Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Alternative bodies of knowledge--an introduction

Many of us have been brought up to believe that the story of scientific progress is just that: the gradual victory of truth over error, so that Copernicus replaced Ptolemy, even as chemistry supplanted alchemy. However the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) has shown that the matter is often more complicated than that.

There are several approaches to SSK. For reasons that will become apparent, this essay will focus on only one of these. The Edinburgh strong program is a branch of the sociology of scientific knowledge, one that is particularly associated with such scholars as David Bloor, Barry Barnes, Harry Collins, Donald A. MacKenzie, and John Henry. Since its emergence in the 1970s, the strong program has been both influential and controversial. As regards its influence, few people active in studying the way science works would doubt the existence of scientific communities, bound together by allegiance to shared paradigms and rules of evidence; their functioning is essential for normal, productive scientific activity. (To be sure, this approach is shared by many who are not associated with Edinburgh University, but the label is convenient.)

We are probably on safe ground in agreeing with the Edinburghers in their reaction against previous sociologies of science, which restricted the application of the discipline to "failed" or "false" theories, such as phrenology or the phlogiston theory of combustion. In this older view, failed theories would be explained by citing the researchers' biases, such as covert political or economic interests. Taking the long view, the failure of such theories was inevitable: they were just wrong.

In this perspective (and by contrast), sociology would be only marginally relevant to successful theories, which came to prevail simply because they had revealed the true facts of nature. For its part, the strong program asserted that both "true" and "false" scientific theories must be treated the same way. So far, so good.

Yet the strong programmers entered more troubled waters when they held that the success of all scientific theories is heavily conditioned by social factors or conditions, such as cultural context and self-interest. This view seems to verge on relativism, a relativism in which truth is regarded as secondary, even unimportant. What matters are institutions, including cliques and interest groups. Sometimes the issue seems to come down simply to this: which theory has the most numerous and forceful body of supporters?

I am far from accepting whole hog this version of SSK. In fact I may even have caricatured it. Perhaps I can be pardoned, though, if I acknowledge that the approach may have something valuable to contribute, for it may help us to understand “alternative forms of knowledge"--such things as the denial of HIV as the cause of AIDS, and the Truthers’ assertion that the fall of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan ten years ago was brought about by a conspiracy involving the US government.

For the purposes of this brief, introductory essay on knowledge pluralism, I will turn to something less momentous: the question of the authorship of the plays and other works commonly ascribed to William Shakespeare. Apart from Will himself, the main rivals for the honor are Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and the Earl of Oxford. In his entertaining new book “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?" James Shapiro shows that supporters of the “other” claimants have included such figures as Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller. In his concluding chapter, Shapiro, who is a professor at Columbia University, sets forth what he regards as pretty conclusive arguments for agreeing with the conventional wisdom that in fact Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. In the earlier chapters of the book, however, the author surveys the reasons why the alternative theories came into being. Their formulation was not a mere matter of caprice, but represented a series of particular outlooks and interests.

While I happily attend almost every performance I can, I am no Shakespeare scholar. What I am wondering, though, is whether the procedure of taking our cues from the Edinburgh version of methodological agnosticism might be further productive of insights about the plays and what we gain from them. That is, we might approach the issue in terms of “as if” (to cite the title of a once-famous German treatise), trying to dismiss from our minds, at least temporarily, the “inevitable” conclusion that the conventional wisdom in this matter of authorship is indubitably correct.

UPDATE (October 27, 2011). Since I wrote this piece a film has come out ("Anonymous") asserting the Oxford theory of Shakespearean authorship. See the thorough debunking by Ron Rosenbaum http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_spectator/2011/10/anonymous_a_witless_movie_from_the_stupid_shakespearean_birther_.single.html



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