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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 752-764

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Missing the Target? A Comment on Edward Constant's "Reliable Knowledge and Unreliable Stuff"

Philip Scranton

In Technology and Culture's April 1999 issue, Edward Constant offers an essay broadly critical of the social constructionist approach in the history of technology. He suggests that work by Trevor Pinch, Wiebe Bijker, and their colleagues, in "focus[ing] on local practices leads, sometimes very explicitly, sometimes implicitly, to the claim that all knowledge and all practice is only local, and that no such thing as translocal or spatiotemporally universal knowledge can exist outside purely local reification. This empirical claim, in turn, entails the more discomfiting and controversial theoretical claim that all knowledge and beliefs are therefore in principle socially situated and culturally relative, that is, are spatiotemporally particular." 1 Constant then warns readers that "these crosscurrents of doubt about the objectivity, realism, value, or veracity of scientific and technological knowledge hold profound dangers," which unfortunately are not specified. The balance of the article undertakes to show that such "spatiotemporally universal knowledge" 2 does exist, based on: (1) commonsense recognition that most of our technological "stuff," including complex systems, works most of the time; (2) a more formal Bayesian argument indicating the operational reliability of knowledge informing and deriving from utilization of technologies; (3) two exemplary case studies drawn from Louis Bucciarelli's Designing Engineers and from Constant's own [End Page 752] research on petroleum engineers' successive techniques for gauging underground oil pools; and (4) brief discussions of reliable knowledge's role in generating "revolutionary technology" (the turbojet) and engaging "novel natural phenomena" (water-drive as an element in the "behavior" of very large oil fields under extraction). Though recognizing some "difficulties" with the Bayesian formulation, Constant concludes that: "Contra social constructivist claims about the irreducible situatedness and contingency of all technological (and scientific) practice, and therefore all technological (and scientific) knowledge, highly reliable, spatiotemporally universal knowledge not only exists but also is both the essence of engineering science and the translocal foundation for engineering practice" (p. 350). Still, Constant allows that this rejoinder "does not contradict the essentials of social constructivist accounts of technological change. . . . But recognition of the existence and practical importance of reliable knowledge and Bayesian rational belief in it does mandate a return to history--the 'social turn' supplemented, if not replaced, by a 'historical turn'" (p. 354).

It is not my custom to open a commentary with so extended a series of quotations. However, as I do not find Constant's position either theoretically adequate or well formulated as critique, I have reiterated what strike me as key segments of the essay's text so as to establish a baseline for the discussion that follows. Constant's provocative intervention may nonetheless prove valuable for particular research initiatives in the history of technology.

In reflecting on his presentation, I have fashioned seven objections and comments, the last of which briefly treats its implications for future work in the field.

Underspecification of a Core Concept

What "spatiotemporally universal knowledge" means is far from evident. Constant opposes it to "spatiotemporally particular" knowledge, which has an indeterminate relation to "local knowledge," but the parallel modifiers make for no little confusion. Are there different spatiotemporal shells or domains for particular and universal knowledge, and how are they differentiated? 3 What is the relationship between spatiotemporally universal knowledge and other sorts of universal knowledge? Are there any other forms of universal knowledge--that is, knowledge that transcends historical and spatial contexts instead of generalizing across some set of them? Does that sort of universal knowledge, presumably of nature, apply in an [End Page 753] immanent fashion before it is discovered, formalized, and disseminated, and if so, how so? Could it be knowledge before being known?

If by using the term "spatiotemporally universal knowledge" Constant seeks to step around this thicket and locate each instance of universal knowledge in a forward-moving, postdiscovery world, some thought needs to be given to the intension of "universal." 4 He employs "translocal" as...


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