It is clear that scientific knowledge has a “superior” status in the developed societies of the West. In this sense, British-Australian science philosopher Alan Chalmers points out that human undertakings appropriate the “science” label to gain prestige.
Now, where is this evaluation of the scientific among citizens from? While there are critical voices around various harmful, elitist or authoritarian aspects of science, most people seem to assume, in a rather naive way, scientific activity consists of discovering pre-existing truths about the world that once discovered remain “scientifically proven” and become indisputable.
In the last fifty years it has been pointed out, from various academic fields, that this common sense opinion about science is wrong and pernicious, because it is strongly without judgment and based on superficial or non-existent characteristics of the activity in question. Scientific activity, according to the most modern and powerful epistemological visions, consists rather in building models on the world, that is, in developing theoretical ways of representing and interpreting physical or cultural reality in order to understand, control and transform it. Thus, the models that are constructed are not immutable truths, but ways of seeing the reality that are changing according to the available evidence and according to the ideas and interests of scientists and, more generally, of the whole society in which science is develops However, these ways of seeing the world, provisional, loaded with inventiveness and culturally situated, are not arbitrary, they arise from a very fine interaction with observations and the results of experimentation and other situations about phenomena.
Now, with this less dogmatic view of science, some authors argue that, then, scientific knowledge is just one more way of seeing the world, such as philosophy, poetry, oral tradition or intuition; one of many ways to “appropriate” reality and, moreover, a way that is not especially more valid or more rigorous than the others.Reality, in case of existing, we do not have reliable access to it, perhaps, there is not even a reality independent of our interpretations. From these “relativistic” perspectives, scientific discourse would not be closer to reality than, for example, common sense, myths, legends, ritual practices or religions. The relativistic view on science, beyond providing valuable elements of criticism to the dominant scientism, fails to account for the interventive and transformative successes of scientific activity, which, as we said, are firmly supported by the substantive relationship between the theoretical discourse and empirical reality.
Assuming that there is an external and independent physical reality of the observers, and that this reality is recognizable (although in an always provisional and mediated way), at least two major questions arise: 1. Is scientific knowledge more valid than other types of knowledge to access that reality? 2. What determines whether a socially established knowledge system is scientific or not?.
Since the privileged status of scientific knowledge translates into economic benefits, power, visibility and social prestige or government support, many forms of knowledge aspire to the title of “scientific” to enjoy those benefits. This is a compelling reason, socially very relevant, to try to distinguish what is science and what is not. For example, governments authorize, support and finance medical practices that are believed to be scientifically endorsed. How do we decide that they should be included among those practices?.
If the reader of this post has answers to any of these questions, you are welcome to share them.