Is Scientific Knowledge Anything Special?

Distinguished philosopher of science Helen Longino says, “It is tempting to think that scientific knowledge is like ordinary knowledge except better”.1 Scientists are not the only ones who purport to make knowledge claims about the world. Courtrooms, police detectives, historians, investigative reporters, and many more make such claims too. Is scientific knowledge any different from other forms of knowledge? Is it in some sense better?  If so, by virtue of what? Is it, perhaps, worse? Science is increasingly complex, demanding the cooperation of more people with varying expertise, and becoming more susceptible to the influence of commercial interests. Does this make it less reliable than other forms of knowledge? Have your say.

  1. Helen Longino (2002). The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press: p. 124.

by

Boaz Miller
Boaz Miller is a postdoctoral fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Tel Aviv University. He has a PhD and MA from the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) at the University of Toronto. His areas of specialization are philosophy of science and social epistemology. He works in the intersection of philosophy of science, analytic epistemology and science and technology studies. He studies scientific expertise, the relations between knowledge and consensus, and the relations between social values and evidence. He has a BSc in computer science and "Amirim" Interdisciplinary Honors Program from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

15 Comments

  • Marci Reply

    Good question! A common theme in all of these knowledge claims is that they aim to increase visibility/transparency of a subject. In this regard, I actually think science is less transparent than say, investigative reporting (since scientific results often require “translation”). But science also has standards of evaluation whereas investigative reporting can’t easily quantify their standards other than having a code of conduct and/or ethics.

    • Boaz Miller
      Boaz Miller Reply

      For the scientists, though, their knowledge is transparent.

  • Mike Thicke
    Mike Thicke Reply

    Good questions Boaz. Following Longino, I think one of the most important features of science is its attitude towards critical discourse – that claims should be open to public debate and given careful scrutiny. This makes science very close to how the legal system and journalism ought to operate. The place where science most diverges from these fields – the expert status of scientists – is perhaps its least-becoming aspect, as it seems expertise is often used as a way of shutting people out of the debate.

  • Boaz Miller
    Boaz Miller Reply

    I actually think that all knowledge must be based on solid evidence and critical discourse. Good science is and bad science isn’t, just as good journalism is and bad journalism isn’t. My interest in this question was actually motivated by other concerns. I think that the classic analysis of knowledge as justified true belief (or something like that) does not necessarily apply to scientific knowledge. Are scientific theories true? Well, anti-realists will disagree, and realists will qualify this claim and say that some parts of our best theories are approximately true. Is scientific knowledge a species of belief – do scientists believe their theories? Should they? It goes back to the first question. In any case, this does not seem the salient part of scientific knowledge. Does this mean that scientific knowledge is different from ordinary knowledge or that the classic analysis of knowledge is inadequate?

    • moti Reply

      Hi Boaz,
      Very interesting post and discussion.
      As for your last question, whether scientific knowledge is different from ordinary knowledge or the JTB account is inadequate, I wonder if there’s a way to salvage the JTB account and still talk about scientific knowledge in terms of JTB.
      It seems that your concerns have to do with the belief and truth conditions in particular. So, as for belief, one could argue that scientists don’t have to explicitly or consciously believe theories. Rather, they only have to believe dispositionally. Indeed, this seems to be the case with respect to ordinary knowledge as well. That is, we seem to have true and justified beliefs that are not accessible to us at all times. But when asked, we can access them. Similarly, when asked, scientists might say that they believe their theories to be true. What scientists say about the theory of evolution seems to be a good example here.
      As for truth, one could argue that propositions about approximations are fully true. That is, ‘approximately p’ can be fully true.

      • Boaz Miller
        Boaz Miller Reply

        I have two worries about your suggestion. First, it seems that only realists can buy into it. Anti-realists would deny that many of their views are even “approximately true”. Second, I am not sure how “to believe dispositionally” solves the problem. The contrast I was thinking of is between belief and acceptance. We can accept a theory we do not necessarily believe and it is still knowledge. Some scientists sometimes talk this way about their theories being “only a model” that can still predict stuff. In a sense, this goes back to the realism question.

        • moti Reply

          As for your first worry (“Anti-realists would deny that many of their views are even ‘approximately true’.”), I take it you mean that anti-realists would deny that scientific beliefs about theories are even approximately true. If we’re talking about propositional knowledge, however, then the objects of knowledge are propositions, not whole theories. So, it seems to me that a proposition, such as ‘Homo spaiens and chimpanzees have a common ancestor’ can be approximately true (even fully true). Would anti-realists deny that?

          As for your second worry (“We can accept a theory we do not necessarily believe and it is still knowledge.”), I take it you mean “acceptance” in VF’s CE sense. If so, then how can this kind of acceptance count as knowledge? As I understand it, the point of distinguishing between “acceptance” and “belief” is to be able to suspend belief (suspend judgment or remain agnostic) about the truth or falsity of scientific theories (in particular theories that posit “unobservables”). Perhaps you have in mind a conception of knowledge that doesn’t involve belief and truth. I suppose I can see the motivation to dispense with belief (e.g., if you have in mind something like Giere’s “embodied knowledge”). But I don’t see the motivation to dispense with truth.

          • Boaz Miller
            Boaz Miller Reply

            I work under the assumption that our best scientific theories are knowledge (“scientific knowledge”), and I think that one should be licenced to adopt an instrumentalist stance, for example about some unobservable entities that populate our best scientific theories and about propositions about such entities, without disqualifying them as genuine knowledge. For VF, to accept a theory is to believe it is empirically adequate, so you could argue that for him what counts as knowledge is actually our second-order beliefs about our theories. But there is a more general notion of acceptance, which is to take something for granted for the purpose of one’s reasoning, which often what scientists do, and is not the same as believing it is true. In other words, I am posing a dilemma. Either much of what is called “scientific knowledge” is not actually knowledge (as it is not necessarily in the form of true belief) or we need to amend our analysis of knowledge to something like “justified belief or acceptance” (which is what L.J. Cohen suggests). I prefer the second option – Muhammad should come to the mountain.

        • Mike Thicke
          Mike Thicke Reply

          In my view, there are two kinds of things going on here. Scientists have beliefs—beliefs about theories, entities, and so on. Many of those beliefs are justified, and many of them are probably true. So scientists have knowledge in the straightforward JTB sense. I think “acceptance” is best thought of as something like a social contract. It’s an acknowledgement that something has met certain criteria agreed upon by the community. Scientists can accept things they don’t believe, and believe things they don’t accept. Belief requires nothing of the believer, but acceptance implies some sort of duty to act in accordance with what has been accepted. (Obviously I’m relying heavily on Margaret Gilbert here.)

          Now whether we call these accepted things “knowledge”, or “scientific knowledge”… that’s going to depend on our story about science right? What we want to convey about how science works….

          • Boaz Miller
            Boaz Miller Reply

            Many of these accepted things are commonly called “knowledge”, whether or not philosophical analysis of knowledge regards them as such. I return to my point about Muhammad and the mountain.

            • Curtis Forbes
              Curtis Forbes Reply

              Any chance you feel like clarifying this Muhammad allegory? I’m not at all familiar with it …

  • moti Reply

    Thank Boaz; that clarifies things a bit.

    So you propose to start with the assumption that (some?) scientific theories count as knowledge, and then come up with an analysis of knowledge that accommodates scientific knowledge.

    A couple of questions:

    (a) Given the track record of analyses of knowledge in epistemology, is it reasonable to expect that such an analysis is forthcoming? Is it even a useful/fruitful project anymore?

    (b) Your previous comment suggests that you are inclined to think of scientific knowledge in terms of justified belief. But that doesn’t seem to address the problem you pointed to in your original comment, namely, that scientists don’t (or should not) believe their theories. So maybe it’s the belief condition the needs to go.

    • Boaz Miller
      Boaz Miller Reply

      (a) well – in my dissertation, I have one (or something as good) 🙂
      (b) i think the direction to go is “justified belief or acceptance” and we should be more pluralistic about what content counts as knowledge, i.e. not only propositional content, but also abstract models, visual representations, tacit knowledge, etc.

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