Friday, January 7, 2011

Stengers on what is special about science

Isabelle Stengers' defence of scientific autonomy in the Speculative Turn volume is also a beautiful and blistering attack on 'the knowledge economy', constructivist science studies and culture warrior epistemologists:
Taking seriously the singularity of experimental practices also leads us to understand the strong possibility of their destruction by the coming knowledge economy. The point is not that the scientific enterprise would lose a neutrality it never had. From the beginning, experimental scientists have taken an active, and even entrepreneurial, part in industrial and commercial development. What is at risk is rather the very social fabric of scientific reliability, that is, the constitutive relation between an experimental achievement and the gathering of what can be called ‘competent colleagues’, colleagues assembled by the question of verifying, objecting, of putting to the test the eventual power of an experimental fact to force agreement by silencing other possible interpretations. Such a social fabric emphatically does not ensure anything about propositions that have failed, for whatever reason, to become a matter of collective practical concern. But it relates the reliability of the consensus about an experimental scientific proposition to such a collective concern, to the critical attention of colleagues who will use their imagination to test and criticize a claim, whatever its interest and promises.
This quite specific social fabric will be destroyed when scientists as practitioners do not depend upon each other any longer, but are tied instead to competing industrial interests. It becomes then a matter of survival to confirm the kind of promises that attracted the appetites of investors, and to produce patentable results. As the future of those results is independent of concerned colleagues, what will prevail is the general wisdom that you do not saw off the branch on which you are sitting together with everybody else. Nobody will then object too much, if objecting against a scientific argument may lead to a general weakening of the promises of a field. This amounts to saying that, with the knowledge economy, we may have scientists at work everywhere, producing facts with the speed that new sophisticated instruments make possible, but that the way those facts are interpreted will now mostly follow the landscape of settled interests. In other words, the deconstructivist-eliminativist view will then be fully verified. We will more and more deal with instrumental knowledge. But the verification will not result from the deconstructivist’s daring perceptiveness, but from the fact that capitalism will have destroyed yet another practice, just as it is an ongoing process of destruction of the commons...
My proposition is that we do not accept at face value the scientists’ complaint that rationality is under attack, that the economy should stop and respect the temple of disinterested science, but that we take seriously the fact that rejecting scientists’ complaints on those grounds itself leaves the field free for their destruction. Indeed, it justifies it, even if regretfully. My point is that there is no practice the destruction of which cannot be justified, either by the privileges they benefited, or by their alienating archaism, or by their closure and resistance to change, but all those reasons, if they amount to justifying why destruction is not a cause for struggle, also amount to giving free elbowroom to capitalism in its ongoing destructive redefinition of the world. 

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