Monday, January 21, 2019

Science and Social Construct

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768.jpg

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pumpis a 1768 
oil-on-canvas painting by Joseph Wright of Derby
The painting departed from convention of the time by depicting a 
scientific subject in the reverential manner formerly reserved for 
scenes of historical or religious significance. [Wikipedoia]

Steven Novella us an atheist activist and apologist but he is also an MD in highly specialized setting (academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine).[1] To me this means highly accomplished and highly qualified.He connected with Committee for Skeptical Inquiry  to says highly ideological. He is clearly dedicated to science and typical of many who react against the notion that science is a social construct. He writes:
Such ideas were a necessary counterpoint to quaint notions of Western cultural superiority, and were often framed in the context of colonization and cultural oppression. However, much like Thayer, some postmodernists took a good idea and, in their desire for simplicity and perhaps also conceit, decided that it applied completely to everything. The real problems began when non-scientists decided that postmodernist ideas applied equally to science as they did to literature or art.These notions took hold partly because they played well into extreme left political philosophy, but also because some philosophers started arguing that science was mere culture. For example:
Paul Feyerabend, former philosophy professor at the University of California (Berkeley) maintains that what is called science in one culture is called voodoo in another: “To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts—their craving for intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts—their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, ‘objectivity,’ [or] ’truth’—it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes.”[2]
Some philosophers and scientist became quite alarmed at this view, however. It seems to imply that there are not facts in science, that there is no way to determine that one scientific idea is better than than another. Philosophers, however, have already moved beyond these critiques of science. The core problem with the “anything goes” criticism is that it confused the “context of discovery” with the “context of later verification.” In other words, science is different than all other human intellectual disciplines, because it is empirical. Ideas are not just examined and argued, they are rigorously tested against reality.[3]
The idea of a social construct comes out of the early stirrings of postmodernism in the1960s with sources such as Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality published in 1966,.[4]
Thomas Kuhn played an important role, although I think of his views as "constructivism light."[5][6]
Social constructs aspects of reality that are taken for granted and assumed to be typical unalterable aspects of reality and yet are relieve to the society in which they occur. Examples include democracy, gender (not sex but the affectations and trappings that demarcate sexual identity). A good example of the constricted nature of an idea is restroom signs. Imagine you are in a restaurant and you need the restroom but rather than saying "male" and "female" they just have pictures of a butterfly and crab, would you know which to go in? I think most people would.[7] 

There different degrees of constructivism. There are extremists who say there are no facts. But most of that is just misunderstood. There is a group called "Edinburgh Strong Programme" which is one of the more radical views,[8]

D.C. Philips says, somewhat tongue in cheek,
Across the broad fields of educational theory and research, constructivism has become something akin to a secular religion....As in all living religions, constructivism has many sects-each of which harbors some distrust of its rivals. This descent into sectarianism, and the accompanying growth in distrust of nonbelievers, is probably the fate of all large-scale movements inspired by interesting ideas; and it is the ideological or ugly side of the present scene, which is reflected in my article's title.....The rampant sectarianism, coupled with the array of other literature that contain pertinent material, makes it difficult to give even a cursory introductory account of constructivism, for members of the various sects will object that their own views are nothing like this! But to get the discussion underway, this oversimple gloss should convey the general idea (a more precise account of the issues at stake shall emerge as the discussion progresses): These days we do not believe that individuals come into the world with their "cognitive data banks" already prestocked with empirical knowledge, or with pre-embedded epistemological criteria or methodological rules. Nor do we believe that most of our knowledge is acquired, ready formed, by some sort of direct perception or absorption.[9]
Novella pays homage to the good intersessions of the pioneers of constructivism but he still wants to hold out for the total uniqueness of science. Other ideas are mere constructs but science is different. Why? Because it seeks knowledge? Because its based upon math?Its still interpreted by humans. Meaning is a shared human endeavor [10]and any scientific data or theory must be a shared idea. 

Yet Novella holds out he says: "No matter the construct, no matter the origin of a scientific idea, regardless of how well it plays with our current political or social order, at the end of the day a scientific idea lives or dies by how well it predicts the outcome of observations and experiments."[11]
That is all fine and good, but when we start interpreting the world according to scientific world view we merely guiding the Lilly. The world according to our understanding of science is not a scientific fact it's a construct with added knowledge of some facts. His piece is full of well worded statements in fairness to  the constructionists: 
"Now of course, humans are not perfect, and science is a human endeavor, and so the practice of science is not perfect. I write frequently about the many ways in which science can be flawed and biased."[12] 

But he still holds out. Science is different,unique, science is the key to truth. Not a constructed truth but the real thing.Why ? Checking, kinetics verification this guarantees that we are not just checking our construct we are getting the unvarnished truth.

The history of science is the best evidence against the post-modernist view of science. They and critics of science will point to all the times that science was proven wrong as evidence that it is a construct, but they have it backwards. The very fact that we can look back from out modern perspective and understand that previous scientific ideas are objectively wrong demonstrates the true nature of science.The history of science is one of breaking cultural constructs – not just because a competing idea came along, but because the facts so relentlessly smashed against the pillars of our most beloved social constructs that eventually they crumbled.[13]
He thinks the issue is about being factually wrong. Those times don't matter because there is a  progressive ongoing re-checking of everything,So we get it  next time when we check again. It's not about being factually wrong. It's not a matter of we being factually wrong it's a matter of our consciousness being constrained by the constructs we live in. We do live in them. Thus we are doing all our checking through a socially constructed lens. This is especially problematic when they start hitch hiking ideological views like naturalism on top science's coat tails. There is noway to grantee unvarnished truth, I am sure theoretically it exists but there  is no way for humans to find it on their own. We are subjective creatures,we are not applicable of objectivity on our own. If we check through the lens of social constructs we can never get outside the to know truth from a perspective beyond our language games; because our language themselves are social constructs.

Novella argues that science breaks the mold of social construct, it has time and time again broken the constructs. That's true but  what he doesn't realize is that science also creates it's own constructs. The ideas that we can be objective if we use "objective methods" that "objective" = truth are social constructs engineered by science. We can see the propagandist approach to science working to construct the sides sin the work Leviathan and The Air Pump [14] which traces the propaganda campaign of Robert Boyle to write Thomas Hobbes out of the history of natural philosophy. That he did in order to secure his theories of  vacuism and defeat Hobbe's plenism.[15]
Ironically Boyle was right scientifically but Hobbes was right  about the way Boyle's approach was more propaganda than science. The real lesson of the book is how the ear marks of objectivity ,contrived to lend credence to Boyle came to set the stage for experimental procedure,merely because they do telegraph the impression of  objectivity and reinforce the cultural construct of the authority of science,.

Shapin and Shaffer are "playing the Stranger" (their own words) [16] that is they are trying to avoid attaching their cultural constructs and temporally bound cultural understanding as a filter for getting at the motive of Boyle and other historical questions. To do that they play the stranger,   act like I have not been here before  what is science  and why does one do it? That is not a hatred of science nor is it an attempt at shocking  to seem avaunt guard, it's an attempt to avoid falling into the trap of thinking we already know the answers. In that context the stuff minded "everyone knows that" is very telling,Everyone knows science is truth.. If we are not willing to think about fundamental questions then we are probably working thorium the lens of social constructs, We must have the quality of  x-ray vision when it cones to preconceived attitudes toward science that  sentimentalize it's function in human progress. Of course it is this kind of cavalier take  on science that makes the real scientistic types so angry and is construed as "hating science.." It's not hate nor is it disvalue but merely lack of awe.

The biggest mistake Novellla makes is in thinking of social constructs as criticisms,or a portraits of  untruth, He thinks the counter to construction is the imposition of fact.Social constriction is not a synonym for lie, His answer to social constriction  is to fact check and to bolster scientific methods to strengthen verification. Verification is not the issue because constructs are not lies, the are representations of truth as we know it through our undertaking based upon pastiche of previous accretions of understanding, We can have situations such that a construct might represent truth and yet be a construct. Science can be objective and yet view reality through the constructionist lens at the same time.

In Joseph Wright's  painting of Boyle's air pump experiment, (above) we see the fact and the construct illustrated at once, (which I;m sure was not Wright's intention). The event is factual. the fact is there portrayed realistically for all to see, but in such a portrait we see portrait of the experiment as propaganda staged for the public to convey the image of the scientist as rational and objective, to unseat Thomas Hobbes as the expert on natural philosophy.[17]

Mind you in we have seen in recent times a greater need to band together with the scientific guys and support good empirical scientific work as the basis for policy.

Notes and Sources

[1] , "Science is not (entirely) a social Construct" Neurologica blog

Steven Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society. He is the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. He is also a senior fellow and Director of Science-Based Medicine at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and a founding fellow of the Institute for Science in Medicine.

[2] "Postmodern Science," All About World View, blog, quoted by Novella, op cit quoted in

[3] , op cit

[4]Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality published in 1966

[5] Kukn

[6]  I use the term "constructivism" that is the term we used in graduate school in the 19990s. I've seen it called constructionism, and other things. But I stick with my grad school trialing.

[7] Based upon a lecture by a professor at SMU in the early 90's,  who described a real restaurant that actually employed such signs. The circle and square are my idea. My friends and I developed a game of inventing such signs to see if we could always tell which was which. We always could.


[9]D.C. Philips, "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: The Many Faces of constructivism." Educational Researcher, vol 24. No. 7,1995 5-12,

[10] Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (2009). Social construction of reality. In S. Littlejohn, & K. Foss (Eds.), Encyclopedia of communication theory. (pp. 891). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. 

[11] Steven Novella, Op. cit.

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid.

[14] Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and The Air Pump: Hobbes: Boyle,and The Experimental life. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985, 3.

[15] Ibidid, 20.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] Ibid.

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