Research in the social studies of science (Latour, 1987; O’Connell, 1993) has converged with research in cognitive psychology (Hutchins, 1995) in recognizing the way that common languages facilitate magnification of individual thinking to a collective social level distributed across a network of actors (Latour, 1995, 2005; Surowiecki, 2004). When we are all able to think together about a problem, society as a whole acquires a separate cognitive ability of its own. Science values democratic principles because they allow a low-friction flow of capital ideas in a marketplace relatively free of locally dependent restrictions (high transaction costs, to adopt the term from Coase (1990)).
When we share a language as a common currency for the exchange of value, the effects of our individual efforts are multiplied and magnified by our collective effort to a degree of effectiveness and efficiency otherwise impossible to attain. For instance, the World Health Organization held that the coronavirus causing SARS was not discovered by any one individual, but collectively by a group of labs that did in weeks what it would have taken any one of them years to do (Surowiecki, 2004, p. 160). This would not have been possible without global reference standards for measurement, lab equipment, and telecommunications, and the industry consortia that support them.
After all, could it be a mere coincidence that the second scientific revolution, widespread democratic revolutions, and the industrial revolution came about in the 19th century hand in hand with the emergence of the metric and British Imperial measurement systems, and of metrology as a professional discipline (Alder, 2002)? Given recent documentation of the way in which scientific and social orders are co-produced (Jasanoff, 2004), the seeming coincidence is far more likely evidence of a vitally important historical pattern. As was observed by Schaffer (1992, p. 23) in relation to the natural sciences, "the physical values which the laboratory fixes are sustained by the social values which the laboratory inculcates.” Like so much else about history, we can learn from this pattern, or be doomed to unknowingly and more painfully repeating it.
The mathematical clarity of living scientific capital provides a common language for thinking about things. That clarity effects such a firm connection with reality because the clarity is the product of researchers’ carefully calibrated dialectic between language and things. The historical effectiveness of the way in which science crafts relations between things and thoughts leads to the realization that it is really more meaningful to say that science constructs reality, rather than that it describes reality (Jasanoff, 2004; Knorr Cetina, 1999; Latour, 1999, 2005; Latour & Woolgar, 1979).
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