Surfing on the waves from Durham

January 6, 1995

Scientists concerned about science's relationship with society feel that those best placed to illuminate it are studying irrelevant issues instead. Meanwhile, sociologists say they already have insights that scientists either do not want to hear or are not equipped to understand. These are the themes emerging from Internet discussions following a conference on "Science's Social Standing" held in Durham recently.

"Few participants (at Durham) seemed to be studying what we would find interesting," writes Peter Atkin, chemist at Oxford University, who attended the conference, "namely the interaction of science with society, as formulators of public opinion, and so on. We (scientists) regretted that you (sociologists) seemed to be treading where you had little to contribute, namely the interpretation of scientific findings. We thought that a waste of time; but you are perfectly free to waste your time.".

Former marine researcher Nick Holmes, also writing on the Net, describes where help from sociologists is needed: "One of the major problems of environmental management is in translating the insights of the natural sciences into the philosophical framework of management processes."

Until the "two cultures" gap is bridged, problems such as predicting what a habitat will be like in the future if humans use it in a particular way will be answered only by guesswork.

Sociologists of scientific knowledge agree that they can help scientists. Richard Sclove, executive director of The Loka Institute in Massachussetts, writes: "Scientists are often quite inexpert in understanding science's broader cultural and political repercussions and thus should be encouraged to enter the public domain prepared not only to educate but also to learn." Some sociologists highlighted scientists' ignorance of their work, which may be because they do not like its implications. Mark Hineline, of University of California at San Diego, referred to Robert Peters, a scientist who alleges that nobody knows where scientific hypotheses come. "I posit that the science studies literature of the past ten years at least is chock-full of insights about where hypotheses come from," says Hineline. "That literature is over-ripe for appropriation by scientists for scientists. Scientists are too much in love with their precious demarcation and not enough with the possibility of doing better work."

Sclove highlighted one of the verdicts many scientists do not want to hear: there should be more involvement by non-scientists in research agendas. He criticises the view that all that government and an informed public should be permitted to do is help set broad research priorities, because otherwise they will damage science's delicate nature. Sclove argues that studies show a myriad non-scientists already influence the conduct of science. Moreover, scientists and government often lump together value judgements with scientific facts. Areas of policy are then decided using these categories of "fact" rather than opening them to the democratic process.

This is why some say "a reinvigorated democracy -- including a more open and culturally pluralistic organisation of science -- harbours the greatest promise of establishing truth and impartiality born of the full representation of competing viewpoints."

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