Trained Judgment and the Scientific Audience

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

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I wrote earlier (here, to be precise) that there are numerous ways a picture can manipulate its viewers, but most break down into two: a modification of an image after it's taken or staging an image before it's taken. The first way a picture can manipulate its viewers--modifying an image after it's taken--is mostly seen as downright deception and corruption. Someone takes a picture of Fabio and Photoshops George Bush's head on it. It is easy to dismiss and easy to act against--we say, well, that was the result of a bad person doing something wrong. We don't end up accepting the fraudulent representation as truth once we find it has been doctored. (This is like the image of John Kerry with Jane Fonda at a Vietnam rally, an image Errol Morris points to in yet another of his blog posts [here, in Cartesian Blogging, Part One] in his discussion of the truth status of pictures.)

Or, to bring this back to the topic of the Seed blogs, it's just as in scientific fraud when we find out that the Korean geneticist faked his data, we say, 'bad geneticist, don't do that,' and banish him from the halls of scientifica. Or when you doctor images for the Journal of Cell Biology, as described in this article.

We don't think it is a slight against science--in fact, the very edifice of scientific practice in the modern world is what allows us to root out good from bad, to march on knowing the process is stable and credible.

But the second category is the more common, more difficult, and more interesting set of cases, because it is more subtle and because it is not usually the product of intentional deception.

Staging an image beforehand comes about as a matter of standard activity. It's not generally called staging--and I don't mean any slight or negative implication by my use of the word--but it does involve preparation and organization. Maybe I should say preparation of the scene, preparation of the parameters that will define the image. Photographers set up the parameters of all images, to some degree, as scientists set up the parameters of their experiments. I'm not going down the road of saying that this means the science is bad (the experiment was rigged) or the pictures are invalid (the camera was deceptively manipulated). I'm saying instead that this is how image-making--and knowledge-making--works.

All of this is very much in the same vein as Jason Delborne's recent commentary on scientific audiences and the performance of science. I think, as well, that it works with the transitions in ideals of objectivity marked out by Daston and Galison and discussed earlier in the present series of posts.

Although I am jumping away from Morris in this post and back to the theme of scientific knowledge making, let me take the Fenton pictures in Morris's essays as a point of reference just to bind all these posts together. Do the cannonballs get moved onto the road or taken off? Do we believe the image taken by Fenton or find it contrived? Surely the image of cannonballs on the road was faithful--whatever Fenton captured on the photographic plate was really there. That is, we're dealing with the second category from above. But was 'what was really there' always there? Or just set there to offer an evocative image of war and the battle of Sebastopol's aftermath? For the image of the cannonballs off the road, same thing. It's a real picture, of a real road, with cannonballs really to the side.

But what Morris is trying to get at in the lead-in to his essays, before he starts to investigate which one came first, is this: what are we, the audience, supposed to make of the picture? If we see cannonballs on the road after a battle, what does this tell us? If Fenton lined the side of the road with the cannonballs, removing them from the road for some effect, what was that effect supposed to be? Between the image and the viewer is the space of interpretation. So let me hold the other question to the side for a bit--which of these pictures was taken first--and stick with the new one about audience.

At the time it was taken, the picture is viewed by its audience within a rising context in the history of objectivity called (by D and G) mechanical objectivity. As in, the camera doesn't lie. The machine delivers an objective image of the thing, without unseemly human interference. Fenton was just a neutral party, the guy clicking the bulb. Those who saw the picture understood it as providing that kind of objective portrayal. Their understanding of the battle was based on the perception that the picture brought them an unmediated view of its aftermath. The camera is an instrument and Fenton is the instrument's technician. This is, in the associated philosophical language, an instrumental view of technology. The camera and the cameraman are mere means to the end.

But if the question is 'what are we, the viewer, supposed to make of the picture?', then we need to learn a lot more about who took it, why, and under what conditions. That makes the issue about us, the consumers of knowledge (one kind of public or audience), and not they, the supposed producers.

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Shifting this kind of question back to the scientific sphere of activity (and not the strictly photo-journalistic), I find it really interesting that it can map onto a difference between mechanical objectivity and the later era Daston and Galison call trained judgment. In trained judgment, the image is produced with appropriate adjustments by an expert who has learned how to read the images and then present them to an audience. The audience does not believe the picture of the magnetic field of the sun I showed in this post is what it looks like directly, or through a camera lens or telescopic or endothermic lens or whatever. They (we, me, anyone who isn't the scientist) know it takes a trained eye to figure that out. A trained judge has to interpret the data to produce the image, "smooth the data," average the correct points to make it turn out correctly. It's quite similar to the judgment of a doctor who reads a sonogram and tells the nervous parents what that image means. One has to be trained to read the images.

Delborne's comments on performing science are a propos in this regard, because his notion of constructing audience is part of the same ethos as the trained judgment kind of objectivity. Beyond just reading images from machines, one of the things scientists are trained to do is to perform for a constructed audience. But in a curious way. The audience metaphor may help point to an imbalance or asymmetry, because the scientist-as-expert (the model that grew over the 20th century and works with the era of trained judgment) stands apart from the audience instead of in collaboration with them. The scientist got the training; all the audience did was buy a ticket. I imagine most of the readers would agree.

One response to this would be to throw away scientific expertise and put the audience and performer on an equal footing. And to that, I imagine most readers would disagree, as I do. It doesn't seem legitimate or helpful to do this, because it denies the history of scientific practice that is the history of training capable, credible, expert judges of scientific investigation. Rather than seeing this as a reason to discredit scientific expertise, then, I would see it as a reason to rethink what scientists are trained to do. I think that's what the post on the audience metaphor is asking us to do.

In the end, all I was thinking here was this: if we are living in an era of trained judgment and want people to understand more about science, then we can think about training scientists differently as a way to work with the audience more effectively. Scientists are not tricking their audiences, as in the first category of photographic deception (the Fabio George Bush). They know stuff. They find out new stuff. They are performing their work, as in the second category, to seek the clearest expression of their research. They want the evidence to be clear but, at the same time, have to have an audience that knows how to read the images before them. There's a lot of work to be done.

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