Defending science—within reason: the critical common-sensist manifesto: a noted philosopher of science proposes a “Critical Common-sensist” account of how science proceeds, which she believes can correct the :over-optimism of the Old Deferentialism toward science without succumbing to the factitious despair of the anti-scientific New Cynicism

Susan Haack

That men should rush with violence from one extreme, without going more or less ,into the contrary extreme, is not to be expected from the weakness of human nature.

–Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers (1875)

Attitudes to science range all the way from uncritical admiration at one extreme, through distrust, resentment, and envy, to denigration and outright hostility at the other. We are confused about what science can and what it can’t do. and about how it does what it does: about how science differs from literature or art; about whether science is really a threat to religion; about the role of science in society and the role of society in science. And we are ambivalent about the value of science. We admire its theoretical achievements, and welcome technological developments that improve our lives; but we are disappointed when hoped-for results are not speedily forthcoming, dismayed when scientific discoveries threaten cherished beliefs about ourselves and our place in the universe, distrustful of what we perceive as scientists’ arrogance or elitism, disturbed by the enormous cost of scientific research, and disillusioned when we read of scientific fraud, misconduct, or incompetence.

Complicated as they are, the confusions can be classified into two broad kinds, the scientistic and the anti-scientific. Scientism is an exaggerated kind of deference towards science, an excessive readiness to accept as authoritative any claim made by the sciences, and to dismiss every kind of criticism of science or its practitioners as anti-scientific prejudice. Anti-science is an exaggerated kind of suspicion of science, an excessive readiness to see the interests of the powerful at work in every scientific claim, and to accept every kind of criticism of science or its practitioners as undermining its pretensions to tell us how the world is. The problem, of course, is to say when the deference, or the suspicion, is “excessive.”

Disentangling the confusions is made harder by an awkward duality of usage. Sometimes the word “science” is used simply as a way of referring to certain disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth, usually also anthropology and psychology, sometimes also sociology, economics, and so on. But often perhaps more often than no–“science” and its cognates are used honorifically: advertisers urge us get our clothes cleaner with new, scientific, Wizzo; teachers of critical thinking urge us to reason scientifically, to use the scientific method; juries are more willing to believe a witness when told that what he offers is scientific evidence; astrology, water-divining, homeopathy, or chiropractic or acupuncture are dismissed as pseudosciences; skeptical of this or that claim, people complain that it lacks a scientific explanation, or demand scientific proof. And so on. “Scientific” has become an all-purpose term of epistemic praise, meaning “strong, reliable, good.” No wonder, then, that psychologists and sociologists and economists are sometimes so zealous in insisting on their right to the title. No wonder, either, that practitioners in other areas–“Management Science,” “Library Science,” “Military Science,” even “Mortuary Science”–are so keen to claim it.

In view of the impressive successes of the natural sciences, this honorific usage is understandable enough. But it is thoroughly unfortunate. It obscures the otherwise obvious fact that not all or only practitioners of disciplines classified as sciences are honest, thorough, successful inquirers; when plenty of scientists are lazy, incompetent, unimaginative, unlucky, or dishonest, while plenty of historians, journalists, detectives, etc., are good inquirers. It tempts us into a fruitless preoccupation with the problem of demarcating real science from pretenders. It encourages too thoughtlessly uncritical an attitude to the disciplines classified as sciences, which in turn provokes envy of those disciplines, and encourages a kind of scientism–inappropriate mimicry, by practitioners of other disciplines, of the manner, the technical terminology, the mathematics, etc., of the natural sciences. Mad it provokes resentment of the disciplines so classified, which encourages anti-scientific attitudes. Sometimes you can even see the envy and the resentment working together: for example, with those self-styled ethnomethodologists who undertake “laboratory studies” of science, observing, as they would say, part of the industrial complex in the business of the production of inscriptions; or however grudgingly, you have to admit the rhetorical brilliance of this self-description–with “creation science.” And, most to the present purpose, this honorific usage stands in the way of a straightforward acknowledgement that science-science, that is, in the descriptive sense is neither sacred nor a confidence trick.

Science is not sacred: like all human enterprises, it is thoroughly fallible, imperfect, uneven in its achievements, often fumbling, sometimes corrupt, and of course incomplete. Neither, however, is it a confidence trick: the natural sciences, at any rate, have surely been among the most successful of human enterprises. The core of what needs to be sorted out concerns the nature and conditions of scientific knowledge, evidence, and inquiry; it is epistemological. (No, I haven’t forgotten Jonathan Ranch’s wry observation: “If you want to empty the room at a cocktail party, say ‘epistemology'”; (1) but the word is pretty well indispensable for my purposes because, unlike “theory of knowledge,” it has adjectival and adverbial forms.) What we need is an understanding of inquiry in the sciences which is, in the ordinary, nontechnical sense of the word, realistic, neither overestimating nor underestimating what the sciences can do.

What we have, however, is a confusing Babel of competing, unsatisfactory accounts of the epistemology of science. How did we come to such a pass?

From the Old Deferentialism to the New Cynicism

Once upon a time–the phrase is a warning that what follows will be cartoon history–the epistemological bona fides of good empirical science needed to be defended against the rival claims of sacred scripture or a priori metaphysics. In due course it came to be thought that science enjoys a peculiar epistemological authority because of its uniquely objective and rational method of inquiry. In the wake of the extraordinary successes of the new, modern logic, successive efforts to articulate the “logic of science” gave rise to umpteen competing versions of what I call the “Old Deferentialism”: science progresses inductively, by accumulating true or probably true theories confirmed by empirical evidence, by observed facts; or deductively, by testing theories against basic statements and, as falsified conjectures are replaced by corroborated ones, improving the verisimilitude of its theories; or instrumentally, by developing theories which, though not themselves capable of truth, are efficient instruments of prediction; or, etc., etc. There were numerous obstacles: Humean skepticism about induction; the paradoxes of confirmation; the “new riddle of induction” posed by Nelson Goodman’s “grue”; Russell Hanson’s and others’ thesis of the theory-dependence of observation; W.V.O. Quine’s thesis of the underdetermination of theories even by all possible observational evidence. But these, though acknowledged as tough, were assumed to be superable, or avoidable.

It is tempting to describe these problems in Kuhnian terms, as anomalies facing the Old Deferentialist paradigm just as a rival was beginning to stir. Thomas Kuhn himself, it soon became apparent, hadn’t intended radically to undermine the pretensions of science to be a rational enterprise. But most readers of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, missing many subtleties and many ambiguities, heard only: science progresses, or “progresses,” not by the accumulation of well-confirmed truths, or even by the elimination of conjectures shown to be false, but by revolutionary upheavals in a cataclysmic process the history of which is afterwards written by the winning side; there are no neutral standards of evidence, only the incommensurable standards of different paradigms; the success of a scientific revolution, like the success of a political revolution, depends on propaganda and control of resources; a scientist’s shift of allegiance to a new paradigm is less like a rational change of mind than a religious conversion–a conversion after which things look so different to him that we might almost say he lives “in a different world.”

Even so, a quarter of a century ago now, when Paul Feyerabend proclaimed that there is no scientific method, that appeals to “rationality” and “evidence” are no more than rhetorical bullying, that science is not superior to, only better entrenched than, astrology or voodoo, he was widely regarded–he described himself–as the “court jester” of the philosophy of science. Post-Kuhnian Deferenrialists, adding “incommensurability” and “meaning-variance” to their list of obstacles to be overcome, modified and adapted older approaches; but remained convinced not only of the rationality of the scientific enterprise, but also of the power of formal, logical methods to account for it.

But then radical sociologists, feminists and multiculturalists, radical literary theorists, rhetoricians, and semiologists, and philosophers outside strictly philosophy-of-science circles, began to turn their attention to science. Proponents of this new almost-orthodoxy, though they disagreed among themselves on the finer points, were unanimous in insisting that the supposed ideal of honest inquiry, respect for evidence, concern for truth, is a kind of illusion, a smokescreen disguising the operations of power, politics, and rhetoric. Insofar as they were concerned at all with the problems that preoccupied mainstream philosophy of science–theory-dependence, underdetermination, incommensurability, and the rest–they proclaimed them insuperable, further confirmation that the epistemological pretensions of the sciences are indefensible. Appeal to “facts” or “evidence” or “rationality,” they maintained, is nothing but ideological humbug disguising the exclusion of this or that oppressed group. Science is largely or wholly a matter of interests, social negotiation, or of myth making, the production of inscriptions or narratives; not only does it have no peculiar epistemic authority and no uniquely rational method, but it is really, like all purported “inquiry,” just politics. We arrived, in short, at the New Cynicism.

Feyerabend, who seems in retrospect the paradigm Old Cynic, promised to free us of “the tyranny of … such abstract concepts as ‘truth,’ ‘reality,’ or ‘objectivity’.” Now New Cynics like Harry Collins assure us that “the natural world has a small or nonexistent role in the construction of scientific knowledge”; and Kenneth Gergen that the validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences “is in no way affected by factual evidence.” Ruth Hubbard urges that “[f]eminist science must insist on the political nature and content of scientific work”; and Sandra Harding asks why it isn’t “as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s laws as ‘Newton’s rape manual’ as it is to call them ‘Newton’s mechanics’.” Ethnomethodologist of science Bruno Latour announces that “[a]ll this business about rationality and irrationality is the result of an attack by someone on associations that stand in the way”; and rhetorician of science Steve Fuller proposes “a ‘shallow’ conception … that locates the authoritative character of science, not in an esoteric set of skills or a special understanding of reality, but in the appeals to its form of knowledge that others feel they must make to legitimate their own activities.” Richard Rorty informs readers that “[t]he only sense in which science is exemplary is that it is a model of human solidarity,” and Stanley Fish that “the distinction between baseball and science is not finally so firm.'” Reacting against the scientism towards which the Old Deferentialism sometimes veered uncomfortably close, rushing with violence into the opposite extreme, the New Cynics take an unmistakably anti-scientific tone.

Perhaps it is no wonder that many scientists came to regard philosophy of science as at best irrelevant–“about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” With the exception of a few enthusiastic Popperians, working scientists seem to have been mostly unaware of or indifferent to Old Deferentialist aspirations to offer them advice on how to proceed. But in 1987–provoked by Alan Chalmers’ observation, at the beginning of his popular introduction to philosophy of science, that “[w]e start off confused and end up confused on a higher level” (3)–physicists Theocharis and Psimopoulos published an impassioned critique of “betrayers of the truth”: Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend, “the worst enemy of science.” And as the influence of New Cynicism grew, more scientists were moved to defend the honor of their enterprise: Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in Higher Superstition; Max Perutz denouncing rhetoric of science as “a piece of humbug masquerading as an academic discipline”; Sheldon Glashow deconstructing his letter of invitation to a conference on “The End of Science”; Alan Sokal parodying postmodernist “cultural critique” of science; and Steven Weinberg replying to the “cultural adversaries” of science. (4) Sometimes they made a good showing; but, not surprisingly, they didn’t aspire to supply the realistic account of the epistemology of science required for an adequate defense against the extravagances of the New Cynicism.

Mainstream philosophy of science, meanwhile, had become increasingly specialized and splintered. Though many philosophers of science ignored the New Cynicism, a few tackled it head on: John Fox criticizing self-styled “ethnomethodologists of science”; Larry Laudan in running battles with proponents of the “Strong Programme” in sociology of science; Mario Bunge protesting the influence of Romanticism and subjectivism; Noretta Koertge wrestling with the social constructivists. (5) Sometimes they made a good showing too. And with an increased readiness to accommodate social aspects of science, a turn towards one or another form of naturalism, and, since Bas Van Fraassen’s influential defense of constructive empiricism, something of a retreat from strong forms of scientific realism, there were efforts to acknowledge the elements of truth to which the New Cynicism gestures, without succumbing to its extravagances. But some mainstream philosophers of science–especially, perhaps, those most anxious not to offend the feminists–seem to have gone too far in the direction of the New Cynicism: as when Ronald Giere suggested that there might be something in the Nazi concept of “Jewish physics,” as in feminist complaints of the masculinity of science;” and many others, still clinging to the Old Deferentialist reliance on formal, logical methods as sufficient to articulate the epistemology of science, seem not to have gone far enough. In my opinion, anyway, the realistic understanding we need still eludes us.

Still, as I articulate my Critical Common-sensist account–which I believe can correct the over-optimism of the Old Deferentialism without succumbing to the factitious despair of the New Cynicism–I won’t forget the cautionary story of the student who is said to have observed in his Introduction to Philosophy examination that while some philosophers believe that God exists, and some philosophers believe that God does not exist, “the truth, as so often, lies somewhere in between.” Though there are elements of truth in both the Old Deferentialism and the New Cynicism, a crude split-the-difference approach won’t do; for as Algernon observes in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the truth “is seldom pure and never simple.”

Critical Common-sensism

Critical Common-sensism acknowledges, like the Old Deferentialism, that there are objective standards of better and worse evidence and of better and worse conducted inquiry; but proposes a more flexible and less formal understanding of what those standards are. Critical Common-sensism acknowledges, like the New Cynicism, that observation and theory are interdependent, that scientific vocabulary shifts and changes meaning, and that science is a deeply social enterprise; but sees these, not as obstacles to an understanding of how the sciences have achieved their remarkable successes, but as part of such an understanding.

The core standards of good evidence and well-conducted inquiry are not internal to the sciences, but common to empirical inquiry of every kind. In judging where science has succeeded and where it has failed, in what areas mid at what times it has done better and in what worse, we are appealing to the standards by which we judge the solidity of empirical beliefs, or the rigor and thoroughness of empirical inquiry, generally. Often, to be sure, only a specialist can judge the weight of evidence or the thoroughness of precautions against experimental error, etc.; for such judgments require a broad and detailed knowledge of background theory, and a familiarity with technical vocabulary, not easily available to the lay person. Nevertheless, respect for evidence, care in weighing it, and persistence in seeking it out, so far from being exclusively scientific desiderata, are the standards by which we judge all inquirers, detectives, historians, investigative journalists, etc., as well as scientists. In short, the sciences are not epistemologically privileged.

They are, however, epistemologically distinguished; the natural sciences at least, fallible and imperfect as they are, have succeeded remarkably well by the core epistemological standards of all serious inquiry. But distinction, unlike privilege, has to be earned; and the natural sciences have earned, not our uncritical deference, but our tempered respect.

The evidence for scientific claims and theories–consisting, not simply of the “data” or “observation statements” of the Old Deferentialism, but of experiential evidence and reasons working together–is like empirical evidence generally, but even more complex and ramifying. Think of the controversy over that four-billion-year-old meteorite discovered in Antarctica, thought to have come from Mars about 11,000 years ago, and found to contain what might possibly be fossilized bacteria droppings. Some space scientists think this is evidence of early Martian life; others think the bacterial traces might have been picked up while the meteorite was in Antarctica; others again believe that what look like fossilized bacteria droppings might be merely artifacts of the instrumentation. How do they know that the meteorite’s giving off these gases when heated indicates that it comes from Mars? That it is about 4 billion years old? That this is what fossilized bacteria droppings look like?–like crossword entries, reasons ramify in all directions.

How reasonable a crossword entry is depends on how well it is supported by its clue and any already-completed intersecting entries; on how reasonable those other entries are, independent of the entry in question; and on how much of the crossword has been completed. Similarly, what makes evidence stronger or weaker, a claim more or less warranted, depends on how supportive the evidence is; on how secure it is, independent of the claim in question; and on how much of the relevant evidence it includes.

While judgments of evidential quality are perspectival, dependent on background beliefs about, for instance, what evidence is relevant to what, evidential quality itself is objective; the determinants of evidential quality are not subjective or context-dependent, as New Cynics suppose. Neither, however, are they purely logical, as Old Deferentialists thought; they are worldly, depending both on scientists’ interactions with particular things and events in the world, and on the relation of scientific language to kinds and categories of things. Observation interacts with background beliefs, as clues interact with already-completed crossword entries: what observations are taken to be relevant, and what is noticed when observations are made, depends on background assumptions; and the workings of instruments of observation, such as the mass spectrometer and ultra-high-resolution transmission microscope on which those space scientists relied, depend on other scientific theories.

Scientific inquiry is continuous with the most ordinary of everyday empirical inquiry. There is no mode of inference, no “scientific method,” exclusive to the sciences and guaranteed to produce true, probably true, more nearly true, or more empirically adequate, results. As Percy Bridgman put it, “the scientific method, as far as it is a method, is nothing more than doing one’s damnedest with one’s mind, no holds barred.” (7) And, as far as it is a method, it is what historians or detectives or investigative journalists or the rest of us do when we really want to find something out: make an informed conjecture about the possible explanation of a puzzling phenomenon, check how it stands up to the best evidence we can get, and then use our judgment whether to accept it, more or less tentatively, or modify, refine, or replace it.

Inquiry is difficult and demanding, and we very often go wrong. Sometimes the problem is a failure of will; we don’t really want to know badly enough to go to all the trouble of finding out, or we really don’t want to know, and go to a lot of trouble nor to find out. And even with the best will in the world, we often fail. Our senses, our imaginations, and our intellects are limited; we can’t always see, or guess, or reason, well enough. The remarkable successes of the natural sciences are due, not to a uniquely rational scientific method, but to the vast range of “helps” to inquiry devised by generations of scientists to overcome natural human limitations. Instruments of observation extend sensory reach; models and metaphors stretch imaginative powers; linguistic and conceptual innovations enable a vocabulary that better represents real kinds of thing and event; techniques of mathematical and statistical modelling enable complex reasoning; the cooperative and competitive engagement of many people in a great mesh of sub-communities within and across generations permits division of labor and pooling of evidence, and–though very fallibly and imperfectly, to be sure has helped keep most scientists, most of the time, reasonably honest.

As you and I can complete the crossword faster and more accurately if your knowledge of Shakespeare and quick ear for puns complements my knowledge of popular music and quick eye for anagrams, so scientific inquiry is advanced by complementary talents. And interactions among scientists, both within and across generations, are essential not only to the division of scientific labor, but also to the sharing of scientific evidence, to a delicate mesh of reasonable confidence in others’ competence and honesty. Moreover, scientific claims are better and worse warranted, and there is a large grey area where opinions may reasonably differ about whether a claim is yet sufficiently warranted to put in the textbooks, or should be subjected to further tests, assessed more carefully relative to an alternative, or what. There can no more be rules for when a theory should be accepted and when rejected than there could be rules for when to ink in a crossword entry and when to rub it out; “the” best procedure is for different scientists, some bolder, some more cautious, to proceed differently.

Scientific theories are (normally) either true or else false. A scientific claim or theory is true just in case things are as it says; e.g., if it says that DNA is a double-helical, backbone-out macromolecule with like-with-unlike base pairs, it is true just in case DNA is a double-helical, backbone-out macromolecule with like-with-unlike base pairs. Truth, like evidential quality, is objective; i.e., a claim is true or false, as evidence is better or worse, independent of whether anybody, or everybody, believes it to be so. But there is no guarantee that every scientist is entirely objective, i.e., is a completely unbiased and disinterested truth-seeker, immune to prejudice and partisanship; far from it. Nevertheless, the natural sciences have managed, by and large and in the long run, to overcome individual biases by means of an institutionalized commitment to mutual disclosure and scrutiny, and by competition between partisans of rival approaches.

A popular stereotype sees “the scientist” as objective in the sense, not merely of being free of bias or prejudice, but as unemotional, unimaginative, stolid, a paradigmatically convergent thinker. Perhaps some scientists are like this; but nor, thank goodness, all of them. “Thank goodness,” because imagination is essential to successful scientific inquiry, and a passionate obsession with this or that problem, even a passionate commitment to the truth of this or that elegant but as yet unsupported conjecture, or a passionate desire to best a rival, can contribute to the progress of science. Another stereotype, this time perhaps more philosophical than popular, sees “the scientist” as an essentially critical thinker, refusing to take anything on authority. A systematic commitment to testing, checking, and mutual disclosure and scrutiny is one of the things that has contributed to the success of natural-scientific inquiry; but this is, and must be, combined with the institutionalized authority of well-warranted results. Not that crossword entries once inked-in never have to be revised; but only by taking some for granted is it possible to isolate one variable at a time, or to tackle a new problem with the help of others’ solutions to older problems.

Not all scientific theories are well-supported by good evidence. Most get discarded as the evidence turns out against them; nearly all, at some stage of their careers, are only tenuously supported speculations; and doubtless some get accepted, even entrenched, on flimsy evidence. Nevertheless, the natural sciences have come up with deep, broad, and explanatory theories which are well anchored in experience and interlock surprisingly with each other; and, as plausibly filling in long, much-intersected crossword entries greatly improves the prospects of completing more of the puzzle, these successes have enabled further successes. Progress in the sciences is ragged and uneven, and each step, like each crossword entry, is fallible and revisable. But each genuine advance potentially enables others, as a robust crossword entry does–“nothing succeeds like success” is the phrase that crones to mind.

Earlier, I stressed the complicated interactions among individuals that enable division of scientific labor and pooling of scientific evidence. But of course science is a social enterprise in another sense as well: it is a social institution embedded in the larger society, both affecting and affected by other social institutions; subject to political and cultural forces, it both influences and is influenced by the beliefs and values of that larger society. Earlier, I stressed the ways in which the social character of natural-scientific inquiry has contributed to its success. But of course both the internal organization and the external environment of science may hinder, as well as enable, good, fruitful, inquiry.

The disasters of Soviet and Nazi science remind us how grossly inquiry can be distorted and hindered when scientists seek to make a case for politically desired conclusions rather than to find out how things really are. Less melodramatic, but still disturbing, among the other potential hindrances that come immediately to mind are the necessity to spend large amounts of time and energy on obtaining funds, and to impress whoever supplies them, in due course, with your success; dependence for resources on bodies with an interest in the results coming out this way rather than that, or in rivals being denied access to them; pressure to solve problems perceived as socially urgent rather than those most susceptible of solution in the present state of the field; a volume of publications so large as to impede rather than enable communication. It would be less than candid not to admit that this list does not encourage complacency about the present condition of science. Once, important scientific advances could be made with the help of a candle and a piece of string; but it seems scientists have made most of those advances. As science proceeds, more and more expensive equipment is needed to obtain more and more recherche observations; and the more science depends for resources on governments and large industrial concerns, the worse the danger of some of the hindrances listed. While scientific techniques and instruments grow ever more sophisticated, the mechanisms needed to sustain intellectual integrity are strained.

Where the social sciences are concerned, it isn’t so easy to think of examples of discoveries analogous to plausibly filled-in, long, much-intersected, crossword entries, nor to be so sure that real progress has been made–it’s no wonder that some people deny that the social “sciences” are really sciences at all. Social scientists’ enthusiasm for the mathematical techniques and the cooperative and competitive inquiry that have helped the natural sciences to build on earlier successes has sometimes encouraged a kind of affected, mathematized, obscurity, and prematurely gregarious (or dogmatically factional) thinking. More immediately to the present point, where the social sciences are concerned some of the prejudices apt to get in the way of honest inquiry are political as well as professional. Where the physical sciences are concerned, given the manifest irrelevance of sex, race, class, to the content of physical theory, the New Cynics’ complaints of pervasive sexism, racism, classism, etc., seem far-fetched. But where the human and social sciences are concerned, given the manifest relevance of sex, race, or class to the content of some theories, political and professional preconceptions can come together, and the complaints seem only exaggerated.

Perhaps it is because the social sciences are especially susceptible to the influence of political prejudice and bias that sociologists of science seem especially susceptible to a dreadful argument ubiquitous among New Cynics–the “Passes-for Fallacy”: what has passed for, i.e., what has been accepted by scientists as, known fact or objective evidence or honest inquiry, etc., has sometimes turned out to be no such thing; therefore the notions of known fact, objective evidence, honest inquiry etc., are ideological humbug. The premise is true; but the conclusion obviously doesn’t follow. Indeed, this dreadful argument is not only fallacious, but also self-undermining: for if the conclusion were true, the premise could not be a known fact for which objective evidence had been discovered by honest inquiry. Dreadful as this argument is, however, it has played a significant role in encouraging the recent alliance of radical sociology of science with the New Cynicism.

As a result, many sociologists of science have been cool or even hostile not only towards mainstream philosophy of science, but also to science itself; and this has reinforced the disinclination already felt by some mainstream philosophers of science, and by scientists themselves, to take sociology of science seriously as a potential ally in the task of understanding the scientific enterprise. This unfortunate quarrel between epistemology and sociology has obscured the potential for a sensible sociology of science to contribute to our understanding of what arrangements encourage, and what discourage, good, thorough, honest inquiry, efficient communication of results, effective testing and criticism.

Since both scientism and anti-scientific attitudes have their roots in misunderstandings of the character and limits of scientific inquiry and scientific knowledge, up till now I have focused on epistemological issues. But I don’t at all mean to deny the legitimacy or denigrate the importance of those difficult ethical, social, and political questions about the role of science in society: who should decide, and how, what research a government should fond? who should control, and how, the power for good and evil unleashed by scientific discoveries?

As this suggests, the vexed question of science and values is vexed, in part, because of its many ambiguities. Scientific inquiry is a kind of inquiry; so epistemological values, chief among them creativity and respect for evidence, are necessarily relevant–which is not to say that scientific inquiry always or inevitably exemplifies such values. But moral and political values are relevant too; it is legitimate to ask, for instance, whether some ways of obtaining evidence are morally unacceptable, or whether, and if so how, and by whom, access to and applications of potentially explosive scientific results should be controlled.

Some New Cynics suggest that the fact that scientific discoveries can be put to bad uses is a reason for doubting the bona fides of those discoveries; and some hint that those of us who believe that science has made many true discoveries, or even that there is such a thing as objective truth, reveal themselves to be morally deficient in some way. But it isn’t enough to point out the obvious confusion, nor to protest the blatant moral one-up-personship. It is essential, also, to articulate sober answers to those difficult questions about the role of science in society: to point out, inter alia, that only by honest, thorough inquiry can we find out what means of achieving desired social changes would be effective. And, as always, it is essential to avoid the exaggerations of the scientistic party as well as the extravagances of the anti-science crowd: to point out, inter alia, that decisions about what ways of handling the power that scientific knowledge of the world gives us are wise or just, are nor themselves technical questions that may responsibly be left to scientists alone to answer.


(1.) Rauch, Jonathan, Kindly Inquisitors, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p.35.

(2.) Collins, Harry, “Stages in the Empirical Programme of Relativism,” Social Studies of Science, 11 (1981): 3-10; Gergen, Kenneth, “Feminist Critique of Science and the Challenge of Social Epistemology,” in Gergen, Mary, ed. Feminist Thought and the Structure of Knowledge, New York: New York University Press, 1988, 27-48; Hubbard, Ruth, “Some Thoughts About the Masculinity of the Natural Sciences,” in Gergen, ed., Feminist Thought and the Structure of Knowledge, 1-15; Harding, Sandra, The Science Question in Feminism, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986; Latour, Bruno, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987; Fuller, Steve, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993; Rorty, Richard, “Science as Solidarity,” in The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences, edited by John S. Nelson, Allan Megill, and Deidre McCloskey, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, 38-52; Fish, Stanley, “Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke,” The New York Times, 22 May, 1996, A23.

(3.) Chalmers, Alan, introduction to What h This Thing Called Science? An Assessment of the Nature and Status of Science and Its Methods, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1976, and Milton Keynes, U.K.: Open University Press, 1978. (I can’t find this sentence in the third [1999] edition of the book.)

(4.) Theocharis, Theo, and M. Psimopoulos, “Where science has gone wrong,” Nature, 329 (October, 1987): 595-98; Gross, Paul, and Norman Levitt Higher Superstition.” The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; Perutz, Max, “A Pioneer Defended,” review of Gerald Geison, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, New York Review of Books (21 December 1995): 54-58; Glashow, Sheldon, “The Death of Science!?”, in Elvee, Richard, ed., The End of Science? Attack and Defense, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992, 23-32; Sokal, Alan “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Social Text 46-7 (spring-summer, 1996): 217-52; Weinberg, Steven, Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

(5.) Fox, John, “The Ethnomethodology of Science,” in Nola, Robert, ed., Realism and Relativism in Science, Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer, 1988, 59-80; Laudan, Larry, “The Pscudo-Science of Science?” (1981), in Laudau, Beyond Positivism and Relativism: Theory, Method, and Evidence, Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996, 183-209; Koertge, Noretta, “Wrestling With the Social Constructor,” in Gross, Paul, Norman Levitt and Martin W. Lewis, eds., The Flight from Science and Reason, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 775, 1996, and Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, 266-73.

(6.) Giere, Ronald, “The Feminism Question in the Philosophy of Science,” in Nelson, Jack, and Lynn Hankinson Nelson, eds, Feminism, Science, and the Philosophy of Science, Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer, 1996, 3-15.

(7.) Bridgman, Percy W., Reflections of a Physicist (1950), New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.

Susan Haack (Coral Gables, Florida) is Cower Senior Scholar in Arts & Sciences, professor of philosophy, and professor o flaw at the University of Miami. Her books include Philosophy of Logics, Evidence and Inquiry, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, and Defending Science–Within Reason (Prometheus 2003), her latest, from which this article is excerpted by permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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Dowsing and archaeology: is there something underneath?

Dowsing and archaeology: is there something underneath? Martijn van Leusen An examination of the available published evidence for d…

Pterodactyls and giant pandas – Letter to the Editor

Pterodactyls and giant pandas – Letter to the Editor – Brief Article Massimo Polidoro made several mistakes in his first “Notes on a Stra…