Re: [asa] WSJ on scientific credibility

From: Michael Roberts <>
Date: Thu Dec 03 2009 - 17:10:08 EST


I think you are learning and are broadening your horizons and moving away from a narrow view of science. Can I congratulate for your first steps in this direction.

Michael being very feic indeed:)
  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Gregory Arago
  To: Ted Davis ;
  Sent: Thursday, December 03, 2009 10:03 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] WSJ on scientific credibility

  Hi Ted,

  Glad to read you acknowledging the existence of things like the 'strong programme' of social constructivism (sociology of scientific knowledge [SSK], whose seminal text was Bloor's "Knowledge and Social Imagery," 1976), in light of this debacle in climatology. One could add of course the Bath school and the Paris school and the Columbia school and the Wisconsin-Berkley-Cornell network (and others) to the Edinburgh school and discover many important things about this issue of 'scientific credibility' and the 'status of scientists.' Let's face it, after all, the fields known as 'sociology of science' and 'science studies' offer the most important insights here.

  Let me first point out that neither your view of 'postmodernism' nor that of the columnist at WSJ are fair or accurate. (And it wasn't 'history of science' that *debunked* scientific 'objectivity,' as you say, but rather philosophy of science. That is clear given the 'topic' of their respective academic domains.) Post-modernism is not 'anti-objective' but rather 'pro-subjective' (to put it in crude neo-Cartesian terms) and this is indeed a logical position for human-social scientists to take given the over-objectivity of much of the modernist natural-physical scientistic project.

  Henninger writes:
  "As the hard sciences-physics, biology, chemistry, electrical engineering-came to dominate intellectual life in the last century, some academics in the humanities devised the theory of postmodernism, which liberated them from their colleagues in the sciences. Postmodernism, a self-consciously "unprovable" theory, replaced formal structures with subjectivity."

  Engineering is a 'hard science'? Many people call it an 'applied science.' That's just one thing. But more important is Henninger's misunderstanding, better to say confusion, about what postmodernism is and isn't. It is *not* simply a theory. I was born (in Canada) in what is called a 'post-modern' age. Period. This is broadly accepted in the human-social sciences (and it applies to several but not all countries around the world).

  Liberation from collegues who are in 'the sciences.' This monolithic language is still suspect. The first thing that 'science studies' students learn is to ask: Which science? Whose science? Indeed, there are many sciences.

  There is a notion in many scholars' minds today that we are undergoing a shift beyond 'modernism.' We've gone past the 'modern' notion of 'science'. Read sociology of science or science studies and this becomes abundantly clear and most importantly it makes sense to 'normal' people. We're past the Euro-Enlightenment paradigm now. One cannot any longer celebrate 'science' as 'Science' or as the one field (meaning, in your languages, the one that studies 'Nature') that offers a view of 'absolute truth.'

  No, today there are truths, there are sciences, and there are multiple ways of understanding the universe, some that are indeed 'extra-scientific,' yet nonetheless still valid and important. The notion of 'pure science,' or 'hard science' (as Henninger backwardly calls it) is much more contentious today than it was in the early 20th or 19th centuries. We are living in a different world now (which is what Americans like to say about post-9-11, though it is not true for everybody - heck, many other countries don't start with 'month', but with 'day' (11-09-01)!). Some people on the leading edges have begun to communicate this and many natural-physical scientists don't like it because they mis-perceive it as inevitably having negative effects for them and their fields. They are wrong and should get with the programme and learn to communicate better and more holistically!

  Henninger's words are nevertheless strong and appear to be trying to understand the situation, though without the proper tools. He says: "I don't think most scientists appreciate what has hit them." "This has harsh implications for the credibility of science generally." "Science is on the credibility bubble." This is all regarding the 'status' and 'importance' of 'science' in societies, which is a question for sociologists to address in depth.

  Robert Merton wrote the first major English paper on sociology of science, "Science and the Social Order" (1938). It would be highly valuable for many on this list to read it (and if you have access to JSTOR, you can easily find it). Here are a few quotes from it:

  “Modern science has considered the personal equation as a potential source of error and has evolved impersonal criteria for checking such error. It is now called upon to assert that certain scientists, because of their extra-scientific affiliations, are a priori incapable of anything but spurious and false theories. In some instances, scientists are required to accept the judgments of scientifically incompetent political leaders concerning matters of science.” (327)

  "the scientist, in company with all other professional workers, has a large emotional investment in his [sic] way of life, defined by the institutional norms which govern his activity. The social stability of science can be ensured only if adequate defences are set up against changes imposed from outside the scientific fraternity itself.” (327)

  “At the same time, this stress upon the purity of science has had other consequences which threaten rather than preserve the social esteem of science. It is repeatedly urged that scientists should in their research ignore all considerations other than the advance of knowledge.” (329)


  “Precisely because scientific research is not conducted in a social vacuum, its effects ramify into other spheres of value and interest. Insofar as these effects are deemed socially undesirable, science is charged with responsibility. The goods of science are no longer considered an unqualified blessing. Examined from this perspective, the tenet of pure science and disinterestedness has helped to prepare its own epitaph.” (332)

  “Conflict arises when the social effects of applying scientific knowledge are deemed undesirable, when the scientist's scepticism is directed toward the basic values of other institutions, when the expansion of political or religious or economic authority limits the autonomy of the scientist, when anti-intellectualism questions the value and integrity of science and when non-scientific criteria of eligibility for scientific research are introduced.” (336)


  That was from 1938! I send these quotes to you (ASA list) only because Merton (who was neither a constructivist nor a relativist) is easier for English speakers to understand. Let it be remembered that Merton learned about SoS from Sorokin, whom he assisted at Harvard. And Sorokin got it from science studies (naukovedenie) which originated in Russia in the 1910's and early 1920's (i.e. before sociology was banished for almost 70 years as a 'bourgeois science' from the Soviet Union). The main issue to discover, in addition to the locations in a given society in which 'sciences' are performed, is: 'what does science MEAN' to people, to society?


  Now, if anyone on the list is feeling reflexive (i.e. the view that 'reflexive method' is a legitimate alternative to 'positive method'), an interesting question is to ask: why did sociology of science *not* originate in the United States, but rather in Russia? Likewise, why are the most celebrated philosophers of science (aside from Kuhn) not from North America? I would be glad to hear any answers to these questions from anyone on the list who is interesed.

  This topic of leaked e-mails and the credibility of science are not 'purely scientific' ones. What is required is not for more biologists or climatologists to pronounce on this issue. But instead, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and economists speaking with their 'reflexive' and also 'objective' views of what is happening to the reputation of 'science' in our contemporary age should be speaking more often. Otherwise there is no balance and their is no justice regarding who is qualified to speak about what. I would fault sociologists of science who don't speak clearly and competently on this particular issue.

  Ted writes: "some scientists do try to control access to the exchange of scientific information and opinions--beyond the appropriate review process for scientific journals, which can also be abused. "

  This has been known and discussed for years and years...but in channels that are not tuned into by the vast majority of natural-physical scientists. I guess this episode at East Anglia offers an opportunity to correct this deficiency of knowledge about other fields. Hopefully it will also help to generate a level of mutual respect in a common cause of understanding reality and its truths.


  From: Ted Davis <>
  Sent: Thu, December 3, 2009 11:27:28 PM
  Subject: [asa] WSJ on scientific credibility

  echo the concerns expressed in this WSJ op-ed:

  Post-modern efforts to undermine the objectivity of science are only encouraged by episodes like this, when tend to reinforce the impression that, if you don't like the implications of the conclusions of the "experts," you go find your own "experts" to back up a different set of conclusions. We are seeing something similar--as I said we would, a few weeks ago--with the flap about recommendations for mammograms for women younger than 50. I'm not suggesting that we get into that one here; it seems pretty peripheral to science/faith, unlike the AGW controversy which intersects with theology of creation and stewardship in obvious ways. Nevertheless, it's a similar situation.

  You can't put the genie back into the bottle, regardless of whether it's ethical to cite or discuss the emails. There will be well-founded perceptions, that some scientists do try to control access to the exchange of scientific information and opinions--beyond the appropriate review process for scientific journals, which can also be abused.

  The root problem, IMO, has to do with balancing the human component involved with the creation of scientific knowledge (this has political, philosophical, cultural, and personal aspects) with the non-human component from nature that objectively exists and does impinge on us, whether or not we like what it's saying. Cynics will conclude too readily that science entirely lacks objectivity (this is the view encouraged by the Edinburgh "strong programme" of social constructivism), while defenders of science will conclude too readily that science is purely objective and is done by robots in an intellectual and cultural vacuum (this was the older view of science, before history of science debunked it). The truth IMO lies somewhere toward the middle--but the middle, in highly charged controversies such as this one, is (by definition) hit from both sides. Let's hope that the truth is not a casualty, as it sometimes is.



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Received on Thu Dec 3 17:10:49 2009

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