muriel lederman mstorrie at vt.edu
Fri Apr 12 08:23:15 EST 1996

"the understanding of the remarkable convergences between theory and
experiment that scientists have produced requires attention not so much to
the adequacy of the laws that presumably are being tested, but rather to
the particular and highly local manipulations of theory and experimental
procedure that is required to produce these convergences. . .Scientific
laws may be "true," but what they are true of is a distillation of highly
contrived and exceedingly particular cirucumstances, as much artifact as
nature.(Evelyn Fox Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death, p. 30)"

This is a quote describing the work of a philosopher named Nancy Cartwright
(and I wish I were smart enough to read her!). It captures, to me, the
essence of experimental science. I think there really is a difference
between a phenomenon and a fact. The moon rises and sets in a regular
pattern. There are alternate descriptions of this - some have to do with
just noting regularity and having ceremonies center around it, some are mor
"precise" - both include noting the regularity. Both were "facts".

With respect to RNA polymerase - the quote above is especially apropos - we
"know" how RNA polymerase works (Mg++ requirement, template requirement,
concentration of XTPs, etc.) because we have figured them out in an in
vitro system. What is the relationship of the in vitro system to the events
going on in the cell when the polymerase is working? I haven't got a clue!
What other things in vivo impinge on the activity, time of expression over
the cell cycle, etc. of the enzyme?

Similar natural phenomena CAN be interpreted in alternative ways in
different cultures. For a great example, read Donna Haraway's "Animal
Sociology and a Natural Economy of the Body Politic" (in her Simians,
Cyborgs, and Women) and "The Bio-Policials of a Multi-cultural Field (in
Sandra Harding's "The Racial Economy of Science" back to back - also the
piece by Needham on Chinese science in the latter collection. (Eat your
heart out, Neo, Haraway will be here at Virginia Tech in a week - I can't

The idea that science should be impervious to criticism because it is an
avenue for womens' success skirts dangerously close to the views of Gross
and Leavitt - (NOT a flame, Susan - I would guess that you haven't read
them.) Their rhetorical strategies are obnoxious - they say they are for
equal opportunity to make themselves appear as good guys so they can slam
the feminist critique with impunity. They also indulge in the nastiest sort
of guilt by association to try to discredit Evelyn Keller. They had a piece
in the Chronicle (sorry I don't have the reference - someone [Carol, is it
you if you're reading this?] has run off with my course packet) that
basically says science should not be criticized, but they end up by saying
science need to be a meritocracy - and you can be your bottom dollar that
encouragement of women and minorities to join that meritocracy is not part
of their plan. I heard Gross speak - he said that he had had several
African-Americans in his lab over time - none finished a degree "for other
reasons". I can only wonder what they were.

Now that I've spent like a half hour on this - - - Muriel

Muriel Lederman           lederman at vt.edu     540.231.5702 (phone)
Department of Biology                         540.231.9307 (fax)
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg VA 24061-0406

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