National Academies Press: OpenBook

On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, Second Edition (1995)

Chapter:The Social Foundations of Science

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Suggested Citation:"The Social Foundations of Science." Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering. 1995. On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, Second Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4917.
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THE SOCIAL FOUNDATIONS OF SCIENCE

Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics.

—PETER MEDAWAR, Pluto's Republic, Oxford University Press, New York, 1982, p. 116.

Throughout the history of science, philosophers and scientists have sought to describe a single systematic procedure that can be used to generate scientific knowledge, but they have never been completely successful. The practice of science is too multifaceted and its practitioners are too diverse to be captured in a single overarching description. Researchers collect and analyze data, develop hypotheses, replicate and extend earlier work, communicate their results with others, review and critique the results of their peers, train and supervise associates and students, and otherwise engage in the life of the scientific community.

Science is also far from a self-contained or self-sufficient enterprise. Technological developments critically influence science, as when a new device, such as a telescope, microscope, rocket, or computer, opens up whole new areas of inquiry. Societal forces also affect the directions of research, greatly complicating descriptions of scientific progress.

Another factor that confounds analyses of the scientific process is the tangled relationship between individual knowledge and social knowledge in science. At the heart of the scientific experience is individual insight into the workings of nature. Many of the outstanding achievements in the history of science grew out of the struggles and successes of individual scientists who were seeking to make sense of the world.

At the same time, science is inherently a social enterprise—in sharp contrast to a popular stereotype of science as a lonely, isolated search for the truth. With few exceptions, scientific research cannot be done without drawing on the work of others or collaborating with others. It inevitably takes place within a broad social and historical context, which gives substance, direction, and ultimately meaning to the work of individual scientists.

The object of research is to extend human knowledge of the physical, biological, or social world beyond what is already known. But an individual's knowledge properly enters the domain of science only after it is presented to others in such a fashion that they can independently judge its validity. This process occurs in many different ways. Researchers talk to their colleagues and supervisors in laboratories, in hallways, and over the telephone. They trade data and speculations over computer networks. They give presentations at seminars and conferences. They write up their results and send them to scientific journals, which in turn send the papers to be scrutinized by reviewers. After a paper is published or a finding is presented, it is judged by other scientists in the context of what they already know from other sources. Throughout this continuum of discussion and deliberation the ideas of individuals are collectively judged, sorted, and selectively incorporated into the consensual but ever evolving scientific worldview. In the process, individual knowledge is gradually converted into generally accepted knowledge.

This ongoing process of review and revision is critically important. It minimizes the influence of individual subjectivity by requiring that research results be accepted by other scientists. It also is a powerful inducement for researchers to be critical of

Suggested Citation:"The Social Foundations of Science." Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering. 1995. On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, Second Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4917.
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their own conclusions because they know that their objective must be to try to convince their ablest colleagues.

The social mechanisms of science do more than validate what comes to be known as scientific knowledge. They also help generate and sustain the body of experimental techniques, social conventions, and other ''methods" that scientists use in doing and reporting research. Some of these methods are permanent features of science; others evolve over time or vary from discipline to discipline. Because they reflect socially accepted standards in science, their application is a key element of responsible scientific practice.

EXPERIMENTAL TECHNIQUES AND THE TREATMENT OF DATA

One goal of methods is to facilitate the independent verification of scientific observations. Thus, many experimental techniques—such as statistical tests of significance, double-blind trials, or proper phrasing of questions on surveys—have been designed to minimize the influence of individual bias in research. By adhering to these techniques, researchers produce results that others can more easily reproduce, which promotes the acceptance of those results into the scientific consensus.

If research in a given area does not use generally accepted methods, other scientists will be less likely to accept the results. This was one of several reasons why many scientists reacted negatively to the initial reports of cold fusion in the late 1980s. The claims were so physically implausible that they required extraordinary proof. But the experiments were not initially presented in such a way that other investigators could corroborate or disprove them. When the experimental techniques became widely known and were replicated, belief in cold fusion quickly faded.

In some cases the methods used to arrive at scientific knowledge are not very well defined. Consider the problem of distinguishing the "facts" at the forefront of a given area of science. In such circumstances experimental techniques are often pushed to the limit, the signal is difficult to separate from the noise, unknown sources of error abound, and even the question to be answered is not well defined. In such an uncertain and fluid situation, picking out reliable data from a mass of confusing and sometimes contradictory observations can be extremely difficult.

In this stage of an investigation, researchers have to be extremely clear, both to themselves and to others, about the methods being used to gather and analyze data. Other scientists will be judging not only the validity of the data but also the validity and accuracy of the methods used to derive those data. The development of new methods can be a controversial process, as scientists seek to determine whether a given method can serve as a reliable source of new information. If someone is not forthcoming about the procedures used to derive a new result, the validation of that result by others will be hampered.

Methods are important in science, but like scientific knowledge itself, they are not infallible. As they evolve over time, better methods supersede less powerful or less acceptable ones. Methods and scientific knowledge thus progress in parallel, with each area of knowledge contributing to the other.

Suggested Citation:"The Social Foundations of Science." Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering. 1995. On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, Second Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4917.
×
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Suggested Citation:"The Social Foundations of Science." Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering. 1995. On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, Second Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4917.
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Since the first edition of On Being a Scientist was published in 1989, more than 200,000 copies have been distributed to graduate and undergraduate science students. Now this well-received booklet has been updated to incorporate the important developments in science ethics of the past 6 years and includes updated examples and material from the landmark volume Responsible Science (National Academy Press, 1992).

The revision reflects feedback from readers of the original version. In response to graduate students' requests, it offers several case studies in science ethics that pose provocative and realistic scenarios of ethical dilemmas and issues.

On Being a Scientist presents penetrating discussions of the social and historical context of science, the allocation of credit for discovery, the scientist's role in society, the issues revolving around publication, and many other aspects of scientific work. The booklet explores the inevitable conflicts that arise when the black and white areas of science meet the gray areas of human values and biases.

Written in a conversational style, this booklet will be of great interest to students entering scientific research, their instructors and mentors, and anyone interested in the role of scientific discovery in society.

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