In the Dover trial, the people who testified (or were originally supposed to testify) for the school board were the usual suspects – Discovery Institute fellows and the like. But there was one surprise – Steve Fuller. Unlike the rest of that crew, Fuller is a real academic who has made a notable contribution to social sciences. While a series of papers in the Decemeber 2006 issue of Social Studies of Science delved into the issue (with contributions from both Fuller and his critics), I was looking for a less advanced analysis of the situation. Now, thanks to Pharyngula, I now have just that sort of a resource. I think.
Philosoraptor explains what SSK (strong sociology of “knowledge”) is about:
despite some interesting bits, it’s basically a swamp of confusions. A little bit of skepticism, a little bit of relativism, a little bit of trendy po-mo social constructionism, a little bit of meat-ax naturalism, a little bit of resentment against philosophy and philosophers, a lot of social doxastic determinism and sociological tunnel-vision…stir well…and you get a real mess.
As he goes on to explain, SSK essentially takes the position that “physical objects can’t cause us to have beliefs, only other people can”. Working from that perspective, I think I could understand a rational origin for the “science is nothing more than a belief system” argument. (Not that the people who use it come at it like that – they are working from the “atheism is a religion, so…” nonsense.) Philosoraptor goes on to explain how Fuller ends up arguing in support of the IDist:
If you’ve ever been around folks in sociology, you probably know that many of them have a tendency to radically over-estimate the importance of the phenomena they study…. That is, they think that social forces…are stronger and more influential than they actually are. They also have a tendency to ignore other important influences on human action–e.g. experience of the physical world and reason. In some places, Fuller states that he testified for the ID folks because they are the losers in a social power struggle for control of biology departments and curricula.
“Social power struggle for control of biology departments”, you ask? I suppose things like the Olivet Nazarene/Richard Colling case are an example of a power struggle for control of biology departments…when the creationists manage to stop biologists from teaching biology, that’s a social struggle. But that’s the side Fuller’s arguing for, isn’t it? Well, Philosoraptor explain this as well:
Now, there’s a confusion in there typical of sociologists of Fuller’s type. There is an element of power struggle in all this, but it’s not the only element, it’s not the major element, and it’s only marginally relevant to the question at hand. The court needed to determine whether or not “IDT” is science, and whether or not it was being pushed for religious reasons. Intelligent design theory is not considered bad science because it lost a power struggle in bio departments; rather, it lost out in bio departments because it’s bad science. It’s considered bad science because it is bad science; though sociologists like Fuller often come dangerously close to saying the reverse. If one could show that it lost out in bio departments solely or primarily because it lost a political battle, then that would be relevant. But you cant’ show that. What with it being false and all.
This really illustrates how impenetrable postmodernist philosophy can be. The underlying assumption that objects can’t change people’s beliefs, only other people, makes sense in a limited space – after all, if you choose to interpret everything through the lens of your preexisting belief system, you aren’t going to be convinced to change by more of the same. If you already believe that trees are made of concrete, you won’t be convinced by continuing to look at trees at a distance. If someone comes along and explains to you that trees are actually living things made of wood, cellulose and all that good stuff, you may be convinced to change your beliefs. Score one SSK. But that isn’t how science is supposed to work. As a scientist, you need to test your hypotheses, and then let the data convince you. Sure – you construct your hypotheses in a social context, you interpret your data in a social context, but there are ways to minimise the influence of that context. Regardless of where you are coming from, when the data contradicts your hypothesis, you modify or discard your hypothesis.
It’s mind boggling to think that there may actually be people who think science works that way. I’d say “look at the data”, but if you believe that data (objects) don’t change the way people think, you will never be convinced by “facts”. I suppose the fact that there are still people who support Bush is actually an argument in favour of SSK. Maybe there really are people who will never be convinced by facts. Now that’s a scary thought.