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Must Scientific Knowledge Be Considered Relative?

 
 
JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Wed 9 Nov, 2011 08:02 pm
@bigstew,
Some poems are also more consistent with experience, but this does not make them absolutely factual.
You say that "Epistemic realism does assume there are absolute truths (real facts) though we may never know with any certainty what these truths are." Consider that we may never know with any certainty what they are because they are no more than interpretations. Your "real facts" are "little theories."
0 Replies
 
wandeljw
 
  2  
Reply Thu 10 Nov, 2011 12:06 pm
Quote:
POSTMODERNIST RHETORIC DOES NOT CHANGE FUNDAMENTAL SCIENTIFIC FACTS
(Irving M. Klotz, The Scientist Magazine, July 22, 1996)

Few natural scientists have heard of philosophers Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, or any of their followers in the modes of literary criticism, historical analysis, and social studies known collectively as "postmodernist criticism." These approaches-also given new names, such as deconstructionism, structuralism, and social constructionism-question the justifications for authoritative statements on meaning or significance of facts or concepts in the natural sciences. While such views may be fine for literary, historical, or social criticism, they should have little pertinence in theory or experimentation in the life sciences.

As a communal enterprise, science strives to formulate statements that are true and objective. By true, we mean that the statements correspond to our observations of natural phenomena over time with progressively increasing accuracy. By objective, we mean that the statements have been purged of any prejudices and predilections of individual participants in the enterprise.

Antithetically, postmodernists assert that scientific views of nature are "social constructions." They are neither true nor objective, since there are no such things as facts. On the contrary, postmodernists claim that science is relative and subjective, the product of political, cultural, social, and religious influences, no more valid than other mythic systems, or narratives.

Contemporary postmodernists chastise scientists for ignoring new critical insights, which some contend could facilitate scientific advances dramatically. Some, such as feminist philosopher Sandra Harding, argue that we need to develop new processes using the perspectives of underrepresented groups (Whose Science, Whose Knowledge?, Cornell University Press, 1991).

In her essay, "Claims of Truth" (Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 14[3]:533-58, 1989), political scientist Mary Ellen Hawkesworth points out that "a fact is a contestable component of a theoretically constituted order of things."

Perhaps the most trenchant presentation of postmodernist view is that of the poet and classicist Anne Carson, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, who in a television program opined that scientists operate under the "happy delusion that there are such things as facts" (R. Selzer, Chemical and Engineering News, 73[17]:52-3, 1995).

So what is it that practicing scientists are ignoring? Why is it that scientists acquainted with writings about science coming from postmodernists in the humanities and social sciences find them cartoonishly distorted presentations?

Some two months ago, a magnificent parody of postmodernist analysis was published by Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University. His article, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" (Social Text, 46-47:217-52, 1996), is full of postmodernist jargon and solecisms that are combined with nonsensical scientific and mathematical statements and concepts. The opening paragraph of the satire claims that scientists cling to dogma imposed during the Enlightenment, "that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual being and indeed of humanity as a whole." The article was extensively and meticulously footnoted in 10 pages of references.

Sokal later pointed out in the May/June 1996 issue of Lingua Franca (6[4]:62-4) that the parody was an "experiment." He wanted to discover if a journal of cultural studies would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions." In the same article, Sokal expressed his concern about postmodernist thinking and its denial of the existence of objective realities. "Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless)," he wrote. "There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; fact and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise?"

Fundamental scientific numbers are objective realities, not social constructs, as asserted in postmodernist theory. For example, consider the velocity of light: 299,792,458 meters per second. Scientists claim this is a "fact." Is there really another truth about the reality of 299,792,458 meters per second being the velocity of light? In what sense is this a "happy delusion," or a fictive, subjective element in the contestable order of the world?

In postmodernist writing, we find assertions that class, race, and gender all frame our understanding of the world. In her book, for example, Harding points out that "gender, race, and class interests shape laboratory life and the manufacture of scientific knowledge." Just how such cultural factors affect truths in science is unclear.

The numerical value cited for the velocity of light has been established by dead and living white male Europeans and Americans. Not one of the nine digits in that number would be changed if the velocity of light were approached from the perspective of American Indian, Asian, black, Hispanic, or Pacific Island geocultural groups; or from a feminist theory of knowledge.

Let us consider other facts: 2.01588 grams of hydrogen combine with 15.9994 grams of oxygen to produce 18.01528 grams of water. Another example: a molecule of hemoglobin has a mass 64,000 times that of an atom of hydrogen. These numbers were also primarily established by dead white males of European and American ancestry. In what way would cultural affiliation change these facts?

One observation from the life sciences may also be appropriate. The ingestion of one ten-thousandth of an ounce of saxitoxin, a substance that occurs naturally in certain Pacific mussels and clams, by a wealthy, capitalist, white Euro-American male results in death. Is it likely that the effect would be different in an impoverished, socialist, black Hutu female?

Perhaps, however, it is concepts, abstractions, or theories of modern science that would benefit by formulation or expression from an underrepresented perspective. Postmodernist rhetoric argues that the content of any science is social. As Harding claims in her book, "Social sciences can provide the best models for all scientific inquiry, including physics. . . . 'Physics' is a bad model for physics."

Let us explore these social-construction insights with an example from physics: Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

There can be little argument that Einstein was a "social construction." Every human being becomes one from the moment the fertilized ovum is embedded in the uterine wall and receives sustenance and chemical information from the mother's vascular networks. But in what sense did class, race, and gender shape Einstein's creation of the theory of relativity? In what way would the social sciences provide the best model for scientific inquiry in the theory of relativity? This is still an active area in theoretical physics, so there is plenty of opportunity for a social scientist to demonstrate-on scientific grounds-that the most critical of social sciences can provide the best models for all scientific inquiry. Would some social scientist, such as Harding, using critical, comprehensively context-seeking analysis from the social sciences, venture to extract E=mc2-an intrinsic feature of nature-from relativity theory?

Recently, another postmodern theorist, Bruno Latour, a professor of sociology at the prestigious Ecole des Mines in Paris, undertook a semiotic textual analysis of Einstein's theory of relativity with the aim of testing the claim that the context of any science is social (Social Studies of Science, 18:3, 1988). Semiotics is a discipline that analyzes the functioning of signs and symbols in languages of all types. In the current postmodernist critical milieu in social studies, semiotic theory and constructs have been directed toward the natural sciences.

Latour's effort is an example of such an approach. In his exposition, however, he ignores the primary, original text of 1905 entitled, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," and analyzes instead a popular exposition published in a thin book by Einstein about a dozen years later. In the latter, Einstein used images and metaphors familiar to the layperson-a train moving along an embankment, observers on the train and on the embankment, Trafalgar Square, and so forth-none of which appears in the 1905 paper. These images are then visualized by Latour in technical semiotic terms and operations: "shifting out and in," "actants," "centers of calculation." This approach of Latour's strikes one as comparable to the recent textual analysis of William Shakespeare's 37 plays (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 12, 1994, section 1, page 16) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company that can be deconstructed into a two-hour public performance.

Latour uses his semiotic perspective to generate various dilemmas, described with metaphors of common experience in social, political, and economic life. He asserts, "What [Einstein] proposes is a series of 'minor' innovations." He also claims, "[Einstein's] relativity reestablishes reality by giving up absolutism."

In actual fact, the theory of relativity is anchored in absolutism-in the concrete of Einstein's two postulates: The velocity of light is a universal constant and the laws of physics are constant. He described these postulates as principles of invariance. An insightful textual analysis of the introductory sections of the 1905 paper would have recognized that the two "postulates" specify unchanging principles that serve as the foundations of the theory. In fact, Einstein called his creation an "Invariententheorie," a theory of invariance. The name "theory of relativity" was coined later in a review by German physicist Max Planck. Einstein resisted that name for years, although he reluctantly bowed to peer pressure. The relativistic features of time and space that led to the term "theory of relativity" are derived from the principles of invariance.

Postmodernist writers are infatuated with pretentious neologisms, such as rhetorical space, entropy of meaning, and gender valence. In rhetorical space, words are superfluid; they can fill a vessel of any shape, even climb up and over the walls unobtrusively and vanish. Postmodernist literature abounds in generalities and assertions of cosmic breadth, often laced with metaphors, analogies, and plays on words. Reason is replaced with rhetoric, logical arguments by emotional appeals.

Postmodernist views applied to the natural sciences will lead us wildly astray. It behooves us to recall Mephistopheles' strategy for destroying Faust, the hero of the Johann W. von Goethe drama who is in search of true and objective knowledge: "If you will only despise reason and science, the greatest of human powers, and let yourself be empowered by the spirit of lies through deceit and sorcery-then I've already got you for sure."
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Thu 10 Nov, 2011 01:12 pm
To say that there are no facts is to state a putative fact.
0 Replies
 
fresco
 
  1  
Reply Thu 10 Nov, 2011 01:33 pm
@wandeljw,
Good article !...but straw-man stuff I believe.

It can be argued for example that physical invariances are as likely to be a function of physiological invariances between observers and socially agreed focal action, as they are to be indicative of a "reality" independent of homo-sapiens. Even iconoclastic scientists (like Maturana for example) do not deny the socially agreed "success" of their colleagues in controlling sub-aspects of our shared reality. They merely question the ontological status of the control models and the data to which they give rise.
0 Replies
 
Fil Albuquerque
 
  1  
Reply Thu 10 Nov, 2011 11:14 pm
@wandeljw,
A very impressive summary of my thoughts regarding the anarchist movement behind social sciences...a very obliged thank you for that post ! Very Happy
0 Replies
 
Damcha
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Nov, 2011 08:29 pm
@wandeljw,
Science, as a knowledge discipline, compounds as fledgling scientists re-evaluate the preceding generation's derivations. Ramifies as scientific communities with local interests investigate different applications of science to benefit local interests. Yet retains its holistic character as corroboration is a necessary condition for a scientific finding to be absorbed into canonical acceptance.
That there will exist pressure in the sense that the derivations of scientific inquiry have cultural, economic, social and political influences is inevitable, after all, as Hannah Arendt fondly repeats 'The only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world."
Therefore, it is important that we have pluralistic theories and competition in the scientific atmosphere seeing as the nature of science is questioning the unknown.
This then leads us, as Fresco suggested, to consider what exactly is meant by objective? There is no such thing as an unbiased mind, and certainly no such thing as Tabula Rasa information. Objectivity of some scientific fact may be destined to communal consensus, bearing the signature of some pervasive zeitgeist, until the time comes where a theory is disproven by the rearrangement of the scientific milleu.
Some theories have lasting permanence, like the Newtonian worldview, until postmodernism came along and challenged the mechanistic nature of the universe, and of reductionism itself.

This was a verbose reply to a curt question, but I do not think that such a stark contrast can be made between objective/subjective when it comes to science. Like any human endeavor, there is a sort of 'Darwinian' competitive atmosphere to ideas, all taking place concurrently in different 'environments' (social, political contexts), some withstand new generations of scientists and smaller-scale paradigm shifts, and some are weeded out.
We're suspended in mid-flux

Damcha
cicerone imposter
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Nov, 2011 08:47 pm
@Damcha,
It's not necessary to question all scientific findings whether it was determined from cultural, economic, social or political influences. What matters is that a scientific finding can be confirmed in many repeatable ways through the different sciences. There are findings in science that will have objective permanence regardless of the future.
Damcha
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Nov, 2011 09:21 pm
@cicerone imposter,
We are in agreement regarding
'What matters is that a scientific finding can be confirmed in many repeatable ways through the different sciences'
-This is what I mean in the first paragraph by the necessary corroboration of scientific findings

However, you have not convinced me that scientific findings have objective permanence regardless of the future. What is one scientific truth you can name that has withstood time?
I believe man started his 'inquiry' with Venus, the mother Goddess. And We are currently at a point where a multitude of disciplines constitute 'truth'.
I addressed this point by mentioning that there is a compounding nature to scientific development. If certain discoveries are sufficiently incorporated (referenced in scientific publications) into novel research then this reinforces their permanence.
Damcha
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Nov, 2011 09:23 pm
@cicerone imposter,
In addition, I believe this statement

"It's not necessary to question all scientific findings whether it was determined from cultural, economic, social or political influences."

was made without knowledge that this was the initial approach to the topic.
0 Replies
 
cicerone imposter
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Nov, 2011 10:30 pm
@Damcha,
You're probably right; what we see today as objective fact can change over time. That's because the environment and what we know today is always in a change mode.
0 Replies
 
north
 
  1  
Reply Wed 30 Nov, 2011 10:42 pm

does the hydrogen atom change , in its fundamental structure , electron and proton

at any time ?

no
cicerone imposter
 
  2  
Reply Wed 30 Nov, 2011 11:18 pm
@north,
It could over time. We don't know that now, because we haven't had the "time" to study atoms and how they originated.


Found this on the net:
Quote:
Resolved QuestionShow me another ยป
Can atoms change into other atoms?
how and what does it have to do with fission and fusion and nucluer decay? .... please dumb it down al little. lol
3 years ago Report Abuse

chalis91...
Best Answer - Chosen by Voters

Yes they can. In fact it is theorized that main two elements to exist after the proposed big-bang were hydrogen and helium. All other elements were then created by fusion products from these two elements.

Now that we have a periodic table's worth of elements, fusion and fission and nuclear decay can occur to change one element into another.

Fusion occurs when two atoms of one or more elements combine to create a new atom. This reaction results in the release of ALOT of heat and energy. This reaction occurs inside the sun and inside hydrogen bombs.

Fission occurs when one atom decays into two or more atoms. This reaction also releases alot of energy (not as much as fusion though). This reaction also can occur in stars. It also occurs inside of atomic bombs (like those used in world war II).

Nuclear decay is when an atom decays to another element or isotope by loss of an energy particle. This is different that fission in that the atom does not split into two or more atoms, but loses energy through a particle. There are different types of particles that can be lost, most commonly referred to as alpha, beta and gamma radiation. This is a very common form of nuclear decay and is what many radioactively elements do spontaneously over time.
wandeljw
 
  1  
Reply Thu 1 Dec, 2011 06:44 am
@Damcha,
Damcha wrote:
What is one scientific truth you can name that has withstood time?


Scientific knowledge is provisional because it is open to modification based on new discoveries. This does not mean that scientific knowledge is relative. Claiming that scientific knowledge is relative to frameworks that are social, political, or economic is a separate issue.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Thu 1 Dec, 2011 07:38 am
@Damcha,
Damcha wrote:
However, you have not convinced me that scientific findings have objective permanence regardless of the future. What is one scientific truth you can name that has withstood time?

Define "withstood time". How much time are we talking about?
Damcha
 
  1  
Reply Thu 1 Dec, 2011 09:26 am
@Thomas,
I am talking about time in the nonlinear sense, I visualize it as a 'ramification' process of development over (t). In which one 'scientific truth' acts as a 'node' for multiple 'scientific truth's' to arise. These interpretations of a given 'physical law' inexorably permeate social, cultural, political, and even religious contexts, because it is local interest that generates sufficient interest in a topic to advance the refinement of its objective 'properties'.
I imagine it as a dialogue of development taking place between the conceptual and the pragmatic, and it is through the pragmatic implications of a discovery that our conceptual understanding is stimulated, and thus aggrandized.
Einstein said, 'Religion without science is blind, and science without religion is lame."
Blind, as in, restricted to a platonic prison
Lame, as in, handicapped, immobile, ossified

I am not denying empiricism's integral role in advancing scientific knowledge, but nor am I discounting the (albeit, exaggerated) postmodern view that facts are relative. A scientific truth must constantly be conceptually reinterpreted by new generations to 'persist' through 'time', and influence (in an 'objective way) culture, society, politics, etc.

Consider the discovery of the magnetic properties of the lodestone. This single 'discovery' would have no objective significance had we not integrated it into the forms of discourse concurring at the time, including navigation, cartography, geography, and magnetism. All of these disciplines utilized not only the lodestone's 'magic' or 'objective property' to construct environments in which it could be understood, but also prior applications of this property can be said to have inseminated interest in disparate fields later on. Without navigation would there be cartography as we know it? Would Maxwell have been a artist instead?

By scientific truths 'withstanding time' I may have been a little too obtuse. I mean perpetuating through history to the 'present' where they have a robust influence over modern scientific activity.
As Orwell has demonstrated, history can be altered to manipulate the present. The pleasant aspect of a scientific community is that there is a democratic nature to the growth of its knowledge. Whichever science publication has the most references, and resonates most with contemp. zeitgeist, is awarded 'objective' eminence.
Yet, fringe sciences operate concurrently in the wings, keeping the atmosphere diverse. 'Truth is pluralistic', and I assume by 'objective' we mean 'true'.
If this is not the case correct me
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Thu 1 Dec, 2011 10:46 am
@Damcha,
Damcha wrote:
Einstein said, 'Religion without science is blind, and science without religion is lame."

Yes, it's surprising just how many dumb things Einstein apparently said.
Damcha
 
  1  
Reply Thu 1 Dec, 2011 10:52 am
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
Yes, it's surprising just how many dumb things Einstein apparently said.


Bold
joefromchicago
 
  3  
Reply Thu 1 Dec, 2011 11:08 am
@Damcha,
Damcha wrote:
Bold

Not bold at all.

This is bold.
Damcha
 
  1  
Reply Thu 1 Dec, 2011 11:17 am
@joefromchicago,
Point scored
Wink
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  2  
Reply Thu 1 Dec, 2011 11:23 am
@Damcha,
Damcha wrote:
I am talking about time in the nonlinear sense, I visualize it as a 'ramification' process of development over (t). In which one 'scientific truth' acts as a 'node' for multiple 'scientific truth's' to arise. These interpretations of a given 'physical law' inexorably permeate social, cultural, political, and even religious contexts, because it is local interest that generates sufficient interest in a topic to advance the refinement of its objective 'properties'.

Or in other words, you're not actually offering any intelligible concept of what "withstanding time" is supposed to mean. All you're offering is jargon.

Damcha wrote:
'Truth is pluralistic', and I assume by 'objective' we mean 'true'.
If this is not the case correct me

No, it is not the case. For example, the phlogiston theory of fire is objective, but false. The postulates of astrology are objective, yet they are false at best. (I say "at best" because some are so vague they don't even rise to the level of being false.) Creationism and Intelligent-Design theory are objective and false. The examples of objective-but-false theories could be multiplied endlessly. "Objective" and "true" are distinct concepts.
 

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