Against an Argument for Science as Instrinsically Social

I have argued that persons outside of any social context can be scientists. Recently, I watched and listened to a recording of an interview of one philosopher by another, in which the two agreed that science is intrinsically social, that persons outside of social contexts cannot be scientists.[1]

Towards explaining what was wrong with their argument, I'll first explain their argument. One of the very most important things that a scientist ought to do is to look for areas of potential vulnerability in theories, and to test those theories against what evidence may practicably be gathered. And any one researcher is imperfect in his or her ability to find such potential vulnerabilites, in knowledge of existing evidence, and in capacity to collect new evidence. It is often particularly difficult for any one researcher to recognize the unconscious presumptions that inform his or her own theories; exposing the work of one researcher to the scrutiny of other researchers may mean that those presumptions are recognized and challenged.

All right; but, just as any one researcher is imperfect, so are jointly any two researchers, or any three researchers, or any n researchers, for all finite values of n. In fact, I am nearly certain that even an infinite number of scientists would be insufficient to overcome weaknesses across the whole body of theories that these scientists could construct; but, in any case, science is not an unattainable limiting case of behavior. One might instead pick a finite n, and insist that one does not have science until one has n participants engaging in behavior of some sort, but the choice of n would seem to be quite arbitrary; and I'd like to know what one should then call the behavior when there are fewer participants.

As a practical matter, it is far from clear that two people each in isolation engaged in that behavior would continue to engage in that behavior when brought together. Social contexts can promote peculiar forms of irrationality. Historically, a great deal of what has been widely taken to be science by participants and by most observers in wider society has often been grossly unscientific behavior resulting exactly from social pressures. A great deal of what passes for science these days is socially required to conform to consensus, which is to say that social mechanisms protect widely shared presumptions from scrutiny.


[1] As it happens both one of those philosophers and I referred to Robinson Crusoe as an individual outside of a social context. It was natural for us each independent of the other to reach for the most famous example within our shared cultural context, but it heightened my sense of annoyance.

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2 Responses to Against an Argument for Science as Instrinsically Social

  • twv says:

    While it seems possible to work scientifically without a social context for it — and in a sense many people have done this, forming hypotheses, setting up experiments, judging hypotheses against the results of those experiments, and trying out new hypotheses until an acceptable set of results is found — “science” is a discipline that we understand in the social context of public testing.

    The problem is that a social context that keeps many of the trappings of public testing but actually avoids actual tests, or disguises cultic and other social behaviors as tests, is another possibility for society’s sub-groups. And such a social process more easily conforms to certain proclivities of our social natures.

    Think of a baboon in a lab frock.

    But really, as I wrote just a few days ago on Facebook, the demarcation problem thst matters isn’t between people who are or are not scientists, is it? A scientist is just a person who sometimes does science. The more interesting question is whether this or that cognitive endeavor is scientific or not. And a person who is rightly called a scientist at T1 and T2 may not be engaged in a scientific endeavor at T3 ... Tn. The reverse is also true, a person who behaved unscientifically at one point, but then does some science and accepts public criticism, can become a scientist after the ignominy of a proper designation of metaphysician or fraud. The difference is the testing. And you are right, it need not be public.

    “Scientist” is not like “knight,” in that once dubbed forever knight. “Scientist” is like “truth-teller,” in that once caught in a lie, we can remove the designation no matter what it says on the security clearance card on the baboon’s lab frock.

    • Daniel says:

      You're of course quite correct that the question of what behavior and results are or are not scientific is more interesting than that of who is or is not a scientist. In fact, properly, the latter question is answered by first answering the former. However, prevailing social practice tries to answer the question of what is science with the formula that science is what scientists do, so that such practice would first identify the scientists and thence identify the science.

      The ordinary presumption is that the institutional structure distinguishes science from unscientific practice, and scientists from non-scientists. One need not believe that the present structure has in any way been shaped with the intention to deceive none-the-less to question whether it is fit to make such distinctions. (However, history furnishes examples of the institutional structure having been shaped to deceive.)

      At the core, we have a large group of people, each of whom is treated as a scientists by most other members of the group. On a smaller scale, this arrangement would be like saying that Tom, Dick, and Harry were the scientists because Tom regards himself, Dick, and Harry as scientists, Dick regards himself, Tom, and Harry as scientists, and Harry regards himself, Tom, and Dick as scientists. This group further distinguishes some behavior as scientific and other behavior as not, some propositions as science and other propositions as not.

      The claims of this group are buttressed by self-acknowledged non-scientists drawn from three groups — teachers in the system of formal education, journalists, and state officials. (There will, of course, be some educators, journalists, and officials who belong to the group of those institutionally treated as scientist.) There is almost never any challenge to the competence of these three groups of non-scientists to discern who is or is not a scientist, even if these educators, journalists, and officials cannot independently discern what is or is not science nor even always understand what is said by those whom they deem to be scientists, not-withstanding the various reasons to question the competence of these educators, journalists, and officials more generally.

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