Notebooks

Sociology of Science

20 Nov 2012 15:48

Raymond Aron says somewhere that "science is inseparable from the republic of scholars." This is substantially true, though I can imagine odd exceptions. (R. Crusoe, FRS, could have done astronomy or botany or algebra before meeting Friday, though I don't think he could have invented them.) In any event, science is an activity which groups do vastly better, and easier, than isolated individuals. In saying this, I trust I shan't have to defend myself against suspicion of social-constructionist heresy. The practical recognition of this truth goes back to the founders of the first academies during the scientific revolution, and it was explicitly recognized in the Enlightenment, for instance in d'Alembert's "Preliminary Discourse" to the Encyclopedie. An investigation into science which doesn't recognize, and account for, its social nature is on all fours with one which doesn't recognize, and account for, the fact that it produces reliable knowledge, which is to say much like an investigation of agriculture which doesn't realize it produces food. These should be "every schoolchild knows" truths, though sadly they're anything but.

Every schoolchild also knows that differences in social organization don't completely explain why statistical mechanics is fruitful, but UFOlogy is not — that matter really is made out of molecules, and people really aren't abducted by aliens, has, to say the least, something to do with it. But the sciences started from beliefs about as wacko as anything today's kooks can produce — say, alchemy — but haven't stayed there, whereas the kooks have, and this deserves explanation. More: a proper understanding of this could help improve scientific method, something eagerly to be desired.

Of course there are already lots of people engaged in this undertaking; sociology of science is, in general, more sensible than most scientists suppose. (Also more sensible than most of the rest of sociology, but that's another story for another time.) Even the noise in the management literature recently about "learning organizations" and the like is not unrelated, and might even be promising. (On the one hand, lots of problems get cracked once people see that lots of money could be made from the solution. On the other hand, we are talking about the management witch-doctors.) There are, however, two potentially fruitful lines of research which nobody, so far as I know, has bothered to undertake. One is straightforward comparative sociology, contrasting genuine intellectual disciplines (including, besides the natural sciences, things like history or philology) with the half-disciplines, the pseudosciences, and the simple crackpots. The other is to take some of the descriptions of how scientists act and interact with each other from the existing sociological literature, throw them on the computer, and see if they produce something which looks like the science we know; also if they produce the results their authors claim they do. (My suspicion is that most of them will not.)

See also: Collective Cognition; Evolutionary Epistemology; History of Science; Science; Scientific Method; Scientific Thinking


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