All That Ink

And sometimes I just waste my time. Inevitable, no doubt – but disconcerting when it happens. There I was this morning reading away at David Bloor, and making notes. Scribble scribble eh Mr Gibbon. I made a longish note about the way he uses the word ‘conventional’ and what a tricky word it can be. It implies a ‘mere’ but convention isn’t always mere. For instance, it’s true enough to say, as Bloor, and Barnes and the Strong Programme in general, do say, that the rules and criteria of science are conventional, but it doesn’t follow that they’re merely conventional. ‘One can have knowledge or findings,’ I pointed out sagely to myself, ‘that are conventional without being mere. In fact the “conventions” of science work (overall, over time, cumulatively etc) to make it more rather than less accurate – rather than to make it more acceptable.’ Fine. But then I turn the page and find –

To say that the methods and results of science are conventions does not make them ‘mere’ conventions.

I burst out laughing. Well fine! Just anticipate my objections! I don’t know why I bother!

Mind you. The objection is not entirely invalid anyway, because he does use the word that way in some places, even if he also does forestall the objection on page 44. That’s one way the whole Strong Programme works: by shifting around all the time, by using words one way in one place and another way in another. Fancy footwork, in short. Susan Haack talks about this in Chapter 7 of Defending Science. It’s rather exasperating. One minute they’re simply belaboring the obvious (people can believe true things but for irrational reasons), the next minute they’re deploying rhetoric to assert an absurdity, and the minute after that they’re saying something perfectly reasonable. And all this adds up to a Programme, and a mas macho one at that. ‘Strong’ may be not quite the right adjective.

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