The four meanings of the word “science”

Here’s something worth quoting. It’s from Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual impostures, (1998) (the numbers in square brackets are mine):

It is crucial to distinguish at least four different senses of the word ‘science’: [1] an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world; [2] a collection of accepted theoretical and experimental ideas; [3] a social community with particular mores, institutions and links to the larger society; and, finally [4] applied science and technology (with which science is often confused). All too frequently, valid criticisms of ‘science’, understood in one of these senses, are taken to be arguments against science in a different sense.

Thus it is undeniable that science [3], a social institution, is linked to political, economic and military power, and that the social role played by scientists is often pernicious. It is also true that technology [4] has mixed results – sometimes disastrous ones – and that it rarely yields the miracle solutions that its most fervent advocates regularly promise. Finally, science considered as a body of knowledge [2], is always fallible, and scientists’ errors are sometimes due to all sorts of social, political, philosophical or religious prejudices.

Something of which I think we can all approve is meaning [1], “an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world”, but what of the rest?

Intellectual impostures was a vigorous takedown some of of the writings of various cultural theorists roughly grouped as “postmodernists” who decorated their not-always-entirely-penetrable writing with impressive but meaningless references to difficult scientific concepts that were way outside their area of academic expertise. The book came after the “Sokal hoax” where Alan Sokal (a physicist) submitted a paper full of sciencey gibberish to a postmodern journal which then published it. The journal itself was not, it seems, peer reviewed, so fair do’s, sort of – but really you’d think the editor would have noticed something was amiss – that is, if the sciency gibberish in other writers actually meant something.

Anyway, there was a big fuss about Sokal’s paper. Egg on faces combined with insistence that faces did not need any cleaning at all (oh yeah, “it’s a metaphor”. The point of a metaphor is to use something that is already understood by one’s audience in order to illuminate something which they do not yet understand). But stop right there. It’s all well in the past now; cultural theorists don’t write like that any more – and most of them never wrote like that in the first place. The affair still gets cited in internet commentary of course, where intellectual impostures is widely misrepresented as a cudgel for beating all social scientists, ignoring the fact that S & B are quite clear, in the section I’ve quoted, that some of the things that come under senses [2], [3], and [4] of “science” do deserve analysis and criticism by non-scientists.

Why am I quoting this in a blog that is so far contains mostly wittering about the environment? Because of the rhetorical sliding between the four meanings, whereby meaning [1] is used to justify the imposition of damaging and inequitable technology or the bullying exercise of power, still goes on in environmental debate. Meaning [1] is what gives science its status – despite the fallibilities of individual scientists, the endeavour itself is a noble one. So the label “science”, correctly applied, is, rightly, prestigious. More to the point, the label “anti-science” stings nastily and, if it can be made to stick, carries persuasive weight.

(I have some previous on this. I once wrote a short review of a rather shoddy book called the march of unreason which paints “environmentalists” (what, all of them?) as a bunch of idiots and I’ve also taken resurgence magazine to task for ignoring meaning [1] by stating that the purpose of “science” is to control the world).