Scientific Knowledge: Beyond ‘Us and Them’ (but with a little bit of us and them)

Robert Boyle - 17th century science heart-throb

With due apologies for the gap between postings here, I’d like to kick off a series of new posts on a big theme floating around at the margins of my present research: ‘scientific knowledge’ – where it comes from, how reliable it is, how it compares with other ways that human beings are able to ‘know’ things, whether it makes sense to look to science for answers to questions of metaphysics and meaning, and… ( phew)… whether it’s possible to ask all of these things without instantly being branded an anti-science caveman throwback.

The answer to that last question is that yes of course it’s possible, and necessary for all sorts of ethical and political reasons – for just a taste of these take a look at Giles Fraser here, discussing the question of science’s moral neutrality and offering an interesting analogy with the production of art in times gone by.

The problem is that the legacy of the so-called ‘science wars’, which we’ll look at in detail later in the series, remains with us, even in our best UK science programming: a recent edition of The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4 ended with a warning, seemingly two parts comedy to one part real grievance, that anyone using a form of technology to contact the programme with criticisms about it was guilty of hypocrisy. The unintended effect of which was to suggest, perhaps unfairly, that science – especially when married to comedy – doesn’t do nuance or self-deprecation very well.

But then nor do I, as a historian, do physics, chemistry, or biology very well. And for all the unhelpful framing of debates about science as with-us-or-against-us (particularly when religion enters the picture), it’s easy to understand the honest frustration of highly specialized men and women in science at people like me, armed with GCSEs in what used to be called ‘triple science’ (A’s in chemistry and biology, B in physics), heckling them from the sidelines.

As we’ll see, sometimes this is down to fundamental disagreements about the security of the scientific method and the reliability of the knowledge it yields, but very often it’s down to a simple misunderstanding about precisely what academics and commentators with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences are doing when they talk about science.

Professor Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

As Simon Schaffer, one of the early major figures in history/philosophy of science (sometimes we talk about ‘science studies’) has pointed out, a number of scientists got the impression from his and other work in the 1980s and 1990s that any questioning of science’s methods, funding, everyday assumptions and practices, amounted to an attack on science in general (Schaffer is part of an excellent CBC series on science).

It was, then, tempting to see historians, sociologists, and others as relishing the chance to stick it to science because they envied both its cultural power and the overwhelming utility of its knowledge compared with the meagre sophistry and outdated Marxist-postmodernist leftie bitterness of the ‘soft sciences’. We’ll have some fun with this particular line of argument as part of the series, reviewing the controversial and enormously entertaining Higher Superstition

The recent university funding crisis in the UK has brought all this back to us, of course, with arguments about what makes a worthwhile focus for research or learning – especially if the hard-pressed taxpayer is being asked to foot the bill.

Dolly the Sheep

And I doubt there are many people working in universities who weren’t already aware of tensions, now and again – not a few humanities academics at Edinburgh, struggling to publicise their research findings, have found that unless you’re fooling around with sheep then our PR department may well not want to know…

But science studies academics would reply that they’re simply subjecting science to the same sort of scrutiny they apply to any human endeavour – on the basis that for all its technological sophistication and high level of specialisation, science, like politics or commerce or art, is ultimately a human endeavour.

This counter-argument is generally well recognised, nowadays, and the argument has shifted away from whether non-scientists ought to keep their grubby, under-qualified peasant hands to themselves, and instead towards the question of how deep a critique of science potentially goes. This is one of the things I want to get at in the series – let’s call it the ‘so what?’ question. Beyond the important work of science studies (in which a great many practising or retired research scientists are active) in highlighting fixable shortcomings in particular instances of scientific or medical practice, and the seemingly intractable philosophical dilemma of whether tomorrow will be like yesterday (David Hume’s concern about induction), is there anything in science studies that requires us to look again at science at any kind of fundamental level? Surely we’re all still left feeling pretty impressed, aren’t we, by the explanatory power, the sheer utility – medically, technologically, and all the rest?

Surely, to put it another way, we ought to show a little more gratitude?

The lazy, by now almost self-parodical science studies refrain that ‘all knowledge is socially constructed’ must seem infuriating in this kind of light.

And yet it gets trotted out with an easy smile or – worse still, for the writers of Higher Superstition – a kind of world-weary, moralising tut, as though it’s the intellectual final word, just as true and useful and clever a thing as the mathematics behind general relativity or the design and construction of the Large Hadron Collider.

I think the case for greater gratitude is a strong one, as is the case for greater scientific literacy and for those of us involved (even marginally, in my case) in science studies to ratchet down the self-righteousness and the slavish use of constructivist templates a little. But at a time when disagreements over the science of climate change are having such a profound effect on popular thinking, politics, and economic planning, and when neurology and its sister disciplines boast big answers to enormous questions about human be-ing, it pays to ask how far the ‘so what’ question might really go.

So far, so reasonable. But let’s start, next time, with the potentially angry, confrontational, media-stoked vitriol of the deliciously controversial science-religion debate, reviewing Thomas Dixon’s award-winning essay-length survey of the subject.

 

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