Monday, April 23, 2007

Rationalist vs constructionist

Joe commented the other day:

"it's interesting that the baddy is speaking the language of the "everything is constructed" crowd . . . which is probably a typical swipe at academia which these blockbuster books do as a rule."

I wondered who the "everything is constructed" crowd were.

Then, perusing the dissertation abstracts of recent graduates in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh (as one does) I discovered this snippet from the dissertation of one Keith Parsons:

Constructivism is the claim that the 'facts' of science are 'constructs' created by scientific communities in accordance with the linguistic and social practices of that community. In other words, constructivists argue that scientific truth is nothing more than what scientific communities agree upon. Further, they hold that such agreement is reached through a process of negotiation in which 'nonscientific' factors, e.g. appeals to vested social interests, intimidation, etc., play a more important role than traditionally 'rational' or 'scientific' considerations.

Keith's dissertation seems to have ended up as a book: "Drawing Out Leviathan: Dinosaurs and the Science Wars" (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001) of which a review and discussion can be found here and where we find the following comment:

Parsons fears that the "two cultures" in the academy - constructivism and rationality, the literary and the scientific - will make achieving the "traditional goal of a liberal arts education, the formation of a whole person" much harder (Parsons 150). But isn't the process of examining and evaluating conflicting views at the heart of education? If rationalists and constructionists are separated into different divisions, however, it is certainly likely that many students will not put these parts of their educations together.

So, the "everything is constructed" crowd are... literary types?


Lesley said...

I think Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar are the men to read on the subject of the social construction of science. I wouldn't call them literary types, more social-science types. Which is just as bad in the books of most scientists, I know.

Jonathan said...


Thank you for that. I see from Latour's web site that he supervised a course on scientific controversy at l'ecole des mines, a similar subject to Parsons who wrote about various controversies in dinosaur palaeontology.

It is, of course, interesting for a social scientist to write about controversies because these tend to shed light on the historical development of a scientific subject.

There is plenty of room for generating controversy in science simply from changing emphases in research brought about by so-called 'paradigm shifts'. A subset of the population will advance into the new domain. The rest will try and maintain the status quo.

In my experience, as a young researcher, it was often difficult to perceive this historical perspective, though it truly existed. Probably science courses do not do enough to help students appreciate such 'social' impact.