The realisation that humans could think rationally and therefore scientifically was the defining moment in the history of human thought known as the enlightenment, the shift from pre-modern society towards modernity. According to rationalists, it was during the enlightenment that humans crossed the ‘Great Divide’ and moved from ignorance and faith to certainty and truth. With modernity comes the new search for the ultimate truth using methods of investigation centred on objectivity, reason and predictability. With industrialisation came technology, urbanisation and capitalism.
Bilton (1997) suggested that rational forms of thought and organisation may be defining features of modernity but our relationships with them are far from straight forward. This essay will highlight some of the major theorists in contemporary sociology and philosophy who challenge the view that science is objective, based on fact and progresses cumulatively. “consider people’s experiences of an area of modern social life often said to epitomise the triumph of reason and rationality – science and technology” (Bilton 1997 p39)
In contrast relativism suggests that a close inspection of scientific thinking and practices reveal that they are more like those found in non-scientific systems than rationalists claim. Science cannot perform the task it sets out to do because scientists are social beings too. Scientific knowledge is far from objective but contaminated with the social and cultural influences of the scientist. The relativist’s viewpoint that all human stories are of equal validity and that the pursuit of the objective truth is futile, has led to the ever increasing debate over modernity and rationalism versus post/high/late modernity.
Relativism provides the epistemological foundation of postmodernism, where different ways of creating knowledge and making sense of existence deserve equal respect and tolerance” (Bilton 1997 p541). Beck (1992) argues that we are far from being firmly rooted in modernity, or even post-modernity as some theorists have suggested, but we are in another, more transitional period of late modernity. It is an inevitable consequence of modern life that people use technologies without really understanding how they work.
We tend to trust the claims of scientific knowledge, however in more recent times we are beginning to question this lack of lay people’s understandings, in the light of new threats such as nuclear war and global warming. Awareness to these science related dangers has led society to have a heightened sense of risk, thus Beck suggests that we have moved into ‘reflexive modernity’ (Beck 1992). In pre-modern times there were many sources of danger, however we now feel responsible and search for ways to resolve these issues. we are at once more and more dependent on science and technology and, at the same time, increasingly aware of their limitations (Beck 1992 p41).
He questions whether modernity and the belief that there is an ultimate truth is realistic, whether science always operates to benefit humanity or if it tends towards those who benefit the most in a capitalist society. The consequences of scientific and industrial development are a set of risks and hazards the likes of which we have never previously face. “Beck is very hard on scientists for their role in the creation and maintenance of the risk society” (Ritzer 1996 p575).
Modern technological advances have brought about much change including what Giddens refers to as ‘time/ space distanciation’. National boundaries are crossed without a thought and the world is now metaphorically shrinking, for example, we can reach the other side of the world over night and be back again for dinner the following day. Money, status and wealth are no protection from these new risks that are associated with the advancement in science and technology, consequences in some cases are still unknown.
During modernity, scientific knowledge became tradition in its own right, it was something that most people respected, external to their activities. Lay people accepted opinions from the experts but the more science and technology intrude in our lives the more we have to have a more active or engaged relationship with science and technology than used to be the case. We cannot simply accept the findings that scientists produce, especially because scientists frequently disagree with each other.
Giddens (1999), as an example, highlighted that most scientists of world climate change believe that global warming is occurring but roughly 25 years ago, orthodox scientific opinion was that the world was in a phase of global cooling. The significant factor here is that much of the same evidence was used to support the hypothesis of global warming that was used in support of global cooling. Interpretive sociologists believe that humans try to make sense of the world and act in light of their interpretations, this obviously includes the interpretations of scientists.
Therefore science can never be seen as objectively true but only as far as the individual scientist is concerned. Human theories, including scientific accounts, can only ever be relative and therefore just one more account of the world. As an extension of the interpretivists view into the dynamics of local, small-scale interaction amongst scientists, ethnomethodologists suggest that when scientists work together, for example in a laboratory based, closed-system experiment, it is a unique social event, with the outcome inevitably becoming context bound and subjective.
Post-structural sociologists agree, arguing that scientific knowledge inevitably becomes a product of human interpretation, in which meanings are imposed on subjects by the languages they are obliged to use to think (Bilton 1997). Barnes et al (1996) see scientific knowledge as a product of space and time, and akin to any other forms of knowledge, research focuses on what is relevant for that time and culture. Kuhn (1961) is a famous critic of the scientific method arguing that scientists are products of their socialisation and their education.
They look at research within a particular paradigm, consisting of values and traditional ways of thinking introduced through a curriculum written by scientists who subscribe to the traditional scientific method. “Students can emerge from school with negative images of the science of non-western societies” (Butt 2006 p39). The knowledge excludes other cultures giving Western beliefs a higher, more elitist status, even historically science is dominated by Western Scientists “no reference at all is made to the seminal work in science and technology performed by Muslim scientists” (Butt 2006 p39).
Kuhn also argued that the production of scientific truth is always influenced by fashion and trend, and by politics and the exercise of power. Scientific knowledge is not powerful because it is true but only seems true because it is powerful. Not the proximity to the truth that explains the dominance of a system of knowledge but the methods its supporters use to promote it. His argument represented a major assault on the foundations upon which modernist theorising has been built, insisting that dominant paradigms exercise power and sustain dominance as ‘dogma’. scientific knowledge is nevertheless tentative and uncertain and influenced by numerous social and cultural factors” (Butt 2006 p38).
Butt (2006) introduces the idea of a holistic science, which works along side religion, specifically the Muslim faith. The Islamic conception of man is that he is essentially ‘a moral being and only incidentally a construct of biology, the worth of a person is determined by his or her righteousness’. He believes by using such an ethical and moral framework, faith and theory would not be compartmentalised, however his work is criticised for itself being a subjective view a science from a Muslim perspective. Western science is a very narrow epistemological path” (Butt 2006 p38). His holistic view of science still disregards other cultures, however, it alerts us to the possibility of many different ways of knowing, thinking and understanding the natural world. Similarly to Kuhn, Foucault saw human existence as being dependent on forms of knowledge known as discourse. He plots history according to the rise and fall of discourse and claims that social change is about changes in prevailing forms of knowledge.
He states that there is no element of progress in modern society and the social world is not a ‘victim of truth’ but simply of politics and the existence of power. All forms of knowledge in different cultures and times in history are relative to the dominant discourses (Bilton 1997). “the dominance of one form of knowledge implies the marginalisation and subordination of others. Modernity involved the pursuit of objective truth – cultural and political oppression cloaked in missionary garb, as elitist and racist attempts to subordinate or eradicate other belief systems and cultural traditions” (Bilton 1997 p539).
Objectivism insists that scientific theories are built solely on the observation of empirical fact and the systematic consideration if evidence. Bilton (1997) cited Polanyi’s idea that 3 features work together to ensure any belief system is sustained by those who believe it, within either scientific or non-scientific paradigms. Firstly, circularity, where each belief system is explained by reference to another and therefore if a belief is doubted it is justified by reference to another connected belief. Secondly, belief systems hold in reserve a supply of additional explanations for difficult situation.
Conflicting evidence is often described as irregular, anomalous findings, advances in science generally occur only when these findings become more frequent and force scientists to question accepted beliefs and procedures within their paradigm, this in turn leads to the formulation of a new paradigm. Thirdly, belief systems reject alternative views of the world immediately, refusing to grant any worth to the conflicting arguments (Bilton 1997). Polanyi’s (1964) work has forced us to reconsider the way in which scientists certify scientific knowledge as correct and has criticised what might be called ‘naive objectivism’.
He defined this as the epistemological view that the only valid knowledge is that which can be expressed and tested by strictly impersonal methods. Popper (2002), saw science as an objective, value-free disclosure of the facts of reality, using the hypothetico-deductive method of investigation, involving breaking down the world into cause and effect relationships producing empirical evidence (Bilton 1997). However, this view highlights “a loss of what Weber calls enchantment… a loss of mystery, imagination and faith in the unknown” Bilton 1997 p537).
Traditional functionalists had little interest in the content of belief systems but were more interested in the effects and beneficial properties for social organisation that non-scientific systems provide, encouraging social order and stability in ways that rationally based knowledge cannot. “Science does not provide a charter for social arrangements” (Gellner 1986 p184). Science and non-science co-exist in our modern world, as they are different kinds of knowledge, performing different functions but the problem is that those that believe in either system believe that they are the only truth.
Religious, magical belief systems provide believers comfort and support, not only to explain the world but also guide how humans should live their lives, providing both explanatory accounts and morally prescriptive ones (Bilton 1997). Not only are our feelings, judgements, values, hopes, aspirations and fears irrelevant for the rational investigation of the world, but scientific evidence about this world cannot tell us how to organise ourselves (Bilton 1997). The inability of science to offer psychological and emotional comfort explains the presence and influence of non-scientific knowledge in human lives.
Scientific knowledge fails to satisfy the human need for ontological security “This is the ‘double-edged sword of rationality’, it arms us with the means to know what really is but provides us with no prescriptions about how we should live (Bilton 1997 p538). Gellner (1986) acknowledges the drawbacks of living in a world whose main form of knowledge is confined to fact rather than providing guidelines on how to live, however, he insists that these disadvantages are far outweighed by the enormous scientific and technological advances of modern society.
Gellner (1986) accepts there are many forms of non-science that exist but unlike the relativists mentioned above he believes that “such alternatives to science are profoundly insignificant” (Bilton 1997 p 539). Ultimately science should be universal, evaluated objectively, and communal, resulting in a co-operative and shared enterprise. Mulkay (1979) points out that much of modern science does not meet these criteria and many scientists struggle to objectively question and share their findings. Many scientific ‘breakthroughs’ are not used to benefit the social world as they should be but used competitively and as a route to profit.
There are a number of examples of this in contemporary society, such as the race to be the first on the moon and the more recent issue of sharing methods of manufacture in order to produce enough avian flu vaccine. There is a tendency to assume experts are correct but the scientific community is only one institution of knowledge in our society, other non-scientific organisations may include the government or religious groups. Each group produces factual information that can be accessed by both expert and lay people, more readily with the growth of media and Internet access.
Universities are another set of institutions who produce great volumes of knowledge but this knowledge cannot necessary always be seen as value free and objective. There is an obvious link between funding bodies and any research carried out with a specific aim, “sponsors of research can have strong influence on the methods and topic of research and the sorts of things researchers can even say about their findings” (Philo & Miller 2001 p24). Philo & Miller (2001) suggest that as a result public debate about scientific research is deprived of ‘independent’ experts who are willing to serve the publics interests.
They go on to question why academics are not protesting loudly about the way in which dangerous drugs such as tobacco and alcohol are still legal. Has it something to do with the profit made by the government on increased sales of these goods? Many assessments to human health are based on research originally carried out on animals, as well as ethical considerations in the extrapolation of findings from animal to human there are some arguments over the relevance of the evidence.
Within a closed system the interrelationship between nature and society is either over simplified or ignored, not all variables can be controlled and scientists continually have to make difficult interpretations (Hinchcliffe & Woodward 2004). “A fundamental difference is that humans’ experience of their environment is mediated by conceptual categories which are fabricated in social intercourse” (Douglas 1992 p37). There is a lack of predictability of science and technology in the ‘risk society’ (Beck 1992), new or mutated illnesses have appeared and an uncertainty in scientific knowledge has increased.
If this knowledge is to be useful, its own limitations must be recognised, however as feminists and sociologists of science have often pointed out scientific knowledge is often elevated to be the definitive version and confused with reality. During the BSE scare scientists and government ministers argued that beef was safe, only to be faced with growing evidence that their risk calculations and their policies were insufficient. These assumptions reinforced a general mistrust, which has been around for a long time in which scientists are seen as narrow in focus and unable to understand the complexities of social and natural situations
Wynne (1992 as cited by Lash et al 1996) studied Cumbrian sheep farmers due to radioactive contamination caused by fallout from Chernobyl accident in 1986. His study of the interaction between the scientists and farmers highlights several general points regarding the social basis of scientific knowledge, its public credibility and about the nature of lay knowledge. There was an initial 3-week timescale given to farmers, backed by prevailing scientific assumption, this was then extended, as contrary to scientific belief radioactive levels in the soil had not fallen.
The farmer’s felt completely controlled by the exercise of scientific interpretation, effectively realising that they had to trust the experts and could not independently generate knowledge of environmental hazards. Due to scientists ignored the farmers’ informal expertise they had overlooked the essentially localised nature of knowledge that soil was not a universal condition. The social reality was not recognised by the experts until a great deal of upset and loss of credibility had been caused amongst the farmers.
Lash et al (1996) suggests that: “this is a typical arena in which expert knowledge and lay knowledge interacted and directly conflicted over the appropriate design of scientific experiments” (Lash et al 1996 p6). Much of the conflict arose due to the assumed scientific culture of prediction and control, and the farmers’ culture in which there was an assumption of lack of knowledge over many environmental and surrounding social factors. Scientific experts ignored or misunderstood the multidimensional complexity of lay publics knowledge.
In other words the two knowledge-cultures held different assumptions regarding agency and control, which led to inaccurate predictions based on knowledge found in closed systems (Lash, et al 1996). Lash et al (1996) suggested that a ‘reflexive learning process’ would have incorporated conditions underpinning the scientific conclusions and the social situational questions that they implied. The research would have greatly benefited from the different forms of knowledge held by people other than scientists.
Feminists consider science to be a patriarchal institution of which most scientists are male and, on the whole, the scientific establishment emphasises ‘male’ values of rationality and logic. They argue that scientists have sought to justify the social inferiority of women by adhering to ideologically based research and prioritising aspects of society which are of more benefit to men. Various writers of feminist philosophy of science argue that dominant knowledge practices disadvantage women in many ways.
Anderson (2003) suggests practices such as exclusion from inquiry, denial of epistemic authority, dismissing “feminine” cognitive styles and modes of knowledge, producing theories of women that represent them as inferior, deviant, or significant only in the ways they serve male interests, producing theories of social phenomena that belilttling women’s activities and interests invisible, producing knowledge (science and technology) that is not useful for people in subordinate positions, or that reinforces gender and other social hierarchies.
Similarly to Butt (2006) feminist epistemologists trace these failures to flawed conceptions of knowledge, knowers, objectivity, and scientific methodology. Doing ‘science’ as a feminist, with the aim of answering feminist question, has resulted in many and various methodological innovations, discoveries of new sources of evidence, and developments of alternative theories (Anderson 2003). Science is usually associated with positivism and objectivity but some writers argue that it does not claim to make facts only reveal their existence.
Scientific achievement has been vast in many ways, for example, the decrease in illness, famine, etc, so why have we lost faith? Science is a noble enterprise in itself but human nature is to be greedy and selfish, thus there has been an increased pessimism regarding peoples’ ability to use science morally. Human progress will inevitably affect the environment, which may or may not have devastating effects of which people are unaware of until its too late. Modernists see the application of reason, demonstrated by science as enabling humans to discover the truth about the nature of reality.
Such knowledge allows us the chance of progress, social development and individual liberation (Bilton 1997). However, science can do some things and not others, it is not the only way and there is an exaggeration in the power of science which leads to everyday interactions and other belief systems being lost. Gellner (1986) argues that the one way in which we can know facts is by being scientific, however, he insists that we must distinguish between cognitive relativism and moral/cultural relativism, facts are relative to a particular society and are not comparable between societies.
Even the best science can only offer a partial understanding of the world and thus, should always be open to debate. The precept of staying close to nature or of limiting innovation rather than embracing it, cannot always apply. The reason is that the balance of benefits and dangers from scientific and technological advance, and other forms of social change too, are unimaginable. We may often need to be bold rather than cautious in supporting scientific innovation (Giddens 1999).