Thursday, February 2, 2012

Readings and Interpretations III

We talked in class on Wednesday about Egon Guba’s use(s) of the term objectivity in his contribution to his own edited book The Paradigm Dialog.  Guba talks about it in the Kantian sense, as in opposition to subjectivity.  A more interesting way to think of objectivity is as a driving force behind choices made in the research and representation processes and really most of the choices of scientific researchers going back, as Michell does in his article (“The Quantitative Imperative: Positivism, Naïve Realism, and the Place of Quantitative Mehods in Psychology), to the get-go.  Guba writes that “postpositivists counsel a modified objectivity, hewing to objectivity as a “regulatory ideal” but recognizing that it cannot be achieved in any absolute sense” (21).  And I think considering objectivity as a “regulatory ideal” is a really good way to think about it, and I think that’s how scientific researchers have thought about it for a very long time—well before the ascendance of those known as the postpositivists.  Contrary to what Guba seems to be suggesting here, though, I don’t think many serious people have made the claim that they have “achieved” it (whatever that means).

Objectivity is a fascinating concept—especially when it’s traced historically.  I’ve read up on it quite a bit lately in Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s work (exemplified in their co-authored book Objectivity and their article “The Image of Objectivity”), and just last night I came across Daston’s introductory essay to Biographies of Scientific Objects, wherein she writes:  “In contrast to quotidian objects, scientific objects are elusive and hard-won.  Historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science do not confuse quotidian objects with scientific objects.  They have however been locked in a debate between realism and constructionism that implicitly draws upon the obduracy of quotidian objects” (2).  She goes on to say that, according to a strictly realist point of view, scientific objects are “discoveries, unexplored territory waiting to be mapped,” and from a purely constructivist view they are “eminently historical, but not real”—they are inventions (2-3).  Daston proposes an “applied metaphysics” approach to science that “posits that scientific objects can be simultaneously real and historical,” and that works to “blur the distinction between invention and discovery” (3).

It occurred to me during our class discussion that objectivity, as a “regulatory ideal,” is the force that has determined what objects are worth classifying as scientific objects at least as long as it (the term “objectivity”) has been a part of the scientific lexicon.  Objectivity is the desire to show the importance of objects to people who might not recognize such importance in them.  It is the desire to emphasize one or more particularities of an already-deemed-scientific object that is felt to have been under-emphasized.  The “objective world,” in this sense, is understood as the interesting world.  It is not achieved, but examined.

This all was (and kind of still is) pretty hazy in my mind, so I went back to Daston’s book to see if I could get some clarity.  I found the following argument, which I think gets at what I’m trying to get at, in Hans-Jorg Rheinberger’s contribution “Cytoplasmic Particles: The Trajectory of a Scientific Object”: “If the process of gaining experimental knowledge is to be understood as a discourse that has shaped the modern sciences, and whose special relation to the real remains an issue, then it is worth trying to understand its ‘objectivity’ in terms of the peculiar ‘objecticity’ it confers on its objects.”  In other words, considering scientific objectivity as being about scientists trying to identify a reality that exists independently from their subjective experiences through careful experimentation is only partially correct.  It is more about these scientists placing an object under the (metaphorical or not) microscope so that it might later be placed under another microscope again.  Objectivity, in this sense, is about arguing that this is worth considering as an object of scientific inquiry.  In this sense, it is a “regulatory ideal,” but not really in the way Guba thinks it is.

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