Is All Science Relative?

I found the Pinch & Bijker article quite interesting, if a bit wacky with all those acronyms.  I know it's a bit dated, and some of the ideas it contains have probably been modified and expanded upon, but I wanted to bring up the notion of relativism in science, since that seems to still be such a hot topic these days.

The discourses embedded in modern science and engineering have come under attack on a number of fronts recently, and for good reason.  They generally promote a positivist, narrow-minded worldview, and still have traces of their sexist, elitist, colonial roots.  Science - and most disciplines that we know of now, for that matter - were inventions of the 19th century Western world.  Science and engineering were used to "better" civilization, typically through environmental destruction and the exploitation of workers and subjects.  It's impossible to pretend that these disciplines are pure and objective, and that their practices are untainted by human desires and emotions.

Having said that, I think you can go too far is depicting science as a relativist pursuit.  The EPOR schema described by the authors takes as its premise that the scientific community can hold a number of opinions on this or that issue, and that political and social forces often shape the growing consensus behind one such opinion.

I'm sure this is true to a great extent, but is it absolutely true that all scientific findings are social outcomes?  I worry about controversial issues like evolution and global warming.  Working from EPOR, it seems easy enough to build a sound rhetorical argument that these are both subjective creations of the scientific mind, and do not represent any "real" truth.  Not that there aren't problems with evolution and global warming research - certainly there are.  But dismissing them both as post-modern fictions seems to cede too much ground to the flat-Earthers, doesn't it?

I don't know.  Objective truth has been deservedly torn apart in a number of disciplines, but I'm not sure if I'm ready to give it up fully when it comes to science.

- Matt

1 comment:

Devon said...

That's really interesting. I have nothing intelligent to add except this.
A friend of mine (anthropology student) is always expressing frustration when people imply that evolution has a goal. She explains, "if two really stupid monkeys fall in a hole running away from the lion that eats the other monkeys, they will pass on their dumb genes because they managed to live long enough."
Science is no more objective then evolution, it just sort of happens but people always look at the outcome and assume that this was the logical finishing line. As long as we remember that isn't the case every time someone starts an new research paper, everything is okay.

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