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CSUF LBST 304 - Brief Overview of Science Studies

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Page 1 of 4A Brief Overview of Science Studies(Written with CSUF Liberal Studies Majors in mind)by Craig McConnellJune, 2001If we take science to be the study of nature, what would you call the study of how scienceis practiced? A century ago, the number of scientists in the world was growing dramatically, butit was almost inconceivable that science would be the object of study. Occasionally, a scientistwould write a narrative about the origins of science or the historical development of theirparticular field of science, but these texts were typically of interest only to other scientists. In the twentieth century, a number of academic disciplines have emerged that havescience as their central object of study. Together, these scholars are considered to be engaged inscience studies. Since the middle of the twentieth century, some universities have created newdepartments such asDepartment of History of ScienceDepartment of Philosophy of ScienceDepartment of Sociology of ScienceProgram in Science StudiesSTS (Science, Technology, Society or Science and Technology Studies)Scholars who work in these fields have different approaches to studying science and differentquestions that they ask about science, but they share a core set of key texts that they all are awareof. The purpose of this brief overview is to quickly familiarize you with the key figures inscience studies, their interpretative ideas, and some of the jargon that they use. Many of thereadings that I assign will use this jargon and refer to these names and ideas as though they arefamiliar to you. You need not commit their names or ideas to memory; you may need to referback to this overview in order to make full sense of some of the readings for the semester. Historical PerspectivesEven before the “History of Science” emerged as a discipline, some historians wroteabout science. In particular, intellectual historians, concerned as they are with ideas andphilosophies, have long been concerned with developments in science. If you read books aboutscience written before the 1970s, they are very likely to take one of the following approaches:• The “Great Scientists” approach (Aristotle, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc.)• The “Great Theories” approach (inertia, relativity, evolution, etc.)• The “Great Experiments” approach (Galileo’s falling bodies, Newton’s prism,Young’s double slit experiment, etc.)• The “Great Discoveries” approach (new planets, atoms, etc.) Often, “Great Experiments” are described as “Crucial Experiments” (experimentsconducted to settle a dispute between two competing theories). In the 1950s, many historians ofscience felt that their primary mission was to teach the ideas and discoveries of science to non-scientists. They tried to write for non-technical audiences, and their hope, more than anything,Page 2 of 4was to present science as rational and admirable. Many historians of this generation emphasizedthe rigorous application of the scientific method as an example of the rational basis of science. In the 1960s, the history of science community was divided between “internalists” and“externalists.” The internalists believed that the best way to understand the history of sciencewas to follow the technical details of a field, reading lab notebooks and scientific publications. The externalists believed that the best way to understand the history of science was to examinethe social and cultural factors that shaped scientific theories. Many historians of science sincethe 1970s have complained that this way of studying science overlooks too much. They haveattempted to widen their perspective, in particular by trying to document both internal andexternal factors in the development of science, and by paying greater attention to the differencebetween what scientists do and what they say they do.Philosophical PerspectivesWhereas historians are often interested in what scientists did, philosophers tend to bemore concerned about how scientists arrive at knowledge about nature. For this reason,philosophers early in the twentieth century paid close attention to the vast differences betweenthe “context of discovery” (how it is that knowledge in science is actually obtained) and the“context of justification” (how scientists explain to their colleagues, students, and the public howthey obtained their knowledge). These philosophers showed that in nearly all cases, the contextof justification is a sanitized version of the context of discovery, and in some cases the two arenearly impossible to reconcile. Since the 1960s, it has been quite common for historians ofscience to write as though the ideas of the following philosophers are common knowledge:• Karl Popper. Popper looked at science as a form of knowledge that progresses by wayof the falsification of theories. (Falsification is also referred to as refutation). Popper emphasized the epistemological impossibility of ever proving a theorycorrect, but insisted that the act of proving a theory incorrect contributes to ourknowledge of nature. • Thomas Kuhn. Probably the most influential philosopher of science. (Cf. The Structureof Scientific Revolutions, 1963). Kuhn noted that historically, science seems toexist in two modes–periods of “normal science” when scientists use existingknowledge to solve problems and periods of revolution when the existingknowledge itself is called into question. Kuhn used the word “paradigm” todescribe the shared knowledge, tools, and concerns of a scientific community. During normal science, scientists use the paradigm to solve problems. Inevitably,anomalies arise–observations that can’t be explained within the paradigm. Whenthere are two many anomalies, a crisis develops which leads to a revolution(which he also referred to as a paradigm shift). During revolutions, the paradigmis attacked and a new, different paradigm emerges. • Imre Lakatos. Lakatos saw science as an inherently social activity. He claimed thattheories thrive only when an active research community keeps them in circulation. Good theories can thus fade when their support subsides, and bad theories can bepromulgated by the support of enough scientists.Page 3 of 4• Paul Feyerabend. In response to Popper, Kuhn, and Lakatos, Feyerabend claimed thatthere is no distinct method for science–historical case studies reveal that scientistsproceed according to instinct and hunches,


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