Monday, June 22, 2009

What's wrong with science?

Weinberg, Nichols & Stich have shown in an article that epistemic intuitions are not as objective as they once were supposed to be. Epistemic intuitions are not universal but differ according to culture and even within a culture according to the social group. Experiments show that conclusions may be different when they have been drawn by people with different backgrounds. Now it is so that most scientific activity is done by people belonging to the highest SES group (SES=social economic status), and till not so long ago all scientists were mainly men in the highest SES groups in western countries. This would not be a problem if science would lead to objective, universally valid conclusions, but it seems to be worrying that it has come out now that many scientific conclusions are not as universal as they were supposed to be. Actually, science is no more than a view on the world by people belonging to a certain cultural group. As the authors formulate it, “if we are right about epistemic intuitions, then ... [it] would entail that the epistemic norms for the rich are quite different from the epistemic norms appropriate for the poor... And that we take to be quite a preposterous result” (in: Joshua Knobe & Shaun Nichols (eds.), Experimental philosophy, Oxford etc.: OUP, 2008; p. 35).
But is it really so preposterous and worrying? Maybe it is naive to think that it would be different. Besides that many people have always said so (but most scientists and scholars did not listen to them, certainly not those who belonged and belong to the “main stream”), actually it is rather human that the result found by Weinberg is right. Probably it would be preposterous and worrying if it would not be the case. For science is as human as any other affair that people do, and also the intuitions involved in science are as human as human can be. There is no reason to suppose that intuitions that look to be universal are fundamental exceptions. Science is founded on norms, albeit scientific norms, and as norms they can have no objective value and they can have different interpretations for different people, with the result that it is basically a local affaire (local in the sense of limited to a culture, SES group, or the like). But is this a threat to science? I think it is not. That scientific conclusions are different for different groups simply shows that they are intersubjective at most. Science is, as Karl-Otto Apel has shown already 30 years ago, not a matter of developing a theory that explains a fact or phenomenon as such. Science explains always for a certain subject of knowledge, and if its results are different depending on the different cultural, SES or other background of the explaining person or persons, one must not be surprised. If one would, it would mean that one does not give the “explains for a certain subject of knowledge” any sense. Even when one accepts this relativity of science, it still describes the facts and explains them in a certain way. But is it not what science has always done?


Pete W said...

What cultural background are those who did this study from? Would different people have come to different conclusions?

HbdW said...

Thank you for your reaction. Those who did the study were Westerners (see my blog), but those who had to draw conclusions in their studies were Westerners (Americans), East Asians and people from India.