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The social character of scientific method

The sociology of knowledge is not only self-destructive, not only a rather gratifying object of socio-analysis, it also shows an astounding failure to understand precisely its main subject, the social aspects of knowledge, or rather, of scientific method. It looks upon science or knowledge as a process in the mind or ‘consciousness’ of the individual scientist, or perhaps as the product of such a process If considered in this way, what we call scientific objectivity must indeed become completely ununderstandable, or even impossible; and not only in the social or political sciences, where class interests and similar hidden motives may play a part, but just as much in the natural sciences. Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring. If scientific objectivity were founded, as the sociologistic theory of knowledge naively assumes, upon the individual scientist’s impartiality or objectivity, then we should have to say good-bye to it. Indeed, we must be in a way more radically sceptical than the sociology of knowledge; for there is no doubt that we are all suffering under our own system of prejudices (or ‘total ideologies’, if this term is preferred); that we all take many things as self-evident, that we accept them uncritically and even with the naive and cocksure belief that criticism is quite unnecessary; and scientists are no exception to this rule, even though they may have superficially purged themselves from some of their prejudices in their particular field. But they have not purged themselves by socio-analysis or any similar method; they have not attempted to climb to a higher plane from which they can understand, socio-analyse, and expurgate their ideological follies. For by making their minds more ‘objective’ they could not possibly attain to what we call ‘scientific objectivity’. No, what we usually mean by this term rests on different grounds. It is a matter of scientific method. And, ironically enough, objectivity is closely bound up with the social aspect of scientific method, with the fact that science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method. But this social aspect of science is almost entirely neglected by those who call themselves sociologists of knowledge.

Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and com­petitors; rather it challenges them: they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes. (I may remind the reader that I am speaking of the natural sciences, but a part of modern economics may be included.) They try very seriously to speak one and the same language, even if they use different mother tongues. In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it. In order to avoid speaking at cross-purposes, scientists try to express their theories in such a form that they can be tested, i.e. refuted (or else corroborated) by such experience.

This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself. In spite of this, there will always be some who come to judgements which are partial, or even cranky. This cannot be helped, and it does not seriously disturb the working of the various social institutions which have been designed to further scientific objectivity and criticism; for instance the laboratories, the scientific periodicals, the congresses. This aspect of scientific method shows what can be achieved by institutions designed to make public control possible, and by the open expression of public opinion, even if this is limited to a circle of specialists. Only political power, when it is used to suppress free criticism, or when it fails to protect it, can impair the functioning of these institutions, on which all progress, scientific, technological, and political, ultimately depends.

In order to elucidate further still this sadly neglected aspect of scientific method, we may consider the idea that it is advisable to characterize science by its methods rather than by its results.

Let us first assume that a clairvoyant produces a book by dreaming it, or perhaps by automatic writing. Let us assume, further, that years later as a result of recent and revolutionary scientific discoveries, a great scientist (who has never seen that book) produces one precisely the same. Or to put it differently, we assume that the clairvoyant ‘saw’ a scien­tific book which could not then have been produced by a scientist owing to the fact that many relevant discoveries were still unknown at that date. We now ask: is it advisable to say that the clairvoyant produced a scientific book? We may assume that, if submitted at the time to the judgement of competent scientists, it would have been described as partly ununderstandable, and partly fantastic; thus we shall have to say that the clairvoyant’s book was not when written a scientific work, since it was not the result of scientific method. I shall call such a result, which, though in agreement with some scientific results, is not the product of scientific method, a piece of ‘revealed sicence’.

In order to apply these considerations to the problem of the publicity of scientific method, let us assume that Robinson Crusoe succeeded in building on his island physical and chemical laboratories, astronomical observatories, etc., and in writing a great number of papers, based throughout on observation and experiment. Let us even assume that he had unlimited time at his disposal, and that he succeeded in constructing and in describing scientific systems which actually coincide with the results accepted at present by our own scientists. Considering the character of this Crusonian science, some people will be inclined, at first sight, to assert that it is real science and not ‘revealed science’. And, no doubt, it is very much more like science than the scientific book which was revealed to the clairvoyant, for Robinson Crusoe applied a good deal of scientific method. And yet, I assert that this Crusonian science is still of the ‘revealed’ kind; that there is an element of scientific method missing, and consequently, that the fact that Crusoe arrived at our results is nearly as accidental and miraculous as it was in the case of the clairvoyant. For there is nobody but himself to check his results; nobody but himself to correct those prejudices which are the unavoidable consequence of his pecu­liar mental history; nobody to help him to get rid of that strange blindness concerning the inherent possibilities of our own results which is a consequence of the fact that most of them are reached through comparatively irrelevant approaches. And concerning his scientific papers it is only in attempts to explain one’s work to somebody who has not done it that we can acquire those standards of clear and reasoned communication which too are part of scientific method. In one point—a comparatively unimportant one—is the ‘revealed’ character of the Crusonian science particu­larly obvious; I mean Crusoe’s discovery of his ‘personal equation’ (for we must assume that he made this discovery), of the characteristic personal reaction-time affecting his astronomical observations. Of course it is conceivable that he discovered, say, changes in his reaction-time, and that he was led, in this way, to make allowances for it. But if we com­pare this way of finding out about reaction-times, and the way in which it was discovered in ‘public’ science—through the contradiction between the results of various observers—then the ‘revealed’ character of Robinson Crusoe’s science becomes manifest.

To sum up these considerations, it may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method; and the individual scientist’s impartiality is, so far as it exists, not the source but rather the result of this socially or institutionally organized objectivity of science. [ch. 23, 488-92]

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