Rupture and Flow: The Circulation of Technoscientific Facts and Objects

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures
Indiana University, Bloomington

Anything going wrong? (October 2010)

Leader: Jutta Schickore (History and Philosophy of Science)

Every scientist active today will admit that failures and dead ends are as present as ever in scientific practice. Even in those cases where everything turns out right, numerous pitfalls had to be overcome. But despite their ubiquity, the failures and dead ends are mentioned, if at all, only in personal conversation, autobiographies, and similar informal contexts. They are not reported in professional publications. Indeed, scientists are often actively discouraged from reporting dead ends and failures in professional journals.

But recent developments in the sciences such as increased attention to ethical standards of conduct, incidents of fraud, areas of extreme specialization, Big Science projects, as well as increased pressure from funding agencies have made the processes of and impediments for accounting for failed trials much more relevant and indeed much more precarious than ever before. There are numerous indications that failure has become a topic of concern within the sciences and beyond. Science educators seek to familiarize science students with the phenomenon of error; there is increasing pressure to account for error and failure in biomedical research; and funding agencies require guarantees for success. As a consequence, scientists themselves call for more open discussions of errors and failures. At the same time, philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science as well as active scientists are beginning to realize that failures and dead ends are often driving forces in the generation of knowledge (Hon et al. 2009). This subsection explores in three dimensions how reports of experimental failures and dead ends are circulated, what processes prevent them from being communicated, and to what extent failures and dead ends may be regarded as productive forces in knowledge generation.

Case studies and comparative projects:

  1. We will compare different genres of science communication. What exactly are the restrictions that are placed on the communication of failures and negative results in different venues and for diverse audiences? How, why, and in what contexts do scientists exchange information about errors, failures, and obstacles, if not in peer-reviewed journals?
  2. We will compare past and present filtering procedures. Unlike current scientists, scientists in the past do reflect on the vagaries of experiments, their sources, and possible ways to deal with them. How did past scientists in different periods assess the significance of causes and implications of imperfections in experimental practice? How much attention was paid to the impediments of experimentation? When and why did discourses on error, failure, and related matters disappear from scientists? publications, and what are the expectations behind the recent increase of interest in these matters?
  3. We will compare across different disciplines the procedures for accounting for failures and the impediments placed on them. Are there significant differences between medical and physical sciences (e.g. pharmacology and observational astronomy)? What impact does the increasing pressure to account for failure have on the practice of biomedical research?


September 17
Classroom Office Building (COB) 800 East Third Street Room 272, 1:30-3pm
Introductory Meeting
Discuss Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, "Experimental Reorientations", from G. Hon et al. ed. (2009) Going Amiss in Experimental Research, Springer, 75-90.

October 1
Classroom Office Building (COB) 800 East Third Street Room 272, 1:30-3pm
Meeting to discuss
Kevin Elliott, "Error as Means to Discovery," Philosophy of Science 71 (2004): 1-24.
Peter Dear, "What is the History of Science the History of ? Early Modern Roots of the Ideology of Modern Science," Isis , 2005, 96: 390-406.

October 16
Capstone Seminar

10:00am-5:30pm Maurer School of Law, Room 335 (Faculty Conference Room)

Peter Dear (Cornell)
Is There Such a Thing as Premodern (or even modern) Technoscience?

Scott Hyslop (Indiana University, Bloomington)
Selecting Values Amongst Discrepancies: Mathematics, Measurement, and Error in the 17th Century

Lunch Break

Eric Meslin (Indiana University Center for Bioethics/School of Medicine)
Learning from Unethical Research: Is Science Policy Self-Correcting?

Kevin Elliott (University of South Carolina)
Epistemic and Methodological Iterativity in Nanotoxicology

Coffee break

3:45-4:45 (Indiana University, Bloomington)
Laura Seger
The Rise of Negative Results Journals [Abstract]

Concluding discussion

Dinner for invited participants