May 02 2016

Science Is Not (Entirely) A Social Construct

Humans have a frustrating tendency to prefer simplicity. This is probably necessary, given that we have finite brains trying to grapple with a massive and complex universe.

I have found that part of the intellectual journey is to think carefully about the balance between the need for manageable simplicity while recognizing that our models are incomplete schematics. In other words – don’t confuse our necessarily simplified models with reality.

What is frustrating is the tendency to rigidly apply one concept to a complex topic, as if it explains everything and applies universally. Even scientists do this, thinking that the new phenomenon they discovered explains everything.

Stephen J. Gould, for example, recounted the story of artist Abbott Handerson Thayer, who formulated Thayer’s Law, which is the principle of countershading used for camouflage. Thayer, however, went too far, arguing:

“All patterns and colors whatsoever of all animals that ever preyed or are preyed on are under certain normal circumstances obliterative. Not one ‘mimicry’ mark, not one ‘warning color’… nor any ‘sexually selected’ color, exists anywhere in the world where there is not every reason to believe it the very best conceivable device for the concealment of its wearer.”

He went as far as to suggest that peacocks and flamingos were colored for camouflage, in certain very contrived situations.

In the same vein I think postmodernists also have a point. They argue, essentially, that all of the products of the human intellect are social constructs. Therefore no intellectual tradition has any more claim for truth or value than any other, as they are ultimately judged within the context of the system that created them.

Such ideas were a necessary counterpoint to quaint notions of Western cultural superiority, and were often framed in the context of colonization and cultural oppression.

However, much like Thayer, some postmodernists took a good idea and, in their desire for simplicity and perhaps also conceit, decided that it applied completely to everything. The real problems began when non-scientists decided that postmodernist ideas applied equally to science as they did to literature or art.

These notions took hold partly because they played well into extreme left political philosophy, but also because some philosophers started arguing that science was mere culture. For example:

Paul Feyerabend, former philosophy professor at the University of California (Berkeley) maintains that what is called science in one culture is called voodoo in another: “To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts—their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, ‘objectivity,’ [or] ’truth’—it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes.”

Some philosophers and scientist became quite alarmed at this view, however. It seems to imply that there are not facts in science, that there is no way to determine that one scientific idea is better than another.

Philosophers, however, have already moved beyond these critiques of science. The core problem with the “anything goes” criticism is that it confused the “context of discovery” with the “context of later verification.”

In other words, science is different than all other human intellectual disciplines, because it is empirical. Ideas are not just examined and argued, they are rigorously tested against reality. No matter the construct, no matter the origin of a scientific idea, regardless of how well it plays with our current political or social order, at the end of the day a scientific idea lives or dies by how well it predicts the outcome of observations and experiments.

Now of course, humans are not perfect, and science is a human endeavor, and so the practice of science is not perfect. I write frequently about the many ways in which science can be flawed and biased. As I and others have pointed out, all of this does not add up to science being broken, just that science is damned hard. Science is complicated and difficult to carry out well, and so many will fall short.

But science is also self-corrective. This stems not just from the fact that ideas are tested empirically, but that the culture of science is one of self-criticism and change. If you are not sufficiently skeptical and critical of your own ideas, others will be.

As T.H. Huxley said, we must:

“Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

The history of science is the best evidence against the post-modernist view of science. They and critics of science will point to all the times that science was proven wrong as evidence that it is a construct, but they have it backwards. The very fact that we can look back from out modern perspective and understand that previous scientific ideas are objectively wrong demonstrates the true nature of science.

The history of science is one of breaking cultural constructs – not just because a competing idea came along, but because the facts so relentlessly smashed against the pillars of our most beloved social constructs that eventually they crumbled.

Scientists may begin with a socially constructed notion, but (if they are doing it right, like Huxley) those notions will not survive long in the face of scientific evidence.

Another way to look at it is this – scientific conclusions have generally been on the leading edge of our changing ideas about the world. Science is leading and changing social constructs, not the other way around.

It was science that smashed our conceited notions that we are at the center of the universe, or that we are at the top of the evolutionary “ladder.” Science has forced us to be humble in the face of nature, in the realization of how flawed the inner workings of our brains are, and in the limits of our theories.

It is easy to attack this view as “scientism,” but that is just another oversimplification. No honest reading of what I am writing here or have written before can be interpreted as saying that science is perfect or will solve all mysteries. The practice of science is flawed and has limits, but it is still the best game in town. It still basically works, as long as we remain thoughtful and self-critical about how best to proceed scientifically.

We need to embrace science in all its complexity, even if that complexity can seem overwhelming. We need to resist the allure of simplistic generalizations, or applying our cherished ideas too broadly.

So, while society and culture do influence the practice of science, they do not control or dominate it. Science is not entirely a social construct, because at its core it is a self-corrective empirical endeavor.

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