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Chapter 2 – The political sociology of science and undone research

2.4 The social construction of science

As well as the orthodox epistemology of science briefly described above, Robert K Merton’s assumptions about the norms of doing science included openness, transparency, critical analysis, organized skepticism, objectivity and publication through peer-review.14 Merton also emphasised the importance of originality and the significance of establishing the individual’s priority in making a discovery. These orthodox methods and conventions of scientific research do not take place in a vacuum but are embedded in and informed by broader social, cultural and economic influences.

Science, according to JD Bernal, was once ‘the occupation of curious gentlemen or of ingenious minds supported by wealthy patrons’ but today it has become ‘an industry supported by large industrial monopolies and by the State’.15 This situation has contributed to science attaining a paradoxical condition. It is at once acclaimed as the preeminent source of knowledge, invested as Hess states, with the authority to proclaim

‘what is and can be the case’,16and at the same time challenged by those threatened by its findings; this is particularly evident in environmental science.

Scientists generally research within a community where they bring social, cultural and economic values to their observations. Scientific research is also no longer self-funded but relies heavily on finances from both government and industry. These social values and pressures influence scientists’ choices in the type of science they undertake, where they study and what (either academic or industry) employment they seek. Consequently scientific knowledge production is driven by technological innovation and by economic imperatives, substantially determining the direction of scientific progress.

In order to understand how scientific research is selected for study an analysis of the scientific community, including its institutional commitment and external influences, is necessary. In this study it is not the behavior of individual scientists within the laboratory but their role as participants in a research program, controlled by a government entity, the Tasmanian government Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Environment and Water (DPIPWE), that is investigated. Public scientific controversy is usually researched through the interrogation of both sides of the controversy. There is usually a challenge to, or disagreement over, knowledge production. In the case of Tasmanian devil cancer there is, however, no challenge to the authority or expertise of those proposing the allograft hypothesis, consequently there is no public controversy.

I have subsequently broadened my research position to situate the devil cancer within the scientific controversy surrounding the causes of cancer documented by Robert Proctor in his book Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer.17 Proctor investigates the influences that shape the research pathways or as he describes it, ‘why scientific tools are sharp for certain kinds of

17 Proctor RN, 1995, Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer, BasicBooks, New York

problems but are dull for others’.18 This view supports Hess’s concept of undone science and his analogy that some lines of inquiry flourish, whilst others ‘wither on the vine’.19

The second pathway of scientific research program development is through a consistent increase in content, developed from ‘a series of conjectures and refutations’.21 This consistent increase in the research program results in a progressive shift in both the theoretical and empirical knowledge. Lakatos stresses consistency must remain the most important guiding principle and any deviations must be seen as problems.22 This

18 ibid, p 9

19 Hess DJ, 2007, Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry, Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

20 Lakatos I, 1978, The methodology of scientific research programmes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

21 ibid, p 4

22 ibid, p 57

methodology, according to Lakatos, is important in order to avoid commitment to absurd beliefs. He further states that ‘[b]lind commitment to a theory is not an intellectual virtue; it is an intellectual crime’.23 The implications of these views for the development of the Tasmanian devil research program are fully explored in the following chapter.

Meanwhile, Stuart Blume makes the observation that scientists have social and cultural values, as well as personal goals and allegiances that intrude into the scientific process.24 The scientific research community over time develops a culture that can be traced back to its original discovery, which is informed by the historical conditions in which it was embedded. The community will also over time develop a resilience and logic of its own, such that it responds to outside interests from the perspective of its own values and logic.25 For Blume, this community might also exhibit traits such as ‘secrecy, selective citation and resistance to new discoveries’.26

Notwithstanding the shaping of the research by social and cultural views, more important for this study is the funding of the research by the elites in society, or vested interests. Hess proposes that this particularly informs this new field of analysis, the political sociology of scientific research. It is the ability to fund the choice of research agenda and the selection of what is to be studied that ultimately leads to certain fields of research being neglected.

23 ibid, p 1

24Blume SS, 1974, Toward a Political Sociology of Science, The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. New York, p 78

25 Hess DJ, 1997, Science Studies, An Advanced Introduction, New York University Press, New York and London, p 75

26 Blume SS, 1974, Toward a Political Sociology of Science, The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. New York p 78