Science and external social needs


in M.Phil thesis, Science

One major analytical component of the thesis is the consideration of why scientists are a special group, within the larger set of expert practitioners (a category that includes snipers, surgeons, and sinologists). Usually, the explanation given relates to the scientific method: the norms according to which scientists engage with information. I was interested to see that Kuhn offers a different perspective:

In the sciences (though not in fields like medicine, technology, and law, of which the principal raison d’etre is an external social need), the formation of specialized journals, and the foundation of specialists’ societies, and the claim for a special place in the curriculum have usually been associated with a group’s first reception of a single paradigm. (SoSR 19, italics in original)

Two bits of this are interesting. The first is the idea of emergence in the unbracketed text. When Robert Keohane explained how new disciplines peeled away from philosophy as their practitioners became good enough to specialize in them, he was describing something similar. The ways in which new sub-disciplines within science emerge is clearly of interest. There are those that emerge primarily from the emergence and application of new paradigms (say, quantum chemistry). There are those that emerge because aspects of other sub-disciplines can be usefully combined (say, biochemistry). There may be others that emerge or endure on the basis of other characteristics.

To me, the assertion in the bracketed text is the more interesting part of this quotation. Glancing through the Science and Technology section of this week’s Economist, I see an article on the bacteria in the human digestive tract, and the relationship between obesity and the ratio of Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes found therein. Another describes a study on hypoxia (low oxygen in the blood) being carried out by shipping volunteers to different altitudes on Mount Everest. Another is on the use of linear temporal logic to address privacy concerns in computing. The last is about how wonderful bats are, when it comes to eating bugs that eat crops and helping to pollinate Agave plants critical to the manufacture of tequila. All four articles relate quite directly to “external social need[s].”

This is not to say that Kuhn is wrong; rather, the situation sheds light on the relationship between science and society. There may be reasons for studying bacteria or subatomic physics that are concerned purely with the development of further understanding of these things. These are now, however, the reasons that are generally presented to or accepted by budget committees. While it is obviously true that ‘useful’ science is easier to motivate people to fund, there is also the issue of verifying the superiority of new truth claims. When you can say that understanding nuclear physics allows us to generate thousands of megawatts of power and incinerate our wicked enemies, you can provide qualitative evidence for the superiority of information based on a modern nuclear conception of physics over a previous view that treated atoms as indivisible, or a still previous view that rested on the idea that everything in the universe is composed of a combination of water, fire, earth, and air.

Perhaps this linkage between scientific progress and social need can be set aside just by saying that the scientific ideal is unconcerned with “external social need,” while real world science operates under other constraints. What this doesn’t take into account is the possibility that science is part of a broader project: the kind of Enlightenment dream so shamelessly categorized on The Economist’s contents page as: “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” Is science separable from the myriad assertions in that phrasing (most importantly, that there is the possibility of progress, and that it can be evaluated by contrasting ‘intelligence’ with ‘ignorance’) or is the bubble of exclusion from external social needs that exists in the ideal case durable enough to isolate science from the historical context in which it arose, and the kinds of tasks that scientists are generally called upon (and often personally driven) to engage in? If not, we are returned to the question of what distinguishes science.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous January 7, 2007 at 12:56 am

Didn’t you resolve to “Step back from theoretical reading, in which I feel hopelessly bogged down, and do some specific reading of secondary literature on the Stockholm Convention and Kyoto Protocol?”

If so. Shouldn’t you be reading about your supposed case studies? I don’t think musings like those above get you much closer to a thesis. With less than four months to go, meat should be accumulating on those bones…

Milan January 7, 2007 at 1:07 am

That is probably true. That said, my little book of Kuhn is a lot lighter to carry around than thick tomes on the deliberations leading to the Kyoto Protocol: from COP-1 (Berlin 1995) to COP-12 (Nairobi 2006).

Milan January 7, 2007 at 9:45 pm

Note: there is a special issue of International Organization from 1992 on epistemic communities. One article is written by Haas. The issue is described by Lindsay Emma Johnson (U.Victoria, p.17).

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