Saturday, September 5, 2009

Final Exam Question : Sociology of Science

Sociologists of science often work from the perspective that scientific facts, like many other things in our society, are socially constructed. Using Latour and Woolgar’s work along with other information from the science chapter, explain what it means that scientific facts are socially constructed. Give some specific examples of how what goes on in a laboratory helps to construct scientific facts.

Despite the view and learned opinions of most philosopher’s of science, Latour and Woolgar argued that scientific facts are socially constructed. The reason given is that research findings are debated, discussed, and disagreements worked through until consensus is reached in a laboratory. These debates, discussions and disagreements are conducted in the context of a highly competitive laboratory environment, where power struggles within the lab hierarchy may determine what interpretation and results will get the attention.

In a laboratory, scientists explore, extract, measure, and quantify data derived from the real world. In the laboratory, this work is prioritized by availability of funds and allocation of resources. The administration of the laboratory assists and in many cases defines the priority of the work conducted. The scientist’s goal is to leave all biases at the door of the laboratory. But where there are people involved, there are social relationships and factors at play also.

An example of Latour’s view is his treatment of the facts surrounding the demise of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II. Recent examinations of Ramses corpse indicated that Ramses died of tuberculosis. Latour, on the other hand, states that it is not reasonable to state that the cause of Ramses’ death was tuberculosis since that disease was not discovered until 1882, 3000 years after the death of the Pharaoh. Latour makes this case since he maintains that scientific facts can not be discovered; scientific facts can only be constructed. Philosophically, this is identical to claiming that the Earth was physically the center of the Universe, with the stars, planets and the Sun revolving around the Earth until the scientific fact uncovered by Copernicus was constructed by him.

Latour makes the mistake of equating the objective truth of a scientific fact or data, with the socially constructed explanation and interpretation of that data. The philosopher of science Ian Hacking argues this point in his book The Social Construction of What? He maintains that the purist point of view, that social norms and personal values are divorced from the work of the laboratory, is unrealistic. The realities of the social world do impact the work of scientists within a laboratory. But the viewpoint advocated by Latour, that scientific facts do not exist outside of a social context is also unrealistic, and in fact, that ignoring claims to truth is misleading.

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