Science and Society
Episode #10 of the course How science works by Benjamin Keep
This lesson marks the end of the course. I have tried to present a series of perspectives on science that all shed light on the way science works. But ten lessons is all we got. And that means I’ve had to ignore mountains of fascinating ideas, observations, and controversies. But why think about this stuff at all?
Our life as science consumers is probably more complex than our lives as scientists. As scientists, we have a community of like-minded people who all tend to agree about certain fundamental issues. As science consumers, we face a bewildering assortment of conflicting advice, all claiming to be “scientific.” Visit the pharmacy to see 50 bottles of lotion claiming to be both “all natural” and “scientifically proven” to make your skin more beautiful. Heck, even the museum dedicated to creationism is the “Creation Science Museum.” Scientific controversies, when they reach the public, can seem hopelessly confusing even to those with some background in the area, not to mention “controversies” between scientific communities and industries who don’t like what the current scientific consensus is.
If you think in terms of “proof” or even just in terms of “falsification,” then scientific controversies are puzzling events. If you think of science as fundamentally about argument, then scientific controversies are actually signs of a healthy scientific community.
Consider the flat-earth movement (a community of people who believe that the earth is flat, not round, and that world governments are covering up this fact) or the anti-vax movement (a community of people who believe that vaccinations come with high risks and few, if any, benefits). A logic-based account of how science works suggests that members of the communities are simply bad logicians—the flaw lies with their reasoning. A social account of how science works suggests that these communities are unattached to the mainstream scientific communities—the flaw lies with the arguments that science and anti-science communities are (not) having.
The Case for Pluralism
My own view considers science to be a set of strategies for finding things out about the world. Since what works well in one place and time may work less well in another place and time, there’s not a satisfactory answer to the question “how science works” that describes all science for all time everywhere.
Change can come from many directions. Science in the 18th century was dominated by lone gentlemen discoverers. It was possible to make headway largely by oneself, with occasional guidance from friends. Over the course of the next centuries, the major disciplines became divided, making it challenging to be, say, both a chemist and a physicist. Today’s science, by contrast, is highly collaborative. Interdisciplinary research has become the norm, and biophysics and biochemistry are burgeoning specialties in their own right.
Today’s scientists, generally speaking, have massive sets of data, especially when compared with scientists in previous centuries. The availability of this data changes the kinds of questions that can be answered and the kinds of methods that can be employed.
Mature sciences have developed theories, sophisticated instruments, established ways of thinking, and can ask different, more nuanced questions than sciences that are just being developed.
Science as Argument
Nature does not speak “plainly.” Groups of scientists working together have to figure out what things mean. And that means they have to interact with the world through whatever way they can—observations, demonstrations, experiments, tests of various sorts. They can use (and build) whatever means they have at their disposal to reason about the world: modeling software, mathematics, observing instruments, thought experiments, etc. And they have to argue about it.
Argument remains a constant in scientific communities. It’s argument that refines concepts and techniques. It requires “digging in” to the particulars—the claims being made, the justifications for those claims, the limitations for those claims. It’s not a linear process. But it might just be the case that the better we can argue, the better scientists we become.
Thanks so much for joining me these ten days. I hope this course has helped you reflect on how we create knowledge; writing it has certainly helped me do so. If this course has cracked open your ideas about science even a small bit, I consider it a success. There are always more questions to explore, and if you want to explore them, check out the recommended reading.
Questions to ponder
What aspects of science have we left out, and where should they fit into our growing understanding of how science works?
The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton
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