Assess the sociological explanations of science and ideology as belief systems

Many sociologists argue modern science is the product of the process of rationalisation that began with the protestant reformation in the 16th century. Some sociologists, for example secularisation theorists, argue it has undermined religion by changing the way we think and how we see the world.

Science has had a huge impact on society in the last few centuries with medicines curing fatal diseases and advances in communication and technology. Science and technology has revolutionised economic productivity and raised standards of living. This success has led to a widespread belief in science; believing science can deliver the goods.  However, this faith has been dimmed by science causing problems. For example pollution, weapons and global warming are products of science. While science protects us from natural dangers, it creates its own manufactured risks. However the good and bad effects of science show features distinguishing it from other belief systems – known as its cognitive power. It enables us to explain, predict and control the world in a way that non scientific or pre scientific belief systems cannot do.

Sir Karl Popper (1959) argues science is an open belief system where every scientist’s theories are open to scrutiny, criticism and testing by others/ Science is governed by the principle of falsificationism. Scientists set out to try and falsify existing theories, deliberately seeking evidence that would disprove them. If the evidence from an experiment or observation contradicts a theory and shows it to be false, the theory can be discarded and the search for a better explanation can begin. In science, knowledge claims live or die by the evidence. Popper argues discarding falsified knowledge claims is what enables scientific understanding of the world to grow. Scientific knowledge is cumulative – it builds on the achievements of previous scientists to build greater understanding of the world around us. However despite achievements of scientists no theory is taken as definitely true; there’s always the possibility of someone disproving it. For example it was previously believed the sun revolved around the earth till disproved by Copernicus who showed this knowledge claim to be false. Popper argues the key thing about scientific knowledge is that it’s not a sacred or absolute truth; it can be always questioned, tested and perhaps shown to be false.

There’s the question why science has only grown rapidly in the last few centuries. Functionalist Robert K Merton (1973) argues that science can only thrive as a social institution if it receives support from other institutions and values. He argues this first occurred in England with the protestant reformation and especially development of puritan beliefs. The puritans this worldly calling and industriousness and their belief in the study of nature led to appreciation of god’s work encouraged them to experiment. Puritanism also stressed social welfare and they were attracted by the fact that science could produce technological inventions to improve conditions in life. The new institution of science also received support from economic and military institutions as the value of the practical applications of science became obvious in areas such as mining, navigation and weaponry. Merton argues science is an institution that needs an ethos; a set of norms that make scientists act in ways that serve to goal of increasing scientific knowledge. He identifies four such norms called CUDOS – Communism; scientific knowledge is not private property. Scientists must share it with the scientific community (by publishing findings), otherwise science cannot grow. Universalism; The truth or falsity of scientific knowledge is judged by universal, objective criteria (such as testing) and not by the particular race, sex etc of the scientist who produces it. Disinterestedness; This means being committed to discovering scientific knowledge for its own sake. Having to publish their findings makes it harder for scientists to practise fraud, since it enables others to check their claims. Organised scepticism; no knowledge claim is regarded as sacred. Every idea is open to questioning, criticism and objective investigation.

In this way science appears to differ fundamentally from traditional religious belief systems. While scientific knowledge is provisional, open to challenge and potentially disprovable, religion claims to have special, perfect knowledge of the absolute truth. Its knowledge is literally sacred and religious organisations claim to hold it on god’s authority. This means it can’t be challenged and those that do may be challenged for heresy. It also means religious knowledge doesn’t change, thus unlike scientific knowledge it cannot grow. Robin Horton (1970) puts forward a similar argument. He distinguishes between open and closed belief systems. Like popper he sees science as an open belief system – one where knowledge claims are open to criticism and can be disproved by testing. Contrastingly religion is a closed belief system. They make knowledge claims that can’t be overturned. Whenever fundamental beliefs are threatened, a closed belief system has a number of get out clauses that reinforce the system and prevent it being disproved, at least in the eyes of its believers. These ideas vary from one belief system to the other.

One example of this is witchcraft among the Azande. Like westerners the Azande believe natural events have natural causes. For example a snake bit me because I accidently stepped on it as I walked down the path. However unlike the west the Azande don’t believe in coincidence or chance. For example, I have walked down the same path a thousand times and never been bitten before, so why me? Why now? Thus when misfortune befalls on the Azande they may explain it in terms of witchcraft. Someone is practising witchcraft against me. Is such cases the injured may make an accusation against the suspected and the matter may be resolved by consulting the princes magic poison oracle. The prince will administer a potion, called a benge to a chicken. They ask the benge whether the accused is the source of witch craft, telling the benge to kill the chicken if the answer is yes. If the chicken dies the sufferer can demand the witchcraft to stop. This is enough to end the problem because the Azande regard witch crafts a psychic power and it’s possible the accused is doing harm unintentionally and unconsciously. It allows the accused to proclaim there surprise and horror, to apologise and promise there will be no further bewitching. Evans-Pritchard argues this belief system performs useful social functions. It clears the air and prevents grudges and encourages neighbours to act considerably to one another. The Azande also see witchcraft to be hereditary, thus children have interest in keeping parents in line since successful accusation against parents damages the child’s reputation. Thus the belief system is an important social control mechanism ensuring conformity and cooperation. As Evans-Pritchard argues this belief system is highly resistant to challenges; it is a closed belief system. For example non believers may argue if the benge killed the chicken without the diviner first addressing the potion, this would be a decisive test showing the oracle did not work. However for the Azande such an outcome just proves that it was not a good benge. Evans Pritchard argues the very fact of the chicken dying proves to them its badness. Thus the test doesn’t disprove the belief system in the eyes of its believers, but reinforces it. The believers are trapped in their own idiom of belief or way of thinking because they accept the systems basic assumptions, such as the existence of witchcraft, they cannot challenge it.

Polanyi (1958) argues belief systems have three devices to sustain themselves in the face of apparently contradictory evidence. Circularity; each idea in the system is explained in terms of another idea within the system and so on. Subsidiary explanations; for example if the oracle fails, it may be explained away as due to the incorrect use of the benge. Denial of legitimacy to rivals; belief systems reject alternative worldviews by refusing to grant legitimacy to their basic assumptions.

However, despite Popper’s view of science as open and critical, others argue science can be a closed system. For example Polyani argues all belief systems reject fundamental challenges to their belief systems, science being no different. An example is the case of Dr Velokovski. In his book he challenged fundamental assumptions of science. However the response from the scientific community was far from open; they rejected his work without reading the book. Those calling for a fair hearing lost their jobs. Thomas S Kuhn gives an explanation for scientist’s refusal to consider such challenges. Kuhn argues mature science such as biology is based on a set of shared assumptions called a paradigm. The paradigm tells scientists what science is really like, what problems to study and what methods and equipment to use, what will count as evidence and even what answers they should find. Mostly scientists are engaged in normal science which Kuhn likens to puzzle solving; the paradigm lays the broad outlines and the scientist fills in the details. Those who are successful are rewarded e.g. research grants, Nobel prizes ECT. Scientific education and training is a process of being socialised into a faith in the truth of the paradigm, and a successful career depends on working in the paradigm. Thus any scientist who challenges the fundamental assumptions of the paradigm is likely to be ridiculed. The only exceptions are rare periods of scientific revolution, when faith in the truth of the paradigm has been undermined by accumulation of anomalies; results the paradigm can’t account for. Only then do scientists become open to radically new ideas.

Interpretivist sociologists have developed Kuhn’s ideas further. They argue all knowledge; including scientific knowledge is socially constructed. Rather than being objective truth, it’s created by social groups using the resources available to them. In the case of science, scientific facts, what scientists take to be true and real, are the products of shared theories and paradigms that tell them what they should expect to see, and of the particular instruments they use. Thus Karin Knorr-Cetina (1981) argues the invention of new instruments such as telescopes permits scientists to make new observations and construct new facts. She also points out what scientists study in the laboratory is highly constructed and far removed from the natural world they’re supposed to be studying.

Ethno methodologist Steve Woolgar (1988) argues scientists are engaged in the same process of making sense or interpreting the world as everyone else. When confronted by evidence from observations and experiments they have to decide what it means. They do so by devising theories and explanations, but they have to persuade others to accept their interpretations. For example in the case of discovering pulsars by researchers in 1967, the scientists initially annotated the patterns as “LGM1”, standing for little green men. Recognising this was an unacceptable interpretation from the viewpoint of the scientific community, they settled on the notion that the patterns represented signals unknown to science. However a decade later there was still disagreement among astronomers as to what the signals meant. As Woolgar notes a scientific fact is simply a social construction of belief that scientists are able to persuade their colleagues to share, not a real thing out there.

Other critical perspectives such as Marxism and feminism don’t see scientific knowledge as pure truth. They argue it serves interests of dominant groups; the ruling class for Marxists and men for feminists. Thus advances in pure science are driven for the need of capitalism for certain types of knowledge. For example theoretical work on ballistics was used for military development. Likewise biological ideas have been used to justify male and domination and colonial expansion. Thus science can be seen as a form of ideology. Post modernists also reject the claim of science to have the truth. Lyotard (1984) argues science is another met narrative that falsely claims to possess the truth. Lyotard argues science falsely claims to offer the truth about how the world works as a means of progress to a better society, whereas in reality science is another way of thinking used to dominate people. Like Marxists postmodernists argue science has become techno science, simply serving capitalisms interests by producing commodities for profit.

A basic definition of ideology is that it is a worldview or a set of ideas and values – a belief system. However the term has taken on related meanings, often including negative aspects, such as; distorted ideas of the world, ideas that conceal the interests of a particular group to justify their privileges, ideas that prevent change by misleading people or a self sustainable belief system that’s closed to criticism. Thus when someone uses the term ideology to describe a belief system, they regard it a morally wrong.

Marxism sees society divided into conflicting classes, a minority ruling class who own the means of production and the majority working class who are property less and are forced to sell their labour. The capitalists exploit this to produce profit, thus it’s in the workers interests to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a communist society where the means of production are owned collectively, not privately and used to benefit society as a whole. For the revolution to occur, the working class must develop class consciousness. However the ruling class also own the production of ideas, through institutions such as the media, education ect. There produce ruling class ideology, ideas that legitimate the status quo. Ruling class ideology includes the idea equality will never work because it goes against human nature, victim blaming ideas about poverty, racist and nationalist ideas to divide workers. Thus dominant ideas are ideas of the ruling class and they function to prevent change by creating false consciousness among workers. However despite ideological barriers Marx believes the working class will develop true class consciousness and unite to overthrow capitalism.

Gramsci (1971) refers to ruling class ideological domination of society as hegemony. He argues the working class can develop ideas that challenge the ruling class hegemony. This is because in capitalist society workers have a dual consciousness, a mix of ruling class ideology and ideas they develop from their own experience of exploitation and their struggles against it. It’s thus possible for the working class to develop class consciousness and overthrow capitalism. Gramsci argues this requires a political party of organic intellectuals; workers who have developed class consciousness and can spread it through the working class. However critics argue it’s not the existence of a dominant ideology that prevents overthrow of capitalism. Abercrombie (1980) argues its economic factors such as the fear of unemployment that keeps workers from rebelling.

Mannheim (1929) argues all belief systems have a partial worldview. Their one sidedness results from being the viewpoint of one group and its interests. He distinguishes between two types of belief system. Ideological thought justifies keeping things as they are. It reflects the position and interests of privileged groups like the capitalist class. They benefit from maintaining the status quo, thus their belief system tends to be conservative. Utopian thought justifies social change. It reflects the position of the underprivileged and offers vision of how society can be organised differently. For example the working class are disadvantaged by the status quo and may favour radical change to a classless society. Mannheim sees this worldviews as creations of groups of intellectuals who attach themselves to particular classes or social groups. For example the role of Gramsci’s organic intellectuals is to create socialist worldview. However because these interests represent interests of particular groups and not the whole of society they only produce partial views of reality. The belief system of each class only gives us a partial truth about the world. Mannheim argues this is a source of conflict in society. Different intellectuals linked to different groups produce opposing ideas that justify the claims of their groups as against the others.

Mannheim argues the solution is to detach intellectuals from their social groups and create a non aligned free floating intelligentsia standing above the conflict. Freed from representing interests of a group they can synthesise elements of different partial ideologies to arrive at a total worldview that represents society as a whole. However elements of different ideologies are diametrical opposed thus it’s hard to be imagined them being synthesised. For example the conflict between Marxists view of a classless society and conservative idea that hierarchy is good.

Feminists see gender inequality as the fundamental division and patriarchal ideology playing a role to legitimise it. Because gender differences are a feature in all societies there exists different ideologies to justify it. For example Pauline marks (1979) describes how ideas from science were used to exclude women from education, such as the idea education would lead to women being unable to suckle infants. In addition to patriarchal ideologies in science those embodied in religious beliefs and practises have also been used to define women as inferior. For example women being unclean due to menstruation. However not all elements of religion subordinate women. For example in the early history of the Middle East before the emergence of monotheistic religion female deities were widespread.


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