Objectivity in Practice
Book Review: Objectivity Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, New York: Zone Books 2007

Daston and Galison’s Objectivity is a deeply qualitative evaluation of the methods of the quantitative sciences and what it means to do science. By mapping the historical trajectory of objectivity through the examination of three epistemological values - truth to nature; mechanical objectivity; and trained judgement. Objectivity brings together a multitude of smaller narratives of experimental science in practice. The book threads these narratives together across chronological and disciplinary boundaries to form a “panoramic view” of how science is seen at different stages of its development.
Figure 1. Outline of the book’s project as seen by the authors. L. Daston and P. Galison Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007)

What holds these non-case studies/micro narratives in common is their focus on the negotiation of epistemological value in the practice of science. As a result, the project places visual representation, one of the main artifacts of practice at the center of scientific explorations. As a project that aims to depict scientific representations as working objects, or objects to think with, this work is very successful.
Figure 2. How the three epistemological values are ordered. They overlap but do not overtake or replace eachother.

Throughout the book, it is Daston and Galison’s primary objective to document how artifacts of science are qualified through their placement at varying distances critical and physical to the producer of scientific facts. These negotiations between the practitioner and three successive, overlapping and constantly changing epistemological values become the basis for the formation of the scientific self.
Figure 3. Daston and Galison focus on representation and not presentation

Through the constant striving for objectivity, experiments are designed, evaluated, and the scientist removed and later reintegrated. These shifts in epistemological value, and the placement of the scientist within scientific study tell us what it means to be doing science at different periods in history.

These values, Daston and Galison argue, form our conception of objectivity; but at the same time they undermine its very idea by making the notion of objectivity subjective, mutable and historical. In fact, by tracing the multiplicity of the history of objectivity, what daston and galison have done is at the same time reflect on the nature of subjectivity in the “reversed-mirror-image relationship to one another”. As the notion of objectivity evolves, subjectivity, cast as its reflection, becomes non-creative, and more importantly, not at all idiosyncratic. Its practice therefore becomes an integral part of scientific study. Each epistemological value established by the authors as the toolkit of objectivity subsequently acts as counter to values of the subjective self, yet either can be said to be a characteristic of science. The focus shifts from the definition of objectivity, to the definition of scientific self, and the larger issue of scientific practice.

Daston and Galison use the atlas as one of their primary objects of inquiry, extending it from those produced by naturalists to present day digital searchable database. The atlas is effective because it is not only illustrative of practices of science that are contemporary to each period of time the authors examine, but also serves an instructive or educational role for how to practice at each stage. The atlas is also an important choice because it consists of concrete images, while the epistemological values dealt with are not only abstract but also ephemeral. This contrast adds dimension to the study by alluding to the similar contradicting nature in the depiction of natural phenomenon - our recording and capturing of images allow ever more fleeting phenomena to be documented with increasingly realistic detail. Because of its focus on image production, Objectivity is exemplary in practicing material history and theoretical history in tandem, opening the readership to potential audiences outside of history of science scholarship. However the atlas is also an anti-presentational choice, although highly aesthetic, the atlas is not discussed as an object with audience in mind.

Daston and Galison end their survey with nano-imaging. It is good to end with a contemporary science, but in my view, they have not chosen the one best suited for the book’s message. To strengthen the contemporary tie better, but is alluded to only lightly is in fact procedural graphics. This type of image production, where the primary tool is a rule set, and not a tangible or physical process, seems at first to leave no room for the hand to interfere, and embeds the values of objectivity in its very apparatus of production. Images occur much later, often as a result depending on the level of interaction from the end user. However, upon closer inspection, this type of image production, most often seen in scientific simulation, is in fact a continuation of values noted by Daston and Galison.

The tracing of “virtue” or value becomes increasingly difficult when dealing with the procedural# for three main reasons. The scientific self, as defined by the values of objectivity, changes scales and order when looking at images that are procedurally produced and generative in nature. In the generativity model where resulting images are both predetermined and unseen to the producer, the values of the scientific self are rule sets that a group consents to in the process of image making. Scientific identity becomes a group identity, once again predetermined by disciplinary boundaries.

Additionally, the production of images dependent on ruleset are not always directly observable, or even real scientific phenomena. Often times, they are speculative. Do the virtues of scientific objectivity apply to objects that do not exist? Does the evaluation of objectivity become blurred with truthful observables when it is concretized by the predictive abilities of these simulated images? Daston and Galison effectively argue that these epistemological values along with all their ethical and practical implications, and despite their uncertainty are the core principles of not only the digitized, but the simulated and speculative as well.

Finally, the algorithmic often offer the aesthetic qualities of sanitized, dehumanized output, leading us to question the outline of right depiction that Daston and Galison provides us. Are the subdivisions of representation and presentation differentiated at all when both object manipulation and aesthetics have the potential to become values in themselves? Should this diagram be reconfigured accordingly?
Figure 4. Can representation and presentation be incorporated into the same branch so that the epistemological values persist?

Daston and Galison have illustrated effectively that tracing the historical trajectory of scientific image making is integral to our current day understanding of issues in representation and presentation. However, this is book only makes tentative steps towards the readership of producers of scientific images. Is this where “history” ends and practice begins?

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