Taking Constructivist Criticism: A Review of Making Natural Knowledge:Constructivism and the History of Science

Book Review Jan Golinski.  Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science. 2nd edition with a New Preface, Chicago / London: Chicago University Press, 2005, xxii + 236 pp., illus., $25.00. ISBN-13: 978-0226302317 ISBN-10: 0226302318.  Kindle Edition cited here.


To my colleagues working in science: we‘re being watched.  Not by the NSA or the CIA, but by the HST, SSK, and HPS.  Significantly less scary than spy agencies, these groups are scholars in the fields of the History of Science, the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, and the History and Philosophy of Science.  If you are a scientist working in an academic institution, you should know that these folks are working somewhere on your campus, tucked away wherever they put your liberal arts people and they are very interested in you.  You probably enjoy reading about the history of science or even find  History Channel documentaries fascinating entertainment, but these are not the same thing.

For instance, Jan Golinski authored a history of the history of science, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science.  The University of New Hampshire professor, by way of Cambridge University (B.A and M.A.) and the University of Leeds (Ph.D.), offers an intellectual history. It is not a walk in the park, but it is a walk you should take, especially if you invested your college career acquiring credits for a bachelor of science degree and only took two or three humanities classes.  Golinski, like many historians of science, espouses the constructivist view of the subject. He outlines various categories of research into the activity we call science, claiming that “scientific knowledge is a human creation… rather than simply the revelation of the natural order… independent of human action” (Loc 473).

Golinski’s constructivist approach states that human choices and interpretations determine the knowledge product.  You are social actors, even in your role as scientists; therefore gaining scientific knowledge is contingent on an array of social factors such as your station on life, where you live, or your gender.  Your work is not merely about revealing the secrets of nature.  The layers of unknowing are not peeled back simply for their own sake. The author notes the history of science for the better part of four hundred years has been a history of glory. As it has been told until around the 1970s, a spark struck humanity; we progressed to the highest point of creation, fueled by the secrets of the universe we discovered in doing pure science.  Now, HST, SSK, and HPS make it all about you.  For example, Golinski offers up Biagioli’s 1993 work Galileo, Courtier which insists the astronomer’s scientific work must be comprehended in relationship to his position in the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Well, who doesn’t have an appreciation of their relationship with the signers of grant checks?

As Golinski follows the development of this approach to the history of science, he presents other theories besides his preferred constructivist view.  The “actor-network” theory of Bruce Latour, is especially interesting because you will find the topics and language quite familiar.  Latour and his researchers actually spent time in laboratories observing the work behaviors of scientists and technicians.  This ethnographical approach spotlights very practical aspects of generating scientific knowledge, marrying scientists to technology not only at the level of basic science but also for other end-users (Loc 928).  Latour calls this technoscience, which somewhat equates with “applied science” (Loc 3256).  He also recognizes the importance of instrumentation as an actor in the network, the same as humans.  Latour astutely assigned heavy prominence to metrology(Loc 1183).  “Things” are what they are solely because we say so.  We say so because our instruments can identify and measure them.  The onus returns to humans to place the appropriate controls around an experiment and to properly calibrate or standardize the instruments, so our “things” can be universally understood.  

To be fair, Golinski does not shoo Latour out the door.  The actor-network descriptions smacks of constructivism with an extra layer. For example, a story of Hobbes’s objection to Boyle’s air pump. “For Hobbes, a device of this kind was simply not an appropriate means of producing philosophical knowledge: ‘not everyone that brings from beyond seas a new gin, or other jaunty device, is therefore a philosopher. For if you reckon that way, not only apothecaries and gardeners, but many other sorts of workmen, will put in for, and get the prize’ (Loc 3140). Tell that to the creators of the Large Hadron Collider.  

                There are important themes addressed in this work.  Scientific knowledge as a product of human labor, changes in intuitional settings, fieldwork outside of the controlled environment of laboratories, inconsistencies of data from lab to lab—all these themes feed into an ultimate question: how pure, how true is science?  There is a mandate that science must be good because “Adherence to scientific reason is a constituent element of cultural belief in advanced industrial societies, even in countries like the US where a vast portion of the population also believes that the world was created in six days. The authority of science is thus a central vehicle in a technocratic democracy.”[1]   Making Natural Knowledge underscores the critical elements needed to fulfill that mandate.  Read it.


[1]Andrew Ross, “Cultural Studies and the Challenge of Science” in Disciplinarity and Dissent in Cultural Studies, Cary Nelson, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, eds. Psychology Press, 1996, p. 174).


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