It is so difficult to think clearly

Hi Carlos!

The post title was stated by one of my grad school office-mates and compatriots, without sarcasm or humor, but as a heartfelt exclamation during the edits we were making on his manuscript submission. He is one of the best scientists and critical thinkers I’ve met, and as with many things, he was absolutely correct.

In the texts I’ve seen and used, most explanations of scientific thinking focus on the famous hypothesis test, formally, the hypothetico-deductive method, and elevated in these texts by the term “the scientific method.” The latter is correct so far as it goes, but note the detail: it’s a method. I’ve found it’s worth expanding the scope a bit to explain, the method for what.

To interpret from these texts, scientists wander about in a haze of Zen-like observation, and sooner or later a hypothesis occurs to them, and then they test it to determine (I use that word on purpose) whether it’s true. As time goes by, we therefore know (and I use that word on purpose too) more and more true things, as opposed to a bunch of superstition and guesses. However, as you can tell from my snotty tone, this isn’t really what happens at all. Here’s my best shot at describing what does.

First, science’s big social and intellectual cycle in terms of the modern profession:

great debateBut don’t get distracted by the publication process! The real point of that picture is to discover how much plain old talking is involved, at more of the depicted steps than you might think. Science as a profession and as a system of publication is only our particular historical infrastructure.

So what are earth are these people talking about? In a word, causes. Exactly as William Lawrence defined the term “biology” for the English language, we’re talking about life as an effect of nonliving substances and their interactions. As I like to say, just because you are a living thing doesn’t mean you stop being a thing. But as with all such things (and I do mean that word), you find out different stuff depending on how you tune your satellite, binoculars, or microscope. So the first specific complexity of biology is its levels, meaning, degree of magnification regarding the causes and effects.

(the depicted arrows apply to specific examples, not relevant here)


The next logical topic would be the questions of biology, which always concern one or more of these three arrows’ directions, and also always a matter of physical, in-the-world causes. I’ll hold off on what the specific spins on cause are most important for biology for a later post. This one is highly focused on how we think about it rather than what we’re thinking about.

That said, here’s what the talking is doing:

theory in action

This shows there are two possible reasons to investigate something scientifically, each independently necessary and sufficient: (i) the inductive one, called a variety of rude exclamations, when something you observe adds to or bluntly violates the existing models; or (ii) the deductive one, called prior plausibility, when something about the model implies or outright demands clarification or comparison. These are forms the scientific unknown can take, where basic research lives.

For genuine scientific thinking to be under way, those bigger arrows must be social ferments, in an unconstructed and curious mix of special rigor and the crazy. If the infrastructure of employment and publication facilitates those ferments, then well and good; if it inhibits them, you get depressing shiny science trappings without the thinking, dominated by a particularly unpleasant brand of careerism. Colleagues will recognize such in-house slang as MPUs and deanlet.

Now you can see what I mean regarding the hypothesis test: yes, it is a well-developed way to articulate how the model feeds into the methods, and permitting the results to override the model despite one’s personal preferences. But it’s a specialized subroutine of this larger and messier activity, applicable only when the interplay between induction and deduction, and the debate itself, has reached a certain point. It strictly and only feeds into the debate as additional, sometimes unwelcome inductive material. Therefore it really, really shouldn’t be presented as the primary or central act. Treated as such, it unfortunately descends into sterile ritual.

Quick side point: really testing a  hypothesis is a matter of multiple studies, often conducted by people who disagree with one another, each with its own Methods/Results subroutine. The science textbooks always make it sound like there was this One Experiment to Prove It All each time, which is an example of hagiography and drama-queening.

All right, from a side point to the main point: the classic or dramatic conundrum of collective human intellect is all wrong. I don’t think we struggle to make order in the face of scary chaos at all. Instead, thinking unclearly is all too easy, in the addictive haze of constant apophenia, our tendency to perceive meaningful patterns, I’ll go so far as to say “dramatic narrative,” no matter what we’re looking at. Getting into the state of clarity Carlos was talking about is hard, and it’s also too easy to get bounced out without realizing. (Thanks to my pal Jen for the vocab! I didn’t know there was a word for that.)

All of explains the difficulty with that much-abused and ultimately not very helpful term scientific fact, and why the single sector of humanity whom I’ve observed to use it the least, bordering on never, is … scientists.

Toward the end of my senior year in college, in early 1987, I bought and read the re-issue of Bruno Latour’s and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life. It struck me as a provocative and useful book, full of things to agree and disagree with, and I carried it with me mentally through each insitution where I’ve worked and studied. I’ve also since found that the way it seems to have entered the larger discourse or academic culture is almost completely disconnected from its contents.

Also, that discourse seems to be marked by a horrible case of envy toward the hard sciences (roughly: physics, chemistry, biology), unmitigated by appending “science” onto oneself. Strangely mixed with this envy is also contempt, expressed in a driving need to show us that you’re not so great after all. In this, no phrase is more repeated than “science is socially constructed, OMG,” which has become a telephone game from Laboratory Life ending with the risible notion that scientists make shit up, so there. At its worst these claims include moral condemnation which tags scientific culture with oppression, discrimination, and cruelty (usually waving some second-rate interpreter of Foucault around). I confess to an unseemly suspicion that few or perhaps no people with recent sociology or similar degrees have even read Laboratory Life – or actual Foucault, for that matter.

Briefly, what Latour and his team did was to hang out at the Jonas Salk Institute for a few months and ask the questions anthropologists usually ask their subjects. Not to put too fine a point on it, they were deeply invested in debunking the purported objectivity of “scientific facts” and – as I see it – not well-prepared for what they did see. But instead of cranking about what I disagreed with in the book, I’ll show the big-conclusion diagram, which frankly, I think is brilliant and needs to be the first diagram in every scientific-procedures course.


Latour & Woolgar’s figure 4.1

Check out the arrows carefully – they drive from left to right. See how you pick up things you call “facts” from the literature and general dialogue, and utilize them, whether as fixed for the present purpose or as targets for challenge, and ultimately, even alter them into instruments of further argumentation (they call it agonistic). That’s what we’re up to! Changing things up in that huger and much more unconstructed matrix of discussion.

The word “fact” is not an indicator of special value at all. No scientific observation or experimental conclusion is formally claimed as such special value. Nobody ends a paper by saying, and now look, we’ve established this here capital-F Fact – not even disguised by weasel words; it’s simply not said at all. Instead, if it’s used at all, it’s when you have decided to treat prior conclusions and observations as provisionally the case – as usable grist for your current modeling. One may be very sincere in this or believe that the stated material or some aspect of the existing models is the case, but the essential feature of the larger debate and the in-the-moment testing is that such sincerity or belief carry no weight at all. Or, like myself, one may be a blowtorcher by inclination, seeking out stated material for the nefarious act of ripping the current models a new one. Either way, the verbal habit of calling prior material a “fact” … means nothing.

You might be thinking, then, that the “socially constructed! not true! you’re a buncha liars!” accusation might be grounded. I’m saying it’s not. Because let’s take a look at the conclusions of studies, and the criticism which Latour and Woolgar brought to bear on them – given their views, it’s certain that whatever shadow they might cast upon scientific output would be stated most explicitly.

However, here’s what the book actually says: that scientific conclusions are common sense. It’s in the context of triumphantly proclaiming that these conclusions aren’t trumpets of angelic truth emerging from petri dishes, sure, but I call attention to the authors being unable to say that scientific conclusions are made-up lies. They can’t and they don’t. The current widespread “science is social hence it’s a bunch of hot air” notion simply isn’t in the book at all, nor does it follow from anything they report or say.

If that statement was intended as a damning criticism that scientists merely ritualize what they already know, it’s pretty weak, considering how many times well-constructed experimental results have beaten cherished and even quite plausible (“sensible”) ideas into pulp to the dismay of the practitioners. Putting on my charitable hat, I’ll cut the Latour and Woolgar observations (not by any means a study) some slack about it as they embedded themselves in a narrow, hothouse sector of American scientific research, that is, a top-grant medical-application, which is a culture is noted for its “mining” strategy and fetish for positive results. I’ll whip up a post about that specifically some time later. For now, in rebuttal to the negative extensions of the “merely common sense” comment, I’m simply going to say, if we have an intellectual endeavor which…

  • keeps a rigorous paper trail for both debate and observational methods
  • demands the admission of potentially being wrong as part of every claim, quantitatively when possible
  • never states a claim as “fact” in the sense of being fixed and now inviolable, but rather lets later users deduce as they see fit, and
  • yields what they call “common sense” (i.e. they cannot refute it) …

… then I’m going to call that a big win for science compared to any other intellectual discourse in human history.

Next: Death: what remains


7 thoughts on “It is so difficult to think clearly

    • You are smart and an original thinker to boot, addressing issues that I find compelling. I very much enjoy your blog. As someone who sat professionally on the feminist, Foucault-quoting, cultural studies side of academia, I find your critique of science studies disappointing, to say the least. May I suggest that your parody of the Humanities (for lack of a better word) is as facile and caricatured as the critique you claim such scholars are launching at science. I read deeply and widely in both science and science studies, and I can Avis that here are wise and thoughtful voices on both sides. And the penis envy you ascribe to the science studies straw man suggests you’re going for the tape measure to prove who’s boss. Inquiry, and thought, and culture, and society all lose when we treat each other like this. And it doesn’t improve the reputation of any scholar or discipline to be squabbling. It’s hard enough these days to make a living without throwing fuel on the anti-intellectual pyre. Again, thanks for the thought-provoking blog.


      • I appreciate the kind words and will propose a meeting of minds. Please consider yourself invited, with no snark or hostility on my end, to jump into any of the topics with perspective that can help me see the positive better.

        Also, with any luck, my critiques of where science-y stuff goes awry will show I’m not merely waving that flag (or, you know, whatever).


  1. Pingback: Have you ever really looked at your hands? | Man nor Beast

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  3. Sorry—spell check got out of hand after I thought I had proofed the final version. That’s avow, not Avis and there, not here.


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