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Philosophy of Science 101: Science and Social Context


Foreword


The Philosophy of Science series explores both general questions about the nature of science and specific foundational issues related to the individual sciences. When applied to such subject areas, philosophy is particularly good at illuminating our general understanding of the sciences. This 101 series will investigate what kinds of serious—often unanswered—questions a philosophical approach to science exposes through its heuristic lens. This series, more specifically, will look at the ‘Scientific Realism’ debate throughout, which questions the very content of our best scientific theories and models.

Philosophy of Science 101 will be divided into the following chapters of content:


9. Philosophy of Science 101: Science and Social Context

Philosophy of Science 101: Science and Social Context


The Philosophy of Science 101 series has looked at the very foundations, methods, and implications of science through a philosophical (and therefore, heuristic) lens. The study, broadly speaking, has primarily been concerned with both the reliability of scientific theories and the ultimate purpose of science. Why exactly is the philosophy of science important as an area of study, though? As this series of articles has argued throughout, philosophy—complementary to its role in conceptual clarification—can contribute to the critique of scientific assumptions (Laplane et al., 2019). Philosophy can even be proactive in formulating novel, testable, and predictive theories that help set new paths for empirical research so one can learn about and understand the world (Laplane et al., 2019). Science indeed needs philosophy and vice versa, especially since science has such an important social context too. The social dimensions of scientific knowledge are therefore now considered in this final article of the series, which will explore feminist approaches to the philosophy of science specifically.


The series now turns to the kind of study which encompasses the effects of scientific research on human life and social relations (and vice versa), and the social aspects of inquiry itself (Yearley, 2004). Hence, feminist philosophy of science is explored in particular. The article will start by introducing values in science and the position of Social Constructivism, therefore pointing out the important distinction between the sociology of science and the sociology of knowledge. The Strong Programme will specifically be explored, which is a particular version of the aforementioned sociology of knowledge. The article will then move on to various feminist approaches to science, namely Spontaneous Feminist Empiricist Epistemology, Standpoint Epistemologies, and Perspectivalism. In sum, the article will look at how and why science is social, with a view to investigating the ways in which gender does and ought to influence the concepts of knowledge, knowers, and practices of inquiry and justification (Anderson, 1995).



Figure 1: On the left: the engraving of Sextus Empiricus, the first philosopher to identify the problem of epistemology. On the right: Dalí's Galatea of the Spheres, representing Infinitism in epistemology (Scott, 2021).


Science is Social

Science, undeniably, is social. Scientists are not only employed by institutions—which are created and maintained by society—but also live and work in a specific community, for instance. Moreover, scientists apply to funding bodies for grants to undertake research in the first place. Scientists then publish results in journals which are edited by other scientists, meaning that the overall systematic study is both an academic and social enterprise. Such collective aspects indeed raise important questions in turn; for example, are the sciences neutral? What impact does the social context have on science? Does knowledge in scientific investigation reflect societal norms? To approach such questions, one must first distinguish between the aforementioned sociology of science and the sociology of knowledge studies. Whereas the former refers to the institutional structure of science, funding, the status of science, and scientists themselves, the latter refers to the content of science which is influenced by the social (Keller, 2011). The latter is the focus of this article.


According to the "value-free" concept of science, science does not reflect any societal norms (Longino, 1990). On the contrary, many argue that science is not objective nor context-independent (a view often maintained by feminist philosophers of science, for instance, as will be discussed at length later). The value-free ideal, however, firstly maintains that there are four main criteria for "doing science" (Longino, 1990) in the sociology of knowledge:

  • Communism: no ownership of the results of scientific research.

  • Universality: science is independent of social factors.

  • Disinterestedness: no commercial gain via science.

  • Organised Scepticism: rigorous testing is always carried out in science.

Values in science, broadly speaking, are as follows (Longino, 1990):

  • Choice of a research problem.

  • Collection/evaluation of data.

  • Acceptance of a theory as adequate.

  • Application of scientific research results.

Both the choice of a research problem and the application of results (points 1 and 4) are unavoidably determined by interests, preferences, and agendas (Longino, 1990). The use of results is also driven by motive. Such values entering scientific practice is simply inevitable, yet it becomes problematic when values enter the collection or evaluation of data or acceptance of a theory as adequate (points 2 and 3). One could of course respond by arguing that epistemic values are often benign and are therefore unproblematic when entering science. One can point out that this is unproblematic since epistemic values differ from those of contextual values. Whereas the former includes consistency, simplicity, and explanatory power—thus presenting no threat to objectivity on this view—the latter is a threat and involves moral, personal, social, political, or cultural aesthetics (Longino, 1990). Contextual values do not result in an objective kind of science and arguably should be the only (non-epistemic) values banned. There are problems with this conclusion, however, since it is notably difficult to separate epistemic values from contextual values. With no clear-cut distinction, it becomes impossible to collect evidence or assess theories without contextual value judgments (Longino, 2004). An alternative view altogether is therefore proposed by David Bloor, discussed next.



Figure 2: Underdetermination of theory by evidence (Frost-Arnold, 2018).

Bloor (2005) proposes his own version of the sociology of knowledge known as the Strong Programme (hereafter, StroPro). According to Bloor (2005), both "true" and "false" scientific theories should be treated the same way. Both are caused by social factors or conditions, such as cultural context and self-interest. All human knowledge, as something that exists in the human cognition, must contain some social components in its formation process. For Bloor, the content of the sciences is thus explainable. StroPro interprets knowledge with a "naturalistic" attitude towards knowledge itself (Bloor, 2005). Boldly, the account even declares itself as the only scientific approach to science, where "naturalistically" refers to scientific knowledge as knowledge for the sociologist (Bloor, 2005). The StroPro approach indeed contrasts with a normative approach as such, which comparatively attempts to define knowledge. The four theses of StroPro (Nola, 1990) which characterise the account are as follows:

  • Causality: one must give a causal explanation of why people believe what they do. StroPro therefore examines the conditions (psychological, social, and cultural) that bring about claims to a certain kind of knowledge.

  • Impartiality: with respect to truth and falsity, rationality and irrationality, and success and failure (all distinctions of which StroPro rejects the significance of in science, hence the impartiality). StroPro examines "successful" as well as "unsuccessful" knowledge claims as such.

  • Symmetry: explanation of the above dichotomies must refer to the same type of causes. Indeed, the same types of explanations are used for successful and unsuccessful knowledge claims alike.

  • Reflexivity: the views of StroPro apply to sociology as well.

The four thesis outline the approach of StroPro to science and its naturalistic attitude towards knowledge (which StroPro claims is the only scientific approach to science). Other approaches, based on the value-free ideal, are unscientific, unnaturalistic, and unempirical according to Bloor (2005). Bloor’s claims about StroPro are bold and are therefore critiqued, at length, by Larry Laudan (1981) who criticises StroPro thesis by thesis.



Figure 3: Philosopher of science Larry Laudan (2022).


Laudan Versus Bloor

As Laudan (1981) argues, claiming that StroPro is scientific presupposes that one must have clear criteria demarcating science from "non-science". Yet notable debates in the philosophy of science, and the failure of many criteria, show that one does not have any clear demarcation of criteria, he argues (Laudan, 1981). It is instead extremely pretentious for Bloor (2005) to claim that the four theses of StroPro demarcate science from non-science. One can argue, the philosopher of science claims, that those criteria are neither necessary nor sufficient. Starting with causality, for instance, the thesis becomes problematic since causal explanations are not always necessary for a theory to be scientific. Probabilistic theories are indeed a good example to illustrate the epistemologist’s (1981) argument opposing Bloor here, which are certainly scientific but do not require a causal explanation to make them so. Probability Theory in mathematics, for example, the branch of mathematics often applied to the sciences and concerned with the analysis of random phenomena (Siegmund, 2023). Causal explanation is not a requirement of the theory which says that outcome is determined by chance. Hence, Laduan (1981) argues, scientific theories are not scientific because of causality. Causality is not sufficient either, he argues (Laudan, 1981), since one can point to many examples of theories which are causal but unscientific. It gets worse too, for he also goes on to argue that the impartiality thesis is also seriously problematic in Bloor’s StroPro. According to the scholar, impartiality (with respect to truth and falsity, rationality and irrationality, and success and failure) occurs in absolutely none of the sciences explicitly (Laudan, 1981). Indeed, the thesis follows from the causality thesis, in that all beliefs need to be explained causally: true-false, rational-irrational, and successful-unsuccessful beliefs must therefore be explained causally (Laudan, 1982). This, however, seems to be redundant according to Laudan from the point of view of whether StroPro is scientific or not.


As for the reflexivity thesis, which follows from the requirement that StroPro wants to be a general theory, the philosopher (Laudan, 1981) claims that this has nothing to do with whether a theory is scientific. Sciences are not absolutely general and rather have a limited field of applicability. Finally, then, the symmetry thesis on StroPro presupposes a classification of causes which is not given by StroPro (1982). Laudan even points out that it is unclear how such a classification could be given in the first place. It seems intuitively implausible that the symmetry thesis then always holds, all of which leads him (1982) onto his own critique of StroPro whereby the account is made more precise and notes the causal and explanatory irrelevance of the distinction between the aforementioned true-false, rational-irrational, and successful-unsuccessful beliefs. Unlike that of Laudan or Bloor’s ideals of the sociology of knowledge, however, yet another important sociological aspect of science to factor in is considered hereafter.



Figure 4: David Bloor, creator of the Strong Programme (Halverson, 2015).


Feminist Approaches to Science: Feminist Epistemology

Roughly speaking, the feminist philosophy of science refers to the philosophical position about the relationship between gender and the content of sciences (Crasnow, 2013). Sciences are typically—and historically—androcentric (i.e., male-centred), meaning that feminist discussion in this area is often particularly heated, for one reason or another (Crasnow, 2013). It must be noted, however, that any political agenda is different to the feminist philosophy of science and is not the focus of discussion in this article. Alternatively, the article hereon explores feminist epistemology in the philosophy of science, in particular, the issues raised about how gender relations have shaped (or should shape) sciences and the philosophy of science (Crasnow, 2008). Indeed, as a sociocultural phenomenon, gender affects science and therefore scientific knowledge. Gender affects scientists themselves, for instance, and (more often than not) women in a negative way (Crasnow, 2008). One must not generalise, though this is difficult to deny. Feminist epistemology is thus concerned with the relations between knowledge, gender, and sciences. It is a particularly important and relevant field today since feminist ideals have slowly become more valued in the sciences and academia more broadly. Indeed, this article will look at the various philosophical theories the field of study encompasses.


Firstly, one must note an important concept in the philosophy of science more broadly. In the philosophy of science, observations are said to be theory-laden when they are affected by the theoretical presuppositions held by the investigator (Heidelberger, 2003). Theory-ladenness notably poses a problem for the confirmation of scientific theories since the observational evidence may already implicitly presuppose the thesis it is supposed to justify. This effect can present a challenge to reaching a scientific consensus if the disagreeing parties make different observations due to their different theoretical backgrounds (Heidelberger, 2003). Hence theory-ladenness is relevant here too, for it can take on different forms in the philosophy of science. In feminist epistemology, for example, gender-ladenness somewhat similarly refers to gendered cognitive styles (Cislak, Formanowicz, & Saguy, 2018). Masculine cognitive styles, for instance, might refer to deductive, analytic, and quantitative reasoning. They might also be associated with argumentative and coercive discourse (Stout, Grunberg, & Ito, 2016). Feminine cognitive styles, on the other hand, often relate to intuitive, holistic, and qualitative reasoning. In turn, it often goes along with assumed narrative and conciliatory discourse (Stout, Grunberg, & Ito, 2016), much unlike what is considered as the masculine style. In feminist epistemology, however, what must be asked is whether these different styles result in different knowledge. Feminist positions differ on this matter, and various points of view will be considered next.



Figure 5: Professor Evelyn Fox Keller, proponent of SFEE (2023).


Spontaneous Feminist Empiricist Epistemology (SFEE)

In this somewhat moderate position, notably held by Evelyn Fox Keller (1982) and Helen Longino (1990), the main idea is to try to correct the sciences shaped badly by gender bias. In this view, good/acceptable science is independent of social context as such. In the kind of science that is done properly, social or sexist biases are therefore not present (Keller, 1982). Rather assessment of hypotheses is based only on evidence. Such an ideal, however, is not realised in many contexts because of gender biases in science. SFEE consequently holds that is the task of feminist critique to point out these biases to help eliminate them (Keller, 1982). It must be pointed out, for example, that medical research often tends to concentrate on illnesses that are more common in men (Longino, 1990). Further, in order to eliminate gender biases occurring in the sciences, it must too be pointed out that research is often distorted. Research into fertilisation, for instance, is a classic example of research distorted by gender biases, whereby the sperm is a powerful penetrator and the egg a "damsel in distress" (i.e., commonly referred to as the sleeping beauty waiting to be activated and fertilised) (Munawar, 2019). Although it often prides itself on its objectivity, there is an inherent gender bias in the sciences that influences the way research is conducted and interpreted. In particular, the passive-female and active-male stereotypes are embedded into the classic view of fertilisation and persist even in the light of new evidence (Munawar, 2019).


Feminist philosophers of science proposing SFEE do not promote a new kind of science in lieu of gender biases in science (like that of research into fertilisation). Instead, they see themselves as doing what any good scientist should do anyway: displaying gender bias in science to eliminate it (Longino, 1990). Sexist—and other—biases are simply the result of insufficient care and rigour in existing and acceptable-in-principle methods, argue feminists on the SFEE account (Keller, 1982). Sexist science is therefore just bad science and feminist values are seen as instrumental to improve it. On SFEE, one can discover, expose, and eliminate (Keller, 1982).



Figure 6: In "Invisible Women", Caroline Criado Perez exposes data bias in a world designed for men (The Royal Society, 2019).


Standpoint Epistemologies (SE)

SE is more radical than SFEE. The main idea of SE is indeed to accept gender bias as unavoidable and turn it into a positive by claiming that women’s perspective and bias adds to the objectivity of science (Harding, 2001). Feminist philosophers of science on this account even go as far as to argue that the SFEE aim is misguided and futile since it is unable to identify all social factors that influence science (i.e., biases are not eliminable since they are hidden). As Sandra Harding (2001) argues, social factors necessarily and inevitably influence scientific knowledge. Social factors, therefore, are not eliminable. Contrary to popular belief, not all social influence is bad and compromises objectivity, argues Harding (2001). Objectivity in science thus cannot be achieved by trying to make science context independent—like SFEE proposes—or value-free. Objectivity is instead only achieved by identifying those social factors that create objectivity, and the way to achieve objectivity is through Perspectivalism.


Perspectivalism

Perspectivalism involves the identification of epistemologically privileged positions in society from which objective knowledge can be produced (Harding, 2001). In this view, it means that one looks at the same things but has different perspectives. Knowledge is thus always relative to one's perspective: knowledge is situated (Harding, 2001). Hence, there are different positions in society, and this gives the people occupying them distinct points of view and perspectives on reality. Different standpoints are not equally suitable to produce objective knowledge.



Figure 7: Sandra Harding, proponent of Standpoint Epistemology (Roberts, 2019).


SE is a specific type of Perspectivalism, holding that there is a distinctive perspective on reality which pertains to women—a feminist point of view (Pohlhaus, 2002). This standpoint is privileged, according to SE feminists, since it leads to objectivity in science (Pohlhaus, 2002). The task of feminist Perspectivalism is thus to articulate the feminist way of thinking, which consists of women’s experiences and lives. This is important because women have historically experienced oppression by men and marginalisation, yet SE holds that this is what makes the position privileged due to its sheer objectivity (Harding, 2001). The historic sexual division of labour and the childbearing and caring role typically by women is what constitutes Harding’s (2001) privileged concept of the feminist perspective. The women’s perspective is advantaged here, an idea which traces back to Marx: those who occupy a position in a social system which is central to the system’s survival but yet are oppressed by it have a better understanding of the nature of that system (Marcuse, 1974). Such a view is thus rival to SFEE since the aim is not necessarily to eliminate existing gender biases in science. Although one (SFEE) is more moderate than the other (SE), each feminist epistemology notably differs entirely from that of Bloor’s, Laudan’s, or the value-free ideal. One must decide which describes the sociology of knowledge best.


Conclusion

Epistemology is a crucial part of the philosophy of science, especially considering just how social the sciences really are. This final part of the series has thus investigated the very questions that come with this, most particularly how the content of science is influenced by social context. The article started by introducing the basics, namely how science is social. An important start to the discussion was the distinction drawn between the sociology of science and the sociology of knowledge, the latter of which was the focus of this final addition to the series. The value-free ideal of science is indeed appealing at face value, but certainly comes with its issues since the reality of science is unfortunately not that simple. Hence why Bloor’s (2005) contrasting StroPro view was considered, as a different approach to science altogether which Bloor claims is the most scientific approach of all. As discussed, this is however challenged by Laudan (1981; 1982). StroPro, Laudan argues, is simply presumptuous as a sociological theory to claim that it offers the most scientific approach to science. Moreover, StroPro faces some serious issues concerning the demarcation between science and "non-science", says Laudan (1981). Such issues remain, yet the article went on to consider another—particularly important—social aspect of science: the feminist philosophy of science. This specifically involved exploration into what feminist epistemology is, and later on, the investigation of two feminist views: namely SFEE and SE. The former, aiming to expose and then eliminate gender biases in science, proved less radical than that of SE. Whereas SFEE aims to correct the sciences shaped badly by gender bias, SE more boldly aims to accept gender bias (Harding, 2001). Accepting gender bias notably involves taking the Perspectivalism route. Perspectivalism is what makes the feminist perspective the most privileged standpoint since it is the most holistic, an idea which goes all the way back to the Marxism era (Marcuse, 1974). All in all, it becomes clear just how important it is to consider the effects of social context on science and its content. The value-free ideal does not necessarily line up with the idea that science is objective if social influences are an inevitable and unavoidable part of science, but one must weigh up which of these influences are harmful and why.


Bibliographical References

Anderson, E. (1995). Feminist epistemology: An interpretation and a defense. Hypatia, 10(3), 50-84.


Bloor, D. (2005). The strong programme in the sociology of knowledge. In: Bloor D (ed.) Knowledge and Social Imagery. London: Routledge, pp. 1–19.


Cislak, A., Formanowicz, M., & Saguy, T. (2018). Bias against research on gender bias. Scientometrics, 115, 189-200.


Crasnow, S. (2008). Feminist philosophy of science: ‘standpoint’ and knowledge. Science & Education, 17, 1089-1110.


Crasnow, S. (2013). Feminist philosophy of science: Values and objectivity. Philosophy Compass, 8(4), 413-423.


Harding, S. (2001). Feminist standpoint epistemology. In: Lederman M and Bartsch I (eds). The Gender and Science Reader. London: Routledge, pp.145–168.


Heidelberger, M. (2003). Theory-ladenness and scientific instruments in experimentation. The philosophy of scientific experimentation, 138-151.


Keller, E. F. (1982). Feminism and science. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society, 7(3), 589-602.


Keller, R. (2011). The sociology of knowledge approach to discourse (SKAD). Human studies, 34, 43-65.


Laplane, L., Mantovani, P., Adolphs, R., Chang, H., Mantovani, A., McFall-Ngai, M., & Pradeu, T. (2019). Why science needs philosophy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(10), 3948-3952.


Laudan, L. (1981). The pseudo-science of science? Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11:173-98


Laudan, L. (1982). More on Bloor. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 12(1), 71-74.


Longino, H. E. (1990). Science as social knowledge: Values and objectivity in scientific inquiry. Princeton University Press.


Longino, H. E. (2004). How values can be good for science. Science, values, and objectivity, 127-142.


Marcuse, H. (1974). Marxism and feminism. Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2(3), 279-288.


Munawar, A. (2019). The Reversal of Sexist Language: Analysing Gerd Brantenberg’s Egalia’s Daughters. International Journal of English and Education, 8(3), 156-164.


Nola, R. (1990). The strong programme for the sociology of science, reflexivity and relativism. Inquiry, 33(3), 273-296.


Pohlhaus, G. (2002). Knowing communities: An investigation of Harding's standpoint epistemology. Social Epistemology, 16(3), 283-293.


Siegmund, D. O. (2023, March 8). probability theory. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/probability-theory


Stout, J. G., Grunberg, V. A., & Ito, T. A. (2016). Gender roles and stereotypes about science careers help explain women and men’s science pursuits. Sex Roles, 75, 490-499.


Yearley, S. (2004). Understanding Science from the Perspective of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge: An Overview. Public Understanding of Science 3:245–58.

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