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The Cultural Challenge to Scientific Knowledge

Dinshaw K. Dadachanji

Scientists and science critics are engaged in a crucial battle over whether science is a body of objective truth or subjective constructs influenced by prevailing social beliefs and values.

You could place the blame on the educational system. Or you could blame the media. Or the scientists and engineers. Or perhaps it's just our personal limitations. Whatever the reasons or combinations thereof, there's an uncomfortable reality we've got to face when dealing with the world of science: A large gulf separates scientists from most laypeople. Between the two sides run the murky waters of misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Not that we haven't tried reforming science education in schools and colleges. Not that the media don't carry stories related to science and technology. And not that scientists avoid writing articles and books for lay audiences. All these avenues have been explored and continue to be pursued. Yet our society, which is already polarized on a variety of issues--politics, race, language, religion, and what have you--finds itself divided along the lines of scientific literacy as well.

On the one hand, most people tend to respect science because of its successful applications in practically every field of human activity. The computer may appear to be a "black box" to most of us, but it can do fascinating things. The generally successful space program holds us in awe. The ability to obtain images of the brain and other parts of the body without cutting them open defies credibility. And the list goes on and on. On the other hand, while science is said to be a pathway to help us understand the natural world, the advanced mathematics and highly technical prose used by scientists keep a lot of this knowledge in expert territory. Thus, even as we rely on increasingly sophisticated machines to help run our daily lives, we find ourselves being distanced from their inner workings.

The gulf separating scientists from nonscientists extends to the intellectual world as well. This situation was articulated by C.P. Snow when he called attention to the problem of "two cultures"--one established by literary intellectuals, the other by scientists. In a lecture given at Cambridge University in 1959, he said, "I felt I was moving among two groups--comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all."

After all these years, however, the polarization between natural sciences and the humanities has become further exacerbated by fundamental challenges to the standard view that scientific knowledge is objective, rational, unaffected by the prevailing social climate, and therefore a "true" (or approximately true) portrayal of reality. The irony is that the challenges are coming from a number of academics who say they desire to enhance public understanding of science and the way scientific knowledge is produced and expressed. Among today's science critics are a number of sociologists, historians, and philosophers of science.

One circle of critics consists of academics who have come to be identified as "postmodern" thinkers. A second group is associated with what is known as the "strong program" in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), initiated at the University of Edinburgh. Both groups come under the umbrella term social constructivists, because they view scientific knowledge as the product of a social group (natural scientists) influenced by social factors. Additional critiques of science have come from many (but not all) feminists, ethnocentrists, environmentalists, animal rights activists, and others.

In response to attacks from these various directions, biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt coauthored the book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (1994). For similar reasons, the New York Academy of Sciences held a conference (in 1995) and published its proceedings as The Flight from Science and Reason (1996), edited by Gross, Levitt, and Martin Lewis. In addition, debates between opposing sides have been carried in the pages of leading scientific journals and on the Internet. The issues are many and complex. Let us consider some of the key elements in these disputes.

The postmodern challenge

What is postmodernism? This term has been applied in a variety of disciplines--including art, literature, history, sociology, political science, and philosophy--and eludes easy definition. It may be viewed not as a set of ideas but as an approach or way of thinking. In the realm of science studies, postmodern skepticism in its radical form challenges the view that science gives us objective knowledge about reality on a universal scale, and it goes further to cast the scientific enterprise as an oppressive force. Moreover, it takes the position that all knowledge is produced by social interactions, deeply influenced by social prejudices, and therefore valid only in temporary, localized contexts.

This form of postmodern analysis has become the theoretical backbone of left-wing activism. Its severely critical stance against science has aroused the ire of a number of scientists, including some who otherwise see themselves as supportive of or sympathetic toward left- wing issues. In response to the postmodern critics, physicist Alan Sokal, who identifies himself as a leftist, was motivated to carry out his now-famous hoax--he called it an "experiment."

Using faulty logic and linguistic sleight, Sokal wrote a parody (Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity) that strung together high-sounding but often meaningless statements to make the spurious claim that the (speculative) theory of quantum gravity supports left-wing political ideology. His essay included provocative statements, calling, for instance, belief in the existence of an objective, external world a reflection of "post-Enlightenment hegemony" and labeling physical reality a "social and linguistic construct." To convey the impression of authenticity, he padded his story with numerous, accurate citations of scientists, postmodernists, feminists, and others.

Sokal then submitted his piece to Social Text, a journal at the forefront in promoting radical political views based on postmodern cultural criticism. The essay was published in the journal's Spring/Summer 1996 issue, in a special feature entitled "Science Wars." Shortly thereafter, Sokal exposed his hoax in another journal, Lingua Franca. In explaining the point of his "experiment," he said he was concerned about declining intellectual standards "in certain precincts of the American academic humanities" and wanted to carry out a test.

What can we infer from the hoax? The minimalist position would be that a small group of editors neglected their responsibility to (a) request that the author clarify his unintelligible prose and (b) submit the text to a scientist for review. But the prank's ramifications went much further. Writers in the postmodern camp claimed that they were being misunderstood by scientists. For instance, Stanley Aronowitz, a former editor of Social Text, wrote (Dissent, Winter 1997) that he and his colleagues never doubted the existence of the physical world, but they question "whether our knowledge of it can possibly be free of social and cultural presuppositions." Nonetheless, the unwitting publication of the parody lent credence to scientists' claims that this was an instance revealing that science critics (at least some of them) neither understand science nor apply intellectually rigorous standards.

The 'strong program'

Until the 1970s, sociologists generally believed that social factors played a minimal role in shaping scientific knowledge--affecting only noncanonical viewpoints. Sociologists examined the lives of scientists but did not analyze science itself. In today's terminology, this was a "weak program." But in the mid-1970s, philosopher David Bloor, sociologist Barry Barnes, and historian Steven Shapin at the University of Edinburgh introduced a sweeping new approach: the "strong program" in SSK. In doing so, they extended the purview of sociology to include the analysis of how scientific knowledge is produced.

The strong program is characterized by four tenets. The third of these, known as the "symmetry" principle, is the one that irritates scientists the most. According to this principle, the analysis of truth and error in scientific explanations must follow similar methods. Consequently, one cannot assign a purely rationalist cause for a "true" belief (accepted theory) and a sociological cause for a "false" (rejected) one, because truth and falsity of an explanation are determined by hindsight.

For SSK advocates, the symmetry principle implies that they will not take sides when analyzing the social dynamics of debates in science. But for many scientists, it suggests that these sociologists think of scientific knowledge as just another belief system--as though no rational judgment and empirical verification enter into the selection of what is taken to be true.

In response, members of the Edinburgh school declare that they do respect the validity of the scientific approach, but their desire is to employ this approach to analyze science itself. For them, the social constructivist analysis indicates the way in which truth is discovered in science.

In a recent interview in Nature (May 22, 1997), Shapin notes that the position of the Edinburgh school is "not anti-science" but "anti- rationalist philosophy." In other words, they critique the notion that science is (or has been) practiced by following a set of rules, as suggested by the rationalist philosophy of science enunciated by Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos. The latest version of the strong program, showing how SSK is practiced by its proponents, can be found in the book Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis (1996), by Barnes, Bloor, and John Henry.

Feminist critique

Science has also come under attack by a group of feminists who claim that it has a Eurocentric, masculinist bias, which needs to be rooted out. In a recent book entitled Feminism and Science (1996), editors Evelyn Fox Keller and Helen Longino observe that feminist movements have implicated scientific research and technology "in the continuing subordination of women."

Exemplifying this claim in the book is an essay by anthropologist Emily Martin, who says that both popular and scientific accounts of the behavior of human egg and sperm in the reproductive process rely on stereotypes. According to her, these are stereotypes that "imply not only that female biological processes are less worthy than their male counterparts but also that women are less worthy than men."

In a popular recounting of the same subject, reporter Sharon Begley wrote in Newsweek (April 21, 1997) that biologists in the 1960s portrayed sperm as active, "macho adventurers," eggs as passive, "coy damsels." According to the article, it was only recently discovered that "sperm are ineffectual swimmers" and that "the egg actively grabbed the sperm." Begley acknowledged that by 1964, researchers knew that the early development of the fertilized cell was guided by genetic material of the egg, but she quoted Martin as saying that "no one knew what to do" with this research.

Are these charges of masculinist bias in scientific accounts valid? In a recent (October 1997) debate at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., Gross gave a scathing response. He noted that research published as early as 1878 and 1919 clearly described the egg as actively engulfing and pulling in the sperm, and that since then, the egg's role has not been considered passive "in any scientifically meaningful way." And he reaffirmed the scientific observation that sperm do swim.

Gross further noted that it was he and his graduate student who first published (in 1964) the importance of the egg's RNA in guiding the early stages of development, and he later named it "maternal" RNA. This discovery quickly led to a large body of research and became standard knowledge. While attributing the colorful masculinist metaphors to feminist publications, not scientific texts, he said that whatever metaphors people may have used, "developmental biology depends upon those metaphors not at all."

Is there any common ground?

In his introduction to The Flight from Science and Reason, Gross maintains that certain professors and others in "science studies" programs hold the "trendiest irrationalisms" in high esteem. On the other hand, David Edge, editor of Social Studies of Science, uses equally strong language (in The Umpire Strikes Back) in describing scientists in the "'science wars' claque" as behaving in "an arrogant, dogmatic, and domineering manner."

The intensity of these charges would appear to suggest the hopelessness of finding common ground between scientists and those engaged in science studies. But the arguments and counterarguments are also compelling at least some of the disputants to reevaluate their positions and enunciate them more clearly. Members of the Edinburgh school, in particular, have stressed that they are not against science; nor do they hold that scientific theories are merely social constructs. Scientists, in turn, admit that social influences do play a role in the scientific process. For instance, scientific inquiry involves not only experimental work but also dialogue and debate among scientists.

It is important, however, to distinguish between the various areas in which social (including political and economic) factors may influence scientific research. Sokal (Dissent, Fall 1996) has pointed out five distinct areas: ontology, epistemology, sociology of knowledge, individual ethics, and social ethics. Social factors do not influence all of these equally. If we take the example of the impact of funding of a research project, we may justifiably raise questions about the ethical effects of the funding on applications of the final products. Or we may ask how the selection of one project over another may shift the balance in our body of knowledge. But it would be difficult to support the claim that the funding would affect scientific answers to ontological questions, such as molecular structure or behavior, or to epistemological choices, such as how scientists might decide to accept or reject a particular theory.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue being challenged in these debates is the degree of objectivity of scientific knowledge. Scientists readily acknowledge that science is a human endeavor, circumscribed by human limitations, and scientific theories are not absolute truths but are subject to revision. The paradigmatic shift in our concept of the solar system from a geocentric one to a heliocentric one is often cited. Another example would be the alternative explanations of light given by Newton's corpuscular theory, Huygens' wave theory, and today' s quantum theory. Scientists generally maintain that these types of changes in theoretical structure move us toward better accounts of the truth.

Yet the public is bewildered when scientists change their minds, such as about the health effects of eggs. Or when scientists dispute one another, such as over the theory of global warming. Some are amused to see that while some scientists denounce alternative medical therapies, a committee sponsored by the National Institutes of Health recently found evidence supporting the efficacy of acupuncture in relieving pain. And religious people find that scientists who promote accidental, blind causes for the existence of the universe are expressing an alternative dogmatism to belief in a Creator.

If there is any conclusion we can draw from all this, it is that science is not practiced in idealized situations, insulated from social influences, but neither can scientific knowledge be cast in purely relativistic terms. And whichever side we may be on in the debate about how science is done, we need humility in recognizing our limitations, and honesty, openness, and mutual respect as we explore the complexities of nature and formulate our understanding of reality.n


Dinshaw K. Dadachanji is an editor for the Natural Science section of The World & I.


Copyright © 1998 News World Communications, Inc._

Dinshaw K. Dadachanji, The Cultural Challenge to Scientific Knowledge., Vol. 13, The World & I, 01-01-1998, pp 172.