As previously mentioned, I'm studying a Science & Technology Studies unit as part of my degree. Here's something I've half figured-out, comments will be greatly appreciated!
Current historical and epistemological views of science find no basis for truth in current scientific knowledge. Modernists believe that although we can never know that scientific knowledge is completely true, it is a good (and always improving) approximation to truth. Post-modernists believe that science is not objective and therefore not actually progressing toward truth.
I believe that both these views incorrectly focus on truth as the fundamental quality of scientific knowledge. I believe that science is in-fact the search for useful, practical knowledge: knowledge for the production of technology. “What gives scientists their special voice and power is not the ‘truth’ of their theories, but the application of these theories in technology.” (Nick Battey, Nature 399, 1999, Scientists must Bridge the Communication Gap, subscription required)
To be useful, knowledge must be reliable: you don’t want to board a plane which flies based on theories which only work some of the time! By redefining the focus of science studies on the usefulness rather than the truth of scientific knowledge, this does not rule out that science is progressing toward truth. I myself agree with the modernist view that reliability or repeatability indicates truth, and that science is progressing toward truth. That said, my fundamental view is that a focus on the truth of scientific knowledge produces a confusing view, but that a focus on the usefulness of scientific knowledge produces a clear view.
I intend to show that:
- Scientific knowledge undeniably produces useful technology.
- Historically, science has persisted due to its usefulness.
- Technoscience demonstrates science as the search for reliable technology.
- Although ‘pure’ science does occur, examination of the funding sources of this research demonstrates the ultimately practical aims of the funding organisations.
- Science only appears to be the search for truth when its context within society is ignored. Scientific research is a complex investment opportunity: resources of society are given preferentially to scientific research programmes which eventually produce practically applicable knowledge.
Scientific knowledge undeniably allows useful technology. Electricity as an energy source was developed scientifically, and is now vital for most human activity: it underpins modern information and communications networks which are themselves fast, reliable and ubiquitous. Modern methods of transport also owe a lot to scientific enquiry.
Maybe it would be good to have some more/more-concrete examples here? Answers on a postcard...
History suggests that the persistence of science as a human activity is due to its usefulness, not its accuracy. As early as the 4th century AD, Augustine supported the practical aspect of ‘science’: “cognition of temporal and changeable things that is necessary for managing the affairs of this life”, referring to improvements of crop yields through study. Against a background of the mediaeval scholasticism, Francis Bacon proposed science as a method of obtaining practical knowledge to drive economic growth: “knowledge is power”/“Ipsa Scientia Potentas Est” (Meditations, 1597). Alchemy is an example of a human activity which was not fruitful and has died out: it was never found out how to turn base metals into gold.
Maybe it would also be good to have some more/more-concrete examples here? Answers on a postcard...
The practical goal of science is obvious within ‘technoscience’: the harnessing of science by large organisations for the purpose of managed innovation and invention. Technoscience produces technology; the value of technology is in not only its practical use but its originality, as only original work can be patented or copyrighted. Following from this, the financial value of the scientific knowledge which technology depends upon, itself ultimately depends on the usefulness of the technology allowed. This does not limit my view of science to that specifically directed toward the production of technology: I aim to demonstrate that almost all science is ultimately directed toward the production of technology. As an example, the study of disease associated with pharmaceutical development demonstrates how research with wide-ranging implications and applications can be funded to meet a specific goal.
In funding research, organisations typically require the knowledge to have a value to obtain a return on investment: this value arises from the usefulness of the knowledge. Organisations funding research and their motivations are pivotal in determining what research is undertaken: although the scientists who perform the research advise their financiers, funding organisations can ultimately veto the research undertaken in determining what grants are available. The scientists must therefore work within the objectives proposed.
Scientific research only appears to be ‘pure’ because the knowledge produces has no immediate application. From the scientist’s perspective:
- He/She is working on a highly specific area within the body of scientific knowledge
- He/She can see that the knowledge being produced may never have any practical application.
- He/She has a commitment to repeatability in experimental work.
John Dalton discovered that elements combine to form compounds in specific proportions, and that this consistent composition distinguished compounds from mixtures. His well accepted, not by established scientists like Berthollet, but by the new generations of chemists for the practical usefulness of Dalton’s theories in their work. In this way, work produced by the scientist without an envisaged application can quickly find one.
The organisation funding the research, like all investors, works on the assumption that some investments do not give a return. If funding organisations are well managed, the costs of knowledge which has no practical value will be offset by financial gains through the knowledge which ultimately has practical application. The scientist has a commitment to repeatability in experimental work; although repeatability increases the likelihood that truth has been found, it can never guarantee truth. Gustin (1973) found that “recognition is a theoretically and empirically inadequate key to the motivation of scientists”: that “research was personally enjoyable” and “career reasons” (promotion and salary) were of primary importance.
The perspectives of individuals involved in scientific research are immaterial, the directions of scientific efforts are determined by market economics, which ultimately values usefulness.
Governments are possibly best positioned to fund research most removed from practical application: it can be justified as a ‘public good’. In fact, even if the knowledge does not directly make money for the Government, the eventual technologies enabled do make money. The Government then takes a cut through the tax system. Governments therefore fund a lot of ‘pure’ research through universities, allowing universities to determine the research undertaken.
This view of science as an aspect of technology suggests that scientific work should be limited to that which will have positive technological benefits: harmful technologies or research dead-ends reduce the efficiency of science as a method of generating useful knowledge. Lewis Wolpert has a different view: that although the application of scientific knowledge can be ethically/morally questionable, but knowledge itself cannot be held to be unethical/immoral. “Scientists cannot easily predict the social and technological implications of research” therefore research must not be curtailed for ethical/moral reasons: this gains nothing but does limit possible usefulness. “Whatever new technology is introduced, it is not for scientists to make moral or ethical decisions about its use, as they have no special rights or skills in this regard.” (Nature 398, 1999, Is Science Dangerous?, subscription required)
In answering the question: Is science a worthwhile activity?, previous evaluations which relied on the truth of scientific knowledge would give a mixed opinion. Evaluations which base the worth of scientific knowledge on reliability and usefulness find science to be an emphatically useful activity.
Labels: epistemology, philosophy of science, practicality, science, science and technology studies, STS, technology, usefulness