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2010 (32) Heft 2

Social Dimensions of Science

 


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The research program of Social Epistemology developed from a critique on philosophical epistemology around thirty years ago. Since then it has attracted an ever growing attention, mainly, however, among philosophers. But social epistemology offers also prolific alignments for the social sciences. The starting point of Social Epistemology is the elementary fact that a large proportion of our knowledge is acquired not by our own autonomous exploration according to some ideal standards but by relying on information from others: our knowledge of the world is largely dependent on testimony. This is especially true in a modern world with a high degree of division of cognitive labour. We are, in our day and age, not only dependent on testimony but especially on the testimony of experts and specialists whose qualifications and competence cannot directly be judged by us as laypersons. This deference to external sources and especially to epistemic authorities is an unavoidable corollary of the ever-increasing process of cognitive specialization and differentiation.

Central to the philosophical tradition of Social Epistemology are normative questions: how can a person's beliefs be justified which are not grounded in the person's own experience and reasoning but are based on testimony from others? How is it possible that knowledge can be acquired by testimony if knowledge represents true and justified belief and the truth of transferred information cannot be proved by the recipient himself? And how can laymen assess the competence and special knowledge of experts if they do not dispose of this competence and knowledge themselves? But Social Epistemology also deals with the social embeddedness of knowledge acquisition in the case of scientific experts themselves. Social Epistemology is interested in science as a social enterprise: how is science organised as a social institution? How can we design this institution and its societal environment to promote scientific research and improve its truth finding potentials? What are the social conditions for trusting science and scientific experts? What role does trust play in scientific cooperation itself and the division of scientific labour? What kinds of epistemic and social values influence scientific research and the evaluation and objectivity of scientific outcomes? How do societal interests in directing and controlling science and its programmes interfere with the research process?

The articles in this volume are written in the spirit of such questions. Martin Carrier explores epistemic and social conditions of the trustworthiness of scientific expertise. First, he identifies as epistemic condition that scientific knowledge enjoys high credibility. A second condition demands that scientific generalizations are significant for elucidating the particular cases that constitute the objects of expert judgment. The third condition concerns the social processes involved in producing science-based recommendations and has to be fulfilled by social robustness, expert legitimacy, and social participation. Anke Büter discusses Helen Longino's contextual empiricism that challenges the commonly held assumption that value-freedom of scientific knowledge is a necessary condition for objectivity. Longino develops an alternative conception of objectivity which integrates social and epistemic aspects of scientific enquiry. Büter argues that objectivity has to be understood as being based on a procedural epistemology and, in contrast to Longino's approach, must include the normative requirement to strive for consensus instead of allowing for epistemological pluralism. Geoffrey Brennan discusses Adam Smith's treatment of the division of labour in relation to the production, consumption and exchange of knowledge. In the first part the paper deals with the epistemic demands that exchange makes on its participants. Subsequently it treats knowledge creation itself as just another example of specialization and exchange. Brennan argues that scientific disciplines play a critical role as institutions for meeting the epistemic demands that the division of labour creates in the 'knowledge' case. Max Albert considers the relation between critical rationalism and scientific competition from an institutional perspective. According to his view a methodology must be incentive compatible in order to prevail in scientific competition. Incentive compatibility requires quality standards that are hereditary: using high-quality research as an input must increase a researcher's chances to produce high-quality output. Critical rationalism is incentive compatible because of the way it deals with the Duhem-Quine problem. An example from experimental economics illustrates the relevance of the arguments. Margit Osterloh deals with the phenomenon that performance evaluation in research is more and more based on numbers of publications, citations, and impact factors. She criticises the fact that output control has been introduced into research governance without taking into account the conditions necessary for this kind of control to work efficiently. To evaluate research by output control is counterproductive as it induces the substitution of the 'taste for science' by a 'taste for publication'. Input control by careful selection and socialization serves as an alternative. In the last contribution to this volume Bruno S. Frey observes strong forces that lead to a withering of academia as it exists today: the rankings mania, increased division of labour in research, intense publication pressure, academic fraud, dilution of the concept of 'university', and inadequate organizational forms for modern research. The transformation predicted is expected to be fundamental: however, academia, in a broader sense understood as 'the locus of seeking truth and learning through methodological inquiry', will subsist in different forms.

Most of the papers published in this volume result from an international and interdisciplinary conference on the topic Collective Knowledge and Epistemic Trust. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Social Epistemology. The conference took place at the Afried Krupp Wissenschafskolleg in Greifswald from 68 May 2010 and was organized by Michael Baurmann, Alvin I. Goldman and Philip Kitcher. The organizers are especially grateful to the Deutsche Forschungsmeinschaft (DFG) and the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung for their generous financial support.

 

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