Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Speaking of...

...relativism: Bruno Latour has noticed the grievous misuse of his arguments about the social construction of scientific fact, and is chastened:
Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent sometimes in the past trying to show the "lack of scientific certainty" inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a "primary issue." But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I'd like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from a prematurely naturalized objectified fact. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact–as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past–but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we have now to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can't I simply say that the argument is closed for good?
As I said on Alejandro's blog, where I first heard about this, I like Latour and think that his arguments are of great import when kept out of the wrong hands. The Intersection writes that Latour should stop flagellating himself and get on with countering misused relativism, and I agree: We forgive you, Bruno, now help make it right.

(The article also has resonance with a discussion Laura and I just had about the academy's inability to cope with postmodernism, but that's a whole other can of worms.) There is a wealth of education links over at The Education Wonks, including one to the aforementioned Sudbury model school. I haven't even started making my way through them, so I'll probably also blog specific things that strike me, but meanwhile, there's enough reading material there to keep you from needing to look at my blog for weeks. Happy birthday.

Meanwhile, Dispatches from the Culture Wars has a post about the New York Academy of Sciences' recent conference on teaching evolution. The post includes a suggestion from a panelist that evolution be taught not only as a biological truth but as "an example of science done right," and (in comments) a concurrent suggestion that the 16th-century furor over heliocentrism should be used to give perspective on the evolution/ID "controversy," as well as to show (Kuhn-style) how science works when it really works. The historian of science in me loves the great taste... but the adult in me agrees that this would be an invaluable asset to science education! We need a little philosophy with our high school sciences -- not just plate tectonics and ATP, but why we study the world the way we do; what it means to talk about a scientific theory; what it means to "prove" something and whether it's possible; and generally where science comes from.


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