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Troisième congrès de la SPS : Sciences et décision

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The Social Epistemology of Science: Is It Different?
Alvin Goldman (Rutgers)

14 novembre 2009

When sociologists of science investigate the social character of science, they often try to reduce science to less exalted social enterprises. Latour, Shapin, and others have compared scientific controversy to military or political battle where victory is secured by assembling a stronger coalition than one’s rivals. By contrast, the social-epistemological approach to science makes no attempt to derogate the standing of science or to deny the special non-social characteristics (e.g., experimentation with nature or techniques of reasoning) that may distinguish it from other knowledge-seeking activities. Rather, social epistemology asks which specific social features of science can optimize the epistemic outcomes that science seeks. These consequences include discovery of genuine (true) scientific facts or justified acceptance of scientific theories. Here we ask whether the social aspects of science are or should be different from analogous aspects of other knowledge-seeking social enterprises (e.g., legal trials or wikis). Two strands or branches of social epistemology are highlighted. First, how should scientific agents, considered as individuals, use “social evidence”, that is, evidence of what is reported or believed by their scientific peers? To whom should they accord higher levels of expertise or authority, and how should such assessments be used in the conduct of science? This problem confronts us in other walks of life as well as science; but here it is asked how it should be solved in science. Second, looking at science as a social system, which systemic properties promote or impede its distinctive epistemic ends? Some sample analytical problems and techniques used by social epistemologists are sketched and explored.

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Alvin Goldman Alvin Goldman (Rutgers)