Language, STS, Faith, and Popularity

Read this. It reminds me oh-so-vaguely of a rant or two I’ve had about the use of the word “gay” as a derogatory adjective. Except Michelle used more profanity.

On a much more juvenile, personal, inconsequential note, I’m falling head over heels in love with… no, not the cutie pie from downstairs (who really can’t dress, and this is even by my standards), but my Rhetoric in Science class. You know how you start learning what is really a teeny bit about a subject, and feel like you could read about it for days, but aren’t quite sure where the path should go? No? Okay, then, I shall give an example.

My RiS class is (thus far) on the topic of Science, Technology, and Society (or Science and Technology Studies, if you prefer), which is sort of (from what I understand), a merging of humanities and science, more notably philosophy (in our case). Applying sociology and anthropology to the scientific world is also part of it. I may have this all wrong. Ignore my flaky definitions, in fact. At any rate, we have started skimming the surface of the scientific realism versus constructivism issues. A quick summary (this is a good way for me to study!): scientific realism consists, for the most part, of what we generally think about science. It is efficient; scientific processes have a codified structure (think Scientific Method); science corresponds to the real world and is thus unlike things like math or any of the humanities; it is objective and universal; scientific laws and theories are accepted because they are true; and it is non-dogmatic in that it is open to revision. There is an opposing set of ideas, however, put forth by the school of constructivism: science is practiced by people, and the human, social factor must be taken into account. There is subjectivity in the scientific process simply because it is driven by and motivated by humans. Constructivism also questions what “real” is, as well as what efficiency is. We read an essay by Bruno Latour (don’t worry, there’s an English section at his site, too) titled “Opening Pandora’s Black Box”. In this essay, he uses two examples to demonstrate his viewpoint, the first of which is Watson and Crick’s rush to discover the true structure of DNA after being given access to Linus Pauling’s ideas mere months before Pauling’s article on DNA was to be published, and the second of which is the struggle of Data General engineers (led by Tom West) to create a working computer in the Eagle (the Eclipse MV/8000). The essay highlighted the competitve edge that drove the developers and scientists, and the risks they chose to take, including spending extra time on things that might not have panned out while they were already past deadlines, choosing to go against giants in the field (Pauling apparently had a Nobel Prize in chemistry at the time, yet his ideas about the structure of DNA were chemically impossible (something about missing hydrogen bonds). Unless he was waiting to reveal some fundamental law he had rewritten, which Watson and Crick couldn’t be sure about.), going against superiors in continuing to work on the projects, etc.

Scientific realism focuses much more on the discovery procedure, while constructivism (or, at least, Latour) focuses heavily on the decisions made by the people doing the discovering. Sounds like my kind of party, yes?

One thing that stuck in my head was the way Latour’s article focused on closure in science. The title itself draws this out: Pandora’s Black Box. Once we’ve made discoveries and moved forward, we place a black box of sorts around the theories. How many common computer users know the inner workings of central processing units, of motherboards, of the protocols used to move data around in their computers? I mean the really low-level stuff. Very, very few. We’ve put a black box around it. You give it input, you get output that fits a standard, and you don’t have to (or want to have to) know all the nitty-gritty details of what’s going on. It reminds me of the idea of interfaces in programming. When you are using someone else’s classes, in no way should you have to know how anything is implemented in those classes. What you need to know are the method names and parameters (what you need to send the classes to begin the process), and what types of information you will get back and in what format. When you’re working on a gargantuan system with millions of lines of code split between an entire team of people, you aren’t going to want to (or have time to) learn the inner workings of every piece of code that must interact with yours. You just learn the interfaces you need to use and move on. Similar stuff.

My prof gave us another example of the Black Box: ask your average Joe Blow (or even smart kid that didn’t bone up on chemistry or bio in school) how he knows the structure of DNA is a double helix. Hell, even a kid that did do some chemistry or biology in school may not have gotten to take a peek at some DNA (how do people peek at DNA anyway? Latour’s article made reference to some X-rays, but I don’t really know). At any rate, the physical structure of DNA is pretty much set at this point. We’ve looked around, poked at it, unravelled it, and have said, “it’s a double helix, with some sugars and phosphates”. Or whatever.

This links to another idea of constructivism: things are true because they are accepted. As each new person (in Watson and Crick’s department, for example) became convinced that DNA has a double helix structure, the more it became it the right structure. That may sound silly, and kind of is, in a way, but what about this: as kiddos in science, we are told a bunch of things, including that DNA has a double helix structure. Why is this true to a student that has never done lab work involving DNA? Because it’s accepted? This is one problem I have with folks that tout science as the opposite of religious faith. People say that, because science can be proven true in some objective manner, then it requires no faith to “follow” science. But (with the exception of my geeky friends that did all those rigged labs in chemistry and biology) when’s the last time you were in a lab testing the nuances and limits of Newton’s theories about motion or X-raying some DNA to see the structure? And yet we believe it, because someone else did all the work. For me, for the average, non-scientist person, science must be accepted on just as much faith as the Bible. That just runs through my head when I hear people (one acquaintance of mine in particular) rant about the delusions of religious folk and that icky thing called faith. It’s not so much different in my mind. Of course, that’s just me.

Right. So, originally, my idea was to explain a little about the scientific realism versus constructivism debate from my ignorant standpoint and mention that it would be hella cool if I could find lots of good detailed info about it (and related schools of thoughts, of course) on the Internet. That’s all, I promise.

Oh, and I was going to mention that I am started to be known around my building for my laugh and my computer skills. Hey, being known for my laugh is better than being known as “that bitchy girl”, right? My friend Michael suggested that I play ignorant when I got my computer, to keep from being hunted down, along to the tune of, “Wait, whoa! You mean… you mean that when you move this little ‘mouse’ thing, that pointy thing on the T.V. screen…. Whoa!” Ha ha! I don’t think I could act that well, however, and people have already come by my room and been like, “Hey, you run a website? So do you know HTML?” HTML?? I can’t bring myself to play dumb about knowing a silly markup language; my pride won’t have it. So questions about using Maple, the very cool math program we use, removing viruses, etc., are all sent my way.

This week we’re doing these silly “hallympics”, in which each freshman building competes against other buildings in dodge ball, soccer, etc. Just like gym class, only with lots of cheering (we apparently get points for enthusiasm). We kinda suck, but it’s fun anyway. Besides, I get to oogle the guy from downstairs, even if he does give me weird looks while I’m giggling my head off (and he really can’t dress… Have I mentioned that he can’t dress? White shorts with blue stars do not go with a green shirt, guy. Really.).

I also wanted to post my updated, finalized schedule:

TERM GRID
1

8:05

2

9:00

3

9:55

4

10:50

5

11:45

6

12:40

7

1:35

8

2:30

9

3:25

10

4:20

MONDAY Physics I Rhetoric in Science   Calculus I   Intro to Logic Design        
TUESDAY Physics I Rhetoric in Science   Calculus I   Intro to Logic Design        
WEDNESDAY       Calculus I            
THURSDAY Physics I Rhetoric in Science   Calculus I   Intro to Logic Design        
FRIDAY Physics I Rhetoric in Science College and Life Skills Calculus I   Intro to Logic Design Physics I Lab Physics I Lab Physics I Lab