Paradigm Shifts and the Social Construction of Knowledge
In what ways does new scientific knowledge alter our reality?
Happy May, readers! If you’re a student and have just completed another semester in the pandemic, congrats!
This month, Kelly Tabbutt is back with insights about the sociology of science, which is a field that seeks to understand the social aspects of science.
Research doesn’t happen in a vacuum - it is a product of the people who conduct it. Keep reading for Kelly’s insights on the ways that new scientific findings shape our collective realities.
Science, Knowledge, and Alterable Realities
The sociological study of scientific knowledge and methods, and of science as a field and institution – the Sociology of Science – extends upon the sociological study of knowledge as it is shaped by and shapes social reality. So, one of the key concerns of the Sociology of Science is the construction, transmission, de/legitimation, and restructuring of the scientific knowledge that shapes our understanding of reality and relationship to the external world. Read on to learn what how scientific knowledge is a “social construct” and how this connects to paradigm shifts.
Scientific Knowledge as Social Construct
A quick overview of the history of scientific knowledge clearly shows that they are not static through time. For example, it is no longer believed that the Earth is flat or that the Sun revolves around the Earth. These paradigm shifts restructure held truths – how we understand what reality is and how it works - and the acceptable methods for finding or judging truth.
To say that scientific knowledge is a social construct is not to dismiss the rigor or validity of scientific methods. It is not to say that scientific knowledge is bunk. Nor is it to deny that paradigm shifts follow enhanced technology, methods, and understanding as new generations reexamine and expand upon previous theories, seeing more and seeing better.
To call scientific knowledge a social construct is to recognize that in any epoch, scientific truths occur as the result of human action: conceptualization, contestation, negotiation, and modification. Further, which truths are propagated and codified in textbooks, which are marginalized or erased, and who makes those determinations is shaped by power structures.
Continuity, Change, and Paradigm Shifts
Paradigm shifts, knowledge revolutions, are a break in continuity. These revolutions occur rarely, but where they do, they challenge held truth and known reality. They restructure not only science but social structure, social institutions, and people’s perception of their social reality and their place within it. For scientists, revolutions upend the field of knowledge and practice they are used to. For the average person, revolutions profoundly impact perception and experience.
Paradigm shifts are integral to the social construction of scientific knowledge. They not only create new knowledge, but they often do this by reinterpreting, or rebuking, previously held knowledge. The standards of practice for observing, evaluating, and making conclusions about scientific knowledge bound what we pay attention to, and therefore what we see, as well as how we evaluate its meaning and significance and connect it to other knowledge and experience.
In this way scientific guidelines set the boundaries of legitimate knowledge, truth, and scientific practice. These guidelines are passed down to each new generation of science students and each new generation of scientists, who, along with previous generations, act as gatekeepers of these standards. This gatekeeping functions to preserve the character and legitimacy of science. It also, however, serves to maintain the power hierarchies within the field.
Scientific knowledge is characterized as being built “on the shoulders of giants.” New generations are supposed to learn what is extant, replicate it, and then expand upon it. The integrity of science is maintained by policing adherence to scientific principles. This continuity provides the basis of knowledge that makes scientific research possible. Paradigm shifts, however, represent a either a break or a leap forward from old ways - depending on who you ask.
Two Views on Paradigm Shifts and the Construction of Knowledge
In 1962, philosopher and historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published. It was fundamental for the then-fledgling Sociology of Science. In 1992, philosopher Paul Thagard published Conceptual Revolutions as an addition, and at times challenge, to Scientific Revolutions. Both works dealt with the topic of the nature of scientific paradigm shifts, why and how they occur, resistance to them, and their repercussions.
Kuhn argued that having strict boundaries for what is and is not valid as theory and practice is fundamental to establishing the legitimacy of scientific knowledge. He argues further that these boundaries and the theories and methods that derive from them are a function of their functionality. That is, so long as they work to provide acceptable explanations for phenomena, they are taken as legitimate and perpetuated.
Thagard agrees that the foundation of the stability of science is its legitimacy which requires established perspectives and protocols which are policed and adhered to by the scientific community. However, he disagrees with Kuhn’s assertion that these standards reflect happenstance, and that scientific knowledge is not in fact cumulative: that each new revolution completely reinvents science. Thagard argues that scientific principles and practice are externally validated and necessarily cumulative: revolutions represent monumental progressions in science.
These two perspectives on the nature of the establishment and perpetuation of scientific knowledge, leads to another, more significant, difference in standpoints on the nature and effects of paradigm shifts. Where Kuhn argues these shifts represent complete breaks, creating a new field of knowledge and practice incommensurable with the previous, Thagard argues that these shifts are extensions of previous conceptualizations.
Reinvention or Extension? Either Way Shifts Reshape Reality
Scientific paradigm shifts are a prominent topic addressed in the Sociology of Science and Scientific Knowledge, and for good reason. Paradigm shifts represent monumental restructurings of the field of scientific knowledge that reshape the way we view, comprehend, and approach reality. Scientific theory and practice are reshaped by these shifts. Society, institutions, social norms, and social behavior are reshaped by these shifts.
Some side with Kuhn’s perception of scientific knowledge as incidental and functional, where paradigm shifts are complete breaks ushering in a reinvention of the scientific “wheel.” Others side with Thagard’s view that scientific knowledge is objectively valid, if always imperfect, and scientific revolutions are extensions that build “on the shoulders of giants.” Regardless, it is undeniable that these shifts demonstrate the socially constructed – and thus alterable – nature of knowledge and its role as the arbiter of reality as we know it, thus shaping how we live in it.
Things we’ve been reading (and writing):
Kevin has been writing about science storytelling over on the Fancy Comma blog. Check out his post on the And-But-Therefore model of science storytelling, as well as his review of Bruce Kierchoff’s new book, Presenting Science Concisely.
Also on our blog, Philip Oyelola shared six actionable tips to improve search engine optimization (SEO) for internet content writing.
Talking down to your audience rarely works in SciComm. That’s why we liked this post about communicating science without dumbing it down.
Read one scientist’s take on about the benefits of creating art at Neuronline.
That’s it for this week’s newsletter - thanks for reading! If you liked this month’s newsletter, please share it!