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Realism of social and cultural origins

How can realism in science be defined? Philosophers, historians, and the general public, have always related it to a philosophical doctrine or a technological effect. However, there is a type of realism — very widespread in science — that has gone unnoticed among scholars: the realist attitude of social and cultural origins. Behind this attitude lie commercial and engineering interests. Identifying this attitude is vital, because many scientists’ ideas were influenced by these kinds of interests.

Until now, the most known type of realism in science has been the operational one. The Stanford School philosophers, Ian Hacking and Nancy Cartwright, held that scientists are justified in believing in the existence of theoretical entities only when they’re able to use them to produce effects. They called this fact “operational realism.” Thus, the existence of an entity, such as an electron, can be established only through manipulation and experiment. What convinces scientists that they’re seeing electrons is no empirical adequacy of theory, but the fact that they can manipulate in a direct and tangible way to achieve certain results. In fact, Hacking’s most famous motto says: “if you can spray them, then they’re real” — that is, an entity is real if we can manipulate it; so, manipulability is evidence of existence.

However, the point made here is trickier. And interestingly, it’s closely linked to another fundamental question: how commercial interests shape scientific conceptions.

Few would deny the great influence of technology and industry on scientific progress, a topic that has provided valuable insight into how science depends on technical advances, how it depends on industry, and how it depends on the society in which it’s done. However, how, exactly, do these factors shape science? Are industry and commerce just means that provide know-how and tools to science? Or do they affect the concepts and values themselves of science? If so, how and to what extent?

If there are sciences that regard their concepts and methods as pure knowledge, physics and the exact sciences are among them. They’re often taken as the archetype of sciences: their knowledge has never — or at most, slightly — been affected by “external” factors. Physical advances, it is said, are well-founded, built on solid mathematical theories, and resistant to external influences. They’re “pure” knowledge, free of any commercial contamination, unaffected by factors such as industrial demands, commercial achievements, or social pressure. This, at least, is what a great part of the scientific literature contends.

However, there are cases of industries that challenge the “purity” of science. I’ll mention two twin industries: both used artificially created waves as a means for exploration; both included academic scientists and industrial scientists; and both were related to geophysics. Their stories are similar in some ways. The first has to do with the radio industry and with how this affected the study of the Earth’s upper atmosphere (also known as ionosphere). During the interwar years, some leading radio physicists like Edward V. Appleton in Britain and Merle A. Tuve in the US, claimed the discovery of the structure of the ionosphere — that is, the Heaviside (E) layer, the lower (D) and upper (F) layers, and the F1 and F2 sub-layers.

Image credit: Layers of Earth’s atmosphere, brightly coloured as the sun sets by NASA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The second has to do with the oil industry and with how this affected the Earth’s crust (or crustal seismology). During WWII and the post-war period, most of American physicists abandoned simple and idealised crustal models and put forward realist arguments regarding crustal layers. Although their research areas were different, the two groups of physicists had one thing in common: they both adopted a realist attitude towards theoretical entities, such as layers and discontinuities.

But the physicists’ realism was about concepts rather than theories. Indeed, it stemmed not from a given philosophical doctrine (i.e. scientific realism), but from a pragmatic attitude. From the 1920s to 1950s, radio physicists and crustal geophysicists laid aside normative questions such as: what entities should we know?; what do we really know? Instead, they asked factual questions, like: what kinds of entities are in the Earth’s crust and in the ionosphere? What constitutes direct evidence for the existence of these entities, and what’s true of them?

But here the key question is: is operational realism proper enough to explain the realist attitude of radio scientists and crustal geophysicists? Everything appears to indicate that it isn’t. Although wave manipulation might well have made the ionosphere seem more real, the emergence of realist attitudes occurred before wave experiments in the mid-1920s (these experiments were carried out by using the sounding-echo technique). Before that, the Marconi Company’s radio engineers firmly believed in the existence of a reflecting layer in the ionosphere. Similarly, the emergence of realist attitudes towards crustal layers occurred before wave experiments in the early 1950s (these were carried out through explosion seismology). If wave manipulation and intervention weren’t the primary cause, what led them to adopt realist attitudes? The answer is a “new” kind of realism: a realism of social and cultural origins. Namely, an entity realism that responds to very specific interests: to commercial and engineering questions.

For example, in the case of ionospheric exploration, radio engineers devised techniques assuming the existence of a reflecting layer in the upper atmosphere. (Some years later, physicists emulated them in their sounding-echo experiments). For engineers and industrial scientists, there was a direct relationship between commercial achievement and the existence of the layers imagined in their planning.

In other words, commercial success depended on the prediction of objectives. The prediction of questions, such as the maximum usable frequency and the location of oil bearings, was key for commercial success; and this was linked to the use of useful pictures of the Earth’s inscrutable regions. Therefore, much of their realist attitude had to do with the need to provide a useful picture of the ionosphere and the Earth’s crust, with the need to predict objectives, with the need to reach commercial achievements.

Featured image credit: Cascade by Antonis Lamnatos. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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