CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (415) 723-2558
COMMENT: John Dupré, Philosophy (415) 723-2587
AAAS '96: Session 2:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9:
Scientists needn't fear "50-foot humanists," philosopher says
STANFORD -- When philosophers and sociologists offer critiques of science, scientists sometimes react like the frightened townspeople in an alien invasion movie, according to Stanford philosopher John Dupré.
Relax: There is no "Attack of the 50-Foot Humanists," Dupré told the scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Baltimore on Friday, Feb. 9. Those who study the history and philosophy of science are not monstrous beings slashing at the very foundations of the scientific method, Dupre said. Most of his fellow humanists are extremely deferential to science, he said, and there are too few academicians offering too little independent and constructive criticism of science and how it is conducted.
Dupré is a professor of philosophy at Stanford and co-director of the history and philosophy of science program. He is the author of The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science (Harvard University Press, 1993) and editor of The Latest on the Best: Essays on Evolution and Optimality (MIT Press, 1987).
He spoke in a session titled "Attacking Science: Science Critics Meet Their Critics," where participants were asked to consider whether independent criticism of science hinders its advance or helps scientists do a better job. In a recent book, two other panelists, Paul Gross of the University of Virginia and Norman Levitt of Rutgers University, had argued that courses in the sociology and philosophy of science give students and the public a distorted view of how science is conducted - and even threaten to undermine public confidence in science.
There are genuinely threatening attacks on science, Dupré said, such as threats to cut off funding for political or ideological reasons. But genuine threats seldom come from the academicians who study the history or philosophy of science. "The best work in science studies pays careful attention to what scientists do and believe, and makes no general efforts to put a stop to it," he said.
Some humanists raise the ire of scientists because they take a social constructivist view: They assert that scientific truth is a social construct, and that scientists' search for truth is at least partly motivated by social concerns, such as personal ambition, politics or greed.
"Surely it is a banal truism that science is socially constructed," Dupré said. That thesis says nothing about whether scientists' research results are true or false, he added. "I have no wish to deny that scientists are indeed often moved by disinterested concerns with truth, or pure love of inquiry, [but] scientists, surely, are also human."
Like any other human enterprise, science includes a broad background of beliefs and conditions, most of them unstated. That background partially determines what questions merit scientists' attention, which data are crucial and which can be set aside. "The crucial question is that of deciding how often and when such processes will lead to truth about the world, and whether, in the long run, scientific truths will survive longer than scientific falsehood," Dupré said.
Social constructivists often make provocative pronouncements about science, but Dupré said that on the whole they are not much concerned with the truth or falsity of science per se. If a historian of science chronicles the human motives and human errors on the way to a scientific discovery, he said, scientists' best defense is to decide if the discovery itself is valid and worth defending.
"However, far from there being a problematic explosion of attacks on science, there is a serious dearth of science criticism," Dupré said. Scientific claims have so much power and influence in modern society that they should be carefully scrutinized, and scientists themselves are not well equipped to do the job, he said. "It is a rare mind that can internalize the grounding assumptions of a scientific discipline to the extent required for advancing the agenda of the discipline, and yet still be able to hold up those assumptions to deeply critical scrutiny."
Dupré argued that science should be should be viewed as pluralistic, not a single monolithic entity, capitalized "Science." He used the example of economics to show that within a field of study, phenomena can be viewed in many ways. Economic policies that seek to reduce unemployment, for example, rest on the assumption that employment (service provided for money) is valuable and other kinds of unpaid work (caring for one's own children, volunteering in a homeless shelter) are not valuable. "Any way of defining employment carries with it a host of implicit value judgments," he said.
Scientific disciplines also are conducted from many different points of view - within the biological sciences, for example, ecologists may group organisms by ecological roles while evolutionary biologists group them by common origin. With these assumptions in the background, each discipline will make different decisions about which questions are worth studying and how they should be studied.
The role of the science critic should be "to identify the contingent decisions implicit in the pursuit of particular modes of investigating reality, and to suggest what might be their costs and benefits relative to other alternatives," Dupré said. The process may well lead to strong criticism - for example, that a particular scientific program is reaching beyond its limits, or that there are fundamental flaws in its conception.
"Such investigations no more constitute an attack on science than Kant's critiques constituted an attack on philosophy," Dupré said. "The need for critique, in this constructive sense, is in direct proportion to the power and influence of the ideas being subjected to critique. And no one can seriously doubt the present power and influence of science."
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