5.5 How society constructs scientific thinking
To understand science, it is important that we appreciate the contexts in which discoveries are made or suppressed. We can see from the account on the previous page that human understanding of the universe has changed significantly over time. The social and political climate in which scientists work has always had a profound influence on what can and cannot be said, done, published or even postulated as worthy of further investigation. (You could undertake a similar study of the debates on human cloning.) The great traditions of science have moved in parallel with the world's social changes. Scientists, like everyone else, do not exist in a social vacuum: like Copernicus and Galileo, they may find themselves working at a time when their ideas are viewed by society as heresy. Religion, philosophy and politics all play major roles in scientific discoveries.
The above history also shows the way that scientific knowledge moves from the situated learning of the individual, gazing up at the sky and wondering how it might work, through to a community of practice, in which accepted methods are used and theories are deemed legitimate by consensus, then shared among other professionals whose role it is to verify such knowledge. Building on the work of scientist and philosopher, Michael Polanyi (1962), Frade (2003) explains this process as leading the individual to transcend their own situated subjectivity and give way to a public (and thus objective) way of knowing. What this means is that we need to take account of the social demands and ‘enculturation’ that shape each scientist and their discoveries, and to recognise these as having a profound effect upon the formation of the knowledge moulded within each tradition. It is acceptable today to say that the sun is one of many stars in the universe, is about 4,500 million years old and approximately 333,400 times bigger than the earth (SSS, 2004), because no one will be burnt at the stake for saying such things!