Culture & Science — Cultural Influences and Effects

In what ways are scientists and their theories affected by culture?
We'll look at traditional and postmodern interpretations of cultural influences:
psychological & sociological, metaphysical, ideological, and authoritative.
What are the mutual interactions between culture and science, and the
effects of cultural-personal factors on the process & content of science.

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

The following excerpts are from an introductory outline of my
model for Integrated Scientific Method (ISM) which has 9 parts:
empirical factors, conceptual factors, cultural-personal factors,
evaluating theories, generating theories, generating experiments,
problems & projects, cultural thought styles, creativity & criticality.

        3. Cultural-Personal Factors in Theory Evaluation
        During all activities of science, including theory evaluation, scientists are influenced by cultural-personal factors.  These factors include psychological motives and practical concerns (such as intellectual curiosity, and desires for self esteem, respect from others, financial security, and power), metaphysical worldviews (that form the foundation for some criteria used in conceptual evaluation), ideological principles (about "the way things should be" in society), and opinions of authorities (who are acknowledged due to expertise, personality, and/or power).
        These five factors interact with each other, and operate in a complex social context that involves individuals, the scientific community, and society as a whole.  Science and culture are mutually interactive, with each affecting the other.  The effects of culture, on both the process of science and the content of science, are summarized at the top of the ISM diagram: "scientific activities... are affected by culturally influenced thought styles."
        Some cultural-personal influence is due to a desire for personal consistency between ideas, between actions, and between ideas and actions.  For example, scientists are more likely to accept a scientific theory that is consistent with their metaphysical and ideological theories.  In the ISM-diagram this type of influence appears as a conceptual factor, external relationships... with cultural-personal theories.
        All of these cultural-personal factors vary in different areas of science and in communities within each area, and for different individuals, so the types and amounts of resulting influences (on the process of science and the content of science) vary widely.

        2. Conceptual Factors in Theory Evaluation
        .....  In each field of science there are expectations [which can be influenced by cultural-personal factors] for the types of entities and actions that should (and should not) be included in a theory.  These "expectations about components" can be explicit or implicit, due to scientists' beliefs about ontology (what exists in the world) or utility (what is useful in science).  .....

        4. Theory Evaluation
        .....  Inputs for evaluating a theory come from empirical, conceptual, and cultural-personal factors, with the relative weighting of factors varying from one situation to another.  .....

        8. Thought Styles
        All activities in science, mental and physical, are affected by thought styles that are influenced by cultural-personal factors, operate at the levels of individuals and sub-communities and communities, and involve both conscious choices and unconscious assumptions.  A collective thought style includes the shared beliefs, among a group of scientists, about "what should be done and how it should be done."  Thought styles affect the types of theories generated and accepted, and the problems formulated, experiments done, and techniques for interpreting data.  There are mutual influences between thought styles and the procedural "rules of the game" that are developed by a community of scientists, operating in a larger social context, to establish and maintain certain types of institutions and reward systems, styles of presentation, attitudes toward competition and cooperation, and relationships between science, technology and society.  Decisions about which problem-solving projects to pursue — decisions (made by scientists and by societies) that are heavily influenced by thought styles — play a key role in the two-way interactions between society and science by determining the allocation of societal resources (for science as a whole, and for areas within science, and for individual projects) and the returns (to society) that may arise from investments in scientific research.  Thought styles affect the process and content of science in many ways, but this influence is not the same for all science, because thought styles vary between fields (and within fields), and change with time.

The ideas outlined above (about cultural-personal factors, conceptual factors, and thought styles) are explained more thoroughly in Part 2 of Culture and Science: Cultural Influences and Effects.  It will help you begin to understand the effects of cultural-personal factors in science and society, produced by the complex interplay of factors that are logical, psychological, sociological, practical, political, and religious.

And here are two more ideas:

Recognize and Minimize
In my opinion, we should recognize the influence of cultural-personal factors in science, and (in an effort to maximize the effectiveness of science in a search for truth) we should try to minimize the influence of these factors.  We should want scientific theories to be evaluated by thinking that is objective and logical, not biased and cultural.

World Views
We can also think about cultural-personal factors in terms of the worldviews of individuals and communities:  a worldview is a mental model of reality (a set of theories about what exists, how and why things happen, and what it means), a view of the world that is used for living in the world, that serves as a foundation for our thoughts, decisions, and actions.

Hot Debates about Science !
The effects of Cultural-Personal Factors & Thought Styles are hotly debated among scholars who study science, who argue about the accuracy & utility of traditional or postmodern interpretations of cultural influence in science.  What are the results of the various cultural influences?  The rest of this page contains the beginning (first 15%) of a full-length page asking a racy question, Should Scientific Method be EKS-Rated? (with "EKS" replacing "X" to fool the filtering programs) which explains how some scholars have converted a good idea (examining the mutual interactions between culture and science, as outlined in the top part of this page) into a bad idea that has undesirable consequences, when they take the good idea to silly extremes.

In a related page, Reality 101 asks a silly question — Do Scientists Create Reality?
that is related to Solar System Questions (between 1500 and 1700, what did change
and what did not change) and explains basic distinctions between truth-claims & truth,
and between humanly-constructed realities & human-independent realities.

Should Scientific Method be EKS-Rated ?
      Why should we wonder if scientific methods are EKS-Rated?  The title for this page is borrowed from Stephen Brush (1974) who asks a serious question in a humorous title, "Should the History of Science Be Rated EKS?"  Why is this a relevant question?  Because, as Brush explains in a subtitle, "The way scientists behave (according to historians) might not be a good model for students."
      Should our confidence in science be lessened by the limits of logic and the influence of culture?  This question has sparked heated debates among scholars who hold contrasting views of science.  Since these views seem irreconcilable, it would be futile to aim for a solution that is acceptable to everyone.  Therefore, this page will just discuss issues and express opinions.  I will also make modest recommendations, based on a simple principle (that if a good idea is taken to extremes without sufficient balance from rational critical thinking, there may be undesirable consequences) and an assumption that undesirable consequences should be avoided.

      Responsibility in Education  (a summary for Section 1)
      We should be deeply concerned about our responsibilities as educators, about the effects that our educational policies will have on students and society.  One way to express this concern is with a thoughtful evaluation of different ways to teach the nature of science.  We should ask, "What description of science is the most accurate, and most beneficial for students?"  But is the answer to both questions the same, in all educational situations?
      Because my model of Integrated Scientific Method (ISM) claims that "cultural factors" affect the process and content of science, ISM can be used to express a wide range of views about "culture in science," including some that may not be accurate or beneficial.  Should this be a cause for concern?
      Is "the way scientists behave (according to historians)" the way scientists really behave?  And if they do, are students better off not knowing?  Are any views of science potentially dangerous?  Should any views be eks-rated (unsuitable for young minds) because they may be harmful for students?  Generally I favor a "free marketplace of ideas" in the classroom, openly discussing a wide range of perspectives.  But if some scholars are advocating views that seem to cross over the line of rationality and good taste, moving into areas that seem foolish or dangerous, should educators avoid these views?  Or is it better to discuss them openly, exposing them to the bright light of critical thinking?
      These questions are discussed in Section 1.   { In the full-length page, "Section 1" is a link to the full-length version of Section 1. }

      The Limits of Logic  (a summary for Section 2)
      Yes, there are limits.  It is impossible, using any type of logic, to prove that any theory is either true or false.  Why?  If observations agree with a theory's predictions, this does not prove the theory is true, because another theory (maybe even one that has not yet been invented) might also predict the same observations, and might be a better explanation.  But if there is disagreement between observations and theory-based predictions, doesn't this prove a theory is false?  No, because the lack of agreement could be due to any of the many elements (only one of these is the theory being "tested") that are involved in making the observations and predictions, and in comparing them.
      Or the foundation of empirical science can be attacked by claiming that observations are "theory laden" and therefore involve circular logic, with theories being used to generate and interpret the observations that are used to support theories.  This circularity makes the use of observation-based logic unreliable.  And when this shaky observational foundation is extended by inductive generalization, the conclusions become even more uncertain.
      Yes, these skeptical challenges are logically valid.  But a critical thinker should know, not just the limits of logic, but also the sophisticated methods that scientists have developed to cope with these limitations and minimize their practical effects.  By using these methods, scientists can develop a rationally justified confidence in their conclusions, despite the impossibility of proof or disproof.
      We should challenge the rationality of an implication made by skeptics — that if we cannot claim certainty, we can claim nothing.  Modern science has given up the quest for certainty, and has decided to aim for a high degree of plausibility, for a rational way to determine "what is a good way to bet."
      The question, "Can science cope with the limits of logic?", is discussed in Section 2.

      Radical Relativism  (a summary for Section 3)
      An extreme relativist claims that no idea is more worthy of acceptance than any other idea.  Usually, relativism about science is defended by arguing that, when scientific theories are being evaluated, observation-based logic is less important than cultural factors.  But if theories are determined mainly by culture, not logic, in a different culture our scientific theories would be different.  And we have relativism.
      As with many ideas that seem extreme, radical relativism begins on solid ground.  Most scholars agree with its two basic premises: the limits of logic and the influence of culture.  But there is plenty of disagreement about balance, about the relative contributions of logic and culture in science, about how far a good idea can be extended before it becomes a bad idea that is harmful to rationality and society.
      This section ends by asking, "Does scientific knowledge improve over time?"  Although a skeptic may appeal to the impossibility of proof, "the best way to bet" seems obvious.  To illustrate, we'll imagine a million dollar wager involving a "truth competition" between scientific theories from the past, present, and future: from 1503, 2003, and 2103.  Would a relativist really be willing to bet on theories from 500 years ago?
      The "relativism" question, asking "is one idea as good as another?", is discussed in Section 3.

      Do scientists search for truth?  (excerpts from Section 4)
      I haven't yet written a summary for this section, but here are some quotations from it:
      One response to the impossibility of proof is an instrumentalist perspective, in which scientific theories are interpreted as making claims for usefulness, but not for probable truth.  instrumentalism and realism differ in their answer to the question, "Does science try to find truth?"  realism says yes, but instrumentalism says no. .....
      • Section 4A begins by describing two essential components of my own view, critical realism:
      First, a realist can place a high value on both plausibility (an estimate of whether a theory is likely to be true) and utility (an estimate of whether a theory seems to be useful). ... Compared with an instrumentalist — who adopts a restrictive view that eliminates one of the two major criteria (plausibility and usefulness) by excluding a consideration of truth-estimating plausibility — a realist has a wider vision that looks for both plausibility and utility.
      Second, a critical realist (CR) distinguishes between goals and claims.  A CR is a realist about goals, and a critic about claims.  A CR combines realist goals (wanting to find the truth) with critical evaluation (willing to be skeptical about claims for the truth status of a particular theory). ... For example, it is difficult to deny that scientists in the early 1950s who studied the structure of DNA were aiming for a theory that would describe the actual structure of DNA.  They wanted to find the truth, so they were realists.  Before 1953, however, their claims were modest, because all of their theories had a low truth-plausibility.  They were evaluating critically, in an effort to achieve their realist goals.  But after April 1953 the claims for truth became bold, and those who were most knowledgeable quickly decided that the double helix structure deserved to have a very high plausibility because it almost certainly was true.
      Do most scientists usually search for truth?  Yes.  Of course, searching for truth is not the only goal.  Scientists are also motivated by the intellectual stimulation and satisfaction of solving problems, and by practical benefits such as obtaining grants, earning salaries, publishing papers, gaining respect from scientific colleagues and nonscientists, and developing science-based technologies that will bring practical benefits like improved health care or new consumer products.  Yes, all of these are motivations, but it's not an either-or choice, and most scientists also want to construct accurate theories;  they want their theories to be true by corresponding to the reality of what is happening in nature.
      But attitudes toward utility and truth differ in science and design.  An engineer whose main goal is to design an improved product will tend to be more satisfied with viewing a theory only in terms of its usefulness in promoting progress toward this goal, without thinking too much about whether the theory is true.  When a theory is viewed as a practical tool whose function is to be useful during the process of design, the question of truth becomes less important than in science where accurate understanding is the main goal. ..... {there is more in 4A}
      Section 4B describes arguments for and against instrumentalism, and explains the rationality of critical realism.
      4C asks (and rationally answers) a silly question — Do Scientists Create Reality? — along with two related Solar System Questions: between 1500 and 1700, “what did change?” and “what did not change?”  { These questions – plus basic distinctions between truth-claims & truth, and between humanly-constructed realities & human-independent realities – are examined more deeply in Reality 101. }
      4D describes Six Types of Status (relative and intrinsic, pursuit and acceptance, truth and utility) plus two interpretations (realist and instrumentalist) and variable-strength claims about truth.

      Science and Unobservables  (a summary for Section 5)
      A positivist (an empiricist *) believes that scientific theories should not postulate the existence of unobservable entities, actions, or interactions.  By contrast, empirically based hypothetico-deductive logic allows "unobservables" in a theory, if this theory makes predictions (or retroductions) about observable outcomes.  {* empiricist is not the same as empirical }
      Positivism is rare among scientists, who bristle at the constraints, who cherish their intellectual freedom and welcome a wide variety of ways to describe and explain.  Many modern theories include unobservable actions and entities — such as thinking (in psychology) or electrons and electrical force (in chemistry) — among their essential components.
      {* terminology:  In the 1830s Auguste Comte, motivated by anti-religious ideology, invented positivism.  In the early 1900s a philosophy of logical positivism combined positivism with other ideas.  Currently, "positivism" has many meanings;  I use it to mean a "no unobservables" constraint, but it can also refer to anything connected with logical positivism (logical empiricism), including the "other ideas" and more. }
      The question, "Should scientists think about unobservables?", is discussed in Section 5.

This website for Whole-Person Education has TWO KINDS OF LINKS:
an ITALICIZED LINK keeps you inside a page, moving you to another part of it, and
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so your browser's BACK-button will always take you back to where you were.

Here are other related pages:

The following pages examine current controversies over the effects of culture in science, and express my opinions about these issues:

      Culture and Science (cultural influences & effects) — Part 2 is a detailed examination of the ideas (about cultural-personal factors, conceptual factors, and thought styles) briefly outlined in the first part of this page.

      Hot Debates about Science & Culture:  Wild controversies and hot debates!  Are some views of science dangerous for students?  Can too much of a good thing be harmful?  Do scientists seek truth?  Do they claim proof?  Do they create reality?  How can we avoid running away (or being carried away) to silly extremes?   /   This page is an in-depth examination of five major topics — Responsibility in Education, The Limits of Logic, Radical Relativism, Instrumentalism & Realism (do scientists search for truth?), Science and Unobservables — that are summarized in the second part of this page.

      Tools for Analysis of Culture-Effects in Science:  Here is its introduction, which explains the goals:
      The characteristics of cultural-personal factors, and their effects on the process and content of science, are topics for hot debate among scholars who study science.  When evaluating different viewpoints, especially the more extreme interpretations of science, such as those that claim a very high influence of "politics" in science, it helps to have tools which encourage flexible, critical thinking that is precise and accurate.  This page describes two analytical tools, idealization and range diagrams, that may be useful in avoiding dichotomous generalizations and in clarifying the ways that science is (and is not) influenced by cultural-personal factors, in various situational contexts.

      The Goals of ISM:  What are the goals (and non-goals) for my model of Integrated Scientific Method?  Does a "scientific method" even exist?  Is ISM intended to be a model for a method?

      Terminology (Coping with Confusion):  There is a lack of consistency in the terms used to describe scientific method.  Some terms have many meanings, and some meanings are known by many names.  This makes precise communication difficult, but in ISM I have tried to be internally consistent and (to the extent this is possible) also externally consistent with the more commonly used terms and meanings.

      Science and Religion — Conflict - Natural Process - Miracles - Scientism   What are the mutual interactions between our ideas about physical reality and spiritual reality, in science and theology?

      Science and Worldviews — Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design:  When we look at our current questions about origins, what are the mutual interactions betwen science and worldviews?  In what ways does each influence the other?

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Copyright © 1997 by Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved