Epistemology of Science
Zuoyue Wang, 2/10/2011
Epistemology of Science Simplified
• Philosophy of Science: How Does Science Make
Truth Claims about the Natural World?
• Political Science: How Does Science Function
as a Model and Tool for Understanding the
Human World?
• Sociology of Science: How Does Society Fit into
• Science Policy: How Does Science Fit into
• History of Science: How Did the Debate over
These Questions about Science and Its Social
Context Actually Play out in History?
Einstein on Epistemology of
• Einstein, 1905
– Special relativity built on ether unobservable
• Heisenberg, 1925
– Quantum mechanics built on electronic orbits
• Heisenberg vs. Einstein, 1926
– H: I learned from you
– E: A good joke can not be repeated twice!
Einstein’s Evolution
• Einstein started more as an empiricist
• General relativity led him to be a rationalist
– Empirical data do not lead to theory; making a
theory always involves a leap of faith, but any
valid theory would have to be tested with
– Thus his pursuit of unified field theory and his
belief in a deeper theory underlying quantum
History and Philosophy of Science
• Positivist View: Science as a cumulative,
progressive process
• Karl Popper: Science advances not by
proving theories true, but by proving them
false and revise them
• Thomas Kuhn: Scientific change not
purely a cognitive process, but also a
social process
Thomas Kuhn
• Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
• Called the most influential book in the
social sciences in the second half of the
29th century
• Paradigm; Paradigm shift; normal science;
scientific community—emphasis on
science as a social activity
Science Policy
• Policy for Science and Science in Policy
• Policy for Science
– Government funding of science
– From “Men of Science” to “Scientific
Community” (David Hollinger)
– Big Science, Government Funding, Debate
over Science and Government
– Scientists no longer as pursuers of truth, but
more as interest groups
Science in Policy
• Science in policy refers to how government uses
science and technology
• Controversial science in policy
– Regulatory science
– Effects of low dose radiation on human health
– Global warming
• Debate over
– Is science objective?
– Are scientists objective and “disinterested”?
Science policy-making by voting?
• Alvarez: “There is no democracy in physics. We
can’t say that one second-rate guy has as much
right to opinion as Fermi.”
• Yet, Science Policy is not science
• Regulatory policy as a negotiated process
– FDA, EPA, CDC Advisory Committees often “voted”
on recommendations
– IPCC also voted on its findings
– Sheila Jasanoff, The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers
as Policymakers
Epistemology of Science Today
• Much more complicated than the positivist ideal of
progressive science approaching truth and delivering
social benefits
• We are more aware of the social construction of science
and scientific beliefs
• We are more wary of scientists with self interest
• We are more cautious about scientific and technological
solutions to our problems
• Yet, science and technology have continued to play a
prominent role in our world today due in part to the belief
in the epistemological validity of a scientific enterprise
that is by and large evidence-based.
My Own Research
• History of the Discovery of the Equivalence of
the Matrix and Wave Mechanics (1985)
• In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science
Advisory Committee and Cold War America
– science advising involved social and political
– The negotiation of original Sputnik Moment
• Science is transnational—how science travels
across borders and is transformed in the
process (“Transnational Science”)

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