Science @ Festivaletteratura 2018

As every year since quite some time now, I have the possibility of organizing some scientific activities at a major literary festival, Festivaletteratura. In the years the format has changed a lot, moving from the traditional “top-down” frontal meetings were science is narrated to the audience, to more horizontal, “bottom-up” approaches where the public interacts with the experts in order to understand both the contents and the context of science. For this reason I don’t like to call these activities “divulgation”, as I more thoroughly explained last year.

A further external constraint this year was a serious budget limitation. This was nice, because constrictions are opportunities for creativity. So what better than involving fifteen young and enthusiastic students and researchers to actually stimulate the contents of the activities, instead of calling external experts to impart their knowledge?

So there we have it, it’s called Scienceground, you can find the whole program here. We will run laboratories (data mining for adolescents, cryptography for children, machine learning and probability) web interviews (Peter Woit, Carlo Rovelli, Sabine Hossenfelder, Harry Collins, Alex Reinhart), a podcast station, a library with selected books, and a wide spectrum of activities that are the scientist’s daily life: drafting a paper (the report of the experience will be latexed  live), printing, reading and commenting other people’s papers, scribbling formulas, discussing ideas, running small and unreliable social experiments.

The main themes of this workshop will be: the status of high-energy physics, with the books of Woit and Hoffenselder being discussed, and conversations with Tommaso Dorigo who will personally be at the festival; the use and misuse of statistics outside and inside of science (I highly suggest Statistics Done Wrong by Alex Reinhart, it’s a great introductory book on a big problem we as scientists have right now); “Big Data” and machine learning (another great book I’m reading: A Theory of the Drone by Grégoire Chamayou); the socio-anthropological* aspects of science.

This latter aspect is the one I’m most interested in lately. Like Harry Collins explains here,  and Bruno Latour argues in Laboratory life, sociology of science has long been interpreted as the understanding of the social context where the scientist works and knowledge is produced; and most people still understand it this way. But this has more to do with the sociology of the community of people around science (politicians, journalists, bureaucrats etc.) that pressure it from all fronts without understanding its key values, than that of the community of scientists themselves. This frame gives rise to a narration of how the historical context affects the output of research (most of history if science is still now an anecdotal account), on the tacit assumption that the research would have had its “natural course” if it had been run outside of these conditions, if this were possible**. It is not. So, after the dumps of militant postmodernism, as I understand it this “third wave” of sociology of science is more interested in understanding the internal social workings of the community (that’s why*** Collins chose the gravitational wave community: because it’s reasonably shielded from external interests and pressures with respect to, say, genomics****). That is, to study the community of scholars doing research as an anthropological tribe, using the tools that anthropology has developed to study “primitive” cultures around the world to mirror ourselves. What are the myths, beliefs, shamans, outcasts etc. and ultimately: is the community healthy, that is, consistent with its own values of “truth”?

I personally find this question extremely urgent in science for reasons that should be completely obvious to any scientist who attends any conference, so we should look with curiosity at the socio-anthropological method that allows at the same time  to be extremely respectful and accepted by the community being studied, but skeptical about its mechanisms*****. In a way I find this method is orthogonal to the scientific method, as the first requires identification with the object of study, the second total detachment from it******.

I find this idea incredibly fascinating and powerful, and by now I’m sorry that some “of us” (as if this made sense) systematically cherry-picked quotes from Latour, Collins and others to “fight back” on a petty war of fields of knowledge, on the assumption that science was under attack. I think they sort of missed the whole point******.


* By the way: Here I very ignorantly and deliberately use the words “sociology” and “anthropology” interchangeably because it just makes a lot of sense. I do know these are very different things but I wonder whether this distinction makes sense anymore.

** This is the “purification” process that Latour denounces in We have never been modern, another book that I highly suggest.

*** “Why”: this is a retroactive narration made up by myself. We don’t actually know why he chose it back then.

**** This is also a process of “purification”; Latour instead studied a community of endocrinologists and could not make a clear separation between internal and external; this

***** This is where a “clash of words” occurs: people in different fields attach different meaning to words, and they start fighting over them as if they owned the words. I believe this might be at the origin certain choices of jargon that produced so much controversy over Latour’s claims (if one reads the early Latour, the “production” of scientific facts is not an accusation but a matter of method: the question “is the fact true?” is outside of the scope of the anthropologist – and I would say, also of the scientist).

****** I’m not totally convinced by this, this is subtler issue at higher levels of subtlety, but let it be…

******* I’m obviously referring to Fashionable Nonsense by Bricmont and Sokal. I have contrived feelings about this book and I should re-read it. The first time I read it I was totally caught-up. It actually made me laugh several times. But maybe for the wrong reasons. Exactly like with great stand-up comedy: some is based on easy jokes; but some other elegantly demolishes your sense of reality, and after laughter is gone you are left with a mixed sense of anxiety and shame.

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