Sociological Factors in Science

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December 5, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Steven Benner. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Sociological Factors in Science

This blog is the third entry in a series by Steven Benner. The first posts can be found here and here. Throughout the series, Benner discusses the nature of scientific progress and the difficulty of defining what is and is not science. Discussion questions are included at the bottom of each post.

Last time we saw that ad hoc propositions are undesirable but inevitable byproducts of how science operates. This is largely because science is a fully human enterprise.

Science is set within a culture. Culture, defined broadly, is a collection of generally-accepted models describing reality (Thomas Kuhn used the word "paradigm"; others have called it a "received view"). Paradigms are so well accepted that members of a scientific community may not even think about them explicitly. Of course, a profound part of the culture underlying science is that something like a "reality" exists. Other examples are more specific to time and field, just as the notion that our Sun can be modeled as a large lump of coal (see my last post).

Central to the exercise is the recognition that one or more of these paradigms might be wrong. Indeed, individual scientists hope that they might discover that some proposition within the accepted culture is wrong, and become famous for their work that replaces it.

Unfortunately for those hopes, only a subset of the received view is in fact incorrect, and most of that subset is not "ripe" for discovery. Thus, Einstein's general relativity is more correct than Newton's views of how the solar system works, but it was not timely to point this out in 1860; the community was not prepared to discover relativity in 1860 and would not have been able to accept it had it been presented. To paraphrase Clarke, any insufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from lunacy.

For this reason, practicing scientists who wish to advance their general theoretical framework need to identify parts of the received view that are wrong, but only if that "wrongness" is ready to be found. How do they go about doing this? Generally, scientists start by making observations of the type that have not been previously made. In the case of Francis Collins, one might begin by sequencing the human genome. This is observation on the grand scale, building a model that places over 100 billion atoms in the molecules that support human genetics.

Scientists may then look within these for observations that are puzzling, that are not obviously what is expected given their paradigms, something that needs explanation. Not, for example, that the Sun rose this morning in the East; expected things do not demand explanations. But something that is not, at first glance, like it should be. Explanations are demanded only when things are not as they should be.

Scientists will then attempt to account for the puzzling observation using paradigms within their received view. More often than not, things work out. The puzzle can be resolved. The scientists publish a paper, get promoted within the academy or industry, and move on to the next puzzle.

This exercise, called "normal science" by Thomas Kuhn, sometimes fails. Sometimes, the puzzle cannot be solved by applying the theories and models that are accepted in the culture. This could be, of course, a sign that the puzzling observation was incorrectly made; perhaps the instrument used to make the observation was broken. Alternatively, the scientist might simply not know enough about currently accepted theory to solve the puzzle. Alternatively, failure to solve the puzzle could indicate that the received view contains an incorrect element.

These three possibilities have different prescriptions. If the observation is wrong, we should repeat the observation; if we do not have enough funding to do the experiment again, we must abandon the puzzle. If we do not know enough physics to solve a problem, we should learn more physics, or perhaps hand the puzzle over to someone else who already knows the physics. But if the underlying theory is wrong, we should try to construct an alternative theory, something new.

In these remarks, we find ourselves knee deep in the sociology of science. What scientists actually do depends on what grants they have, what their university dean is telling them, what is going on at home, or any of many other factors that have nothing to do with the science itself. The most common outcome may be to abandon the puzzle to find another that is easier to solve using extant theory. This sociology accounts in part for the rarity with which scientists actually advance theory. Historically, observations that demand the rejection of a paradigm are often known long before some scientist picks up the challenge in the way that actually rejects the paradigm.

But let us follow the thread that has a scientist picking up that challenge and actually proposing a new paradigm, one that rejects a paradigm that is part of the culture. At this point, the dynamics change.

First, the scientist who introduced the theoretical innovation becomes interested in seeing that innovation accepted. Those in the community who did not introduce the innovation do not have this interest. On the contrary, many are interested in opposing the innovation, perhaps because they themselves introduced the soon-to-be-rejected previous paradigm. Of course, those who did not introduce the innovation recognize that they might make their career opposing the innovation. If they succeed, then they might be viewed favorably by their peers as "giant killers".

Sociological dangers lie everywhere in this new dynamic. As noted in earlier posts, scientists have control over the data that they consider, but also over the data that they do not consider. Scientists control what experiments they do, but also what experiments they do not do. Scientists decide when to introduce ad hoc hypotheses to explain away apparently negative results, and when not to. This leads to what we might call the first law of argumentation:

If you control the data to accept and reject from experiments that you can choose to run or not, and if you can apply ad hoc propositions as you wish, you can argue yourself into believing just about anything you want.

And scientists who introduce innovative paradigms generally want to believe them, while their opposing scientists often do want not to believe them.

This has parallels in the law, advertising, and politics. A lawyer able to freely select the facts can generally convince you that any of his clients is innocent. The salesman in full charge of his message can persuade you to buy just about any product. Any politician in decent command of his rhetorical craft can pick and choose among things known to you to persuade you to vote for him. And any preacher who is allowed to pick and choose can justify any view of the world, and explain away any apparent contradictions.

What science does that is different is to embody a mechanism to manage this process. Science is an intellectual activity that has a process that forces scientists to occasionally come to believe something other than what they set out to believe or want to believe.

Here we have considered some sociological factors that can create bias within science; next time we will see how the scientific and community processes can mitigate this bias, and explore the tension between accepting and challenging the reigning paradigm.

Discussion Questions: Dr. Benner describes some sociological factors that determine how scientists choose what problems to work on, and how discoveries are made. Can you think of other examples that he didn’t mention? Does the fact that science is a fully human enterprise mean it is can’t be objective? How are science and law, for example, different in practice?

Steven Benner is a Distinguished Fellow of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL. He received his doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University. Benner and his group of researchers initiated synthetic biology as a field and invented dynamic combinatorial chemistry, which is currently being used in pharmaceutical development.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #66409

December 5th 2011

I do not think that science has fully understood Einstein’s views of relativity and I know that philosophy has not.  Philosophy has tried to make Relativity into Relativism, which it is not.  It is Relationality.  All things are relational, not relative.

Evolution is still tied to a Newtonian mechanistic view, rather than the Einsteinian relational view.  James Lovelock has tried to introduce a organic view to the biosciences, but has been rejected by Darwinians.      

athanasius - #66411

December 5th 2011

This is why I think it’s absurd when modernists ask why God didn’t just teach the ancient prophets modern science. They would have never believed Him.

HornSpiel - #66416

December 6th 2011

A nice resume of the philosophy of science, or the meta-scientific narrative.

What science does that is different is to embody a mechanism to manage this process.

This is key and yet to be demonstrated. I am interested if our lurking ID science advocates basically agree or not with what Dr Benner is saying.

Jon Garvey - #66419

December 6th 2011

Hi Hornspiel

Overall a great article on the sociology of science.
Every biologist should read it! When I read it first, it did strike me
that your quote maybe went slightly against the realistic grain of the

“What science does that is different is to embody a mechanism to manage
this process. Science is an intellectual activity that has a process
that forces scientists to occasionally come to believe something other than what they set out to believe or want to believe.”

eminently true for individual theories and hypotheses, but I’m not sure
it’s so true of meta-theories, and even more so in our day when science
itself, for the first time, has become an institution as opposed to
just the “natural philosophy” subset of higher education. In
mediaeval/early modern times, you were trained in logic, philosophy,
astronomy and finally theology, natural philosophy being in there
somewhere near Aristotle and astrology. Science was the intellectual
interest of private individuals in the Church or Academy. Now there’s a
world Science community, even a world industry if one considers the
finance tied up in it.

In that respect I think that modern
science handles major challenges no better or worse than politics or
business does. To my mind the materialist paradigm, though only 150
years old, plays a similar role to the dominance of Aristotle in a
former age. When your whole education started and continued with “truth”
established in the great age of Greek reason by its greatest thinker,
firstly it was hard even to see things in nature that conflicted
with him, still less to believe them, still less to face the wrath or
ridicule of the academy in publishing them.

Wonderful example:
Aristotle said a thrown object travelled horizontally until it stopped,
and then dropped. How easy is that to check? Yet nobody challenged it
until the late middle ages.

So there’s a good case for saying that if Neodarwinism were seriously
deficient, naturalism would be seriously compromised, and science would
have to face a bigger paradigm shift than the rejection of Aristotle.
That would be a threat to many people and institutions, which might be
evidenced by denial, marginalisation or demonisation of the critics,
closing of ranks and redefinition of science to exclude the possibility
of the paradigm shift.

Or to reverse the order, if one saw such
things in the scientific community over a new theory, it would indicate a
paradigm under threat, rather than just a new idea to which to adjust.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66431

December 7th 2011

Einstein’s theory and quantum separate and together are a severe challenge to the traditional materialist point of view, which is something that Dr. Benner does not understand.  The problem is not sociology as some think, but the history intellectual thought.

Science was made possible in the West because Christianity values practical experience and logic (the Logos).  Jesus said that a tree is known by its fruit. 

Intellectual thought has gone from Modernism based on Newtonian type absolutes to Postmodernism, based on Relativism.  The problem with the latter is that Einstein’s was not about relativism, but about relationalism. 

The issue here is there is no prescedent in traditional philosophy to make relationships the foundation of a realistic world view.  Thus it can’t be done because we don’t have the intellectual philosophical foundation for it.   

NeoDarwinism is grossly deficient, which is part of the reason it is under attack and the primary reason its adherents defend it so stridently.  Natural selection does not exist as a viable process for Darwinists, and thus naturalism is sorely attacked by Lynn Margolis et al..  

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