Life Among the Scientists: An Anthropological Study of an Australian Scientific Community

Max Charlesworth, Lyndsay Farrall, Terry Stokes and David Turnbull . Oxford University Press . 1989
Life Among the Scientists is an ambitious book, representing the findings of four researchers at work over five years. The immediate focus is upon the activities of scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne in order to explore the way that these activities are shaped by social, political, financial and intellectual influences.

Part One, 'The life-world of the Institute', sketches the recent history of ideas in immunology, the field where the Institute gained world renown when its Director, Macfarlane Burnet, shared a Nobel Prize with Sir Peter Medawar.  The legendary status of Burnet in the Institute is subjected to critical appraisal, also his conception of the subject and his  'individualistic' view of research. The authors describe the emergence of a 'new biology', heavily influenced by physics (which Burnet did not find particularly appealing) and a new ethos of Big Science where success depends on large teams and massive funding.

Part Two, 'The subjective side of science' includes a chapter on 'The myth of objectivity' which lays the foundation for the major purpose of the whole work - to challenge received views on the philosophy and methodology of science.

Part Three, 'The mode of scientific production' closely examines the way that scientists approach their daily tasks, with the central image being the laboratory as a factory to produce data.

Part Four is written in the same descriptive vein with a broader geographical scope, detailing  some of the intellectual and political elements of the worldwide quest to find a vaccine for malaria. These chapters contain some fine writing on the development of ideas and the state of play in several linked fields of research  in microbiology and parasitology.

The book operates at several levels, from high journalism and science criticism to the ecology of excellence and the philosophy and methodology of science. As a piece of high quality reporting, it is impressive in its scope and depth, although a hostile insider described it as 'mere' journalism.  Leon Wolpert's distinctly humourless review in Nature [Nov 19, 1989] found other faults including a failure to take adequate account of humour among the scientists. The charge of 'mere' journalism is unfair because the writers achieve a standard of science writing that will provide a challenge to all comers.

The book contains a helpful and revealing account of the great scientific task of generating data. The story they tell is familiar to any postgraduate science student but everyone who is interested in science needs to know how much of the scientists' day is absorbed in the quest for corks, pieces of string, portable devices lent to other teams in the Institute or just waiting for special equipment to be built or repaired. The relationship between scientists and technical support staff is sensitively explored, with due regard to the major contribution of high quality assistants and to the hierarchy of technical personnel. They explain the complex and delicate protocol for assigning degrees of credit to multiple authors of journal articles (the person who did most of the work first and the senior or supervising scientist last).

Some false notes are struck in their commentary on the experimental effort and these signal some problems in their conceptual framework. They find that the bench researchers do not spend a lot of time on theory or reading the literature. They also record that research often changes direction due to data that clash with expectations. They appear to accept that this places theory in a secondary role, with facts driving theory but it really indicates the importance of expectations, (theoretical expectations) even if these are somewhat vague and unformalised. They note a comment by the Assistant Director that experiments which at first appeared to be failures because they refuted expectations, in fact 'opened up all sorts of possibilities waiting to be grasped' (151). These are theoretical possibilities and this is why Popperian falsification is a fertile method that opens up new vistas and not a negative, cramped approach as is often claimed.

The authors are keen to challenge the commonsense views of realism and objectivity which are generally held by scientists, 'as though science merely held a mirror up to nature and as though they were simply reading off directly what was out there' (213). As an alternative to the 'mirror' they offer the 'lamp' view that reality is a projection of our socially conditioned presuppositions. Happily there is a third view sometimes labeled 'critical realism' which postulates the existence of an external world whose characteristics do not depend on us or our perception of it.  At the same time a process of decoding is required to interpret the world on the basis of signals that we receive from it. This is the perspective offered by the school of evolutionary epistemology, expounded by Popper, Bartley, Campbell and others in a major collection of essays titled  Evolutionary Epistemology (eds G. Radnitzky and W.W. Bartley, Open Court, 1987).

This brings us to the least satisfactory aspect of the book. The main purpose of the enterprise is to challenge received views of philosophy and methodology of science, but the writers have not engaged at all with the most robust and fruitful body of ideas in the field.  This is a striking example of the phenomenon they describe as 'socially structured forgetting' or 'structural amnesia' (p 101). They have neatly excised Karl Popper and the whole tradition of evolutionary epistemology from their account of the philosophy and methods of science. But Popper's work surely represents either the orthodox view of scientific method (as accepted by a number of eminent scientists who took their philosophy seriously such as Medawar, Ecles, Monod and  Einstein), or a formidable rival to the traditional form of Baconian induction, still championed by David Stove.

It is the latter, inductive scheme  that draws most of the critical fire in this book. It seems that the authors share Popper's view of science as a human product, however his evolutionary approach contains a theory of conjectural objective knowledge and the book's attack on 'the myth of objectivity' does not attempt to challenge this particular kind of objectivity. As to the authors' concern to retrieve the subjective side of science, they have neglected a rich vein of material and sources mined by Liam Hudson in a series of books from Contrary Imaginations to The Cult of the Fact.

Life Among the Scientists is located in the tradition of the 'social construction of science', a form of thought that thrives in the intellectual wasteland created by the popular reception of T. S. Kuhn's work on the diffusion of scientific innovations. To their credit the authors fall short of the strong form of relativism that is common in this tradition and this may indicate that their interest in science is strong enough to resist the debilitating effect of their theoretical framework. The popularity of the 'social construction' view and its serious limitations raise two questions. What is going on in academic departments of philosophy and the social sciences to account for their structural amnesia regarding Popper (and Hayek)? And is there any way that philosophers or other metascientists can provide assistance to scientists?

The answer to the first question awaits further anthropological studies, though Bartley throws out some clues in his contribution to In Pursuit of Truth (ed P. Levinson, Humanities Press, 1982).  As to the second question, philosophers may have nothing to offer at the tactical level of science where the major requirements are better data and new or revised descriptive theories. However there are times when progress is blocked by problems at a higher (or deeper) strategic level and attention needs to be paid to the unstated assumptions and metaphors that guide the formulation of problems and determine the kind of solutions that are sought. For example the immune reaction by the body to foreign matter was supposed to involve a mechanism of instruction from the invaders to the immune system to produce the appropriate antibodies. Burnet followed a hint from Jerne to demonstrate that the mechanism at work is one of selection among a range of responses generated initially by the immune system. A similar shift of focus, from a mechanism of instruction acting on an essentially passive or reactive organism, to one of selection among trials generated by the organism, has important implications in epistemology and evolutionary theory. Popper has drawn out some of these in his critique of inductive and Lamarckian thinking in his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest.

Unfortunately the dogmatic rejection of metaphysics in the positivist philosophy of science has blinded scientists to deep structural themes. Consequently the process of critical re-thinking at the strategic level is inhibited in the scientific community. Fortunately a rich tradition of thought exists to assist in this task, though little of it is cited in the 'social construction' literature which appears to favour Continental anthropologists and literary critics. Among the names and concepts available are Lovejoy and Holton on 'unit ideas' and 'themes', also Collingwood and Popper on 'metaphysical presuppositioins' and 'metaphysical research programmes'.

In conclusion, Life Among the Scientists succeeds in some of its objectives despite the problems at its conceptual heart. It is a good read for the most part provided that one is not distracted by the potentially irritating device of the first
person narrative. It probably deserves a place in the bookcase (though not on the same shelf) with Medawar's Pluto's Republic, Koestler's The Sleepwalkers and Barzun's Science: The Glorious Entertainment.

Rafe Champion

Postscript on Malfunctioning Scientists

It seems that in some respects the scientists in the Institute did not quite measure up to the standards required by the anthropological researchers. People may be aware that scientists have  protocols for discarding data from experiements where the equipment or the experimental material are considered to be damaged or defective and so the results are invalid and can be thrown away without prejudice to the scientific validity of the work. For example if there is a power failure at a critical time or a cow breaks into a field trial and eats some of the results.

An amazing revelation about this piece of research appeared some years later when the senior author wrote a review of the reissue of David Stove's critique of Popper and others. He reported that Popper was the only philosopher of science who was held in any regard by the members of the Institute. He told this story as a joke on the scientists. It would appear to the untutored outsider that this evidence would have refuted the unstated thesis that Popper does not count in the real world of science. Apparently that particular evidence was regarded as superfluous or defective when it came to writing up the research. Of course scientists discard data when they think that the experimental apparatus was malfunctioning. In this case it appears that was the scientists who favourably mentioned Popper were considered to be malfunctioning!

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