CFI-UB Science and The Public Ed.M.

1 · Introduction

The goal of the project on Science and the Public is not only to provide educators, journalists, social scientists, and opinion makers with the latest findings and techniques in the field of scientific and technological literacy. It will also explore the broader philosophical, social, and cultural implications of the methods and cosmic outlook of the sciences. Thus, the project concerns both the public understanding of science in the narrower sense as well as the broader self-reflection that every modern society must undertake. The main themes of this project can be summed up in the following questions:

  • What is science?
  • How does the public engage with science?
  • How does the scientific outlook intersect with our basic beliefs and values?

2 · What is Science?

It is difficult to be unimpressed by the achievements of the empirical sciences over the last several centuries. Through the application of careful observation, hypothesis formation, mathematical modeling, controlled experiment, critical peer review, and replication of results, the sciences have revealed previously unknown depths of the natural world. At the same time, the technologies they yield have to a large extent literally built the world we inhabit. Science and the Public takes the extraordinary instrumental efficacy of the sciences as a given. But it goes on to ask a series of questions that properly belong to the field of philosophy of science:

  1. How does science work?
  2. Is scientific inquiry a uniquely rational way of interacting with the world?
  3. How does scientific knowledge and inquiry relate to other types of knowledge or inquiry, and to what extent do they occupy a place of privilege in our systems of belief?

In approaching these questions, the study of science and the public must strive to reflect and build upon the last several decades of scholarship on the nature, structure, rationality, and authority of science.

Although logical positivism and logical empiricism were integral in the formation of philosophy of science as a discipline, most of the “received view” associated with these movements was questioned, transformed or widely rejected by the end of the 1960s (Losse, 1993). The notions of theory-as-axiomatic-system and explanation-as-argument lost ground to a semantic conception, which places emphasis on constructing models or abstract replicas — mathematical, visual, and otherwise — of the causal processes responsible for the phenomenon under investigation, and demonstrating a close fit between the models and the available data. The Russian doll picture of scientific progress via intertheoretic reduction of a theory’s content to that of its successor was rivaled by an account of theories as practices that compete on grounds of superior scope, refinement, and explanatory power. The concept of a neutral, unbiased observation language was replaced by a more complex account of the relationship between evidence and theory, in which observations are partially theory-dependent, or theory-laden, and hypotheses are not tested in isolation but as part of a more holistic body of information that includes other theories and background knowledge: a view known in general as the Duhem-Quine Thesis (Duhem, 1969/1908; Quine, 1953).

Preoccupation with Duhem-Quine and the “underdetermination” of theory by evidence fueled the creation of the new field of science studies or sociology of knowledge in the 1970s. The sociology of knowledge aim to uncover the local, extra-scientific or non-rational causes that explain why people adopt one theory rather than its empirically adequate alternatives (Bloor, 1976). Other writers on science — sometimes identified as social constructivists — have taken the implications of underdetermination further, concluding that science is governed by no distinctively rational methods or that science has no more authority as an arbiter of fact or truth than does religion, folklore or superstition (Feyerabend, 1975). At the extreme, social constructivists embrace the view that our conceptions of reality actually make reality the way we conceive it. This view must be distinguished from the uncontroversial claim that some things, for example, money or “under-age” drinkers, exist simply because our ways of thinking lead us to act in ways that bring about or sustain their existence — a view that has been called, somewhat confusingly, realist social constructionism (Hacking, 1999). It is another matter to suppose that we can bring about or alter the existence of something merely by thinking about it in a particular way.

On the questions of conceptual change and theory choice, most post-positivist, post-Kuhnian thinkers have rejected radical social constructivist themes while welcoming certain aspects of their historicist orientation. The first is more careful attention to the sociological details of scientific practice. What post-positivist philosophy of science sacrifices by way of logical perspicuity, formal system-building and black-and-white division between science and non-science, it gains in fidelity to the behavior and beliefs of actual scientists working within flourishing research traditions. The second historicist element is that assessments of whether a research tradition is a science or good science cannot be made by looking at its structure as a snapshot in time. Rather one must look at how the tradition performs over time; for example, the manner in which its practitioners respond to novel problems, recalcitrant data, and rival traditions (Popper, 1963; Lakatos, 1970; Laudan, 1983).

Animating the debates about the nature of science are deep questions about its proper place in society and people’s lives. The Enlightenment tradition has insisted on a privileged position for science. Yet there are plenty of other putative sources of beliefs — everyday sense perception, one’s emotions, the testimony of other people, the arts, religion. How is science supposed to relate to these sources? Is it the only “real” source of knowledge? The notion that the only legitimate knowledge comes from science is sometimes called scientism. Clearly scientism is inadequate, for we know many facts that are not scientific facts. But what happens when some piece of scientific knowledge conflicts with some piece of non-scientific knowledge? Why should science always prevail?

Traditionally, the friends of science have responded that it prevails because it reveals “the ways things really are,” or perhaps truths that are instrumentally valuable, no matter what one’s purposes. However, as Philip Kitcher has pointed out (Kitcher, 2001), scientific practices are in fact quite heterogeneous, so that it is not plausible to construe all types of inquiry as aiming at the kind of end, whether it be achieving objective explanation, identifying fundamental physical laws, constructing a unified picture of reality, or discovering causal processes that make intervention and control technically feasible. If this pluralistic perspective offers the best way to think about the value of doing science, then for any particular research program it will fall to the defender of the authority of science to show why people should care about that particular aim with respect to that subject matter.

3 · How Does the Public Engage with Science?

Although the public understanding of science and technology is of central interest to many policy makers and scientists, there is a heavy debate in the scholarly community as to its nature, relevancy, and measurement. This academic debate — involving an international collection of researchers from a range of disciplines including communication, political science, sociology, social psychology, history, and the sciences — is not without its impact on policy decisions. Academic research inevitably guides in part the implementation and evaluation of the public engagement and communication activities of institutions and interest groups, even influencing the level of participation the public is granted by institutions in formal policy decisions. Indeed, as science-related controversies emerge as sources of political contention, the public understanding of science becomes an increasingly important indicator of the public’s competence to participate in policy decisions, and the health of civic culture.

Science and technology policy decisions, despite their high level of technical discourse, are inherently political, involving negotiations and power struggles among various institutions, interest groups and political figures to decide policy outcomes. The ideal of representative government is grounded on the premise that members of the public actively participate in the political process related to these science and technology disputes, and that the decision making of the public is based on well-informed and sophisticated reasoning. Previous research in political science, however, paints these normative ideal as more wishful thinking than truth. This research has documented a vast political ignorance among the general public (Bartels, 1996; Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1994), a general lack of public affairs awareness (Miller & Shanks, 1996) and a decades long decline in voting and political participation (Putnam, 2000; Verba, Schlozman & Brady, 1995).

Therefore, if the public’s civic competence with regard to the general arena of politics is in question, to what extent is the public competent to make decisions in the more specialized and far less visible arena of science and technology policy? If the public does indeed possess an opinion on an issue related to science and technology, what is the quality of that opinion? Does the general public possess adequate knowledge to weigh and assess science and technology claims that are advocated by various elites, and that appear in the mass media? Has the public followed and deliberated on the issues? What role does public trust in institutions play in the public understanding of science, and can institutions or elites promote understanding via new forms of public engagement? What communication processes, both mass-mediated and interpersonal, influence these relationships? What is the possible inter-relationships between trust and knowledge in shaping public perceptions?

The implicit social contract between science and other institutions in society makes the issue of the public’s participation in science policy especially controversial. In the post-War period an unquestioned cultural belief in the value and material benefits of science meant that scientists enjoyed considerable social and political autonomy, and unparalleled patronage within Western democracies (Shapin, 1990). However, beginning in the late 1960s, the heavy reliance on science and technology for sustained economic growth, combined with the growing technical and moral risks of scientific development (as well as the likely role of the mass media in portraying these risks) resulted in constraints on the autonomy of science, and increased demands from various societal interests for greater input on science-related policy (Nelkin, 1995/2002; Pardo & Calvo, 2002).

Various sectors of the science community have responded differently to the demands for increased public participation. As Pardo and Calvo describe, one camp argues that science needs to circle the wagons, and focus on reinforcing the boundaries and demarcations between science and society, thereby regaining its lost autonomy (Levitt, 1999). Others claim that the level of knowledge needed for competent science policy is so elusive that it can only be obtained through formal scientific training, and therefore science policy should be left in the hands of independent scientific advisory boards and groups (Shamos, 1995).

The dominant view historically from the science community, however, is that it is possible to achieve a society-wide level of science literacy that would ensure public competence. In this matter, elites need only focus programmatically on public communication efforts to increase public knowledge and appreciation. The popular science movement that blossomed in the generation after World War II was chiefly directed at subtle persuasion through the dissemination of uncritical information about the technical discoveries and wonders of science. These efforts were carefully engineered to improve the public’s appreciation of science as a body of knowledge and as an institution, ignoring information that might enhance the public’s understanding of science in social and political context (Lewenstein, 1992). Only recently have these methods begun to significantly change with the adoption of other approaches (Miller, 2001).

4 · How does the Scientific Outlook
Intersect with Our Basic Beliefs & Values?

4.1 · Naturalism

In view of the tremendous power of the sciences in their given domains of inquiry, many thinkers have sought to extend the scientific orientation to other areas of life. This aim now finds its home in the intellectual tradition of philosophical or scientific naturalism. Most fundamentally, naturalism is the idea that all of our methods of inquiry and beliefs about the world should somehow be brought into accord with the sciences. Naturalism represents one attempt to steer between both radical social constructivism and scientism. With a rich heritage running through American pragmatists, naturalism claims many adherents in the sciences and academia. Indeed, one author on the subject claims, “nearly everybody nowadays wants to be a naturalist” (Papineau, 1993). But despite this widespread appeal, there is little agreement on what precisely naturalism consists in.

Traditionally, naturalists have distinguished various commitments that they wish to make: a metaphysical (or ontological, or substantive) claim and a methodological (or epistemological, or procedural) claim. Typically, the metaphysical content is expressed by saying that in any true statement about reality — be it commonsensical, philosophical, theological, ethical, sociological, or political — the entities postulated are composed of or somehow grounded in the entities postulated by the empirical sciences. Metaphysical naturalism is usually construed in a non-reductive fashion, so that higher-level entities like social institutions and beliefs are causally determined by lower-level physical properties, without being reduced to them. Still, given contemporary physics, naturalism is thought to rule out many entities, including supernatural deities, Cartesian minds and Platonic abstract objects such as mathematical sets.

The epistemological or methodological content of naturalism is typically expressed by denying the possibility of transcendent truths that are known a priori and with certainty through introspection or rational intuition. Instead, philosophical inquiry ought to pattern itself after scientific inquiry, formulating hypotheses that are evaluated on the basis of experience, broadly construed.

Critics have accused naturalism of being self-defeating. Naturalism instructs us to look to science for our beliefs and principles, but naturalism itself is not a scientific claim — it is a philosophical or meta-philosophical thesis; therefore, by its own lights, naturalism ought to be rejected (Moser & Yandell, 2000). Contrary to this objection, the content of naturalism need not be strictly scientific to be self-consistent, so long as it is logically implied or evidentially supported by science (Rea, 2002). Another argument, due to Alvin Plantinga, contends that Darwinian accounts of the evolution of human cognitive faculties cannot assure that these faculties reliably aim at truth, as opposed to reproductive fitness. Consequently, if naturalism were true, then naturalists could have no rational assurance of its truth (Beilby, 2002; Pennock, 2001). However, it is not clear why naturalism should be identified with any particular evolutionary hypothesis (Tedesco, 2002).

The modern scientific outlook is widely presumed to be materialist or physicalist, in that all properties and relations in the universe (or universes) are thought to be causally dependent on the fundamental wave-particles and forces postulated by physical theory. If a naturalistic metaphysics takes its cues from physical science, then naturalism will entail physicalism. This presents naturalists with a challenge. For there are plenty of things in the world that we at least pretheoretically regard as real — intentions, promises, jealousy, friends, toll roads, federal constitutions, and so forth — yet they appear in no physical theory. What are we to make of them? That is, how are we to systematically relate our commonsense or philosophical ontologies to our physicalist ontologies? Further, how do the human sciences relate to the natural sciences?

One solution is reductive physicalism: “higher-order” entities are “nothing but” agglomerations of “lower-order” entities, and the laws governing the former can be deduced from the laws governing the former. The general program of intertheoretic reduction has encountered technical barriers that many philosophers find insurmountable, even in the case of reducing biology to chemistry (Nagel, 1961; Kuhn, 1962; Feyerabend, 1962; Nickles, 1973; Kitcher, 1984; Bickle, 2002). The attempt to articulate a non-reductive physicalism has led to the introduction of the concept of supervenience. Phenomena of one kind are said to “supervene on” phenomena of another kind if and only if differences with respect to the first kind require differences with respect to the second (Post, 1987; Kim, 1998, 1999, 2002; Chalmers & Jackson, 2001). A general theory of supervenience, which is now being explored in the philosophy and cognitve science literature, attempts to elaborate whether and how a property could be causally determined by other properties without being entirely explicable in terms of them.

4.2 · Epidemiology of Belief

One aspect of naturalism is the attempt to construct plausible naturalistic accounts of experiences and beliefs that are purported to fall outside the grasp of science, such as experiences of the transcendent. Such a research agenda is necessarily theoretically eclectic, drawing on cognitive psychology, neuroscience, sociology, economics, and philosophy. In this respect, naturalism about complex cultural phenomena generally has been compared to epidemiology (Sperber, 1996). What kind of psychological and/or social processes are at work? Can we construct any useful generalizations about these processes?

In psychology and neuroscience, research focuses on brain function and anomalous experience, biases in perception, reasoning, decision-making, and memory (Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Nisbett, 1992; Sutherland, 1994). In science communication studies, there is the question of how social context affects individual cognitive engagement with the scientific outlook. The diversity of and individual’s discussion partners and information sources unique to these contexts are significant factors in knowledge, attitudes, and behavior (Nisbet, 2002; Nisbet, Scheufele & Moy, 2002). Related to science and technology, religion remains the social structure that might embed, constrain, and shape individual attitudes, knowledge, and social identities to the greatest extent. A recent example occurred on the topic of stem cell research, where those in support of funding for the research cited information in the mass media as the strongest influence on their opinion, whereas those that opposed research cited their religious faith and religious ties as the strongest influence on their opinion (Pew, 2002).

4.3 · Religion & Values

Observers of science and religion have long noted a pattern in which the advance of scientific knowledge encroaches on some territory that was formerly left to theology. In light of this poor track record, the attempt to fill in the cracks of advancing scientific knowledge with supernatural agency is now usually met with suspicion, and referred to pejoratively as a god-of-the-gaps argument. However, in recent decades, new scholarship in theology, religious studies, philosophy, and the history of science has attempted to systematically relate science and religion in a way that transcends the god-of-the-gaps style. Much of this scholarship has examined their actual historical interaction, for example, in early modern Western history (Mascall, 1965), or parallels between their respective structures as modes of inquiry (Barbour, 1990; Murphy, 1990). Such historical and sociological research, interesting in its own right, can be distinguished from another, more distinctively philosophical, task of exploring the epistemological relationships (of logical implication or presupposition, evidential or rational support, and so forth) between the sciences and religion. It is this epistemological approach that is of special interest from this program’s perspective, since it is concerned with the implications of the scientific outlook for other areas of thought, whatever they might be (Gould, 1999; McMullin 1981; Polkinghorne, 2000).

Just as the ascendancy of the scientific outlook raises deep questions about our traditional metaphysical beliefs, it forces us to reevaluate our evaluative and moral beliefs. What place is there for norms and values in a world composed of matter in motion? This approach, which seeks to relate normative discourse and normative properties to factual knowledge, is known as naturalistic metaethics or naturalistic value theory. While naturalism was regarded as defeated by a previous generation of scholars, it has returned in the form of several promising naturalistic theories of values and norms (Railton, 2003).

4.4 · The Fringes of Sciences

Polling data gathered over the last decade have suggested a rise in paranormal belief in American society since the late 1970s — belief in alien visitation, ghosts, demon possession, extra-sensory perception, communication with the dead, and spiritual healing, among other phenomena. But some experts consider the findings inconclusive. The measurement of society-wide paranormal beliefs, their change over time and their relation to the media merits on-going study. Meanwhile, there is continued debate over whether paranormal beliefs are media-driven. There is little debate, however, concerning the tremendous marketability of paranormal themes. Globally profit-driven media conglomerates, like Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, seek universally understandable storylines that can be easily exported overseas and translated into foreign languages.

In recent years, a wide range of unconventional therapies has appeared on the public scene. These are offered as “alternative” or “complementary” to mainstream medicine (CAM). And they include everything from herbal medicines, homeopathy, and aromatherapy to the use of acupuncture therapeutic touch, prayer at a distance, faith healing, chelation therapy, and “miraculous” cancer cures. The need for objective, scientific scrutiny of the such claims has never been greater. There is a lack of readily available, reliable information about the efficacy of such treatments. This impairs people’s free choice and, potentially, increases risks to their health.

Several new journals devoted exclusively to alternative and complementary medicine and mental health practice have appeared recently, but they typically advocate unconventional treatments and rarely assess them objectively. Both the public and some medical professionals seem unaware that credible, scientific assessments of many alternative health claims already exist and that new evaluations based on available information are possible. There is a critical need to test new claims before they are marketed to the public.

While the Science and the Public program does not specialize in stimulating basic research in medicine and mental health, it explores the public’s attitudes towards and knowledge about CAM and its mistrust of institutionalized medicine and evidence-based treatments. A focal point of this research is the role and responsibility of the mass media and popular press, which have been accused of promulgating misinformation about untested remedies for commercial reasons.

5 · Areas of Research

5.1 · The Demarcation Problem

One centerpiece of “The Received View” in philosophy of science was a strict demarcation criterion distinguishing science from pseudosciences such as astrology. Against this view, some have argued that owing to the heterogeneity of the practices that constitute the sciences, they have no essential characteristics, and so it is usually more helpful to focus attention on evaluating the merits of research programs relative to their alternatives rather than debating over which deserves the mantle of “science” (Laudan, 1983; Ruse, 1988). Is some form of demarcation criterion needed to clearly understand science and its borderlands? If so, what would it be? If not, what is the proper way to approach controversial or fringe discourses, especially in light of the rising popularity of paranormalism and folk medicine?

5.2 · Scientific Realism & Rationality

In recent years, a number of lines of research have challenged Englightenment and neo-Enlightenment conceptions of scientific truth and rationality. The view that scientific claims are true or false in virtue of their relation to an underlying reality with an existence independent of us is known as scientific realism. New varieties of instrumentalism and empiricism have made anti-realism about science a live option. Worries about underdetermination have called into question the rationality of theory choice and intertheoretic argumentation. In what forms, if any, can the traditional notions of scientific realism and rationality be defended? What is at stake in these debates, if anything, for the authority of science or the public engagement with science in a democratic society?

5.3 · Philosophical Naturalism

The metaphysical or substantive content of naturalism as a philosophical stance is difficult to characterize because science is essentially fallible and subject to an ongoing process of revision. Some have proposed that naturalism should not be thought of as a philosophical doctrine at all, but rather as a set of methodological dispositions or commitments to certain modes of inquiry (Forrest, 1996; Rea, 2002). Relatedly, natrualism could be thought of as a historically specific body of scholarship: In philosophy of mind and language, the naturalist program is the project of accounting for mental causation, consciousness, and intentionality within non-reductive physicalist assumptions; in social and cultural studies, the project of subjecting social phenomena to the same sort of objective, impersonal analysis as in the case of natural phenomena; in ethics, the project of showing how certain moral properties might be identical with certain natural properties; in epistemology, the project of understanding knowledge in terms that are fundamentally psychological rather than irreducibly normative; and so forth. Naturalism per se will then be the aggregate of these and other more-or-less freestanding naturalistic research projects, and the case for naturalism per se will depend on their success relative to alternative, non-naturalistic projects.

5.4 · Science & Naturalism

Especially in the debate over science and religion, many scholars contend that science is essentially naturalistic (Branch, 2003; Forrest, 2000; Pennock, 2001; Ruse, 1997). Others have pointed out that the history of science does not suggest any a priori limits on the kinds of things it may invoke. There is nothing about the nature of science that would in principle prevent its practitioners from postulating supernatural entities (Schick, 2001). The question is whether doing so would ever be necessary to the best explanation for a given phenomena under scientific investigation. Culturally, this ongoing debate is important in the context of popular criticisms of science (especially evolutionary theory) that it involves a dogmatic, extra-scientific presumption of naturalism (Johnson, 1998; Pennock, 2001). If naturalists are to deflect this accusation, they may need to contend that their naturalism is not simply a methodological presupposition, but an a posteriori conclusion founded on an accumulated body of well-established empirical evidence and theory.

5.5 · Supervenience & Reduction

Because this project seeks to impart an appreciation for the contemporary scientific outlook, and because that outlook is broadly physicalistic, two interlocking issues take on special significance and centrality. One is the exploration of whether and how existing non-physicalist discourses (in commonsense, folk psychology, behavioral science, philosophy, religion, or normative and value discourse) can be integrated with natural science by working within the assumptions of non-reductive physicalism. The other is the general theory of the supervenience relation in terms of which such integration is to be framed. Both issues are subject to ongoing debate. As John Post puts it: “How can physicalists bring off their attempt to unify all the domains, in or out of the sciences? In what sense are the truths in the higher domains — biology, psychology, history, and so forth — determined by or manifestations of truths at the level of physics, if not via some sort of reduction?”

5.6 · The “Deficit Model” of Science Literacy

The emphasis on formal and informal public education as a way to bolster the public’s technical knowledge has been dubbed the deficit model by its critics. Recent research has challenged the assumptions of the deficit model, with various studies finding that science knowledge is only weakly predictive of positive perceptions of science and technology, only applicable to certain aspects of science under certain contexts, specific to only specialized publics, or specific to only certain societies across stages of industrial development. If this recent trend in research proves to be valid, and technical science knowledge has only a loose connection to the public’s acceptance of science and technology, then many argue that the emphasis on popular science or public education is misplaced. Instead, policymakers should turn to other means of engaging the public, including participatory institutions that place lay knowledge and social values on equal footing with scientific expertise, and that are self-reflexive, problematizing both the public and the institutional advocates of science.

5.7 · Science, Trust & the Public

Wynne and his colleagues emphasize the influence of trust over the importance of science literacy in shaping public support (Wynne, 1991; 1992; 1996). Trust and credibility are keys to the public acceptance of scientific messages and the public’s risk perceptions. However, trust, as defined by Wynne, is an elusive concept. It is subject to change, a contingent variable which depends on evolving relationships between institutions and the lay public, and a social judgment that is subject to ambivalence, fluctuation, and contradiction across a diversity of social identities and networks that inhabit any single community, or “public” (Wynne, 1995/2002). The concept of trust, as loosely used by many public understanding of science scholars, is in sore need of further clarification, defining the dimensions of trust and distinguishing trust from the related but distinct factors.

5.8 · The Autonomy of Science

In the context of growing controversy surrounding emerging biomedical issues such as stem cell research, some decry a new era censorship of science. Meanwhile, proponents of “Jeffersonian science” argue for increased democratic deliberation about the determination and direction of scientific research. What sorts of moral and social considerations deserve a place in deliberation about science policy? What obligations are owed to the public by private commercial interests and the scientific elite? What level of autonomy is appropriate, and what would this mean in practice?

5.9 · Issues in Science & Belief

The Science and the Public project complements the contemporary scholarship on science and religious belief by emphasizing epistemological and philosophical connections rather than historical or sociological patterns, and exploring detailed implications. Precisely what are the implications of emerging scientific knowledge for theological and folk-religious beliefs regarding, for instance, the origins and eventual fate of the universe and living things, divine omniscience and foreknowledge, miracles, predestination, free will, personal survival after death, disembodied consciousness, reincarnation, mystical experiences, and the roots of moral reasoning and behavior?

6 · Summary

The enterprise of examining the broad philosophical, social, cultural, and public policy implications of the scientific outlook is multidisciplinary in the fullest sense. It is both scientific (involving the psychological and brain sciences especially) and philosophical, since the non-reductive integration of scientific and non-scientific knowledge is a task for philosophical analysis. This multidisciplinary research agenda is both novel in academe and increasingly in demand by the public.

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