Friday, November 11, 2011

Objectivity 1.2 - Collective Empiricism

The world is big, chaotic, and dynamically changing.  To get a grip on things, we humans put things in categories to which we refer with terms like "dog", "pastel color", "malaria", or "revolutionary scientific theory".  

To communicate ideas to others, they must be able to understand the terms we use, and have the ability to recognize when something fits a categories we are using.  To facilitate this, books have been produced for centuries which provide examples demonstrating relationships between individuals as types of a category.  What we learn about each category seems to be summed up by an archetype of that category.  

Joseph Campbell's "Power of Myth" related the interesting role culture plays in forming this archetype with a category of creature known as "the dragon".  

In Western European culture, the dragon embodies the sin of greed: amassing treasure and virgins through violence, yet neither of which he is able to use.  In contrast, the Asian dragon is an embodiment of such vital life energy that various legends include dragons' visitation/protection/contact/breath as the cause of a woman conceiving the Buddha and/or Confucius.  

While our individual archetypes vary, we all seem to use them as guides to determining whether what is immediately before us belongs in one category or another.  While amazingly efficient for categorization, its reliability drops when our scope of perception increases.

I recall lying on the grass as a child trying to reconcile the idea that the Earth rotates when deep in my bones, I seemed completely at rest.  Years later, I learned hyenas were cats, not dogs as I had always believed.  Pineapples don't look like berries, and polar bear fur looks opaque white. 

Daston & Galison define atlases as "systematic compilations of working objects" which "train the eye to pick out certain kinds of objects...and to regard them in a certain way".  To the right, we see an atlas reproduction which uses "figures as genuine illustrations", as opposed to later works where the images contained in atlases rule science as "the alpha and omega of the genre", according to Objectivity.

Derivable from the work of Mary Hesse and dovetailing nicely with the "imagistic reasoning" process identified in Nancy Nersessian's very important Creating Scientific Concepts, images "make the science".  Atlases "must begin with an explanation of why the old ones are no longer adequate for the task", mapping the "territory of the sciences they serve".

They are also large, expensive, and tend to take a significant portion of the authors' lives.  Now, we even have an atlas of scientific atlases of sorts.  Note the size of Katy Borner's "Atlas of Science" relative to the hardcover textbook "Cognitive Structures of Scientific Revolutions", although Atlas of Science does not have the gargantuan proportions of many others, it is big, packed with illustrations that take center stage, and is lovingly printed on beautifully thick, expensive paper.


Atlases function not only to mark and define group knowledge, they form the cognitive framework used by practitioners.  Scientists, through their atlases, have left an amazing amount of evidence behind, exposing their deepest unconscious beliefs to scrutiny by others who want to pry into secrets even they would not have known.  One of those beliefs is "Objectivity is a scientific virtue", but that was not always the case, as we will examine in our next section: Objectivity is New.


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