. We were certain that whatever we wanted to do, it was going to be orthogonal to that plane; it would be impossible to map onto that very flat and constricting plane.
Peter Galison: Raine and I had been thinking about objectivity, and talking about the different ways that she had explored this objectivity. After all, objectivity takes pride of place in the history of journalism, in the discipline of history itself, and throughout the natural and social sciences.
I had come across a strange set of books. I was writing Image and Logic at this time, and about the history of scientific instruments that produce evidence either statistically or through pictures. I was interested in this battle between machines that make images and machines that count.
Having found the books, I could not understand what these things were: there was an atlas of bubble chamber pictures, for example, an atlas of nuclear emulsions, or an atlas of cloud chamber pictures. In the opening pages of some of these books, they would say things like: ‘we learned about this from the medical doctors.’ I was perplexed because physicists normally never say they learned anything from medical doctors.
So, there I was really puzzled by this strange (to me) notion of a physics atlas, and decided to go to the basement of the Stanford University Medical Library, where I began perusing medical atlases. It turns out there were thousands of them: atlases of the hand, atlases of the wrists, atlases of the eyeball, atlases of the skull, atlases of the liver and the kidney, and atlases of the ophthalmoscope, x-rays, and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. For several days, I just sat there and looked at all these amazing books that were written for other medical practitioners, and which argued about objectivity and what an objective image was.
So I got a whole stack of these, and I came back to the Center for Advanced Studies, which is up on a hill overlooking Stanford, and I said to Raine: look, this is amazing! All of these medical doctors talking about what an objective image is, we could really do something with this. Then we started getting interested in what they meant by objectivity in their field, and how that might change over time, and what relationship objectivity had to the other kinds of things that scientists wanted.
LD: I think that for our colleagues at the time the most difficult part of our undertaking was the thought that objectivity itself might have a history. And this was immediately interpreted in the context of the mid-1990s, after our initial article on the subject was published, as claiming that objectivity did not exist. Many of our critics believed that to historicize was to debunk. It was one of the initial stimuli for the project that we wanted to write a history, which was a radical history in taking on a self-evident practice and concept, and yet not to thereby dissolve that practice and concept, to make it go up in a puff of smoke. We thought of this history as not only a history of objectivity, or a history of the visual practices and the atlases, but also as an example of a radical historicism that was not debunking history.
AP: For me, it is an essential idea that historicisation is not equal to debunking or radical relativization. As a historian of philosophy dealing with antiquity, I associate your approach with the revival of Aristotle's ideas, especially in the fields of ethics in the second half of the 20th century. I was also happy to see that Pierre Hadot, a French philosopher and historian of ancient philosophy, was one of your work's theoretical landmarks.
Thus, I see some similarities between your work and the nonrelativistic interpretation of Aristotle's ethics by Martha Nussbaum. I mean here the following points: (1) the scientific self is formed through different epistemic virtues; (2) these virtues themselves are a kind of traits of character cultivated in specific practices, and not merely declared; (3) each practice has a particular goal, it is aimed to achieve a particular good and virtue is what we need to accomplish this good or goal. Moreover, historians of knowledge are not interested in any practices, or so to say accidental practices. So, what we have here is not a micro vision or microhistory: historians of knowledge are interested more in a kind of sustainable forms of scientific interaction, which allows us to make the transition from a concrete practice to a more general conclusion.
For example, scientific atlases, their preparation, usage, and circulation are, as you remark, not something unique. The creation of images is one of the oldest practices of knowledge. Accordingly, sustainable practices allow us to see changes in epistemic virtues without radically relativizing them: while there are different virtues, the practices guarantee a kind of stability.
Thus, my questions are: is the scientific self, self of a researcher, of a scientist, defined by something other than virtues cultivated in sustainable practices.
If these practices are historically rooted, how can the virtues change? Is this connected with the change of goals or goods that are seen behind these practices? More generally, these questions concern the possibility of innovation in science. If practices are similar, they cultivate the same virtues, which leads to a certain scientific self. But how does the scientific self, find ways to change, making innovation possible?
Your book has a wonderful metaphor of change as an avalanche, beginning through a combination of small events, building up into a massive rush. Can you tell us more about your vision of the practice-virtue-scientific self interrelations in the context of innovations in science?
PG: I just want to make here a first comment and then turn it over to Raine, especially on ideas about Aristotelian virtue.
Raine and I have been in conversation really for decades with Arnold Davidson, who, in many ways, is our great guide to the work of Hadot and Foucault. Davidson has a distinction between the way Hadot treats the scientific self in philosophy, as a way of life, and what Foucault does throughout his work but especially in the three volumes of the History of Sexuality, and in Hermeneutics of the Subject, a lecture series at the Collège de France.
Prof. Arnold I. Davidson hugely contributed to the spread of the ideas of both Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault in English-speaking Academy. See the list of his works and translations.
For Davidson, Hadot is interested in a broader conception of the self, one that is not just oriented around a very specific set of epistemic goals but really around a conception of the cosmos, of how we fit in to the wider social, physical, moral world. Foucault takes that idea and gives it a stronger focus around, especially, the areas where he is interested: the body and the institutions that shape our selves, like prisons and schooling or the academic structures. I think we have learned a great deal from Hadot and Foucault.
Raine and I published a piece in 1992 called the Image of Objectivity in which we began to sketch out a sort of tripartite picture of the change in what counted as an objective rendition in science. Then I got interested in an idea that I explored in a piece that I called Objectivity is Romantic, about the idea that certain conceptions of the self were presupposed by certain kinds of practices. What you have to presuppose about the self, such that self-abnegation was a necessary constituent of making a good image in science? What was involved with the broader notion of what the self was, that had to be there in the Romantic period and then mid–late 19th century? Then Raine and I started to talk about whether we could generalize this presupposed notion of scientific selfhood around certain practices.
I want to turn it over to Raine, but one specific point, which I think we think is important: that a practice does not determine a selfhood. That is to say that you could have an instrument like a camera obscura used by William Cheselden in the 18th century. Cheselden traces a skeleton on the glass plate, and then he fixes it to idealize it in various ways. A hundred years later, that same instrument was used in a way in which people strove as hard as they could not to improve, or fix, or idealize. A particular scientific instrument like the camera obscura, or like a light microscope, or like any other telescope could be used in different ways. We wanted to emphasize that this idea of particular and changing scientific self, as you go across time, was in some sense more fundamental, more determinative than simply a reflection of a particular state of technology. In short, we opposed technological determinism, which said if you have a telescope you use it in this way or if you have a camera obscura it must be deployed in the following fashion. We wanted to separate out the technological determinism, with which we did not agree, and the idea of a historicisation of the scientific self, which we saw as in some way our strand through in these territories.
LD: I think that one way of distinguishing between the Aristotelian elements, which Alex quite rightly recognized in our treatment of epistemic virtues, and Aristotle himself, is to take Peter's point about the historicity of the self. One enormous difference between the romantic self, and the self-presumed by Aristotle's hexis, the self sculpted by practices — you become brave by doing brave acts, you become just by doing just acts — is the role of the will. The will is absolutely foundational for the romantic self, it plays almost no role in Aristotelian ethics.
To come to your main question, Alex, about innovation: we think that this is an ongoing story. We think that at this very moment, there are new epistemic virtues crystallizing out of new practices and new situations. Perhaps Peter might want to say something about a project, an enormous and enormously important project he was part of, concerning the first photograph of black holes. Projects like that are the crucibles for the creation of new epistemic virtues.
In the article that Peter mentioned, The Image of Objectivity, we were still very much in the thrall of a sequential view of the history of science. Thus, we presented epistemic virtues as superseding one another. In the process of writing the book, we came to realize that epistemic virtues are a repertoire; they accumulate and do not replace one another. So, we think of epistemic virtues as not the entire self, but rather, just as we think of moral virtues, as resources for the expression of the self. And a great deal depends on the ways in which decisions are made in hard cases, as to which epistemic virtue triumphs.
PG: If I could continue from Raine's remark. The project that I have been involved with for the last five years is called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) It is an international collaboration grounded in many countries all over the world, consisting of, now, about 250 people. Using the network of radio telescopes all over the earth, its goal is to make images of a black hole. In order to do that, it involved coordination. To be able to resolve something in the sky as huge a supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy M87 in the Virgo cluster, you literally need a telescope the size of the earth.
One of the big debates in that collaboration, for over a year, once we had that first image was: is this image objective? It was specified in those terms: how would we know that this image was robust, that it would last, that it was not showing a ring when there was no ring? The worst thing in the world would be to go to press and show, say, that there was this dark disk surrounded by a glowing plasma mass, and then to have it turn out that it was really just a disk, and the apparent ring was an artifact of the way we were imaging. All of these tests that we put into play day after day, week after week, month after month, for really a year, and was held secret by the whole collaboration. The greatest miracle of all was not the resolution of the black holes, but that 207 academics kept their mouth shut for a year, since that is not something that academics are trained to do, but they did! On April 10th, 2019, we released that image and it does seem to be robust.
But I bring it up because it was an example of a debate over objectivity in a much more modern form. They used statistical arguments, new imaging techniques that were developed, new kinds of tests of the image; for example, they varied the input by shutting down one antenna after another, to test if the image still stayed there. Thus, they could tell it was not produced by one particular antenna in Spain, or at the South Pole, or in Greenland, or Arizona. So that was a real, very recent application, in a new key, of these ideas.
In this EHT collaboration, we talked about these forms of objectivity that Raine and I worked on in the book. We discussed in expert groups, each one of which came up with the best judgment that they could, about what the image looked like. And then we had a kind of mechanical form, that simply let the computer do its machine learning magic and pick out the best settings for the camera — although it is a metaphorical camera, because it works in a different way. But then we had to apply it to the black hole after testing it on synthetic test images. We then had a sort of averaging of all the different groups' images to make a kind of ideal image. You had ideal, mechanical, and trained judgment inside this very different form of image-making in science.
I think that it illustrates that these ideas of objectivity persist, even though (in fact, because) we knew perfectly well that future projects would show the black hole with better resolution, even be able to make movies to see changes in the image. I mean, it is not the final word, but it should be a robust word.
JS: I have a small follow-up question to Alex's question. Raine, you said that now we have to kind of not one virtue which is central, but there is a repertoire of virtues, on which we can concentrate, and that one practice can also cultivate several virtues. And I was wondering whether you think that it is heuristically productive to explicate something like a central virtue and concentrate on this virtue in the analysis, or on the contrary, to keep in mind different virtues and analyze their interrelation.
LD: I would tend toward the latter, and here I speak, of course, only for myself. I think that the example that Peter just gave is an excellent one of how all these epistemic virtues are being assembled together, one tested against another, deployed as the context seems to demand.
I think that the analogy with moral virtues is again illuminating here. We do not think that if you are honest, this displaces loyalty. We might imagine that somebody's character is more strongly imprinted with honesty rather than loyalty, but we certainly do not think of them as mutually exclusive. On the contrary, we think of them as interacting all the time.
Perhaps it is useful to imagine, at any given moment in the history of science, a kind of amalgamation of these virtues, which constitutes the scientific character of the age. But I think it would be the exception rather than the rule that there is a central virtue like the Sun, around which all the others revolve like planets.
PG: I very much agree with that, and I think that the historicity of objectivity, and the historicity of the scientific self, are sometimes hard for people to take on board. One of the discussions that Raine and I have had together with other people, and I am sure both of us separately many times, is people would say to us, “You mean Newton's not objective?” as if to mean his work isn’t valid. And so we have to start again with the discussion and say: Descartes was very much interested in certainty, Newton was interested in universality and quantification. But objectivity, as a search for robustness — minimizing judgment —saw its centerpoint in the mid-19th century. Objectivity was a hunt by scientists to divest themselves of “my” particular foibles, the things that “I” (the scientist) might impose in my desire to confirm a pet theory, for example. Such bolstering against human intervention was not the main worry of Descartes, or of Newton. To say that Newton was after quantification and universality, and Descartes was mainly after certainty, is not to say that they are not science, or that they did not produce scientific information, or that they were not among the world’s historical natural philosophers at its 17th century best. It is rather to say that objectivity had a changing role, and that it really does not emerge as a relevant category governing what is going on in depiction and scientific images until you get to this point in the 19th century, where people start to use objectivity in a sense that is recognizably congruent with the way we use it today.
LD: One way that we sometimes thought about the history we were writing was that we were taking these ethereal epistemological notions, like certainty, universality, and objectivity, and we were going to anchor them in a historical time and place but also in concrete practices. This involved asking a new kind of question for epistemology. Many people have written about the history of epistemology; that is not a new enterprise. But they asked very different kinds of questions than the ones we did, which is: if epistemology is the constant diagnosis of possible sources of errors in our knowledge, why is it that, at a certain time and place, we suddenly become fearful of a new kind of threat to the reliability of our knowledge?
The threat that someone like Descartes saw in the middle of the 17th century, at a moment of pyrrhonian skepticism, was very different than the threat that someone like Hermann von Helmholtz saw in the middle of the 19th century, at a moment of fears about the projection of pet hypotheses onto the data. So it is another dimension of the historicity of this project: by paying attention to the interaction of practices and epistemological concepts, you can ask a new kind of question, which is: why then, why there?
PG: One of the analogies that we used as a kind of guiding thread for our work, was that in moral philosophy, it seems obvious to people that different virtues can be in competition with each other. Of course they are. The foundational questions are: do you value honesty, loyalty, fairness, meritocracy, equality? These things compete with one another. You design your institutions so that everybody has the same starting place, that everybody has the same criteria for advancement, or that everybody gets to the same goal. Those are different ambitions; they are all considered to be forms of the just, but they lead to very different institutional canons and were based on different social virtues.
Scientific epistemology, which in some ways is unbelievably sophisticated and has adopted methods from all over the social and natural sciences, as well as beyond, has been kind of naive in saying: all of the virtues should pull in the same direction. The kind of panglossian picture of the way scientific epistemology should work, that the true, the objective, the precise, all ought to just move together.
But what Raine and I kept coming up against, as we worked on this project, was people would say: I am willing to give up being able to render a picture in color with precision and depth of field, as presented by an artist, in favor of a blurry black-and-white, low depth of field image created by an analog black-and-white camera. That was amazing to us, to see the scientists themselves, in the midst of their work, knowing that they had to choose among these virtues. Those preferences were our guide to the ordering of epistemic virtues. That was what we could extract from these atlases.
We could see what our people are valuing most, and what are they willing to subordinate, as a function of time as you went from the late 17th century to the present. And it changes. That was what we were trying to get out of this collection of two or three thousand atlases that were our kind of database for this project.
AP: Almost all your examples are from ‘hard sciences,’ from natural philosophy, physics, astronomy. And the Objectivity mainly deals with scientific atlases as its research object. However, in different cultures, different traditions, science is understood very differently. Raine discusses in a recent article History of science and history of knowledge. For example, in Russia, the analog of Ph.D. is the candidate of sciences, and thus I am a candidate of philosophical sciences.
So scientific atlases that stabilize images is an important practice that serves hard sciences. But what about practices for the humanities and social sciences, that could be the object of our research? For example, I believe that book reviews or reviewing could be the right candidate for searching epistemic virtues — not exclusively, but primarily — in humanities and social sciences. In our Institute, we had some projects on the history of academic reviewing; now together with Jan, we are working on a special issue of the Studia Historiae Scientiarum, devoted to the book reviews in the history of knowledge. And I believe that it could be really heuristically productive.
What do you think about reviews as the object for research in human and social sciences, like atlases for ‘hard sciences’? And what other such objects or practices you see, not for hard sciences, but for humanities and social sciences?
LD: First of all, I think the idea of a history of reviews is fabulous, and I really hope that I will be able to read the results of your special issue. The work that has been done — you probably know all of this — about the history of the book in the 17th and 18th centuries suggests that the history of reviewing starts in the history of censorship. Especially, the Jesuits in Catholic countries began not only looking for theologically dubious assertions in the books they were given to vet but also began saying: “You know, this argument really does not hold water;” or “Your Latin is terrible!” I think there is an extremely interesting story to be told there.
In terms of the humanities and social sciences, because I have been working for the last two decades in a Germanophone context, I am acutely aware that the territory, which is plotted by the Anglo-French ‘science-science’, is quite different from that covered by the German ‘Wissenschaft.’ I imagine also the Russian equivalent has its particularities, certainly, the Dutch and Scandinavian cognates have, and for us, this is a matter of historical inquiry. That is, we are extremely interested in why, by the middle of the 19th century, in English usage, science was narrowing quite tightly around what we now call the natural sciences, whereas at least in much of continental Europe, including French, it really does not undergo a comparable narrowing until the early 20th century. The cognate German term to ‘science’, Wissenschaft, still has something like the breadth of the Latin 'scientia,' which meant any branch of systematized knowledge.
Although we looked at the humanities and the social sciences, Peter and I in the end took the natural sciences, albeit a broad spectrum of the natural sciences, as our subject matter. The book was in mortal danger as it was of becoming a 25-volume encyclopedia of all knowledge.
But it certainly is the case, in both German and French, that terms like objectivity are being used perhaps primarily, even before they turn up in the natural sciences, in philology (classical philology) and in history. One example is the so-called Thucydides debate of the mid-19th century among historians. But there are many others. Therefore, I think a much broader story could be told, which would, of course, also embrace the social sciences — one thinks about Max Weber's Methodenstreit and the argument about objectivity in the social sciences. One could even make the argument that, on internal grounds alone, fears about objectivity and subjectivity are more at home in the human sciences (in the French sense of the sciences humaines, embracing the humanities and the social sciences) than they are in the natural sciences, because the sources of potential projections and biases are simply greater than they are in many of the natural sciences. Thus, I think this is a story which could well be expanded to include the human sciences as well as the natural sciences.
PG: One of the things that interested me, that grew out of our discussions early on, was the piece I did on objectivity in journalism. Journalism arises in some sense out of the scientific domain. Objectivity is intensely discussed by the mid-19th century, and it is not until the later 19th century that it really enters journalism.
But then, unlike the sciences, objectivity in journalism has been disputed at every point, from the 1880s or 1890s, all the way up through the present, and disputed in different ways. There are people that dispute it because they see it as inherently conservative. The new highly personalized journalism of the 1960s, what is called gonzo journalism in the American case, as with Hunter S. Thompson and others, where people acted as commentator in the process of following events; there are people who object to objectivity in journalism, by saying there are two sides and I am going to present both sides, no matter how odious or minoritarian one of those sides is — you have to say, well, a little of this and a little of that. There many different arguments about objectivity, but it is never an undisputed good. Even today objectivity in journalism is in motion, as the new civil rights moment that burst (in its current form) onto the international scene with the police murder of George Floyd. In ever-shifting form, journalists are asking, what is their role in objective reporting? So I think that that is an example of where objectivity comes out of the debates in the sciences, but takes a very different framing and has a very different history.
LD: There is a comparable debate, although I’m not quite sure whether it is strictly analogous to gonzo journalism despite certain shared elements, in the mid-19th century, between history that aimed to be objective, by which was meant that objective methods were used, in strict analogy to the objective methods of mechanical objectivity in the natural sciences, versus history that aimed to be readable, the kind of history that was written by narrative historians like Jules Michelet. There was a ferocious debate about whether historians should sacrifice the general reading public in the name of their new religion of objectivity. Ranke, notoriously, thought it was better to be objective than to be read. Nietzsche, equally notoriously, castigated the high priests of objectivity and tried to reclaim the high narrative ground for history. To some extent, although it is somewhat subterranean these days, this is a debate that is still ongoing among historians.
AP: I would like to turn back to Peter's comments about journalism and leave academia for a little bit. The book "Objectivity" is primarily devoted to science as such. It investigates objects and practices created by scientists for other scientists, scientists that are evaluated and debated mostly by scientists. But what role do other actors play in this? How are epistemic virtues affected by relations of science and the public, the state, the founders, the industry, media, etc., and how, in turn, do epistemic virtues affect them? It is also interesting regarding the fact that Peter is actively involved in science communication, making documentaries and art-science projects.
So how would you say is your academic work connected to practices that involve engagement with the public? Can this be framed in the context of epistemic virtues and regimes? Would it be possible not just to show that there are some parallel discussions but how they affect each other, so to say?
PG: I would be glad to answer it, and I hope that Raine will say a bit about her work on rules, which seemed to me to take us far beyond the narrowly scientific. Also, the collaboration that she co-established to pursue some of this across many different domains of work will be, I think, a very interesting complement to our joint project. But I am glad to talk about film and the art collaborations that I have been involved with.
Film also has a history — I mean documentary film. We can talk about its relationship to fictional film if you are interested — but documentary film has a very strong inflected history as well. What most people would think of as a documentary film, begins in some ways already in World War I with Jean Painlevé and others in France, who were making documentaries about the natural world. But they were inflected by a kind of storytelling arc: the octopuses and the other objects of Painlevé’s focus were clearly, metaphorically and metonymically, standing in for the human condition, much of which could not be discussed in the censorship of World War I. And that drove a lot of French documentary filmmakers into the scientific domain, where they could proceed relatively outside of the wartime censoring structures.
I am not going to give a whole detailed history of documentary film, but it was in right around 1960, when technology progressed so that it became possible to have portable sound and image-making cameras, and the first cinéma vérité became something that people began to pursue. That was a real revolution in documentary film, that you could follow events as they unfolded before you. And there came to be a kind of idealized picture — I would not call it mechanical objectivity, because documentarians were too sophisticated to think that their presence played no role in their recordings, and there was a self-referential quality to it: showing the film clips that they made to the people that they were filming, and getting them to comment on it. So we had cinema vérité and then direct cinema, which was the British-American analogue of the French cinema verité. People began to challenge the “fly-on-the-wall” ideal, and say that they needed be more explicit about the creative, editorial, political, and aesthetic decisions that filmmakers necessarily were making.
I think most documentary filmmakers do not think that the mechanical-objective registration of the world has a one-to-one correspondence between the way things would unfold without a camera, and the way it unfolds with the camera, editing, layers of sound design, and everything else that goes into documentary filmmaking. But I think that the documentary film does have a history as a form of representation, in which these questions of objectivity get debated all the time.
And I would say that there is a particular kind of documentary film about science, that is a kind of explainer, didactic, pedagogical, what the French call vulgarization or a popularization; the British have a whole tradition of “public understanding of science,” trying to make science available to a wider audience. So you take the science, and then you transform it into something is going to be allgemeinverständlich [understandable to everyone], right? That is not the kind of film that interests me as a filmmaker.
I have nothing against it, I think it is all to the good in a world that is often dangerously ideologically opposed to science, but that is not what I want to do.
I am interested in trying to register the imaginative, conflictual decisions that are made in the development of science, to use what we have learned about science in the making, the history, sociology, philosophy, gender-historical understanding of science, and to build it into the way science is depicted on the screen. That is true in my collaboration with the great South African artist, William Kentridge, when we did this piece together on time — a chamber opera and an installation piece. Both were trying to use the development of time from absolute time to relativistic time, to the kind of black hole distortions of time, and the end of time. The ideas I wanted to foreground in documentary are the wildly imaginative, upsetting, intriguing, seductive, objectionable notions that have surrounded how time has been understood, from the imposition of an absolute time by Newton — “the river of absolute time” — to Einstein's idea that each observer carries with him or her their own time, to a black hole where time seems to cease as you approach the horizon as seen from a distance, and so on so. Time is never just time, to misquote Freud. It is always about something else, right? If you see a clock in a late Renaissance painting, an hourglass, or a sundial, it is always about mortality and life after death and the reckoning with the finitude of our human condition. It is never just about a sundial, it always stands for something else. And I think that sense does inhabit the sciences themselves, the debates in the sciences.
Even the Nobel prize-winning work in science may not have any kind of register in the outside world, like whether certain symmetries hold good in particle physics. But when Einstein said something about time, or when space gets curved, or there are black holes, these moments activate something outside of science, but also inside of science and that cultural registration of concerns, including about objectivity, and time and space, even though these categories seem so abstract.
The work I have done on containment of nuclear waste, or on secrecy — secrecy is never just about secrecy and containment is never just about radioisotopes, and objectivity is never just about science — these things activate us as humans, that live in a broader world. Or the will, that Raine mentioned at the top of our discussion here. The will is never just a category inside the natural sciences — it is a category of theological reflection — the suppression of the will in order to hear the unmodulated voice of God. Science exists, it is embedded, is part of, is participating, in a broader world, and I think that is one of the things that lies behind the work that Raine and I did together in Objectivity.
LD: I can only echo that; perhaps with one historical example and a contemporary reflection to your question, Alex. In order for a scientific persona to be legible to contemporaries, it has to make use of terms, behaviors, symbols, which are intelligible, which are of that place and of that time, which is why there is an aura of Victorian self-discipline surrounding the ideal of mechanical objectivity. This was a moment when being a scientist was becoming a recognized vocation, no longer an avocation pursued by a few university professors. People like Isaac Newton had had a professorship at Cambridge, but aside from that, there were very few career options to pursue science full-time and with a salary. In order to create a channel into which these epistemological impulses could flow, a persona had to be conjured into existence. It is not surprising that that persona used the resources that were available and legible to those who were meant to acknowledge this new persona.
If one translated that to the contemporary moment, it is striking that since at least World War II, the developed world has invested at least 2% of GDP in research and development — that is the UNESCO estimate. That means that the persona of the scientist is increasingly outward turned. In some countries, this is more pronounced than in others. For example, the United Kingdom has actually geared research support to public outreach. But it is visible in almost all contexts where science is publicly funded.
We are at the moment right now, in the midst of a pandemic, when science is not just visible, but on display, in ways that it seldom is. This is creating a very novel and sometimes disturbing perception of science. The way in which the scientific persona is filtered through scientific journalism is often a picture of the way in which science is done when it's done-and-dusted, when it is completed, when all of the behind-the-scenes checks and controls, which Peter described in the Event Horizon Project, have already taken place — and they have taken place usually for good reasons under a veil of confidentiality.
At the moment that the new virus emerged, science was at Ground Zero of trying to come to terms with it, both empirically and theoretically and, above all, therapeutically. The public was confronted with an image of science in the making, which was an image of science full of diverse opinions, full of uncertainty, of two steps forward one step backward, a combination of the most diverse methods, from the genetic sequencing of the new virus to moment-by-moment Twitter reports of doctors in the emergency room saying: "This patient has symptoms we've never seen before, what do you have in Wuhan?"
So in this moment you have a kind of cauldron, a seething cauldron, of many methods, many specialists who otherwise would have been hermetically sealed from one another, scrambling to put together what they know and how they know it together. For a historian of science, this is intensely exciting, and I hope it is also intensely exciting for the public, and that the public perhaps will have a view as nuanced as the view that Peter’s spectacular films have given us of a kind of science full of both boldness and uncertainty, doubt, conflict, but which nonetheless through these processes produces something sturdy.
JS: I have the last question which, in a way, follows from what Raine just said about the inside vs. outside of science and the question of epistemic virtues. I wanted to start with a small anecdote.
Around 2008, I was studying in Vienna Ph.D., and we had an interdisciplinary discussion about exactly the history of science. A historian of science, in this interdisciplinary panel, started talking to a scientist who was there, quoting your book about objectivity, and saying that now we have this beautiful new book saying that objectivity is a historical phenomenon, but scientists were still clinging to the objectivity, using it in the research and so on and so on. The scientists — he was a theoretical biologist — just looked at him and said: no we don't use it anymore for a long time, and it would be a good time now for historians to look at what scientists are doing right now if they want to say something about scientists.
And I want to suggest that in this episode both of them were actually right. As we also heard from Peter that there are different virtues which are discussed by scholars now — we had robustness in where there are moments of objectivity or influence of objectivity, but objectivity is not central anymore.
But at the same time when scientists start to explain to the public what is happening in the sciences, they tend to like go a few steps back, and instead of ‘science in the making’ they are presenting ‘science already made,’ in which terms like objectivity are again there.
And I was wondering, exactly when now we have the question about the social legitimacy of science, we have the question of how scientists, when they have to get the public funding, have to present themselves, they have to present a certain persona, and this persona has to be robust as much as possible. In the last few years, for example, when there were science marches, then issues like scientific truth or scientific objectivity were very present. And now we are having this moment in which, as Raine mentioned, we see science in the making, we are in the middle of it, we certainly cannot say how it will influence the public perception of science, whether people will say, like, well science has actually failed (which I have heard), or sciences are doing a good job (also heard it).
So I wanted to invite you to try to make an educated guess, about what the future will be, and is it a good way, or a way that makes sense, for science and humanities, to open much more to presenting the scientific practice, so what Peter is also doing in his movies. Or can it be actually detrimental for the sciences because the legitimacy is historically built on objectivity, on truth, and different other virtues which very often have a Cold War origin? And with this, I also wanted to ask Peter how scientists react to his movies, whether they are happy that “science in the making” is publicly shown and publicly discussed, or are the rather skeptical saying like “that's too much of the science, you are showing publicly what is happening in our kitchens and nobody wants to you know what you are doing in your backyard?”
PG: In the final, substantive chapter before the conclusion of Objectivity, we look at something that is unfolding now, which is a kind of presentation, or an instrument image, we call it, of images that are made not to represent the world — not to say does this exist or does it not exist, which in some ways are classical questions answered differently over time — but rather to say I want to do things, I want to make things. It is more of an engineering ethos that is inflecting a scientific ethos. When a nanoscientist wants to make a nanodot, which is the smallest electronic device (molecular sized) or a circuit that uses and binds them together, or wants to produce molar quantities of things, you know 10 things, or wants to produce things robustly, the idea of robustness producing a scale, building things, rather than trying to show the existence or deny the existence, those are hallmarks of a new set of concerns that have shaped the way instruments are used, scientific images are used.
If you go to a nanoscience lab that includes virologists and surface chemists and atomic physicists, and all the range of disciplines there (at almost every university now there is a nanoscience building, in which all of these collections of disciplines are formed around new kinds of work, especially now around virology and things like that all of which are 10 to the minus 9 meters in scale, roughly speaking), they are making images in order to do things. They are not worried about whether the nanodot exists — they want to connect the nanodot or make a nanotube or test to see whether the nanotube is reliable electronically and so on. It is more like a surgeon who is doing microsurgery on a hand or telesurgery, somebody doing surgery on something from a thousand miles away; they are not trying to see if the hand exists, they are trying to fix the hand, and the image that they see on their monitor is a vehicle, it is part of the instrument itself, of trying to alter things in the world.
That is one dimension of an unfolding kind of image, instrument image, or presentational image that we see is happening now. And objectivity functions there in a very different way. They just want to know if it is reliable, robust, scalable, that it works — the way you would test an atomic force microscope, or a radio telescope, or anything else. You want to make sure that it is not being overwhelmed by artifacts. But your work is not designed to say: oh, a nanotube exists; that is not the main function of this kind of work, or this kind of instrument, or this kind of image.
So I think there are things unfolding now. And I think it is interesting to ask what the popular reception of science is. My own view is that a nuanced picture of ‘science in the making’ would make science more trustworthy to the public rather than less.
If science is presented only to the public as a set of claims, things that are said at each moment to be absolutely true, and then you see them fall one by one, that leads to a sense of despair, and to a sense that scientists do not know what they are talking about. We see examples of that in the food sciences, where one year it is said you should have a low-carb diet, and the next it says you should have this other kind of diet, and people just think the scientists do not know what they are talking about because they make these claims and then shoot themselves down. I think much better would be, as in the novel coronavirus, that the scientists explain why we want refereed articles, why they need to be refereed in a certain way, why things have to be tested statistically first in the laboratory, then for animals, then for safety and then for efficacity. We need to make clear why we need blind tests — science is about process not just claims.
I think that explaining and bringing forth and centering on science in the making can, in the long run, make science more robust and trustworthy to public at a time when millions of lives are at stake; then it is not just a sense of "oh well we see one absolute claim fall, and another one takes its place every 36 hours so stop believing the scientists, and start believing the politicians."
So I actually am hopeful that a more process, practice, ‘science in the making’ view of science done with care and nuance, actually could be seen, fundamentally, to be an ally of science conducted at the highest level.
LD: I share your optimism. I know that as historians we will have our union cards revoked if we make predictions about the future. But I will take a baby step in that direction.
I think one should realize that the price of scientific progress is giving up on what is ultimately a philosophical and theological notion of absolute truth. So, the moment at which objectivity is born in the mid-19th century is not coincidentally the moment at which the scientists realize that progress is not just going to be expansive — captured in the image of adding one brick after another to an edifice as it rises to the heavens — but rather that it is going to be revolutionary in the sense of a political revolution, actually destructive. For example, you are going to have to raze Newtonian mechanics to the ground in order to have Einsteinian mechanics. At that moment, the scientists’ view of truth has to be a fundamentally different one than the Platonic view of eternal truths. I think it is a matter for regret that neither the scientists nor the philosophers have contemplated the implications of the experience of scientific progress for a definition of truth.
One way of thinking about the current moment is that it is the point at which truth and progress finally have a showdown. A notion of scientific robustness emerges that breaks away from a philosophical and theological notion of truth, which is bound to present the kind of aporias that Peter just described, that your truths of today are your falsehoods of tomorrow, a predicament that scientists were all too familiar with already in the 19th century.
More specifically to the current moment. I think it has been a misunderstanding, a fatal misunderstanding, on the part of both science and the public, that science can provide certainty. Uncertainty is intrinsic to science. This is not something with which people are unfamiliar in their daily lives. We calculate our risks all the time. To expect certainty from the sciences is rather like expecting infallibility from the Pope. Science is not that kind of enterprise. I think what is going on now is a rethinking, on the part of the public, of what science means. I have been impressed by the fact that people who had forgotten whatever science or math they might have learned in school are suddenly insatiable in their appetite for scientific details about virology, about R-nought, about replication rates and the like. People are listening to long, detailed, technical podcasts about epidemiology and virology. This is particularly striking, I must say, in Western nations, where, according to the latest surveys, only a tiny fraction of the most gifted students want to continue in careers in science and math. This is a moment at which once again, as it was the case shortly after World War II, the sciences, certain sciences at least, have become glamorous again. They have become the channels into which cultural desire flows. I think this will not only be, in retrospect, a moment of advantage for the sciences, as Peter has described, in buttressing their legitimacy but also, even more importantly, in recruiting the best and the brightest to scientific careers.
AP: Thank you for this brilliant discussion, and I sincerely hope that this is the first but not the last of our discussion. And I would like to say that we sincerely await you in Moscow when it is possible. And I really think that we have things to discuss together and it would be interesting for all of us.
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