PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE: What It's All About
A review by Barry Allen*


The Social Construction of What?
Ian Hacking
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999. 271 pp. $29.95, 18.50. ISBN 0-674-81200-X.


Rage against science! Science wars! The postmodern know-nothings Alan Sokal satirized are being taken seriously when they say that science is "a social construction."

Prominent scientists, notably the physicist Steven Weinberg, have spoken out against the social construction fad. We are told we can't treat inexorable laws of nature like that. Scientific results are the deepest truths we know, and they hold regardless of society and its constructions. "Any intelligent alien anywhere," Weinberg says, "would have come upon the same logical system as we have to explain the structure of protons and the nature of supernovae."

But how could he know that? If intelligent aliens were as common as blackberries, someone like Weinberg might know what he claims to. But they aren't, and he doesn't. Weinberg oversteps the limits of serious expertise, and expects the same authority he commands on his specialist turf. For all his accomplishments, however, Weinberg knows no more about how aliens think than you or I do. His stance differs from the social constructionism he criticizes only in its unexamined metaphysical assumptions.

Coleridge said that everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. In The Social Construction of What? Ian Hacking contends that today's "science wars" also rehearse this "profound and ancient philosophical dispute." Steven Weinberg and Bruno Latour represent philosophical attitudes "that have opposed each other for at least 2300 years." Weinberg is in the tradition of high rationalism, which runs from Plato to Steven Hawking. Latour, Andrew Pickering, and their fellow social constructionists are modern-day Sophists. They see convention everywhere that the Platonists see nature, and they are more interested in the rhetoric of persuasion than the proof of truth. "Although social constructionists bask in the sun they call postmodernism, they are really very old fashioned."

The issues between the rationalists and the constructivists, however, are real. Hacking does not try to debunk either side. Instead, he patiently sifts their disagreements to identify three philosophical sticking points, where the two sides clash on issues of long standing.

Contingency. Is much of present science inevitable? Is it ordained, as Weinberg implies, that any intelligent being starting anywhere will come to the same discoveries--the velocity of light, thermodynamics, quarks? One theme in the social construction literature is the contingency of important scientific discoveries, such as quarks or microbes. The claim is not that the results are untrue or ill-founded, but only that a perfectly good science might have done without them.

Nominalism. This means a pragmatic, conventionalist, even relativist attitude toward "kinds." For a nominalist, the kinds and classifications science uses are among the equipment, not the deductions, of science. They do not reflect an independent structure of reality, but only the direction of our interests. That is very much the view of social constructionists, as well as other philosophers, including Hacking. Yet even though important scientists like Darwin and Mach were also nominalists, Hacking thinks "most scientists believe that the world comes with an inherent structure which it is their task to discover."

Stability. Why do scientific results hold up? Modern-day Platonists say it is because fact and reality are behind them. Modern-day Kantian constructionists say it is because a resilient coalition has been assembled in support of the results, making it too expensive and laborious to take them apart. That may be the idea zoologist Richard Dawkins had in mind when he quipped that nobody is a social constructionist at 30,000 feet.
The comment is clever, but inept. The social constructionists' claim is not that scientific propositions are false, nor that artifacts built with them are unreliable. Their target is not the logical truth of scientific propositions, but the social sources of the propositions' credibility and of scientific authority. Showing an important discovery (quarks, microbes) to be "socially constructed" is not supposed to make us skeptical about quarks or microbes. It is instead a standing invitation to rethink the idea that science is a bastion of objective knowledge, or the scientist a guardian "of the most important truths about the world," truths which the laity should receive with "pious reverence."

Although Hacking finds that "most philosophers of science resent the trendy and iconoclastic character of social studies of knowledge," he is fascinated by "the fuzzy dragon of science studies." He knows too much science to be bamboozled. But he also knows that the social study of science has never been a more interesting field. It will likely shape the future perception of science as greatly as did the positivism of the last century.

Ian Hacking is among the best philosophers now writing about science. His book is about more than an ephemeral Kulturkampf. He discusses psychopathology, weapons research, petrology, and South Pacific ethnography with the same skeptical intelligence he brings to quarks and electron microscopy. It is not his aim to enter a partisan controversy, still less to decide it. Instead, he clearly explains what is at stake--nothing less than the intellectual authority of modern science. "Fuzzy dragon" that it may be, social constructionism poses a serious argument. To answer it, philosophers and scientists will have to think hard about how science works and why it is important.


The author is in the Department of Philosophy, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, L8S 4K1, Canada. E-mail: bgallen@mcmaster.ca

Volume 285, Number 5425 Issue of 9 Jul 1999, p 205 1999 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Illustrative Prediction

Barry Allen devotes much of his review (Science's Compass, 9 July, p. 205) of Ian Hacking's book The Social Construction of What? (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999) to an attack on a statement that he attributes to me: "Any intelligent alien anywhere would have come upon the same logical system as we have to explain the structure of protons and the nature of supernovae." I don't believe I ever said that. Probably Allen was thinking of a remark in a 1996 article of mine in The New York Review of Books (which Hacking quoted accurately): "To put it another way, if we ever discover intelligent creatures on some distant planet and translate their scientific works, we will find that we and they have discovered the same laws."

Allen complains in response that "Weinberg knows no more about how aliens think than you or I do." I feel compelled to confess the truth: I have not been in touch with creatures on distant planets. This would be a damning admission if I had offered this remark as evidence of the objective character of the laws of physics. Of course, my remark was not offered as evidence, but as an illustrative prediction. This prediction is based on our experience, right here on Earth, of the way that physicists working in different cultures come to agree on laws that survive subsequent revolutions in physical theory.

Steven Weinberg Physics Department, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712, USA. E-mail: weinberg@physics.utexas.edu