Thursday, 13 August 2009

What is 'science'?

Just one question that we have to discuss

In November 2oo7 I posted a message on the the Amazon Science Community, a discussion forum, following on from a long and heated 'debate' on what is science.

The question of what is science remains of course far from settled. Here on Conductive World it has come up again and again in the context of the specific question of what is Conductive Education research. I would have liked to have referred to what I had written in 2007, but could not find it on the Internet.

This afternoon I came across the text of that posting, buried in a 'retired' memory stick, which quickly led me to the actual online posting. I republish this here and now, so as to be able the more easily to refer to it when the undead CE research issue next rears up like Dracula from its tomb!

Is our discussion of ‘science’ shaped by a peculiarity of the English language?
I am encouraged by the recent contributions to the thread ‘When is science – science?’ to ask a further, broader question: Is such discussion of ‘science’ shaped by a peculiarity of the English language? Examining the linguistic boundary of the concept of science in the English language may shed light on some of the arguments of that earlier discussion and in return I should welcome people’s critical comments on what I say here.

Simply put, the German word Wissenshaft, the Russian наука, the Hungarian tudomány, are all conventionally and lazily translated into English by the word ‘science’. Any acquaintance with scholarship in languages at that end of Europe, indeed any conversation about what is science with an educated German, Russian or Hungarian, makes it instantly apparent that these words are not at all equivalent to the English word ‘science’. Related words, such as are conventionally translated into English as ‘research’, scientist’, even ‘experiment’, also turn out to have wider and sometimes (to us English-speakers) confusing meanings. Relative unfamiliarity with the Romance countries means that I cannot be sure whether the same applies to all the languages of Continental Europe. Attempts to explore the meaning of the French word science, leave me wallowing in the depths of Gallic philosophising that might similarly mystify most readers of, say, Science, New Scientist or Scientific American.

I have no knowledge of usages in cultures further afield.

In their understanding of what constitutes ‘science’, the Anglo-Saxons, the people of the Anglosphere, find themselves in a minority of one. And while I find that Continental scholars, with their usual ready access to English, are well aware of this distinction, often amusedly so, the usually monoglot English-speakers are not, and indeed upon hearing of it often react with denial, protestation and even aggression! Hardly ‘scientific’ responses to an unfamiliar phenomenon, in any meaning of the word.

The term ‘political science’ appears grudgingly accepted in this country, meaning the formal, scholarly study and investigation of its chosen topic. It is hard to see, however, that in my own field there could ever be an Academy of Pedagogic Sciences in an English-speaking country, such as for example the one in Moscow.

The ‘two cultures’ concept, natural science vs humanities, has contributed to an artificial divide in our intellectual life. It has distorted our education system and encouraged Yahoos in Government, and those whose interests it serves to encourage them, to adopt naive and reductionist views of what constitutes ‘scientific research’ in the quest for evidence-based practice. Education, the mental and social sciences have patently suffered from this, but so have health research and provision where well-being and ‘feeling better’ are confronted by the impassable barrier of ‘scientific research’ as she is currently spoke.

‘We can’t measure that' may indeed be a true statement of the reality. This does not mean that 'that' is not something of enormous human concern and, measurable or not, will have to be decided on by someone, on the basis some sort of knowledge. Not ‘scientific knowledge’ of course but preferably knowledge benefiting from some sort of rigour in its creation.

‘Science’ as opposed to other sorts of knowledge, collected, tested and scrutinised by other means, is not therefore simply an abstract or theoretical issue. Solution of real practical problems, both for individuals and for society as a whole, will be impaired when ‘research’ has to be ‘scientific’ rather than scholarly if it is to win credence. This can lead to situations in which impeccable experimental procedures and design mask lines of enquiry to which no educated person would grant credence while more relevant scholarly activity struggles on the margins.

Of course, Johnny Foreigner may have it all wrong and may just have to be left wallowing in his own backward and benighted ideas, till he learns that what we do is better. Meanwhile we can happily ignore whatever it is that he does and thinks. How many times have you read something like ‘We reviewed the complete literature available in the English language…’ That might be good enough for ‘science’ – it passes no muster as scholarship. Unfortunately, of course, Johnny Foreigner is no slouch at science: he can often read and do our ‘science’ and the wider, more scholarly kind too. Remember that the scientific lead of the Germans and other Central Europeans in the first half of the last century, till Hitler’s destruction and redistribution of so many leading scholars.

So, on the one hand the scientific traditions developed in the English-speaking world over the last two or three centuries have served the world remarkably well in advancing human knowledge and welfare. But on the other, ‘science’ on the natural-science model can readily become fetishised, and there are other orders of reality meriting their own paradigms for research and evaluation, without having continually to look over their shoulders for ‘scientific’ approval.

Without suggesting that Wissenshaft, наука, tudomány, whatever, have necessarily got it all right either, we might at least acknowledge that we use the word ‘science’ in a peculiar rather than absolute way, which contributes to some rather peculiar thinking and discussion.
Andrew Sutton

Some discussion!

'Denial, protestation and even aggression', these I had suggested are the frequent response of (usually monoglot) English-speakers to the very mention of such a matter.

Judge this for yourself from the still-published comments:
  • '...self-centered nonsense...'
  • '...pretty much garbage...'
  • '...xenophobic paranoia...'
  • '...seething with hate for the humanities and social sciences...'
  • '...nonsensical rant...'
  • '...pretty ignorant of things like history...'
Ouch. I don't think that I could have expressed myself very well!

There was just one still, small voice of calm amidst the raging, speaking of:

'...this reductionist perspective that prevents serious progress in several areas that could potentially yield new insights about nature...'

Nobody, however, was interested in that, thank you very much!
Discussion forums.
There used to be a lively Conductive Education Discussion Forum. It showed features in common with what is demonstrated above:
  • postings that simply had to be removed
  • people who could not let what they read interfere with what they want to say anyway
  • ad personam attacks
  • ill-disciplined failure to stick to the point, so that discussion thread could wandered off into irrelevant topics
  • an undercurrent of suppressed anger that put off, brushed aside or even intimidated more gentle souls.

All this prompted some to refuse even to look at it, which was a shame because most of what was posted was of interest or even value, and anyway, one shouldn't leave the field to the Yahoos.

Since the CE Discussion Forum closed, no other such Internet sites have really taken off, which is a shame. There has been growing use of the comments pages on CE blogs over the last few months to discuss issues arising out of postings. This, however, is not really the same, as it does not permit people to launch their own topics for debate

Various CE centres and associations have forums tucked away in corners of their websites but, as far as I know, these are little used, or never used at all (do please correct me if I am wrong, so that this can be shared more widely).

There is the Conductive Education Community Forum, which is active, but very quiet, and there are also of course the social-networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter (if you can keep it short!).

One reason that I had posted on the Science Discussion Forum in the first place was to see whether specific experience of the old CE Discussion Forum might be less to do with Conductive Education than more generally typical of what happens in such contexts in the world at large. The result of this brief natural experiment suggested that the latter may well be the case. In spades.

You call still hear a persisting negative attitude towards public online discussion within Conductive Education, blamed on something or other that is supposedly unique to this little goldfish bowl. My brief experience of Amazon's Science Community suggested that it may be nothing of the sort but something more general to the human condition (at least in the English-speaking world). So ignore them, carry on discussing the things that you want to, and seek out and utilise places where this can be done. You never know, it may even get 'lively' again.

Note and reference

Sutton, A. (2007) Is our discussion of ‘science’ shaped by a peculiarity of the English language? Amazon Science Community, 22 November

Conductive Community Forum

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