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Scholarly Paths Cross in New UCSD Science Program

Times Staff Writer

In several labs on the UC San Diego campus, scientists are hard at work searching for a cure, or at least a way to arrest the AIDS virus, the fatal syndrome that looms as a major challenge in the international health picture.

Yet only a building or two away, scholars are hard at work looking at the way the scientific record of AIDS, and of other major scientific advances and controversies past and present, reflect the powerful relationship between science and society.

Science is a fundamental institution of the 20th Century, with its influence clearly felt through all levels of human interaction, and these scholars are considering questions such as how knowledge of the AIDS virus has been constructed, how certain ideas about the virus have been debated, how consensus about treatment and prevention developed, and how political and public influences on scientists shape organization of AIDS studies.

Tools of Many Disciplines Required

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The answers to questions about the scientific process require the tools of many disciplines, key among them those of history, philosophy and sociology. But at UCSD, a graduate program just under way is bringing to the fore a new methodology for understanding how science works.

The program at UCSD--one of the world’s most prestigious science research institutions--will organize such studies by approaching the problem along interdisciplinary lines.

With a core of well-respected professors themselves well-schooled in merging the fields of history, philosophy and sociology within their work, the UCSD Program in Science Studies promises to become a bridge between the natural sciences and the humanities.

“UCSD is a good place to try out this arrangement,” says Martin Rudwick, a professor of history known in particular for pioneering work in how the study of the history of the Earth grew to become a cohesive academic subject during the 19th Century.

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“Because of UCSD’s considerable distinction in science, I think here is where we should encourage reflection, both by scientists and non-scientists on the nature of science so that . . . there will be more breaking away from myths of various kinds that somehow science is not a social activity.”

Rudwick recently arrived from Princeton as one of two historians, along with Robert Westman from UCLA, recruited specifically for their specialization in the history of science.

‘Study of Knowledge Often Departmentalized’

“There is a problem today in that the study of knowledge is often departmentalized,” Westman said, “with a gap between organization and the reality of how science develops.”

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There are well-recognized departments in many universities looking at the history of science and the philosophy of science, and there are some well-known scholars examining the sociology of science at a few universities around the world.

But the idea of combining the separate studies into a more complex, interdepartmental bloc has not been tried, except in a very few instances, most notably at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

The UCSD program is still feeling its way, with only the first outlines of organization and recruitment of students under way. Yet already it has caused reverberations within the growing field of science studies, which for a long time has been shaped along departmental lines, even though individual scholars have been able to cross them at times.

At a conference last summer in England on the history of science, Rudwick found himself in a colloquium being chaired by a British colleague in sociology. Seeing both Rudwick and Steve Shapin, a sociologist from Edinburgh who will be taking a new position at UCSD this spring, the professor remarked that “the whole discipline seems to be tilting toward San Diego,” Rudwick recalled.

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“There is a very great interest in what we are doing and we will have to live up to large expectations.” Students in the program will be required to do an internship in a laboratory of a particular science discipline as part of a formal commitment to understanding fully the scientific process they are analyzing.

Not Easy to Define

Mark Hineline, who will be one of the program’s first students, was attracted to UCSD by Rudwick’s presence. Hineline, a science journalist before coming to UCSD, said that “Rudwick’s writing has the richness of both history and philosophy, as well as touching on a lot of sociology. . . . It reasserts my feeling that science is full of confusion and complexity.”

Other students have backgrounds in philosophy, molecular biology and physics.

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The core professors for the program, who represent the three departments involved, readily admit that plans for the program cannot be neatly summed up or catalogued as can the scientific community they are studying.

“To a certain degree our work is esoteric,” Westman said. “It’s hard for the outside world to understand that our work goes on in libraries, in restaurants, in sharing ideas and reading texts with each other.” A key part of of the program will involve a yearlong colloquium for students and professors on different perspectives in looking at science, and of debating the meaning and importance of texts and monographs in various fields.

“That course is intended to be an ongoing conversation between scholars, to create a collegiality,” Westman said. “The best way I can sum it up now is to recall a dinner conversation last week where a philosophy student with the program was discussing a piece of sociology he had read at the suggestion of a historian (Rudwick).

“We’re going to be prepared for quite surprising things to come out of our studies.”

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From AIDS to the social organization of a science laboratory, a look at the individual projects of some of the core professors, however, gives a strong sense of the broad scope and complex questions that can and will be asked under the new program.

UCSD philosopher Philip Kitcher, who was instrumental in launching the campus effort for the program, has written on the history of creationism and evolution, and his book envelops history, sociology and philosophy.

Questions on Evolution

Kitcher emphasized philosophy in looking at the reasoning for the theories put forth by supporters of both groups. Historically, he examined how evolution, or Darwinian theory, came to be debated and accepted by the society at large. And sociologically, he considered how science should respond to demands by the non-scientific community to explore certain ideas that scientists themselves reject or consider a waste of their time.

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“Creationism is so interesting because it involves quite powerful feelings that pull people in various directions, such as whether it is salutary for creationists to come along and raise serious questions about evolution, because science is strengthened by it, or whether the creationists are simply raising a religious agenda, and there is no reason for science to respond to a political move by part of the community.

“Obviously, it’s hard to separate out any of the three particular disciplines in looking at such an issue.”

French sociologist Bruno Latour, who will be joining UCSD, also in the spring, has written the “Pasteurization of French Society,” in which he shows that the 19th-Century discoveries of Louis Pasteur in how to destroy disease-producing bacteria during the fermentation process did not permeate society by accident.

“Pasteur’s disease model and his perspective on the microscopic world involved social activities in French society so that it would become convinced of his knowledge,” said Andrew Scull, a UCSD sociologist who is also a member of the new program.

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Scull’s own interest centers on discoveries made in general medicine and their relation to changes in therapeutic applications for psychiatry, which have legal and moral consequences for contemporary treatment in that field.

“I look at to what degree the knowledge from general medicine is applied and how to explain shifts in the way psychiatric treatment is carried out,” Scull said. “And this is not only a scientific but a social phenomenon as you can see by looking at the shifts or tensions between biological or psychodynamic explanations of mental disorders. . . . Drug therapy has played a major part in the shift within psychiatry departments from immediately after World War II to the present, away from psychoanalysis commanding the heights to where today most psychiatrists are biologically (drug therapy) oriented in their training.”

A Look at Programs

Rudwick hopes that he and his graduate students will mine the resources at the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a division of UCSD.

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“We might want to study a particular project at Scripps that took place in recent years, to try and see why and how it was funded, what was in it for the scientist, what were the contributions of the federal government and industrial concerns, and how the science was carried out,” Rudwick said.

“Certainly we could, for example, look at how military funding can shape and guide oceanography, to what extent agencies do have an influence on the character of research that takes place.”

Westman is attempting to refute the long-common notion that Copernicus, in his 16th-Century writings that theorized the sun to be the center of the universe, positioned himself as antithetical to the Catholic Church.

“He himself was a churchman, and I’m trying to rewrite the history of the Copernican Revolution as part of the history of the Church, to show that he was not an aberration but that his theory should be seen as development of the larger question of how nature came to be represented,” Westman said. He told of finding a woodcut in Prague last summer that showed Copernicus in a prayerful position with a crucifix and astrolabe on each side of him.

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“It was clearly a devotional image that showed his scientific work had elements of religion,” Westman said.

“And I think an examination of this period can help link patterns of church and science relationships then and now, such as the debate over in-vitro life and the church response to the science.”

For many years at UCSD, the only science studies course was a history of science class taught by philosopher Paul Churchland.

“Now, with our program and a roof over our head to call our own, I see many new ways coming about to address science as a social and natural phenomenon,” Churchland said. “The long-term potential cannot really be generalized because our membership is going to be so diverse.”

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