Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

Punk Science by Dr. Rachel Armstrong (MA , BMBCh)


With the season of lectures about "The Public Understanding of Science" upon us, it is not the perception of science by the public but re-evaluation the scientific method itself that needs to be changed.


A small but major miracle happened on Friday 5 March at the John Radcliffe Hospital. The early morning Grand Surgical Round, a prestigious weekly event in the academic surgical community studied a presentation given by Stelarc, the Research Consultant at Nottingham Trent University and Honorary Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

Stelarc is not a scientist nor surgeon. He is an Australian performance artist who has been using new technology and robots to extend his physical capabilities as a performer and is currently looking to construct an "Extra Ear" with the assistance of cosmetic surgeons and sound technicians. Using slides, video, computer models and robotic demonstrations, Stelarc gave a concise illustrated history of his work and its relationship to modern surgery. His attempt to promote his cause was largely lost; judging by the discordant expressions on the faces of the surgeons and the whole presentation itself illustrated the persistent divide between the "Two Cultures".

In 1959, the eminent scientist Sir Charles P. Snow presented a landmark lecture on the relationship between the science community and that of the arts and humanities, or "literary intellectuals." In his essay, Snow characterized these two communities as having lost even the pretense of a common culture. That is, they had lost the ability to communicate on any plane of serious intellectual endeavor. This he argued from the perspective of creativity, "intellectual life," and normal day-to-day living. This was the essay, then, that coined the term "the two cultures," to characterize the polarization of these two communities.

Stelarc's Oxford presentation was unique in that it was perhaps the first time since this declaration of intellectual war, that a contemporary practising artist has been given an equal hearing in an academic scientific forum.

My own involvement in the controversial affair was to have been fortuitously invited to give a presentation on 'Art and Medicine' by the Nuffield Professor of Orthopaedics, Professor Kenwright. Briefly, my own career has been characterised by having one foot in each culture being an ex-practising doctor, artist, and author of a book called 'Sci-fi Aesthetics' an illustrated book on the future of arts practice in relationship to new technology and the human body.

Admittedly, I could have resorted to a slide show of work of contemporary artists and analysed them from a scientific perspective but once I discovered that Stelarc was in Nottingham, the only way to precipitate a true contemporary discourse, a was to introduce one culture to the other.

There have been many heroic attempts to bridge the divide between the "Two Cultures." One such an example was last year's "Eye of the Storm" lectures series organised by the Arts Catalyst. This prestigious event was billed as addressing the big millennial conflicts in science where eminent artists and scientists would debate the issues. As usual, the attempt to engage a meaningful dialogue was disappointing. Many artists left the lectures feeling patronised by the scientists who characteristically employed the classical scientific method to deconstruct the validity of non-scientific techniques with every question.

The scientists were blinded by faith in the scientific method. The philosophical basis of this ideology is founded on nineteenth and early twentieth century principles; namely Newtonian physics, logical analysis, reductionism, capitalism, and machines. By definition, science pursues ultimate truths about the world using a systematic process of reductionism and builds technologies in its own image through reversing the process. These methods have withstood the test of time and some of the most incredible advances have been created using this world view, molecular engineering, space travel, in vitro fertilisation, computers, nuclear power and genetic engineering.

So, why should science change its perspective now?

The technologies and advances in modern life that the scientific method has brought to our culture have radically changed the way that we view the world and the way that we live. With such radical changes in our lifestyles and the future promise that technological advance holds, the whole premise of scientific analysis, inventing and creation need to be revisited so that it remains current and valid in a technologized culture.

The humanities, being distanced from the methodology of the most powerful philosophy and method the human race has ever developed, has been able to re-appropriate its philosophy and ethics and embrace the changes catalysed by scientific progress.

Science on the other hand is too close to its own process of creation and its success to feel any urgency about the need to reappraise its principles. It has not deconstructed itself, re-examined its fundamental values, nor addressed the impact of new technologies on its moral, political and ethical obligations. Scientists need a contemporary scientific philosophy to catch up with the philosophical changes in our culture to remain pertinent to the twenty-first century. In modern science, there is still no quantum practice or post-modern methodology of scientific truths and values.

Science has not stood still buts its evolution is measured according to the developing technologies of the time and not by any fundamental changes in the way that its 'truths' are validated or innovation in the process of scientific inquiry itself.

Where for example, are the new anatomies that incorporate the new physical aesthetics and dynamic physiologies produced by the latest imaging techniques? Is it possible to practice quantum medicine? Clinicians have known for over a decade that some irregular heartbeats may be described according to Chaos Theory mathematics but are not part of the everyday discourse in a cardiac outpatient clinic.

I'd love to hear Dr. Ian Wilmut who created Dolly the sheep refer to Donna Haraway's dissertation on the cyborg body during an interview or Professor Colin Blakemore talk about advances in the physiology of vision referring to William Gibson's Cyberpunk trilogy.

However, the converse is more likely to happen. Experts in the humanities and its public interface, the media have appropriated scientific facts in their philosophical discourses, believing that they have sufficiently grasped the unchanging principles to justify their own speculations on the issues that capture the public imagination. We are currently unlikely to witness an equivalent outburst from scientists on the predictions of the humanities of scientific culture because to date there has been no re-appropriation of the arts within a scientific method. Those scientists who have offered a tangential perspective such as Dr. Oliver Sachs have not addressed their insights and dialogues directly to scientific academic communities.

When the media informs the public about the latest scientific developments, the 'truths' are presented in rhetoric that does not exactly replicate the classical scientific argument. Consequently, scientists claim that their subject is watered down and inappropriately used by the public. Richard Dawkins even called for a witch-hunt against those reporters that watered down the purity of the scientific method during his keynote presentation at the 1997 Richard Dimbelby lecture.

The public believes that it is now all too familiar with the rhetoric of reductionism that pronounces upon various unintelligible, abstract, Latinate truths. Because of the intrinsic relationship between science and industry, the personal motives of scientists themselves are scrutinised since the scientific method claims to have no conscience and no ethics. The public is therefore asked to trust scientists as ethical beings and not what they do in the laboratory. So, because scientists are human, they themselves are fallible and are harshly judged when their work brings controversial revelations. In an age of political cronyism and corporate bullies scientists, in the eyes of the public are vulnerable to temptation. Power, greed, or loss of their position tempts them to interfere with objectivity and serve their paymasters. In short, scientists are vulnerable to martyr their human principle in defence of the scientific method. Science is the new religion and people look to it for guidance. However, when it does not gain public favour the scientists themselves become the victims of an inquisition, as in the case of Genetically Modified foods and suspect that for every commissioned expert opinion there is an equal and opposing expert opinion purchased.

Scientists insist on using the scientific method to defend their position with scientific facts. These very 'facts' are of dubious worth in the public eye and are challenged accordingly. Scientists, hearing the public protest assume that a misunderstanding has occurred and start to explain their actions using the scientific method again, like an Englishman in a foreign country and as a result appear to be patronising and alienate popular support.

Scientists would be better off using a post-modern or even quantum discourse to argue for their research and are out of phase with the contemporary philosophies that underpin the rest of society.

The media are partly responsibility for perpetuating this image of scientific inflexibility. When the standard scientific opinion is needed to illustrate a political controversy, they run to the bastions of public scientific respectability. From the vaults of the Royal Institution, the usual professors Greenfield, Cohen, Dawkins, Rose, Wolffe and Penrose are invited to cajole and bully the naïve audience with persuasive or patronising discourses. Although these discourses are not taking behind closed doors, the arguments are not progressive since they are not sensitive to contemporary culture.

Contemporary scientists need to embrace contemporary discourses and philosophies or will find that they are increasingly alienated in the new millennium. Institutionalised scientism will ultimately be responsible for the destruction of some of our most treasured public services, especially the National Health Service. The reluctance of doctors and research scientists to communicate their work to the broader public has meant a loss of confidence in the profession, ruthless anti-medical propaganda, and topical witch-hunts such as human cloning.

Without a contemporary scientific argument and underpinning philosophy, those that defend the purity of scientific research and ask for the faith and support of the public are fighting a losing battle. They need to be armed with a contemporary discourse that can unsettle and challenge the whole premise of media interviews and political rhetoric.

Scientists are currently in denial of this need for a fundamental shift in their philosophical approach to scientific inquiry and to the rhetoric of scientific argument. Instead, they are angry, hostile, and defensive.

During the controversial Surgical Grand Round, a respected surgeon illustrated the division between the Two Cultures and their frustration at the re-appropriated scientific facts in an artistic guise, with a carefully directed question.

"So what exactly is art?"

Although the cultural divide is yawning as wide as it ever was, there is hope. An enlightening question and answer session followed a polite lull; the surgeons started to express curiosity and relief. Some even remarked afterwards that although the 'artwork' was not directly relevant to the scientific validation of surgery, it raised important moral, political ethical and aesthetic issues about contemporary clinical practice.

The Two Cultures will never meet. Their histories, methods, and values separate them. They are not the same. They never will be.

There is much to be gained by a genuine discourse between the science community and the humanities, not as often happens in a token show of so called 'media experts' but within the walls of the institutions themselves. This will not be an easy dialogue and it will not be welcomed by a majority of academics. However, already a few radicals are embracing the new PUNK scientific agenda, are adopting a post-modern agenda, and are issuing a challenge to the bastions of learning. As in any attempt to change a dominant ideology, I expect there will be casualties.



 Rachel Armstrong Picture

Dr. Rachel Armstrong MA (Cantab) BMBCh (Oxon), ([email protected]) is the author of Sci Fi Aesthetics, television presenter for 'The Frame' on BBC's UK Arena channel, Lecturer at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, a multimedia producer and medical doctor specialising in the evolution of humankind through 'unnatural interventions'. Forthcoming fiction book for Serpents Tail 'A Gray's Anatomy'.

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