Can Something Be True and Also Socially Constructed?

In a recent episode (podcast) of the CBC series "How to Think About Science," here's how Harvard historian of science Steven Shapin answers that question:

I believe of course that there are facts of the matter, independent of our culture, independent of our social order, independent of our language, but I believe that at the same time when we make statements of fact, those statements of fact, belong to our culture. So I believe completely that there is a world independent of our thoughts, but when we start to represent that world, we are talking about cultural entities, what else could they be.

Shapin's interview is just the latest in a fascinating new series from the CBC that I spotlighted back in January. The series popularizes the field of science studies, an important growing discipline that was unfairly attacked during the so-called Science Wars of the 1990s. Since my original post, among the best episodes, I recommend the interviews with Brian Wynne and Evelyn Fox Keller.

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There's probably nothing wrong in principle with the idea of science studies, per se; the problem was the infection of the field by postmodernists who were big on ego and very, very small on scientific knowledge, so you had idiocy like Luce Irigaray's claim that physics neglected the field of fluid dynamics for a long time because of male fear of menstruation, or Sandra Harding's question of why we should not refer to 'Newton's Rape Manual' instead of Newton's mechanics.

To claim this was caricatured in Higher Superstition (and presumably, In Koertge's book, and Sokal and Bricmont's books, and so on) is simply unfounded. Harding and others are influential thinkers and have done real damage. Levitt and Gross, and the others, did a real service to the scientific community by exposing the pomo attack on science.

Part of the sociology of science that I always found unclear was the ontological view of such sociologists. Such things as Pythagoras' Theorem: would Bloor and Barnes view this as true in-and-of-itself, or true as a result of societal concepts? Sometimes I feel they would answer by saying, `the truth of Pythagoras' Theorem is a red herring; only societies that had some sort of need/desire for such a theorem would even consider it.' This seems to me to be dodging the question about the ontological (or epistemelogical?) nature of Pythagoras' Theorem.