November 1, 2004
Volume 82, Number 44
pp. 32-33


THING KNOWLEDGE: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments, by Davis Baird, University of California Press, 2004, 273 pages, $65 (ISBN 0-520-23249-6)



Science today would be impossible without instrumentation. Enter any lab and you'll find an array of microscopes, spectrometers, and other instruments that aid in the advancement of knowledge. Yet scholars who write about science and technology tend to focus on theory's role in expressing knowledge, leaving the instrument largely unexamined.

In hopes of correcting this oversight, Davis Baird, professor and chairman of the department of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, takes a detailed look at instruments in his book "Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments." While "Thing Knowledge" is first and foremost a book of philosophy, Baird's historical examination and modern analysis of issues raised by instruments, such as the commodification of knowledge, make it a work of broad appeal.

Baird argues that a better understanding of thing knowledge--that is, instruments as bearers of knowledge--is needed to fully understand science and technology. He looks to an assortment of scientific objects, ranging from antique orreries to spectrometers from his father's instrument company, Baird Associates, to build a good framework for advancing this understanding.

He classifies the objects of science into three categories: models, such as Watson and Crick's ball-and-stick DNA helix; working knowledge, such as the cyclotron; and measuring instruments, such as the direct-reading spectrometer. These objects are each compelling examples of thing knowledge, but it's Baird's look at the direct-reading spectrometer, and its role in what the author calls the instrumentation revolution, that provides a particularly fascinating example of thing knowledge.

Analytical chemistry in the 1940s experienced a shift away from chemical separation to a more efficient process of direct identification by instruments. This evolution led scientists of the late '40s to question in what way analytical chemistry remained chemistry. In his study of the period, Baird examines material from several sources, including the American Chemical Society journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry, Analytical Edition, which became independent as Analytical Chemistry in 1947.

Walter J. Murphy, editor of Analytical Chemistry from 1943 to 1955, published an editorial in 1947 in one of the first issues of the independent journal, describing the changing role of the analytical chemist [Anal. Chem., 19, 145 (1947)]. "The widespread introduction of instrumentation has caused a sharp division in the analytical laboratory between those of professional and subprofessional training, experience, and ability," Murphy explained. Murphy pointed out that then-modern instrumentation was allowing lab technicians to carry out the routine tasks of analytical chemistry, leaving analytical chemists free to pioneer new research.

Despite the skill distinction brought on by instruments, many scientists outside of analytical chemistry held on to the outmoded concept of the analytical chemist as "a strictly routine worker, one who is several steps below the research chemist and members of the chemical profession generally," Murphy wrote.

To change this erroneous perception, Murphy made some specific suggestions. One idea was to establish an award to recognize original work in analytical chemistry; another was to make a clear distinction between the professional chemist and the lab technician.

Murphy's suggestions were successfully implemented, but Baird argues the most important consequence of the editorial was the response it provoked regarding the nature of analytical chemistry. Chemists had become uncertain how to characterize analytical chemistry, and Murphy's editorial served as a catalyst for further debate on the subject.

The instrumentation revolution in analytical chemistry also led to what Baird calls a self-conscious adoption of thing knowledge. People understood that an instrument, as a bearer of knowledge, could teach them about the world just as a new theory could. Baird argues that this awareness of the instrument helped give society a new outlook on objectivity, which he calls instrumental objectivity.

Baird defines instrumental objectivity as a process by which information is gathered by instruments and represented in a way that promotes quick judgment. From food labels to measuring toxins in our drinking water, numerous examples of instrumental objectivity exist.

In analytical chemistry, the concept of instrumental objectivity is applied when a spectrometer is used to identify a chemical. Because data provided by spectrometers are not directly influenced by human judgment, the results of an analysis can be considered objective. While obtaining data this way is clearly useful, instrumental objectivity must be understood in context.

To illustrate the limitations of instrumental objectivity, Baird examines standardized testing. Machine grading of multiple-choice standardized tests is cost efficient and less prone to human error than hand-grading such tests or than administering essay tests. Machines can reliably grade tests, but reliability is only one component of accuracy.

To get accurate test results, it must be verified that the test provides a valid measure of what it was designed to test. In other words, if a test seeks to determine scholastic aptitude, which skills should the test assess? Does it matter that important attributes, such as the ability to manipulate objects by hand, cannot be tested through machine grading? The answers to these questions require human judgment, which is both subjective and prone to error. Logic would follow that standardized tests must be less than objective, and a true measure of scholastic aptitude more elusive.

Baird observes that, despite warnings by psychometric experts about the overuse of standardized testing, a trend toward more standardized testing continues. Advocates of machine-scored methods of assessment argue that it is both an objective and efficient way to hold students accountable. While concerns about the objectivity in standardized testing are not new, adding Baird's analysis to the debate provides interesting insight.

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RISE OF THE MACHINES From Perkin-Elmer's Model 21 infrared spectrometer (above) to Agilent Technologies' LC/MS system (right), analytical instruments as "knowledge bearers" have become indispensable for science and technology.

Moving forward from instrumental objectivity, Baird examines what is perhaps the most vexing issue in the book: the commodification of knowledge.

From computer code to the genetic code, important questions about the ownership of information are being raised. The debate over the need to cover the costs of research and development versus the right of society to have open access to information is of prime importance.

In academic settings, where knowledge was once freely exchanged, knowledge is increasingly being treated as a commodity. Baird cites a deal struck in April 1999 in which the University of California, Berkeley, negotiated a deal with pharmaceutical company Novartis. "In exchange for $25 million, Novartis would have first right to negotiate licenses on roughly a third of the discoveries made in the Department of Plant & Microbial Biology, including the results for research supported by public funds," Baird writes.

Arguing that knowledge is a universal gift, Baird examines the advantages of a gift-based system of exchange in the creation of a community essential to the growth of knowledge. Drawing from different studies of gift exchange by Marcel Mauss, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Lewis Hyde, Baird describes several ways in which gift and commodity exchanges differ.

One of the key differences Baird points out is that gift economies serve to bind people together. A gift economy creates conditions in which there is an open-ended cycle of giving. Gifts are given with the expectation that a gift will be returned, but no precise value is applied to gifts. If a clear value were given, then an equal value gift could be given and the exchange could stop there.

Finding an example of a gift economy in Baird Associates (BA), Baird pulls from writings of his father, Walter S. Baird, about the history and development of his company.

BA was founded in 1936 by the elder Baird, John Sterner, and Harry Kelly as a scientific instrument company. It merged with Atomic Instruments in 1956. By 1993, BA had been bought by IMO Industries and sold to Thermo Jarrell Ash, now known as Thermo Electron Corp. In 1999, at the 50th anniversary of the Pittsburgh Conference, Walter Baird and BA were honored as one of the 15 most important corporate and individual contributors to the development of analytical instrumentation.

In the late 1930s, BA was involved in the development of a transportable grating spectrograph suitable for quantitative analysis. To continue development, Baird and his colleagues needed a diffraction grating, but at this time gratings were in short supply and BA had limited resources. Through negotiations with R. W. Wood, a professor of experimental physics, and other contacts Baird had made while doing graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, Baird successfully obtained a grating for a small amount of money.

Davis Baird writes that the grating was understood to be a gift, and that the negotiations to obtain the grating display all of the features of a gift economy. There was great demand for gratings, but Wood gave Baird the grating because of their personal bond and Wood's belief in the contribution BA's spectrograph would make to the scientific community. BA would go on to trade one of its spectrographs to Johns Hopkins for three more gratings, and BA would continue to depend upon Johns Hopkins for a reliable supply of gratings.

Commodity exchange, unlike a gift economy, is a system that works against this type of personal bonding. With an expectation of what will be given and received, no further interaction is needed and social ties don't need to be formed.

Baird sums it up this way: "In a sense, commodity exchanges aim to establish mutually beneficial conclusions of interactions. Gift exchanges aim to initiate and maintain interactions."

He says there is a direct link between the self-conscious adoption of thing knowledge and commodification of knowledge. Instruments come with a host of costs, including production and distribution. If instruments are accepted as knowledge bearers, then the costs incurred in creating instruments are tied to knowledge creation. The connection of cost to theory-based knowledge is not as direct, which is why ideas have not historically been considered commodities. With expensive instruments now a critical component of scientific knowledge creation, Baird acknowledges that finding alternatives to commodity-based economies becomes more difficult, but the task remains no less essential.

It's naive to believe that science is a perfect competition of ideas, free of economic and political influences. But the existence of a gift-based scientific community centered on a basic desire to learn more about the world cannot be discounted. Ignoring the value of such a community in the face of a growing necessity for commodity exchange places the creation of knowledge at risk. A balance must be struck, and Baird argues that retaining the knowledge-making community in this equation "will be a defining struggle during the 21st century."

As questions about the commodification of knowledge come to mind, it is worth noting that "Thing Knowledge" is not a cheap book at its $65 list price. Still, Baird's fascinating examination of scientific instruments and his fresh insight on the origin of knowledge make the book worth studying.

Wes Lindamood is a production associate for C&EN Online and curator of the website's NanoFocus feature.

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