In classical sociology of science, such as that developed by Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) in particular, ideological, political, and economic factors form the framework of science development, but they do not affect the epistemic content of science. From the 1970s onward, groups of sociologists and philosophers have gone beyond this position and argued that science is not epistemically privileged compared to other, non-scientific modes of obtaining knowledge. Partly inspired by Kuhn's book, scholars such as Paul Feyerabend, David Bloor, and Barry Barnes claimed that science is essentially ideological in nature and that its knowledge claims can be fully understood in terms of social mechanisms, hence by sociology. According to the so-called strong program of science studies, the distinction between science and nonscience cannot be upheld; furthermore, there is no intrinsic difference between true and false statements in science. A true theory is simply one that happens to be accepted by the relevant community of scientists.
Epistemic sociology of science, sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), or social constructivism was a strong force in science studies during the last part of the twentieth century. It nevertheless left little mark on the scientists. Common to constructivists, of whatever inclination, is that they share to some degree a relativistic conception of science: A scientific theory is relative to social and cultural contexts, hence its truth value cannot be decided simply by comparing it with nature itself (that is, with observations and experiments, for these, too, are social constructs). Modern constructivists, such as Harry Collins, Andrew Pickering, Bruno Latour, and Karin Knorr Cetina, do not form a homogeneous group, but they all deny that science is a successful truth-seeking activity based upon an interplay between theories and experiments that reveal objective natural phenomena. In their arguments, they tend to emphasize controversies within the scientific communities, the contingent nature of scientific problems, and also the inescapable theory-ladenness of experiments. Naturally, the claim that accepted scientific knowledge is not derived from nature, but rather from local social and cultural contexts within and without the scientific community, has caused a great deal of controversy.
The "science wars" have principally been fought between scientists and academic analysts of science, but there have also been battles among scholars within the fields of sociology, history, and philosophy of science. In Higher Superstition (1994), the biologist Paul R. Gross and the mathematician Norman Levitt launched an attack on what they considered to be the antiscientific attitude of the "academic left." It is probably true to say that in the early twenty-first century such battles are no longer as intense as they used to be, and that the radical relativism of the 1980s has only a few advocates left. As far as the scientists are concerned, the large majority continue their work unperturbed by the controversy and in many cases blissfully unaware of it.
Yet the turn toward contextualism and constructivism has clearly left its mark upon science studies and opened the way for a variety of new approaches to the historical, philosophical, and sociological study of science. Thus, with the development of SSK it became natural to investigate the role played by rhetoric in the construction of scientific arguments (whereas, traditionally, science and rhetoric have been seen as antithetical). Most scholars in this area of science studies are content to point out the importance of rhetorical strategies, but according to others, closer in spirit to social constructivism, science itself can be understood as a form of rhetoric. Whatever the differences, after about 1980 rhetorical and literary analysis became a legitimate and popular tool in the examination of science—although a tool unknown to most scientists. Among the rhetorical elements that have attracted much attention are metaphors in science.
Science is international, but of course it depends on national and other local contexts as far as funding, organization, and institutionalization are concerned. Since the late nineteenth century it has been argued that the national stamp also covers "styles" of doing science, which derive from either national characters or cultural traditions specific to a certain country. Although the notion of style is controversial, and that of national style even more so, the topic has been examined by several modern historians and philosophers of science. For example, Jonathan Harwood has used style as a historiographical category in studies of twentieth-century biology, and Alistair Crombie has provided an extensive treatment of style in science in his Styles of Scientific Thinking in the European Tradition (1994).
The gender aspect of science, although not a new one, has flourished only since the 1980s when Carolyn Merchant in The Death of Nature (1980) discussed the historical gendering of nature as female. Likewise, Evelyn Fox Keller argued in Reflections on Gender and Science (1985) that science, in its present form, is inherently masculine. One answer to the historically documented conflict between femininity and traditional science has involved attempts to develop a new "feminist science" that reflects what are supposedly feminine values, such as cooperation, tenderness, organicism, and reflexivity. This has resulted in a considerable amount of scholarship, but not any real changes in the practice and ethos of science. Social constructivists, radical feminists, multiculturalists, and postmodernist critics have been accused of fighting the case of antiscience. Nevertheless, although they oppose established science, they are not against science as such but rather seek to build up alternative modes of science in harmony with the social and cultural values they favor. Their endeavors have not been more successful, though, than the attempts of some Christian fundamentalists to establish an alternative "creationist science." The norms, contents, and institutions of modern science have a remarkable degree of robustness. If there are alternative sciences, they are marginalized and have, at least so far, been unable to challenge established science.
Theory, and particularly mathematically formulated theory, has traditionally been the focus of philosophy of science, whereas experimental practice has been considered merely an appendix to theory. Experimental results have always been of interest, but only from the 1980s has attention been given to experiment and observation as a process. Experiment has become an important field of inquiry, irrespective of its connection to theory. Indeed, Ian Hacking, Allan Franklin, and others have questioned the notion that observations are always "infected" by the theory under test. They have urged scholars to study experiments and observations in their own right, including how instruments are built and used in measurements. Many constructivist scholars share this interest in the experimental workplace. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life (1979) initiated a new kind of study, laboratory studies, in which scientists and other "actors" are followed in their daily work, much like anthropologists observe the habits of their subjects. Laboratory studies have in some cases been concerned with laboratories as buildings rather than work-places of scientists. The architecture and physical arrangement of laboratories, observatories, museums, and botanical gardens is a field of growing concern, among other reasons because they are seen as expressions of the values associated with science at any given time and place.
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