The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

A Retort to

Thinking Different… Science in the Modern World

Professor Steven Shapin

Whelen Lecture, University of Saskatchewan, January 9, 2007

Harry Hillman Chartrand, PhD, January 15, 2007


In his 2007 Whelen Lecture to the University of Saskatchewan: Thinking Different… Science in the Modern World, Harvard Professor of the history and sociology of science, Steven Shapin, stressed the emblematic nature of ‘Science’.  He pointed out there is no commonly accepted meaning for the term.  Nonetheless, whatever it means he noted that it signifies something valuable, something ‘good’, something worth appropriating to justify policy choices in virtually all spheres of contemporary life.  Even ‘intelligent design’, he observed, seeks the authoritative aura of ‘science’.

An implication not noted by Professor Shapin, however, was expressed best fifty years ago by the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi when he wrote:

In the days when an idea could be silenced by showing that it was contrary to religion, theology, was the greatest single source of fallacies.  Today, when any human thought can be discredited by branding it as unscientific, the power exercised previously by theology has passed over to science; hence, science has become in its turn the greatest single source of error.

Michael Polanyi, “Scientific Outlook: Its Sickness and Cure”,

Science, New Series, 125 (3246), March 15, 1957, 480-484.

Ten years later Polanyi, in writing about the failure of logical positivism/empiricism (LP/E), noted that:

Its theories were softened down then by a series of qualifications, which amounted to abandoning any attempt at establishing a formal criterion of the meaning and validity of a scientific statement.  The rise of analytic philosophy confirmed this abdication by abandoning the critique of science.  Thus we are left today without any accepted theory of the nature and justification of natural science.

Polanyi M., “Science and Reality”, British Journal

for the Philosophy of Science, 18 (3), Nov. 1967, 178.

More recently philosopher of biology Marjorie Grene extended this criticism beyond LP/E to embrace Professor Shapin and the ‘Strong Programme’ (of which he is an alumnus) at the Science Studies Unit of the University of Edinburg:

… sociologists, and even some philosophers of science, have practiced a sociological deconstruction of science, which has left that family of disciplines with no claim whatsoever to epistemic justification.  For the first school [LP/E], science, with its sacrosanct method, stands serenely outside society, or else deigns to direct it by applying its superior procedure.  For the second, science is reduced to politics: In effect, there is only society, no science.” 

Marjorie Grene & David Depew,

The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History,

Cambridge University Press, 2004, 348.

In this brief note I offer a simple definition of science and of technology.  Extended definition will be provided in my forthcoming monograph: The Metaphysics of Science & Technology – Faustus in New Atlantis.  A definition of technology is critical because Professor Shapin, like most sociologists and philosophers of science, is guilty of what Davis Baird in his 2004 book Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments calls ‘semantic ascent’, i.e., up and away from the instrumental realism of modern science.  One is left with words, not ‘real’ science.   Even Thomas Kuhn (a predecessor of Shapin at Harvard) succumbed to semantic ascent and a sociological rather than an epistemological view of science.  He thus became progressively focused on ‘normal science’ rather than cognitive revolutions following his seminal 1962 book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  This is implicit in his second 1970 edition and explicit in his 1990 article “The Road since Structure”

Quite simply ‘Science’ derives from the Latin meaning ‘to know, specifically to know by splitting things apart, i.e., by reductionism.  By contrast, technology derives from the Greek meaning ‘reasoned art’, i.e., the reasoned art of making something ‘work’ whether it is a painting or a synchrotron.  We use technology as sensor and tool to conduct modern science.  For the Ancients and Church Fathers, God was the measure of all things.  For the Renaissance Humanists, Man was the measure of all things.  With the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, however, the Machine became the measure of all things.

The epistemological importance of the scientific instrument resides in the consistent objective evidence it generates.  Such evidence is objective in that its collection is not mediated by a human subject.  Once calibrated and set in motion a clock – atomic or otherwise – ticks at a constant rate per unit time until its energy source is exhausted.  The ubiquitous thermostat demonstrates.  Once upon a time a Pope or King would say it is too hot, open the window.  Subordinates, for whom it was not too hot, submitted to the belief of their superior.  Today both look at the thermostat and agree it is 20 degrees Celsius.  It is the presence or absence of objective instrument-generated evidence that distinguishes the natural & engineering sciences, i.e., real science, from the pseudo-sciences including the so-called ‘human sciences’ where human mediation contaminates every stage of the evidentiary trail.  In fact, without such ‘objective’ measurement even the natural sciences, e.g., ‘string theory’, dwell in a realm one leading physicist calls “theological speculation” (Burton Richter, “Theory in particle physics: Theological speculation versus practical knowledge”, Physics Today, October 2006, 8).  Quite simply: beyond instrumental measurement ‘there be dragons’, not Science.