Ideology and Science

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Science and technology have had a massive impact on society over the last few centuries, undermining religion and leading to a widespread 'faith in science'. The key feature of science is its cognitive power- science enables us to explain, predict and control the world.

However, science can also cause problems as well as solve them, through manufactured risks- e.g. pollution, global warming and weapons of mass destruction.

Science as a belief system

Karl Popper believes science is an 'open' belief system where theories are open to scrutiny, criticism and testing. Science is based on 'falsification': scientists try to falsify existing theories by looking for evidence to disprove them. If evidence contradicts a theory, the theory is discarded and the search for a better explanation begins. This enables knowledge of the world to grow.

However, scientific knowledge is not absolute truth as there is always a posibility that someone will provide evidence to disprove it.

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The CUDOS Norms

Merton argues, like Popper, that science as an institution or organised social activity needs a set of norms that make scientists act in ways that serve the goal of increasing scientific knowledge. He identifies 4 such norms:

Communism- Knowledge must be shared with the scientific community.

Universalism- Scientific knowledge is judged by universal, objective criteria (testing).

Disinterestedness- Seeking knowledge for its own sake.

Organised Scepticism- Every theory is open to criticism and testing.

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The CUDOS Norms continued...


However, some aruge that science is a self-sustaining belief system. Polayni argues that all belief systems reject fundamental challenges to their knowledge-claims- science is no different.

3 devices to sustain themselves:

  • Circularity
  • Subsidary Explanations
  • Denial of Legitimacy to Rivals
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Closed Belief Systems

Horton distinguishes between open and closed belief systems. Like Popper, he sees science as an open belief system- one where knowledge claims are open to criticism. However, religion is a closed belief system: it makes knowledge claims that cannot be overturned.

Whenever it's fundamental beliefs are threatened, a closed belief system has a number of 'get- out clauses' that prevent it from being disproved in the eyes of its believers. One example is witchcraft.

Witchcraft among the Azande

The Azande believe that natural events have natural causes and do not believe in coincidence or chance. In such cases, the injured party may make an accusation against the suspected witch and the matter may be resolved by consulting the prince's magic poison oracle. A potion (benge) will be administered to a chicken while asking whether the accused is the source of witchcraft. If the chicken dies, the sufferer can go and publicly demand the witchcraft to stop.

Evans-Pritchard argues that this belief system performs useful social functions which promote conformity and cooperation. He also points out that this belief system is highly resistant to challenges and the believers are trapped within their own belief.

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Science as a Closed System

Despite Popper's view of science as open and critical, others would argue science is a closed belief system. E.g. Polanyi's claim that science is no different when rejecting fundamental challenges to their knowledge-claims.

Scientific Paradigms

Kuhn argues that a science such as physics is based on a paradigm- set of shared assumptions. The paradigm tells scientists what reality is really like, defining problems, methods, equiptment and even likely research findings.

Scientists who challenge the paradigm are likely to be ridiculed- except during periods of scientific revolution, when accumulated evidence undermines it.

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The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge

Interpretivists expanded on Kuhn's idea and believe that all knowledge is socially constructed which is created by social groups using the resources available to them rather than being the objective truth.

Knorr-Cetina argues that the invention of new instruments (telescope etc) allows scientists make new observations and construct new facts. Also, she points out that what scientists study in the lab is highly 'constructed' and far removed from the natural world they are supposedly studying.

Little Green Men

Woolgar states that scientists have to persuade the scientific community to accept their interpretations of the world.

For example, Researchers at Cambridge astromony lab discovered pulsors and did this by observing patterns on a radio. They annotated them LGM1 and LGM2 and so on and decided it stood for Little Green Men. However they could lose their credibility so they considered changing the name.

Woolgar noted that a scientific fact is simply a shared, socially constructed belief.

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Marxism, Feminism and Postmodernism

Marxism and Feminism see scientific knowledge as far from pure truth and see science as serving the interests of dominant groups- the ruling class and men. Many scientific developments have been driven by the needs of capitalism for certain types of knowledge.

Postmodernists also reject the knowledge-claims of science to have 'the truth'.

Lyotard argues science is one of a number of meta-narratives that falsely claims to offer the truth. He also believes that in reality, science is just one more 'discourse' or way of thinking that is used to dominate people.

Some postmodernists argue that science has become technoscience, simply serving capitalist interests by producing commodities for profit.

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Ideology- a belief system, worldview or set of ideas.

The term often includes negative aspects such as :

  • Beliefs that are false or offer a partial/biased view of reality
  • Ideals that conceal the interests of a group or legitimate inequalities
  • Ideas that prevent change by misleading people about their situation
  • A self-sustaining belief system that is irrational and closed to criticism

Therefore, if someone uses the term ideology to describe a belief system, it means they regard it as factually/morally wrong.

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Marxism and Ideology

Marxism sees society as divided into two opposed classes: the capitalist ruling class and the working class who are forced to sell their labour.

The capitalist class take advantage and exploit worker's labour to produce profit. Therefore, it is in the interests of the workers to overthrow capitalism by revolution and replace it with a classless communist society. However, the revolution can not occur until the working class become aware of the reality of their exploitation which is class consciousness.

However, it may not be ideology that prevents attempts to overthrow capitalism, but economic factors, e.g. fear of unemployment that keep the workers from rebelling.

The ruling class also control the means of production of ideas through the media, education religion which produces ruling-class ideology- ideas that legitimate the status quo. The dominant ideas are of the ruling class and prevent change by creating a false consciousness among the workers.

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Marxism and Ideology continued...

Hegemony and Revolution

Gramsci refers to the ruling class' ideological domination of society as hegemony. He argues that the working class can develop ideas that challenge the ruling class hegemony as in capitalist society workers have a dual consciousness- a mixture of ruling class ideology and ideas they develop from direct exploitation. It is therefore possible for them to overthrow capitalism and develop class consciousness.

Gramsci believes that in order to do this, a political party of 'organic intellectuals'- workers who have developed a class consciousness through their anti-capitalist struggles and who can spread it throughout the working class.

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Karl Mannheim: Ideology and Utopia

Mannheim sees all belief systems as a partial or one-sided worldview. He distinguishes between two types of belief systems:

  • Ideological Thought- justifies keeping things as they are. It reflects the position and interests of privileged groups such as the capitalist class. These benefit from maintaining the status-quo, so their belief system tends to be conservative and favours hierarchy.
  • Utopian Thought- justifies social change. It reflects the position and interests of the underprivileged and offers a vision of how society could be organised differently.

For Mannheim, this is a source of conflict in society. Different intellectuals, linked to different groups and classes, produce opposed and antagonostic ideas that justify the interests and claims of their group as against the others.

The free-floating intelligentsia

In Mannhein's view, the solution is therefore to 'detach' the intellectuals from the social groups they represent and create a free-floating intelligentsia standing above the conflict.

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Feminism and Ideology

Feminists see gender inequality as legitimated by patriarchal society.

Religious beliefs and practises often define women as inferior. For example, women are regarded as unclean because of childbirth and mensturation and therefore could be excluded from rituals.

However, not all religious belief systems subordinate women. E.g. before the monotheistic patriarchal religions, matriarchal religions with female deities were widespread, with female priests and the celebration of fertility cults.

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really good revision resource :D

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