Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Wizard of Mono Lake: NASA's Chymical Wedding of Arsenic and DNA


What is interesting to me about this debate is not so much its specific content as how it acts out the trappings of officialized sciencese in a manner perfectly evacuative of all science. On the one hand you have the "renegade bloggers" using their namby-pamby web 2.0 gadgets, and on the other you have the hard scientists utilizing respected and established fora (Science mag) to rigorously communicate ideas. It just so happens that it is only the bloggers that are discussing science, those more selective with their venues are completely silent.

This is not a case of a proper method of engaging in scientific discourse, it is a matter of either engaging or not, or worse, refusing to engage in the name of some as-yet-unsatisfactory linguistic milieu. The Wizard never speaks except from behind his/her curtain. Is there a possible chance that some people actually read science news without going to the original article and scrutinizing its experiments and methodology? Nooooo...

What is great about Redfield's blog is that she goes right to talking about the science. No intro, no dumbing down, no "this is what it really means" - just here it is, this might be a way to interpret it. There is no science communication here, this is the thick of it, either you know the subject or you don't and you're lost. Think now back to reading the article a few days earlier in Science News - did you think: "Man, what the hell does this mean?" or "wow, too much technical jargon"? No - you were presented with something understandable, tantalizing - a possibility. "This is what science is saying" - hmmm, maybe science is right? (science is pretty smart). And then you read Redfield's post and it's all confusing - how do you speak with science?

This is, I'd like to argue, a fundamental tenet of what could be relatively termed a kind of open science. The subject, in this case, is as contextualized and particular as it may be, nothing more, nothing less. If we are talking about conjecturing a form of knowledge based on a series of elaborate microscale techniques, then that's what we are talking about. We don't sidle up to cells and check out their translucent bellies, we use a construction of technologies to reduce and infer aspects of their nature (already and foundationally in the microscope). To talk about the matter in any other terms would obfuscate what actually is insofar as our best knowledge is able to ascertain it.

So we return to Wolfe-Simon and the forgotten promises of the arsenic world of yore, and the insurgent rebels unmasking the truth via blog posts and facebook statuses. But neither of these happened - we have simply had no knowledge, then a little knowledge. What is significant here is not that Wolfe-Simon and her subpar review squad need to be shipped to sea, their bad science with them. No, rather, this is a chance to learn what sort of events might fall under the title of science, its public interface, the term and category's collective existence, a category which in this case is void of its own content. This is not an isolated incident where the black sheep bad science slipped out of the fold in its NASA avatar, but rather an instance of the type of events, the kind of stories and data which complement an interface of science news, a collective knowledge thereof, and even (quite directly in this case) the "critical" source (Science mag) which will allow it all its clout and travelling power to warp across the mediasphere.

It seems that if we don't believe something about which we have no real knowledge, there will never be any sort of unmasking. These too, of course, are ideal terms, but at least perhaps a reaching towards knowledges with specificity as opposed to authoritarian brands (Wizards have become incorporated since the 50s btw) might produce a more tentative and continuous approach than the shock and flock of nonsense quasiknowledge (ours it should be clear here, as the actuality is never even arrived at but in its beginnings through the renegades).

So here we are, again:

"The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner"

- Thus spake the Mage of Oz?