I have encountered an argument that I find interesting, but cannot understand the principles behind.

It is simply as the title states: Science is not a method for finding the truth, it is a method for making other scientists accept that you have found the truth. The actual truth, you found way back when you saw your initial data and started making a hypothesis.

("The truth" is here shorthand for "As close to reality as our methods lets us approach")

Has anybody written anything on science as a social process? All the texts i know about metaphysics are... about metaphysics, which is not what I'm looking for.

  • 1
    The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge, Ludwik Fleck, note
    – user3164
    Jul 12, 2013 at 7:20
  • 2
    What has this to do with metaphysics?
    – Lukas
    Jul 12, 2013 at 8:20
  • @Lukas: Maybe nothing, which is rather my problem.
    – shieldfoss
    Jul 12, 2013 at 12:04
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    If you replace the definition of truth as "reality as close to as our methods lets us approach", the statement looks like this:"Science is not a method for finding the reality as close to as our methods lets us approach, it is a method for making other scientists accept that you have found the reality as close to as our methods lets us approach. The actual reality as close to as our methods lets us approach, you found way back when you saw your initial data and started making a hypothesis." All this is a vacuous platitude. Jul 12, 2013 at 12:29
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    Sorry to use these terms, but the adjective ‘true’ is redundant and is not a real predicate expressing a real property such as the predicates ‘white’ or ‘prime’ which cannot be eliminated from a sentence without an essential loss for its content (Frege). If we try to define truth in terms of usefulness or justification within our society, as the original pragmatists did, then the fact that it will nevertheless make perfect sense to describe a statement as true but useless, or true but not justified within our society, will immediately show that the definition has failed.(Putnam) Jul 13, 2013 at 1:36

4 Answers 4


There is an old tradition of the history of science which is simple discourse of key ideas done by key people, and of true theories replacing false ones. A more nuanced picture was drawn by Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, who involved economic factors and intellectual ideas strictly outside the purview of science, and through his idea of paradigm shift argued against the view of science as being simply the accumulation of new data & new ideas, he argues for periods of revolutionary science where the map is redrawn and new questions asked. Perhaps the paramount one in the physical sciences is the paradigm shift between classical & Modern physics, where the key classical ideas of determinism , continuity, particle & wave are overthrown.

But this still remains a history of objective facts & theories, whereas social constructivists of science tries to

relate what science has typically characterized as objective facts to the processes of social construction, with the goal of showing that human subjectivity imposes itself on those facts we take to be objective, not solely the other way around.

(Interestingly, this sounds a lot like Kantians 'copernican revolution' where he wrote "hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects...[instead let us] suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge").

There is also a new field of social science called the sociology of science which

is the study of science as a social activity, especially dealing with the social conditions and effects of science, and with the social structures and processes of scientific activity

This field originated with Robert Merton who looked at the sociology of scientists, that is not the discovery & evolution of new scientific ideas, but how scientists as a social group or force operated. A British school grew in opposition to this, which looked at the sociology of ideas themselves.

This field in turn is critiqued by another emergent field Science, Technology & Society for sociological reductionism, and a human-centred universe. They

study how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture. STS scholars are interested in a variety of problems including the relationships between scientific and technological innovations and society, and the directions and risks of science and technology

I can't resist mentioning that these new set of fields was lampooned by Alan Sokal in a notorious hoax submission to Social Text, titled The Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. This was gleefully seized upon by critics as a demonstration of the intellectuel bankruptcy of these new fields; however in a kind of post-modernist twist the Bogdanov affair showed that the same kind of hoax could be perpertrated on the hardest of hard sciences - physics - but this time the alleged 'hoaxers' insisted on their seriousness of intent.

Finally, of course, these histories & sociological studies are Modern in that they date from the Renaissance in Italy where Galileo began to revive the ideas of Aristotelean Physics; and it is Western history in that it ignores a prehistory in the Christian & Islamic world and of course Antiquity. A 'Science without gaps' would reassert the importance of these gaps. After all, from this distance the key development that Galileo engaged in, compared to the old Aristotelian science in Antiquity, is the application of mathematics to physics, one could ask whether this key notion had any precursors in the Islamic world; and of course it is well known that the Heliocentric Universe was not a new discovery by Copernicus, but had already been discussed in Greek Antiquity.

  • This was exactly what I was looking for, thank you.
    – shieldfoss
    Jul 13, 2013 at 9:38
  • Great answer. I would add that the philosopher David Stove was also a critic of what he called "scientific irrationalism." He has numerous essays lampooning the Poppers, Kuhns, and Feyerabends of the world. He offers some convincing critiques of their follies, which he claims usually come from the laziness of their writings and logic. There are several publications, under different titles (but usually containing the same essays) of his arguments against these others and their positions.
    – Jon
    Jul 13, 2013 at 20:54
  • @Jon:I was under the impression that Feyerabend was criticising Scientific Triumphalism is the same way that Mary Midgely does? Jul 13, 2013 at 23:44
  • @MoziburUllah. I'm unfamiliar with Midgely, but have read quite a bit of Feyerabend. Feyerabend is criticizing Scientific Triumphalism, and, in many ways, so was Kuhn. But, according to Stove, their writings (esp. Feyerabend) tend to address scientific discourse as opposed to science itself. Not only that, but they both repeatedly misuse success words, and such blatant abuses of language reveals that many of their characterizations of science are logically unsound. I highly recommend Stove's essays "Neutralizing Success-Words" and "Sabotaging Logical Expressions."...
    – Jon
    Jul 14, 2013 at 3:23
  • ...But as whole, I would say that Feyerabend is trying to show that science has no more authority over what is true than mythology or any other accepted belief system. Kuhn pretty much focused his attention on the history of scientific discovery; but his position, in SSR for example, is not so different from Feyerabend's. Anyway, I'd suggest Feyerabend's "Conquest of Abundance" for a pretty good summation of his position on science as a social construct (as well as other topics of interest). But I'd definitely recommend Stove for any reader of Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend or the like.
    – Jon
    Jul 14, 2013 at 3:29

Has anybody written anything on science as a social process?

Yes, the pragmatists:

The most characteristic features [of the pragmatic theory of truth] are (1) a reliance on the pragmatic maxim as a means of clarifying the meanings of difficult concepts, truth in particular, and (2) an emphasis on the fact that the product variously branded as belief, certainty, knowledge, or truth is the result of a process, namely, inquiry. [my emphasis] (source: Wikipedia)

... and most notably Charles Sanders Pierce, who wrote about his consensus theory of truth, sometimes referred to as the convergence theory of truth:

“The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth, and the object represented is the real.” (Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear)

This does not necessarily mean that truth is nothing more than simply what the (scientific) community agrees upon, but rather that truth depends upon a consensus:

While often read as meaning that the truth is whatever the community of inquirers converges on in the long run, the notion in turn is interpretable as meaning more precisely either that truth (and “the real”) depends on the agreement of the community of inquirers or that it is the effect of the real that it will in the end produce agreement among inquirers. (source: SEP)

  • Not... exactly what I meant. I realize I didn't state this in my question, but I am assuming an objective reality we are approaching with our improving methods - it's not a question of "what is the truth," but rather "What is science?"
    – shieldfoss
    Jul 12, 2013 at 23:47


Science is the process of finding things out. The sociology of science is linked, but isn't intrinsic to science; it's what we need to do as biased social animals to make sure we don't mess up the process.

Full version

Science a process that can be conducted in a social or individual context that increases the likelihood that the practitioner(s) will be able to understand and predict recurring phenomena in the world. When we become particularly good at our predictions ("in a vacuum, things experience a force towards each other of G*m*M/r^2"), we like to abbreviate our certainty of reliability by saying that what we know is true. To mistake this for absolute truth is to stop engaging in science.

The scientific process includes a variety of sociological components. As social animals--and simply because there is not enough time or talent for individuals to do enough experiments and theorizing themselves--we need ways to share what we've found, and the mechanics of peer review and so on are all there to preserve and enhance our ability to perform reliable predictions in the face of many human tendencies that would naturally undermine them.

There seems an unhelpful trend among many (especially among those who study human tendencies under the banner of "social science" or "humanities") to get so fixated on the social aspects of preserving and enhancing scientific results that that gets called science instead of the part which actually contributes knowledge. Perhaps this is what you're getting at, but I think you have the labels wrong (and others may also). Of course one wants to understand these social trends, just like one wants to understand what trends lead to effective governance vs. corruption and waste, or to compassion vs. violence. But engineering is the practice of building things, not the sociology of how to manage human tendencies so we can build things; medicine is the practice of improving health, not the sociology of how to arrange human affairs so that we can enable people to improve health; dance is the practice of artistic motion of the human form (typically to music), not back-room dramas of the Bolshoi theater; and so science is the practice of obtaining reliable knowledge about the world, not the sociology surrounding the core act.

For example: when replicating an experiment it doesn't fundamentally matter who does it. You can do it yourself. It's hard to do it yourself, though, in an unbiased way. It's much better if you can get another mostly-disinterested party to do it. But fundamentally it's not the sociology of getting (relatively) independent replication to happen which is science; it's that it happens. You query the world repeatedly: is this how you work? The sociology is just our way of getting those queries done in a reasonable way. If you could meditate and do it yourself, program robots to do it, or whatever, it would be just as much of science: it would still test that the phenomenon is reliable and (if done properly) that you know how to elicit it.

One could of course define one's terms differently. This would be a mistake, though, as it would leave us without a word that we could use to compactly describe the process of finding reliable knowledge. Let's not! We do need to understand the sociology of science in order to do science better (and to understand society better), but we also need to understand how to do science--how to find things out--for the sociology to even matter.


Modern definition of science doesn't pretend it is a method for finding the truth. At best it is a way to produce a unfalsified falsifiable theory, that is a theory for which you know what kind of experimental results would deny its validity but no experimental result did.

Border cases like water memory, the sokal affair, epistemological anarchism and Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism are some topics one interesting in the social aspect of Science may want to look at.

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