Reconstruction of Ashmore’s “Theatre of the blind”

13 April 1993 (Notes responding to a talk by Malcolm Ashmore [12 April ’93 at Cornell Univ. STS department] based on

First pass at reconstructing Ashmore’s argument:

Initial proposition:

0.  I want to apply neo-strong programme “even-handedness,” which directs us to seek a sociological explanation of facts held by most to be true, not just those held by most to be false.  Normally, we apply this to scientific facts, but by reflexivity or consistency we should also apply this also to science studies facts.  If consistency is not a powerful enough argument to make you do this, how can I convince you to bother?  Let me take a hard case and show you there’s a payoff.

1.  One of the hardest facts in science studies is that Wood performed his debunking experiment on Blondlot as he described.

2.  As I have already said, instead of explaining this fact as following from it really happening the way described, even-handedness directs us to seek a sociological explanation of this fact.

3.  But I won’t do this.  Instead I’ll show you that 1. is not the only interpretation of what Wood did (including what he said).

4.  Bulk of MA’s talk, up to but not including Blondlot’s speech.

Second pass:

5.  Showing the mere existence of alternative interpretations (3 above) isn’t really enough to persuade you to do 2.  I have to make the interpretation more plausible -> two approaches (which complement each other, but which could, in principle, stand separately):

a)  Make plausible the idea that N rays did exist (via Blondlot’s speech), and so science studies has been in error.  Sociology of error needs less motivation than sociology of truth.

b)  Give my explanation of why hard fact has been believed, independently of whether or not it is true:  Wood wins because he gets away with using the opposite of good scientific method and we like to stories in which confident method is debunked.


Some problems:

6.  Why, given the initial methodological proposition (0), revert to sociology of error? (5a)  Why, in fact, build a sociological account that refers to the natural fact at all?

7.  Why advance the particular explanation focusing on the micro-site (5b)?  Why not integrate national styles and rivalries (played upon by both scientists and in science studies) etc.?

Third pass:

Two answers to 7 (6 has to wait):

8.  The shift from 2 to 3 is crucial.  Existence theorems are much easier than construction theorems (to use a mathematical analogy).

9.  a) Irony can be very powerful rhetoric (more so to Anglos than to Americans).  Although 5b is a sweeping generalization, you can get away with it because it provides the punch-line for the masterful ironic inversion.

b) The ironic inversion, in turn, enhances the plausibility to your audience of both your interpretations 5a & b.   (It probably also enhances the plausibility to you because you can identify with the trickster who wins the rhetorical contest.)

c) To the extent that people in science studies don’t want to be debunked, you have warned them to be more careful, suggesting that this can be achieved by adhering to the neo-strong programme.

Another problem:

10. This advocacy of method (0 & 9c) does not seem to jive with 5b, i.e., with our supposed ingrained distrust of methodological prescriptions.

Back to 6:

11.  My interpretation is that the strong programme’s emphasis on the truth vs. falsity dichotomy has two problematic (side)effects:

a) It continually draws the audience’s attention back to the issue: “Well, do you or do you not believe that X happens/happened?”  One can be evasive (your guard slipped however (6)), but I don’t know how a strong-programmer can suppress that question.  (Thus your “death and furniture” project.)

b) A strong-programmer can get a lot of mileage (debunking the sociology of error) from the shift to the existence theorem, so there is little motivation to pursue the construction theorem.  Or, in other terms, the EPOR [empirical programme of relativism] is best on the second stage, interpretive flexibility, and offers crude answers when it ventures onto its third stage.  Your explanation of why science studies hasn’t questioned the hard fact (1) is glib (not to mention a tad contradictory (10)).

12.  How to get around these side effects?

Some starting propositions of mine:

a.  In place of truth or falsity of an account, let’s substitute modifiability of a practice.

b.  Of course, rhetoric about truth or falsity continues, so we need to ask what supports that rhetoric, what allows such claims to have effect in resisting/ enhancing modification of the practice.

c.  Modifiability is an issue of heterogeneous webs of resources.  If we notice someone invoking one or a few resources (especially correspondence with some more or less unprocessed/able reality) we can ask how they have obscured, defleted attention away from, taken for granted the others.

d.  Reflexivity becomes a practical matter — what are the practical conditions, not just the textual strategies, that allow us to advance our accounts?

(These are developed in my draft ms. on heterogeneous constructionism).

13.  But how can I get you to bother to pursue this path?  Certainly, I don’t expect problems 11a&b to disturb you from what you are skillful, comfortable, and productive doing.  Nevertheless, this reconstruction may provoke some response, and, even if it’s only for my own sake, let me finish with my take-home message:

14.  My overall claim (hypothesis to support, heuristic to explore) is that science studies interpreters who use the ideas truth and falsity, even if they are just quoting the agents they are interpreting, and even if they are trying to be evenhanded, steer attention away from the heterogeneous construction of scientific activity, and will always have difficulty delivering on (i.e. doing the construction not just the existence theorem for) their desired sociology of truth.


15.  Given the substitution of evenhandedness for impartiality + symmetry the following point (lifted from a footnote in the ms. I’m working on) is probably a small one:

Heterogeneous constructionism also implies that the strong programme’s methodological principle of “symmetry” cannot, as stated, be implemented (Bloor 1991, p. 7). This principle requires us to use the same types of causes to explain “correct” and “incorrect” beliefs, that is, ideas deemed by other groups (contemporary or future) as being correct or incorrect.  Given the number and heterogeneity of resources in the construction of science, it is implausible to assume that the networks constructed to support opposing beliefs would end up taking the exact same shape and structure.  Strict causal symmetry is thus an overstated principle, and to the extent that people take symmetry literally, complex causality is avoided and so examination of the heterogeneity of construction processes is inhibited.

Of course, the main point of the principle of symmetry is to avoid explaining the “correct” ideas as the result of good science and the incorrect as the result of bias, ideology or some other “erroneous” beliefs.  This point could be covered, however, under a modified principle of impartiality, which dictated that all accounts need equally serious (non-reductionist) efforts at explanation.



*Hard case is not T or F, but those that require stage 3 of EPOR (replace closure with composure), i.e., a positive sociology of truth.

*Neo- Strong Programme drops explicit reference to causal part of SP, but not implicitly.  (It’s impossible for accounts to be non-explanatory, and all explanations are causal.)  So what are implicit causes?

*Thoroughgoing neo-strong programme is sociology of error (in rhetorical structure).

*Beyond dichotomies: T or F, heroes/ villains; realism/relativism;winners/losers.  (Each of these allows rhetorical flip — a powerful device if you can pull it off.)

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