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Kuhn, Feyerabend and the Culture of Science

Many believe that reducing science to the use of a method is too simplistic. Philosophers such as Feyerabend have argued vigorously that great science often works in contradiction to the traditional definition of science [_1_] . Other philosophers of science, such as Thomas Kuhn, put more emphasis on the cultural aspects of science and proposed that non-rational and cultural factors often have considerable influence on how theories are accepted or rejected. [_2_] . Once the social factors are accepted as part of science it becomes much more difficult to define how science works and what constitutes typical scientific practice. And if it is accepted that science is a social activity it could change the interpretation of history. Just because historical figures did not behave according to a textbook definition of how scientists are supposed to behave does not mean that they didn't behave the way modern scientists actually behave. Scientists are human. Scientists often work in organizations. This means that three of the staples of many organizations are likely to be involved in scientific work; politics, healthy egos and attachment to the status quo. These factors have even resulted in fraud; sometimes by famous scientists [_3_] .

There are also social aspects of science which are quite admirable and separate it from many other fields. There is a morality to science. What passes as good practice in other professions can be even considered fraud in science. In many fields, developing a compelling argument for a position with good supporting data is considered good practice. But that isn't good enough for scientists; scientists must consider all data they encounter in an investigation, even if the data doesn't support their argument. Sometimes contradictory data can be legitimately ignored, but typically ignoring contradictory data is considered a fraud, known as "cooking the data". Data that contradicts an argument might be ignored if it can be argued that there were problems with the experimental conditions.

It might be easier for scientists to follow these strict rules than other professions. A scientist is expected to so clearly define a question that an experiment can easily prove it false. He/she is also expected to reduce the unknowns in an experiment. This makes it easier to discuss the bulk of the data. Other professions have questions forced on them that are wider in scope and therefore more difficult to answer conclusively. Other professions do not have the luxury of eliminating unknowns. Also, a scientist's audience is typically other scientists interested in the same field. Their audience does not have to be entertained, and contradictory information might actually be of interest to them.

Many discussions of church and science provide a contrast to the way that science is conducted. The problem area is so large that you simply cannot deal with a significant amount of the data. As a result, participants take a position and support it using whatever data they can, ignoring information that contradicts their position. An example is the NOVA documentary, Galileo's Battle for the Heavens (see Galileo's Battle for the Heaven's). This documentary won an Emmy Award for best documentary in 2002. The church and Jesuits were portrayed throughout the documentary as reactionary. The documentary did not mention that it was not Galileo, but Galileo's contemporaries in the Jesuits that built the first modern astronomical telescope. It also did not mention that the church scientists of Galileo's day were responsible for more long-term innovations in telescopy than Galileo himself (see Fathers of the Telescope). Popular documentaries must entertain as well as educate, and positioning the church as contrary to science does enhance the conflict in the program. Regardless of the reasoning, the approach used by the documentary would be considered bad practice if it were done by a scientist.


Copyright Joseph Sant (2017).
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1. Feyerabend, Paul, Verso Press, Against Method, ,
Paul Feyerabend's book Against Method has caused great controversy over the definition of science. He provides many examples where science did not proceed the way it was supposed to. His book bears directly on the discussion of church and science since he discusses the scientific legitimacy of the claims made by early Copernicans such as Galileo.
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2. Kuhn, Thomas, University of Chicago Press, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, ,
Thomas Kuhn's book, the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is the original source of the term 'paradigm shift'. In this book he proposes that science doesn't progress by a measured series of logical steps but that non-rational and cultural factors have considerable influence.
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3. Broad,W and Wade,N., Oxford University Press, Betrayers of the Truth, ,
Broad and Wade have written a fascinating book that traces deceit and fraud in science. The book includes a discussion of possible fraud by some of the most famous scientists in history. These include Mendel, Galileo and Robert Millikan. More importantly it provides repeated examples where self-deception, careerism or a power elite have twisted science so that it didn't work in an objective manner.
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