The main inspiration for this topic came froma tweet that recently surfaced that had a picture of a college anthropology lecturewith a presentation title that read, “Scientific Facts are Social Constructs,”This tweet gained the attention of a famous astrophysicist named Neil DeGrassTyson, who replied to it by saying, “The professor’s Smart Phone is based on athousand facts of science.
The only social construct is the social mediaenabled by it.” This tweet provoked an enormous argumentbetween those who are scientifically literate and lay people. People who areled by the philosophy that science is socially constructed often cause othermisinformed and misguided people to believe in their preaching’s and to claimthat other science is false. An example of how many people are scientificallyilliterate is a study done by Jon Miller, a researcher at the University ofMichigan Institute for Social Research in which he said, in 1988, only 10percent of U.S.
adults had a decent understanding of basic scientific ideas andwere able to read the Tuesday Science section of The New York Times. ThisStatistic has now risen to 28 percent by 2008 1. While an improvement, theAmerican public still has a long way to go. If the majority of people don’tunderstand basic scientific ideas, how are they going to be able to makeaccurate assumptions about the world around them? They can’t.
This is a hugeproblem because it leads to people believing in pseudoscience like astrology,vaccines cause autism and the flat-out rejection of science. In this paper, I’mgoing to be addressing pseudoscience, the dismissal of regular science, theclaim that scientific facts are social constructs and unraveling the variousmeanings associated with this proposition, and the solutions to this epidemic. Beforeentering the depth of this topic, we’re going to need some definitions. Ascientific fact is a proposition about nature, that has been repeatedlyconfirmed and accepted as true, with the aim of describing a particularphenomenon 2. An example of this is that living organisms pass on their genesto their offspring.
A theory is often, by lay people, looked at as just a merehypothesis. While true in the social world, it is not the case in science. Inscience, a theory is a network of facts that collectively produce a descriptionof reality that has stood up to many experiments. Scientists only call it atheory if the basic picture is correct. A theory may still have parts thataren’t so well established, but such uncertainties don’t invalidate the overallpicture 3.
An example of a theory is the theory of Evolution. The abovescientific fact, living organisms pass on their genes to their offspring,belongs to a network of other facts including, a greater diversity of fossilsis found in younger layers of sediment than in older layers, and homologousanatomical structures are ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom. If one were merely to say that scientificmodels are social constructs because they wouldn’t exist absent to society, onewould be stating a truism. A model by definition is a description of realityand a description requires social actors. To say that science is a socialconstruct is to say that the conclusions reached by a scientific model are notjust shaped by facts, but are also shaped by values that are particular to thesocial situation of whoever is doing the research. Scientific facts are notjust theory-laden but are also value-laden. According to the socialconstructionist, whether it’s because of differences in epistemic privilege byvirtue of different social situations, differences in the psychologies ofdifferent groups due to differences in upbringing, or the unique historical andcultural contexts that shape every discourse, every scientist will constructscientific knowledge in a manner that reflects their place in society. Whatthis implies is the existence of a plurality of sciences.
Each particular tothe demographic that partakes in the scientific activity. Because the sciencethat has been given institutional legitimacy was historically developed bystraight white men, the values that have shaped scientific conclusions hasreflected that, producing a science with is legitimated practices that benefitstraight white men at the expense of everybody else. Therefore, allowing for aplurality of culturally specific sciences will permit not only an expansion ofscientific knowledge but the legitimation of truths which serve the groupinterests of other demographics. Science, according to social constructionists,is ultimately politics by other means. They do not see science as our bestmeans of approximating the truth, but merely as a means of legitimating thosepractices that serve the class interests of whoever partakes in the activity.
The goal is to ultimately create a set of emancipatory sciences, which byrepresenting the interests of those who are not in power, will serve tolegitimate those practices that result in a more equal and fair society. Thecontents and application of science depend on whoever’s doing it. So, by makingscience more democratic in terms of what counts as knowledge, the interests of thepeople may be served by a plurality of sciences that each caters to aparticular demographic. At the very least, scientific models must be altered orruled out entirely so as to produce a set of conclusions which yieldemancipatory outcomes.
This is what it really means to say that science is sociallyconstructed. To start off this next section, I’llpresent a short story. School just got out and my friend Salik and I went tothe coffee shop across the street to hang out before heading home. While therewe were talking and it turned into a bit of a religious debate.
In this debate,he said something along the lines of “how can I criticize religion forconstantly changing when science changes all the time.” So before explaining tohim what I’m about to explain in this next paragraph, I asked him where he wastold that. To which he replied, “My priest talks about it all the time as anargument against the science that conflicts with our faith.” I was unaware thatthis was a problem to some people and it took me back that people actually makethat connection. So, to put that idea to rest, I will explain paradigm shifts.
It frequently happens that a theorywill apply just fine within a certain domain as classical physics does withsystems whose energies are neither too low nor too high, but outside of thatdomain fails to produce accurate predictions. Normal Science involves theapplication of an existing model in order to discover new propositions aboutnature. However once a scientific theory reaches the border of the domain inwhich it is applicable, anomalies begin to accumulate, culminating in a crisis,the model stops working. Walsh,C. (2017). Paradigm shift photograph. On slideplayer.com The most dramatic examples of thiscome from physics.
Where classical mechanic, despite enormous success and playingthe central role in the Industrial Revolution, it proved insufficient whenaddressing certain anomalies. Most famously were the perturbations (Inastronomy, a perturbation isthe complex motion of a massive body subject to forces other than thegravitational attraction of a single other massive body 4) in Mercury’sorbit, which was initially postulated to have been caused by a tiny planetbetween Mercury and the Sun. Under the Newtonian model, it made perfect sense.Similar perturbations in the orbit of Uranus were what allowed for thediscovery of Neptune in 1846. However, no planet between Mercury and the Sunwas ever discovered.
This was the crisis phase. The mystery of Mercury’sanomalous orbital perturbations wouldn’t be solved until the introduction ofEinstein’s general relativity in 1916, which required the elimination of suchbackground assumptions as the constancy of space and time. Even though generalrelativity required the introduction of new esoteric concepts that contradictedthe old Newtonian paradigm, it nevertheless became widely accepted after itsuccessfully predicted the bending of starlight during the Eclipse of 1919 5.We refer to such events in science as paradigm shifts. Wherein models will havetheir background propositions reoriented in order to produce brand new modelswith superior predictive power. The old paradigm of Newtonian mechanics reliedupon a certain set of background propositions which were amended with newbackground propositions, the most important of which was the invariance oflight speed. These, in turn, reorganized the facts that constituted the oldparadigm, producing the new paradigm of general relativity.
It is important tonote that general relativity did not replace Newtonian physics. It merelygeneralized mechanics to be able to describe systems that previously could notbe dealt with by the old paradigm. The mathematics surrounding generalrelativity are very tedious and produce results that are far more exact thanare usually needed at classical scales; which is why the Newtonian framework isstill used for such systems. However, while it’s true that general relativitycan be used to describe classical systems, Newtonian physics cannot be used todescribe relativistic systems. This patterntends to hold true for most paradigm shits in science; the concepts dealt withby the new paradigm cannot be understood in terms of the old one, even thoughit does tend to work the other way around. In the process of this paradigmshift, our understanding of the world became even more powerful and efficient.
All that one needs is a single tensor equation, plus the equivalence principle,and now not only can one explain everything that classicalphysics could, but you can now predict gravitational lensing, black holes,gravitational waves, the expansion of the cosmos, gravitational time dilation,and the shape of the entire universe. None of these things were even remotelyaccessible by classical physics. The takeaway here is that paradigm shifts willnot transpire unless there is going to be a net gain in predictive power.