Friday, February 11, 2011

Is Science a Text?

[Bowler, Peter J. and Morus, Iwan Rhys. “Introduction: Science, Society, and History.” Making Modern Science: A historical survey. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.]

It seems undeniable that a purely internal account of science is insufficient. The real question here is: what is the extent and nature of the natural sciences’ relationship to “objective reality”? Interestingly, the most “internalist” theories of science—the ones that would see science as least continuous with other fields of social, political, and intellectual endeavor—also seem to have the greatest faith in science’s connection to objective truth.

Science’s real bogeyman seems to be what is called the “postmodern” perspective. As soon as connection to objective reality is questioned to one degree or another, the line of though that is commenced can only end, it seems, in the profound skepticism of the “postmodernist” variety. But one’s first instinct—to defend in some way or another the existence, accesibility, and describability of some kind of objective reality—should not, I think, be ignored.

What is the problem with postmodernism’s critique of science (beyond the ever-present aporia at its center of being a critical mode of intellectual engagement that critiques critical modes of intellectual engagement)? I would say that the key term is “text.” It’s clear that we cannot take this at an entirely literal level, for the offspring of the scientific method are not only symbolic texts, but also technologies. Science so far has had the ability to implement its “texts” in a way rivaled only by politics—and yet technology seems to be, in its essence, less abstract than politics: a war for religion or democracy is more textual than a nuclear weapon, for example.

I think it’s easy to relegate science to a flat world of equally valid and invalid texts—until flesh and blood are affected. When genocide is committed or the cure for AIDS found, bodies are affected. And while I understand that the postmodernist program was built partially upon noble political aims, reducing science to mere textuality is doing disservice to these same aims: a better aim, I think, would be to remove the emperor’s clothes and question the goodness of science, as well as its hidden political motives.

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