The two articles we read for today (Porter and Rotman articles in Science Studies) center around the emphasis on quantitative approaches in the natural sciences. What are numbers central to objectivity in science?
As we discussed on Monday when we focused on objectivity, one way to understand ‘objectification is the elimination of ‘judgment’; the trick is to make things self-evident, as we also discussed earlier in the semester. Although the article is about accounting, Porter is focused on exploring the process of quantification. Like accounting, scientific quantification is based on shared rules understood and agreed upon by the scientific community; and there are entities that enforce, standardize, and adjudicate rules. He is thinking about objectivity in science: “objectivity means first of all rules” (Porter 1999:395) – evenhandedness and inflexibility implies objectivity.
Quantification is a rhetorical move to stress universality, because Mathematics as a highly structured, universal language – “Whenever a reasoning process can be made computable, we can be confident that we are dealing with something that has been universalized, with knowledge effectively detached from the individuality of its makers” (Porter 1999:401). While numbers can demonstrate information, it can also hide it. “Quantification is a powerful agency of standardization because it imposes some order on hazy thinking, but this depends on the license it provides to leave out much of what is difficult or obscure” (Porter 1999:402).
Think of the rhetorical claims made by the classic Trident commercial: 4 out of 5 dentists surveyed would recommend Trident to their patients who chew gum. What makes this marketing claim effective?
On the one hand, the fact that it is dentists (talking to patients) makes this truth claim more believable. Dentists are the ‘priestly class’ identified by society as having authority over the scientific study of tooth decay. Having dentists recommend Trident (as opposed to ‘runway models’ or ‘football coaches’) gives confidence that this truth claim is based on some kind of scientific study. More importantly, however, it is the “4 out of 5” claim that suggests that this results from a scientific study. If instead of “4 out of 5,” the advertisement had used “most dentists,” “a lot of dentists,” etc., the finding wouldn’t seem to come from some kind of scientific study. In fact, note the term ‘survey’ – this advertisement’s truth-claim isn’t coming from a study that looks at the impact of Trident gum on teeth, but from an opinion poll of dentists. Interestingly, the health benefits of chewing gum has long been a part of its marketing. Dentyne (a contraction of dental hygiene) was launched in 1916 as a ‘wholesome antiseptic’. For more, also see these links:
4 out of 5 dentists makes Trident’s claim as objective: “…science enshrines objectivity, meaning (here) not truth to nature, but impersonality, standardization – reducing subjectivity to a minimum” (Porter 1999:402). Mathematics, as a universal language further reduces subjectivity: “…mathematical objects are mentally apprehensible and yet owe nothing to human culture; they exist, are real, objective, and “out there,” yet are without material, empirical, embodied, or sensory dimension…the constitutive nature of mathematical writing is invisibilized, mathematical language in general being seen as a neutral and inert medium for describing a given prior reality – such as that of number – to which it is essentially and irremediably posterior” (Rotman 1999:431)
Mathematical assertions are to be seen; “mathematical thinking and writing are folded into each other and are inseparable not only in an obvious practical sense, but also theoretically, in relation to cognitive possibilities that are mathematically available” Rotman 1999:435). Numbers (nad mathematics) are a technology of distance, in that they allow the results of the laboratory (or the field) to be transported vast distances, compressing information into discrete elements.
Rotman argues two additional points: the intersubjectivity of mathematics and the fear of ambiguity. “Mathematics is not a building – an edifice of knowledge whose truth and certainty is guaranteed by an ultimate and unshakable support – but a process: an ongoing, open-ended, highly controlled, and specific form of written intersubjectivity” (Rotman 1999:438). Numbers allow for ‘witnessing’ by the experimental community (using terms from Shapin and Schafer). But is there a cost? “Mathematicians would deny that their fears were pathologies, but would, on the contrary, see them as producing what is cognitively and aesthetically attractive about mathematical practice as well as being the source of its utility and transcultural stability” (Rotman 1999:433).
So if numbers can be used in diagrams, as a language – how about as text? Take a look at this example.
Here’s a gratuitous one