Courses

Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It

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YEAR: 2006  |   LENGTH: 24 parts (31 minutes each)

DESCRIPTION: Choose one: (A) Science gives us objective knowledge of an independently existing reality. (B) Scientific knowledge is always provisional and tells us nothing that is universal, necessary, or certain about the world. Welcome to the science wars—a long-running battle over the status of scientific knowledge that began in ancient Greece, raged furiously among scientists, social scientists, and humanists during the 1990s, and has re-emerged in today’s conflict between science and religion over issues such as evolution. – source

01. Knowledge and Truth Are Age-Old Problems
What is it that scientists know, and how do they know what they know? The “science wars” in the late 20th century were a dispute within modern science that signals a deep, longstanding conflict over this question.
02. Competing Visions of the Scientific Method
This lecture casts doubt on the popular notion that the rise of modern science in the early 17th century was the result of discovering a single method for extracting objective truths about nature from subjective experience.
03. Galileo, the Catholic Church, and Truth
The Catholic Church has been cast as villain in its condemnation of Galileo, but a great deal hinges on whether Galileo possessed knowledge and was defending truth, or was promoting personal opinions based on his beliefs.
04. Isaac Newton’s Theory of the Universe
Isaac Newton’s mathematical theory of gravity and motion works, and for more than 200 years was lauded as finally giving knowledge of physical reality. But Newtonian physics is wrong, in spite of “working.”
05. Science vs. Philosophy in the 17th Century
From the beginning, modern science used novel instruments that disclosed realities that cannot be experienced directly. But the very novelty of these instruments raised questions about what it was they revealed.
06. Locke, Hume, and the Path to Skepticism
John Locke formulated the classic empirical theory of knowledge, while George Berkeley mounted a vigorous attack on modern science, and David Hume embraced skepticism, criticizing unjustifiable knowledge claims.
07. Kant Restores Certainty
Immanuel Kant invented a philosophical system that guaranteed universal, necessary, and certain knowledge, but at a price. We could have knowledge of experience, but not of the world as it “really” is, beyond experience.
08. Science, Society, and the Age of Reason
The role that scientific knowledge plays in society today is the realization of the 18th-century Enlightenment vision linking social reform and the idea of progress to reason by way of science.
09. Science Comes of Age in the 19th Century
In spite of science’s growing applicability to the real world through technology, scientists began to question the relationship between theories and reality, influenced by such startling ideas as non-Euclidean geometry.
10. Theories Need Not Explain
Joseph Fourier and others showed that a theory can provide prediction and control without describing realities behind experience. But then as now, the dominant view was that scientific theories reveal what is really out there.
11. Knowledge as a Product of the Active Mind
William Whewell invented the term “scientist” and tried to demonstrate that creative activity by the mind is a fundamental factor in scientific reasoning, and that the history of science is crucial in understanding this process.
12. Trading Reality for Experience
This lecture looks at thinkers as diverse as Ernst Mach, Pierre Duhem, and Heinrich Hertz, who argued from three different perspectives that theories were non-unique interpretations of experience, not descriptions of reality.
13. Scientific Truth in the Early 20th Century
Ironically, just as science increasingly mattered to the general public, and for that reason scientific knowledge was accepted as true, the 19th-century scientific theories responsible for this perception were being discarded!
14. Two New Theories of Scientific Knowledge
The most proscience philosophies in the first half of the 20th century were logical positivism, which embraced the primacy of scientific knowledge, and pragmatism, a homegrown American philosophy that rejected it.
15. Einstein and Bohr Redefine Reality
Relativity and quantum theory raised new questions about the relationship of science to reality. This lecture addresses these questions, which continue unresolved to this day.
16. Truth, Ideology, and Thought Collectives
The most radical theory of scientific knowledge to be formulated in the 1930s came from immunologist Ludwik Fleck, who used the history of syphilis as a vehicle for exploring what scientists know and how they know it.
17. Kuhn's Revolutionary Image of Science
The 1962 publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutionssparked a reassessment by intellectuals of the privileged status of scientific knowledge and more broadly of the possibility of true objectivity.
18. Challenging Mainstream Science from Within
Scientific thinking has a collective character shaped by education and professional community life, but scientific theories also evolve, and highly credentialed “outsiders” play a role.
19. Objectivity Under Attack
Israel Scheffler and Paul Feyerabend assumed opposite stances in response to Kuhn’s thesis. Independently, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida launched an attack on the very possibility of objective knowledge.
20. Scientific Knowledge as Social Construct
In the 1980s, a consensus formed that scientific and technological knowledge were not value-neutral, but the products of communal practices deeply affected by professional and societal values.
21. New Definitions of Objectivity
While many intellectuals after 1960 were busily denouncing Western ideals of rationality, knowledge, and truth as politically motivated myths, many philosophers of science proposed defensible theories of scientific realism.
22. Science Wars of the Late 20th Century
In 1996, a postmodern journal addressed the science wars after a decade of hostility between scientists and supporters of the social construction view. The journal unwittingly published a parody of postmodernism known as Sokal’s hoax.
23. Intelligent Design and the Scope of Science
Is intelligent design a scientific hypothesis? This question highlights issues of who defines what science is, what constitutes good science, and what words like rationality, truth, knowledge, and reality mean.
24. Truth, History, and Citizenship
At a time when science is involved in profound social, moral, and environmental challenges, misunderstanding the positions of competing interpretations of science is an obstacle to effective action.