bioephemera

In a guest post at Scientific American, Rebecca Jablonsky says,

Kuhn de-legitimized the understanding of science as implicitly including objective reality, leaving room for theory to de-stabilize rituals of practice and produce authentic innovation-something that is certainly prized in both artistic and scientific communities alike.

Seriously – go read it and come back. It’s short. I’ll wait.

So I don’t get it. While Jablonsky’s post is well-written and thoughtful, and I basically agree with everything she says, and find the concepts interesting, I can’t figure out who the post is intended to enlighten or engage.

Here’s my issue. I take as a given that the concept of “scientist” as used by non-scientists, scholars of science, critics of science, and scientists themselves is expansive: it contains multitudes. One part of the practice of science is the meticulous documentation and annotation of objective reality (with the understanding, of course, that science can only be as objective as the fallible eyes, hands, and schemas used to probe reality). But another part of the practice of science is following data in an unforeseen and highly unlikely direction, and when the current paradigm fails to provide a coherent narrative describing reality, rejecting the current paradigm in favor of a better model. (At a meta level, the paradigms used by scholars of science to describe the practice of science are likewise evolving).

It’s obviously artificial to suggest, as Sontag does in the quote Jablonsky begins with, that scientist-photographers would merely “inventory” reality, as opposed to moralist-photographers who grapple with deeper subjective questions. That is a misrepresentation of “science.” But that’s okay, because Sontag isn’t really critiquing science there: she is using a conventional conception of science as a tool in constructing her critical framework. That she uses science in this way says a fair bit about the cultural trappings of “science” (as objective, not subjective) salient to Sontag and/or her contemporaries. But the fact that the limited conception of science she’s using fails to embrace all the facets of science doesn’t say anything about the limitations of science itself, does it?

I will readily accept Jablonsky’s premise that a Kuhnian scientist-photographer is a different beast from a Sontagian scientist-photographer. But now that it sounds like we’re recapping a particularly bad episode of Star Trek (“The Kuhnians are firing on the Sontagian outpost! Jettison the Bioephemera, Scotty!”) I have to ask why, given that Sontag and Kuhn were engaged in very different endeavors, that distinction is important. It seems odd to say Sontag’s “scientist-photographer” concept would evolve with the evolution of the study of science by scholars like Kuhn, because Sontag’s conception was never really about science itself. It was about a perception of science.

Part of the challenge I find in discussing the interface of art and science is that there are so many constructed conceptions of “art” and “science,” it is hard for participants in the conversation to even agree on the terms under discussion. Those various conceptions color both critics’ approach to a work and the viewers’ reception of it. One of the expectations of scientific art – the Sontagian conception, if you will (at least based on the limited Sontagian framework discussed here) – is that it must accurately represent reality. But as we’ve discussed before on this blog, science doesn’t perfectly represent reality. From the inevitable artifacts created by experimental methodologies to the presentation of research in visualizations that employ false colors, timescales, and juxtapositions, scientific results are a manipulated version of reality. So is a photograph. However, people will much more readily accept a photo as “art” than a scientific figure – at least so far. People may in fact respond to a frank discussion of how choices in the presentation of data impact the message conveyed by that data with distrust of both the data and the scientist (see Climategate). Everything is colored by our preconceptions – even our discussion of those preconceptions.

Alas, I have now written a response to Jablonsky’s essay which is longer than the original essay and most certainly says less. But this is the big problem with engaging the various conceptualizations imposed on science (or art) from outside. Whenever I see an essay or artwork about art/science, I wonder whose perception of science (or art) it is intended to critique, and if that audience is the audience reached by the critique. (As a pragmatic creature, I always hope that is the case, although I realize it often is not). Here, I feel that the perception of science critiqued by Jablonsky’s essay is a limited concept used as a placeholder by Sontag – a proxy for perfect objectivity. To the extent that such a limited concept of science is dominant in our social discourse, it can and should be critiqued, posthaste. But post-Kuhn, I certainly don’t think such a conception is dominant among theorists/STSers. I certainly don’t think such a conception is dominant among practicing scientists, who struggle with the imperfections of their craft on a daily basis. It may indeed be that such a conception is dominant among the general public, but will they be reading an essay juxtaposing the theories of Kuhn and Sontag? I doubt it, although perhaps I’m wrong.

Regardless, it is an interesting choice of topic by both Jablonsky and Scientific American. For more of Jablonsky’s work, see her project, Art and Science Lab.