Friday, February 11, 2011

Science 1 and 2

One of humanity’s greatest traits is its ability to identify, classify and categorize knowledge. However, our ability to divide up our understanding of our universe into manageable chunks can be misused, to the effect that we may misinterpret the knowledge itself which we wish to sort. The over-compartmentalization of knowledge is a reoccurring theme throughout the history of science, and through an examination of Kragh’s text, we will observe how harmful, and erroneous, man’s unquenchable desire to demarcate is.

Perhaps the greatest and most potentially harmful instance of unnecessary separation in the history of science is the artificial division of the term science itself into two definitions. In Introduction to historiography of science, Kragh states that, “Science (S1) can be regarded as a collection of empirical and formal statements about nature, the theories and data, that at a given moment in time, comprise accepted scientific knowledge”, while, “Science (S2) is science as human behavior whether or not this behavior leads to true, objective science”. Kragh’s great fallacy, in my mind, is encompassed by the following sentence in which the author states that, “S2 encompasses S1 as the result of the process but the process itself is not reflected in S1”( (Kragh 1987, 22). This statement could be hardly father from the truth, for the conclusions scientists arrive at when examining their data, which are then translated into theories, are heavily affected by the behavior of the scientists themselves. The conclusions drawn by Newton of his studies would certainly not be the same as conclusions drawn from it by a scientist of the 21st century, due primarily to the differences in how scientists went about their profession in the 17th century, compared to how they do now. As we well know, the term ‘scientist’ was not even invented until the 19th century, which means people like Newton, who we of the modern age label as scientists did not identify as such, and thus thought of their own work, and went about it, in a completely different way than we might imagine.

In much the same way, it is wrong to compartmentalize one’s non-scientific activities from one’s scientific ones. For, just as a scientist’s behavior colors his data, a scientist’s non-scientific activities can provide us insight into how he formed his scientific theories, as well as shed light on his motives for attempting such science. One will be prone is misevaluating a significant piece of scientific work if one fails to take into account the scientist’s other interests. As Kragh states, “The unreasonableness of a stringent separation of an individual’s scientific and non-scientific activities does not merely arise from the problems it creates concerning explanations of the origins of scientific ideas. It often also creates problems concerning the understanding of the substance of the ideas, their cultural context and content.”(Kragh, 1987, 28) Indeed, if we view Dr. Mengele’s horrific work as solely an attempt at science, the only conclusion we can derive is that he was an extremely cruel and ineffective scientist. However, if we take into account that he was a Doctor for the SS, and a loyal Nazi party member seeking promotion within the political structure, his work can lend us insight into how Nazism affected science in Germany throughout that time period. In the interest of increasing the accuracy of the conclusions the history of science reaches concerning influential scientists and their work, it would be prudent for those in the field of the history of science to adopt a holistic approach when assessing science and its practitioners.

Therefore, we may observe through this discussion that while the human tendency to break down large ideas like science into smaller, easier to study pieces has helped further human knowledge, it also has the potential to mislead us in our observations and rob us of a greater understanding of the matter at hand. While it is tempting to simplify important moments in the history of science, we should not shy away from the significance of their complexity.

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