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Wrestling with the Social Constructor

Noretta Koertge
Indiana University, Bloomington

In his Novum Organum, Francis Bacon presented a method of scientific inquiry that he hoped would root out "the idols and false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding" (Aphorism XXXVIII). Bacon argued that these sources of systematic delusion would continue to cause trouble "unless men, being forewarned of the danger, fortify themselves as far as may be against their assaults" (Ibid.). As the founders of the Royal Society began to design an institutional base for Bacon's dream of a Great Instauration of the Sciences, they emphasized the importance of excluding discussions of politics, religion and what we today would call ideology from the conduct of the professional affairs of science.

In the intervening three centuries, scientists and philosophers have criticized and refined the details of Bacon's inductive theory of scientific method, but few have questioned the wisdom of his distrust of the Idols of the Tribe, Cave, Marketplace and Theatre. Few, that is, until today, when we find within the academy calls for feminist and ethnic sciences as well as demands that science be guided by political commitments. It is now claimed that science not only is, but should be, "politics by other means". On this view, the proper aim is not value-free science; rather the goal must be science which is infused with the "correct" political values constructed within the framework of the "correct" ideology!

Social construction or constructivist epistemology are trendy terms that, while they signal a certain sympathy towards nouveau ideas, have no precise referent. They do, however, direct attention to those properties of a phenomenon that depend on culture, and are therefore, presumed to be amenable to change. Some of these claims are plausible and insightful. Thus when Joel Best in his book Threatened Children argues that the problem of the kidnapping of children by strangers is "socially constructed", what he basically means is that our society's perception of the seriousness of this problem is more influenced by media attention and the rhetorical strategies of activists than by empirical data demonstrating the actual dimensions of the problem.

A contrasting, but equally unobjectionable, use of the term occurs in an article which raises ethical questions about the "social construction" of dairy cows. Certain breeds have undergone such an intense process of artificial selection, guided by the financial interests of dairy farmers, that they can now hardly survive without being hooked up to milking machines. In this case what "social construction" designates is really a process of genetic construction designed to serve social purposes.

In each of the above cases, it is quite appropriate to emphasize the causal and constitutive roles of social factors; neither do the authors deny that biological or other material factors also play a determining role--some children are forcibly removed from their parents. It is only our feelings about and interpretations of these states of affairs that are open to social negotiation. And although we may have chosen some of the characteristics of dairy cows, there remain all sorts of physical and biological constraints on our abilities to design viable organisms. However, there are also extreme social constructionists who engage in a form of "biodenial" whereby they deliberately downplay or even totally ignore the role of non-social elements. In Professing Feminism, we described feminists who begin by correctly pointing out the conventional or socially constructed nature of many aspects of gender stereotypes or gender roles, but end up by denying that biology has any relevance to social arrangements. In one absurd episode, young women's studies students insisted that the pain of childbirth was a "construction" of patriarchal society that would not be an issue in Amazonia. (Talk about "blaming the victim"! This anecdote illustrates how easy it is for feminists to discredit totally the experience of other women if it happens not to be politically correct!)

Unfortunately, it is not just college sophomores who believe that we can re-shape the natural world to make it fit a new social consensus. Some feminists have argued that biological sex is just as socially constructed as is gender. Thus in "The Five Sexes" Fausto-Stirling claims that in viewing homo sapiens as a two-sexed species biologists have over-looked a purportedly large number of hermaphroditic or intersexed children. This is a popular theme among feminists. After all, gender could not possibly be anything more than a social construct if sex itself were also socially constructed! Feminists are also quick to accuse their opponents of "dualistic" thinking, e.g. of trying to force the rich complexity of a sexual spectrum into the artificially tidy and mutually exclusive boxes of biological male vs. biological female.

The way Fausto-Stirling argues for her proposal is quite typical of a social constructionist approach which purports to be politically progressive: She cites no empirical data indicating the nature and distribution of intersexed humans. The 4% figure comes from an informal estimate by John Money, who as a specialist on hermaphroditism, gender dysphoria and paraphilias, might be expected to guess on the high side. Neither is there any discussion about how the "five sex" proposal would mesh with the rest of biological science, such as evolutionary theory, theories of reproduction, comparative anatomy, etc. (Should we also declare there to be five sexes of chimpanzee?) Rather the argument hinges on the assumption that intersexed people would be better off if they were not pressured to conform and accommodate to a two-sexed world. If we as a society were simply to reconceptualize biological sex, so the speculation goes, these people would no longer have a need for plastic surgery on their genitals or hormone therapy and they would presumably have less trouble finding accepting sexual partners. Surely, the argument goes, it is more humane to alter our concepts than to drive people into unnecessary surgery! Although this particular attempt at social re-construction will probably have little impact on biology, it is cause for worry because it is embedded into a ranging systematic attempt to change the way science is done. It is a concrete example of what is sometimes called the "sociological turn" in epistemology.

There are many deep and interesting questions to ask about the social dimensions of knowledge. For example, John Searle in The Construction of Social Reality analyzes the nature of the complex group commitments which are pre-requisite for "social facts" such as money or stop signs to operate; Merton and his students have studied the institutional arrangements which foster scientific inquiry; and various decision theorists have struggled with questions about the relationship between individual rationality and group rationality. There is no question that social epistemology can be a valuable enterprise. Unfortunately much of what goes by that name today are barely disguised ideological initiatives. One port of entry begins with a discussion of the role of values in science and then attempts to incorporate political values into the construction of science. Let us now analyze this line of attack so that we, like Bacon's readers, can be "forewarned of the dangers..."

If we use as a framework the traditional triumvirate of Truth, Beauty and Goodness (see Figure 1), it would seem obvious that the overriding professional goal of science is to discover truth and thus the scientist's value system should properly center around criteria such as empirical adequacy, precision and generality. However, scientists also place great stock in aesthetic desiderata such as simplicity, symmetry and coherence. And some philosophers would argue that since theory choice is empirically underdetermined, such factors must always be invoked. So, for example, we draw simple smooth curves to summarize arrays of data points.

In addition, the scientist has various ethical responsibilities above and beyond the obvious requirements of contributing to and not interfering with the search for truth. There are now all sorts of codes dealing with the responsible treatment of human and animal subjects. Our standards of what is acceptable practice have generally tightened up over the years (although recall that human dissections were illegal for much of history). But there have always been some limits on experimental interventions and hence some conflicts between the high value placed on gaining truth and ethical concerns. Since science often justifies its existence and requests for public financial support in terms of its potential contributions to the utilitarian needs of society, there are also priority conflicts between what Bacon described as the search for the "light" of understanding and the development of the "fruits" of technological application.

It is precisely at this point that those who favor a politically progressive science try to make an opening for deliberate ideological intervention. So, their argument goes, you admit that the quest for pure scientific truth is already restricted by ethical prohibitions on harming experimental subjects and tempered by a responsiveness to the utilitarian needs of society at large. Why should we not also harness science to the task of making our society more just and more politically progressive? On the face of it, this suggestion has an attractive humanistic ring to it. Who can be against justice and political progress? But let us look at the details of the proposal. How exactly would it impact on the scientific process?

The flow chart in Figure 2 presents a simplified sketch of the traditional account of the process of scientific inquiry. Within what Reichenbach called the "context of discovery" scientists choose research problems and develop strategies for formulating tentative solutions to them. This is followed by the "context of justification" in which the results of the scientist's informal or private ruminations are submitted to public empirical testing and the critical scrutiny of the scientific community. Reichenbach believed that all sorts of personal idiosyncrasies, interests and commitments might well be influential within the context of discovery--this domain could be illuminated by the psychologist or historian. It was the procedures within the context of justification which were to guarantee the objectivity of scientific results and these could best be described by logicians and epistemologists of science. The context of application lay outside the domain of science proper and it was here as well as in the choice of funding priorities that social values and policies took their rightful place. Or so goes the traditional account. The proponents of politically progressive science, however, would argue that science has always been impregnated with social values through and through. Their agenda is not to try to make science more value-neutral. Rather it is to inject the "correct" values at all stages.

Let us review their specific proposals for the modification of the above account, beginning with the context of application. Everyone would agree that extreme care should be taken in applying scientific results which are either still preliminary or could easily cause harm. These are the sorts of technology assessment issues which the FDA and product liability experts wrestle with all the time. However, the social constructionists would go much further, arguing that some results even if true would be so politically dangerous that they should never be published--and hence never studied in the first place. Hence the moves to suppress publications or research conferences on possible biological correlates of crime, intelligence or sexual orientation.

Social constructionists would also introduce political and/or ideological considerations directly into the heart of the context of justification. Some would argue that a respect for human subjects requires the anthropologist not only to double-check his facts with his informants, but also to get their approval of any interpretations or theoretical analyses before publishing. The social constructionist has also been successful in introducing government policy requiring that the pool of experimental subjects for drug trials should be stratified by political categories, not according to the likely biological variability in response to the drug. And AIDS activists temporarily succeeded in modifying requirements for the use of control groups for testing HIV drugs. But the subtlest--and hence the most potentially dangerous--form of ideological intrusion would take place within the so-called context of discovery, a stage of scientific inquiry, which has only recently been scrutinized by philosophers. The line of attack is by now familiar: look for the role of non-epistemic values and then try to add one's own political desiderata to the list.

Consider, for example, the factors which might legitimately influence an individual scientist's (or scientific community's ) choice of research questions. Even in the purest ivory tower scenario, one will consider not just the intellectual interest of the problem, i.e., the extent to which its solution will deepen our understanding of the world, but also its technical feasibility. Is the problem "ripe" for investigation at this time? Do the requisite experimental instruments and mathematical tools already exist? Is funding available for such research? Our advocate of politically sensitive science will merely add that scientists should also consider the political ramifications of even asking certain questions while ignoring others. So, the argument goes, we should study the social construction of sexism, not sex differences and analyze the origins of homophobia instead of the etiology of homosexuality.

Such an ideological filter could introduce a serious truncation of the topics which could be investigated and damage the ethos of free inquiry so treasured in science, but would not in itself directly distort the content of scientific findings. However, serious problems do arise if ideology were to affect the process of hypothesis formation. As many philosophers and scientists who comment on the development of science have pointed out, the process of constructing tentative solutions to a research problem is not one of totally random trial and error. Rather scientists typically structure their search by what Lakatos calls a scientific research program, i.e., they work within a metaphysical or theoretical framework that has proved fruitful in the past, utilizing a variety of heuristic principles, which they believe will lead them to the most plausible candidates to a solution to their research problems. Furthermore, when deciding which among a potentially infinite number of paths to pursue, it seems reasonable to let pragmatic factors such as ease of theoretical manipulation or ease of experimental investigation play a role in the decision as to which hypothesis to investigate first.

Now, says our inveterate ideologist, if plausibility estimates and pragmatics are permitted to guide our search, why not also screen potential problem solutions in terms of their political progressiveness? As Longino puts it: "...I am suggesting that a feminist science practice admits political considerations as relevant constraints on reasoning..."; "..if faced with a conflict between [political] commitments and a particular model of brain-behavior, we allow the political commitments to guide the choice." And although Feyerabend has been castigated by feminists for sexist imagery, he too believes we need to subjugate science to our desires: "...[We should] change science from a stern and demanding mistress into an attractive and yielding courtesan who tries to anticipate every wish of her lover"; "...it is up to us to choose either a dragon or a pussycat for our company."

Feyerabend wanted to make science subservient to hedonism and deeply resented those who would criticize the scientific status of astrology or parapsychology, thereby diminishing the pleasure of those who believe in it. Today's feminist social constructionists also want to subordinate science, but to a more severe agenda whereby the scientific acceptability of a claim would be contingent on its perceived political expediency. History should have taught us by now the futility of such a strategy--the act of banning Copernicanism hurt the Catholic Church much more than heliocentrism could ever have done. Lysenkoism did nothing to help peasants improve their agricultural practices while delaying the adoption of hybrids developed in the West. Women will not benefit in the long run from attempts to block the study of biological differences. And already we have evidence that being credulous about the phenomenon of so-called "recovered memories" not only harms innocent family members but also inflicts great damage to the victim herself. To violate a person's ability to distinguish fact from fantasy is the epistemological equivalent of rape. Yet the ideology of social constructionism and politically correct science is becoming increasingly influential in universities, schools of education and even science policy organizations such as the AAAS.

So what is to be done? As friends of science and reason we need to become more sophisticated about the nature of scientific inquiry. After taking my first high school science course, I believed that science proceeded linearly by the steady accumulation of facts, that science always brought us "better things for better living (through chemistry)" and that electron spin was strictly analogous to the earth's diurnal motion. We want students today to be less naive about the complex nature of science. We want them to realize that the scientist is a sojourner in an ever-changing intellectual world, that scientists use their imaginations to construct models which are sometimes inaccurate and always incomplete, and that in the process of correcting and refining the details of these representations, scientists often disagree vehemently even while sharing a vast store of background information, methods and values.

We must provide students and the general public with a sophisticated account of science lest they be overwhelmed the first time they encounter relativist arguments about the under-determination of theories by data, the theory-ladenness of experience or the social construction of concepts. And we must also speak more clearly and honestly to students about all the values which operate within science. We live in cynical times and as intellectuals, many of us are much more comfortable making wry remarks about the value which scientists place on credit and the resultant priority disputes, stratagems to get funding, and academic politics. These mundane values are, of course, part of scientific life--and increasingly students and the public won't let us forget it. But there are other values operating, too. All of us know more significant stories about scientific life, anecdotes which illustrate the role of intellectual honesty and the courage to acknowledge errors publicly, stories which describe the constant striving for objectivity and the ability of scientists to abandon central dogmas and favored theoretical commitments. We must talk about the intellectual virtues which are constantly guiding science and not cede the moral highground to ideologues.