Thursday, May 21, 2009


I had my students this past semester read a chapter from Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison's 2007 study Objectivity. My students had a rough time wrapping their heads around the idea that "objectivity" and "science" are not the same thing, or that "subjective" and "bullshit" were not the same thing. When they saw the images that Daston and Galison used to emblematize truth-to-nature and mechanical objectivity, their first impulse was to say that the first image, an engraving of Campanula foliis hastatis dentatis, was "subjective," therefore unscientific and probably bad, while the photograph of a snowflake was "objective," therefore scientific and good.

Here is the true-to-nature image that Daston and Galison use, from Linnaeus's Hortus Cliffortianus (1737). The artist is Georg Dionysius Ehret; the engraver is Jan Wandelaar. As Daston and Galison write, "It is an image of the characteristic, the essential, the universal, the typical: truth-to-nature" (20).

Yesterday I saw some campanula growing outside the Women's Faculty Club and took some pictures with my cell phone camera. They may not be the same species as the one in the Wandelaar engraving -- IANAB (I am not a botanist).

My students greatly approved the snowflake photograph that Daston and Galison used to illustrate mechanical objectivity, "an attempt to capture nature with as little human intervention as possible" (20). A photograph is always more objective than a drawing, but my crappy cell phone pictures, precisely because there was so little human intervention (I couldn't control light or focus, for instance), show the drawbacks of objectivity. The photos are indistinct; it's hard to see what the leaves look like, for instance.

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Semi-relatedly, here is a CBC radio series on How to Think about Science. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison each have an episode! So do a lot of other brilliant science historians.

Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. Objectivity. New York: Zone, 2007. Print.

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