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The Progress of Science and Implications for Science Studies and for Science Policy
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Perspectives on Science 11.2 (2003) 236-278

Preamble and synopsis

Can the progress of science be deliberately guided or accelerated? That "science policy" is a recognized specialty implies that the answer is, "Yes." But science policy should stem from an understanding of how science works, how or why it has progressed in the past—in particular the recent past, the era of modern science. Yet there is little agreement over those matters among scholars in science studies (or science and technology studies, STS for short) or among the disciplines that STS seeks to integrate, mainly history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science.

To the extent that there is any broad consensus, it would be that:

  • Science is a significantly intellectual activity;
  • Like other human activities, it is influenced by the aspirations and emotions of those who practice it and by the institutions they have developed;
  • Again as with other human activities, its institutions interact with other social institutions.

Attempts to understand, and designs to influence, the course of science should recognize all of these factors, the "internalist" intellectual as well as the "externalist" social ones.

Prematurity in Scientific Discovery examines the notion that the acceptance within science of certain scientific discoveries seems to have been unduly delayed. That calls for judgment to be exercised over past decisions, raising the specters of Whiggishness and presentism. Though the book's focus is primarily internalist, contextual considerations are raised by a number of the contributors. Prometheus Bound expounds the sea change undergone by the circumstances of scientific activity since the middle years of the twentieth century—a change from "Little Science" and relative autonomy to "Big Science" and dependence on external institutions. This main theme might imply an externalist approach, but it is the norms under which members of the scientific community operate that is key to the whole discussion; contextual issues are here so tightly connected to scientists' practice that the internalist-externalist distinction is not very useful. Striking the Mother Lode in Science is chiefly externalist in emphasizing the role played by society's support for science, but it does not neglect the effects of that on the intellectual climate within the scientific community.

Prematurity in Scientific Discovery addresses, too, the question of whether it is possible to discern contemporaneously that a claim is premature—that it is "here-and-now" premature (Stent 1972a, 1972b, 2002a). A related question of long standing is whether one can discern contemporaneously that a new claim could for sound reasons be called pseudo-science or pathological science (Bauer 1984a, pp.135-53).

I shall argue—in agreement with most or all of the contributors to Prematurity in Scientific Discovery—that, to be useful for analysis of intellectual aspects of progress, more operational definitions are needed for terms like "premature" or "resisted" discoveries. One step toward that is to view science as advancing on three fronts: the observation of striking new phenomena, the introduction of new methods, and the development of new theories. Typically, however, change does not occur at the same time in all three aspects of this troika. Drastic change in any aspect is resisted; proposed simultaneous change in two of them causes a discovery to be neglected, isolated from the mainstream action. Claims that change is needed simultaneously in all three aspects tend to be dismissed as pseudo- science (Bauer 1983; 1986, pp.152-53; 2001a, pp.9-11; 2001b, pp.96-99).

In analyzing specific cases, a number of distinctions need to be respected: the maturity of a given research field matters a great deal; the extent to which disciplinary boundaries are crossed also matters a great deal; and "science" should not be presumed to subsume medicine and technology.

Since the progress of science can only be viewed from some perspective or other, discussion of it leads naturally to a consideration of scholarship about progress in science, in other words progress in science studies and science policy.

Progress in science

Modern science, dating from roughly the seventeenth century, differs from earlier incarnations in these respects:

  • It is international; that is to say, scientific communities in all cultures agree—by and large—about the substantive content of scientific knowledge...

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