Organized skepticism, the new scientific literacy?
Seed magazine ran an essay contest to answer the question: What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st Century? The winning essay is the one linked from the title above by Thomas W. Martin titled Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse.
In essence, Martin says that facts or knowledge of concepts are not enough, but that to be literate in science, one must
- require evidence
- firmly but civilly criticize each other's ideas
- be able/willing to change one's mind in light of evidence.
Further, he mentions that the success of science is due to the pitting of intellects, and successful ideas are those that have weathered evidence-based argument.
This is actually all classic social studies of science. In fact, much of Martin's article, and others that have appeared recently along these lines echo Merton's work from the late 30's. Merton (1938) describes the state of Nazi Science and public hostility towards science (sound familiar?). In this work and others, he describes the ethos of the scientist which is "that affectively toned complex of values and norms which is held to be binding on the man of science" (Merton, 1942/1973, p.268-9). The institutional imperatives of science are: universalism (applies everywhere and consistently), communism (scientific facts can't be owned, they are made available in exchange for social capital in today's terms), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism (Merton, 1942/1973). Organized skepticism is just this thing that Martin describes: scientists must question everything or at least subject everything to "detached scrutiny."
Merton (1938/1973) states that society may be hostile toward science if
- There is a belief that the results or methods go against values
- There is an “incompatibility between the sentiments embodied in the scientific ethos and those found in other institutions” (p. 255)
Merton suggests that organized skepticism is misunderstood as general skepticism (or cynicism) and thus incompatible with both religion and loyalty to a totalitarian regime (perhaps any government or political movement). The gap between society and the scientists ("esoteric science as popular mysticism") can be exploited by totalitarian regimes and con men by using scientific jargon for propaganda or selling snake oil.
So, if you really follow this stuff (and all sorts of other stuff I've been reading), more than skepticism is necessary. There's a need for public understanding of how scientists work and a separation
between atheism and organized skepticism (sorry for a political religious view!).
Now, in the way I usually do, to make a huge leap, should Martin's original points actually go for information literacy? Scientists who ask me if they can ever trust a wiki -- they should be telling me that they don't ever trust anything at first look!
Merton, R. K. (1938/1973). Science and the social order. In N. W. Storer (Ed.), The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations (pp. 254-266). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Merton, R. K. (1942/1973). The normative structure of science. In N. W. Storer (Ed.), The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations (pp. 267-278). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Note: part of this was copied out of an unpublished essay I wrote as part of an independent study I'm doing as part of my doctoral program. I'll probably try to re-read this when I'm awake to see if it makes sense.
Update/PS: the second essay is very Polanyi-esque. I do like the classics!
Update 10/12: There are notes posted
, oh and a quick note here
) from a lecture given by Dr. Sheila Jasanoff on science communication (she's the editor of the Handbook of STS, which is on my reading list). (via Blog Around the Clock
). Very interesting ideas here. We underestimate the citizenry, we can't measure science literacy by recitation of facts, trust in science can come through skepticism, communication is a two-way street (indeed!), citizens have to be able to interact with "science" in a meaningful manner. I must go look up some of her stuff. Too bad this wasn't recorded!
Labels: sociology of science