UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: A relativist load of old nonsense

I have for some time been appalled by the claims of some sociologists of science about the nature of science. The Strong Programme of the sociology of science insists that science is little more than a social construct, another set of myths, little different from any other beliefs. It was thus with enormous pleasure and relief that this extreme relativist view of science has come under both scrutiny and attack in the science journal Nature.

A relativist position claims that there is nothing special or reliable about scientific knowledge and that all knowledge merely reflects the culture in which it is made. Many of my colleagues have hitherto expressed incredulity when I have told them of these sociologist's views, of which they have, in the main, been entirely ignorant.

In a major article, two physicists have examined the claim of one of these sociologists that "there is no obligation upon anyone framing a view of the world to take account of what 20th-century science has to say", a view that is widely held by many sociologists of science. It is so misleading that it is worth reading again, for it essentially says that science tells us nothing. Nothing at all about the way the world works. On this view the idea that DNA is the genetic material is no different to astrology, and the periodic table is essentially of the same nature as the Odyssey. What are the grounds on which these academics base their claims? They almost always deal with issues at the edge of science and never with the core.

One of grounds that seem to underpin the views of these sociologists is that "scientists at the research front cannot settle their disagreements through better experiments, more knowledge, more advanced theories, or clearer thinking ... (but transmute) wildly varying results ... into neat and tidy scientific myth." For someone like myself who works in cell and developmental biology, this is such unmitigated nonsense that is hard to take seriously, for we continually have to change our ideas as new results appear. This is not to say that science is not a social process - no one is more aware of this than scientists themselves. We compete, collaborate, try to get our papers into the best journals, persuade granting bodies to give us money. We also do not like to give up our favourite ideas to which we have devoted so much effort. But the individual in science is ultimately irrelevant and it is the group consensus that matters and that emerges from vigorous debate and new theories, observations and experiments. By contrast these, the sociologists of science, claim that they have virtually no disagreements within their field!

Do these sociologists believe that the success of molecular biology and genetics in explaining how organisms work is a mere figment of our imaginations? Does not the applications of science to technologies that have changed our lives - electronics, jet aircraft, techniques for body scanning, hormones produced by bacteria - give them just a little confidence that reality may be involved? Lest you think that I exaggerate their position, I once challenged one of them in a public debate as to whether he still stood by his statement that the real world has played little role in the construction of scientific theories, but he refused to answer.

Why should any of this matter as it presents no threat to science? It does, for, as the authors of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science point out, it teaches a systematic flight from reason and science in the universities where it is taught. This relativist approach to science also has had a pernicious influence on feminism, and alternative medicine and other post modernist cults. I am concerned that it may dominate many science studies courses given to non-scientists.

Reviewing one of their books I once wrote that nothing that this group of sociologists of science have done is not obvious, trivial or wrong. I still hold that position. What is so sad is that these undoubtedly able minds have refused to deal with major sociological aspects of science like the power of editors and funding bodies and how science is organised. In its present state it gives sociology a rather bad name among scientists.