Debate: Can Science and Social Science Really March Together?

If the scientific method was meant to eradicate superstitions, it would have eradicated the practice of caste- and gender-based discrimination in scientific institutions. It has not.

Credit: AnnaER/pixabay

Credit: AnnaER/pixabay

Renny Thomas is a sociologist of science and an assistant professor at the department of sociology, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi.

The debates on ‘March for Science’ are becoming highly polemical. The debates that have played out in the public domain are also reflective of what goes on in our academic spaces that are differentiated into streams like science, arts and commerce. The social sciences are classified as the ‘arts’. In this context, it is interesting that Aardra Surendran’s piece in The Wire appears to put the natural and the social sciences on a continuum.

As a sociologist who has done an ethnographic study among Indian scientists, I have witnessed firsthand how scientists and science enthusiasts respond to ‘non-scientists’ when we simply wish to study science and the scientific community like we study other social institutions and communities. If we dare to criticise science and its workings, hell is let loose on us! The first question that they ask of an ethnographer of science is, “but what knowledge do you have of science to talk about science?”

Sociologists and anthropologists of science are doubted and questioned by scientists on the ground that we have no ‘understanding and experience’ of science. Scientists often have an aversion to what non-scientists say about science. The French sociologist Bruno Latour wrote in this context,

When an outside observer first expresses interest in the activities of working scientists, he can expect one of a variety of different reactions. If he is a fellow professional scientist working in a different field, or if he is a student working towards final submission into the scientific profession, the outsider will usually find that his interest is easily accommodated. Barring any circumstances involving extreme secrecy or competition between the parties, scientists can react to expressions of interests by adopting a teaching role. Outsiders can thus be told the basic principles of scientific work in a field which is relatively strange to them. However, for outsiders who are completely ignorant of science and do not aspire to join the ranks of professional scientists, the situation is rather different. The most naive (and perhaps least common) reaction is that nonscientific outsiders simply have no business probing the activities of science.

Elsewhere, Latour argues,

Only when science is the object of study is the merit of the outsider’s position denied. If I say to a group of physicists that a) I do not need to be a physicist in order to study physics, b)I ought not to be a physicist in order to study physics, c) I should not have to believe in the rationality of the natural sciences in order to account for them in my own terms, and d) I should not use any tool from any science even in my own analysis of physics- no doubt I would immediately be thrown into an asylum. This is curious, in contrast to what is expected of a sociologist of religion, for example. No one denies that the sociologist of religion can be both an agnostic and a good sociologist, but a sociologist of science is not permitted to be an agnostic (Latour 1981:200-201).

Science, society and superstitions

A sociological skepticism to science is what Sundar Sarukkai (writing in The Wire) and Avijit Pathak (in the Indian Express) are trying to defend.

Further, I agree with Sarukkai’s larger skepticism of the role of science in society when he says that science doesn’t naturally eradicate superstitions, when scientists themselves practice superstitions of various kinds, where the privileged upper-caste male scientists openly practice casteism and sexism, and believe that Brahmins are meant to do science. Is it not superstition?

If the scientific method was meant to eradicate superstitions, it would have eradicated the practice of caste- and gender-based discrimination in scientific institutions. It has not. One must look at some of the leading scientific institutions to see how many Dalits, minorities and women scientists the upper-caste male scientists have recruited. The ‘number’ will be shocking.

Why didn’t they march for an equalitarian science? Why didn’t they recruit Dalit, minority (especially Muslims) and women scientists if they think science is there to eradicate superstitious beliefs, by showing the world that the superstitious beliefs about the ‘natural inability’ of women to do science is wrong? Why didn’t they recruit more Dalit scientists if they thought casteism is a superstitious practice? No, they didn’t think that casteism or sexism are superstitious beliefs. Instead, they used their science to justify the idea of ‘merit’.

The ‘March for Science’ that lead to these debates raise certain important questions. Indian scientists were concerned about the funding cuts and how that would lead to a paucity of scientific research – and how this would in turn lead to the death of scientific temper in the country and the emergence of superstitious beliefs.

At the same time, wouldn’t it have been better, and even more meaningful, to have undertaken a ‘March for Science’ when the concerned authority used a scientific test to check whether the meat in Mohammed Akhlaq’s possession was beef or not? The march could have been used to tell the concerned authorities that scientists are against science being pressed into the service of fascism. It would have been apt to have a march then – when it could have been an honest demonstration of scientists’ social responsibility – rather than to wait for the government to cut their funding and then raise a cry.

Post-positivist science

Most scientists have an aversion towards the social sciences when it doesn’t concern numbers and statistics, although there are exceptional cases. When Surendran in her piece argues that a march for science is also for the social sciences and that positivism is no longer the central approach to knowledge creation in either branch of study, she is mistaken. Science still works with the basic principles of positivism and that is reflected most in scientists’ aversion towards the social sciences, particularly towards the qualitative variety. I was always asked about the ‘scientific’ nature of ethnography during my fieldwork among scientists.

To say that what Pathak and Sarukkai have suggested is anti-science is to deny the practice of science criticism. As Jonas Salk clearly stated, “Scientific criticism by nonscientists is not practiced in the same way as literary criticism by those who are not novelists or poets.” Science studies teaches us that it is by criticising science and the scientific method that one can think of a new science, that we can think of a feminist science, that one can think beyond a masculine science.

Surendran also writes, “At the same time, sociology emerged within a context of re-establishing ‘order’ in Western Europe, and continues to offer the functionalist approach as a reasonable way of understanding society.” This is surprising since functionalism as a conservative school of thought is faced with various criticisms by sociologists, especially Marxist, feminist and black studies scholars.

The debates about the march for science should also be about the old problem of sociology of science, of insiders and outsiders. About who has the right to speak about sciences and who can criticise science. Why do we see the critics of science as anti-science? Why don’t we rather engage with them, instead of giving them labels such as ‘anti science’, ‘luddite’, etc. It is only with a productive criticism of science that we can think of a democratic discussion of it. Let’s welcome more criticism and not expect that social scientists should also follow the ‘scientific’ method to be acknowledged to be scientists.

Aardra Surendran responds:

I will briefly respond to three specific problems in this view.

First, it refuses to engage with the argument presented in my piece. I have argued that there is a continuity in the natural and social sciences in understanding the world around us systematically. Thus, at the level of processes that produce such knowledge, there is no necessary opposition between science and social science. Any difference in approach is due to a difference in the nature of the subject matter, not because you do not need a scientific approach to understand human society.

Second, science criticism is a vibrant field that does not solely represent the opinion presented by the author. Several thinkers within this stream are critical of the lack of diversity within the community and have pointed at the limitations to scientific knowledge, as it is a human enterprise. They have thought of ways to correct or improve upon them. But none of them argue that science is fundamentally misguided or similar to religion! Saying that we don’t know adequately is not the same as saying we don’t need to know at all. What is superstition if one does not arrive at a credible position on what is not? How do we arrive at this point?

Third, the response ignores the distinction between critiquing the practice of science and critiquing the personal practices of scientists. Scientists and social scientists are part of society, and prejudices that exist within society as a whole will seep into any community of knowledge producers. The question about whether science eradicates caste can equally, and perhaps more legitimately, be asked about social science. The track record of all premier institutes of education in India for diversity is abysmal. Lack of diversity is obviously a problem – but it is not a problem attributable to science alone. By using ethnographic work to generalise about all scientists, the author has unfortunately committed the one mistake ethnographers are specifically expected not to. He has, in the process, illustrated positivism of the worst variety.