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Are debatable scientific questions debatable



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social epistemology 2000 vol 14 nos 2 3 187 199 Are debatable scienti c questions debatable JOHN ZIMAN Abstract Scientists often nd di culty in engaging in formal public debate about transcienti c social issues Although science is a highly disputatious institution public argumentation amongst scientists follows very di erent conventional practices from those that rule in political and legal arenas Amongst other di erentiating features scienti c disputes are typically conducted in writing rather than orally they are not sharply polarised or formally adversarial they are seldom addressed to a speci c proposition and they do not reach decisive closure As a result the rhetorical style that scientists learn from participation in such practises is not well adapted to the established format of socio political debate For scientists to contribute e ectively to such debates they must learn new ways of making their particular type of knowledge convincing in unfamiliar intellectual and social contexts 1 Introduction As soon as one realizes that public communication is central to science one begins to think about rhetoric Ziman 1968 The notion that the ndings of research are so rational and compelling that they stand to reason is a fantasy Ziman 2000 Scienti c knowledge is the product of a disputatious community of truth seekers Campbell 1986 where erce argumentation is the name of the game The art of persuasion thus plays a major role in scienti c practise What is more quite apart from the hubbub of informal more or less private exchanges of opinion scienti c progress depends on formal public argumentation written and verbal The norm of communalism Merton 1942 1973 underpins a variety of strongly institutionalized social practises which ensure that novel research claims are o ered up for expert criticism before they are accepted by a research community The contest for credibility between claimants and their critics in practise all members of the same community but adopting di erent roles according to the circumstances is intrinsically so erce that it is subject to very strict conventions Author John Ziman 27 Little London Green Oakley Aylesbury Bucks HP18 9QL UK e mail jmziman cs com Social Epistemology ISSN 0269 1728 print ISSN 1469 5297 online 2000 Taylor Francis Ltd http www tandf co uk journals 188 john ziman In other words science is not unlike other established epistemic institutions such as law scholastic theology and parliamentary government Scienti c disputation although performed for real is highly ritualized and constrained to a strictly limited rhetorical armamentarium Certain styles of persuasive discourse are customary whilst others are strongly forbidden This goes further than the conventional courtesies and rules for turn taking etc The social context shapes the subject matter the structure of the argument the framework within which it is set the vocabulary of assertion and denial and many other features of presentation and critique As I have tried to show at length elsewhere Ziman 2000 academic science in its idealised traditional form is not only a peculiarly e ective institution for producing a particular type of knowledge it is also the stereotype the paradigm of science as a way of knowing In this sense science is di erent from other sources of thought and action such as pragmatic experience common sense technical practise religious belief spiritual inspiration moral imperative economic necessity or political expediency In reality however the notion of pure science is a chimera It is becoming less and less feasible to exclude from scienti c disputation considerations that are not amenable to its traditional rhetoric such as human values social interests technological capabilities and so on Indeed I would argue that the academic and industrial research traditions are being transformed and merged into a new institutional form This new institutional form what I have called post academic science Ziman 1996 is characterized by a variety of new norms and practices and is becoming the dominant mode even in relatively basic elds of research What this means in practise is that argumentation about what is known scienti cally is taking place in a variety of other fora governed by quite di erent rules One way of describing such argument is that it typically involves transcienti c issues that is questions that could never be resolved by established principles of scienti c method such as experimental demonstration mathematical prediction or other forms of overwhelming rational inference Weinberg 1972 The debate over climate change clearly involves many such features In any case science can no longer isolate itself socially from other societal institutions such as law government commerce the military etc that operate quite di erent modes of argumentation quite di erent styles of persuasion and quite di erent criteria of belief The debate over climate change for example is now so deeply implanted in the womb of politics that it cannot really avoid developing in conformity to the principles of that social environment rather than those of the scienti c world where it was conceived This in no way implies that the argumentation then becomes irrational or governed solely by brute force In every domain of civilized life there are well established modes of orderly deliberation Scienti c concepts and considerations are typically invoked with respect in such deliberations Modern political processes especially in their bureaucratic aspects owe a great deal to the scienti c style of rationality Ezrahi 1990 modern economic discourse is extravagantly scientistic in its rhetorical excesses ethical argumentation is now much focussed on scienti c issues and there is much discussion about the best way of incorporating genuine scienti c evidence into legal proceedings One might say rather that the problem is not the incursion of politics law ethics etc into the realm of science but the tendency to import quasi scienti c arguments into other societal realms which do not share their premises criteria or objectives Nevertheless the argumentation rituals of these other realms although quite distinctive are very di erent from those of science and so therefore are their rhetorical styles This is a two way di erentiation It is obvious that the peroration of a defence are debatable scientific questions debatable 189 lawyer in a murder trial is rhetorically inappropriate in a scienti c conference But so equally


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