This book aims to expand the boundaries of the influences that readers consider when interpreting the practices and products of the life sciences (“biology”) and their impact on society. The chapter topics include: Interpreting Ideas of Nature; The structure of origin stories; Multiple layers in influencing an audience: The case of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species; Metaphors of coordination and development; What causes a disease?—the consequences of hereditarianism in the case of pellagra; How changeable are IQ test scores?; Social negotiations around genetic screening; Intersecting processes involving genes and environment. Continue reading
The Social Construction of What? (Harvard UP, 2000) by philosopher of science, Ian Hacking, critically reviews the possible meanings of social construction in the context of scientific knowledge and technology. However, there is one meaning of construction that he does not consider, perhaps the most obvious one to the common person, namely, the process of building a structure from diverse materials, as in the foundations, frames, walls, roof, plumbing and electrical circuits, and so on. (2011 post)
A 1975 book of Hacking’s, What does language matter to philosophy?, almost allows us to see what he overlooked at that time and still did in the 2000 book, namely, that knowing always involves engaging [*] or acting as if the world were like our explicit and implicit theories and representations of it. Continue reading
It would be interesting to investigate why the constructionist perspective on ecological complexity (see below) is overlooked. One answer is that people haven’t come across what has been written on that perspective by me and others. But I’m more interested in why hasn’t it been discovered and enunciated by others for themselves and why they don’t discuss its implications once they know about it. This post presents the idea again (quoting from a 2010 post, which draws from Taylor 2005, 3-17) then reviews Robert May’s response to it over the last 30 years. Continue reading
(Continued from previous post) Sismondo’s advice raises issues more serious than our questioning the status of philosophy over (or its separateness from) social studies of science. While he asserts that his constructivisms are separable and claims clarification will result from distinguishing a focus on social objects from a focus on the natural world, his argument, examples and footnotes suggest such separateness cannot be sustained in practice. Again, taking each of Sismondo’s first three constructivisms (but flipping the order of 2 and 3 for expository reasons):
1) His examples of large social objects (or projects) are ‘genders, power, emotions… cities, economies, legislation and knowledge.’[xiv] As social objects, cities and economies are clearly very material as well as being actively represented and full of meanings. The degree to which representations of them render their material aspects more difficult to construct differently (or acrete upon differently), and vice versa, is an obvious question for investigation. Surely knowledge is not the odd thing out in his list of examples, being the one meaningful thing (social object) that has a relationship only in the direction from material/natural to representation/ social.
3) The ubiquity of manufactured reality in laboratory science confirms that knowledge is not the exception, as Sismondo makes clear in a footnote: The ‘phenomena that science studies are extremely dependent on thoughts and theoretical commitments, for often these would not exist were it not for the experimental development of these theoretical commitments.’ The question then arises, why is it important to try to place a line to keep manufactured reality strictly separate from some deep underlying unmediated reality?
2) In the light of Sismondo’s expanded lists of ‘fixed’ points, the answer becomes uncertain. When these points included only data and observations one could argue that some ‘geometrically’ constructed conceptual entities come to be accepted over others because they map reality better, because they are approximately true. But the ‘because’ is more difficult to sustain when construction builds as well upon ‘resources and the like,’ that is, upon social objects; acceptance of knowledge (or reliability of technological interventions) becomes, instead, a part of a more complex achievement. (I develop this point further below.)
Linked together in this way, Sismondo’s conclusions invite us to subvert his own distinctions by considering the co-construction of knowledge and material reality, extending from laboratory manufactured reality to larger social projects. It is true, as he says, that in social studies of science different things have been described as being constructed — the natural world, scientific phenomena and techniques, acceptance of facts and theories, on-going scientific activity, ‘social objects,’ or society or more generally. At the same time, however, the literature has increasingly described practices in which these things are interlinked: scientific objects appear to be resources for people building networks to support theories; theories resources in the organisation of scientific work; language, tools, and scientific work relations resources enabling particular manufacturings of reality, and so on. This kind of constructivism shifts perspective not just from separate things to jointly constructed sets of things, but from thinking mostly about the constructed state of the outcomes to examining the processes of their co-construction.[xv] Of course, from the point of view of the philosophically minded, sociologists of science have provided stories about such complexity, but have yet to tease out the causal or explanatory claims implied in descriptions of such interlinkings. An examination of the implications of such an explanatory co-constructivist project is beyond the scope of this note. We can, however, consider how Sismondo’s philosophical and political arguments are limited by his inattention to co-construction and process. (Continued in the next post)
[xiv] S1, p.547
[xv] Sismondo’s focus on the status of outcomes leads him to address Latour’s and Woolgar’s work only in terms of the fourth category of constructivism, the one he rejects. Both Latour and Woolgar are constructivists also in the sense of co-construction (see note 8). Cf. Sismondo’s description of Latour’s work on scientists as accumulators of resources (op. cit. note 3) as “not obviously constructivist” (S1, p. 537).
Jordi Bascompte’s “Stucture and dynamics of ecological networks” (Science, 13 August 2010) cites Robert May’s theoretical work in the 1970s as showing that, because “the more complex a randomly built food web, the less stable it is… real networks must have some contrasting, nonrandom structures that allow them to persist despite their complexity.” Efforts to characterise the nonrandom structures, including Bascompte’s, would benefit from giving more attention to lesser-known theoretical work from the 1970s and 80s that showed that, whereas stable systems may be extremely rare as a fraction of the systems being sampled (May’s result), they can be readily constructed over time by the addition of populations from a pool of populations or by elimination of populations from systems not at a steady state. Under such a “constructionist” perspective: stable complex ecosystems need not be weakly interlinked modules of populations—they can be more richly interactive; the range of mathematical possibilities that modelers can consider is extended; persistence of complexity does not necessarily require devious strategies (ongoing turnover of populations may be all that is needed); complexity can be constructed in ecological time without shaping of interactions by natural selection; complexity constructed in ecological time depends on its spatial context; and complexity might be better conceived in terms of intersecting processes, not well-bounded systems. As remarked ten years ago in the context of a debate about whether diversity enhances ecosystem function, the constructionist perspective on ecological complexity is also preferable for any serious consideration of the implications of human interventions within ecosystems.
 P. J. Taylor, Unruly Complexity (University of Chicago Press, 2005), 3-17.
A schema I drew in 1989 (recovered in 2017 from the archives) of directions that could have followed from Latour’s framework as conveyed in Science in Action (1987). Continue reading