maanantai 30. elokuuta 2010

Mitä muistijälkiä tutkimuksesta jäljelle jää?

Alla oleva kirja-arvio on poikkeuksellisesti englanniksi, syynä se että olin päivän ajan kokouksessa jossa kielenä oli englanti ja sen jälkeen kielen vaihto tuntui hyvin hakalalta.

Book review: Memory Practices in the Sciences by Geoffrey C. Bowker

This is a difficult book. For those readers with a science background, it is disturbing to read a description of science which mostly does not rely on facts about "how nature works" (as we currently understand) but instead tackles scientific problems with no hindsight, only looking at the acts and views of the scientists who were involved at the time.

As an example, for Bowker it is of not much interest what turned out to be right theory in the case of plate tectonics. Instead he (mostly) discusses this geological problem as a situation dealing with societal relations at the time (1900th century), when this scientific problem became topical.

Also, I think this book is a difficult read for those readers who have a sociological background, because the argumentation takes into account quite deep arguments about natural sciences (even though not from the viewpoint of current scientific understanding).

So, the big question is: is there an audience for this book?

I think this challenge of "who is the reader" is seen also in the reviews at Amazon. The book only gets three stars although it has received several prices for science books.

I would never have bought this book if I hadn't attended a seminar where Bowker gave a keynote presentation. The book and the presentation are incarnations of the same arguments, but it seems that Bowker has managed to simpify and clarify many of the topics which are quite heavy going in the book.

However, the book is much more rewarding, as it goes deep into the topic how knowledge is generated, transported and forgotten. The last of these - forgetting - is especially important to understand. In fact, many things about science (and about societal phenomena) happened quite differently from how things were explained afterwards.

There is an active forgetting process happening - the stepping stones to new understanding are erased and a new explanation invented. In fact, it would often be almost impossible to find out and explain how a certain insight was in practice achieved.

Even though the narrative in the book is mostly neutral in tone, many of the arguments presented by Bowker are quite provocative, challenging our thinking about science. Many "truths" we commonly say about science are not really true; instead, the progress in science is much more (and wonderfully) complex.

Bowker provides plenty of examples of how science works, for example geology (plate tectonics) and cybernetics. Even though I should have been familiar with cybernetics - having read control theory, optimal control, robust control etc. - Bowker managed to provide plenty of insight, for example how politics got involved (USA vs. Soviets), and how cyberneticians started to argue in quite grandiose terms. This finally prepared for a downfall in the discipline when it got deeply involved in artificial intelligence research which ultimately failed - but not until the ideas permeated many disciplines are resulted in new ways of doing science.

Here are a couple of quotations related to cybernetics: "Cyberneticians adopted terms and arguments directly from religious and political discourse and argued that their science produced the most faithful description of society." And: "Cybernetics was not so much a producer of Aesop's fables, where the moral is given at the end, but rather a producer of Sufi stories—which have no single moral, but you are changed by reading them."

There are some problems with the book. For example, Bowker includes a long verbatim quatation two times in the book, without noting this duplication. Probably a case of too lax editing. Also, sometimes his prose is quite "sociological", heavy with subtext and links to literature which I was not familiar with.

As a conclusion, this is a challenging and rewarding (but quite short) book, which is hard to digest at one go. But there is plenty to learn, and many of those things are critical to know when building the future research infrastructure for science.

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