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3.12.02

Positionality in action: It can be strange to pay attention to the dates when you're reading about things outside your field of expertise. I looked up some brief summaries of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Schrödinger's cat today to make sure I understood them, because I'm giving a presentation tomorrow on postmodernism in geography. One of the things postmodernists like to do is to point out weird quantum physics stuff in order to challenge our usual assumption that, whatever problems the social sciences may face in determining truth, the hard sciences -- epitomized by physics -- can make concrete predictive laws. In the 80s, geographers started to cite these things to knock physics down off its pedestal (on which the social sciences' inferiority complex had placed it) and prove that the problem of observers messing with the observed isn't just a quirk of studying people.

Then I looked at the dates. Heisenberg was 1927. Schrödinger was 1935. This weird physics that challenges all our notions of how the world works and how science operates came out when geography was still mired in environmental determinism. And anthropology was proposing that matriarchies were a universal stage of social development because primitive people don't understand that pregnancy is caused by sex. My conception of the progress of human knowledge has been shaken up, because these developments in quantum physics don't fit the (low) level of scientific sophistication that I associate with the 20s and 30s due to my immersion in geography.

But then, my perception about Heisenberg and Schrödinger may be skewed by being a social scientist. Maybe their stuff is old hat to today's physicists, and people citing the original uncertainty principle paper would look as silly as a geographer backing up a piece of research with Ellen Churchill Semple's theories.

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