October 04, 2004

Victorian Sociophysical Instruments

I recently read Simon Blackburn's short introductory survey of ethics, Being Good, and rather liked it (except that, while he describes Epicurus's ideas well enough, he repeatedly calls him a Stoic, presumably through a collision in his Hellenistic-philosophers namespace with Epictetus). It piqued my curiosity about his own "quasi-realist" theory of ethics, so the other day I checked his main tome (Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning) out of the library. Leafing through this book, my eye was caught by the following footnote on page 300.

I once attended a philosophy of science conference at which one of the participants, an adherent of a "relativistic" philosophy of science of roughly the type indicated here, confronted the following paradox for his position. The physicist Michael Faraday has long been regarded as one of the great experimentalists. And the relativistic position implied that what he was concerned about, like everyone else, was such matters as power, prestige, and the likely acceptance of the academy. Yet, genius though he was, none of his instruments were apparently designed to locate or test for such things. They were instead designed to test for quite different things, such as electrostatic forces and electric potentials. The philosopher found this highly perplexing, and given his starting-point, maybe he was right to do so.

As a fan of antique scientific instruments, I would dearly love to see the apparatus Faraday would have designed to sense "power, prestige, and the likely acceptance of the academy". I imagine them as wonderfully-crafted contraptions, all brass rims and dark wood, now displayed, perhaps, at the Royal Institution in London. The farad would be a unit of academic acceptance, equal to the base-ten logarithm of number of citations a paper gets. Does it go too far to imagine James Clerk Maxwell (who was, in part, inspired to found statistical mechanics by reading about Quetelet's ideas on social statistics) and Walter Bagehot (who wrote Physics and Politics) collaborating on the voter model and its various permutations? Since the seminal publication of Gibson and Sterling (1990), the topic of Victorian computer science has been thoroughly explored, but the rich possibilities of Victorian sociophysics are, I believe, untapped.

(More seriously, the "farad" above is based on Derek J. de Solla Price's calculations of scientists' "soundness" in his classic book Little Science, Big Science. Price was what happens when an experimental physicist does turn to measuring acceptance by the academy; similarly John Ziman is what results from a theoretical physicist turning to science studies.)

Learned Folly; Physics

Posted at October 04, 2004 09:36 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth