Life Essay

What is science?

Scientific facts are manufactured out of locally available social, material, and symbolic (interpersonally meaningful) resources. These resources become facts through the social interactions of scientists in a process sometimes described as creating order out of disorder. In the wake of a laboratory experiment, the sequence of writings from laboratory notes to published paper moves statements through different modes, each mode more "objective" than was the previous one. That is, statements describing the experiment progressively erase the subjective, flesh-and-blood human experimenters from the increasingly objective, mechanistic, and technical discussions. Facts attain "universal" status through the international activities of scientists as agents of professions and governments, and as ambassadors for the legitimacy of these facts.

The field of science studies is an alternative to traditional ways of studying and understanding science. According to practitioners of science studies, not only is science a social activity, but scientific activity itself is socially constructed. The idea that science is social is mired in controversy. The controversy has heated up so much that it has spawned the "science wars," pitting physical and natural (P&N) scientists against science studies researchers. The P&N scientists (and some social scientists) are worried that the claim that science is social damages the power of logic and reason to keep irrationalism and superstition at bay. Leading science studies researchers find these attacks and concerns curious because they consider themselves scientists and defenders of science.

We need to understand these issues in the context of the end of modernity, the end of a period in which the nature and value of science was considered to be beyond criticism. "Modern" and "Postmodern" are multifaceted and contentious ideas. Their substance arises from the historical realities of the twentieth century— from crises in logic and mathematics to world wars, atomic bombs, holocausts, and environmental disasters—that challenged uncritical and worshipful attitudes about the value of science, the inevitability of progress, and the transparency and universality of scientific truths. Postmodernism launched social criticisms but also stimulated the development of research and theory on science by social scientists and humanities scholars.

If the practice of science and scientific knowledge are social, critics (including senior P&N scientists and advocates of a purist conception of science coming from all fields of scholarship and research) conclude that must mean they are arbitrary, not objective, not true, and not universal. In fact, however, science studies researchers have not mounted an attack on objectivity and truth. They value science, the methods of science, and the findings of science.

Society and culture are natural phenomena and can be studied scientifically. Some critics claim this leads to confusion, because if science is social, isn't science studies also social? Of course science studies is social. This is only a paradox if you assume that saying science is social is equivalent to saying it is arbitrary and untrue.

Moreover, science studies does not claim jurisdiction over the facts P&N sci-

Sal Restivo is Professor of Sociology, Science Studies, and Information Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, the Hixon/ Riggs Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Harvey Mudd College in California, and Special Professor of Mathematics Education at Nottingham University in England. He is a social theorist who specializes in the sociology of science, mathematics, and mind. He was one of the pioneers in the ethnography of science and social studies of mathematics.

entists study, but only over the P&N sciences as social phenomena. Science studies researchers do not deny reality, truth, or objectivity. They do, however, claim that we need to revise our understanding of these ideas in the light of what we now know about how society and culture shape science, scientists, and scientific knowledge. In order to appreciate what this means, one must understand the more general idea that self and mind are social phenomena and that humans have social brains shaped by our social lives.

When scientists say that there is a "reality out there," this does not mean that there exists a description of that reality that we approach through closer and closer approximations. Science is at its best when it is not being directly and overtly controlled by powerful interests with the policing power of a state or religious institution behind them. Science is, however, inevitably embedded in a social, cultural, and historical matrix that shapes its methods, theories, and substantive content.

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