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In what way have contemporary philosophers and sociologists of science challenged the view that science is objective, based upon fact, and progresses cumulatively?

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Introduction

In what way have contemporary philosophers and sociologists of science challenged the view that science is objective, based upon fact, and progresses cumulatively? The realisation that humans could think rationally and therefore scientifically was the defining moment in the history of human thought known as the enlightenment, the shift from pre-modern society towards modernity. According to rationalists, it was during the enlightenment that humans crossed the 'Great Divide' and moved from ignorance and faith to certainty and truth. With modernity comes the new search for the ultimate truth using methods of investigation centred on objectivity, reason and predictability. With industrialisation came technology, urbanisation and capitalism. Bilton (1997) suggested that rational forms of thought and organisation may be defining features of modernity but our relationships with them are far from straight forward. This essay will highlight some of the major theorists in contemporary sociology and philosophy who challenge the view that science is objective, based on fact and progresses cumulatively. "consider people's experiences of an area of modern social life often said to epitomise the triumph of reason and rationality - science and technology" (Bilton 1997 p39) In contrast relativism suggests that a close inspection of scientific thinking and practices reveal that they are more like those found in non-scientific systems than rationalists claim. Science cannot perform the task it sets out to do because scientists are social beings too. Scientific knowledge is far from objective but contaminated with the social and cultural influences of the scientist. The relativist's viewpoint that all human stories are of equal validity and that the pursuit of the objective truth is futile, has led to the ever increasing debate over modernity and rationalism versus post/high/late modernity. "relativism provides the epistemological foundation of postmodernism, where different ways of creating knowledge and making sense of existence deserve equal respect and tolerance" (Bilton 1997 p541). Beck (1992) argues that we are far from being firmly rooted in modernity, or even post-modernity as some theorists have suggested, but we are in another, more transitional period of late modernity. ...read more.

Middle

Secondly, belief systems hold in reserve a supply of additional explanations for difficult situation. Conflicting evidence is often described as irregular, anomalous findings, advances in science generally occur only when these findings become more frequent and force scientists to question accepted beliefs and procedures within their paradigm, this in turn leads to the formulation of a new paradigm. Thirdly, belief systems reject alternative views of the world immediately, refusing to grant any worth to the conflicting arguments (Bilton 1997). Polanyi's (1964) work has forced us to reconsider the way in which scientists certify scientific knowledge as correct and has criticised what might be called 'naive objectivism'. He defined this as the epistemological view that the only valid knowledge is that which can be expressed and tested by strictly impersonal methods. Popper (2002), saw science as an objective, value-free disclosure of the facts of reality, using the hypothetico-deductive method of investigation, involving breaking down the world into cause and effect relationships producing empirical evidence (Bilton 1997). However, this view highlights "a loss of what Weber calls enchantment...a loss of mystery, imagination and faith in the unknown" Bilton 1997 p537). Traditional functionalists had little interest in the content of belief systems but were more interested in the effects and beneficial properties for social organisation that non-scientific systems provide, encouraging social order and stability in ways that rationally based knowledge cannot. "Science does not provide a charter for social arrangements" (Gellner 1986 p184). Science and non-science co-exist in our modern world, as they are different kinds of knowledge, performing different functions but the problem is that those that believe in either system believe that they are the only truth. Religious, magical belief systems provide believers comfort and support, not only to explain the world but also guide how humans should live their lives, providing both explanatory accounts and morally prescriptive ones (Bilton 1997). Not only are our feelings, judgements, values, hopes, aspirations and fears irrelevant for the rational investigation of the world, but scientific evidence about this world cannot tell us how to organise ourselves (Bilton 1997). ...read more.

Conclusion

Similarly to Butt (2006) feminist epistemologists trace these failures to flawed conceptions of knowledge, knowers, objectivity, and scientific methodology. Doing 'science' as a feminist, with the aim of answering feminist question, has resulted in many and various methodological innovations, discoveries of new sources of evidence, and developments of alternative theories (Anderson 2003). Science is usually associated with positivism and objectivity but some writers argue that it does not claim to make facts only reveal their existence. Scientific achievement has been vast in many ways, for example, the decrease in illness, famine, etc, so why have we lost faith? Science is a noble enterprise in itself but human nature is to be greedy and selfish, thus there has been an increased pessimism regarding peoples' ability to use science morally. Human progress will inevitably affect the environment, which may or may not have devastating effects of which people are unaware of until its too late. Modernists see the application of reason, demonstrated by science as enabling humans to discover the truth about the nature of reality. Such knowledge allows us the chance of progress, social development and individual liberation (Bilton 1997). However, science can do some things and not others, it is not the only way and there is an exaggeration in the power of science which leads to everyday interactions and other belief systems being lost. Gellner (1986) argues that the one way in which we can know facts is by being scientific, however, he insists that we must distinguish between cognitive relativism and moral/cultural relativism, facts are relative to a particular society and are not comparable between societies. Even the best science can only offer a partial understanding of the world and thus, should always be open to debate. The precept of staying close to nature or of limiting innovation rather than embracing it, cannot always apply. The reason is that the balance of benefits and dangers from scientific and technological advance, and other forms of social change too, are unimaginable. We may often need to be bold rather than cautious in supporting scientific innovation (Giddens 1999). ...read more.

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