Objectivity 0.1 - Prologue, Objectivity Shock

Objectivity by Lorraine J. Daston and Peter Galison opens with a man alone in a dark room, obsessing for years over drops of mercury and milk liquids hitting a pane of glass laid on a table.  With the strobed light from a spark, he was able to temporarily "burn" a frozen image of drops' impact on his retina and using this image, he would sketch the and later write extensively on the "perfect symmetry" produced by these splashes, the beauty of such a symmetrical form, and so on.  This was perhaps the first effort of its kind to capture instantaneous measure of a dynamic process, and use the technology to elaborate categories of outcomes, or "simplification through a pictorial taxonomy".  Trouble arose when cameras replaced eyes, and that perfect symmetry which had made such sense emotionally and mathematically, NEVER occurred in reality.  All the sketches, drawings, and text referred to something that did not exist and after 20 years, Arthur Worthington later admitted seeing, studying, and unintentionally expounding the virtues of something "which may never actually be realized."

On one hand we may consider this an example of a sort of delusion as Worthington did: an aberration due to perceptual limits of the eye and the psyche.  The authors state here that Worthington's "conversion to the 'objective view' is emblematic of a sea change in the observational sciences."  Depending on one's philosophy of science background, this may be called a paradigm shift, replacement of a cognitive frame, revolution in science, or transformative research. 

On the other hand, the Critical Reality philosophy of Bhaskar might treat this "delusion" as a virtue of "counter-phenomenality", where underlying principles can in fact, be demonstrated by a set of examples evidencing a real principle, even as individual examples provide prima facie refutation.  Here, the non-existent perfection and symmetry conform to real tendencies of fluid dynamics and other physical principles which can inform, explain, and predict.

The authors cite this example as one milestone among many of the rise of a new scientific virtue: "scientific objectivity" which as we will see in later chapters, is not a Copernican refutation of previous models according to Dastin & Galison, but rather a new pillar in the foundation of science, or: a new star in the constellations by which exploring scientists navigate.

This navigation proceeds in part via a process for which the authors provide context in our next post: "Objectivity 1.1 - Blind Sight".


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