Constructivism

‘In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is the only one prohibited?’ I thought for a moment and then replied:

‘The word is chess.’

  • Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941

 

Do scientists simply discover the hidden secrets of Nature?

Or is Science a reflection of social and political biases of its time?

Or worse, is Science merely another weapon in the arsenal of the powerful?

 

Historians, philosophers and sociologists of science began to ask these questions in the 1960s and 1970s.

With good reason, too. Many wonders of this age of scientific progress turned out to be disastrous.

Chemicals such as DDT and Thalidomide were found to have severe side-effects on health and the environment.

Agent Orange, at first a herbicide, was used by British and American governments in their wars in South-East Asia, causing life-long physical and mental suffering for all who came in contact with it.

Most terrifying of all, splitting the atom had given the United States and the Soviet Union the power to annihilate the world’s population several times over, turning the globe into a game where the only way to win was not to play.

It was amidst these suspicions of authority that science itself came under question, especially the scientific method as the ultimate way of telling us about Nature.

Philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend showed that science is not quite as close to logic as perhaps we’d like and, surprisingly, that they should not be.

Historians and sociologists since then have shown how science can reflect the very many social, political and economic contexts of its time.

In extremes, philosophers and historians have asked whether science can discover anything of the outside world at all, or that it only shows a distorted picture of ourselves back to us.

Either way, constructivism has become an important, fruitful and occasionally profound way to view science, with 2 big mantras at its heart.

First, that doing science is tough. It needs a great deal of theories, hypotheses, assumptions, equipment, working spaces and funding to make it work at all, and even that’s no guarantee. That science is man-made, and therefore has a past. That the scientific problems of today are mounted upon the scientific solutions of yesterday.

Knowledge is constructed, not simply discovered.

Second, that when we describe how all these parts of science are pulled together, questions, hotly-debated or thrown away, all to find out what is true, then the very last word we should use is truth.