The social side of the lab

April 21, 1995

Being cornered in one of the darker corridors of the LSE by a post-modern sociologist cannot be a very pleasant experience.

But one can only surmise that this must be the reason for John Ashworth's jibes at the sociology and philosophy of science in the course of an otherwise positive book review. ("If only humans could monkey around . . ." THES, March 31).

The Frankfurt school was bold enough to ask critical questions in an era of intellectual complacency which ultimately led to the excesses of Nazi Germany.

Whatever one thinks of post-modernism, it too is a product of a liberal higher education tradition which continues to consider alternative ways of understanding the world - one which is readily allowed thinking space in North America and western Europe - far removed from the supercilious cynicism that characterises the excuse for intellectual rigour in someBritish academic circles.

The debate between scientists and sociologists and philosophers of science that raged through THES columns last autumn often seemed to operate at a similar level of juvenile common room abuse.

Was it really so threatening to the foundation of science to point out that scientists are social beings with wishes, feelings, perceptions and ambitions of their own and who have to operate in political, economic and cultural climates which will influence their work?

I had rather naively thought it a contemporary truism to point out how at different times and places, across different cultures and communities, the way knowledge is organised and is represented can change.

It is hard to imagine how any scientist with the slightest awareness of the history of ideas in their discipline, with knowledge of peer pressures in the scientific community, with the value of serendipity and the restrictions of priority disputes could fail to appreciate the role of social and psychological factors in scientific discovery and the development and application of knowledge.

Whatever happened to the ideals of the scientific community - sharing knowledge, openness to new ideas, healthy scepticism and the systematic testing of alternative hypotheses?

Ron Iphofen

Lecturer in sociology

Faculty of health studies University College of North Wales

Bangor

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