Richard Marshall on Francesca Hughes's The Architecture of Error: Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of Precision, over at 3:AM Magazine:
Le Corbusier warned that: ‘… in the old-world timber beam there may be lurking some treacherous knot.’ The fear of errors lying hidden in materials became a starkly manifested paranoia as the precision of explanation became fetishised in the twentieth century and onwards. Materials seemed to deviate from this precision and some more than others. Preference for metal over wood was one consequence: metal seemed to deviate less than wood for example. In one of the chapters Hughes explains how this thought led to a move away from building planes out of wood to ones of metal – at the cost of flight! Airplanes in the first world war were all typically made out of wood. Wood, however, was exactly the treacherous-knot material that Le Corbusier feared. Metal, on the other hand, was thought less susceptible to error and so very soon after the first war planes were being made of metal. These early planes couldn’t actually fly but were deemed superior to the wooden ones that could because they represented error free reality. Metal collapsed the distinction between explanation and description. The price of this collapse, Hughes writes, ‘ … was flight itself.’ She asks the obvious question: ‘ If airplanes do not need to be able to fly, do explanations need to tell the truth?’
In this great book – entertaining, lucid and full of delicious detail and narrative as well as intelligent lively assessments of the details, and great pictures too! – the attempt to remove error manifests itself in the way the precision of theory opposes the actuality of the built material. Does the precision of explanatory theory cause inadequate descriptive veracity? Philosopher Nancy Cartwright answers yes: ‘Fundamental equations are meant to explain, and paradoxically enough the cost of the explanatory power is descriptive adequacy. Really explanatory laws of the sort found in theoretical physics do not state the truth.’ An ideological commitment to science, precision and predictability comes at the cost of truth and functionality. Francesca Hughes’ hugely enjoyable and rather brilliant book gives us examples of how this has happened and manifested itself, and makes a powerful case for calling out this ideology, & not just in its application to architecture but in many other spheres too.
In ‘How The Laws of Physics Lie’ Nancy Cartwright draws a distinction between inference to most likely cause and inference to the best explanation. When explanation bridges to best cause can we then start to test its truthfulness. There’s a simple point here: the best explanation can be false because it is approximate. Consistency with the facts as we have them is dependent on many things and approximation works with some materials rather than others so that, for example, Hookes law works better with aluminium than spruce. Approximation is clever enough and helps us think. Cartwright makes a distinction between Phenomenal laws that are about appearances on the one hand and theoretical laws about the underlying reality on the other, and says that what is actually happening in scientific work is a subtle negotiation between these two different types of law. We ‘ … separate laws which are fundamental and explanatory from those that merely describe.’
But don’t explanations have to tell the truth?