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“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”: On the Attitude toward “Experiment” in the History of Science

The image of the Research Institute of the Taiwan Governor-General's Office. Source: Takaki, Tomoe. Die hygienischen verhältnisse der insel Formosa, im auftrage des generalgouvernements Formosa. Dresden : C.C. Meinhold & söhne, 1911.
cultural experimentScience Historyart practice

Science and art seem to strive their hardest to have something to do with each other – a curious phenomenon we can’t help noticing when reviewing the history over the past decades. In the art world, we’ve been accustomed to artists who claim their works as “research projects” or replicate, appropriate, and sometimes simulate the experimental methods of natural sciences. We’ve also been inured to scientists who regularly publish the images produced in their experimental processes and exclaim in admiration that these images are every bit as beautiful as “artworks.” The profound, “beautiful” misunderstanding on the part of scientists notwithstanding (in contemporary art discourses, “beauty” is probably the most picayune criterion for works of art), it is undeniable that the connection between art and science has become a topic equally popular in art history and science history studies. Besides, the science-art integration has been assigned the first priority in today’s cultural policy-making.

Within this context, “experiment,” a term derived from natural sciences actually, has served as a keyword in contemporary art. Apart from being a synonym of artistic creation, the idea of experiment has also been used as a supporting pillar of curatorial philosophy. Here, however, we can’t circumvent the following questions. Why can the term “experiment” be employed in such an extensive manner to refer to artistic practice as it should be by rights? And, what does experiment mean on earth?

Answering these questions may like herding cats, yet we can make a brief detour and examine the term “experiment” by placing it back in the context of science history.

“Experiment” in Natural Sciences

Experīmentum, the Latin etymology of “experiment”, refers to test, trial and experience. When used as a verb, “experiment” implies channeling things to create experiences. In this sense, this term didn’t undergo noticeable change in definition when applied to natural sciences later: it means a scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact. As a general rule, an experiment is designed to reify and materialize a presupposition through a concatenation of rigorous examinations in an elaborate system, thereby rendering itself repeatedly testable and verifiable. In an experiment, a hypothesis may be confirmed or rejected. Whichever the result may be, the purpose of experiment is always to examine abstract hypotheses by reference to real-world experiences and establish a set of rules or even theories.

Taking an overview of the history of science, we found that philosophers and scientists – Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton among others – had accentuated the significance of experiment as early as in the 17th century; however, in their opinion, experiment is at best a tool for theory-testing.

In fact, it was not until the 1980s that experiment was back in the spotlight of philosophers and scientists. Such a turn was closely related to the role of experiment in modern sciences: people have been consciously aware that, for “research objects” to exist and become perceivable phenomena, experiment is a necessary prerequisite. In other words, experiment not only serves the function of testing known hypotheses, but also constructs a world largely unknown to us.

The attention focusing on experiment has inevitably provoked much discussion and debate. We may wonder that, if a phenomenon we observed in an experiment does not exist outside the laboratory at all, can we invariably construe it as a representation of the real world? Are the objects we observe in experiments res naturales or artefacts?

Since the late 20th century, experiment per se has been a popular research object in many disciplines, such as history of knowledge, sociology, history of image, and cultural studies. Scholars began to investigate how knowledge is produced in the gargantuan network intersected by technology, apparatus, researchers, and institutions. This turn has also prompted scholars to reflect on the traditional stereotypes about sciences.

HSU Chia-wei, Industrial Research Institute Affiliated to the Japanese Governor Office, 2017, 3 min, single-channel video installation. Photo by LU Guo-Wei

Experiment as a Realm for Unknown Objects to Appear

In our stereotypical view, sciences are dedicated to the mission of explanation. Sciences must be precise, insofar as to deepen our understanding of the world we live in. However, as German science historian Hans-Jörg Rheinberger pointed out, the real conundrum for scientific research is that scientists “don’t know what they don’t know.” This claim might seem a bit redundant at first, but to understand it is not as hard as we might think. No scientific research is targeted towards discovering known things. Scientific development is always indeterminate and unpredictable. This was the exact reason why renowned science historian Thomas Kuhn described scientific research as “a process driven from behind.” So, the following key questions arise here. If we have no idea about what we are looking for, how can we approach it? How can we be sure that we will encounter it since it remains unknown?

Rheinberger reminded us that scientists always leave some wiggle room for varying interpretations when designing experimental systems exactly because what they seek to explore is virtually unknown. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily imply that scientists can be rash or sloppy. Rather, Rheinberger meant that each experiment should maintain its openness on the borders between determinacy and indeterminacy, known and unknown, as well as between familiarity and strangeness, thereby transmuting itself into a realm where unknown objects may appear. As far as scientists are concerned, all experiments require certain openness, despite the indeterminacy and unpredictability of the unknown. An excessively closed, rigorous and precise experimental system will achieve nothing but eliminating the possibilities for unknown objects to appear.

It was indeed the case in history. In journal papers, scientists tend to present their “exciting discoveries” as the targets that their experiments were aimed at from the very beginning. However, science historians would tell us that these “exciting discoveries” are little more than the results seen with twenty-twenty hindsight. Many of them, X-ray and penicillin inter alia, were discovered accidentally during experiments. In fact, most scientists’ experiences in this respect bear more than a passing resemblance to that of Christopher Columbus, who sailed for the East Indies and believed that he was on the correct sea route, only to discover the “new continent.”

Comparing each scientific research process to a map, we’ll find that it has never indicated any direct route to the destination. Rather, it is rife with branch lines, winding paths, forked roads, blind alleys, as well as abrupt deviation and direction change. Only in retrospect can we know that those construed as disturbances, contaminants, defects and errors in experiments are the most essential elements of scientific research in actuality.

The Attitude toward “Experiment”

Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “Is not the blurred picture often just what we need?” According to his linguistic philosophy, a “precise” language lacks not only agency but also utility. Every time we use languages, we are wandering in between precision and vagueness, and meanwhile contributing to the creation of a space for “language games” therein.

It is basically the case when scientists are conducting their own experiments. They must leave the known world’s center and explore its wild frontier, trying to find the entrances where from they can take a leap into the unknown. While expecting their experiments to be repeatable by themselves so as to test and verify their findings, and to be reproducible by others that generate commensurate results, scientists in the system of experimentation always look ahead to seeing subtle differences in the endless, monotonous loop of the experimental process. The world they live in is neither completely closed nor fully open. The freedom they enjoy is neither totally anarchical nor severely curtailed.

“Possibility” is by no means empty rhetoric for scientists. They hesitate when confronted with the unknown, not knowing what they don’t know.

We may regard this as an attitude toward experiment, and it is exactly such an attitude that makes “scientist” and “artist” a dead ringer for each other: they grope ways across uncharted territories, weathering the storms of uncertainty and ambiguity; they embrace accidents and serendipity, braving the ventures deemed highly risky. In their eyes, anyway, all the “extremities” are nothing but “borders” that haven’t been crossed yet.

cultural experimentScience Historyart practice
From: Ed. LIN Yi-Hsiu and Shauba CHANG, Re-Base: When Experiments Become Attitude, Taipei: C-LAB, 2019. 26-28.
LEE Li-ChunPh. D in Kulturwissenschaft, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His doctoral studies were centered on the questions concerning different ways of picturing body and notating bodily phenomena in the Western and Chinese medicine and the pictoriality (Bildlichkeit) of the medical images of the body from the trans-cultural perspective.
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