social construction of science (sorta long)
Patricia S. Bowne
pbowne at omnifest.uwm.edu
Mon Apr 15 20:30:13 EST 1996
Neo Martinez suggested that we abandon the abstract concept of 'reality'
in favor of the operational concept of 'concordance to data' (am I using the
>The reason scientists have for ascribing importance to concordance is that
>*such concordance is a fundamental rule of the game of science*.... just
>as common law is to lawyers, just as accounting is to businesses.
I agree, concordance is a fundamental rule of the game. In fact, I've used
the game analogy when justifying why we shouldn't teach students
creation in a science class - it would be like teaching them to play football
by the wrong rules, and then sending them out to play other teams!
>Why should the larger society value scientists and their rules?
>The proof is in the pudding. It appears that many of the
>technological and medical advances that people value resulted
I agree - this reminds me a lot of Larry Laudan's work on
scientific progress and how it is actually an improvement in the
number and kind of problems science can solve, rather than a closer
approximation to the truth.
>I don't know if any of this is Real and I
>don't even know what Reality is other than a widely embraced and
>indefensible metaphysical assertion that has led to many intolerant views.
>Let's get rid of it and instead focus on rules such as reproducible
>observation and concordance.
This would work fine, within the scientific community. But you were
writing earlier about judging ideologies against one another, which
implies that there are other sets of rules out there, which people
can choose. If we regard ourselves as completely situated within
a set of rules, how are we going to reasonably choose *between* sets of
This is why I have a problem with your answer to my challenge.
I agree, you didn't appeal to a concept of reality. But it seems to
me that instead of assuming we shared the concept of reality,
you assumed we shared the concept of concordance - which, from
your earlier statements, is only a rule of the game of *science*.
So, while your answer allows all kinds of *scientists* to debate the
topic fruitfully, how will they fruitfully argue with people outside science?
>the idea that facts are real is a current and hopefully passing fad in
science. >It contributes little but intolerance (you dare question reality?!)
>inflated and contrived sense of self-importance...e.g., "Scientists are
>better than lawyers. Science is better than politics," etc. Can't we
>just say that they are different human activities with different rules and
>conventions which should be judged by what they contribute to individuals
I don't think we *can* say that, because when you say different
activities can be judged by what they contribute, you're assuming
that what they contribute can somehow be measured and compared.
I don't think it can be measured in any operational way, unless we first
accept the idea of data -and I don't think we can make any comparisons
based on data, unless we agree that our conclusions should be concordant
with the data. Therefore, for us to judge different activities as you
suggest, we must first accept that our judgements should be based on
concordance with data - and in doing that, we have accepted the rules of
I think the idea of reality is the common language of competing
ideologies, and the first principle we have to use to judge what
different activities contribute to individuals and society.
For example, I would be dismayed if public policy were (as it so often is)
based on erroneous 'facts' or on ideological arguments which ignored the
data altogether. My approach to correcting such a policywould be to point
out that it was in disagreement with the data, and I would then hope to see
it revised to accord with the data.
What I really wouldn't like is for the person supporting the policy
to say, "Well, you're a scientist, so you accept the rules of that
game. But I'm playing politics (or philosophy, or english, or economics,
or law, or business) and *we* don't have the same rules that scientists do.
So I don't have to pay any attention to data, because that's not in
the rules of my game."
I don't think concordance with data is a rule of the "science" game.
I think it's a rule of the "living on earth" game (and if we get off
earth, it'll be a rule of the "living in space" game). And if we make
"concordance with data" such a universal rule, I'm not sure if we
haven't just promoted it to the sublime position vacated by the
banished 'reality' :-) - so why not bite the bullet, and say 'reality'?
However, I'll go even further and say that I think 'reality' exists.
I think that when I gather data, I have some connection to a world outside
*any* human set of rules, and I firmly believe that part of living is
relating to that extra-human, independently existing world. It seems to
me that only the existence of that world keeps me from remaking the universe
into whatever I can get enough people to agree on.
The classic story about this (apocryphal or not) is the one about the
state that voted to have pi equal four. A more tragic example is the
student from our college who was killed by a truck she never saw
coming. Something outside her observation killed her - what,
if not an independently existing reality?
By the way, I think this discussion is loads of fun - thanks for responding!
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