Department of Theoretical Philosophy
The Meaning of Science
On the Interplay between Science and Society
In the age of Trump, where facts and truths seem to be more fluid than ever, the pedestal on which science has traditionally been placed has been described to be crumbling at a rapid rate. The sense of authority that science exuded, almost self-evidently so, appears to have been compromised somehow. A variety of causes might be provided to explain this phenomenon, but whatever the underlying reason may be, the situation at hand is an incredibly complex one. Upon further inspection, some intriguing questions can be raised. For instance, what is the status of scientific knowledge and who produces it? The answer to the latter question seems straightforward: scientists produce science. But when policy recommendations follow from the work of scientists, this concomitantly has immediate effects on laymen as well. Is there a point of entry for these laymen to discuss the content and impact of science? If yes; where? If not; what are the ramifications for the public role and status of science? Is it possible for science to play a public role while still taking concerns and knowledge into account that they themselves would not qualify as being scientific?
It is crucial for the tenability of science and the contentedness of society to understand which individuals and parties operate as reliable and trustworthy sources of information, and which ones do not. Hence, this essay will discuss the interaction between science and society. One way to achieve this is through public engagement in science: members of society are increasingly consulted via public boards at various stages throughout the research processes. However, are these boards organised in a way that ensures that the concerns of the public are heard and incorporated? In addition, this raises questions about the weight and impact of the public in matters like these when faced with opposition from ‘traditional’ scientific experts and specialists. The notion of expertise turns out to play a crucial part in this matter, and will be explored through the writings of British scientific sociologist Harry Collins, who has accommodated novel subcategorisation and clearer terminology concerning the term expertise. However, Collins’s writings are not without contention, and I will discuss the debate that ensued. Finally, I will consider the contemporary difficulties through the work of Ludwik Fleck, an acclaimed Polish scientist with a pronounced interest in the philosophy of science, who was active in the first half of the 20th century. The writings of Fleck were revolutionary for that time, and might contain valuable insights that could also contribute to the current discussion. Therefore, I will look at the discussion surrounding Collins and determine whether the writings of Fleck can be followed to take a novel stance in this discussion, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that his most important work was written over 80 years ago. I will employ the work of Fleck, most notably his notions of proto-ideas and active & passive connections to knowledge, to introduce a novel point of view in the discussion between Collins and his antagonists, as well as to shed a light on the discussion on public engagement in science.
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