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Science: Overview

Science: Overview

Science is a product, a particular kind of knowledge, as well as a process to obtain such knowledge. It is a social activity primarily aimed at obtaining objective and consensual knowledge about nature and to use this knowledge for socially desirable purposes. Scientists and philosophers disagree about whether scientific knowledge mirrors nature as it really is, or if it merely constitutes an instrument to describe and control natural processes and objects. Irrespective of the stance on this issue, scientists (and most philosophers) agree that objective and consensual knowledge can in fact be obtained, and that to a large extent the success of science derives from following certain rules and methods. Although there is no one scientific method that leads to true knowledge, there are rules and methods that are generally followed and in a loose way demarcate science methodologically from nonscience.


The methodological foundation of modern science was laid during the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Whereas one school of thought, going back to Francis Bacon, emphasized induction from particular observations and experiments, the followers of René Descartes favored a more hypothetical-deductivist approach. In the mid-nineteenth century, the two kinds of methodology were refined and developed by, among others, John Stuart Mill and William Whewell. It is commonly recognized that both methods are employed in real science and that they do not constitute two different ways of doing science. Moreover, the favored methods differ from one science to another. The methods of the astrophysicist are not the same as those of the botanist, yet they are not entirely different either.

Science is organized in a large number of disciplines and subdisciplines, including areas of research of a transdisciplinary nature. Although there have been many attempts to establish hierarchical, more or less natural classifications among the sciences, in the early twenty-first century these have largely been abandoned. All of the particular sciences have a limited area of validity, a domain of nature within which they are relevant and about which they can claim cognitive authority. Nevertheless, there is no one-to-one correspondence between domains and scientific disciplines, and many cases in which science has the "right" to speak about a certain domain is a matter of controversy. According to some positivistically minded thinkers, science as a whole covers all domains of nature, consciousness, and society in the sense that all meaningful questions can be answered scientifically, and they ought to be answered so. This point of view, which expresses a kind of scientific imperialism as it denies the legitimacy of, say, social, metaphysical, and religious explanations, is often referred to as scientism. Although few thinkers have endorsed scientism in a pure form, it is not unusual for scientists to believe that social and ethical questions can in the last resort be reduced to scientific questions. In his book Consilience (1998), the biologist Edward O. Wilson holds that the unification of the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities can be achieved on terms dictated by science. It is a matter of debate how stringently a scientific theory should be restricted to its original domain. Nature does not tell what is the proper domain of a scientific theory or principle. According to "restrictionists" a theory can be legitimately applied only to its scientific context, whereas "expansionists" are willing to extrapolate it to very different areas, for instance by means of analogies. Scientism is typically more appealing to expansionists than to restrictionists.

It is a major aim of history and philosophy of science to establish how science develops over time. Science has been hugely successful, but how is it that scientists know so much more of nature, and so much more reliably, than their predecessors? How is cognitive progress achieved? The traditional view is that new scientific theories build on earlier theories, which are criticized and improved upon, typically because they fail to account for new phenomena. They are modified or rejected in order to give way to new theories, although most of the old experimental data will still be valid and have to form part of the new theories as well. According to this picture, science essentially evolves cumulatively, by adding knowledge to knowledge or replacing obsolete knowledge with better knowledge. Whereas the picture stresses the evolutionary and conservative aspects of science development, it pays little attention to major conceptual restructurings of knowledge.

In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas S. Kuhn argued that cumulative progress occurs only in periods of "normal science" when the community of scientists within a given field agree upon the standards of science, its paradigm. During revolutionary changes a new paradigm replaces the older one, and the two kinds of science are so different that they cannot be compared rationally. They are incommensurable in the sense that there is no neutral, transparadigmatic way to define progress across a revolution. According to the strong version of Kuhnian revolutionary changes, paradigms constitute separate worlds between which no communication is possible. Consequently Kuhn's theory opens up for relativism, with all its problems (as discussed further below). The strong Kuhnian picture, however, does not agree very well with the history of science, which includes many examples of scientists who have had no problems in maneuvering between competing paradigms. Although revolutions in the strong sense rarely or never occur, science often experiences major transformations that may involve drastic reinterpretations of past knowledge. Yet even in such casesquantum mechanics may be an examplenew theories are usually designed to account also for the successes of past science.

Recent Developments

In classical sociology of science, such as that developed by Robert K. Merton (19102003) in particular, ideological, political, and economic factors form the framework of science development, but they do not affect the epistemic content of science. From the 1970s onward, groups of sociologists and philosophers have gone beyond this position and argued that science is not epistemically privileged compared to other, non-scientific modes of obtaining knowledge. Partly inspired by Kuhn's book, scholars such as Paul Feyerabend, David Bloor, and Barry Barnes claimed that science is essentially ideological in nature and that its knowledge claims can be fully understood in terms of social mechanisms, hence by sociology. According to the so-called strong program of science studies, the distinction between science and nonscience cannot be upheld; furthermore, there is no intrinsic difference between true and false statements in science. A true theory is simply one that happens to be accepted by the relevant community of scientists.

Epistemic sociology of science, sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), or social constructivism was a strong force in science studies during the last part of the twentieth century. It nevertheless left little mark on the scientists. Common to constructivists, of whatever inclination, is that they share to some degree a relativistic conception of science: A scientific theory is relative to social and cultural contexts, hence its truth value cannot be decided simply by comparing it with nature itself (that is, with observations and experiments, for these, too, are social constructs). Modern constructivists, such as Harry Collins, Andrew Pickering, Bruno Latour, and Karin Knorr Cetina, do not form a homogeneous group, but they all deny that science is a successful truth-seeking activity based upon an interplay between theories and experiments that reveal objective natural phenomena. In their arguments, they tend to emphasize controversies within the scientific communities, the contingent nature of scientific problems, and also the inescapable theory-ladenness of experiments. Naturally, the claim that accepted scientific knowledge is not derived from nature, but rather from local social and cultural contexts within and without the scientific community, has caused a great deal of controversy.

The "science wars" have principally been fought between scientists and academic analysts of science, but there have also been battles among scholars within the fields of sociology, history, and philosophy of science. In Higher Superstition (1994), the biologist Paul R. Gross and the mathematician Norman Levitt launched an attack on what they considered to be the antiscientific attitude of the "academic left." It is probably true to say that in the early twenty-first century such battles are no longer as intense as they used to be, and that the radical relativism of the 1980s has only a few advocates left. As far as the scientists are concerned, the large majority continue their work unperturbed by the controversy and in many cases blissfully unaware of it.

Yet the turn toward contextualism and constructivism has clearly left its mark upon science studies and opened the way for a variety of new approaches to the historical, philosophical, and sociological study of science. Thus, with the development of SSK it became natural to investigate the role played by rhetoric in the construction of scientific arguments (whereas, traditionally, science and rhetoric have been seen as antithetical). Most scholars in this area of science studies are content to point out the importance of rhetorical strategies, but according to others, closer in spirit to social constructivism, science itself can be understood as a form of rhetoric. Whatever the differences, after about 1980 rhetorical and literary analysis became a legitimate and popular tool in the examination of sciencealthough a tool unknown to most scientists. Among the rhetorical elements that have attracted much attention are metaphors in science.

Science is international, but of course it depends on national and other local contexts as far as funding, organization, and institutionalization are concerned. Since the late nineteenth century it has been argued that the national stamp also covers "styles" of doing science, which derive from either national characters or cultural traditions specific to a certain country. Although the notion of style is controversial, and that of national style even more so, the topic has been examined by several modern historians and philosophers of science. For example, Jonathan Harwood has used style as a historiographical category in studies of twentieth-century biology, and Alistair Crombie has provided an extensive treatment of style in science in his Styles of Scientific Thinking in the European Tradition (1994).

The gender aspect of science, although not a new one, has flourished only since the 1980s when Carolyn Merchant in The Death of Nature (1980) discussed the historical gendering of nature as female. Likewise, Evelyn Fox Keller argued in Reflections on Gender and Science (1985) that science, in its present form, is inherently masculine. One answer to the historically documented conflict between femininity and traditional science has involved attempts to develop a new "feminist science" that reflects what are supposedly feminine values, such as cooperation, tenderness, organicism, and reflexivity. This has resulted in a considerable amount of scholarship, but not any real changes in the practice and ethos of science. Social constructivists, radical feminists, multiculturalists, and postmodernist critics have been accused of fighting the case of antiscience. Nevertheless, although they oppose established science, they are not against science as such but rather seek to build up alternative modes of science in harmony with the social and cultural values they favor. Their endeavors have not been more successful, though, than the attempts of some Christian fundamentalists to establish an alternative "creationist science." The norms, contents, and institutions of modern science have a remarkable degree of robustness. If there are alternative sciences, they are marginalized and have, at least so far, been unable to challenge established science.

Theory, and particularly mathematically formulated theory, has traditionally been the focus of philosophy of science, whereas experimental practice has been considered merely an appendix to theory. Experimental results have always been of interest, but only from the 1980s has attention been given to experiment and observation as a process. Experiment has become an important field of inquiry, irrespective of its connection to theory. Indeed, Ian Hacking, Allan Franklin, and others have questioned the notion that observations are always "infected" by the theory under test. They have urged scholars to study experiments and observations in their own right, including how instruments are built and used in measurements. Many constructivist scholars share this interest in the experimental workplace. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life (1979) initiated a new kind of study, laboratory studies, in which scientists and other "actors" are followed in their daily work, much like anthropologists observe the habits of their subjects. Laboratory studies have in some cases been concerned with laboratories as buildings rather than work-places of scientists. The architecture and physical arrangement of laboratories, observatories, museums, and botanical gardens is a field of growing concern, among other reasons because they are seen as expressions of the values associated with science at any given time and place.

See also Experiment ; Paradigm ; Science, History of ; Scientific Revolution .


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Golinski, Jan. Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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Holton, Gerald. Science and Anti-science. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

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Helge Kragh

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