- Back in the 1970s Alan Chalmers published what was to become a popular introduction to the philosophy of science called What is this Thing called Science? The title implied an assumption that science is a ‘thing’, distinct from non-science, from pseudo-science, from bad science and from anti-science.
- The idea that science is a definite thing and therefore the question that begs it probably seems quite natural to most people. Certainly, that’s how we hear the word being used both by scientists and non-specialists.
- Being concerned with the philosophy of science, Chalmers’ book had to take as its subject that use of the word “science” that is amenable to philosophic investigation. For most philosophers of science, that has largely taken the form of a concern with knowledge and the claims made for science as the way to especially reliable, authoritative or just plain good old true knowledge. The philosophical problem has largely been understood as one of epistemological demarcation: can we come up with an understanding of “science” that explains how we can recognise or produce such superior knowledge?
- Progressing from a realisation that mere correspondence to the facts isn’t good enough (facts are all in the past or present, but science only really becomes interesting when it talks of the future), the focus has been on scientific theories and how they can be distinguished from things that may look like theories but aren’t scientific.
- Karl Popper’s principle of falsifiability almost inevitably sits at the centre of things here. Based on the acceptance that no finite amount of corroboration can finally establish the truth of a theory and also the surmise that a single contradictory observation would finally establish falsehood, it seemed like a good answer for a while. It is still rated by some as the best there is, but it turns out that one can rarely, if ever, say with absolute certainty that a given observation conclusively refutes a given theory. Certainly not if the theory is at all an interesting one that makes bold predictions.
- Indeed, scientists’ response to observations that might be taken to refute a favoured theory was often to investigate auxiliary theories that would allow them to discount the apparent refutation. Further, scientists often maintained allegiance to apparently unfalsifiable theories because those theories nevertheless provided a fecund conceptual framework for further experimental investigations.
- At the same time, some theories produced by enterprises not generally described as “scientific” nevertheless met the suggested epistemological criteria.
- Thus, knowledge that was judged epistemologically scientific did not necessarily correspond that well to the theories of what is colloquially called “science”.
- Chalmers concluded his book by saying (second edition) “the question that constitutes the title of this book is a misleading and presumptuous one”. He doubted that a general characterization of science can be established or defended. Other philosophers have variously opined that the demarcation problem is intractable (to philosophy at any rate) or that it is a non-problem.
- So much, then, for the philosophy of science and epistemological demarcation.
- But what if we continue to think that What is this Thing called Science? really is an interesting question, even if not one that philosophers can answer.
- Another approach to the question comes from sociology. For sociology, the uses of the words “science”, “scientist” or “scientific” may be taken as normative and miscorrelation between the attempted demarcation and colloquial use of the words cannot occur. On the other hand, sociology, strictly understood, does not (indeed cannot) say anything about the veracity of any claims that science produces a special kind of knowledge. It can only tell us what those claims are and how they come to be made. This is true even of the so-called “strong program” sociology of scientific knowledge which asserts not only that society determines who gets to be called a scientist and how these people relate to others and to each other, but also the choice and manner of expressing the knowledge they produce.
- While sociology may tell us who actually values science, what makes them do it and how that valuation may manifest itself, it cannot tell us why we should value science.
- For that reason, the sociological approach has perhaps even less to commend it than the philosophical to someone intent on knowing What is this Thing called Science?
- As for scientists themselves, while it is not uncommon for them to have some appreciation of the epistemological philosophy of science (usually a caricature of Popper) and to make any number of informal homespun conjectures as to the sociology of science, neither the philosophy nor the sociology of science as formal academic disciplines seem to be of much use to them.
- Is there a way of approaching the question What is this Thing called Science? that keeps on the right side of epistemology and of the colloquial use of the word “science” and addresses the issue in terms that are at least acknowledged by scientists as being relevant to how they actually work?
- One problem is that science comprises a wide range of disciplines, each with its own sociology and standards of epistemology. However, scientists of all disciplines frequently mention “the literature”. The literature is the common shared resource to which all scientists contribute and to which all refer when they wish to know what their peers are up to. To be sure, each scientific discipline has its own literature, but equally, the literature is the medium through which scientists of different disciplines often first become aware of each other’s ideas.
- “The literature” therefore is a tangible quantity, through which each scientific discipline defines itself but which also provides cohesion to the entire enterprise of science. Moreover, the structure of the literature (what one might call its external structure) reflects the sociology of science while analysis of the “internal” structure may be expected to reveal the epistemology. When we refer to scientific experts, we are looking not only for their first-hand knowledge of experiment and observation, but also a comprehensive command of the literature in the field.
- In the posts to follow this one, I intend to look at the structure of the scientific literature as a way into answering the question What is this Thing called Science?
Peter M, 17 March 2011
Does Science Live in its Literature?
This article is part of the series An Ecology of Literatures and is filed under Epistemology, Scientific Literatures.
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