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Can we Separate Science from Ideology – No



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This is a lengthy article. I got rather into it because I'm a student of philosophy of science. I have put it into sections and provided a contents page to make it easier for the reader to process. Feel free to flick through the sections and I hope the reader finds it interesting. It eventually comes to the conclusion that the two can't be separated; but it certainly isn't a straightforward issue.

Contents:
1. Introduction
2. Logical Positivism Science is not ideology!
3. Idealism Questioning the Realist perspective!
4. Instrumentalism A radical alternative to scientific realism!
5. Putnam's "No Miracles Argument" Science must be real!
6. Kuhn Normal Science and Scientific Revolutions!
7. What can we draw from Kuhn?
8. Lakatos Further support for the ideology of science!
9. Feyarabend Can scientific realism be saved?
10. Mathematics Surely realist science?
11. Physics Can we reduce everything to it?
12. Are some Scientific disciplines more realist than other?
13. Conclusion



1. Introduction

Faith in Science has grown in strength since the age of the enlightenment in the 16th and 17th century. Science, since this period of scientific revolution, has been seen by most as a rational progression towards objective truth (at least in terms of physical entities.) Most people are realists and they believe that the physical world exists independently of human thought, belief and perception. Science, as seen by a realist, provides a true description of the nature of reality through independent and objective observations and experiments by scientists. Scientific theories consist of statements that should be interpreted as literally true or false and as postulating entities which either do or do not exist. This period of scientific growth since the 16th century has brought about the discovery of many highly useful inventions and treatment for illness. Surely science must have been so successful due to its accurate and real picture of reality. Such success in scientific discovery has pushed many people's views away from superstition, religious dogma and social ideology, particularly in the western world.

2. Logical Positivism Science is not ideology!

Scientific realism became the overriding position of the logical positivists at the turn of the 20th century. Einstein, one of the greatest physicists of our time, was a practitioner of such a position. This group of scientists followed the realist approach and believed that by verifying theories through experimentation we were coming ever closer to the truth. A theory was better than another because it was closer to the truth not because of some prejudice or social pressure. Science was beyond ideology!

3. Idealism Questioning the Realist perspective!

But an ideology is an organized collection of ideas and many have argued that science is in itself a form of ideology and not quite as objective and independent of prejudices and social pressures as it might seem. For over two thousand years philosophers had argued about the nature of reality. Plato (427-347 BC) the Greek Philosopher and student of Socrates was one of the first to famously question realism. In his argument of forms, Plato reasoned through analogy that reality was nothing more than a shadow of our own personal beliefs. So only the object of thought was known for certain, not the independent object itself. Such idealism has been an important part of many religions including Buddhism, and caught onto many later philosophers such as George Berkeley and A.J.Ayer, who argued that the physical could only be understood as perceptual phenomena through the senses (phenomenalism.) However such extreme anti-realism is not so important to the key question of the distinction between science and ideology nor to the school of philosophy of science.

4. Instrumentalism A radical alternative to scientific realism!

Instrumentalism, a school of scientific thought, follows the idea that the physical world is dependent on the conscious thought of the observer. Scientific theories and entities are more or less useful tools/instruments for the classification and prediction of experimental and observational data, and should not be interpreted as literally true or false. They accept the theory laden nature of observation (that observations are contaminated by theoretical assumptions) and are concerned with the utility of theories. They will generally support the principle of "Occam's Razor", preferring a theory for its simplicity, although its predictive power is more important. In a sense they adopt a pragmatic ideology of science. This is particularly true for unobservable entities which can't be perceived directly through the senses, such as forces of gravity and electrons. They believe we have created a language that aids us to manipulate and come to terms with such unobservable entities. A realist adopts the opposite view that such entities are real, not predictive instruments. Gravity for example must be real or we wouldn't fall to the ground when we jumped out of a plane. But the instrumentalists would argue that gravity has nothing molecular (and possibly nothing physical) about it and is therefore a convenient fiction to allow us to make predictions that help us to understand reality. Likewise electrons are viewed by realists as real entities of the sub-atomic world, whereas the instrumentalists view them as useful tools for prediction of observational phenomena. It is difficult to take sides on the debate, especially at the unobservable level. Surely things like electrons must exist in some sense or they wouldn't have an effect on other particles.

5. Putnam's "No Miracles Argument" Science must be real!

Putnam (1978) argues what is called the "No Miracles Argument." These highly successful predictive theories cannot be correct through some form of miracle, they must be true. However, perhaps such predictive theories could be understood better by different theories. As we have seen in the history of science, many of our successful theories about scientific entities have been replaced by new ones that have given us greater predictive power, and this strengthens the instrumentalist position. Take for example the theory of phlogiston, invented by J.J.Becher in the 17th century. It was universally accepted, after being popularized by George Ernst Stahl, that all objects released a substance called phlogiston when burnt. However later in that century scientists came up with the theory we hold today, that burning occurs when substances react with oxygen in the air at high temperature. So how do we know any of our current scientific theories will not be replaced by new ones with more predictive power, when new evidence arises in the future? The instrumentalist position of pragmatic scientific ideology seems strong when we look at the history of science.

6. Kuhn Normal Science and Scientific Revolutions!

A more extreme anti-realist understanding of science comes from Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 works "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." After accepting the theory laden nature of observation he proposed a radical alternative to scientific realism. He saw scientific progress not as a steady progression towards the truth, but as a series of relatively sudden changes in the world view of science, known as paradigm shifts, governed by political and social trends. Normal science is the ordinary day to day activities that scientists engaged in when their discipline is not undergoing revolutionary change. These normal scientists belong to a particular paradigm. In the paradigm members of the scientific community agree on a set of fundamental theoretical assumptions. They also share a set of scientific exemplars which have been solved by means of the theoretical assumptions, and they generally agree on the direction of the research. In effect the paradigm is an entire scientific ideology. This scientific ideology, which the scientific community follow while in a period of normal science, has an affect on who is employed into research teams and accepted into the scientific community. Scientists with controversial views are much less likely to be accepted, so social pressure has an affect on the direction of the research. The job of a normal scientist is to try and eliminate anomalies and protect the existing paradigm. However over time anomalies build up causing a breakdown in the scientific theories. A period of revolutionary science begins and new theories are proposed. After a period of time new theories gain acceptance and eventually the whole community accepts them. A paradigm shift has occurred, a new paradigm is established and a period of normal science resumes.

7. What can we draw from Kuhn?

There seems to be an understanding by Kuhn that social and political factors are important in establishing a new paradigm. On the social level, well respected scientists and research teams are much more likely to establish the new paradigm for obvious reasons. Their theories are more likely to gain acceptance and if they repeat and falsify the results of controversial experiments by less respected scientists, the community will accept their results. On the political level governments will fund certain projects over others based on their prejudices and political ideologies. Again well respected scientists will often get the funding. Although it may seem obviously better to fund respected research teams, it shows that social pressures and political funding have an effect on the direction of research and hence it becomes less realist and objective, and more idealistic.

8. Lakatos Further support for the ideology of science!

This understanding of social and political ideology seems to be central to the 20th century philosopher of science Imre Lakatos' understanding of research programmes. Members of a research programme agree on hardcore theories which are protected by negative heuristics which prohibit certain activity, and positive heuristics which encourage certain activity. Scientists who challenge the hardcore theories effectively lose their job in that research programme. Again it seems that social ideologies and pressures have an affect on the direction of so called objective science.

9. Feyarabend Can scientific realism be saved?

Paul Feyerabend (1924-1944) an Austrian born philosopher had a different view on how science should develop. He believed that scientists should adopt a more subjective and anarchist approach and move away from the automatic acceptance of certain facts and theories that would restrict the progression of science. He wanted to move away from fixed ideologies and allow scientists to make add hoc modifications to their theories, until all the theories were compatible. However such a utopian perspective does not seem realistic of the history of science nor to its current progression.

10. Mathematics Surely realist science?

But surely there must be some realism in science. Michael Dummett, a leading philosopher at Oxford University, and the man who put the realism/anti-realism into modern debate in his paper "Realism" (1963,) drew a parallel with the two in mathematics. Mathematics, an essential part of nearly all sciences, sometimes involves abstract and somewhat anti realist concepts, such as infinity. However if Mathematics was merely a convenient instrument it wouldn't have any predictive power. It does and if done correctly always gives the right answer so it must be explaining the real objective world. Mathematical statements and workings are either correct or incorrect independent of any Social and political ideologies.

11. Physics Can we reduce everything to it?

In physics, the most fundamental of sciences, mathematics is a key part in understanding concepts and in proving physical theories. If done correctly surely physics can only be understood from a realist perspective, distinguishing it from ideology. What's more reductionists argue that all of science can ultimately be reduced to fundamental physics. So for example, an organic cell is explained by protein and enzyme formations, which is explained by the macromolecule DNA, which is formed from smaller molecules, which are formed from atoms, which are formed from subatomic particles, etc. So if we could predict certain calculations at the sub atomic level we could work our way up and predict everything. However not only are we technologically nowhere near being able to work at such a reduced level but certain quantum principles seem to indicate a sort of randomness at the subatomic level. Whether this is because we just don't know enough yet about quantum mechanics or whether it truly is random at this level is yet to be known. Another key principle, Heisenberg uncertainty principle, is that the more accurately you record a particles position the less accurately you can record its speed, and vice versa. Predictions at this level are extremely difficult and so such a scientific reductionist technique seems very far fetched, if not impossible. Perhaps future scientific research or paradigm shifts will allow more accurate predictions.

12. Are some Scientific disciplines more realist than other?

How separate science is from ideology really seems to depend on which science you are talking about. Although fundamental physics may appear be very separate from ideology, more social and human sciences such as economics, sociology and psychology, are influenced by political and social ideologies. When scientists perform experiments on human subjects there will be a huge degree of complexity in gaining accurate results. Subjects may well behave differently when they know they are being tested on (reflexivity.) Likewise the scientists who design and perform the experiments will have opinions and prejudices on what is normal, moral, etc (Contestability.) I would argue that many of these opinions will have been formed largely by the scientist's culture and society, which essentially have been formed by political and social ideologies. It seems that for much of social science, unless the researchers acknowledge their personal perspective and adopt a more open minded approach to experimentation, plus design very well thought out experiments, then the distinction between science and ideology is quite tight.

13. Conclusion

Social constructivists, under seemingly overwhelming historical evidence, continue to deny up to today the distinction between science and ideology. The history of science has shown that one theory doesn't replace another through some objective reality but through social and political trends in the scientific community. In many countries and cultures, particularly in the west where the majority of research takes place, political ideologies continue to effect research, leading to incredible technological advances like the internet and space travel; but also dangers to the whole world such as weapons of mass destruction. Some have said, what would have arose if the female of the species had dominated politics and society? How different would the direction of science be? However it cannot be denied that there is some distinction between science and ideology. Mathematics and logic have a yes or no objective answer to questions, and form a basis of much scientific research. However one must take into account that mathematics is meaningless unless given a real world context. Perhaps this means to make sense it must be applied to some form of ideology. To think that science is always completely objective and real, away from ideology is just nave. Instrumentalists continue to adopt a pragmatic ideology, and all scientists, no matter how respected or realist they are, make mistakes and are effected by social and political ideologies that they are surrounded in. A realist scientific utopia is an unrealistic achievement for such a social species.

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