May 31, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich
Science wars and science peace: Some personal reflections
The dust is beginning to settle over the 330 or so comments stimulated by two blog posts written after the Circling the Square conference here at the University of Nottingham, one by Philip Moriarty one by And then there’s physics. So it’s perhaps time to stand back and assess what happened.
When one reads the following description of the ‘science wars’ on Wikipedia alongside the comments, one is struck by certain similarities between what took place in the 1990s and what happened last week.
“The science wars were a series of intellectual exchanges, between scientific realists and postmodernist critics, about the nature of scientific theory and intellectual inquiry. They took place principally in the United States in the 1990s in the academic and mainstream press. The scientific realists accused the postmodernists of having effectively rejected scientific objectivity, the scientific method, and scientific knowledge. Scientific realists (such as Norman Levitt, Paul R. Gross, Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal) argued that scientific knowledge is real, and that postmodernists thought that it is not real. Postmodernists interpreted Thomas Kuhn‘s ideas about scientific paradigms to mean that scientific theories are social constructs, and philosophers like Paul Feyerabend argued that other, non-realist forms of knowledge production were better suited to serve personal and spiritual needs.” (Wikipedia) And here are some insider accounts worth reading.
Other similarities between then and now also stared back at me when I read an article by Steve Fuller written during that time and in which he describes something that happened twenty years ago at one of the first attempts at bringing together scientists and STSers [scholars affiliated with the field of Science Technology Studies] – just as we tried to do at the Circling the Square Conference: “The Durham conference on ‘Science’s Social Standing’ took place on 2-4 December 1994, advertised as the first encounter between scientists and STSers with the explicit purpose of coming to terms with each other. Not surprisingly, the first day resembled the first moments of family therapy: pent-up frustrations giving way to periodic outbursts. However, a convivial dinner that night markedly improved the discourse situation the following day.” This is what happened at our conference too. Some quite heated debate erupted however a bit later in the blogosphere – but always courteously – between natural scientists and ‘STSers’ … Was this a bit of a re-enactment of the science wars? I would love to know what others think about this, as I myself was hiding away in the 19th century during the 1990s and did not really witness the Science Wars.
Since the 1990s there have, however, been some peace offerings especially by early founders of STS broadly speaking, by Bruno Latour and Harry Collins in particular, who have argued that, perhaps, some of their youthful work shouldn’t have thrown science out with the bathwater. Collins’ latest book Are we all experts now? was reviewed quite positively by one of the Circling the Square participants, the physicist Athene Donald.
Harry Collins also wrote in an overview of the Science Wars that attacks on science were not intended by “those who practice SSK (Sociology of scientific knowledge); indeed practitioners of SSK are very proud of their craft, some describing themselves as using the scientific method. The social context of science is not thought of as polluting since all human activity is social; for those who work in SSK, scientific truth remains the paradigm of truth in respect of the natural world.”
This view was not always reflected in comments on the post-circling blog posts… It should be stressed however, that everybody agreed that science is a social process, almost trivially so. What was more up for debate was the status of the outcomes, results, findings of this process which some saw as social constructs, it seems, and some not. Oh, and I believe that we can only begin to talk about science and politics once we have come to some agreement about these fundamental issues.
When I read the comments I rather nostalgically wished I was back in the 19th century (the period I studied in my PhD on the history of French linguistics and in my post-doc work on the history of linguistics more generally), when there were, of course, skirmishes between the emerging disciplines of anatomy, geology, biology, psychology, linguistics and sociology, but, on the whole, there was also a lot of mutual respect. Those were the days when linguists read Lyell and Darwin and when Darwin and Lyell read work by early linguists and when linguists and sociologists read each other*. In the words of Douglas Adams (who made various appearances on the blog posts and comments) – those were the days when “spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.” I bet historians of science will have other views about this and will find the beginnings of the science wars exactly in the 19th century, rather then finding inspiration for science peace in those days when the natural and social sciences emerged together.
* The early 20th-century linguist Antoine Meillet for example wrote for the journal Année Sociologique, and the Durkheim school of sociology in general “was keenly interested in the study of language, both because of its central importance as a social phenomenon and because ‘positive’ research in the social sciences had achieved its greatest successes in linguistics” (S.C. Humphrey’s 1971).
Science wars revisited
If you want to know more about the science wars, science studies etc. please come to a talk given by Steve Fuller on 12 June at our Institute for Science and Society. Watch out for announcements!
Added 8 June 2014: Very interesting interview with Harry Collins brought to my attention by Chris here. From 15.20 onwards; towards 21.00 you’ll see that my phrase ‘throwing science out with the bathwater’ above might have been a slight overinterpretation 😉 “What I’m trying to do in the book is to find…a way of revaluing science,” he says, “of putting science back into the center of our society—but without rejecting all the great work that was done from the ’70s onward, and without going back to the mythical 1950’s picture of science.”
Image: Re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo (Wikimedia Commons)
Yes indeed Brigitte! Of course scientists are people and exist within social relationships and structures and therefore the practice of science is a social endeavour just like everything else that people (and their pets!) engage in.
However one might question whether the status of outcomes as being or not being “social constructs” … is really up for debate. It may be that the contrary view (scientific outcomes and knowledge lacks independent objectivity and is a social construct) is really only held by a very small number of individuals and is a viewpoint that’s too silly to be taken seriously at least when considered in terms of real world implications http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekQ_Ja02gTY&feature=kp. Likewise, it’s obvious that one can generate the appearance of a “debate” where in reality there isn’t really much of a conflict of views amongst the broad community of individuals – something that’s sadly rather common in our contemporary corporate world.
However I’m very happy to address this potential dichotomy (scientific outcomes as social constructs or not) as a debate. It’s a hugely interesting question the extent to which our knowledge is a non-objective social construct and what this actually means in any specific case in the real world. Unfortunately, judging by the two thread that you highlight, holders of the contrary view (little socially-independent objectivity) seem unwilling to present much of a case. I think this is very disappointing, especially in the context of efforts to “make science public”.
Incidentally, I think it’s reasonable to suggest (as you do in your article in reference to Kuhn) that “scientific theories are” (to some extent) “social constructs”. That’s an idea that’s worthy of discussion, but it doesn’t then follow that the outcomes of scientific investigation based perhaps on these theories are in any significant way necessarily non-objective or socially-constructed.
Likewise one should always remember that Kuhn’s book was simply a book in which he expressed his ideas and doesn’t have any specific validity with respect to our understanding of science or the scientific method. Kuhn’s ideas certainly did/do have large elements of non-objective social influence. But then Kuhn’s book wasn’t science and one can choose to take it or leave it according to one’s preference – personally speaking I prefer Fayerabend 🙂
May I second Chris. The thing that makes a scientific debate impossible is that you had to write “it seems”.
With all the critiques some people have about Karl Popper, it remains a central idea that you have to state your idea so clearly that it can be refuted. Only then it becomes science. It may be difficult in practice to determine whether an idea is falsified, but you should at least formulate it in a way that that is theoretically possible. The suggestive vague position taken by the it-seems fraction is at the moment just politics.
The least they could do would be to state that in the beginning of a science (a scientific idea) there is evidence for social influences and that they do not know whether this persists when a science matures. That would not help a scientific debate on this issue, but would at least be honest, rather than suggestive.
Ah, I inserted the ‘it seems’ in order to indicate that this was MY interpretation of what some people argued in the comments, leaving open a space for them to say, ‘but Brigitte you read these comments all wrong, that’s not what we were saying’! This was not intended as a scientific proposition.
🙂 Fine, then it is my impression of the comments: There is a lack of clarity of expression, that makes a scientific debate impossible.
Thanks for posting this summary, Brigitte. I of course agree with chris’ and Victor’s points above.
I have only recently read through the lengthy comments thread for the “And Then There’s Physics” post you mention. I’ve left a quite lengthy response to the comments of Pekka Pirila over there, as he continually claimed that physicists/physical scientists were attacking straw-men without once offering any concrete evidence for this. I hope that he responds as, for one thing, he’s a physicist and this might help to alleviate communication breakdown.
chris puts it very cogently:
Despite all the claims of straw-men and the assertion that physicists simply don’t understand just what sociologists mean, I have yet to read any type of convincing counter-argument to chris’ point.
Could you expand on this point, Brigitte? For one thing, depending on who you mean by “we,” talk about science and politics seems if anything over-extensive. Do you actually expect some illuminating agreement that in some way will improve the discourse, and if so what might it look like and how would it actually improve things? Also, what progress has there been since the conference of twenty years ago that gives you hope for such an agreement?
I threw that remark in just before I posted the bog post. It could have been phrased better. The conference was in part about science and policy/politics/advice. The comments I looked at in the end were more about very fundamental aspects of science. So I thought – is it actually fruitful to start a debate about science and politics between natural and social scientists (broadly or narrowly speaking…) if there is no mutual understanding about these fundamental issues??? Agreement was perhaps the wrong word here. What I mean is that sitting round the table talking about science and politics is useless and pointless if those sitting round the table don’t share some common ground, some common understanding, about the nature of science (and also of politics – but as the debate at the conference was about science advising politics I think that might be a different concern)…. Do you see what I mean?
I see that this “debate” has some old roots (h/t Hank Roberts), although the claimed “transcendental” problems aren’t looking so transcendant these days. It’s probably best to not be too specific when claiming limits for scientific knowledge.
Thanks for this hint. I’ll dig a bit deeper into this and see what I can find.
Just to undermine my own argument from nostalgia with some work I have done myself (it seems a life-time ago),there were, of course disputes going on between natural and social scientists in the 19th and early 20th century. One long-running dispute was about ‘method’, what the Germans called the ‘Methodenstreit‘… (the wiki article only refers to economics but it also played out in psychology between, for example, Wundt/Ebbinghaus and Dilthey, for example). It started, in a way with Vico in the 17th century and came to a head in the early 20th century. Its legacy can still be felt in the social sciences in discussions about the relative importance of Verstehen (understanding) and Erklären (explaining), with the former seen as the domain of some social science research, the latter that of most natural science research….
A few points from someone who was around last time around. I was a PhD student in London and in the summer of ’97 went to a number of events at which Alan Sokal spoke (he was promoting ‘intellectual imposters’), so reading the blogs coming out of the Circling the Square event has had a lovely, warm, nostalgic feel to it.
I do think your description of those earlier debates is a bit skewed: I don’t think the majority of SSK-ers would describe themselves as postmodernists (for example), and this is very much the result of Sokal And Bricmant’s characterization of the debate – their book, for example, isn’t really about STS, has only one STS-related author as a target (Bruno L), and in a question/answers session after one of his talks, I even got Alan Sokal to admit that his position isn’t really relevant to STS.
I am also skeptical about the idea that Harry Collins has somehow rowed back on his earlier work, and feels it was too critical of science. I know Harry pretty well and see him all the time. If the source for this is the DRB review, then I can say categorically that however nice it is about Harry’s wave 3 work, it’s just plain wrong in its characterization of his wave 2 research and the implication it threw the science out with the bathwater.
I think debating ‘constructionism’ is unhelpful, not least of all because everyone has a differing idea of what it actually means. It’s also a bit of a ‘boo’ word for scientists and getting beyond it takes a lot of work. A better approach focuses on other ideas (e.g. ‘experimenter’s regress’) that try and document the actual processes through which groups of scientists turn speculation into fact…
Thanks for this comment from somebody who was there at the time! Yes, I tried to be a bit provocative with my comment about throwing the science out with the bathwater, so I am glad that got a reaction. This might be overstating things a bit. However, only slightly. I still remember the reception Harry got at last year’s Science in Public conference here in Nottingham were he tried to express something a little bit approaching my perhaps overstated summary of things. I agree with Athene when she writes in her review of the book: “Scientists do have, by virtue of their experience and training, a special place when it comes to knowledge, and Collins is now prepared to admit it. This could be seen as a recantation of his earlier, and much more negative, position.” This might not be his position but it comes across as his position when reading the book.
I think discussing constructivism may be helpful, as that is where the fault-lines in debates between STS people and natural scientists always lead back to. I just posted this reference on ATTP’s blog, which I think could be used in order not only to plaster over the fault-lines but as a good basis for stimulating debate across them (but there may of course be even better texts):
This passage for example could serve to reconcile rather than separate people, I naively believe, end of p. 6
“However, anyone who really thought that, say, Maxwell’s Equations could be justified by appeal to Maxwell’s, or anyone else’s, social or political beliefs would betray a complete incomprehension of the notion of justification. An item of information justifies a given belief by raising the likelihood that it is true. Admittedly, this is not an unproblematic notion. But unless we are to throw it out altogether, it is perfectly clear that one cannot hope to justify the fundamental laws of electromagnetism by appeal to one’s political convictions or career interests or anything else of similar ilk”.
Reflecting on the debate and the way we all try to understand each other, I just remembered a blog post of mine in which I started to muse about this issue which might be of use or not
There is a danger here of giving the impression that the Circling the Square meeting was a war between the social and physical scientists. It wasn’t like that at all!
You are right the conference was not like that at all. We had a great time together and many conversationg were started. This post was about the online discussions that emerged after the conference. When I read through the comments and through the wikipedia article I quoted I saw certain similarities emerging – and that’s why I asked the question (and also observe all the question marks) – is there a similarity between aspects of the science wars and what went on in the online discussions – or is it actually not a case of ‘war’ but rather one of talking past each other. And as I stressed, the conversations in the comments were always polite not war-like. But still my impression remains that what we are seeing is at least some small scale reenactment, as far as I can make out.
Just listened to this interesting podcast interview by Harry Collins which is rather relevant to the subject of these recent threads.
the embedded post cast from about 15:50 onwards contains some interesting reflections from someone (Dr Collins) who seems to have made a rather dedicated and honest effort to understand how scientists actually work…
Very interesting – that’s why I mentioned Collins under the heading ‘science peace’ here: https://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2014/05/31/science-wars-and-science-peace-some-personal-reflections/
Oh yes…so you did Brigitte! I did read your May 31st article a week ago but long hours of marking exam scripts in the intervening period seems to have addled my brain 🙂
I’ll now include a link to the interview you discovered!!
Listening to Harry Collins brought to mind another brilliant example of an effort to delve into the personal, social, emotional aspects involved in progression of of a scientific field, namely Horace Freeland Judson’s descriptions of the revolutions in molecular biology during the 1940’s through to around the late 1970’s: “The Eighth Day of Creation”.
It’s the best book on the development of understanding within a scientific field according to the accounts of its participants that I’ve read, and has the great pleasure of the readability of an adventure story.
Also just read Mark Patshne’s obituary of Judson in PLoS Biology which accords with my remembrance of being entirely captivated by the book quite a long time ago:
To me it’s a great guide on how to approach the subject of scientific discovery “at the coalface”.
I needed a recommendation for my holiday reading. And there it is! Thanks!