The science of life and the life of science

Some of my colleagues in the astrobiology community (and at least one stranger) have commented on my blog post of March 23. I thought I’d share a few of their thoughts – and more of my own, of course.

First, a confession/correction: responding to a group email about Hoover’s paper, I mistakenly stated that a Web site referenced in a Wikipedia entry on Hoover says he has an undergraduate degree in engineering from Henderson State University. As I correctly reported in my blog post, this Web site reports that Hoover has an undergraduate degree from Henderson State. It does not specify a major. A colleague of Hoover’s has contacted me by email to advise that Hoover’s degree is in math and physics. Colleagues of mine who have known and worked with Hoover tell me his background is in engineering. Another colleague in the community (a Ph.D. scientist, for what it’s worth) describes Hoover as “a skilled instrumentalist.”

As a social scientist, I see lots of “boundary-work” going on here. Boundary-work, according to sociologist Tom Gieryn*, is the attribution by scientists, and others, “of selected characteristics to the institution of science” (1983, p. 782). Boundary-work takes place in the “pursuit of a monopoly over cultural authority through exclusion of those offering discrepant and competitive maps of the place of science in the intellectual landscape” (1995, p. 394). What ends up inside or outside the boundaries of science “is a local and episodic accomplishment, a consequence of rhetorical games of inclusion and exclusion” (p. 406).

My Ph.D.-scientist colleague has also expressed his concerns about the “marginality” of the publisher of Hoover’s paper, the Journal of Cosmology (a concern I’ve heard expressed by other colleagues, sometimes not so politely). In the end, though, he says, “there is room, in science, for both marginal contributors and marginal journals.”

An astrobiologist colleague (who also is a Ph.D. scientist) has commented to me: “Funny that in a great “discovery paper” [as the Journal of Cosmology characterizes it], “such as this, [Hoover] has no mention of ALH84001 or the debate and process that surrounded it.” (See D. McKay et al,  “Search for past life on Mars: possible relic biogenic activity in Martian meteorite ALH84001,” Science 16 August 1996.) “One would think that he would like to compare and contrast his work” with that reported in McKay et al.

Considering all the attention the 1996 paper drew and all the further research that it prompted, it is a curious omission….

Another colleague has advised me not to spend too much time on the Hoover case…. No worries. This latest flap over contested claims in the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life is just another incident that happens to shine a light on the social process of boundary-work.

To wrap up for today, I’ll offer some food for thought from one of my favorite thinkers, the (late) social theorist Pierre Bourdieu. While some aspects of culture may endure over time, cultural contexts are constantly changing. This mutable quality of social reality, Bourdieu observed, “provides a basis for the plurality of visions of the world which is itself linked to the plurality of points of views” that serves as a foundation “for symbolic struggles over the power to produce and to impose the legitimate vision of the world.”** Thinking about the social world this way, what science (and scientific authority) is depends on where and when it is, and who is involved in defining it.

I love my work….


* Gieryn was a member of my dissertation committee. Quotations are from:

  • Gieryn, T. F. (1983). Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 48, 781-795.
  • Gieryn, T.F. (1995). Boundaries of science. In S. Jasanoff, et al (Eds.), Handbook of science and technology studies (pp. 393-443). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

I’d also recommend Gieryn’s book Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, University of Chicago Press, 1999.


** Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social space and symbolic power. Sociological Theory, 7, 14-25.




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