<< Front page News April 9, 2004

Social construction of the sciences discussed

About 40 students and professors had the opportunity to experience the complexity of language and ideas in the philosophy lecture delivered by Richard Boyd on Thursday. Boyd is a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, but his presentation was aimed toward science students as well.

The lecture was titled “Science and Social Constitution: Reality, Ideology and the Political Epistemology of Science.” In a very lively and communicative manner, Boyd presented his thesis on objectivity..

Real essences and correspondence, he said, must not conform to the stereotype of scientific realism. According to Boyd, people characterize science as eternal, unchanging, ahistorical and intrinsic, independent of human practices and referred to in fundamental, exceptionless laws.

He said that actual scientific practice implies a relativistic stance toward scientific knowledge and categories and that relativists are essentially right in how they describe scientific knowledge and categories. However that doesn’t mean we have to abandon scientific realism, he said.

Boyd attacked some of the “slogans” that relativists use to describe the natural kinds of science as open-textured, historically situated, relationally and historically defined and non-eternal and non-intrinsic.

Boyd presented the idea of projectability, in which out of a possibly infinite number of different but logically reasonable, scientific theories that give the same prediction, only a few are viable. To test a theory and its correctness, one must ask, “Did the experiments and results differentiate my theory against other theories?”

“In science we take advantage of naturally occurring patterns of clustering,” Boyd said.“We define things according to already accepted categories.”

The social factor still exists, though, he explained. No scientist, no matter how brilliant his or her idea, can make a breakthrough without the financial basis for publishing. Factors such as institutionalizing knowledge, expertise and theory testing, the issues of gender, race and sex and many others also play a role.

The lecture was well-recieved by Boyd’s audience mostly because of his very natural way of communicating. His matter of presenting relativism and relativistic statements, captured the attention of the students and the professors and entertained them.

One story he told specifically illustrated the issues he presented. He mentioned how on one occasion he “dared” to use the “‘f’ word” while talking to two female colleagues.

“They were in a state of shock. If I use the ‘f’ word, that means I believe in the ‘f’ word and in the ‘t’ word as well: ‘false’ and ‘true’.”

Steven Kwan contributed to this article.


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