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The Holy Trinity: The Social Construction of the Scientist, the Scientific Method and Scientific Knowledge

Najma A. Ahmad, Liberal Arts, University of Warwick

Abstract

The man in the white coat whose words are sacrosanct is no longer the pope; it is the scientist. This paper seeks to explore the unique way in which the scientist, as an expert, has been socially constructed as detached, rational, objective and as the neutral searcher of truth. It does this by drawing upon the work of Andrew Huebner on the depiction of science in 1950s cinema and builds upon this by identifying the ways in which the scientist has historically been portrayed within academia, represented by the media and understood by the public. It then problematises this portrayal and identifies key moments in which this portrayal has not only worked to disfranchise the public but has been detrimental for the authority of scientific knowledge. It concludes with a recommendation to balance this construction with the reality of scientists' work while maintaining a degree of authority of the scientist as an expert.

Keywords: Scientist, scientism, social construction, philosophy of science, sociology of knowledge, positivism.

Full Article

Science can be split into three constituent parts: its producers (the scientists); its production (the scientific method) and its product (scientific knowledge). The social construction of the scientist and the scientific process as existing outside the framework of society produces scientific knowledge which is pure, objective, and above all other forms of knowledge. The characterisation of the scientist as being physically and socially different and detached stands regardless of whether the scientist is constructed as good or evil. If he is evil, it is because of this detachment from society; and if he is good, it is also because of this detachment, now seen as a dedication to his craft. This simple narrative created around the scientist gives the media carte blanche, which facilitates the portrayal of the hero/villain dichotomy that is ultimately harmful to both science and society.

Note how I have posited the scientist as male. I have done this intentionally because the characterisation of the scientist and science as male is significant and telling. The first and simplest reason I have chosen this is because in all the literature that I refer to the scientist is spoken of in gendered terms and referred to as 'men' or with personal pronouns such as 'he/him' (Kuhn, 1963: 11; Huebner, 2010: 12). Now, this may just well be a case of the slip of the tongue and typical of other gendered representations of a whole group of people, such as the use of man or mankind to describe all humanity. The exception to this may be present in the studies carried out by Karaçam in which the children involved are deliberate in gendering the scientist because they envision the scientist as being male (Karaçam, 2016: 1034).

This could stem from my second reason for having gendered the scientist, which is the fact that other genders are disproportionally unrepresented in the field. A comprehensive study of the proportion of women in science academies (Ngila et al., 2017: 2) reflects this and shows that, in the world, women make up on average only 12 per cent of the members in national science academies. By the sheer proportion of men in the industry, we may feel inclined to posit the scientist as being male; but this inclination is a deadly trap. It is problematic to suggest that the reason the scientist or science is male and not any other gender is because the former is just more likely to pursue it, as this depicts science, as an institution, as being merely a neutral observer in the making of its own gender identity. So, to argue that science is not male or that it is gender-neutral erases the long history of its involvement in facilitating the nexus between patriarchy and gender and its role in privileging the male gender identity at the cost of others (Sur, 2008: 74).

This is not to say that science is unfit for other genders, but rather that it has been hijacked by men and has exploited its role as a source of authority and prestige (Russet, 1989: 5) to ensure the continued disfranchisement of other groups. This has been through providing [pseudo]scientific data on women's cranial measurements as indication of intellectual capacity (Sur, 2008: 75), or findings related to the biological distinctiveness of men and women which provide a framework for assigning gender roles and setting social expectations for women (Russet, 1989: 10). In this sense, to say that the scientist or science is male means much more than the fact that they identify with a male identity, it also indicates that it is and has historically been a tool to sustain male supremacy or reinforce existing power relations which nurture it (Sur, 2008: 78). Throughout the paper, I delineate how our current conceptualisation of the scientist is problematic; essential to this is an awareness that this is a male characterisation.

The othering of scientific knowledge starts with the scientist who is characterised as looking, behaving and existing in a different world to the rest of society and other producers of knowledge. The social construction of the scientist is threefold: his personal characteristics, his external appearance; his workplace. On his behaviour, the scientist is depicted as being socially awkward, 'not a family man', (Huebner, 2010: 15), aloof. He is rational, objective, 'uncommitted searcher of the truth' (Kuhn,1963: 347) and lacks the ability to express emotion. The scientist's external appearance also contributes in distinguishing him from the rest of society. A study carried out on the image of the scientist held by primary age students showed a predominance towards 'untidy hair' and the 'wearing of a white lab coat' (Karaçam, 2016: 1028). The scientist also exists in a different world, always seen working away 'alone in his laboratory' (ibid.). The scientist is thus different from other producers of knowledge such as the historian or the economist, who work in social settings, often involving members of the public, in the city or in educational institutions. The clothes they wear, whether plain or formal, are also accessible and unremarkable among laypeople. This othering of scientists is also present outside the media construction and within academia. Snow (1961: 10) characterised scientists as being different to the rest of the society to the point where they have their own culture, complete with a unique way of thinking and set of attitudes, which is able to overcome class, gender and religious divisions.

The effect of this construction is that it physically removes the scientist from the public by isolating and distinguishing him from other individuals in appearance. The scientist's inability to communicate effectively also has the implication that it makes interaction between the scientist and the layperson more difficult. This plays into the idea that science is abstract and that if the layperson can understand the science then it must be 'tainted' or 'intellectually suspect' (Gregory and Miller, 1998: 83) – a fear that prevents some scientists engaging with the public. This dehumanising of the scientist and scientific knowledge was problematic during the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination crisis, which escalated because of the inability of scientists and government to be able to identify with the emotions of the public as they merely provided clinical evidence of hazard alone (Burgess et al., 2006: 3922).This all points to the idea that there is no place for emotion or irrationality when it comes to science, because science and scientists are only concerned with objective truths.

Kuhn (1963) challenges this depiction of the detachment of scientists from society and notes the ways in which science, as an enterprise, is also a social activity. He points to the way that young scientists are introduced and trained into the community (Okasha, 2002: 93) as well as the way in which the members share information with each other. Collins and Pinch (1993: 76–78) also highlight the ways in which scientists display seemingly normal social behaviours, such as the prejudice shown by the electrochemists who felt threatened by the cold fusion experiment of controversial scientists Pons and Fleischmann, or the greed shown by Pons and Fleischmann in getting premature publicity for their work on cold fusion. In this sense, we can see the scientists being overcome with human emotions and the goal of 'truth-seeking' taking a back seat. Kuhn's as well as Collins and Pinch's account of scientists and the community can be seen to be normalising science and its producers which has ramifications for its prestige as a source of knowledge.

This construction of the scientist has implications on how scientific knowledge, as the product of the scientist, is perceived, and how scientists, as producers of knowledge, are considered. This detachment of the scientist from society affects scientific knowledge because if the scientist does not exhibit these social traits or 'human limitations' (Kuhn, 1963: 348), then the likelihood of these features in contaminating the science is reduced. The science produced is thus clinical, objective, and free from prejudice. In this way, the scientist is like the monk who isolates himself from society to reach the highest level of enlightenment, by rejecting worldly temptations and distractions. Furthermore, by removing the production of science from humanity, the knowledge takes on almost a religious or sacred value because, much like religious scripture, humanity did not produce it. Okasha (2002: 121) describes this esteem that scientists have as the position once occupied by 'religious leaders with a specialised knowledge inaccessible to the laity'. Even Popper's notion of falsification (Popper, 2002: 182), which claims that the scientist would abandon any theory which is not consistent with empirical data, encourages us to place trust in scientists and the scientific knowledge produced because of this ability of scientists to self-regulate.

This construction of the scientist also affects how we view scientific knowledge; the identity of the knowledge producer becomes important in assessing how reliable it is. If we normalise the scientist and place him among laypeople, then it changes how we interact with the scientific knowledge; the scientific knowledge takes a place among all other types of knowledge and the scientist among other experts. For example, US President Donald Trump has rejected the theory of anthropogenic climate change on the basis that this knowledge was 'created for and by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive' (Trump, 2012). Here, the science and the scientists exist within society because they interact with business and the producers have been humanised.

We can imagine Trump's Chinese scientists as smooth-talking, suit-wearing, persuasive men with an agenda not related to truth-seeking because of their concern with political gain. Their supposed collusion with the Chinese government and with the manufacturing industry means that these scientists have a place among society as members of the business class and as citizens of China and not among the stateless culture of scientists. Thus, their knowledge is questionable. Trump's scientists contrast with the typical media construction of the segregated scientist in a white lab coat – clothes which do not belong to a particular group or country, which implies that they are producers of universal and neutral knowledge. This example shows why it is easy to be sympathetic to the current conceptualisation of the scientists as to do otherwise, by highlighting the interactions that scientists have with institutional interests like business and governments, might risk people's faith in the integrity of the scientific knowledge.

We can see this segregation of scientists from non-scientists as consistent with Foucault's principle of 'systems of differentiation' (Foucault, 2002: 344) and through this process non-scientists and other forms of knowledge are made subject to science and scientists. This is evident in attempts to impose the 'scientific method' in other domains such as politics, philosophy or sociology to make them more rigorous and produce worthy knowledge through the positivist movement (Okasha, 2002: 78). This segregation has grave implications for both scientists and society. For scientists, it has two implications. The main concern is that it bestows too much authority upon the scientists by virtue that he is one and thus removes him from scrutiny. This characterisation leads us to believe that these traits of objectivity, neutrality, universality, and truth are innate within the scientists and that all scientists exhibit these traits. So, when a scientist like Andrew Wakefield falsifies data to build a multi-million business on the back of it (BMJ, 2012), it creates a cognitive dissonance which rejects the possibility of this happening and removes the agency of people to be able to make an informed decision. The second implication, and a criticism of Snow's 'Two Cultures', is that it homogenises science and scientists and bestows the same authority to all scientists on all matters science.

So, why is it a problem that scientists possess such authority? This is because by giving scientists and science this power and authority, it takes it from others – the non-scientists. If the function of the public sphere is to question and influence the decisions of the state authority (Habermas, 1992) and is a place where power is not merely 'presented before the people' but 'monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people' (ibid.), then we can understand this characterisation of science and scientists as limiting the public sphere by excluding them from this scrutiny. Habermas (1992: 63) highlights the development of the public sphere regarding the need of some MPs with a minority in parliament to appeal to public opinion to sway state decisions. This is consistent with Collins and Pinch's (1993: 145) call that people should understand controversy within science as opposed to just having a grasp of normal science. It is in times of controversy, they argue, where parties, the state and/or scientists do not agree that the public are called upon. We can take the MMR crisis as an example and see that this characterisation of the scientists removed agency from the public by having previously inundated them with these innate traits of the scientist. The 'citizen has great experience in the matter of how to cope with divided expertise' (Collins and Pinch,1993: 145) and we can identify how this process of weighing up expert opinion and coming to an informed decision is an integral part of the public sphere. But this conceptualisation of the scientist and of science as being above all other types of knowledge and expertise as well as being isolated from institutional interests makes it difficult to do so. This is not only harmful to society but to science also as we saw in the MMR crisis where herd immunity took a sharp fall and public trust in scientists decreased.

The question remaining is why this state of affairs exist. Why has scientific knowledge been given this dominion over other forms of knowledge? Dolby (1996: 166) argues that this distinction of science is a boundary which has been created by scientists and then upheld by society because it needs such authorities. Kant also prescribes an elevated status to the natural sciences like medicine as a 'higher faculty' (Kant,1991: 175) because of its functional and useful role in society whereas the arts, like philosophy and history, are relegated to a lower faculty. In both cases, the assumption seems to be that science is superior because it brings about social change through its link with technology.

There are two flaws with this assumption. The first is that it assumes that all scientific progress is good and brings about positive changes in society, but a closer look at the advancement in science in relation to weapons of mass destruction, as well the environmental degradation which has followed the scientific revolution, would undermine this argument. The natural rebuttal to this argument is, and has been, that it is not science but scientists, politicians, the military etc. who have abused science. Even Collins and Pinch (1993: 1) argue that science is neither good nor bad but simply what people want it to be, reaffirming Dolby's argument that science is merely a societal tool. But to argue this admonishes science of any abuses and constructs it as a neutral entity; a victim of man's pervasive behaviour for destruction without critically engaging with the debate. The second assumption is that other forms of knowledge like historical knowledge or research within the arts are merely luxury endeavours of little use. In his defence of the Geisteswissenschaften Kitcher (2012) highlights the important societal change that the study of the history of the bombing of Dresden and Coventry brought about in relation to the modern-day conduct of war, thus showing the benefit rendered from the study of other forms of knowledge even if this is not in the form of a piece of technology for economic growth.

The issue is not that there are institutional interests in science; indeed, it is these relationships with government, the military or with business that provide the sustenance that allows this multi-billion enterprise to survive. The issue is that this is not how science is constructed in the public mind, so when there is a media 'leak' showing this relationship between science and big money, it is controversial and the media is able to exploit it as a secret that the scientific community has held hidden from the public. This monolithic discourse around scientists and scientific knowledge is a problematic one because it ultimately limits the power of civil society to engage with and scrutinise both. Moreover, it is destructive for science also whose fall from grace is further because of this higher pedestal on which we have placed it. A balance needs to be struck between the reality of scientists and the work they do with the authority they deserve as experts of one kind.


References

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To cite this paper please use the following details: Ahmad, N.A. (2017), 'The Holy Trinity: The Social Construction of the Scientist, the Scientific Method and Scientific Knowledge', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 10 Issue 2: Featuring the Eramus+ BLASTER Project, https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/iatl/reinvention/archive/volume10issue2/blaster/ahmad. Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.