Social Aspects of Science

30.04.2019 |

Episode #8 of the course How science works by Benjamin Keep


Welcome back.

Our initial model of science emphasized that science is about what’s “out there.” It’s fundamentally about facts, evidence, and logic. Some of our earlier lessons have discussed how complicated scientific logic can get: Which hypotheses should we be rejecting, and under what circumstances should we reject them? But we have—at least up until now—largely ignored the social aspects of science. The model of science we discussed in the first lesson covered two ideas that we would like to be true: 1) Scientific knowledge reflects (or at least tracks) the shared reality we all inhabit, and 2) evidence determines what theories (or models) scientists accept.

Science, however, occurs in a social world. Do the social structures involved in science production—the power dynamics in funding scientific research; the hierarchies of journals, universities, and researchers; how scientists are trained—make these ideas more problematic?


Funding and Peer Review

Social dynamics (and concerns) influence the direction of science. Consider how science is funded. In the US, funding comes from government organizations, private foundations, universities, and industry research groups. One research group asks for money to study how diets high in sugar influence obesity; another research group asks for money to study how diets high in fat influence obesity. Research on fat gets funded, research on sugar does not. As a result, research on the link between sugar and obesity gets neglected. Maybe lingering doubts about the links between fat and diet get shut down (the chemical “fat” is, after all, the same word we use for “overweight”).

A single decision, of course, doesn’t shut down a research path completely. After all, scientists apply for grants constantly. But say that you had three grant applications on the same idea rejected. You might be thinking, 1) “I should research something that more people are interested in” or, 2) “Maybe I’ll do something else, teaching or consulting or some other thing.” In some cases, this may even be the “right” result: Maybe the research really would have been a waste of time. But making judgments about the quality of research means prioritizing certain ideas and methods over others, determining future research directions.

Research also suggests that who does the science matters. When the pharmaceutical industry sponsors research on drug efficacy, that research disproportionately supports industry positions. We can imagine that research on women’s sexuality by an all-male scientific community will be different than research on women’s sexuality by an all-female scientific community. Scientific research requires making all sorts of decisions that influence what you find out.


It’s All Social

But the influence of social dynamics goes beyond determining research directions. One extreme position is that evidence has no role to play at all in the resolution of scientific controversies. Or rather, the role that evidence plays is purely rhetorical, not as an arbiter of the merits of competing scientific positions, but as a cudgel with which to beat your opponent. Under this view, scientific theories “win” or “lose” through social dynamics, not through evidence.

There is evidence for this view, many cases where theories “won” (and “lost”) before evidence came along to make a determination. Paracelsus was a Renaissance physician who advanced a medical theory using similes. Got a problem with your liver? Take a small amount of medicine that looks or smells “liver-like” to get over it. This idea later fell out of favor in the early modern period, but not because of the evidence. Neither the Paracelsian approach nor techniques from the early modern era “worked,” or at least there’s no strong evidence that they did. Only in the mid-1800s did doctors finally start considering the role of evidence.

When we look back on moments in the history of science, our view is colored because we already know what happened. Galileo argued strenuously for the wisdom of a sun-centered worldview (and the stupidity of an earth-centered worldview). He was right, of course, but his move was more rhetorical than “evidence-based.” There were serious, unresolved questions with a sun-centered worldview. If the earth was moving around the sun, why did the stars not “shift” from our perspective in the same way that objects seem to move when we close one eye and then the other? The answer is that the stars are really (really, really, really) far away, but astronomers at the time did not realize this. Galileo effectively accused his opponents of being irrational, along with ignoring another sensible model of the heavens put forward by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. But there were still very good reasons for believing that the earth was stationary and the sun moved instead.

Certainly recruiting powerful allies can help scientists win arguments. But evidence itself is also a powerful means of persuasion. When you look at the development of scientific thinking during what we call the Scientific Revolution (mid-1500s to early 1700s), “theory,” “fact,” “evidence,” and “hypothesis” all came to have more precise meanings. Demonstrations of natural phenomena could be performed, often live, often publicly. Of course, this did nothing to guarantee that scientists interpreted the experimental results correctly. But a satisfactory explanation had to be provided—satisfactory to the community of natural philosophers of the time, at least.

Next time: the texture of progress.


Questions to ponder

The citizen science movement seeks to involve more members of the public in scientific research in an effort to “democratize science.” Is that a desirable thing to do? If so, how would fully democratized science look different from science as currently practiced?


Recommended book

The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking


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