An Instinct for Truth: Curiosity and the Moral Character of Science, by Robert T. Pennock

Harry Collins takes issue with an outdated account of the relations between science and society

October 10, 2019
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In the 1970s, the “sociology of scientific knowledge” (SSK) began to look at the way scientific ideas become established without short-circuiting the analysis by treating the truth and falsity of any claims as part of the explanation. The result was a much richer description of how science works and a new sensitivity to the influence of the wider society on the scientific process. The aptly named “science wars” of the 1990s saw a ferocious attack on this approach, led by a subset of philosophers and scientists (the “science warriors”) whose cartoon-like models of science and its special authority over the “rational” were threatened. The argument faded as it became clear that the richer models of science were readily recognisable by scientists themselves.

For example, a 2001 book, co-edited by a chemist and a sociologist (embarrassingly, it was yours truly) and called The One Culture?: A Conversation about Science, presented a dialogue between well-known natural scientists and science studies scholars, where many agreed that their respective views of the world were not so dissimilar after all. It’s true that SSK can support postmodernism in general and the dissolution of science’s authority, but more recent work has shown that it is also compatible with the idea that scientific expertise is central to our society and the pre-eminent source of knowledge about the natural and the social. One such effort, again co-authored by this reviewer, argues that science offers vital leadership because of its intrinsic values (Why Democracies Need Science, 2017). Pennock, too, concentrates on the values of science and proclaims that his long book turns on a survey of what scientists say about these things. It could, then, have been a truly valuable work, contributing to a deeper understanding of science in context and unifying a once-vicious academic divide.

Unfortunately, like the Japanese soldiers who were left behind in the South Pacific after the end of the Second World War, there are still a few science warriors fighting on. Pennock is one of them, which fatally blinkers his gaze and ruins the book. A comparison of his take on values with that of the newer approach would have been fascinating. It would have turned, I believe, on the “instinct” in his title, with scientists treated as individual moral actors on Darwinian principles (since curiosity and the efficient apprehension of truth carry an advantage in terms of survival). The alternative I would support is a collective approach, where science is seen as a form of life shaped by aspirations such as the search for truth and certain methodological rules. But Pennock’s bunker is fortified against normal scholarly discussion (he appears ignorant of the work of leading authorities such as John Dupré, Steven Shapin and even Ludwig Wittgenstein).

I can’t recommend this dense book to scientists or serious scholars of the nature of science except to those who want their “pre-war” prejudices reinforced. Analysing science as a moral enterprise is a good thing, and if we had the results of the survey on which it is said to be based this book would still be well worth a hard look. But, strangely, those results have been withheld for later publications.

Harry Collins is a distinguished research professor in Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences.


An Instinct for Truth: Curiosity and the Moral Character of Science
By Robert T. Pennock
MIT Press, 448pp, £35.00
ISBN 9780262042581
Published 13 August 2019

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Outdated view from the bunker

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