Not Open Naming

Brian Glanz tweet 531325945127251968

I just saw this tweet from Brian Glanz.

‘We need to defend “#openscience” from misappropriation’ implies that while the term “openscience” may stand for openness, use of the term itself is not open. If it can be misappropriated, then it has been or can be ‘properly’ appropriated elsewhere. In effect, Glanz implies that the term “openscience” is itself proprietary.

Now I don’t suppose he wants anyone to think that it ‘belongs’ to some person or organization, but rather that when we see it used, we should reasonably be able to expect it to stand for certain things – a particular idea of open science. Of course, that idea has to come from some person or persons in particular and to have currency, it has to be an idea that is accepted within a particular community. Once they become accustomed to using it in a particular way, they may feel aggrieved when they find the term being used by others in contrary ways. Particularly so when that use appears to be an attempt by those others to gain credibility for themselves through using the term in a way that associates them with the currency afforded to the term by the community that established its use first.

It may well be that this is what was intended by the people behind the website that Glanz cites, Frustratingly, the site seems to be offline as I type this, but earlier viewings revealed it as a showcase for various ‘alternative’ science viewpoints. The only one with which I can claim any familiarity is that of Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake is a reminder that even among those with the trappings of “proper” scientists (Sheldrake has a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University and has published many research papers in plant biochemistry) there lurks a certain dissatisfaction with scientific materialism. While I wouldn’t put money on Sheldrake and his ilk knocking the materialist axioms of science off their cultural pedestal, I equally doubt that such heretical attitudes are going to disappear. Science as we know it (open or otherwise) is a product of our culture in our historical era. It reflects our preferences and prejudices at least as much as it reflects nature. Some day, humanity will abandon science, either because interest in material reality wanes to the point of insignificance or because new and presently unsuspected ways of relating to it are discovered.

Glanz’s own Open Science Federation site characterizes open science as “proper science” that is “by anybody and for everybody”[*]. Evidently, the anybody has to subscribe to somebody‘s idea of what is proper. The question is: who is that somebody? If it’s the same as the everybody, then there may (probably will) be disparate ideas of what is ‘proper’ science. Who adjudicates in any disagreement over that and from where do they get their authority?

By invoking the need to “defend the good name of science from pseudoscience”, Glanz has implied that the Open Science Federation represents just such an adjudicator. But why? If everything is to be open, everybody will have the information they need to decide for themselves what they should believe. Every hypothesis is grist to the mill. Only by investing time and effort investigating it can you know it’s not right. To be sure, there’ll be cranks who keep coming back with the same old discredited or unsubstantiated stuff, but even then, being reminded of some “crazy” idea in a new context may be the spark that sets someone’s imagination off in a fruitful direction.

Shoring up the boundaries between “scientific” knowledge or discussion and knowledge or discussion generally is not a fruitful way forward for open science.

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