More Recent Comments

Friday, March 12, 2021

Is science a social construct?

Richard Dawkins has written an essay for The Spectator in which he says,

"[Science is not] a social construct. It’s simply true. Or at least truth is real and science is the best way we have of finding it. ‘Alternative ways of knowing’ may be consoling, they may be sincere, they may be quaint, they may have a poetic or mythic beauty, but the one thing they are not is true. As well as being real, moreover, science has a crystalline, poetic beauty of its own.

The essay is not particularly provocative but it did provoke Jerry Coyne who pointed out that, "The profession of science" can be contrued as a social construct. In this sense Jerry is agreeing with his former supervisor, Richard Lewontin1 who wrote,

"Science is a social institution about which there is a great deal of misunderstanding, even among those who are part of it. We think that science is an institution, a set of methods, a set of people, a great body of knowledge that we call scientific, is somehow apart from the forces that rule our everyday lives and tha goven the structure of our society... The problems that science deals with, the ideas that it uses in investigating those problems, even the so-called scientific results that come out of scientific investigation, are all deeply influenced by predispositions that derive from the society in which we live. Scientists do not begin life as scientists after all, but as social beings immersed in a family, a state, a productive structure, and they view nature through a lens that has been molded by their social structure."

Coincidently, I just happened to be reading Science Fictions an excellent book by Stuart Ritchie who also believes that science is a social construct but he has a slighly different take on the matter.

"Science has cured diseases, mapped the brain, forcasted the climate, and split the atom; it's the best method we have of figuring out how the universe works and of bending it to our will. It is, in other words, our best way of moving towards the truth. Of course, we might never get there—a glance at history shows us hubristic it is to claim any facts as absolute or unchanging. For ratcheting our way towards better knowledge about the world, though, the methods of science is as good as it gets.

But we can't make progress withthose methods alone. It's not enough to make a solitary observation in your lab; you must also convince other scientists that you've discovered something real. This is where the social part comes. Philosophers have long discussed how important it is for scientists to show their fellow researchers how they came to their conclusions.

Dawkins, Coyne, Lewontin, and Ritchie are all right in different ways. Dawkins is talking about science as a way of knowing, although he restricts his definition of science to the natural sciences. The others are referring to the practice of science, or as Jerry Coyne puts it, the profession. It's true that the methods of science are the best way we have to get at the truth and it's true that the way of knowing is not a social construct in any meanigful sense.

Jerry Coyne is right to point out that the methods are employed by human scientists (he's also restricting the practice of science to scientists) and humans are fallible. In that sense, the enterprise of (natural) science is a social construct. Lewontin warns us that scientists have biases and prejudices and that may affect how they do science.

Ritchie makes a diffferent point by emphasizing that (natural) science is a collective endeavor and that "truth" often requires a consensus. That's the sense in which science is social. This is supposed to make science more robust, according to Ritchie, because real knowledge only emerges after carefull and skeptical scrutiny by other scientists. His book is mostly about how that process isn't working and why science is in big trouble. He's right about that.

I think it's important to distinguish between science as a way of knowing and the behavior and practice of scientists. The second one is affected by society and its flaws are well-known but the value of science as way of knowing can't be so easily dismissed.

1. The book is actually a series of lectures (The Massey Lectures) that Lewontin gave in Toronto (Ontario, Canada) in 1990. I attended those lectures.


  1. Interesting observation about Jerry Coyne since he is currently having a debate regarding “other ways of knowing” and goes to some lengths to explain how broad his definition of science is. He includes “Plumbers who find a leak, mechanics who locate an electrical fault, and doctors who diagnose your ills are acting like scientists.”

    I am not advocating either, just wanted to point of the discrepancy.

    1. Yes, I'm a little surprised that Jerry didn't pay more attention to what Dawkins was saying. It's pretty clear to me that Dawkins was not talking about the behavior of scientists.

    2. TWb. So everybody will/is be a scientist except creationists. unless he admits creationists are all scientists too!!
      I still say science is a verb and not a noun. If you don't do it your not it Mr moran here does do it but most teachers do not.

    3. To clarify on that, Jerry makes the point that the methods of science are also done in what he calls "greater science" - and it is in there that you have plumbers and so on. In his book Faith vs Fact he makes much the same point, but refers to the greater area of human activity as "science broadly construed".

    4. Mark.
      "science broadly construed" is construing science out of any meaning of what its species of investigation is meant to demand. There is no greater science. there is science or there is not.
      I say there is not. Its just people thinking/investigating and striving to have a higher standard of investigation and then say thier conclusions are in this higher standard and close to proved or close enough.
      This is used against creationists.
      However any student/historian of science knows they always correct the previous graduating classes. To such a extent that proof in science is a problem. Yes proved we can fly with machines so why not everything proved?
      It isn't. So this is another attempt to redefine science so as to get the crdibility/prestige of it while not the proven results with a hunch it would stand the test of time.
      Scioence means to folks ITS PROVEN. ITS SCIENTIFIC. This is what they do in origin matters.
      Yet its not proven and so science does not equal proven or they must reexamine the methodology rules.
      I say evolutionism flunked these rules. The common people only smell its not proven and only accept it based on faith in the experts. Suits us as we just keep hammering away.

  2. "sop called scientific results"!Aocial construct! All this questins the merit of conclusions claimed to be science and gives critics credibility. like creationists.
    I don't agree science is a profession. I don't agree its a socioal construct.
    this is all just admitting conclusions are not settled.THATS RIGHT! starting with origin subjects.
    Truthy is the purpose and who has the authority to dismiss the truth of religion? In fact to dismiss it they said SCIENCE can prove its conclusions. Now they say NO!!!
    I agree its just humans using intelligence to figure things out. there is no such thing as science.
    the best that can be said to segregate it from other methodologies in investigation IS to say its a HIGH standard of investigation that can command confidence in its conclusions.
    Then the standard must be proved before the conclusion is a THEORY of science.
    obviously i inisist evolutionism has not obeyed the rules of a high standard and is indeed difficult for invisible processes and results.
    Yet it must not be like plumbers and mere doctors. They are not doing science or science means nothing but ordinary investigative tactics. Which are preety good but thats the point. SCIENCE is to be better. before you take that new medicine or get on a space ship. Not the same thing as getting in a car or taking vitamins.
    Science doesn't mean anything unless it means something.
    Possibly organized creationism is putting a intellectual squeeze on science these days due to its fame.
    Is it a social construct and consensus that evolution and friends is a true theory of science and plain true?
    I say no! its simply not proven. Its not a scientific theory because it does not use biological science to back up its biolgical hypothesis/theory. It uses other ordinary investigative info. Its like plumbing but not like physics.

    1. "Possibly organized creationism is putting a intellectual squeeze on science"

      Since creationists fail at even the most basic steps of science (and mathematics, and statistics, from the stuff I get sent), the only squeeze creationists put on the scientific community comes when true scientists read the BS a creationist spews and wrap their arms around themselves laughing at the creationists' stupidity.