Chapter 6. The Privileged Status of ‘Science’

Table of Contents

Introduction: Science and Rationality
The Contemporary Philosophy of Science
The Particular Difficulties of the Social ‘Sciences’

Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth.

— Aristotle[1]

If we see knowing not as having an essence, to be described by scientists or philosophers, but rather as a right, by current standards, to believe, then we are well on the way to seeing conversation as the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood.

— Michael Oakeshott[2]

Introduction: Science and Rationality

In the previous chapter, I critiqued the Enlightenment and the more extreme claims made for human reason in that tradition. In particular, I rejected the proposition that it was possible for human beings to possess certain objective knowledge. This chapter explores the implications of those insights, looking in particular at the status of those activities going together under the rubric of ‘science’ and of the knowledge they produce. The chapter is not intended to decry the enormous achievements of scientists in the past several centuries in throwing light on the natural world and the contribution that those achievements has made to our standard of living. Clearly, the institutionalised search for new scientific knowledge is a very important part of contemporary civilisation. What is intended in this chapter is a critique of the story told about the nature of that search in the past century and a half.

Rorty reminds us that in our culture the ideas of ‘science’, ‘rationality’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘truth’ are bound up with each other, where ‘truth’ is conceived of as correspondence with reality.[3] It has been usual to claim that ‘science’ is the very paradigm of rationality. The meaning of this claim is, however, uncertain as it is now quite clear that there is no logic of science as such—no certain single mechanical rubric for choosing and evaluating scientific hypotheses. Indeed, American philosopher of science Harold Kincaid tells us that the attempts to identify the defining features of science have a long and disappointing history.[4] The claim is a throw-back to the discredited positivism discussed in the previous chapter and to the hypothetical-deductive view of science associated with it. Such claims are part of the rhetoric surrounding the Enlightenment’s search for absolute knowledge—a knowledge that enjoys a privileged status over commonsense perceptions and understandings.[5] The critique outlined in Chapter 5, however, undermines the epistemological claims on which Western science has been based since the Enlightenment. Furthermore, as physical chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi tells us, the rules of rational inquiry can be of little practical importance to the scientist: ‘[D]iscovery, far from representing a definite mental operation, is an extremely delicate and personal art which can be but little assisted by any formulated precepts.’[6]

In the same spirit, philosopher of science Ernest Nagel (1901–85) described science as an institutionalised art of inquiry and, as we will see shortly, that is a far better description.[7] It should also be clear from Chapter 5 that the particular Enlightenment view of rationality—which sees science as the paradigm—misrepresents the nature of human intelligence itself. Therefore, British philosopher of social sciences Peter Winch (1926–97) writes:

Now it is of course true that the role played by such [scientific] work in the culture of [W]estern industrialised societies is an enormously important one and…[it had] a very far-reaching influence on what we are and what we are not prepared to call instances of ‘rational thought’. But it was an essential part of my argument…to urge that our own conception of what it is to be rational is certainly not exhausted by the practices of science.[8]

Rorty challenges this identification of ‘rational’ with a special method; rather, he suggests it names a moral virtue: the virtue of being reasonable, encompassing tolerance, respect for the opinions of others, a willingness to listen, reliance on persuasion rather than force and eschewing dogmatism, defensiveness and righteous indignation.

Furthermore, it might be more appropriate to consider scientific investigations as being a response to our limited cognitive abilities—an attempt to create closed systems of belief to enable us to get by in the world—rather than an expression of a God-like capacity for generating understanding through ‘rationality’. As social psychologist Paul Secord tells us, such closed systems rarely occur in the world, and only then in the laboratory.[9]

The above claim also assumes that Newtonian physics is the exemplar of a single archetypal scientific method whose laws are valid universally. Not only has this admiration for Newtonian physics faded, physicists are speculating that the so-called fundamental natural laws of physics are not immutable and transcendent but could be no more than local by-laws—valid only in our particular patch of the cosmos.[10] Davies reminded us only recently that conventional physics had no idea of what the external source of these laws might be.[11] Some theorists are speculating that they emerged as part of the evolution of the universe itself and our observation of it.

The assumption that there was a single scientific method was reflected in the work of Comte, who asserted that there was a hierarchy of knowledge in which ‘science’ was the pinnacle. Consequently, Comte argued that even sociology could be a positive science modelled after physics[12] —an ambition that sociology has long since abandoned, but one to which economics clings. Implicit in this belief is the proposition that the generalisations in physics are somehow more basic than those of the other sciences and certainly more basic than in the social disciplines, and that somehow everything can be reduced ultimately to physical generalisations. Reductionism in the spirit of Greek atomism lies at the heart of this assertion. This reductionism, this reification, this scientism, is, however, inconsistent with the wide range of real scientific practices and theories that are not reducible to physics. This inconsistency suggests that changes in belief and terminology are required. What is more, American philosopher Norman Swartz—drawing on Wittgenstein’s model of family resemblances in which there is no core property shared by all members of a family—tells us that it is exceedingly difficult to tell precisely what a scientific law is. Like all concepts, there is no single defining set of necessary and sufficient conditions for a statement being a scientific law. While we would all accept that there is considerable order in the natural and social worlds, the generalisations we use to describe that order are social artefacts that are not literally true—being at best approximations, idealised reconstructions or instrumental tools going beyond the evidence available to us.[13]

Similarly, from the Enlightenment, we have inherited a cultural image of the scientist as a hero overcoming ignorance and bringing reality under control. The effect is to privilege particular types of inquiry, particular social practices and their associated stories over other forms of inquiry. It is not so much that one should necessarily object to the use of a general term such as ‘science’ to encompass the wide range of systematic inquiries carried out into the character of the physical and social worlds; rather, it is that ‘science’ now carries too many misleading entailments, implying a privilege and a unity of method that cannot be sustained.

Blaug reports that in the mid-nineteenth century, the usual story told about scientific investigations was that they started with the free and unprejudiced observation of facts. Such investigations were then supposed to progress by inductive inference to the formulation of universal laws and theories about those facts. The induced laws and theories were then to be checked by comparing their empirical consequences with all the observed ‘facts’—including those with which they began.[14] In this context, scientific progress was seen as a linear process with the inclusion of more and more kinds of phenomena under laws of greater and greater generality—a reflection of the Enlightenment’s faith in reductionism and in progress.

This image of science reflects the ideas of Bacon—one of the fathers of empiricism referred to in Chapter 2. This story has, however, been discredited. All perception and language is theory impregnated. Only those sensory impressions that are significant from some particular perspective become ‘perceptions’.[15] Similarly, the positivist claim that only the statements that are verifiable by observation are meaningful is contradicted by positivists’ own claims and by the large numbers of scientific theories that are based on far more than direct conclusions from sensory data—on ideas that are not observable directly.[16] Since Hume pointed to the inability of induction to establish logical certainty, the idea that induction formed the basis of a rational scientific method has been problematic.[17] Importantly, it is now said that these images of science give a distorted picture of the way in which scientific investigations have been conducted. In particular, the belief that it is possible to verify scientific theories has had to be discarded because rival theories can always be developed to fit the data in any particular case and there is no formal method that allows us to choose between such competing theories.[18] It is also clear that the picture of science as a cumulative linear process cannot be sustained. As positivist Donald Fiske (1917–2003) and cultural psychologist Richard Shweder tell us, ‘[T]he criteria for progress in the sciences are task-specific, diverse, ambiguous, and shifting. No criterion has served as a general standard or a universal ideal.’[19] Furthermore, not all science is concerned with a search for general laws. Indeed, political scientist Phillip Converse argues that each science has its own texture; while educational psychologist Lee Cronbach (1916–2001) claims that the social disciplines are progressive because they possess an ever-richer repertoire of questions—not because they have ever more refined answers about fixed questions.[20] Nor does the above image take adequate account of the institutionalisation of scientific investigations in the modern world.

So let us be quite clear: this story, this legitimising mythology—the legacy of the Enlightenment—has been discredited. A fundamental change in our understanding of scientific investigations has resulted from the work of recent philosophers of science[21] —an understanding that is not positivist and that makes far humbler claims. In particular, as we have already seen, the foundationalist claim that philosophy can describe on a priori grounds the standards for scientific knowledge has been discredited.[22] As a result, the late Australian philosopher of qualitative research, Michael Crotty, advises us to hold all our understandings of the natural and social worlds lightly, tentatively and far less dogmatically—‘seeing them as historically and culturally affected interpretations rather than eternal truths’.[23]

It is now clear that scientific inquiry cannot provide us with the certain knowledge sought by the Enlightenment. That has proven to be a utopian dream. There is no certain truth to be found through method or technique. All knowledge is tentative and subject to revision. At best, all we can have is ‘justified’ belief, wherein the criteria for justification are themselves contestable. It is also agreed generally that all scientific knowledge is constructed socially—the work of an interpretive community. Furthermore, Descartes’ method of radical scepticism has very little attraction for real scientists. The majority of scientific knowledge—including knowledge of the appropriate methods—is accepted on authority, as an act of trust in a particular scientific tradition with its corpus of knowledge, norms, ideals, heroes and heroic stories, as passed on by teachers and colleagues either through direct instruction or by example. Any individual scientist does not build her or his field anew, but lays down new deposits on the theoretical sediments already in place.[24] Importantly, critical theory warns us that these inherited constructed meanings can serve particular hegemonic interests and power structures in a world in which there are strong disparities in the distribution of power.[25]

According to Kincaid, there is a common thread to nearly all contemporary philosophy of science: it is not positivist.[26] Also, many of the differences between the above theorists are matters of emphasis.[27] It is questionable whether a strong differentiation is possible or desirable. Bernstein sums up this new perspective in the following terms:

Awareness has been growing that attempts to state what are or ought to be the criteria for evaluating and validating scientific hypotheses and theories that are abstracted from existing social practice are threatened with a false rigidity or pious vacuity and that existing criteria are always open to conflicting interpretations and applications and can be weighed in different ways. The effective standards and norms that are operative in scientific inquiry are subject to change and modification in the course of scientific inquiry. We are now aware that it is not only important to understand the role of tradition in science as mediated through research programs or research traditions but that we must understand how such traditions arise, develop, and become progressive and fertile, as well as the ways in which they can degenerate.[28]