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Culture wars revisited

Michael Lynch and Alan Sokal enagage in a most civil dialogue: Defending Science: An Exchange. Readers might also be interested in Susan Haack’s Defending Science-Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism and James Robert Brown’s Who Rules in Science?: An Opinionated Guide to the Wars – two cracking reads – and both past contributors to EPISTEME.

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Shapin on Polanyi

Shapin’s London Review of Books review of Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science by Mary Jo Nye. (Both Hayek and Oakeshott are mentioned by Shapin).

Michael Polanyi lives on in the footnotes. If you want to invoke the idea of ‘tacit knowledge’, Polanyi is your reference of choice. You’ll probably cite his major book Personal Knowledge (1958), maybe the earlier Science, Faith and Society (1946), maybe the later The Tacit Dimension (1966). ‘We know more than we can tell’ was Polanyi’s dictum. We know how to ride a bicycle, but we can’t write down how to do it, at least not in a way that allows non-cyclists to read our instructions, get on their bikes and ride off. We can reliably pick out a familiar face in a crowd, but we can’t say just what it is about the face that we recognise. And, crucially, since Polanyi is now known mainly as a philosopher of science, a scientist can’t adequately describe how to do a bit of science through any version of formalised ‘Scientific Method’. Whether the craft is cooking, carpentry or chemistry, the apprentice learns by watching and doing. Where knowledge and skill are concerned, it’s not all talk.

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Paradoxical Roots of “Social Construction”

David Kaiser reviews Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science by Mary Jo Nye.

Fifteen years ago, scientists, historians, and sociologists traded salvos in what was termed the “science wars.” Passions ran high; “social construction of science” became a battle cry. Critics like physicist Alan Sokal pointed an accusing finger at various humanists who had suggested that science was an inherently social phenomenon riven by rival interests rather than a rational pursuit of objective facts about the natural world. Some blamed the French sociologist Bruno Latour and his writings from the 1980s. Others highlighted members of the Edinburgh school of the sociology of scientif ic knowledge and their writings from the 1970s. Still others singled out Thomas Kuhn’s remarkably influential little treatise, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962.

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Knowledge Has Always Been Networked

Here is a rather scathing review of David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.

The renaissance of Marshall McLuhan in the era of the Web is disappointing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its rather dull obviousness. There is little surprise that the quotable, evidence-free, technology-obsessed Canadian English professor would thrive in a technology-obsessed era where pithy quotes about the deep meaning of digital devices too often stands in for evidence. McLuhan, of course, was the master theorist of the medium; beyond the over-used “medium is the message,” McLuhan’s major insight was to argue that socio-technological systems — such as the media — operate on a grand scale, largely independent of the day-to-day interest us mere mortals might have in their actual content. McLuhan’s primary flaw, on the other hand, was to decouple this understanding of socio-technical system from any relationship to economics, politics, or society. As leading communications theorist James Carey put it, “McLuhan sees the principal effect [of communication technology] as impacting sensory organization and thought. McLuhan has much to say about perception and thought but little to say about institutions.”

German philosopher Martin Heidegger is less quoted in Silicon Valley than Marshall McLuhan, and not just because he was a Nazi. McLuhan and Heidegger are equally poor writers, but whereas McLuhan’s inscrutable prose has led to him being more read than he ought to be, unintelligibility has had the opposite outcome for Heidegger. A dazzlingly complex philosopher — probably the greatest of the 20th century — the most important aspect of Heidegger’s thought for our purposes is his understanding that human beings (or rather “Dasein,” “being-in-the-world”) are always thrown into a particular context, existing within already existing language structures and pre-determined meanings. In other words, the world is like the web, and we, Dasein, live inside the links.