Causation, Social Construction, and Relativism

I can feel myself being pulled to the dark side of philosophy through this semester’s classes and readings. I’m starting to think about causality. (mock horror)

In my STS class we just finished reading “The Strong Programme in the Sociology of Knowledge” by David Bloor. Bloor lists four conditions for an explanatory theory of science. It must explain the cause of beliefs, be impartial to the truth or falsity of beliefs, be symmetrical and use the same explanatory framework for true and false beliefs, and be reflexive or capable of being applied to sociology as well as science or any other human knowledge seeking/creating endeavor.

From such tiny seeds spring massive controversies.

The fundamental nut of confusion is what does it really mean to say that a belief is “socially constructed.” The scientific realist balks at the suggestion that science is controlled by the dirty biases of our human intellect. He wants to have a pure science that reaches for the truth no matter the circumstances.

The interesting turn that Bloor makes in his essay is to ask why the philosophers of science are willing to accept an explanation that science seeks after true beliefs when science gets something right, but then turn to socio-political explanations when scientists get something wrong. Shouldn’t there be some kind of symmetry between the two explanations? Isn’t the cause of our success the same as our cause the cause of failure?

Consider evolution. We tell ourselves that Darwin was a brilliant observer of the natural world and thus, the discoverer of evolution. He revealed the truth of the natural world to our eyes. Contrast Lysenko who we say was a puppet of the Soviet political system, a perpetrator of falsehood and politicizer of science.

Both Darwin and Lysenko, and any other scientist before or since, were embedded in a particular society and time. They had access to particular resources, financial, social, and technological. Don’t all of these things have something to do with whether they succeed or fail?

There’s a fear that if we accept a social explanation for scientific success then we will devalue science. I’m in favor of valuing science much more than we do currently. But still the philosopher in me wants to shake science off of its pedestal. It is as much a human endeavor as any other activity we pursue. There are good reasons to protect this human endeavor from political abuse and good reasons to promote it because it produces new knowledge. Even a socially constructed fact can be believed to be true.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.