Is society losing its capacity for rational debate? Did it ever exist?

In a recent debatable Curtis asked if history and philosophy of science can be applied in socially relevant ways. The consensus answer seems to be “yes”. For instance, Rebekah Higgitt wrote,

In my view history and philosophy of science are always socially relevant for demonstrating the processes by which science is created, where science ‘sits’ within society, and how and why it – or aspects of it – have achieved their current levels of authority.

Since at least the days of the Vienna Circle, historians and philosophers in the western tradition have held to the tacit assumption that clear and careful analysis of science will contribute to a more rational society. This belief in a close link between politics and the study of science has been echoed by such figures as John Dewey, Karl Popper, and Philip Kitcher. Earlier, and more pessimistically, Thomas Hobbes believed that society would collapse if there was not an absolute monarch to make final pronouncements on scientific (and other) matters.1

Recent events might suggest that Hobbes was on to something, as it seems that society is losing its capacity for rational debate. Browsing blogs on opposite2 sides of the ideological spectrum reveals incommensurable world views on a scale never envisaged by Thomas Kuhn. Who would have thought we’d ever have competing encyclopedias? John Stewart’s “Rally to Restory Sanity” was an attempt to address this problem:


So what does this have to do with HPS? Well, I have some questions. First, for the historians: Is this really new, and if so, to what degree? Was there a golden age of rational politics where politicians looked to experts to provide sensible policy advice and political parties worked together to solve social problems? And second, for the rest of us: if we agree that HPS is relevant for society, why does the public discourse over science seem so disconnected from that of our discipline? Where have we gone wrong? Or have we done everything we can and the fault lies with some other group (eg. journalists)?

  1. See Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump or chapter 5 of Science in Democracy by Mark B. Brown for a discussion of Hobbes’ views on the relationship between science and politics.
  2. See “Climatism: That Climate Change Chameleon” for a revealing look.


  • Praj Reply

    Great questions. I am personally skeptical a “rational” debate about science and policy ever did exist. But regarding public discourse more generally, in the introduction of Public Philosophy, Michael Sandel insists that public debate used to be broader than it is today. Whereas today (he claims) we are stuck on how to increase or redistribute the economic pie, a couple centuries ago we all engaged with more basic questions about the very purpose of politics.

    As for where HPS has gone “wrong”, I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself! A a (former?) physicist, I can say quite confidently that most scientists are completely unaware of what HPS offers. More strongly, scientists are generally very skeptical than any non-practicing scientist has anything useful to say about science. Moreover, there are several massive institutions that are dedicated to pushing a view of science that is at odds with what HPS tells us. So it’s not that HPS has gone wrong, it’s that over the past few centuries, traditional scientists have dominated the narrative.

    Your idea about opening more lines with journalists is a good start I think, but it won’t nearly be enough. A new blog about HPS and its social relevance is also a good idea!

    btw, I just came to this blog a couple weeks ago and really like what you are all doing. It’s long overdue.

  • Eleanor Louson
    Ellie Louson Reply

    I agree with Praj that folks outside of HPS aren’t aware of things going on in HPS. I was surprised that this is true even in the (neighbouring?) field of science policy. At a recent conference, I heard the audience of a panel on biodiversity express murmurs of anger and disbelief when a presenter suggested that history, philosophy, and sociology of science had found that “science is impregnated with human values.” Later that day I was informed by some scientists that a) scientists always make the right moral choices; b) science always ends up studying things that were objectively the right things to study; and c) all scientists are only motivated by the unsullied quest for knowledge to benefit humanity, since they don’t get paid as much as they would in other jobs.

    • Curtis Forbes
      Curtis Forbes Reply

      That was, indeed, a strange post-conference conversation. To be fair, we were speaking with molecular biologists, who I have noticed have an especially narrow conception of good science as explicitly reductionistic. The worst part is that challenging the rhetoric of molecular and cell-biology, I think, undercut our credibility even further in their eyes. That’s a problem I don’t quite know how to get around … but I’m working on it. It helped that Gunilla Oberg, who was recommending a bit more HPS for science policy-makers, was not an HPSer herself, and is actually the director of a progressive ecology department at UBC.

      So, I think there are some scientists who are coming around to HPS – she even appealed to Hume! I swear I choked on my coffee when she started talking about the naturalistic fallacy.

      I’m especially curious about Praj’s comment that there are “several massive institutions that are dedicated to pushing a view of science that is at odds with what HPS tells us.” Which institutions are these, and how might we orient them towards a more realistic picture of science?

      • Praj Reply

        I’d be surprised if the molecular biologists are more reductionistic than the particle physicists. That’d be interesting to find out!

        When I say “massive institutions”, I mean all the science academies, the American/British/Canadian associations for the advancement of science, professional organizations (e.g., American Physical Society), etc.

        A couple clarifying comments. When I say that institutions and natural scientists are pushing a certain view of science, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the people working in science outreach, e.g., care very deeply about science and spend a LOT of effort on it. So given that HPS and STS is to a certain degree confrontational with science, traditional scientists are naturally going to be a bit defensive.

        I do think that your field can work with these institutions…but a better approach might be to coordinate your own outreach efforts and create a parallel institutional support system. If a research scientist is interested in public outreach, she can turn to her university’s center on science outreach, the professional organization’s outreach arm, several non-profits, etc. There isn’t (as far as I know) something similar with HPS/STS.

        Granted, these structures developed over decades. But something like that needs to be the goal for your field.

        • Mike Thicke
          Mike Thicke Reply

          That’s a really interesting idea Praj – an HPS outreach organization.

  • W. Dean Reply

    Reading Mike Thicke’s post I was reminded of a remark by Whitehead (also attributed to Keynes) about Bertrand Russell’s politics. He said Russell believed two incompatible things: that all human misery arose from irrational behavior and that the solution was for human beings to behave rationally. Not everyone sees the humor in that and I suspect that others don’t even see the problem. For me, at any rate, it doesn’t seem especially rational to prescribe rationality for irrationalism when it amount to prescribing health for the unhealthy.

    What holds for the prescription, I suggest, also goes for the diagnosis. To ask whether contemporary politics is more or less rational than it was in previous times is to play a mug’s game. Take your criterion. When you ask if there was a golden age in which “politicians looked to experts to provide sensible policy advice and political parties worked together to solve social problems,” you assume that there are experts who can solve social problems. You then take the persistence of these problems as evidence of the irrationalism of politicians who won’t cooperate and listen to the experts with the solutions. But how do you know social problem are soluble?

    Maybe the last century’s massive investment in the welfare state shows, not that politicians are irrational and that no one listens to experts, but that there are no solutions and thus no experts to heed. I could be wrong, of course; but the sheer quantity of wealth expended and the myriad of programs instituted suggest that social problems wax and wane for cultural and social reasons that are beyond the ability of experts’ to comprehend and politicians’ to control. Thus, what appears to be irrationalism at work is really just the limits of the possible pushing their way into your field of vision.

  • Boaz Miller
    Boaz Miller Reply

    Practising scientists, as opposed to scientists on committees, public policy people and other science cheerleaders, are usually very aware of the value-messiness of scientific practice. See, for example, Goodstein’s recent book On Fact and Fraud. By the way, Heather Douglas and Sheila Jasanoff have both been addressing the questions raised in this post.

    • Praj Reply

      Completely agree Boaz, with a caveat. I’ve found that you first have to be very careful what you mean by terms like “value-messiness.” I’ve often experienced push-back on this idea because on the surface it’s not well defined.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *