The methodologists: Following the Scientists who make Tools, not Facts

Program in History of Science, Technology and Medicine
Fall 2019 Colloquium Series

Friday, November 15
Tate Hall 101
3:35pm (refreshments at 3:25pm)

Nicole Nelson
Medical History and Bioethics
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Abstract: Much work in science and technology studies (STS) has focused on the production of scientific facts, and the scientists who produce them. Latour and Woolgar’s classic laboratory ethnography, for example, follows the production of a single scientific fact (the amino acid sequence of a protein). Much less attention has been devoted to studying extra-factual work that takes place before and alongside the production of scientific facts, such as the creation of new techniques or tools. This talk will focus on a group of scientists that I argue should be treated as a distinct category of scientific actors—the methodologists, scientists who continue to investigate, tinker with, and modify tools and techniques long after many of their peers consider these methods to be stabilized and ready for routine use. Studying methodologists is useful for STS scholars and historians of science because methodologists’ work often entails disrupting the settled science of their colleagues, allowing analysts to see contingencies and uncertainties in scientific processes even in moments where there are few active controversies. Focusing attention on methodologists also raises a number of interesting questions about the conditions under which methodological work thrives, how methodological work impacts the perceived stability of scientific facts, and how it contributes to the rise and fall of scientific controversies. I will illustrate some of these dynamics with examples from my ethnographic research in animal behavior genetics laboratories, as well as more recent research on the “reproducibility crisis” in biomedicine.