CSS Colloquium: Adrian Currie, University of Exeter
Science Across Mediums
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Scientific practice is strikingly diverse: from archaeological digs relying on volunteer labour, to super-computer-mediated simulations of galaxy formation, to high-throughput factory-level agronomic data generation about crop varieties, to small-scale lab studies of rats running through mazes with sensors strapped to their heads: a list I expect I could expand all day and still keep coming up with variations, quirks and idiosyncrasies. Such diversity is institutional, social, economic, reaching across differing best-practices, tools & techniques, evidential standards and materials. What explains scientific diversity? A set of answers appeal to the diversity of scientific tasks, contexts and targets. Different disciplines have differing histories, and these contingencies make a difference to their current form. Different scientists target different kinds of systems, and differing approaches are more-or-less appropriate depending on ontological context. They may also have differing interests, differing access to funds, and so on and so forth. Note that all of these answers make science’s diversity a reaction to, or perhaps a symptom of, properties of the world being targeted or the scientists themselves. No doubt such answers have merit, but I want to suggest also that diversity is due to the nature of scientific knowledge itself.
I argue that scientific knowledge is best understood in terms of modal spaces grounded in various representational and physical mediums. That is, a representational or physical structure sets a possibility space that investigation—manipulation, intervention, and transformation—of those mediums explores. Scientific knowledge, therefore, is fundamentally constrained by its medium. This fundamental constraint necessitates a diversity of mediums, thus generating similar, partially overlapping, modal spaces which we might think of as ‘general’ scientific knowledge. Science, then, operates across mediums and thus a diversity of mediums is baked into the bedrock of scientific knowledge.