This post in the fourteenth and last in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post in the series is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.
When someone speaks of the social construction of X, you have to ask, X = what?
Ian Hacking (1936 – ) is a Canadian philosopher, historian of science, and an advocate of scientific realism. In The Social Construction of What? (1999), he argued that constructionist accounts of scientific theories tend to lose sight of a basic question: What, exactly, is it that’s supposed to be constructed?
If we consider the case of gravity, for instance, we can distinguish at least two different meanings for the word. Gravity can either be (1) that nonverbalized property of reality that is responsible for objects falling down when tossed up, etc., or it can be (2) the verbalized theory of that property advanced by Isaac Newton in 1687. If we ask, “Is gravity socially constructed?” then the meaning of both the question and the answer depend very much on which definition we're using. If we mean gravity (1), then the answer is almost certainly “no.” If we mean gravity (2), the answer is obviously “yes.” The first criticism is absurd, the second banal. “Is gravity socially constructed?” is, for Hacking, simply a bad question. We need to be more specific.
The theory could have been different if Newton had been a different person or if it had been created in a different place, but in so much as competing theories about gravity accurately describe it, they will tend inevitably to converge toward a fixed point. There are many perspectives on reality, but there is only one reality to be described. The process of science is a process of refinement; the better a theory is, the less integral its “socially constructed” aspects become. The equations given by Newton describe the real properties of gravity, as they really are, as we really experience them in our daily lives.
This position places Hacking near the middle of the spectrum on philosophy of science, though certainly on the realist side of it. A thoroughgoing realist, who is committed to the literal truth of scientific theories, cannot maintain that (1) and (2) are different in any meaningful way, because if Newton’s theory is correct, then it is nothing other than the verbalization of a property of the universe. To the extent that it is anything else (“constructed” rather than “discovered”) it is a false theory. On the other hand, Hacking regards externalist sociological approaches to the history of science as unduly skeptical. We are justified in believing that the things described by theories really do exist, substantially as described, because we can do things with them. Hume notwithstanding, inference to the best explanation is the best method we have, and we should stick with it.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.