Thursday, November 10, 2011

Objectivity 1.1 - Blind Sight

Chapter 1, Epistemologies of the Eye & Blind Sight opens with the claim that "Scientific objectivity has a history" and the authors proceed to distinguish this concept from the far more ancient virtues of "truth" and "certainty".  

Fascinated with the processes of thinking and understanding by which I might not just learn more, but ways to learn better and understand things otherwise unobtainable, this kind of material is irresistibly sexy.  Also, I hate to be wrong in a degree that used to be called "scrupulosity" or "obsessive concern with one's own sins and compulsive performance of religious devotion."  In my case, this means ethical science. 

Although the 3 values interact and overlap somewhat, each is distinct, different, and is an important tool for understanding.  Also, they represent evolutionary stages of collective cognitive development in scientific research. 

Daston & Galison provide historical illustrations developed in pursuit of each scientific value.  Googling "Hortus Cliffortianus 1737" brings up this plant illustration which result from efforts dedicated "Truth to Nature" within botany.  This virtue was an all-but universal foundation of such illustrations from that era, and still so useful that these beautiful works of art live on in textbooks today.  This, despite the fact that everyone knows this particular illustration does not show any real plant that has ever existed.

The authors attribute the rise of each scientific code of behavior as the result of developments in previous science.  They claim "Truth-to-Nature was a precondition for mechanical objectivity, just as mechanical objectivity was a precondition for trained judgment.  They also contrast these developments against succession of political regime change, such as one paradigm overthrowing another in Kuhnian revolution.  Rather, they posit "a far messier situation in which all the elements continue in play", IMO much like evolution within an ecosystem where new species are added, perhaps at the expense of a few previous varieties of another species.

This micrograph is similar to that in the book, where a camera is used to capture real snowflakes, including "peculiarities and assymmetries" without human interference.  This is what Daston & Galison term "mechanical objectivity" which arose out of truth to nature in an effort to prevent errors like those pointed out in Section 0.1.

While searching for the third and final illustration of this section, I encountered this blog, featuring a similar review of "Objectivity".  Clearly this book has lots of fans - and based on the small amount I've read, rightfully so.

 Finally, we have an example illustration which is the result of "trained judgment", where researchers deliberately interfered in representation of the data to remove defects in instrumentation.  

Scientific atlases are Objectivity's focus, a selection for which the authors argue at some length and with success we will examine in our next segment: Objectivity 1.2 - Collective Empiricism.

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