October 19, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science as public and consensible knowledge

I recently chatted with some natural scientists of a certain (my) age, that is, whose formative student years lay in the 1960s and 1970s, and they recommended some books to me. In the 1970s I had nothing to do with science, as I was deeply immersed in the humanities. I have, over the last decade or so, been thrown into a field of study that was totally unknown to me before that time, namely Science and Technology Studies or STS. I have also become aware of certain barriers to understanding between some scientists and some STS scholars.

In the following I will provide overviews of the images of science that one can find in the books recommended to me by my colleagues. These portrayals of science may throw some light onto how a certain generation of scientists came to understand science as a social and public process, an understanding that may or may not overlap with how STS scholars understand science as a social and public process.

Three (old) books

The books I’ll discuss were written by scientists (two physicists, one biologist) and they deal with various social or public aspects of science and/or try to stimulate public discussion about the nature and purpose of science. These books are (and this is of course a very random sample!!) John Ziman’s 1968 Public Knowledge: The Social Dimension of Science, a book that most directly links up with modern STS; Alan Cromer’s 1995 Uncommon Sense: The heretical nature of science, which refers extensively to Ziman; and Lewis Wolpert’s 1992 The Unnatural Nature of Science, which overlaps with Cromer’s book but not so much with Ziman’s, as it is exceedingly critical of various developments in STS, especially the Strong Programme (p. 110). Like Cromer, Wolpert stresses the uncommonsensical nature of science. He points out that scientific ideas are highly counter-intuitive (‘unnatural’), what Cromer calls ‘heretical’. As Ben Goldacre has recently noted, Wolpert’s book is “all about how the whole point of science is that it tests – and may therefore challenge – your assumptions about the world”.

All three books contain paragraphs that made me nod enthusiastically, smile wryly, or frown a bit. Some passages in both Cromer and Wolpert will probably be read with incredulity or scorn by some STS scholars (Wolpert talks about “the abyss of relativism”, p. 94 and he fears that sociologists wish to “undermine science” p. 121; see also Cromer, p. 17).

All three books make a strong case for science being special in some way, because of its process of establishing knowledge: it thrives on critique (based on what Ziman calls “a general attitude of rational scepticism and freedom to speak and write”, p. 146); it is correctable; it is a collective enterprise; it is, at least in principle, according to Ziman, ‘consensible’, ‘social’ and, above all ‘public’.

John Ziman

Ziman was one of the first scientists to point out that science was a social endeavour, in a paper published in 1960 entitled ‘Science is social’ (The Listener 64, 25 1-2) (that was before Kuhn). He was one of the first to say that science should be scrutinised by sociologists and actively collaborated with some of them. He stressed that issues of science and policy needed to be discussed more openly. He also promoted what one may now call science communication, but emphasised that public understanding of science should not solely be undertaken “on the terms of the scientists” (pace Bodmer [p. 488] and, I have to say, pace Sir Mark Walport, after listening to his recent talk on climate change). He also warned that social changes in science funding have important impacts on how science is done, for better or worse, and that this has to be observed and critiqued.

Science as consensible and public

Ziman used two words which are also important to understanding the books by Cromer and Wolpert, namely the words ‘consensible’ and ‘public’. For both Cromer and Wolpert the issue of consensus is vital. For Cromer the issue of publicness is as important as it is to Ziman. Consensibility and publicness distinguish science from non-science and non-sense.

As Cromer says in his chapter on ‘Science and Nonsense’, “The British physicist John Ziman (1968) offered a very simple answer [to the question of how to distinguish between science and nonsense] that works surprisingly well. Science is the search for a consensus of rational opinion among all competent researchers.” (Cromer, pp. 143-144) According to both Cromer and Ziman, scientists must therefore be able to “convince their publics” (p. 144) in public.

In the end science is “the study of those things about which the scientific public can form a consensus” (p. 143). For this to work, there needs to be a certain type of ‘public’. In a way, Ziman and Cromer seem to say that the sciences and their publics are co-dependent and define each other (as well as the reality they live in): “A large public has been defined that is free, knowledgeable, and independent. It is not at all obvious that there should be any matters about which it would agree, let alone such esoteric ones as invisible atoms and helical genes. That there appear to be such things is our best evidence of an objective reality. Indeed, we can define objective reality as those matters about which the scientific public agrees. Ziman calls it public knowledge.” (Cromer, p. 145; Ziman’s definition can be found on p. 9 of Public Knowledge) This type of public knowledge is based on converting the consensible into consensus in a process that encompasses science and publics.

The term ‘consensible’ refers to an agreement amongst scientists that with regard to certain problems “a consensus is possible and desirable” (Ziman, p. 39). Consensus, and with it scientifically reliable knowledge, emerges from what one may call trial, error, repetition, replication, refutation, recognition, “public demonstration” (p. 36) and finally “‘publication’ of knowledge” (p. 47) in a public process. For this to work, “[t]he community of those who are competent to contribute to, or criticize, scientific knowledge must not be closed; it must be larger, and more open, than the group of those who entirely accept a current consensus or orthodoxy. It is an essential element in the health of Science, or of a science, or of the sciences, that self-confirming, mutually validating circles be unable to close. Yet it is also essential that technical scientific discussion be not smothered in a cloud of ignorant prejudices and cranky speculation.” (p. 64)

It should perhaps be added that consensibility and consensus can happen at many levels and scales and are dynamic processes. (And there is of course always the possibility that some scientists may be claiming that a consensus has already been reached while others will be denying that it has; and the same goes for various publics).

This also means that dissensus is as important as consensus (as well as competition, cooperation and commitment, see Wolpert, pp. 85ff) – to a certain extent. Before there is sufficient evidence to form a consensus (or even a recognition that an issue is ‘consensible’), there will be struggle and strife. “But science, like parliamentary democracy, depends for its survival on individuals who can subordinate their egocentrism to a higher ideal. Democracy isn’t possible in societies in which the losers resort to violence and guerrilla warfare, and science isn’t possible when researchers, failing to gain acceptance for their ides, break away from their colleagues to form rival schools.” (Cromer, p. 151; see Ziman, p. 28)

What science is and is not

All three scientists reject the caricature of the scientist as a lone hero. They also reject the view of science as a purveyor of absolute truth and certainty (revealed through the use of ‘the scientific method’; Ziman talks instead about a “practical art”, p. 7) (Wolpert, chapter 6). As Ziman points out, “there is no ultimate procedure which will wring the last drops of uncertainty from what scientists call their knowledge” (Ziman, p. 5), and that “in a discipline where there is a scientific consensus the amount of certain knowledge may be limited, but it will be honestly labelled” (p. 28). But despite there being limits to consensus and certainty, scientists must “believe that some truths can be discovered” (p. 39; see Wolpert, p. 122).

They also stress that science, despite its unnaturalness and heretical nature, is an exercise in humility (Cromer, p. 207) – because it is, at least ideally, an open, social and public endeavour. Every scientist, according to Ziman, learns to play a role “in a system by which knowledge is acquired, sifted and eventually made public property” (p. 10). That is why, according to these authors, science is special and different to other systems of knowledge acquisition and knowledge propagation.


All this sounds of course rather idealistic, but the ideals discussed in these three books are, I believe, ideals by which most scientists at least try to live (in that similar to the ideals discussed in my posts about Bronowski).

There is of course always a problem for science and politics, as “the speed of politics is faster than the speed of consensus formation”, as some argue, or as, indeed, the speed of politics may be slower than the speed of scientific consensus formation. Public science-based policy and public science knowledge don’t necessarily live in harmony. But that’s not the topic of the three books discussed here.

Image: Athena, Goddess of Knowledge (wikimedia commons)


Posted in ScienceScience Policy