Don Ihde on Technology’s Resistance to Criticism

“Why Not Science Critics?”, philosopher Don Ihde’s essay that was brought to my attention by a reader’s comment on a previous post, offers some interesting insights into the challenges faced by critics of what Ihde calls technoscience. Take a look at whole, but here are a few notable excerpts.

Ihde takes as his point of departure observations by Langdon Winner’s on the resistance of technology to criticism:

“Writers who venture beyond the most ordinary conceptions of tools and uses, writers who investigate ways in which technical forms are implicated in the basic patterns and problems of our culture are met with the charge that they are merely “antitechnology” [or "antiscience"] or “blaming [technoscience]“. All who have stepped forward as critics in this field–Lewis Mumford, Paul Goodman, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and others–have been tarred with the same brush, an expression of a desire to stop the dialogue rather than expand it. (Winner, Paths of Technopolis, p.3)”

Ihde adds the following on the knee-jerk charge of Luddism (remember the Borg Complex!):

“The contrast between art and literary criticism and what I shall call ‘technoscience criticism’ is marked. Few would call art or literary critics “anti-art” or “anti-literature” in the working out, however critically, of their products. And while it may indeed be true that given works of art or given texts are excoriated, demeaned, or severely dealt with, one does not usually think of the critic as generically “anti-art” or “anti-literature.” Rather, it is precisely because the critic is passionate about his or her subject matter that he or she becomes a ‘critic …. The critic–as I shall show below–is either regarded as an outsider, or if the criticism arises from the inside, is soon made to be a quasi-outsider.”

Among the reasons for this resistance to criticism, Ihde cites the historical emergence of technoscience as an alternative to religion, really as an alternative religion:

“The most obvious barrier to the formation of an institutionalized technoscience criticism lies in the role of late modern technoscience itself. Technoscience, as institution, began in early modernity by casting itself as the ‘other’ of religion. Its mythologies, drawn from Classical pre-Christian and often materialist (Democritean/Epicurean) sources; its anti-authoritarianism, including the Galilean claim to have exceeded the Scriptures and Church Father’s insights by replacing these with the new sighting possible through his telescope; and the much stronger later anti-religiousity of the Enlightenment which cast religion as ‘superstition’ and science as ‘rationality,’ all led to the Modernist substitution of what I am calling technoscience for religion. 
In the process, science–whether advertently or inadvertently–itself took on a quasi-theological characteristic. To be critical of the new ‘true faith’ was to be, in effect, ‘heretical’ now called ‘irrational.'”

Finally, I’ll throw in Ihde’s discussion of whistleblowers in the scientific community, which challenges the popular image of scientific objectivity:

“The second instance is one which begins with the critic as in insider, a “whistle blower” example: I suspect everyone here remembers the news coverage of the l99l “Gulf War.” It was a trial run on one of our “Star Wars” developments, the anti-missile missile, the “Patriot.” The newsbroadcasts showed over and over again the presumed ‘interceptions’ and claimed hits up to 95% effectiveness. If, then, you followed the more critical analyses to follow, you will probably recall that there was an admission that effectiveness or ‘hits’ declined to about 24%. Part of this admission was due to the early-on analysis performed by Theodore Postal, a ballistics expert and MIT scientist who took news videotapes used to make the hit claims and subjected them to magnified, enhanced, and computer image techniques which on closer inspection showed that claimed hits were not hits at all. Eventually, he concluded that there may not have been a single, verifiable hit which had been made by a Patriot! Needless to say, this claim was not appreciated by Raytheon, the manufacturer of the missile, nor by his colleague, Shaoul Ezekiel, who had advised Raython, and eventually not even by MIT itself which got caught in the cross-fire of claims and anti-claims. 
The battle turned nasty: Raytheon implied that Postal had actually doctored the tapes, but later reduced this to the claim, suggested by Ezekiel, that the grain structure and imaging of video tapes was simply too gross to draw the conclusions drawn. The battle continues to this day, particularly between Postol and Exekiel concerning ethical conduct, with MIT trying to shy away due to the large amounts it gets annual from Raytheon. (see Science, 23 February l996, pp. l050-l052). 
Nor is this some isolated instance. In a study of the “costs of whistle blowing’ Science (5 January l996, p. 35) reports that more than two thirds of whistle blowers (within science as an institution) experience negative effects ranging from ‘ostracism’ through ‘pressure to drop allegations,’ to the actual non-renewals or losses of jobs. The long drawn out ‘David Baltimore’ case is another of these scenarios, in which the whistle blower–not the offender who faked the notebooks–was fired. The insider critic is isolated and, if possible, often separated and thus made into an outsider or ‘other.’ 
While the above scenario would not be much different for business corporations, neither would we be surprised about this ostracization from the corporate sector within business, but for the popular image of science as being more like a Church in the claims about critical concern for truth, this may come as a surprise, although not for those of us close enough to realize that science-as-institution is today much more like the corporate world than it is a church!”

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