Science as a belief system
Beliefs are views that a person or social group holds to be true about how the world works. Religion is one belief system, but both science and ideology can also be seen as belief systems.
Science is a product of the rationalisation of thought caused by the Protestant Reformation during the 16th century. This led to the decline of religious explanations for events to more rational and scientific ones
The positive impact of science
Science has had an enormous impact on society and our daily lives. It has transformed medicine and health care, transport, communications, the economy, work, leisure and much more. For example, antibiotics and vaccinations have controlled or eradicated many previously fatal illnesses.
The development of technology has created email, Skype, mobile phones and the internet, transforming the ways and speed with which we communicate with others and obtain information. This reflects the principles of the 18th century Enlightenment project which believed science would improve the world.
Popper: science as an open belief system
Popper sees science as an open belief system because it is constantly under scrutiny, challenge and criticism. This is done through the process of falsification, whereby scientists aim to disprove their theories. For example, the statement “all swans are white” is scientific because, no matter how often this can be proved correct we cannot be absolutely certain it is true because, one day, we may see a black swan, thereby falsifying the statement.
This allows scientific knowledge to grow because it is then possible to discover new information: why are some swans white but others black? In this way scientific knowledge is cumulative: it builds on existing knowledge and continues to grow.
Religion as a closed belief system
Popper’s view of science as an open belief system where knowledge is continuously growing is in contrast with the view of religion as a closed belief system. Science is open to challenge; religion is not. Religion claims an absolute truth and the answers to any challenge can be found in existing religious texts.
Religion, therefore, does not grow because there is no further knowledge to acquire. This is particularly true with religious fundamentalism, which takes a literal interpretation of religious texts.
Science as a closed belief system
However, Popper’s view of science as an open belief system can be challenged because scientists’ existing knowledge shapes their research and enables them to make sense of their findings.
Kuhn argues that scientific knowledge exists within a paradigm – a set of ideas and knowledge that shapes our understanding of the world. This paradigm sets out what scientists should study, how they should study it and how they should interpret their findings.
Any theories that do not fit the existing paradigm of knowledge are rejected, which suggests science is closed to ideas that do not fit existing knowledge.
This also suggests science is not cumulative. It is not continuously growing. It only develops very occasionally when evidence builds up that cannot be explained by the existing paradigm, which can lead to a scientific revolution: when an existing paradigm is replaced by a new one. For example, Copernicus eventually proved the sun, rather than the earth, was the centre of the universe.
The social construction of scientific knowledge
Interpretivists take Kuhn’s idea further and claim scientific knowledge is a social construction. It is not an objective truth but, instead, created by scientists with the knowledge and resources available to them.
Knorr-Cetina argues scientific ‘facts’ are fabricated – i.e. made up – by scientists. They observe ‘facts’ in laboratories where everything can be carefully controlled by scientists, using instruments that have been created for a specific scientific purpose.
risks of science in late-modern/postmodern society
However, the credibility and benefits of science has been called into question because science has also caused much harm, such as weapons of mass destruction, global warming, addictive drugs, pollution, and cyber crime.
Giddens recognises that science has produced many benefits. However, he argues that in a late-modern society science no longer provides certainty and absolute knowledge. Scientific theories are only true at a given time: new findings may come to light in the future that disproves it. Science has created new man-made risks and danger, challenging the Enlightenment view of science.
Beck argues risk and uncertainty created by science in a late-modern society are on a global scale. For example, cyber crime and terrorism cross national boundaries. The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the former Soviet Union in 1986 led to radiation fallout spreading across much of northern Europe.
These risks and uncertainties have led many to question science. Furthermore, the credibility of science is undermined because scientists cannot agree on the benefits or dangers of scientific developments such as GM crops.
Lyotard argues that people in a postmodern society have lost faith in metanarratives such as religion and science. Science has failed to deliver the Enlightenment promise of progress, and people no longer trust scientists. Science has become simply a tool of industry and commerce to develop goods for sale and profit, rather than the betterment of society.
Conflict views of science
Marxists see science as simply serving the interests of the ruling class in a capitalist society. For example, science creates products that can make a profit for the ruling class, even if, like addictive prescription drugs, they may cause harm. Science has also developed research to develop new types of weapons that may be necessary to ensure the ruling class in power.
Feminists believe science benefits men and helps to maintain the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. For example, feminists argue that contraception is mainly aimed at women rather than men. Contraception that does exist for men has few harmful side effects compared; however, contraceptive pills, for example, can have serious side effects for women. This may be because the majority of scientists are men.
An ideology is a set of ideas and values – i.e. a belief system. Ideologies are often seen as distorted views of reality, a one-sided view of reality, a set of ideas that benefit a powerful group, and ideas that prevent change. From this view an ideology is a closed belief system.
Marxism and ideology
Marxists see a conflict of interest in a capitalist society between the ruling class and subject class. The ruling class own the means of production and pay the subject class a wage to work for them. The ruling class exploit and oppress the subject class because the subject class do the hard work whilst the ruling class make the profit. Marxists see this system as unfair and believe the subject class must overthrow the ruling class and create a classless, communist society.
To achieve this, the subject class must develop class consciousness: i.e. an awareness of their exploitation. The ruling class seek to prevent this by using their ruling class ideology (ideas that justify capitalism and prevent change; transmitted through education, the media and religion) to put the subject class into a condition of false class consciousness. This means the subject class are unaware of their exploitation and, therefore, do not challenge the ruling class.
Neo-Marxism, Gramsci and hegemony
Hegemony refers to the control of ideas and knowledge by the ruling class. Gramsci argues the subject class are able to challenge this hegemony because they have a dual consciousness: they are aware of the ruling class ideology as well as their own experience of their exploitation.
This can lead to the overthrow of capitalism if the subject class can produce their own organic intellectuals who can create a class consciousness throughout the subject class.
However, Abercrombie argues that it is not the ruling class ideology that prevents the subject class challenging the ruling class but economic factors such as the need for work. In this view the subject class do not challenge the ruling class simply because they do not want to lose their jobs.
Furthermore, the failure of communism in Eastern Europe suggests it may not be an ideal society.
However, Marxism does demonstrate how the powerful can control and distort ideas to maintain their power.
Mannheim: ideology and utopia
Mannheim argued that belief systems are simply one-sided or partial worldviews. They simply reflect the viewpoint and interests of one particular group. He identified two types of belief system:
- Ideological thought: reflects those in power. It justifies their power and prevents social change. The ruling class ideology is an example of ideological thought.
- Utopian thought: reflects the interests of the powerless and encourages social change to create a better society. Marxism is an example of utopian thought.
This can lead to conflict in society because each type of thought creates its own intellectuals who represent one viewpoint. Each produce ideas to justify the interests of their wider group and challenge those who oppose them.
Mannheim argues the intellectuals must detach themselves from their interest groups and become the free-floating intelligentsia who are able to see many worldviews for the interests of society as a whole. However, this is very difficult to achieve given the intense differences between the different types of thought.
Feminism and ideology
Feminists believe patriarchal ideology maintains the dominance of men and the oppression of women in society. Patriarchal ideology is reflected everywhere: at home, where men have the more powerful instrumental role with women restricted to the expressive role; women have less status at work because their domestic responsibilities leave them with part-time employment; women have lower status at work, such as male doctors and female nurses. Patriarchal ideology is also reinforced through the media, which presents gendered images of women and the roles they are expected to have.
Science has reinforced this patriarchal ideology. For example, in the nineteenth century male scientists and educationalists argued that women should not be educated because it would remove them from their main purpose of caring for their children.
Religion has also reinforced this patriarchal ideology. For example, traditional marriage vows state the wife’s duty is to serve her husband (see also topic 3), although some religious belief systems, such as Hinduism and Paganism, have celebrated females in various Goddesses.