Contributed by William Walter Kay BA JD © 2022
Previous posts in this series:
Normal Science – “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn https://blog.friendsofscience.org/2022/01/09/normal-science-the-structure-of-scientific-revolutions-by-thomas-kuhn/
Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) Part 2:
Sociology of Science and Sociology of Knowledge apart from SSK https://blog.friendsofscience.org/2022/01/17/sociology-of-scientific-knowledge-ssk-part-2-who-spawns-the-legions-of-activists/
The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge Act 3: Enter SSK Part 3 https://blog.friendsofscience.org/2022/02/02/the-sociology-of-scientific-knowledge-act-3-enter-ssk/
SSK Part 4: Was SSK a Crypto-relativist Controlled Opposition?
Relativists deny the existence of an objective truth. Relativists liken scientific knowledge claims to whimsical fictions. Relativists believe nature is inaccessible and/or indeterminable; and hence, that perceived natural objects are mere mental projections. Relativism endures openly in various humanities departments. No sociologist, however, claims to be a relativist. Sociologists claim to be realists.
Realists never attack science per se. They are not Flat Earthers. Realists accept arithmetic propositions as universal truths. They do not question 2 + 2 = 4. They accept the existence of an intractable truth and of an objective material world. Real knowledge is not a fantasy disconnected from experiences of this material world. Nature’s structures can be uncovered and described through disinterested inquiry. Science’s essence is militant realism. There really is a reality out there; and only one.
Calling a knowledge claim a “social construct” does not imply the claim is false. All mental concepts, from electrons to geese, are social constructs. Social Constructionists care whether or not their knowledge constructs are real – whether they correspond to reality – and they assess a concept’s reality in part by determining how useful the construct is in navigating the world. (Restivo) There are few “universal constructionists.” Most sociologists do not bother to verify the basic existence of genes or the Moon etc.
The scholar most associated with relativism, Philosophy of Science Professor Paul Feyerabend, eccentricated himself into notoriety with flamboyant quips about an anarchistic, “anything goes” science. Feyerabend’s enduring, personal influence on Thomas Kuhn may explain Kuhn’s ambivalence toward truth. On the one hand, Kuhn rejected “correspondence theory” i.e., the conviction that statements are true if they correspond to the objective world. Elsewhere however, Kuhn avowed a belief in truth.
The trendy relativism (Post-Modernism) that swept Western academia in the 1980s and 1990s involved many academics who considered Kuhn their ally. Kuhn disapproved. (Hacking)
ANT guru Latour disavowed relativism. On the other hand, he provocatively described his research papers as “fictions.” Latour simply “wanted to tell good stories.”
SSK’s relativism is more subliminal. From the outset SSK drew from Wittgenstein whose admonishment to sociologists was:
“Do not challenge knowledge, rather, hold a mirror to knowledge production.”
An indifference to truthfulness nests therein. Bloor heeded this advice when he declared SSK:
“…does not seek to advocate or to critique the beliefs discussed nor is it concerned with their justification.” (Lynch)
Collins’ EPOR coyly fused empiricism and relativism.
Collins’ moment of truth came in the face of fierce opposition to his “Two experiments that ‘proved’ the theory of relativity” chapter in The Golem (1993). In the Afterword to the book’s second edition Collins confesses that, going into the project, he was unaware opposition to Einsteinianism persisted (“we did not notice this debate was taking place”). (1) Not only does this opposition persist, it forms a vast persecuted underground about which Big Physics remains acutely aware. To this underground opposition “Two experiments” was a silver bullet; hence the wrath Big Physics visited upon its authors.
Golem aimed to expose misleading models of truth-generation, especially historical misrepresentations of theories’ origins. Collins considers most histories of science to be self-serving idealizations wherein scientific institutions become paragons of fair evidence appraisal. Student textbooks should not even qualify as history. Academic science histories, written long after the event, relay “war stories” from which methodological morals are selectively drawn. Clumsy antics of science morph into neat, tidy myths. According to Collins:
“The only sin is not knowing it is always thus.” (2)
Collins’ methodology stipulated sharing only knowledge that scientists actually relied upon at the time of their “discoveries,” and reciting only what their “breakthrough” papers actually said. This method exposes Einstein’s revelations as baseless.
The Afterword to Golem’s second edition, scribbled in the trenches of the Science Wars, contains an abject truce offering:
“For sociologists, scientific truth is that which is affirmed by scientists.”
This is authoritarian relativism! If the commissar says it is true, then it is true.
“Our method depends upon ignoring the truth of what is true, at least for the course of the analysis – this approach is known as methodological relativism – truth and false knowledge are treated symmetrically – the rightness-wrongness axis is not relevant.”
Delete the obscure extravagance, “methodological.” Ignoring truth or deeming truth irrelevant, is the definition of relativism.
“The meaning of the subsequent consensus is a philosophical consideration beyond the aims of SSK.”
This is a retreat to the Mertonian after-sermon tea party from which SSK, with such thunder, stormed.
Like Galileo before Urban VIII’s inquisitors, Collins meekly posits that his humble aim was:
“…to give science a secure location that will not be subverted by the disillusion that is the most likely consequence of (scientific) fundamentalism.”
Normal science consists of spinning cocoons around approved paradigms. Convoluted subsequent ratification attempts do not rectify initial deceptions; they only further obscure. A mountain of sow’s ears does not one silk purse make. The “sin” is not ignorance of the deception. The sin is the deception. One cannot prosecute fraudsters without exposing the discrepancy between their lures and the truth.
In his takedown of Latour, Professor Steve Fuller relays two exemplars of the sociological maxim:
“…a seemingly radical innovation that quickly acquires widespread currency probably serves some well established interest that remains hidden in the context of reception.” (Fuller)
Firstly, in the 1930s British Social Anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard pressed his Africa-stationed Oxford students to learn native languages. This apparent progressive outreach masked an effort to out-manoeuvre the Germans in inter-imperialist continental rivalry.
Secondly, in the 1960s “radicalism” in US Sociology meant channelling the views of the poor, the marginalised etc. Funding came from plutocratic philanthropists with no intention of heeding the downtrodden’s advice. They wanted to control this cohort by “giving them a voice.”
The subjects of both these ethnography projects, not being connected to self-emancipatory social movements, fell prey to “ventriloquism.” (Fuller)
After rising to prominence as a “radical,” Latour cavalierly told an interviewer that ANT posed no threat to the scientific establishment. Latour was not interested in renegotiating science’s social contract. ANT is thus the French version of Habermas’s “ideal free speech” i.e., a disguised stratagem designed to arrest disruptive intellectual currents. ANT’s “flexible fascism” helped France’s techno-structure navigate the break-up of state enterprises upon neo-liberalism’s shoals. (Fuller) Latour projected the voice of the techno-structure into the mouths of those resisting the techno-structure’s agenda.
Does this critique of ANT apply to SSK?
Intriguingly, SSK thrived during Thatcher’s era of education cutbacks when “social” was an official epithet. As well, multiple scholars consider the distance between SSK and Merton’s pro status quo Sociology of Science to be exaggerated. (3)
Finally, Collins’ top disciple, Trevor Pinch, explicitly rejects the “faux science controversy over the thesis that global warming is caused by human activity.” (Pinch) He relies on the notorious fudge-baker Naomi Oreskes as his authority. Cupidity or stupidity?
Indisputably, evaluations of scientific knowledge undertaken by sociologists programmatically committed to defending the scientific status quo are such worthless banalities they call into question the purpose of a Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.
- Collins, Harry, The Golem: what you should know about science; University of Cambridge Press, second edition, 1998, page 155.
- Ibid, page 149.
- Mukerji, C. The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge; International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2001.
Fuller, Steve. Why Science Studies Has Never Been Critical of Science: Some Recent Lessons on How to Be a Helpful Nuisance and a Harmless Radical; Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 2000.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; University of Chicago, 2012. (Intro by Hacking).
Lynch, William & Fuhrman, Ellesworth. Recovering and Expanding the Normative: Marx and the New Sociology of Scientific Knowledge; 1991.
Pinch, Trevor. Controversies at the Research Frontiers of Science; International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2015.
Restivo, Sal & Croissant, Jennifer. Social Constructionism in Science and Technology Studies; Chapter 11 from Handbook of Constructionist Research; Guilford Press, New York 2007.