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THE NORMS OF SCIENCE

The norms of science are clear. Science is ‘‘an objective, logical, and systematic method of analysis of phenomena, devised to permit the accumulation of reliable knowledge’’ (Lastrucci 1963:6). Three words in Lastrucci’s definition—‘‘objective,’’ ‘‘method,’’ and ‘‘reliable’’—are especially important.

  • 1. Objective. The idea of truly objective inquiry has long been understood to be a delusion. Scientists do hold, however, that striving for objectivity is useful. In practice, this means being explicit about our measurements (whether we make them in words or in numbers), so that others can more easily find the errors we make. We constantly try to improve measurement, to make it more precise and more accurate, and we submit our findings to peer review—what Robert Merton called the ‘‘organized skepticism” of our colleagues (1938:334-36).
  • 2. Method. Each scientific discipline has developed a set of techniques for gathering and handling data, but there is, in general, a single scientific method. The method is based on three assumptions: (1) that reality is ‘‘out there’’ to be discovered; (2) that direct observation is the way to discover it; and (3) that material explanations for observable phenomena are always sufficient and metaphysical explanations are never needed. Direct observation can be done with the naked eye or enhanced with various instruments (like microscopes); and human beings can be improved by training as instruments of observation. (I’ll say more about that in chapters 12 and 14 on participant observation and direct observation.)

Metaphysics refers to explanations of phenomena by any nonmaterial force, such as the mind or spirit or a deity—things that, by definition, cannot be investigated by the methods of science. This does not deny the existence of metaphysical knowledge, but scientific and metaphysical knowledge are quite different. There are time-honored traditions of metaphysical knowledge—knowledge that comes from introspection, self-denial, and spiritual revelation—in cultures across the world.

In fact, science does not reject metaphysical knowledge—though individual scientists may do so—only the use of metaphysics to explain natural phenomena. The great insights about the nature of existence, expressed throughout the ages by poets, theologians, philosophers, historians, and other humanists may one day be understood as biophysical phenomena, but so far, they remain tantalizingly metaphysical.

3. Reliable. Something that is true in Detroit is just as true in Vladivostok and Nairobi.

Knowledge can be kept secret by nations, but there can never be such a thing as “Venezuelan physics,’’ ‘‘American chemistry,’’ or ‘‘Kenyan geology.’’

Not that it hasn’t been tried. From around 1935-1965, T. D. Lysenko, with the early help of Josef Stalin, succeeded in gaining absolute power over biology in what was then the Soviet Union. Lysenko developed a Lamarckian theory of genetics, in which human- induced changes in seeds would, he claimed, become inherited. Despite public rebuke from the entire non-Soviet scientific world, Lysenko’s ‘‘Russian genetics’’ became official Soviet policy—a policy that nearly ruined agriculture in the Soviet Union and its European satellites well into the 1960s (Joravsky 1970; Soifer 1994) (Further Reading: the norms of science).

 
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