Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation

  • Joan Leach


Proposals for the twentieth century to be understood as the century of traumatic witness have dominated post-millennial criticism and analysis in multiple genres of life-writing and history.2 For the media, the claim has been made directly that ‘television sealed the twentieth century’s fate as the century of witness’ (Ellis, 2000, p. 32). It would seem, then, that trauma and its attendance in witnesses and testimonies are central to understanding the century gone and the one recently begun. The sciences sit peculiarly on the edge of this claim. On the one hand, scientific witnessing suggests a remove from the witness to trauma; ‘the objective witness is very different from the survivor … the objective witness claims disembodiment and passivity, a cold indifference to the story, offering “just the facts”’ (Peters, 2001, p. 716). On the other hand, scientists may claim objectivity and disinterestedness in the way they go about research, but they certainly are not disinterested in the results, the ‘story’, or the interpretations of their data. Further, the goals of science do not include only representation, but intervention, belying the passivity in the appeal to objective witness; the point of science is both to represent the world and do things in it (Hacking, 1983; Pickering, 1995). Finally, through tracing the history of the position of scientific witness, historians of science have drawn attention to the mediated nature of scientific observation and the moral, political, and epistemic commitments of scientific observers as they invent (in the rhetorical sense of inventio) testimony from observation.


Seventeenth Century Implicit Argument Folk Theory Epistemic Dependence Mediate Nature 
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© Joan Leach 2009

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  • Joan Leach

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