Letting the world speak back

To some, the controlled experiment, with an a priori hypothesis, generating predicted effects, and capable of repeated repetition by independent researchers, represents the epitome of science, the demonstration of its indubitable powers of making the “external” world intelligible, and providing our most secure path out of the thickets of superstition and ignorance.

This interpretation values theory over observation, and assumes that the understanding of the scientist can tame the unruly world. I demur. No experiment can ever be repeated exactly. Each repetition must use different samples, different observations. So that which is repeated is the performance of theory as made explicit in the experimental conditions and observations. Experiment is thus the performance of theory. This kind of demonstration is impressive, but it silences the world in a manner antithetical to the inquiring spirit.

Many years ago I stood on a beach, throwing a boomerang. After my first throw, I noted where the boomerang landed, I marked where I had stood, and repeated the exercise dozens more times, generating a visible pattern of variability in impact, despite my attempt to throw in identical fashion, with constant force, every time.  It was great fun. My girlfriend found me in the middle of this and, not being of the scientific bent herself, she laughed good-naturedly about the odd ways of the scientifically inclined.

Now I see that her view of science was optimistic, and is poorly reflected in the practices most defended in public. Specifically, I was not performing a demonstration of a theory to bring about an observable. I was observing and allowing the world to surprise me, to speak back. There was repetition and control, but no hypothesis and no predicted effect. This kind of inquiry is often relegated to the pilot study, the exploratory foray, or the informal mucking about that goes unreported. I find this lamentable.

Science begins in observation. After noticing something, anything, it then tries to understand, by further observation. Control does not mean tying the world down. It means having a frame within which one observes, so that one observation can be brought into relation with another.

As we face the challenges of planetary change, we will be faced with agencies and forces we did not expect, that do not take us into account, and that we are not expecting. That which we once called “nature” has fragmented, and we find ourselves confronted with unpredictable agentive forces, systems that assert themselves over our models and theories. We must learn to be sensitive to these many interacting and interpenetrating systems. We would do well to let the world speak back.

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