More Than Definitions: Real Differences That Matter

By Gregori, Thomas R. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2004 | Go to article overview

More Than Definitions: Real Differences That Matter


Gregori, Thomas R., Journal of Economic Issues


In his thoughtful and provocative submission, "Dewey and Ayres, Webb and DeGregori: At Odds over Technical Terms," Baldwin Ranson notes the lack of meeting of the minds and hopes to work out some compromise between us by generating a matrix of terminology that might somehow bridge the gap between Webb and me. Good try, but unfortunately, though Ranson clarifies some issues, in other respects his dichotomies serve to obfuscate the differences.

First, I need to make clear the position that I am setting forth. Certainly, I would not presume to attempt to prescribe an orthodoxy for a dissenting tradition. However, I will say that what I am expounding is what I learned, rightly or wrongly, as being mainstream Dewey-Veblen-Ayres instrumental/institutionalism, namely, that tools are a complex of resource-creating ideas, skills, and behavior that have created instruments that are used by humans to further the life process. Ideas are combined to form the basis for new tools and technology. On rare occasions, this may be the combination of existing physical instruments but far more common is the use of the basic ideas to modify the instruments so that they actually fit and work together. Technological diffusion is more often than not a movement of ideas rather than of things. There is, then, a cumulation of knowledge through time that drives the technological process forward with the value implications of the term forward understood, accepted, and defended.

For nearly four decades, historians of technology have been speaking of something called technological knowledge, a concept in line with Ayresian thought. It is clear that advances in technology have produced new knowledge in science as often as the reverse has been the case. This body of information can be referred to as technological knowledge (Layton 1974, 3134; Rosenberg 1982, 1411-59; Sebestik 1983, 2543; and Ferguson 1992, 1551-56). Technological ideas may not be "fact based." In a delightful article, "The Mind's Eye: Nonverbal Thought in Technology," Eugene Ferguson argued that "all of our technology has a significant intellectual component that is both nonscientific and nonliterary" (1977, 827). As in mathematics, there is "elegance" to technological solutions. They are so elegant or clear, simple, and obvious that we all recognize the rightness and the "solution to a problem; frequently there is no suggestion even that a problem exists" (Ferguson 1978, 451; see also Hindle 1983, 128). The "working or rocking beam" on the Newcomen steam engine is marvelous example of an instrument that embodies an elegant idea that has no previous basis in science but works magnificently (Ferguson 1978, 451; see also Ferguson 1992, 14). And as such technological ideas are explanatory of how things work.

In distinguishing between the "explanatory" and the "useful," Ranson tends to equate the former with science and the latter with technology. It is not quite that simple. James Lind's dividing twelve seamen sick with scurvy into six groups with each receiving a different treatment and then observing the results was good science. It was useful and may have had precursors within the British navy. But it was not explanatory and could not be for 160 years until Casimir Funk and Frederick Gowland Hopkins identified vitamins (originally called vital amines) and the deficiency therein as a cause of illness. Similarly, the scientific work of Ignaz Simmelweis and Joseph Lister in recognizing the agency of humans in transmitting disease in hospitals was useful as was John Snow's identification of water from a particular pump as being the source of cholera. They helped to overturn theories of "miasma" as a mechanism for disease transmission, but their usefulness was specific and therefore limited and not always accepted. Explanation was tool driven and required advances in technology such as the achromatic microscope and aniline dyes to stain slides in order for Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur to be able to identify the microorganisms responsible for disease transmission. …

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