Vindicating science by bringing it down, part II

1 (1)As we have seen in part I, scientists and early philosophers of science adopted an idealized conception of science, which focuses on the successful end result of scientific activity, and in which there is no place for any influence of the social, or indeed, for any of the actors involved in the scientific endeavor. All of that is swept under the carpet. But the fact that the eventual goal of science is to eliminate the social does not imply that social factors have no important role to play in the process. Science, after all, is nothing but the concerted effort of (sometimes not to) humble human brains, none of which was designed to unravel the mysteries of the world on its own.

In the past couple of decades, science has been brought down to earth again by sociologists, cognitive scientists, evolutionary psychologists, and historians. Unfortunately, the opposition between the rational and the social is still besetting the naturalization of science. The backlash against the traditional conception of science, epitomized by the logical positivists and their intellectual heirs, has swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. Still under the spell of the dichotomy between rational and social which we discussed in part I, many science naturalizers have assumed that, as they bring science down to earth, its pretensions will start to unravel.

The truth of the matter, however, is that all beliefs, the true and the false ones, or the scientific and the pseudoscientific ones, have a causal history, involving cognitive and social factors. If we want to understand how people come to believe stuff, even simple and obvious propositions (e.g., dolphins are mammals) are in need of an explanation. Likewise, if we want to understand how scientists have been able to unearth all sorts of true beliefs about the world, we need to understand what kinds of people scientists are, what kind of cognitive strategies they bring to bear on their research questions, what the social organization of science is, and how hypotheses are tested and evaluated within a scientific community.

The development of a cognitively and socially rich account of science has been delayed by the widespread misconception that such an account would compromise the epistemic standing of science. Because of our habit of pitting social and rational explanations against each other, we assume that the intrusion of sociology and psychology into the citadel of science will eat away at its foundations.

At the heart of this opposition between the social and the rational lies an individualist conception of reason, shared by both camps in the science wars. The notion of the social as a contaminant of the rational, to which even social constructivists seem to subscribe, is more indebted to logical positivism than the latter would like to admit. Radical sociologists during the science wars of the ‘90s were led astray by the very same intuition that made the logical positivists allergic to social explanations – only now they were welcoming the opposite conclusion. As philosopher David Hull put it:

“Because science did not possess the ideal characteristics that the ‘positivists’ insisted that it should, knowledge-claims made by scientists had no more warrant than those of magicians, faith healers, and politicians.”

Both camps are wrong. The simple opposition between the rational and the social-psychological explanations goes against the grain of naturalism. Scientific knowledge does not drop out of thin air: it is embodied in real human beings. If our best scientific theories in some way reflect the world out there, this must have come about through the usual perceptual capacities and cognitive operations, with available technological equipment, and in a complex network of social interactions. How else could it have come about?

The sociologists are right that science is a deeply social endeavor, and that all scientific knowledge is in this sense “socially constructed.” No single individual marooned on a desert island, no matter how brilliant, would be capable of finding out any of the significant truths about the universe that we currently possess. Though the history of science has known some solitary geniuses, working in relative isolation from their peers, even they were still engaged in a collective enterprise, in the sense that they were building on the work of numerous predecessors.

The realization that science is a deeply social enterprise, and that scientific consensus is reached through coalition forming and competition, should not surprise us. The question is what particular social organization is exemplified by science, and whether this is conducive to its epistemic aspirations. Scientists are human beings, warts and all. If scientists collectively succeed in finding out significant truths about the universe, while other endeavors have failed in this regard, this must have come about through the particular social dynamics of science.

Many scientists believe that being objective and impartial are the cardinal virtues of science, and that bias and prejudice make one unsuitable for scientific work. Although the culture of science rightly encourages these virtues, they are by no means necessary for the success of science. Indeed, a certain modicum of bias in this or that direction may actually facilitate the progress of science.

It is not a problem that an individual scientist is biased, or emotionally attached to a particular hypothesis. The social organization of science makes sure that these biases will be balanced by others tilting in different directions. A standard example of this is the reorientation of aspects of medical research as a result of feminist epistemological critiques: it is now increasingly acknowledged that, for example, we cannot conduct drug tests solely on a population of (mostly white, middle aged) men and simply assume that the results can be extrapolated to other human biological populations. Again, Hull:

“The objectivity that matters so much in science is not primarily a characteristic of individual scientists but of scientific communities. Scientists rarely refute their own pet hypotheses, especially after they have appeared in print, but that is all right. Their fellow scientists will be happy to expose these hypotheses to severe testing.”

A desire for fame and success is often viewed as unworthy of a real scientist. The goal of science is truth for its own sake. Although such base motives may indeed compromise one’s scientific work, if allowed to be unchecked, there is no convincing reason why they would stand in the way of significant discoveries. Even spite, jealousy, and the desire to humiliate a rival can result in excellent scientific work, if the competing parties know that they have to abide by certain rules, and will be called out whenever they violate them.

In a good number of cases, social influences are not an impediment to the epistemic ambition of science, but rather a facilitator of scientific progress. Science harnesses some of the baser motives of human behavior in the service of truth, making sure that the interplay of scientists’ individual interests and biases mostly align with epistemic progress.

Darwin may have been right from the start about the fact of common ancestry, but his theory would not have carried the day as swiftly as it did without his indefatigable efforts to enlist allies to the cause and to engage and negotiate with his critics. All the parties in the dispute were trying to enlist nature as their ally, but Darwin of course had one big advantage: nature really was on his side all along. In the long run, therefore, as evidence accumulates and factions wax and wane, the social influences on science will be filtered out, and rightly so.