Saturday, November 13, 2010

Science as a Social Construct

Douglas, Mary.  “Environments at Risk” in Science in Context, Barry Barnes & David Edge, eds.  Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1982 (pp. 260-75)

Science in Context is a collection of essays focusing on the sociology of science.  The purpose of the collection, as stated in the General Introduction, is to “provide a tolerable indication of what is going on in the sociology of science, and, more importantly, of what kind of social activity science is, and what its significance is.”  The primary focus of the collection is on the relationship between the sub-culture of science and the wider culture that surrounds it, especially as it relates to science as a source of knowledge and competence and as a cognitive authority for evaluating knowledge claims.

Central to the ideas of sociology of science are the writings of Thomas Kuhn, especially his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  From Kuhn, sociologists of science have concluded that science is a social construct, and that even statements of scientific fact have a conventional character.  Because it is constructed and not intrinsic to the natural world, they conclude that it cannot be self-sustaining, and if it cannot be self-sustaining in the sub-culture of science, then neither can it be self-sustaining in mainstream culture.  There is nothing in science that implicitly reveals its correctness and so its standing in society depends upon the degree of trust and authority with which society imbues scientists and institutions.

In her essay, Mary Douglas examines the issue of credibility in the context of the ecology movement.  She is concerned with how beliefs arise and how they gain support.  The approach she takes is of the anthropologist from Mars, an hypothetical being that is agnostic when it comes to beliefs about the Earth’s environment.  In her view this suspension of belief is what allows us to confront the fundamental question of credibility.  She asserts that civilizations throughout history have viewed their environments to be at risk, although the risks they identified were generally not the same, but she claims that all civilizations pin responsibility for the crisis in the same way.  The environment is put at risk by human folly, hate and greed.

In the present, however, we have an added factor: self-knowledge.  Because we can compare our beliefs with those of others we lose the filtering mechanism that those earlier civilizations possessed.  We no longer have anything to restrict our perception of the sources of knowledge.  Credibility is easier in a limited belief system, but how do you determine credibility when opposing sides of an issue both make sense?  This is the question confronting environmentalists in our age.

Through various anthropological examples she endeavors to show that the credibility of a belief regarding how the environment will react to human action depends upon the moral commitment of the community to a particular set of institutions.  For example, bison do not like fratricide (murder within the tribe), so such an act endangers the well-being of the tribe and as a result has special sanctions.  So long as the institutions in question maintain the loyalty of the community, nothing can overthrow the beliefs that support those institutions.  If those institutions lose the support of the community, she claims that the beliefs are easily changed.  A particular view of the universe and the society holding that view are thus interdependent.  They form a single system and neither can exist without the other.  Any given environment that we know thus exists as a structure of meaningful distinctions.

In this credibility debate the role of laymen and social scientists is to examine the sources of our own bias.  Because we lack the moral consensus that gives credibility to ecological warnings we do not listen to the scientists.  Similarly, because we lack a discriminating principle we are easily overwhelmed by our pollution fears.  This discriminating principle comes from social structures and it allows a culture to select which dangers it will fear and also to set up a belief system that will address those dangers.  Without that structure we are prey to every dread and right and wrong cease to exist.  This is the price of full self-consciousness, but it is a price that she feels we must pay.  When we do that the classifications of social life will be gone and we will recognize that every environment is simply a mask and support structure for a certain kind of society.  Understanding both the nature and value of that society is as important as understanding the sources and nature of the pollution that puts our environment at risk.

Mary Douglas deliberately picks an area of science where our understanding is incomplete and in which the debate over competing theories has become politically charged.  Consensus is not the final arbiter of a scientific theory or hypothesis.  Unfortunately in the case of the environment politicians and advocates have created a situation where that is the level at which the discussion of the various theories and hypotheses is taking place.


  1. I added your blog to this list for history of science blogs: