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Science Grows Up!

Anne Dalke's picture

We have finally arrived (just in time for spring break!) at the radical
heart of this course: the insistence that good science must attend to its
social contexts, that the enterprise of the natural sciences must be treated, in theory as
it is in fact, as part of the social sciences. What are your reactions
to these claims? What is your response (for instance) to the
psychoanalytic move Keller makes @ the end of her essay, in claiming that
physicists' attachment to objectifiability is evidence of their "immature
magical thinking"? What do you think of Harding's argument that
scientists' ignorance of the social dimensions of their work is
"pornographic," "incompetent" and "deeply irrational"? Be concrete in
giving reasons for your responses: what social dimensions (for example)
have you observed among the practices of your own discipline?

Rebecca's picture

Standing the hierarchy on its ear

In her article Harding suggests taking the traditional hierarchy that places physics at the top and the humanities at the bottom and flipping it upside down.  This is interesting but a bit hypocritical.

To begin I do think that sociology be used to give science a good overhaul.  Undoubtedly science research and development must be refocused so that the lives of less advantage people, who are the majority, will be benefited.  A multimillion dollar project that comes to mind is the creation of a giant “ear” (interestingly enough called the “Serendip IV” project)  that is being created to listen for life on other planets.  Interesting but how many people could have been fed with that money?  I apologize for using another physics example but this project has been in the back of my mind as a grave offender.

I would like to propose laying the hierarch down or getting rid of it all together.  Sociology should be used to study science but I don’t believe it belongs at the top.  I believe we need this view from “many somewheres” and presently none of these academic disciplines really have that.  Sociology may have more somewheres than the sciences but on the institutional level sociology is still being practiced by those who are more advantaged. 


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Pemwrez2009's picture

fight fight fight

Ok, first off…I’m really all over the place with this one! WARNING!

Well first of all, why does everything that physics is boil down to gosh darn quantum mechanics? Is quantum mechanics really the only place where soul meets body, in a sense, or physics meets the social sciences? Sometimes I feel bad that, it seems like science is getting a lot of crap (excuse my words) for trying to define itself outside of theory and to develop some overlying definition. Isn’t that what everyone does in life anyway? Well, except for those philosophers who believe that the only thing we know for sure is that we know nothing at all!

I have to admit that I wasn’t too enthralled by Keller’s article. Probably the only part of Keller’s article that opened my eyes was when she talks about the idea that the act of observing automatically manipulates the results of any experiment.

“many authors have suggested that it is the act of observation which ‘causes’ the collapse of the wave function, thus inviting further debate about what is in the act of observation that triggers this reduction. Wigner (1975) has gone so far as to assert that it is the very act of knowing that exerts what is now perceived as a physical effect on the system, forcing it into a state with definite position, momentum, or spin.” (Page 146)

Thinking about this concept made me what to experiment with its application in other contexts. Keller seems to pay a lot of attention to the idea of the worlds of natural science and social science into the same framework. I felt like this is nothing new, I guess. For example, we use the scientific method even in writing creative essays!

Harding’s assumption that scientists only truth is their own, but don’t we all believe that the only truth is the truth that we as individuals believe? (maybe that was confusing) What I basically meant is the idea that there is some sort of “centrism” that is definitely abundant in the science community, or at least an obsession of an ultimate truth, but I feel like if we were to look at what Keller wrote, it almost seems like we could say that there is no ultimate truth except for the truth that we have deemed true, because our world is manipulated. We are perpetually observing to understand.


Flora's picture

That's nice, but what can we DO?

I must admit that I was less interested in the content of Keller's article than in Harding's. It was because Keller's article felt to be a critique of theoretical mindset while Harding was arguing for a pragmatic change. I like interventions. And while Keller's piece was interesting and a fun read and I agreed with her emphasis on the physicist's obsession with being the connection between the world and theory, Harding had a concrete solution. And I liked that.

Reading Harding was also a bit depressing. It was published in 1991. And the changes she hoped for have not occurred. But I was also frustrated by the limits of her intervention. She was arguing that science must have as its aim, socially responsible goals. However, the key element she was leaving out of her critique was that of capitalism. After all, even if government, nonprofit and academic institutions commit themselves to funding socially responsible science, where's the motivation for Joe CEO?

A big part of me is frustrated by reading these women. They have great arguments, to me, but if they're only being read in the context of a women's studies course, what then? How is institutional change created? They have addressed what is wrong in great detail, proposed some very theoretical solutions and explanations, but not a game-plan for how to fix it.


eli's picture

Social Order and Science

Susan Harding's article is compelling from the perspective that she articulates a thought that has long been indoctrined into my personal perception of science. Namely, that science is not free of social context. Science does not exist outside of our political or social reality, but is a product of it. The progression of science through history, from being a discpline of the antiauthoritarian, to now being percieved as defining authoritarian, is one such example of how culture and science influence one another. Science used to be "against the system," now it is "the system."

The scientific method is not without its cultural context. Our desire for Truth is very much a part of our culture, our desire for science and reason are very much values of our cultural upbringing. Our desire to objectively know things is very much apart of our cultural upbringing.

The example of scientists being mystics has been something that I've recognized since grade school. Math is the language of the scientific religion. Science and math are belief systems that we buy into.

At the same time, Harding and Keller aren't indicating that these are "bad." It would be completely counter argument to say that one's belief system is "bad," that one's world narrative is bad, when one is trying to argue that we need to have different narratives incorporated into science.

One point that caught my particular attention out of the Harding article was this concept that there need to be cultural scientists studying natural scientists. (pg 95-96) It seems we're doing a good job of that, since one of the growing fields in any graduate-school level programs are Science and Cultural Studies departments. I wonder how much we have to thank for the feminist critic for that phenomeon?


I had no reason to doubt that brains were suitable for a woman. And as I had my father's kind of mind -- which was also his mother's -- I learned that the mind is not sex-typed. -- Margaret Mead

rmalfi's picture

I'm feelin the burn.

Both Keller and Harding tackle some very interesting issues in their essays, though I have trouble agreeing with some of the points they make. I agree that the natural sciences, particularly physics, are somewhat shrouded in mystery and that there is widespread belief that the knowledges "contained" by these disciplines are inaccessible to those outside of these fields. I agree that this image (and practice) of science is a problem that needs to be addressed, and I agree that social scientists may be some of the most capable people in helping to remedy this situation, but I have to say that I do not agree with these two authors when it comes to the ideas of knowability.

While I agree with Harding and Keller that modern science is the product of a long political, relgious and philosophical history, I still believe that the scientific method has value. I think it's funny that Harding says, "If bridges stand... then [scientits think] the sciences that produced them must be objective and value-free" (p. 79), as I brought up this example in my last posting. I understand the idea that we need to contextualize and maximize objectivity through multiple persepctives.... but is the fact that we can build technologies based on science as it exists a demonstration of the fact that it "works" and that we do know something?

I guess this officially makes me an ontological realist. I think we can know something about our world, and I think we can measure it. There. I said it. Math, the basis of science (in most cases), is socially influenced, says Harding (p.84). Yes, it is. Like any language, math evolved as a way to assist the description and interpretation of the world as we see it. I agree with Harding and Keller that science is not entirely objective, but not in all of the ways that they postulate. I think we need to change our language in science, and I feel there have been moves made in that area. The scientific community leaves its findding open to refutation. We refute null hypotheses rather than saying that the alternative hypothesis is true. We try to understand the limits of our measuring tools and instruments. I also like Harding's point about considering more carefully the social implications and consequences of the questions we pursue (this is much like Wertheim's article in some ways). This is a fantastic point. Science needs to become more accessible to more people, and this needs to be acheived through educational systems that touch the most people (high school, undergraduate studies).

I think I'm a little all over the place, and that's because there is so much to discuss, to talk about. I agree with a lot of what they have to say. I think science is seen as "objectively knowing" and this may be a problem, but I think it's silly to go so far as to say that science has been wrong all along to claim it really knows anything, which is where I feel like these readings went... I stick to the bridges argument. Say what you will about it. Science needs to be more inclusive - and there are so many ways to acheive that - but I guess I'm one of those "purists" who thinks that the methods themselves (the assumptions we make, the math we use) don't really need to change. I think it's especially hard for me to understand her argument about the separation of subject from study object because I am an ecologist and all I do is study how we, humanity (which sort of inevitably includes me), influence our environment. Maybe that's why I can't really get Harding.

Sorry about the length of this.