Science as a Belief System

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The Impact of Science

  • Science has had an enormous impact on society in recent centuries. 
  • Led to a widespread ‘faith in science’.
    • Medicine had eradicated many once fatal diseases.
    • Technological development has improved features of daily life (e.g. transport/communication/work)
    • Economic productivity has been revolutionised.
    • Standard of living has been raised.
  • Science can cause problems as well as solving them.
    • Pollution, global warming and weapons of mass destruction.
    • Protects us from natural dangers but creates manufactured risks.
  • The good and bad effects of science distinguish it from other belief systems in its cognitive power.
    • Enables us to explain, predict and control the world to an extent.
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Open Belief Systems


  • Sees science as an open belief system where all claims are open to criticism.
  • Governed by the principle of falsification.
  • Scientists seek evidence to disprove existing theories.
  • Theories can be discarded and a search for a better explanation can ensue.
  • Discarding falsified knowledge claims allows scientific understanding to grow.
  • Scientific knowledge is cumulative and builds on knowledge of previous scientist.
  • No theory is ever taken as definitely true.
  • Scientific knowledge is not sacred or absolute truth.
    • e.g. Copernicus disproved the theory that the Sun revolved around the Earth
  • Can be questioned, criticised and tested.
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The CUDOS Norms


  • Science can only survive as a major institution with support from other institutions.
  • Science as an institution needs an ethos.
  • Identifies a set of 4 norms:
    • Communism
      • scientific knowledge is not private property.
      • must be shared within the scientific community.
    • Universalism
      • the truth of knowledge is tested by a universal, objective criteria.
    • Disinterestedness
      • discovering knowledge for its own sake.
      • prevents fraud and allows claims to be checked.
    • Organised Scepticism
      • no knowledge claim is regarded as sacred.
      • every idea is open to objective investigation.
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Closed Belief Systems


  • Distinguishes between open and closed belief systems.
  • Science - open belief system.
    • Knowledge-claims are open to criticism and can be falsified.
  • Religion/Magic - closed belief system.
    • Make knowledge-claims that cannot be overturned.
    • When beliefs are threatened there are devices that prevent them from being disproved.
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The Azande: Witchcraft


  • Study of the Azande people in Sudan illustrates a self-reinforcing, closed belief system.
  • The Azande belief that natural events have natural causes but do not believe in coincidence/chance.
  • Witchcraft is used to explain misfortune.
  • Accusations are resolved by consulting the prince's magical poison oracle.
  • This system prevents grudges from festering and encourages neighbours to be considerate.
    • Poison is administered to a chicken.
    • If the chicken dies the accused is deemed guilty.
    • Victim can publicly demand the witchcraft to stop.
  • Acts as an important social control mechanism.
  • System is highly resistant to challenges.
    • Believers are trapped in their own idiom of belief.
    • They accept the systems basic assumptions.
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Self-sustaining Beliefs


  • Belief systems have three devices to sustain themselves:
    • Circularity
      • each idea in the system is explained in terms of another idea within the system.
    • Subsidiary Explanations
      • if the oracle fails it can be explained as human error.
    • Denial of Legitimacy
      • reject other worldviews and refuse to grant them legitimacy.
      • e.g. creationist reject the claims of evolutionist that the world is billions of years old.
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Science as a Closed Belief System


  • Argues that all belief systems, including science, reject fundamental challenges to knowledge claims.
    • Dr Velikovsky:
      • 1950 - put forward a new theory on origins of the earth.
      • challenged fundamental assumptions of geology, astronomy and biology.
      • scientific community rejected the theory and organised a boycott.
      • supportive scientists were victimised and lost jobs.


  • Argues that mature science is based on a set of shared assumptions called a paradigm.
  • This tells scientists what reality is like, methods/equipment to use and what evidence will count.
  • Those who successfully follow the paradigm are rewarded.
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The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge


  • Argue that all knowledge is socially constructed.
  • Rather than being the objective truth it is create by social groups using resources available.
  • Scientific facts are the product of paradigms that tell them what to expect to see.
  • Knorr-Cetina: the invention of new instruments allows scientists to make new observations and construct new facts,


  • Woolgar: scientists engage in the same process of interpreting the world as everyone.


  • See scientific knowledge as serving dominant groups.
    • Technological advancements benefit capitalism.
    • Biological theory has been used to justify male dominance.
  • Lyotard: argues science is a meta-narrative that claims to offer truth.
    • Science is another way of thinking used to dominate people.
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