Vindicating science by bringing it down, part I

1What is the role of the social in science? If one consults science textbooks, one will find that the social dimension of scientific knowledge is conspicuously absent. Science is supposed to reflect the way the world really is, independent of our petty human lives. It is, in the classical view, the epitome of a rational endeavor, free from social influences. Of course, science is carried out by human beings, but their individual backgrounds and social lives are simply taken to be irrelevant. What matters are the intellectual merits of a theory, not who conceived it. What matters is the evidence, not who gathered it. This stark contrast between the social and the rational can be found in philosophical accounts of science as well. Because social factors are rendered invisible in the end products of science, many philosophers have underestimated their constructive role in the acquisition of scientific knowledge.

In recent decades, sociologists and historians have tried to bring science back to earth, but many of them have unwittingly bought into the same simplistic opposition. Social influences on science have been relished by its cynical critics and resisted by its admirers, and for the same reason: the fear (or hope) that it would destroy the credentials of science. In a paper I co-wrote with my frequent partner in crime, Maarten Boudry (published in Perspectives in Science and Culture, edited by K. Rutten, S. Blancke, and R. Soetaert, Purdue University Press) we discuss the historical roots of this opposition, culminating in the sorry spectacle of the science wars. This post provides extensive excerpts from that paper, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

When do we feel the need to explain why someone beliefs something? Not all beliefs held by our fellow human beings appear to produce an epistemic itch. People believe that dolphins are mammals, that the earth orbits around the sun, and that World War II ended in 1945, but we rarely wonder how they arrived at such homely truths. Beliefs such as these are just obvious, and no sane person would dispute them. That said, who told you when WWII ended? Where did you acquire the belief that dolphins are mammals, or that the earth goes around the sun? Your sources for these convictions are hard to track down.

Memories of these facts are called semantic by psychologists, to distinguish them from episodic memories, related to things that happen to us. Episodic memories carry a tag with time, place, and the situation we acquired them. Not so for semantic memories, likely because doing so would be a waste of brain resources.

Take the belief that coal is black. If we ask you what your reasons are for believing that, you would probably be puzzled. The first answer that comes to mind is: “Why, because it is black, of course!” It doesn’t matter how you came to know that. You could have learned it in any number of ways. Anyone in doubt about the color of coal can quickly retrieve the answer through any number of sources.

Because the truth of such beliefs is obvious, we rarely question how other people acquired them, or how they can justify them. It seems as if such beliefs just drop out of thin air, without much in the way of a causal history.

That said, how do we account for other kinds of beliefs (as held by others, of course)? Beliefs that are false, quirky, idiosyncratic, or plainly irrational produce an epistemic itch. We want to explain how people end up embracing them. Who told him such nonsense? Did he fall for one of those conspiracy theories circulating on the internet?

We resort to special explanations only when something goes wrong. True beliefs that are part of common knowledge are taken at face value, but false and foolish beliefs cry out for an explanation. This is where social and cultural explanations come in. Such explanations, however, are not invoked when we account for true and justified beliefs. Only when rationality breaks down, it seems, a space is opened up for psychological explanations to fill. We seem to think that there is an association between the irrational and the social, but not between the rational and the social.

In the classical view, science is the epitome of reason. It is objective and impartial. It is ruthless in its indifference to what we fear or fancy. When it comes to the content of science, nature has the final say in the matter. Social, political, and ideological influences on science are anathema. When writing science textbooks, and for many other purposes, the social influences on the development of scientific theories can be safely ignored,  just like with many of our mundane beliefs about the world. Sure, there is a story to be told about how scientists pooled their efforts to acquire this or that piece of knowledge, who published it first, who convinced whom, and so on. But the details of this story make no difference: an alternative history of science would ultimately have led to the same result.

As a result, especially in the natural sciences, students are simply taught scientific theories as if they descended down from some Platonic heaven. The vagaries of scientific history, the false starts, wrong turns, and dead ends, the protracted controversies between rival views, the forerunners and pioneers of scientific ideas – all of this is rendered invisible.

For long, philosophers of science have also treated science in splendid isolation from the social world. Hans Reichenbach, one of the major proponents of logical positivism, taught us to strictly separate the context of discovery from the context of justification. The first deals with the historical conception of a scientific hypothesis, and is of little interest to philosophers trying to understand the logic of science. Philosophers of science should be solely concerned with how a scientific hypothesis, once it appears on the scene, relates to observations, whether it is internally consistent, whether it is falsifiable, and so on.

(next: bringing science down to earth)