Philosophy of Science

Part VI: A struggle in truth politics

The meaning of science is not given. It is a socially constructed phenomenon where the rules of scientific inquiry are created by norms, not by a truth “out there”. Surely laws can be proven, but only in the way we created what proving means, according to the naturalists: evidence, experiment, observation. Surely we shouldn’t argue that there is no gravity, we see it when our smartphone drops from the grip of our hands and hits the floor. But the way we explain it, prove it, predict it –that is based on norms and thus socially constructed.

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Gravity exists without us, but the way we understand it does not, thus the explanation always entails an interpretation by the human mind. Knowledge is in the same way socially constructed, to know something has been given a meaning by society. This does not mean that the naturalist argument of science being laws and prediction is by any means weak. However, living in a technically dominated world, a skill grown out of the natural science, it is not hard to understand the dominance of this perspective of the world, nor the power of the elite creating and reproducing it. Loosing the privileged perspective on what knowledge is, just as any other elite group being challenged in the history of civilization, will not be welcomed with open arms.

Science was created and is maintained in order to understand the world as well as a tool for improving life; finding vaccine to malignant diseases, controlling resources to solve problems as wide as logistics to climate change, understanding other cultures as well as our own, empowering individuals and groups used by others. Here lies the power of science and the value that makes society continue to contribute and support it through tax and funding. A society that looks to science to be guided, trying to “get things right”. This might appear portentous, but still the important contribution of science and so also a responsibility.

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A naturalistic epistemology as the dominant in science would disappoint this responsibility in failing in ability to cover all aspects, such as social inequalities and power struggles, often hidden in our organization of everyday life. When the velocipede had a breakthrough in the turn of the 19th century, natural science told us how it mechanically worked, how pedaling with a balance would make the wheels rotate with greater and greater power and transport the peddler forward. But what social science told us was how it emancipated women, formerly closed of from society in their housewife roles (Ekström, 2010). What is knowledge if we do not understand the meaning of the mechanisms? It is nothing but one-dimensional, and weak.

Another example is the belief many generations have in one new “revolutionary” medium. With only natural science we could regard every new technique as unique, in the sense that it works mechanically in a different way, say a computer from a newspaper. However it is social science that can make us aware that this is not something new, that every time goes through a similar discussion where a new medium stirs up a moral panic in society and challenges old elites. Another example of how these other dimensions can be provided by social science, is the social anthropologist and political scientist Benedict Anderson (2006) who showed how the printing press helped make national states a possibility. Without the contribution of sociology how could we understand the way cinema was a part in forming a youth culture (Sjöholm, 2003)? Arguing that this is not scientific knowledge would be failing the meaning of science, and if anything threatening its existence. If it cannot stay meaningful, it will seize to do what it set out to do.

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The meaning of scientific should also be able to develop towards an improved or more advanced condition. Relying on old norms and traditions in structure and method is not a good foundation for research and knowledge, challenging different perspectives and methods however is. Knowledge does not come from doing things the way they have always been done, but knowledge, insights, understanding, explanations, comes from taking new routes, trying new angles, and questioning the old. No other way can science remain relevant to humans and society as a whole.

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