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Is Science a Sociological or an Epistemic Phenomenon?

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Denyse’s recent post here on falsifiability tells me that we need more thought on this creature we call science and what it means for all of us, and especially the enterprise of knowledge.

There seems to be a lot of disparate ideas floating around about what exactly science is. A friend of mine noted that there are actually two distinct reasons to define science – either you want to define science as an epistemic phenomenon (a unique way of knowing) or as a sociological phenomenon (a unique group of people).

First of all, in the article Denyse linked to, the author says:

most historians and scientists accept a sociological definition: Science is what the scientific community says it is

This is a sociological definition. However, most people’s interest in science is not sociological, but epistemic. In other words, people become scientists not because they want to be part of the “cool crowd”, and therefore we look to this crowd of people who call themselves scientists, but rather because they want to know more about reality, and science has put itself out as a uniquely dependable epistemological system.

If science is merely a sociological affair, then no one needs to pay it any more attention than underwater basket weavers, unless they happen to be interested in the subject. However, society has, over the last few centuries, been increasing the amount of epistemic weight that it has put on science.

Therefore, definitions of science such as “the thing that scientists do” really hurt the epistemology of science, because it means that it is just about being part of the cool crowd, not having real knowledge about something.

In other words, why should anyone *else* care about science?

The question is, and always has been, public epistemology. Why is belief X not only interesting for you, but something for which I *ought* to believe? The reason why science took hold so firmly was because it carried with it the idea that it was not only private knowledge, but that it was somehow publicly verified knowledge.

However, either the philosophy of science has degenerated to the point where it doesn’t even understand the point, or it has progressed far enough to establish the difficulty of any public epistemology. If it has done the latter, no one has received the memo.

Personally, I think the reason for this is because “science” isn’t one thing. There are a collection of methodologies behind sociological phenomena of science, each with their own, unique epistemic benefits and drawbacks. Rather than trying to establish what science is or isn’t, philosophy of science should be reclassifying endeavors according to methodology, and examining methodologies for their epistemic import.

If we did that, then we could officially separate the sociological phenomena of science from the epistemic phenomena, and be more clear as to why certain claims have certain public import while other claims may be less clear. By continually shoehorning all of this into a single term, “science,” it prevents clear thinking on the subject.

Of course, there will always be those who try to overstate the weight and implications of their evidence. However, at least if there were a thorough classification of methodologies and the reasons for why they indicate what they indicate, people would have a better grasp of the concepts needed to refute invalid claims.

7 Replies to “Is Science a Sociological or an Epistemic Phenomenon?

  1. 1
    johnnyb says:

    For a similar discussion (but one still rooted around a singular idea of science), you should check out Crichton’s Aliens Cause Global Warming. Ultimately, I think that why Crichton failed is that someone who is a scientist has a large range of things that they want to do, only some of which is covered under Crichton’s preferred epistemology. Are they then not “scientists” when they pursue these things? What are they? Instead, if we are simply able to label the methodology/epistemology separate from the sociology, and divide up into more than a binary yes/no system, then scientists can pursue scientific efforts even if they are strange, but the public won’t be confused about the automatic level of certainty they should assign to the results.

    A quick example of epistemic descriptions we might use instead of science might include deductive (the results are definitive if the premises are true and the argument correct) vs. inductive (the results form a pattern which the scientist inferred a general form for). Others might include randomized & controlled vs. observational. There is nothing wrong with *any* of these methods, but they do vary in how they should be taken by consumers of scientific information.

  2. 2
    Neil Rickert says:

    either you want to define science as an epistemic phenomenon (a unique way of knowing) or as a sociological phenomenon (a unique group of people).

    I would go with the epistemic phenomenon, except that I would prefer to omit that “unique way of knowing” part. Or maybe just omit the word “unique”.

    Therefore, definitions of science such as “the thing that scientists do” really hurt the epistemology of science, because it means that it is just about being part of the cool crowd, not having real knowledge about something.

    I don’t agree with that. People define science that way, as an admission that it is difficult or perhaps impossible to characterize what we mean by “science”. I don’t see that way of defining science as a commitment to it being a social phenomenon.

    However, either the philosophy of science has degenerated to the point where it doesn’t even understand the point, or it has progressed far enough to establish the difficulty of any public epistemology. If it has done the latter, no one has received the memo.

    I’m more of the view that philosophy of science has never properly understood science. And, conversely, science has never properly understood philosophy. The way that philosophers talk about knowledge is not a good fit with what scientists do.

  3. 3
    Robert Byers says:

    I don’t think science exists or rather its a minor reflection in human thought.
    I think one uses as much science in rockets as walking down the stairs in the dark. Yes one must think and test but its trivial.

    the best they can say is SCIENCE is a high standard of investigation that can demand confidence in its conclusions.
    Science is about proving things. iTs about conclusions well established.
    Our medicines are based on science. its important investigation.

    Evolution is not science because of many reasons.
    It can’t investigate very well past processes and events. They are gone. Invisible. So conclusions about origins must show that investigation has done a excellent job like in medicine.
    Further evidences for evolution are not based on the subject it seeks to explain. Biology no less. Most evidences for evolution are non biological ones. ID folks make this mistake too.
    The cambrian explosion is a great point to confound evolution on its own merits but its not a biological conclusion but a geological one if you think about it.
    So its not science either. Science is target oriented.

    The world sees science as smart people proving things that no one can disagree with.
    Thats why creationism is said to not be science before they tackle your arguments.

    Science must not be a complicated concept.
    It must be a smart quick equation. Almost scientific.

    Science is establishing a conclusion by obvious well established evidences.
    Its that or nothing.

  4. 4
    tjguy says:

    johnnyb: This article mentions Crichton’s Aliens Cause Global Warming article as well.

    http://crev.info/2016/01/the-science-media-racket/

    The article shows how science reporters regurgitate whatever they hear from “scientists” as if it was gospel truth. It shows the role that bias plays in many of these reports.

    It’s a good read.

    It gives an example of another wild claim similar to the aliens claim – this one about dancing dinosaurs that got regurgitated and spread all over the internet as a great new discovery.

    What is science coming to these days?!

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    Everyone is a scientist. It follows that science is what everyone says it is, not what some select few say it is.

  6. 6
    Axel says:

    The very adoption by atheists (who have subsequently become the Natural Science Establishment) of the word, ‘science’, as a magical, esoteric specialism from within the etymological, generic meaning, ‘knowledge’, has been a disaster, a gift to unreason, indeed, to rampant folly.

    A move back to the use of the designation, Natural Sciences – to demystify it and strip it of the glamour of success, owed, in the great paradigm shifts, almost entirely to theists and deists, and a recasting of the risible designation of The Enlightenment to The Atheist Cul-de-Sac, might be a step in the right direction.

    It started off as the basest form of knowledge discovered by man, but despite the best endeavours of the atheist Establishment, has ended up not too far from Robert Jastrow’s prophecy… that mountain top of knowledge of the natural world, where earth comes close to heaven: quantum mechanics : a universe of paradoxes beyond even the potential the capacity of the analytical mind to understand, in the sense in which we customarily use the latter term.

  7. 7
    Axel says:

    And I believe my description of atheist scientists as parasites is no metaphor. Sure, all scientists famously sit on giants’ shoulders, but the recourse to quantum mechanics and its microcosm that plays such a large role today, even in plain old manufacturing, would have been impossible, were it not for its deist, theist and Christian pioneers… who were not terrified by the thought of the fabled, divine, ‘foot in the door’ of Richard Lewontin’s nightmare scenario.

    Does that not completely disqualify their metaphysics from serious consideration. They are a disgrace, with their closed secular-fundamentalist minds.

    Indeed, Christian, Max Planck, its proto-pioneer, was a church sidesman all his adult life, yet, today, the parasites have taken over the host, even more completely than in Planck’s day.

    Imagine a materialist saying : ‘There is no such thing as matter, as such.’ Or, I think Eugene Wigner’s comment, that we mustn’t think of the trajectories of the particle beams in the double-slit experiment, as such – moving from one side of the slits to the other. That would make no sense. or, rather, the sense it makes, is not of the order of the fundamental reality,.. whatever that might be !!!

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