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Finally finished reading this book. Mimi recommended it to me when I was trying to write my paper for Ars Electronica. Now I can't remember the context of her recommendation. Anyway...

A dense book, but a great book.

It approaches the process of the progress of science and the development of "facts" from the human and social perspective. Latour starts out the book by chronicling the discovery of DNA and the development of the Eclipse MV/8000 computer. He shows how "facts" are black boxes that become fact through a process of competition that involves building networks of references until people start to refer to your theory as a fact and use it to build their facts. In fact, black boxes can be re-opened, but it becomes increasing difficult and costly to do this. I felt this very much when working at ECD. We worked in the area of disordered materials. Most devices are/were made of solid state crystalline materials. It is very difficult to get people think about devices in other ways. In this way, ECD discovered huge bodies of amazing materials with amazing properties, but convincing the world of the reality of this alternative universe took decades and the resistance was phenomenal. (It took Stan Ovshinsky, an amazing leader with the combination of a scientific mind and the will of a political activist to convince the world.)

Latour writes about how many scientists believe that "Nature" can tell us if the facts are true. He explores laboratories and their methods and shows us that "Nature" doesn't really "tell us" anything. Nature proves something only after something becomes a fact. Laboratories are design to prove or support facts and the design of the experiment and the interpretation of the data are ambiguous and always disputable. It costs a great deal of money to open a "black box" and to create a laboratory to create or debunk scientific facts. The more "scientific" one gets, the more ambiguous the facts become and the higher the costs become. Because of the time and the costs involved, this questioning of fact and creation of fact becomes an enterprise that require a great deal of funding and thus a great deal of political and non-scientific activity.

He makes an interesting point about scientific papers which I will quote :

There is something still worse, however, than being either criticized or dismantled by careless readers: it is being ignored. Since the status of a claim depends on later users' insertions, what if there are no later users whatsoever? This is the point that people who never come close to the fabrication of science have the greatest difficulty in grasping. They imagine that all scientific articles are equal and arrayed in lines like soldiers, to be carefully inspected one by one. However, most papers are never read at all. No matter what a paper did to the former literature, if no one else does anything with it, then it is as if it never existed at all. You may have written a paper that settles a fierce controversy once and for all, but if readers ignore it, it cannot be turned into a fact; it simply cannot.

You may protest against this injustice; you may treasure the certitude of being right in your inner heart; but it will never go further than your inner heart; you will never go further in certitude without the help of others. Fact construction is so much a collective process that an isolated person builds only dreams, claims and feelings, not facts. As we will see later in Chapter 3, one of the main problems to solve is to interest someone enough to read at all; compared to this problem, that of being believed is, so to speak, a minor task.


So! This ties into our discussion of blogs. (I get to talk about blogs again.) Remember that article by the Brazilian who was abused by INS in LAX? It was posted/blogged on the Net and David Farber wrote about it on his mailing list. Someone wrote that they had a brother that was in the same Rotary Club as the victim. Then, Brock Meeks called INS and confirmed the incident. This "theory" quickly became fact or very close to fact. People prodded and probed many of the weaknesses in the original article and conducted experiments. But... I think one of the most important things was that the current global political climate made the original claim very relevant. People read it and blogged it. Now we know for a "fact" that INS has cells in LAX that they throw people into for not having the right "papers."

Omi-san, a friend who left NTT recently is working on a database for academic papers. I am going to see her again soon to show her blogs and how blogs can create automatic links such as the trackback feature that Movable Type has. I think that blogs will have a huge impact on journalism and news, but after reading Science in Action, I realize that blogs or something similar to blogs could have a HUGE impact on Science. Science is obviously more rigid and structured, but the ability to link quickly and amass support for your claim or idea should be great. The blog architecture is probably much more suitable for many types of exchange than the current model of professional journals.

9 Comments


Tim O'Reilly just wrote a great reaction to this. ttp://www.oreillynet.com/cs/weblog/view/wlg/1933

Here is a comment I posted on Tim's blog.

Hi Tim! What a great entry! When I read the book, I because a bit depressed at first, but it dropped a new paradigm on my head that was helpful in thinking about the process of fact creation. I gleaned a few interesting points from the book, but there are some other one's so I would suggest reading the book.

Your entry sparked a connection to the Reality and Language part of my memory which was in a different place until you made the connection. Thanks! I would like to point to a few interesting references.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man by Marshall McLuhan he talks about how societies with written languages tend to have streets that are gridlike where societies without written language tend to have more circular streets. Not only does language affect what we can think, things like alphabets change the structure of our thinking.

Also, think about a dictionary that defines ALL of the words. There is not a single word in the dictionary that is not defined in the dictionary. It is completely self-referential.

I think each word is a little black box of its own. We all think we know what we are talking about when we say "God" or "Open Source" but are we talking about the same thing? We don't think deeply about "God" and really invision HIM every time we utter the word. (Although maybe that's blasphemous.) Maybe we are all living in parallel universes with slightly different meaning for everything, but similar enough to think we are living in the same universe.

It seems to me that the root of much argument and conflict comes from language causing people to think that are talking when in fact they are in an apples and oranges situation.

Edward Hall's book Beyond Culture is a great book on how different cultures can be.

It sounds like this is something you've thought about quite a bit with more structure than I have... This is where I start to lose it... ;-)

From: "Sean O'Reilly" To: "Tim O'Reilly","Joichi Ito" Subject: Re: My reaction to black boxes Date: Mon, 2 Sep 2002 17:35:11 -0700

Tim,

I think the analogy of the black box as a scientific hypothesis or theory that has conceptually hardened into fact in the collective mind is worthy of a lot of additional thinking. The most obvious example of this sort of hardening is to be found in teachings on evolutionary theory whereby natural selection, which certainly can be shown to be responsible for variations between species, is accepted universally as being productive of species themselves. This is merely a hypothesis that has by no means been proven. There is little or no scientific evidence showing that species evolve into other species--it is merely assumed that this happens over very large periods of time. The fossil record indicates the exact opposite--that new species spring into being almost nilly willy. The reaction of the scientific community to evidence indicating that something other than evolution (or creationism for that matter) might be at work can only be described as hysterical. Creationist camps have equally irrational reactions to evidence that points in directions that might indicate some modification of their position.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics, i.e., the Law of Entropy is violated by the appearance of life. What should be happening according to the second law is that species should be devolving into lower forms not higher. Negentropy or negative entropy is seldom examined by either evolutionary science or biology--except by way of indicating that something "else" might be at work in the universe besides blind forces mysteriously coalescing in marvelous symphonies of order. What I find extraordinarily disturbing is the desire on the part of many members of the scientific community to have the watchmaker of the universe be blind. For what purpose? In a purposeless universe anything goes, so in general one might make the claim that the desire to have a blind watchmaker is in some small part proportional to the desire to be spiritually blind--to be free from moral and spiritual restraints. In short the desire to see blindness in the ordering of the universe is based on the blindness that the appetites have from time immemorial sought to induce in humanity. As Katherine Hepburn said so memorably to Humphrey Bogart (Mr. Allnut) in the Movie, The African Queen, "Nature Mr. Allnut is what we are meant to rise above." Put more bluntly, do your appetites have any desire for spiritual or moral clarity? If one's appetites could come up with the perfect theory it would be of a universe in which everything was permitted, and nothing causally connected, for indeed that is what your appetites and will desire when left as they are in today's society--all too frequently I might add--to their own devices. Thus when Jean Paul Sartre, in his book Nausea, describes how disgusting the universe appears to him, he is aptly describing an intellect so heavy with appetitive filth that the doorways of perception might be described as being clogged with appetitive diarrehea. Do we not describe those who are morally blind as asses? Their is much truth to expressions such as these. One of my favorite is the description that many apply with unthinking wisdom to the morally disabled individual as "being a dick" or having one's head up one's ass. These are expressions that emphasize the meaning of being absorbed and ruled by the appetites.

Korzybski's brilliant observation, in the latter half of the 20th century, that the map is not the territory morphed into the bizarre idea that there is no territory at all, which to most rational individuals is simply absurd. What the great classical philosophers showed us was that there was a universe out there that seemed to operate according to a strict set of rules. What modern science has shown us is that the rules are far more flexible than we thought but rules nonetheless apply--they are just more relative to frames of reference than was previously thought. The notion of the old Catholic scholastics will come to the forefront of modern thinking in the 21st century and that is the notion that being is participatory. We participate in the consciousness of the universe--we don't make it. If there is any task that could be more important than figuring out what the rules governing that participation are, I can't think of it.

Edmund Husserl started science on the road back to some accommodation with the flow of reality with the development of phenomenology and the bracketing (epoche) of judgment, as a discipline that allows the individual self to experience the flow of reality outside black box parameters, i.e. as it actually is, not as it is wished to be. Thus when an individual has,for example, a moral or immoral experience that individual doesn't deny the lived content of his or her experience--they accept it for good or ill, and it is that acceptance of reality that is the basis of the individual who is awake as opposed to asleep. Being capable of doing advanced science, for example, is no guarantee of spiritual or moral wakefulness. Indeed, without moral or spiritual clarity, it can produce that most ghastly of all creatures--the individual without backbone or passion--the lackey. Lackeys with degrees remain lackeys.

I deal with a number of these issues peripherally in How to Manage Your Destructive Impulses with Cyber-Kinetics (How to Manage Your DICK). Unregulated appetites have an extraordinarily corrosive effect on thinking when not checked at the door of our rational faculties. There is a great deal of commingling between the will and the appetites that often gets mistaken for rational thought. I had to restrain myself recently, for example from laughing out loud at a Catholic priest who tried to tell me during a general discussion on sexual matters that the desire for teenage girls was a deviation from normality. How clueless! On the contrary, for the appetites, such things are completely normal. What is abnormal is what one does with this desire, i.e., not checking it. The same applies to having a bad temper, homosexual desires, greed or gluttony--what the appetites want is what the appetites want--what we do with them is what makes us moral or immoral. Beyond the appetites, however, is what I call The Fifth Access. Thinking in more than the four dimensions of length, width, height and time involves a real participation or engagement with the self and reality that allows us to taste truth and falsity and rather than being afraid of truth, bonds us to it. Discerning what is true from what is false is the business of both science and philosophy. The fear of truth has no business in either discipline.

Sean O'Reilly

i like this blog very much, also read "origins of genius," and you MUST read "Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life." both in many ways play on the same theme.

The name Bruno Latour was familiar to me. Digging a bit, I just remembered that Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont discussed his theories in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science.

You can find on Sokal's site some texts that address this issue, for example Professor Latour's Philosophical Mystifications

I wouldn't waste too much time on Sokal's text - he's about as far from understanding Latour as he is from understanding the concept of humility.

I wouldn't waste too much time on Sokal's text - he's about as far from understanding Latour as he is from understanding the concept of humility.

I wouldn't waste too much time on Sokal's text - he's about as far from understanding Latour as he is from understanding the concept of humility.

There is some interesting points here and a lot of nonsense as well.

The interesting points come from Joi particularly the points on language and printing and structure.

On the nonsense - The second law of thermodynamics is not violated by the appearance of life any more than the sun violates the same law.

Sokal does have valuable things to say about Latour - especially regarding truth claims in science.

I think Latour has more of value to say about the nature of technology and how we use our tools and why we adopt tools and practices than he does about science. Think Moores "Crossing the Chasm" in light of Latour and then think about recent discussions on social objects in the same light.

Dermot

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