Wrestling with the Social Constructor
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.
Indiana University, Bloomington
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
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
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.