Scientific Objectivity has a History.

Preface | Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | (Sidebar 1) | Pt. 4 | Pt. 5 | Pt. 6

Pt. 7 | (Sidebar 2a) | (Sidebar 2b) | Pt. 8 | Pt. 9 | Conclusion


Title page of William Cheselden's (1733) Osteographia; or, the Anatomy of the Bones, showing an artist drawing a half skeleton through camera obscura.

Students end up having favorite readings from their schooling. For graduate students, these are sometimes pivotal works in their own scholarship, influencing later doctoral writing and research and steering patterns of thinking one way or another. Other times, they're just a good and memorable read, bringing up new points or new ways of thinking about a topic that helps the student move to the next step of their own thinking. One of those, for me, was an article from the journal Representations (1992) on the history of scientific objectivity, co-authored by the historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, "The Image of Objectivity," Representations 40: 81-128.

The mere fact that objectivity *has* a history is revealing. It's more typical that the timeless, ahuman connotation of "objectivity" renders it the precise sort of thing that does not change throughout history. Subjectivity certainly does, since people change. But objectivity would seem to be ahistorical.

It is not.

In their 1992 article, by looking across scientific atlases and forms of visual representation across the nineteenth century and to the mid-twentieth, they showed that what it took to be objective shifted, that objectivity as a concept and staple of scientific practice is historically contingent. To be more academic about it, they argue (p. 83), specifically, "that [the mechanical, noninterventionist] form of scientific objectivity emerged only in the mid-nineteenth century and is conceptually distinct from earlier attempts to be "true to nature" in its methods (mechanical), its morals (restrained), and its metaphysics (individualized)."

We might learn from their work that how we conceptualize "objectivity" today is also historically contingent. For me, it was an article that helped show how one can think about what "historically contingent" means and how one might seek to learn more about the broader cultural and moral contexts that have shaped scientific identity and inquiry over the centuries.

The moral space of scientific objectivity had changed by the 20th century in ways characterized by Daston and Galison in this way:

"Neither electroencephalographer nor particle physicist could simply point to a picture and instruct the reader to find identical occurrences in the pictorial output of their instruments. Earlier atlas makers chose "truth to nature" as their slogan: their pictures would depict the designated phenomena as they were, as they ought to be, or as they existed beneath the variation of mere appearances. By the late 19th century, however, the atlas makers no longer could make such unproblematic claims for the general applicability of their images, and by the early 20th century, they had shifted responsibility to the reader" (p. 109).

This points to the role of the audience in matters of assessing and granting the status of objectivity and, following this, a claim to know what something is. But it isn't just a matter of who reads the scientist's work; it's also about who the scientist is and how she (though most atlas makes were certainly he) performs her work. These too change depending on specific historical conditions. Continuing, on objectivity moralized:

"Although mechanical objectivity was nominally in the service of truth to nature, its primary allegiance was to a morality of self-restraint. When forced to choose between accuracy and moral probity, the atlas makers often chose the latter, as we have seen: better to have bad color, ragged tissue edges, and blurred boundaries than even a suspicion of subjectivity. The discipline earlier atlas makers had imposed on their artists had been in the interests of truth to nature (construed as variously as nature itself), but they had deemed judgement and selection essential to the portrayal of the truly typical or characteristic. Later atlas makers, as fearful of themselves as of their artists, eschewed the typical because judgement and selection were needed to detect it, and judgement and selection bordered on the dread subjectivity of interpretation" (p. 117).

I'll have more to say about the topic in subsequent posts. In fact, this is the first in a new series that will extend for a little while. More precisely, this and a follow-up on Daston and Galison's work will form a two-part subset of that longer series.

In closing here, I'd clarify that none of the above on contingency and subjectivity and what Daston and Galison write about as shifting epistemic virtues is to say that scientific pursuits do not produce legitimate results, but that what counts as "legitimate," who says so, why one even makes those pursuits in the first place, and what value they have as part of deeper cultural mores -- all of those are all contingent. They depend upon the historical context, not just in the past, but today.

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I cant be sure if youve done this on purpose or not, but this posting fits so beautifully with your previous post about the laboratory project in Paris. The historical objects that make comprise the subject matter if Daston and Galisons study exemplify precisely the artscience space that Edwards is trying to (re)create in his new project. Which lends itself to a question: if there was an artscience that provided the fodder for the construction of objectivity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and scientists and engineers no have to go about reconstructing this union, when did the dissolution happen? We might ask if it ever happened, or if through some pedagogical means were simply trained to believe that there is a separation.

And lest there be those that think the authors are making mountains of molehills (what can one 50 page article possible mean?), it should be noted that this study has informed the work of both authors for years now (Daston primarily interested in the earlier periods of science, Galison more heavily invested in twentieth century physics) and has recently been published as a 500 page book simply titled _Objectivity_.

Putting aside the vague talk about objectivity, your point seems to be that the methods and evaluative criteria of science have changed over time. I'm not sure what's contentious or interesting about that.

I'm interested.

Glad to see Daston and Galison getting some more recognition for their work on objectivity. I read the same paper in a survey class for STS last year and was suitably inspired and impressed. Very interesting work and worthy of further publicity. Thanks.