The society of science

By Razib Khan | February 21, 2006 8:45 pm

A few days ago Janet posted on the importance of critical faculties in science in response to a series of posts by PZ and John on how we get the public to understand science (mostly evolution in this case). Critical thinking is obviously important in science, as is experimentation, model building, reproducibility, etc. etc. If you are a fan of Karl Popper or Thoms Kuhn (or other less luminous figures like Imre Lakatos) you have an idea about how science should or does work.
All these thinkers capture essential components of Science, but I think one important point which is often forgotten is that science is more than a way of thinking, it is a social world. As I commented in Janet’s post many (most) humans are capable of critical thinking and skepticism. I have met many Christian fundamentalists who spit out CSICOP-like talking points when it comes to magic and astrology, and I have met New Age sorts who are well aware of how ludicrous Christian fundamentalism is, yet they can not see their own irrationalities. This reminds me of an anecdote that Ibn Warraq recounted in Why I am Not a Muslim. Warraq tells how he had a Muslim acquaintance who proudly displayed his copy of Bertrand Russell’s famous Why I am Not a Christian. Warraq’s Muslim acquaintance seemed oblivious to the fact that most of the arguments Russell makes could be easily translated to a refutation of the Muslim religion!

These blinkers are one reason why I think that force of argument will not suffice in convincing the public about the validity of evolutionary theory. In my 10 questions for Ken Miller I specifically asked him if he believed that the public’s rejection of evolutionary theory was a function of lack of knowledge about the topic, and he believed it was. I disagree with Miller. Mormon students at BYU have become much more skeptical of evolutionary theory over the last 70 years. Is this a function of less education in science? I doubt it, rather, it is a function of social dynamics, Mormons identify strongly with the political and social priorities of conservative Protestants, who do reject evolutionary theory. I also hold that most people who accept the theory of evolution do so not because they understand the science on a deep level, but that they have no reason not to accept the consensus findings of modern science. In contrast, a powerful stream of evangelical Protestant Christianity in the United States has made a strong equation between godless atheism and evolution which results in many Americans rejecting the scientific consensus because of its negative connotations. This is why totally irrelevant (to my mind) reference to St. Augustine’s openness to evolutionary ideas is very persuasive to many Christians, it decouples the association between evolution and atheism which serves as a cognitive block to acceptance of the scientific consensus.
I have argued before that the scientific consensus is a socially mediated process, that its accuracy and precision in describing the world around us is in spite of our biases and the large dollop of noise which the signal of truth swims in. My post about the history of population genetics in the early 20th century highlighted how the personal shortcomings of scientists arrested the “proper” development and forwarding of scientific knowledge, but no doubt this is happening today as well (in classic Kuhnian fashion). That doesn’t mean that we don’t have selection operating upon the random walk exploration of idea space generated by social biases (and sometimes non-random walk). But science’s social dynamic means that appeals to method and native human reason are in this day and age limited. Much of Newtonian physics can be trivially illustrated, but Quantum Mechanics and Relativity make predictions which require more ingenious and less obviously accessible tests. The tests for evolutionary theory are similarly not simply the work of an afternoon with balls of various masses. Ultimately the veracity of many scientific theories must be vouchsafed by either our trust in the scientists (eg; post-classical physics) or by its fruits (the uses of evolutionary theory in medicine being a new way to show its practical utility, ergo, the positive necessity of its acceptance toward increasing quality of life). Today’s scientists are priests who stand on the shoulders of their colleagues.

  • Corkscrew

    I’d disagree – it’s not a priesthood because anyone with sufficient motivation can walk in the library door, spend a couple of years learning the necessary background material, and then start tearing apart anything that still doesn’t seem right to them. If they can demonstrate that they have a point, their contribution may even be included in the vast body of scientific knowledge.
    I can’t think of many priesthoods that have that open a door. And if science didn’t work this way I’d have serious doubts about the long-term stability of the scientific community.

  • Socialist Swine

    You make a reference to St. Augustine’s openess to evolutionary ideas. I was wondering if you could elaborate.

  • razib

    corkscrew, you got a college degree? the american roman catholic church wants you! the reality is most people do not have years to spend learning things. in many cultures the clerical vocation is a path of meritocratic upward mobility for many. when i say ‘priesthood’ i mean a self-selected elite that rules over the congregation. this does not mean that members of the congregation can not join the priesthood, but that would take time and effort, which most people don’t have at their disposal.
    re: st. augustine, follow the link! though seriously, like many church fathers augustine was classically educated and he did not believe that the bible was the literal word of god. in fact, during the counter-reformation the fact that the bible could not be taken literally, for a variety of reasons, was one of the main arguments against sola scriptura, which the protestants brandished as new sword against the catholic church. in practice a literalist reading of the bible that contradicts modern science is only found in particular sections of protestantism, sections which are strong in the USofA. but, these protestants still respect the church fathers and believe their traditions hark back to the early primitive christianity of this period. many of them esteem augustine in particular because particular protestant ideas derive from him (martin luther was an augustinian monk). so, from the catholic encyclopedia:
    “That God should have made use of natural, evolutionary, original causes in the production of man’s body, is per se not improbable, and was propounded by St. Augustine (see AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO, SAINT, under V. Augustinism in History).”

  • Matt McIntosh

    I don’t think Popper or Kuhn would disagree with science being primarily a social process; if anything they both were both fighting on that side against the positivist types. The social norms of scientific culture are directly bound up with the norms of liberal culture, and are both powerful and fragile for much the same reasons. Kuhn is more of a conservative though (“keep banging away on that paradigm!”), with Popper as more the anti-authoritarian liberal.

  • Corkscrew

    when i say ‘priesthood’ i mean a self-selected elite that rules over the congregation.
    But my point is that the scientific elite is not completely self-selecting. Anyone, regardless of their religious convictions or their personality, can join in. I think that open door, however rarely used it is, is vital to science’s credibility and sustainability.
    Among other things it means that, if an area of science does “go bad” and get dogmatic, outsiders can come in and start where the denizens of that area left off. And, since science is results-based, they would eventually get more credibility than those denizens. In that respect it’s like open-source software or something.
    The fact that this can happen means that, for example, we can laugh in the face of those ID proponents who claim that they’re being blocked by “dogmatic Darwinists”. If there was actually anything to ID, they would be able to completely bypass the “Darwinists” and, once they’d demonstrated the awesome power of their idea, to displace them.

  • John Emerson

    I’d recommend Steve Shapin’s “A Social History of Truth” on science as a social world which came into being in early modern times. (This is NOT a post-modernist or relativist book). Two institutions he discusses are peer review and lab organization. A peculiarity of early British science was that everything was done under the name of the scientist, who had to be a gentleman in order to have his work accepted, but that a lot of the most demanding work was done by anonymous commoner employees who were, by our standards but not by early modern standards, real scientists.
    Descartes’ “Discourse on Method” is usually read as a sketch of his metaphysical system, but it’s actually his reflections on how scientific research should be conducted. Descartes is best known as a mathematician, but he also did work in astronomy, optics, and other areas of experimental and observational science. (Something I wrote about the D on M is at my URL. The D on M itself is about 60 pp of easy reading and is well worth the time.)

  • John Emerson

    On the religious end, at the beginning science wasn’t especially practical in terms of technological payoffs –scientists borrowed techniques and skills from craftsmen and artisans, but scientists’ goals were not economic. Science was mostly an expensive leisure-time activity for well-off gentlemen, often or usually motivated by religious doctrine. As time went on it became more secular and more meritocratic, but even many non-Christians patched together their own Deist religious doctrines.

  • Matthew

    I wanted to be a scientist even since childhood. I consumed books on biology, geology, astrophysics. If it had science in it, I was interested.
    I graduated first in my university class, summa cum laude, fourth to fifth sigma SATs / IQ scores. Research assistantships, teaching fellowships, National Merit Scholar, the whole nine yards. My teachers all thought I was brilliant and wanted to know where I was going to graduate school. But in the end, I passed it all up.
    So why didn’t I fulfill my dream of becoming a scientist? Because as the “favored son” of the professors in my university, I got to see too much about how the sausage gets made. My favorite mentor, a brilliant crystalographer and geoscience chemist, was passed over for tenure because he didn’t attend enough faculty dinners and make enough friends on the review committee. I realized that my success in academia would be all about impressing the politically connected people in my department, and not about studying the nature of the world. And so I left it behind.
    Over the years since then it has become clear to me just how much the sociology of science has come to control the reigning models and assumptions of science. That’s why I started my blog. And when my children are older and I have more time, I’m going to start doing experiments in the areas which have been so sadly neglected by the sociological prejudices of the institution.

  • John Emerson

    People should visit Matthew’s site.
    My point, and I think Razib’s, is that science is not just a set of ideas or procedures, but a kind of social organization. Neither of us was setting up a sociology-vs.-science opposition.

  • razib

    Anyone, regardless of their religious convictions or their personality, can join in. I think that open door, however rarely used it is, is vital to science’s credibility and sustainability.
    well, i would distinguish between two issues:
    a) there is equality of opportunity in terms of the door being open
    b) but not everyone has equal aptitude to fit through that door
    in other words, not everyone has the mental ability to grok general relativity (including many scientists!). additionally, there is a lot of specialization in science so that people have a difficult time understanding what is going on in other fields. you have to trust the system to some extent operationally. if a biologist wants to ascertain the validity of various disputes in solid state physics he could go back to grad school and attempt to get involved in solid state physics research, but the norm would probably be to just swing by the physics dept. and consult a colleague. similarly, the public acceptance of a scientific theory is going to be through the credibility of a theory in terms of its practical yield (“you shall known them by their fruits”) and the authority of persons.

  • Michael Blowhard

    Nice one. God knows that science has its own social structures. It also plays a role in society at large, which is something I’d love to read your thoughts on. Have you run across Oakeshott’s idea of “modes of experience”? One of them is (if I remember right) practical, one is scientific, one is poetic, one is … Etc, etc. In his view the scientific mode of understanding and experience is part of a larger, ongoing, open-ended conversation. Suits me as a general model, but maybe not you.
    I do think, as I’ve tiresomely said before, that you underplay the necessity for P-R. P-R opens up the whole question of, “How do you as a field choose to present yourself? What do you want from interacting with the rest of the world? How might we go about pursuing these goals?” It’s seldom harmful to give these questions a few thoughts.
    My own hunch: Very few are ever going to really grok a lot of science. But there are other ways of winning the public over. In other words, you don’t need their comprehension, you need their support. You need their trust and their love. How are you going to win it?

  • razib

    not to be obscure, but michael you want to promote the charismatic strategy for spreading roman catholicism, i favor the opus dei one.

  • asdf

    I realized that my success in academia would be all about impressing the politically connected people in my department, and not about studying the nature of the world. And so I left it behind.
    Eh, come on. You don’t make the math department at Harvard if you don’t have the skills to pay the bills (or unless you fill a checkbox, and even then…).
    Political ability helps but it’s not going to keep a scrub on the faculty if he doesn’t belong (in the sciences at least). The humanities are of course a cesspool and an entirely different story.
    A big part of science is persuading other people of the validity of your ideas; part of that is PR. That’s what journals are about. If an idea drops in the forest and you don’t tell anyone about it out of “humility”, it’s as if it never existed. If you’re abrasive to other people while telling them, they will not use your ideas. And so on and so forth.

  • asdf

    In other words, you don’t need their comprehension, you need their support. You need their trust and their love. How are you going to win it?
    By controlling the media of course. The public thinks what the TV tells it to think.

  • Socialist Swine

    I’m actually fairly familiar with Augustine, I took a graduate seminar in his work a few years ago to fill a history requirement. I was quite aware that he wasn’t a biblical literalist, the Catholic church never really was as literally minded as some of the Protestant groups.
    I just thought he preceded the notion of evolution. I know he often suggested that God would work through natural means. If I remember correctly, he had a sense that miracles were cheap parlour tricks that were beneath God. Though, I didn’t think he made any direct reference to change over time, speciation, or anything like that. I guess perhaps I should give Augustine some further reading.
    P.S. I know that prior to Darwin people had some notion of evolution though they didn’t have a notion of the mechanism involved. Do you have any idea, who might have first suggested that species change over time?

  • razib

    Do you have any idea, who might have first suggested that species change over time?
    i thought this idea goes back to the greeks as counterpoints to the conception of idealized forms. but i’ll have to look it up.

  • coturnix

    Any suggestions what to read by Lakatos, or the subsequent developments by his followers?

  • Michael Blowhard

    “not to be obscure, but michael you want to promote the charismatic strategy for spreading roman catholicism, i favor the opus dei one.”
    Actually I’m agnostic on the question of how to spread the faith, though as always I suspect that “not being hostile to conventional life and ways of knowing but instead presenting yourself as a complement to it” is probably a good first step. I’m just curious about how you think science ought to relate to the rest of society. So: the Opus Dei way, eh?

  • Dan Dare

    Look it takes real big money to do experimental science. Ain’t no two ways about it. Telescopes, particle accelerators, laboratories, etc. Without money and big-time political or business support, science isn’t going anywhere.
    OTOH if your game is theory, it’s possible to change the world while working in a day job as a clerk for the Swiss Patent Office. After that, the institutions are probably going to want to get you on their team. 😉


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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