Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life

Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life

Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life

Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life

Synopsis

This investigation of the overwhelming appeal of quantification in the modern world discusses the development of cultural meanings of objectivity over two centuries. How are we to account for the current prestige and power of quantitative methods? The usual answer is that quantification is seen as desirable in social and economic investigation as a result of its successes in the study of nature. Theodore Porter is not content with this. Why should the kind of success achieved in the study of stars, molecules, or cells be an attractive model for research on human societies? he asks. And, indeed, how should we understand the pervasiveness of quantification in the sciences of nature? In his view, we should look in the reverse direction: comprehending the attractions of quantification in business, government, and social research will teach us something new about its role in psychology, physics, and medicine.Drawing on a wide range of examples from the laboratory and from the worlds of accounting, insurance, cost-benefit analysis, and civil engineering, Porter shows that it is "exactly wrong" to interpret the drive for quantitative rigor as inherent somehow in the activity of science except where political and social pressures force compromise. Instead, quantification grows from attempts to develop a strategy of impersonality in response to pressures from outside. Objectivity derives its impetus from cultural contexts, quantification becoming most important where elites are weak, where private negotiation is suspect, and where trust is in short supply.

Excerpt

Science is commonly regarded these days with a mixture of admiration and fear. Until very recently, though, English-language historians of science were more likely to resent its pretensions than to fear its power. Here resentment grew out of reverence. Karl Popper and Alexandre Koyré, who gave form to brilliant traditions in the philosophy and history of science beginning especially in the 1950s, agreed that science was about ideas and theories. Koyré gave priority to thought experiments over the work of hands and instruments, and wondered, famously, if Galileo had ever performed any experiments at all. Popper allowed that experimentation could falsify theories, but held that the real work was done when the theory was adequately articulated. Experimenters had no more than to carry out what the theory dictated. Both praised science as a model of intellectual and philosophical achievement. Neither provided any reason for thinking that science could have much to do with technology. Still less could the hierarchical imagination of the historian or philosopher of science conceive that social science was authentically powerful.

This problem of the relations of science to technology inspired nothing like the heated (and, it now seems, empty and incoherent) controversy over the relative merits of “externalist” and “internalist” explanations of scientific change. Rather than arguing, much of the profession took for granted that science had the loosest connections with the practical world of engineering, production, and administration. in retrospect, I can see that my graduate training provided ample opportunity to form a more judicious view. My teachers learned earlier than I did to appreciate the limitations of seeing the scientific enterprise mainly as a pursuit of theory. Still, I think I was not unusual among historians of science of my generation in thinking that the widespread linking of science and technology or of science and administrative expertise involved something fundamentally spurious, that these supposed connections brought undeserved credit to each enterprise by making science seem more practical and its “applications” more intellectual than either really is.

A critique of this nature underlay my original formulation of this project. I planned to examine the history of neoclassical economics, the most mathematical of social science disciplines—indeed, possibly the most mathematical of all disciplines. Economics values most highly this supremely abstract mathematics, yet somehow economists sustain the . . .

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