In the philosophy and sociology of science, there is a school of thought that scientific research is driven by cultural, social, political, and even financial profit frameworks. Thus, the view that scientific facts are objective is being attacked.
This is a complex issue that involves philosophy, anthropology, sociology and the scientific method itself.
I think of Applied Science as a discipline that USES knowledge rather than the pursuit of it. This applies to all forms of engineering, medicine and even the applied forms of social science where clients pay for information that will justify their actions, and often ignore that which does not. Pardon my cynacism.
Seeing Through Cultural Bias in Science
(Frans de Waal, Emory University)
Most people now accept that fields like politics and journalism reflect and perpetuate cultural bias. Yet we imagine science as free of unexamined cultural assumptions. This is more or less true for some fields - say, chemistry or physics. My own corner of science, ethology, or the study of animal behavior, is certainly not pristine.
How we look at animals reflects how we view ourselves. The founder of Japanese primatology, Kinji Imanishi, could attest to this. Imanishi argued that nature is inherently harmonious rather than competitive, with species forming an ecological whole. This rather un-Darwinian perspective so upset a British paleontologist, the late Beverly Halstead, that in 1984 he traveled to Kyoto to confront Imanishi. Unconstrained by first-hand knowledge of Imanishi's works, which were never translated, Halstead told him that his theory was "Japanese in its unreality."
What compelled Halstead to be so rude? Why did he later write an article criticizing not just Imanishi's views, but his country? Why did " Nature, " one of the most prestigious journals in science, publish it, in 1985, beneath the patronizing assertion that the "popularity of Kinji Imanishi's writings in Japan gives an interesting insight into Japanese society"? Could not the same be said of Darwin's theory of unremitting competition, which grew out of a society giving birth to free-market capitalism?
Even if Imanishi's ecological and evolutionary ideas were problematic, he and his followers were right about quite a lot. In fact, well before Halstead's contemptuous pilgrimage, Western ethologists began adopting Eastern concepts and approaches--although without being aware of their sources. To understand how this could occur is to appreciate the role of different cultural assumptions about the relations between humans and animals and how linguistic hegemony affects science.
Eastern philosophy has no counterpart to Plato's "great chain of being," which places humans above all other animals. In most Eastern belief systems, the human soul can reincarnate in many shapes and forms. A man can become a fish and a fish can become God. There are no grounds in Eastern thought for resisting the central idea of evolutionary theory: that all animals are historically linked.
Unlike in the West, this acceptance of evolution was never tainted by hubris or an aversion to acknowledging human-like characteristics in animals. Japanese primate researchers assumed that each individual animal had a distinct personality, and they did not hesitate to give their subjects names. They plotted kinship relationships over multiple generations, believing that primates must have a complex family life, just like us.
They did all of this well before any Western scientist thought of it. In 1958, when Imanishi and his students toured the US to report their findings, they were ridiculed for humanizing their subjects and for believing that they could distinguish between all those monkeys. The Western view of apes regarded them as akin to Rousseau's "noble savage" - autonomous individuals, devoid of social ties and obligations, driven by instinct to swing haphazardly from one fruit tree to the next.
But while Jane Goodall was describing female chimpanzees and their dependent offspring as the only socially bonded units in the primate world, a Japanese team, working only 130 kilometers away, eventually proved that chimpanzees live in large communities with stable memberships. We now know that chimpanzee society is male-bonded, and there is ample evidence of territorial warfare between communities. The initial discovery arose from the assumption that chimpanzees, so close in evolution to humans, could not be as "individualistic" as Western science supposed.
The same initial assumption led Imanishi in 1952 to suggest that animals might have culture, which he reduced to its lowest common denominator: the social rather than genetic transmission of behavior. If individuals learn from one another, over time their behavior may diverge from that of other groups, thus constituting a distinct culture.
We now know that cultural learning among animals is widespread, including birdsong, the use of tools by chimpanzees, and the hunting techniques of whales. Yet only a few decades ago, some Western professors forbade their students even to make reference to papers by Japanese colleagues! How could a cultural outlook that the West treated with such raw condescension - even in 1985 - simultaneously shape Western science so profoundly?
The answer lies in language. A single language for scientific papers and conferences is clearly desirable, and the language of international science is English. Good scientific ideas formulated in bad English either die or get repackaged. Like a Hollywood interpretation of a French novel, their origins become erased. Eastern thinking could creep into ethology unnoticed partly because it filtered into the literature through awkward formulations and translations that native English speakers found it easy to improve on.
The problem is not the English language per se , but the attitude and behavior of many native speakers. Naturally, you speak and write your own language faster and more eloquently than any other, and this can place scientists whose English is poor at a severe disadvantage. Imanishi's influence is now pervasive - all primate scientists have adopted the technique of following individuals over time, and animal culture is the hottest topic in our field. But Imanishi's writings are rarely, if ever, cited. We should not wonder at the difficulties that other cultural and linguistic groups must experience in gaining a voice and proper acknowledgment in science.