social construction of science

Neo Martinez szmrtnz at
Fri Apr 12 02:37:13 EST 1996

On 11 Apr 1996, Kim Cuddington wrote:

> Patricia S. Bowne (pbowne at wrote:
> : I couldn't agree more with Susan - and couldn't disagree more with Neo.
> :  
> : If science is only an agreed-upon view of the world, or a set of
> :  arbitrary rules made up by one group of people, then it deserves
> :  no more respect than any other social group's agreed-upon view of the
> I know this will raise many hackles but, I have to say it...I think
> that this is EXACTLY what science is.  In fact this is also what
> mathematics and logic are. You SELECT a set of premises and rules of
> the game and you procede within those rules. 
> ASSUMING, that science has a more worthwhile world view than Christian
> scientists or the Ku Klux Klan is exactly that, an assumption. By the
> way, you've also got to realize that science as it currently operates
> is pretty much an embodiment "male western european" worldview. It's 
> only been farily recently that this prejudice has been reduced enough 
> for medical science to start looking at tradition herbal cures and 
> combing the forests of South America for wonder drugs. Until recently 
> scientists ASSUMED that tradtional medicine was just so much bullshit.
	Phew! I thought the constructivist view wasn't going to find much 
support here.  Asking scientists to seriously question reality is eerily 
similar to asking religious conservatives to seriously question god.  
The common response is that folks "just can't accept it."

	Leaving truth and reality to the side leaves science to be judged 
by the same basis that other social activities are judged.. like whether 
it contributes to material wealth (note the recent assault at NSF on 
"curiosity driven research") and hopefully on whether it contributes to 
peoples sense of well-being and intellectual fulfillment.  Is that such a 
terrible thing?  I think not.  The racist craniologists were probably 
justifying their research based on truth and reality.  The assault on 
human rights that such research led to is plenty of reason for me to pull 
the plug on it.  Truth and reality can and has led to some ugly things.  
One of my fav philosophers of science, Kristen Schrader-Frechette, said 
"science is the Mercedes Benz of ideology."  I'll never forget that great 
quote and it has helped me be much more sceptical of my science.

	One of the recent big questions in biodiversity research is
whether certain species are "redundant."  There's major ideological
baggage in that question and constructivist critiques (e.g., Kuhn for
starters) helped me see the baggage and explian it to other researchers. 
Such skepticism is very healthy from even the realist perspective.  Still,
it does take some of the pomp and luster off of science which many 
scientists understandably resent. I like it just fine. 

	By the way, there's some rather sophisticated defenses of realism
out there.  The Chair of Harvard's Philosophy Dept. (who would have
guessed!), Hillary Putnam, has written some brilliant short (!) and easy to
understand descriptions of such views (e.g., The Many Faces of Realism). 
Still, such "pragmatic realists" agree to avoid the question, "Is it
Really Real?" in favor of, "What does it let you do?"  That's pretty
attractive to this constructivist but it isn't emphasize the question,
"Why do you want to do it?" enough for me.


ndmartinez at

ps. "deconstruction" is the process that constructivists (and other folks
as well) go though to analyze how a social norm (among other things) got
to be the way it is and explain it to others...  
	Hey, what do you get when you cross a deconstuctivist with the
Mafia?.... an offer you can't understand. 

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