Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Two Cultures

I was struck, while reading Beck's essays, by a certain type of animosity that appears - sometimes unintentionally, sometimes quite intentionally - between the notion of the "scientist" and the "sociologist." It is notorious of course that scientists and social scientists, and especially those in the humanities, have a different methodology for the allotment of value when it comes to social systems such as politics, economics, ethics, etc. In Beck's arguments this difference often becomes alarmingly clear. There are moments in the reading when I felt as though Beck was attacking outright the institution of science and the credibility of the scientific method. Beck seems to be blaming scientists for their lack of social consciousness. While indeed, some of the methods he points out lead to an over-generalization of the problem of pollutants in a population, many of Beck's complaints would be solved by turning these scientists into sociologists, like Beck himself. The issue I take with Beck's assessment is that making a scientist a social scientist or social critic would defeat the purpose of having scientists in the first place - those who objectively assess cause and effect. It seems as though Beck should be calling for a new discipline, say of social scientists, who can apply scientific knowledge through a filter of "humanity" in order to come to conclusions that are neither oversimplifications nor generally dangerous. The mixing of ethics into science is a dangerous business. Perhaps the atomic bomb should never have been built, investigated, experimented upon, yet who is to stop the progress of scientific research? Who is to dictate what should and should not be done? It is frightening for me to deny ethics a place in science, yet scientific creativity and innovation so much depends so much upon objectivity, impartiality... and Beck sometimes seems to jump the gun, attempting to speed up the process of the scientific method.

Of course it is not all negative criticism. Beck does point out the important work that scientists do in order to expose risks. Without any scientific research there would be no risk, but there would be no attempt to solve the risk either. Thus we see an interesting paradox unfold, where evidence of risk 1) sets standards for what is "acceptable risk" 2) creates knowledge and a publicly accessible risk and 3) also allows for both the defense of current practices and movement towards change. Though I am by no means a scientist, I often feel a double standard working... to summarize the novelist & essayist CP Snow: when a scientist has not read Shakespeare, he is looked down upon as lacking in education, yet ask someone in the humanities to define the second law of thermodynamics (equivalent perhaps in importance to Shakespeare for this anecdote), no one blinks an eye if they cannot answer. This is how I feel about asking everyone to undertake a subjective study, but not insisting the same for objectivity.

On a similar note, I found it interesting that when this article was published - 20 years ago now - so much animosity was indeed targeted at scientists for their lack of control and discretion over pollutants. Today, the tabels seem to have shifted, at least within the media I am exposed to. Those concerned about the risk factors of pollutants and other environmentally unsustainable practices place science on the progressive side of the argument - as evidence that change is necessary. Corporations and governments seem to carry much of the negative weight now, that Beck seems to only partially delegate to them in his paper in the 90's. This change is interesting to me - I am curious what it signifies in our attitudes towards the risk inherent science and technology versus corporations and the use of technology today, and how this has evolved.

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