Science, the Constructionists, and Reality

[Background: I recently had the honor of co-authoring an article about language and interpretation with Graham Johnson of Suspended Reason. My section was about how difficult it can be for scientists and humanities scholars to understand each other, with reflections from my own experiences studying Science, Technology and Society. I only had 1500 words at my disposal, so a lot of material had to be cut. This is a complete, extended version, including all my extra rumination and tangents.]

We engineers are expected to have certain opinions on the quality of humanities scholarship. Humanists are similarly expected to have certain opinions on the quality of engineer personalities. I kid, but there is a thick soup of intellectual, social and temperamental hostilities between the stereotypical STEM- and humanities-types, and the gulf between the two cultures identified decades ago remains deep. My rather unusual engineering education program was set up as an attempt to bridge it, complementing math and technology with social science and humanities in the hope of outputting well-rounded engineers, capable of wielding a multitude of perspectives on technology.

One series of courses given by the department of History of Science was particularly illustrative of this inter-cultural tension. We were introduced to a few schools of thought, such as STS (”science and technology studies”), SSK (”the sociology of scientific knowledge”) and SCOT (”the social construction of technology”). These are all distinct but share a common outlook, which I’m sloppily going to call ”social constructionism”[1]. This is a simplification, but since I’ll make the claim that the phrase ”social construction” is already terrible at communicating ideas with any precision me using it carelessly should pose no additional problem.

I was (I thought) already familiar with the school of thought. And I didn’t like it one bit. I’m the type who grew up reading science books, and my exposure to ideas of this kind came from authors with a scientific background (and disposition), people like Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Dan Dennett. I agreed with them of course: constructionists and postmodernists were the enemy — relativists who insisted that nothing was true and claims of truth, objectivity and rationality were nothing but power plays.

When the course series started I was inoculated, on my guard against any sign of relativism coming from my professor or the texts he assigned, texts by prominent scholars in the field like Wiebe Bijker and Trevor Pinch, Bruno Latour, Harry Collins, Donna Haraway, Andrew Pickering and Sharon Traweek. I scanned with suspicion, interpreting what they said against the background I had acquired. It was tough. Reading the thoughts of someone with radically different underlying assumptions, preoccupations and goals is exasperating. Every other sentence you want clarification; you want know what a word is supposed to mean, you want your objections acknowledged and adressed, and you want to know why their train of thought is going where it’s going and not where your own train of thought would be going if you were them. Thus, it appears the author says crazy, unsubstantiated things, makes wild (il)logical leaps and Misses The Point while focusing obsessively on odd, unimportant concerns.

This would be hard enough if those underlying assumptions, preoccupations and goals were stated explicitly at the beginning (”Here is how I differ from you:”). But they aren’t. Instead they’re taken for granted because it’s so easy (especially when you’re an expert in a narrow academic field and speak mostly to your peers) to not think about that not everyone shares them. Our professor wasn’t as helpful as he could’ve been in helping us interpret the material. I assume because he was used to teaching humanities students who probably need less ”translation”. I’m also open to the possibility that my own instinctive hostility is partly to blame for making me suspicious of many things he did say.

This is set up as if there is a second half where I realize that I’ve been wrong all the time and with the fervor of the newly converted embrace constructionism and denounce the misrepresentations my former intellectual heroes fed me. Well, it’s not that kind of story. I’m no convert. But I have come to understand their ideas better and now ”disagree” (if that’s even the right word) with them in a more nuanced way. That’s progress. Most of all I’ve come to have a much greater appreciation for the subtleties of the cultural differences between science and the humanities.

I’ll use a single phrase to stand in for all breakdowns in understanding of a particular kind. I’ve already said that ”social construction” is a uniquely confusing phrase, so the claim “reality is socially constructed” will do nicely. What does it mean? Let’s pick it apart.

I said I grew up on science books, and for a scientist ”reality” means the physical universe, which is made of physical things: objects, substances, molecules, atoms, elementary particles. Humans are not central features of the universe and understanding reality is not about understanding humans or their activities. The story of science is not mainly about people or their ideas and behaviors[2].

This centering on physical things makes it a common criticism from scientists and scientific realists that constructionists don’t separate reality itself from our beliefs and theories about it, and instead claim (quoted from the Wikipedia article on social constructionism) that:

language does not mirror reality; rather, it constitutes [creates] it.

Which is of course nonsense on the face of it. Unless people are honest-to-God mystics who really believe in a Borgesian unreality we’re not talking about the same thing here. It turns out one reason I saw constructionism as absurd was that I’d encountered it as applied to science first, which is a non-central use of this conceptual apparatus on something it wasn’t originally developed for.

Looking up the original source (The Social Construction of Reality, published in 1966 by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman) made things clearer. Despite the title it isn’t about (physical) reality at all, it’s about society and the social order. I gather that’s what a humanities scholar means by reality — ”the conceptual system people live their lives embedded in”. Examples include social roles, institutions, customs and norms, value systems, habit and practices, relationships and social structures.

From this perspective it makes perfect sense to not separate reality from our mental models of it. Social practices and customs are defined by our collective mental models and the language that represents them do constitute that reality (kind of). The scientific perspective is inverted and here it is scientific knowledge about physical matter that’s highly unusual in that it primarily refers to something outside the social system (rather than constitutes something within it) and a map-territory distinction is applicable in a way it typically isn’t in the humanities. But this is far from obvious if this foundational difference in worldview lies below awareness because people take their own view for granted. Had Berger and Luckman only said ”society” rather than ”reality” we could have avoided a lot of trouble.

We can think of both the scientific and the humanistic paradigms as built from the ground up but with radically different ideas about what constitutes “the ground”[3]. In the scientific view everything is made of atoms and the behavior of everything in the universe is only the laws of physics manifesting in complicated ways. As you move away from basic physics to more complex and opaque systems you get further away from physics-like rule-bound behavior and the view-everything-as-particles-in-motion model becomes no less true, but unworkable. Think of it like physics being front and center and human society being a distant offshoot, an exotic but ultimately irrelevant curiosity[4].

stem

In the humanistic view ”the ground” is everyday human experience. Rather than adopting science’s ”view from nowhere” it centers on the perspective of a human being experiencing the world from inside a skull and embedded in a social context. Every human’s internal reality is a conceptual system, and this system is a hearty stew of facts and values, of objects and agents, of causes, functions, purposes and possibilities, rights, responsibilities, blame, virtue, hierarchies and judgments. Some concepts point to things in and features of the physical world, while others have no such analogue at all.

We have no intuitive understanding of what refers to ”real things” and what doesn’t (see: all of philosophical history), therefore our internal realities cannot be understood as simple reflections of physical reality.

These internal realities are created by and in turn take part in (re)creating and maintaining the norms, habits and practices that constitute the social order. Scientific knowledge, then, is to be understood like everything else we call knowledge: as created by social processes and influencing those processes in turn. It is not characterized by its relationship to the physical reality it ostensibly represents, but by the role it plays in the social system.

But like the physics model becomes less useful when applied to human society, the humanistic model gets increasingly skewed and misrepresenting as it moves onto hard science — since that kind of knowledge is so different from ordinary human beliefs. Here, hard science is a curious outgrowth on the periphery of normal human thinking.

hum
When these paradigms — these two mutually exclusive ways to attribute central and noncentral, typical and atypical — bump into into each other on some piece of land they both think of as their own, things get messy. They get messy in a literal sense, in the way this wonderful article I recently read describes the phenomenon of mess. Messes result when several different “aesthetic intentionalities” form a constellation lacking intentionality as a whole; any object implies an aesthetic that needs to harmonize with the implied aesthetics of objects around it not to cause mess. Intellectual systems are similar and when two or more incompatible ones come into contact the result is ”transparadigmatic dissonance”[5] if we lack a metanarrative establishing an overarching intentionality. In other words, mess.

Leaving ”reality” behind, the word ”constructed” isn’t great either. This is sometimes recognized: one of our coursebooks was an anthology edited by Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman titled The Social Shaping of Technology. They substituted ”shaping” for ”construction” exactly because ”construction” is misleading:

In producing the first edition of this book, we chose the metaphor of ‘shaping’, rather than the more popular ‘social construction’, in part because the latter is too prone to the misconception that there was nothing real and obdurate about what was constructed.

The connotation of “shaping” is entirely different. It gives the impression of an outside force giving form to something already there, a give-and-take between the inherent properties of a material and what’s acting on it. The end product is not the result of some ex-nihilo creative act by an agent but of the material’s behavior in response to outside influence. Contrast this with ”construction” which implies a planned process where something is brought into existence for a purpose. Like “conjured”.

So translating ”reality is socially constructed” into ”what it sounds like to scientists” and ”what humanist scholars mean”, gets us two quite different phrases:

The physical universe is socially conjured.

vs.

The social order is socially shaped. [6]

The first is false but sounds exciting and radical. The second is true but sounds trite and tautological… but is nonetheless close to what the field seems to want to say. Calling it trite is unfair, as it should be understood as a counter to an alternative viewpoint: that the nature of society is directly determined by forces external to human minds, like biology, geography or a strictly internal logic of scientific and technological development. It was specifically stated by one of my teachers that the STS school of thought was first and foremost a reaction against a (I’d say strawmanned and did say so at the time, repeatedly) view (called ”technological determinism”[7]) that the structure of scientific knowledge and technological systems are independent of socio-political factors (and therefore exists outside the jurisdiction of humanist scholars) and the causal arrow between science/technology and political order is strictly one-way[8].

So, the phrase ”reality is socially constructed” isn’t a metaphysical or ontological statement at all. It’s a statement about what kind of explanatory stories we should tell (and who gets to tell them) about why our societies are the way they are.

The conflict around the social study of science in general and constructionism in particular could have been softened by a better understanding of the assumptions, interests and interpretative habits on the other side of the fence[9]. My professor wasn’t entirely wrong in his one-sentence dismissal of the ”Science Wars”, describing it as scientists simply misunderstanding what constructionists said. They were quick to judge, mistook their own interpretation for the intended meaning and exhibited an ungenerous defensiveness. If they are anything like me they also missed that humanities scholars are often more concerned about power and politics than rigorous metaphysics[10].

But, in my experience, constructionists and their brethren have often seemed less than interested in avoiding these misunderstandings. Double entendres of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too variety where a statement has both “radical but false” and “true but trite” interpretations are common, and if I’m allowed to psychologize I’ve gotten the distinct impression that this is an at least half-deliberate way to fashion a rhetorical weapon against percieved scientific arrogance from a mild, inoffensive truth (a practice philosopher Nicholas Shackel criticizes in a somewhat ranty essay).

Consider these quotes from the ”social constructionism” Wikipedia page (I couldn’t find the original source but they look very much like other statements I’ve come across elsewhere:

Social construction-ism accepts that there is an objective reality. It is concerned with how knowledge is constructed and understood. It has therefore an epistemological not an ontological perspective. Criticisms and misunderstanding arise when this central fact is misinterpreted.

Seems perfectly inoffensive. But then there is:

reality is not some objective truth ‘waiting to be uncovered through positivist scientific inquiry.’ Rather, there can be ‘multiple realities that compete for truth and legitimacy’.

While it does make sense to not distinguish ”reality” to from ”our model of reality” when describing (some) social practices it becomes outright dishonest[11] in a scientific context as it’s directly contrary to normal usage, creating statements sounding like shocking revelations while being nothing of the sort. I’d more or less say (and I don’t think I’m alone) that ”reality” means ”that which objectively exists” and ”that thing there is only one of” (unlike opinions and beliefs about reality).

There can be several models/theories/narratives competing to be considered true and legitimate (that is, several candidates for playing the role of scientific truth in the social system), obviously, but that’s a trivial claim[12]. Maybe that’s all constructionism is, fundamentally: an obvious rejection of Plato and his philosophical descendants thinking human-relevant concepts are the fundamental constituents of the realest reality. I don’t think anyone would object if these scholars said ”theories and ideas describing reality are partially the result of social processes and not only of reality itself”. But they typically don’t. They may mean it, when pressed, but don’t say it.

Is it possible to stop this phrase and others like it from causing confusion? Probably not. The humanities gets its concepts corrupted, misused and misunderstood just like science does (examples include quantum mechanics, relativity, genetics and evolutionary psychology, not to mention ”energy”). I do think that academics teaching students about these things could act more responsibly. Disseminating ideas that serve to undermine the notions of objectivity, truth and science[13] without adding some serious safety precautions is not unlike handing out free bottles of sulphuric acid on the street.

•••

[1] A more accurate way to describe their common attitude is that the design of technological artifacts and systems as well as the content of scientific knowledge should be explained as the result of social and political processes and not simply as consequences of certain designs being technically superior or certain hypotheses being true. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

[2] This is in stark contrast to religion and much of traditional philosophy where human-relevant concepts are thought to be intimately interwoven with the fundamental structure of reality.

[3] Which one of the two comes naturally to you may be a question of fundamental temperament or perceptual differences. For example: I experience myself as situated in and interacting with an environment consisting of physical objects, not a ”social order”. I’ve never found social roles, rituals, norms or whatever to be particularly pervasive, more like a layer of abstraction you may or may not project onto the physical reality that’s really there. It’s an abstraction you can think about but not something you perceive as a real thing.

But this is my experience, and like many STEM-types I might just not see it. Perhaps this is why I’ve always found questions like ”what’s the meaning of life?” perplexing. What kind of answer are people expecting? Same thing with conflating facts and values; I can’t remember a time when I was young enough to not consider the distinction so intuitively obvious that I can’t comprehend what it feels like not seeing it that way.

I suppose there must be people with the opposite experience, people for whom meaning, significance and purpose, good and evil, etc. feel perceived rather than projected, i.e. they seem like real properties of things in the world. And I suppose some might consider social relationships, practices and structures as real as physical objects? Maybe that’s simply “non-nerds”. According to Sarah Perry’s unified theory of nerddom ”nerds” are people for whom social reality is transparent; they see through it and onto the material — it’s ephemeral and not opaque like something concrete and unignorable.

[4] I once reacted with great surprise when someone said the humanities were so more interesting than science because science deals with such a narrow slice of reality. What the what? The humanities deal with an extraordinary narrow slice of reality. Science is about building a unified model for everything in the universe, while the humanities concern the activities of one species of featherless biped living on a single small planet in one of the less prestigious spiral arms of the galaxy.

Of course, by ”narrow slice of reality”, that person meant ”narrow slice of human experience”. I think that’s short sighted, but at least I understand it.

[5] Fancy jargon like this is a double-edged sword and can come off as exclusionary and pretentious. I do like nice, sharp blades though.

[6] I’m cheating a little here, since you could do partial translation and phrase it as: ”The physical universe is socially shaped” and “The social order is socially conjured”. Now these mean two different things yet again, bringing the total up to four and adding to the confusion. I’ll expand on this in a later post.

[7] Dont get me started on the word ”determinism”. Digging into this word is like opening an innocent-looking box only for a cloud of angry wasps consisting of every philosophical confusion in the western tradition exploding in your face.

[8] The other main object for target practice was ”whiggish history”, meaning seeing scientific development as an inexorable march toward truth and only deviations from this path requiring explanation. I disliked this wholesale rejection of progress and criticized what I thought of as baby-with-the-bathwater-syndrome, insisting the correct amount of whiggishness in the history of science is higher than zero.

[9] I think one major difference is that humanists are perfectly ok with telling only part of the whole story. For scientists, incompleteness is a sign that a theory is wrong and needs to be replaced — pointing out counterexamples, unclarities or blank spots is a fatal criticism. Physicists need enormous (-ly expensive) particle colliders and whole books of weird math to look for those last little pieces of an almost perfectly complete puzzle, even though they’re already way, way beyond the explanatory capacity of the humanities. Of course they’re disdainful of vague theorizing [9A] and of course their criticisms are not taken seriously by people who’ve accepted the limitations and see such complaints as shallow and pedantic.

Conversely, in the humanities everything hinges on language, interpretation and narrative (which have been recognized as fundamentally impossible to get objectively correct) so some of them think science has the same weaknesses but denies it. Daniel Dennett says it harshly in a 1998 paper:

Like many another naif, these thinkers, reflecting on the manifest inability of their methods of truth-seeking to achieve stable and valuable results, innocently generalize from their own cases and conclude that nobody else knows how to discover the truth either.

[9A] Here I’m thinking of examples like Sokal and Bricmont expecting too much from the people they criticize, believing metaphorical musings to be statements of literal fact. This could be because the meaning behind the metaphors are observations that would be considered unacceptably vague and trite in a scientific context. S&B might therefore think they must mean something more.

[10] My reaction when I came to understand this can only be described as indignation. How dare they? And they’re not even ashamed? After I’d written a twice-as-long-as-asked essay criticizing some scholars’ sloppy use of words and the underlying metaphysical ambiguities, me and my History of Science professor had a short discussion over email where I argued that any theory needs clarity about its ontology to even begin to have any legitimacy. He retorted that metaphysical robustness was not as important as revealing power structures in society. I hadn’t seen that sentiment expressed clearly and voluntarily before — it was unthinkable that someone would admit to that mindset: a respectable academic is concerned with truth and accuracy and does not lower themselves to petty politics. I had read what Ian Hacking wrote in The Social Construction of What?, namely that:

Politics, ideology and power matter more than metaphysics to most advocates of construction analyses of social and cultural phenomena.

But Hacking was a critic and I considered it a pointed criticism. I didn’t expect someone to say this about themselves. It felt like an admission of guilt, like happily proclaiming your own corruption and abdicate from your position as an intellectual. Boy, that naïvety feels long ago.

[11] It’s self-contradictory to claim there is an objective reality but no objective truths about that reality. Yes, language is ambiguous, but strings of words only (imperfectly) represent claims, they don’t constitute claims (you can theoretically “zoom in” and further specify claims as sharply as you want). Note that I do understand that many philosophers disagree with that. Note also that I do think they’re making it stupidly difficult for themselves when they do that.

[12] It’s trivial as a claim, but as I’ve been trying to say, it should ideally not be seen as a “claim” at all but as an invitation to apply a particular perspective to scientific knowledge: to see it as a component in the social system rather than a representation of physical reality. Scientists will of course resist this particular partial narrative because it conspicuously excludes the aspect of scientific knowledge that justifies its privileged status.

[13] It’s funny to me that these sorts of anti-establishment critiques were worked out in a left-wing context, and now suddenly the poles have flipped and it’s the political right who rebel against dominant cultural narratives. I wonder if the lefty academics that once crafted relativism-propelled weapons in the service of cultural underdogs realized they could be used by right-wingers just as well? Did they not see that their views (some of them, at least) would eventually become the establishment position?

I suppose some did and I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but I can’t help but feel a little bit smug about the recent turnabout since it always felt foolish and irresponsible to me to assume that undermining our notions of knowledge and truth would have politically progressive and liberating consequences. It’s a shame we never got to hear George Orwell’s thoughts on the risks of saturating society with postmodernist thought. He’d have been the perfect critic.

You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.

Those are the words of a villain, after all.

6 thoughts on “Science, the Constructionists, and Reality

  1. Thanks for the post, it’s an important reflection. I’ve often been drawn into abysmal arguments with scientists about philosophical conceptions of reality, that would have been resolved right from the start had we actually realised that we were coming from totally different standpoints on what ‘the real’ is and defined those positions first.

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      1. Or, the problem is that we take language too much for granted. We have a tendency to think that words have a definitive say on what reality is, but life would be very different, and much less creative, if every word had only one meaning. It’s the weakness of definition wrapped up in its plurality that gives language its wealth. Poetry, literature, songs, jokes and any irony would be impossible without this flexibility. So, it’s not the terms that are weak or bad, but our inability to see that the other person is using them in a different way to the one that we are using them.

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        1. I don’t think there is an “or” here, but several ways of saying the same thing. The words are “terrible” in the sense of being much worse tools of precise communication than we think they are and try to use them for. Different features of language are of course more important in artistic texts. When we have both analytical and artistic purposes (like some continental philosophy or political/historical narrative) things get tricky.

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  2. Congratulation on writing for Ribbonfarm! Maybe this can get your concept of Erisology into wider circulation!

    I have certainly always had the impression of sciences and humanities as interpreting reality starting from opposite sides, but with scant experience in the humanities I’m always interested to hear about your experiences in both.

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  3. Thanks! The article is supposed to go up today unless it gets postponed again. EDIT: Yeah there seems to have been miscommunication about that, the joint article is part 2 of a set where only part 1 on is on Ribbonfarm.

    They do start from very different places, and kind of wind up in an angry standoff when their expansion efforts meet in a place they both want to lay claim to – the nature of people.

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