Thursday, January 01, 2009

Being fair to sociologists: is it worth the effort?

Being fair to sociologists: is it worth the effort?

In his blog Stranger Fruit, John Lynch makes the latest of his attacks on Steve Fuller, who has recently chosen to associate himself supportively with intelligent design proponents. I don't agree with Fuller in general, but I also think I understand in part why he finds his critics to be responding stupidly in many cases.

My comments:

1. Sociologists of science traditionally distinguish themselves as "objective" in part by showing their cynicism to mainstream science, illustrating that they can stand apart from it in some sense and observe it critically. I know that's a difficult idea to make consistent, since the critical examination generally itself makes use of scientific concepts. I don't agree with it, I just make an observation.

2. Controversy tends to drive people to the extremes (I suspect because it fosters the conditions for "hot" or "motivated" cognition), and people get caught up in those extremes to varying degrees.

So in being well intentioned sociologists of science, often involved in controversies, people like Fuller sometimes slide down toward the opposite pole from the people whose work they are trying to understand.

Thus polarized, it is so much work for people to understand each other that they generally don't consider it worth the effort. So Fuller is pretty much doomed to be misunderstood for the most part, and to find his critics to be rather dense.

Some of my favorite examples of the possible breaching of this polarization are found in "The One Culture" edited by Labinger and Collins. There, scientists and sociologists of science go back and forth and make sincere attempts to understand each other as if the other side actually has something worthwhile to say.

Conclusion: Sometimes in the end it is worth the effort to try to understand each other, sometimes not. We don't always know which is true from our initial appraisal, and that's the point.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Todd! Not having a degree in sociology I do not feel qualified to address this topic, although it was quite the interesting read! I did want to thank you however, for the very detailed and insightful comment you left on my blog. Thanks for your suggestion of testing out some of the research I read - that's actually my favorite past time and was the reason I started the Great Fitness Experiment. As I'm sure you discovered my "experiments" are hardly very scientific though. Usually I have a research population of, um, 1. But I have still learned a lot! And I'm always looking for ways to improve. So thank you for taking the time to help me out! Don't be a stranger:)