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PHILOSOPHICAL
LITERARY
JOURNAL
ISSN 0869-5377
Author: Porter Theodore

Porter Theodore

Distinguished Professor of History, Department of History, tporter@history.ucla.edu. University of California (UCLA), 5256 Bunche Hall, Box 951473, 90095-1473 Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Publications

Funny Numbers / Logos. 2020. № 3 (136). P. 55-76
annotation:  The difficulties associated with evaluating the efficiency of treatment in mental hospitals in the 19th century provide a vivid example of how numbers become a stumbling block when used for official evaluation of institutions. The evasion of assessment due to private interests or because of corruption tends to make these numbers “funny” in the sense of becoming dishonest, while the mismatch between boring, technical appearances and cunning backstage manipulations supplies dark humor. The article focuses on the various ways in which medical clinics and government agencies as well as large companies manipulate numbers for the sake of improving performance and finding objective facts. The author examines and analyzes the practices of classification, standardization and ordering of the parameters by which the performance of a particular structure is assessed, while also questioning the relevance of these number-based practices as an assessment tool. The article cites as an example the various tricks resorted to by directors of treatment centers for the mentally ill in order to improve performance and claim that most of their patients are healthy when discharged. The hidden ambivalence of numbers, their deceptiveness and their unsuitability for resolving contradictions and unifying experience based on statistical data are demonstrated. The concept of a thin description is also introduced, which implies an unambiguous interpretation of funny numbers and using them as an argument for evaluating efficiency. The dangers are evident in recent efforts to decentralize the functions of governments and corporations by using incentives based on quantified targets.
Keywords:  technicality; psychiatry; history of statistics; thin description; history of social science.
How Science Became Technical / Logos. 2020. № 1 (134). P. 91-130
annotation:  Not until the 20th century was science regarded as fundamentally technical in nature. In that sense, a “technical field” refers not so much to a field capable of producing technology and not only to one difficult to master, but also to a field based on concepts and vocabulary that matter only to its specialists. That understanding implies unequal access to the contents of science, as the predominantly technical parts of it are given over to the specialists. In addition, it serves as a defense against interference from politics and religion. A historical review of the technicality of science is taken up in the second part of the article.
An alternative understanding, which identified science with an ideal of public reason, attained its peak of influence in the late 19th century. Until the 1920s and ‘30s, the most prominent advocates of science emphasized its contribution to the moral, economic and intellectual order, sometimes abetting tradition but more often (and more naturally) challenging old authorities or established religion and promising grounds for moral and intellectual progress. While the scale and applicability of science advanced enormously after 1900, scientists have usually preferred a pose of detached objectivity in service to bureaucratic experts rather than cultivating engagement with the public. This reshaping of science, which has been both celebrated and condemned, provided a stimulus to the nascent field of history of science, and it remains a key historical problem. The article traces the vicissitudes in the development of this problem and the solutions to it proposed by scientists and historians of science from different generations.

Keywords:  science; technicality; modernity; history of science; expertise; engineering; public reason; state.

Porter Theodore

Distinguished Professor of History, Department of History, tporter@history.ucla.edu. University of California (UCLA), 5256 Bunche Hall, 90095-1473 Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Publications

Funny Numbers / Logos. 2020. № 3 (136). P. 55-76
annotation:  The difficulties associated with evaluating the efficiency of treatment in mental hospitals in the 19th century provide a vivid example of how numbers become a stumbling block when used for official evaluation of institutions. The evasion of assessment due to private interests or because of corruption tends to make these numbers “funny” in the sense of becoming dishonest, while the mismatch between boring, technical appearances and cunning backstage manipulations supplies dark humor. The article focuses on the various ways in which medical clinics and government agencies as well as large companies manipulate numbers for the sake of improving performance and finding objective facts. The author examines and analyzes the practices of classification, standardization and ordering of the parameters by which the performance of a particular structure is assessed, while also questioning the relevance of these number-based practices as an assessment tool. The article cites as an example the various tricks resorted to by directors of treatment centers for the mentally ill in order to improve performance and claim that most of their patients are healthy when discharged. The hidden ambivalence of numbers, their deceptiveness and their unsuitability for resolving contradictions and unifying experience based on statistical data are demonstrated. The concept of a thin description is also introduced, which implies an unambiguous interpretation of funny numbers and using them as an argument for evaluating efficiency. The dangers are evident in recent efforts to decentralize the functions of governments and corporations by using incentives based on quantified targets.
Keywords:  technicality; psychiatry; history of statistics; thin description; history of social science.
How Science Became Technical / Logos. 2020. № 1 (134). P. 91-130
annotation:  Not until the 20th century was science regarded as fundamentally technical in nature. In that sense, a “technical field” refers not so much to a field capable of producing technology and not only to one difficult to master, but also to a field based on concepts and vocabulary that matter only to its specialists. That understanding implies unequal access to the contents of science, as the predominantly technical parts of it are given over to the specialists. In addition, it serves as a defense against interference from politics and religion. A historical review of the technicality of science is taken up in the second part of the article.
An alternative understanding, which identified science with an ideal of public reason, attained its peak of influence in the late 19th century. Until the 1920s and ‘30s, the most prominent advocates of science emphasized its contribution to the moral, economic and intellectual order, sometimes abetting tradition but more often (and more naturally) challenging old authorities or established religion and promising grounds for moral and intellectual progress. While the scale and applicability of science advanced enormously after 1900, scientists have usually preferred a pose of detached objectivity in service to bureaucratic experts rather than cultivating engagement with the public. This reshaping of science, which has been both celebrated and condemned, provided a stimulus to the nascent field of history of science, and it remains a key historical problem. The article traces the vicissitudes in the development of this problem and the solutions to it proposed by scientists and historians of science from different generations.

Keywords:  science; technicality; modernity; history of science; expertise; engineering; public reason; state.
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