Sunday, 8 August 2010

dancing in context

A few days ago, I noted that simply recognizing context as a factor in the dance of science wasn't very satisfying, because that "gives no flavour for how context interacts with the cycle elements" (observation, experiment, theorizing, and classification).

John Wilkins was nice enough to respond, first by pointing out that he's in the middle of a series (oops!) and second, that
... It is an empirical matter in each case what that context is. There are no generalisations that I think are unexceptional about this. Sometimes a science will run more or less independently of its culture, and at other times a science will be beholden to its cultural context independently of the internal issues of the science. [...] To think there is a general, universal and consistent cultural context for science is, I believe, a holdover of Comtean positivist thinking. You want to know what the relevant context was for the Hubble telescope, or for the discovery of aspirin? Go look. My schematic here merely indicates the general relations of external and internal movements in the science.
Yup. Good stuff, and I look forward to reading what comes next in the series.

Although context is frustratingly idiosyncratic, I think there are some areas at the fringes where it is possible to make definite claims about its relationship to scientific practice. But first, I want to say why I think context is such a hard problem.

It isn't clear what context is. I mean, it's a distinction between something and its surroundings, but what does that mean? What kind of distinction does "context" rely on? It isn't strictly foreground/background (that seems to imply salient/not-salient, and that's clearly not right). It's more like inside/outside. That seems to depend on solving the "demarcation problem:" what is science, and what isn't? Some activities count as scientific, others do not (I suppose measuring counts, but napping does not). Some interests are scientific, others are not (perhaps understanding counts but getting tenure does not). Things get fuzzy fast, and I'm not entirely certain a sharp line is desirable.

Still, even without a satisfactory notion of what context is, we can pick out cases of context affecting science. For example, legal restrictions make certain experiments impossible.*

I expect I'll have more to say about context at a later date, but that's enough noodling for today.

* For a sense of "possible" that is sensitive to legal matters. Typically, we would say illegal activities are "impermissible," not impossible, but I prefer to discuss "regulative possibility." This allows for an analysis that makes use of overlapping realms of possibility -- physical, technological, economic, ethical, and regulative to name a few.

1 comment:

John S. Wilkins said...

I agree about demarcation, but I constantly quote Burke:

"But, though no man can draw a stroke between the confines of day and night, yet light and darkness are upon the whole tolerably distinguishable."

I think a kind of demarcation is possible, even if not a priori: The Demarcation Problem.. Again.