Scientists Must Challenge What Makes Studies Scientific

A degree in science should require students to evaluate their process of producing knowledge.

August 15, 2017

Macroscope Anthropology Sociology Social Science

There is a strange contradiction among scientists: Science is supposedly about asking questions, except about scientists and how science is done. Although research in the philosophy, history, sociology, and anthropology of science has gone on in earnest for decades, very few if any of the results are integrated into science education and therefore science practice. Scientists may not see how a subject like sociology or anthropology applies to their technical work, but science doesn’t happen in a vacuum apart from society. Indeed, scientists are acting against science when they do not acknowledge the history, philosophy, and sociology of their fields, demanding instead that people accept their research results without question.

“What is science and is it always independent of what we want to believe?”

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Sharon Traweek’s 1992 comparative anthropology of particle physics experiment in the United States and Japan provides an example of how research in science, technology, and society studies (STSS) can have implications for how people do science and make science policy. What could an anthropological study of high-energy physics possibly tell us about, for example, the now infamous Google anti-diversity memo? Well, notably one of Traweek’s findings was that women were excluded from physics both in the United States and in Japan, but because of completely opposing stereotypes. That these nationally based stereotypes are in conflict should be a red flag; maybe gender essentialism—the idea that genders and sexes have fixed, universal characteristics—is actually nonsense. Such a statement has implications for how research in biology is carried out.

And just like that, one can take an anthropological study of particle experimentalists in two countries and note a potential effect on how scientific research in biology is done. Yet the reality is that one could earn bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in a scientific field and never take even one course that asks the student to evaluate the very process by which they produce knowledge. On the other end, our educational system produces scientists whose toolbox of technical skills does not include applying a scientific mindset to their very existence.

In other words, many scientists tend to treat science like an infallible Holy Spirit; the techniques and mild amounts of history they are taught in class and lab are like a Torah with only one interpretation. As a Jew, I laugh a little about this phenomenon, because our sacred liturgical task is to reread the entire Torah every year (and I promise I will do this, every Rosh Hashanah) and then think about all the different interpretations we can glean from it. In a lifetime, if you actually get down to reading, you will think of many. As a scientist, I worry about the fact that we don’t do this enough with science.

Ibn Sahl discovered Snell's law of refraction centuries before Snell did. <strong>Image on left from Wikimedia; image of scroll on right courtesy of Benjamin Jaffe:</strong>

When I took a course in waves and optics as a college sophomore, I never questioned why Snell’s Law was named after Willebrord Snellius. I assumed it was because Snell was the first person to discover it. I didn’t question. So I was shocked years later when I found out that he wasn’t, and that in fact a European wasn’t the person to find it first at all. My entire education had taught me that all meaningful science had come from Europeans and their descendants, when all along Snell’s Law, sometimes called the Snell-Descartes Law, should actually be Ibn Sahl’s Law. It was in fact first discovered in the 10th century by the Persian scientist Ibn Sahl, not centuries later by Snell.

The implications are obvious to me: How we talk about Snell’s Law changes how students see science, and in this particular case, how people of Iranian or other Middle Eastern heritages might imagine themselves in the historical narrative. But as James Damore suggested in his memo to Google, to worry about equality and inclusion in the discourse of people traditionally seen as weak, such as women, is political correctness, right? Looking for narratives that highlight non-European participation in the development of scientific ideas reeks of desperation, right? These questions are what people ask me, and as a queer Black woman I’m primed to hear them and worry, because my whole life I’ve heard the message from a white, male-dominated society that trying to see myself in the halls of history is a character failing. But as a scientist, and by that I mean someone who seeks to look past biases to produce convincing and accurate models of how the world works, the “political correctness alert” reaction is worrisome. Isn’t it just true—a matter of acknowledged fact—that Ibn Sahl discovered the law first? Isn’t naming it after Snell without ever acknowledging this exemplary of a bias in science?

It is a strange place to find oneself, fighting scientists about whether it's okay to ask questions about science and to even offer corrections about how science discusses its own history. Some corrections are acceptable—in time. We have come to recognize that Einstein’s theory of gravity is more complete than Newton’s. Relativity is an allowable course correction. But even though most scientists believe eugenics is wrong, James Watson still gets speaking invitations where he shares his eugenicist ideas, and research suggests that a significant number of American medical students still believe that Black people don’t feel as much pain as white people do. These beliefs are irreconcilable with what we know about the history of race and racism, which is affirmed by modern research in genetics: Race is a social construct whose implications are made very real by the dynamics of history and society, rather than anything in our biological code. Yet, the hateful and angry e-mails I received recently after I published an essay in Slate about scientific racism suggests that it’s still not entirely acceptable to ask the question, “What is the relationship between biology and racism?” For so many, the answer is foregone, that there is none, and the punishment for asking includes having my entire department receive an e-mail explaining the intellectual inferiority of Black people.

“Defining science is nearly as messy as doing it. That shouldn’t be seen as a threat to science, but rather part of the challenge and the joy of the process.”

At heart, a deeper interrogation is necessary: What is science and is it always independent of what we want to believe? Biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks says in Why I Am Not A Scientist that “science is the production of convincing knowledge in modern society.” Rather than simply leaving it at that, Marks takes care to excavate the meanings of the words he uses, carefully defining “knowledge production” and “convincing knowledge.” He goes on to note that modern society is “the ideas, values, and social practices that arose in Europe and its satellites and colonies at a time in the 18th century often referred to as the Enlightenment.” Much as I love his text, it is here that he and I somewhat part ways. As Laurelyn Whitt describes in the introduction to Science, Colonialism, and Indigenous Peoples, constructing a definition of science that recognizes “science-like” activity and ideas outside of a European context without colonially forcing a foreign concept on indigenous peoples is a challenge. Whitt argues, and I agree, for a move “to speak of a knowledge system... to abandon the idea that a single epistemology is universally shared by, or applicable to, all humans insofar as they are human.”

But the mathematical laws of physics are universal, one might say, and those constitute a single epistemology, darn it. Perhaps, but as is clear in Lesley J. F. Green’s article “Challenging epistemologies: Exploring knowledge practices in Palikur astronomy,” it’s possible for two geographically distinct communities (Europeans and the Palikur of the Amazon) to use completely different geometries to develop self-consistent descriptions of the same changing night sky. While the Palikur have no concept of calling their astronomical system science, it nonetheless allows them to predict when one of the five rainy seasons of their environment will be arriving, to the day.

I wish we could get such good weather forecasts in Boston.

The reality is that defining science is nearly as messy as doing it. That shouldn’t be seen as a threat to science, but rather part of the challenge and the joy of the process. There is much to discover, and the world of science, technology, and society studies has much to offer students and practitioners of science, if we let it.



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