Tilting at Imaginary Windmills: A Comment on Tyfield

moreSince the beginning of the Science Wars, a few articles have been published criticizing science studies (or SSK for Social Studies of Knowledge or Sociology of Scientific Knowledge) on the basis that they provide relativistic accounts of science which deny the very existence of truth and the possibility of judging the world out there. Generally, those criticisms are written by “traditional” philosophers of science who are searching for an ontology of scientific practice, one which would help demarcate science and non-science, or by normative – Mertonian – sociologists of science, who would like to distinguish between good and bad scientific practices or criticize the growing interaction between science and the market. SSK, on the other hand, providse a non-judgmental account of science, which explains scientific practice as entrenched in specific communities and cultures. In other words, it does not seek to distinguish between what is true and what is false, but to explain the emergence of truth as a social/cultural process. SSK does not deny the existence of truth, as critiques assert, only  it contextualizes it. It is perfectly correct to say that SSK does not provide a relevant framework to judge the world “out there”, because it is just not its purpose. If we want to explain how science is made, how can we simultaneously provide a theoretical framework to demarcate good from bad practices? Obviously, the ideas and goals of those who write science studies are divergent – and hardly reconciliable – with those of normative sociologists and philosophers of science. It is not surprising, indeed, that such critical pieces are frequently published. The best discussion that has been published on these controversies is Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Belief and Resistance (on another blog, I have reviewed her last book, Scandalous Knowledge, which deals with related issues).

E. Roy Weintraub has been the first historian of economics to fully grasp the extent to which the framework offered by science studies would help provide a more insightful history of economic thought. For this reason, it has been an honor for me to co-write with him a short piece commenting on a critical paper by David Tyfield. This comment has been published by the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics and can be downloaded here.

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