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Science Wars

Science Wars

The term science wars refers to a complex of discussions about the way the sciences are related to or incarnated in culture, history, and practice. These discussions came to be called a "war" in the mid 1990s because of a strong polarization over questions of legitimacy and authority. One side of the controversies is concerned with defending the authority of science as rooted in objective evidence and rational procedures. The other side argues that it is legitimate and fruitful to study the sciences as institutions and social-technical networks whose development is influenced by linguistics, economics, politics, and other factors surrounding formally rational procedures and isolated established facts.

The science wars began when a group of scientists and philosophers of science launched fierce attacks on a cluster of schools of social, historical, philosophical, anthropological, and multidisciplinary science studies. Such programs are variously called social studies of science ; science, technology, and society studies (often abbreviated STS); and sociology of scientific knowledge studies (SSK). The attack saw itself and presented itself as a counterattack necessitated by what the attackers felt was a growing destructive criticism of science and rationality. The assault was aimed not just at science studies but also at a general leftist/critical academic trend of disrespect of tradition, so that the science wars were, in effect, a front in the greater "culture war." In fact, several expressions of the attack have claimed to defend just such human and cultural values (e.g., socialism, feminism, critique of ideologies) that traditionally are the domain of the left, but were allegedly betrayed by the left's attempt to undermine traditional standards.

It may be argued that there need not be a conflict between the acknowledgement of the social and historical contextuality of science and its legitmacy and status as a resource for solving human problems. Indeed, much work in the philosophy of science after Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) has been devoted to the development of the affirmative understanding of scientific rationality and progress under the constraints of historicity and contextuality. But as schools of science studies began to develop more radical accounts, explicitly stating that no core of rationality is independent of history and context, with some of them making such statements as a direct provocative challenge to traditional understandings of science, the discussions turned into a bitter conflict, particularly in the United States, although a few fierce attacks have also been seen in Europe. The metaphor of a war tends to blur the great range of views within the schools of science studies, as well as the fact that the fierce counterattacks only represent a relatively small group of scientists.

The literature on science studies and their critical discussion is vast and only a fraction is mainly concerned with the issue of strong scientific realism versus radical social constructivism. The famous culmination of the science wars was physicist Alan Sokal's exposure of the lack of standards in his article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," published in 1996 in the leftist academic journal Social Text. A more complete expression of the science war argument was made by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in the 1994 book Higher Superstition. Classical expressions of radical science studies are found in works by Barry Barnes and David Bloor, as well as Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. Less aggressive and more reflective discussions of the issues involved can be found in Andrew Pickering's 1992 book Science as Practice and Culture.

The science wars debate has obvious interest in the context of the science-religion relationship because it exposes the institutions of science and shows them reacting to a form of critical pressure with obvious parallels to the situation facing religion during the first centuries of modernity.

See also Postmodern Science


barnes, barry, and bloor, david. "relativism, rationalism and the sociology of knowledge." in rationality and relativism, eds. martin hollis and steven lukes. oxford: blackwell, 1981.

gross, paul r., and levitt, norman. higher superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science. baltimore, md.: johns hopkins university press, 1994.

latour, bruno, and woolgar, steve, ed. laboratory life: the social construction of scientific facts. london: sage, 1979.

pickering andrew, ed. science as practice and culture. london and chicago: university of chicago press, 1992.

sokal alan. d. "transgressing the boundaries: toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity." social text 14, no. 46/47 (1996): 217252.

sokal alan d. "a physicist experiments with cultural studies." lingua franca 6, no. 4 (1996): 6264.

niels viggo hansen

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