Saturday, October 29, 2005

Steve Fuller

In the interest of promoting fairness, particularly when it comes to important finer distintions:

Steve Fuller, a sociologist from the University of Warwick and an important proponent of social epistemology, was blasted a bit on the ACLU weblog for his testimony in the Dover school board case (another ID case). He pointed out on HOPOS-L that the account given is selective. His testimony was a day-long thing, but he summarized the gist of in a letter to The Register. Fuller makes what I take to be the entirely accurate point that the ID movement is history-weak; and that it is a mistake to conflate the concepts proposed by the ID movement with all design considerations whatsoever. I'm also happy to see his mentioning of Babbage; an under-valued thinker who deserves more recognition. Had he mentioned Whewell as well, I'd have been ecstatic. The distinction between heuristics and validation is an important one that too often gets shoved aside in this sort of debate.

[UPDATE: Transcripts of Fuller's testimony are available online in PDF format. HT: Butterflies and Wheels. Unfortunately Ophelia Benson's comments on Fuller in her Notes and Comments border on obscurantism. STS uses sociological, historical, and economic methods; STS is a meta-level discipline; it studies not physics but physicists and physics-related institutions, and it is merely irrational to pretend that the two subjects are identical, or that understanding the economics of physics research requires a deep understanding of particle physics. At some point the two have to be tied together and compared, and it is perhaps the case that STSers jump to conclusions in this regard. But it is certainly the case that there are sociological, historical, and economic facts about the way scientific research proceeds; if Benson denies this (a position to which she is effectively committing herself) then it is she, not the STSers, who is guilty of appeals to magic. Contrary to what Benson seems to think, smearing of the entire discipline of sociology of science is not a defense of rationality.]

Since it's nice to see a little more sophistication brought into the discussion, I thought I'd point it out. I disagree with quite a few of Fuller's views, but he often says interesting things. His paper on theory of presumption, for instance, is notable, and his Beatty Memorial Lecture, "The Re-Enchantment of Science," is worth reading for anyone interested in the Science Wars. Also, Fuller does a lot of work on how science can be made more relevant, useful, and interesting to ordinary non-scientists, and how the scientist-nonscientist interaction can be improved, which is a type of work that is rarely done, despite being one of the most important things we need to do.

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