Knowledge & Science

Science has come a long way since the early alchemists held out the lure of gold back in the fourth century. Science has not always been popular or embraced by society nor has it been continuously looked upon as bad throughout history. Society has had recurring periods of negative and positive attitudes towards science. We have evolved from a non-science society (Mode Zero) to science being relatively isolated (Mode One) towards a contemporary society that is speaking back to science (Mode Two). The scientist today is more than merely a scientist; she also needs the skills of an entrepreneur working in an uncertain and socially complex environment.

The Scientist: devil, hero, idealist or the one to blame for crisis?

The attitudes of society towards science and scientists are stemming from a complex of influences namely, social, religious, philosophical and moral. Additionally, influences are coming from the personalities, or perceived personalities of real life scientists as represented in the media. The impact of media on science can be observed when looking at Western literature who has contributed to both positive and negative images of science. Throughout history, the scientist has had various representations in literature. Six negative recurrent stereotypes in literature are the alchemist, the stupid virtuoso, the romantic depiction of the unfeeling scientist, the heroic adventurer, the helpless scientist and the scientist as idealist. Fictitious characters such as Dr. Faust (The alchemist selling his soul to the Devil), Frankenstein (The scientist losing control), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Critique towards scientific materialism), and Dr. Strangelove (Criticizing biologists and psychologists for manipulating people) have all contributed to a negative image of the scientist. A recurring theme is the reference to Dr. Frankenstein as the scientist being out of control. There have also been positive portrayals of scientists by literature such as The New Atlantis in 1626 (Bacon), Principia in 1697 (Newton), On the Origin of Species in 1859 (Darwin) and Jules Verne’s Around the World in eighty Days in 1873 (Haynes, 1994). Even when observing today’s entertaining media and its portrayal of stereotypes of scientists we can see both positive and negative depictions such as TV series like CSI and movies like The Manchurian candidate, a version of Dr. Strangelove.

From Mode Zero to Mode One

It was as long ago as the fifth century B.C. that abstract concepts in consistency with the fundamental belief of alchemy, existed in China in conjunction with the Taoist credence that transformation and change are crucial aspects of nature. It was Aristotle’s thesis that shaped the theoretical foundation for Western alchemy. The Aristotelian theory of transmutation became connected with the Babylonian belief in astrology, the Chaldean traditions of magic and with Egyptian practices of metalworkers who together with the secret recipes of the priests of Isis were skillfully producing gold with silver, copper, tin and zinc. Practical alchemy was therefore closely associated with the production of gold and this ensured both its popularity and its prolonged survival. Another dream of the alchemists was the artificial production of a homunculus; a minute human being. This was of course seen as a threat to the divine basis of life as illustrated by the Church. The same commotion by the Church can be observed later when Charles Darwin (1809-1882) introduced his theory of evolution and even today in regards to in vitro fertilization or genetic engineering.

It was Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who took the first step into changing the unfavoured image of scientific study and breaking the link with the Faust legend (alchemy). It was thanks to Bacon, utilitarian and future oriented in his thinking, who popularized the place of science and scientists in society. He introduced and promoted aphorism(knowledge is power) to the public. Bacon stressed the importance of experimentation and observation versus Aristotle who bended his hypotheses to name an example. Bacon endorsed demystifying scientific knowledge and making it more acceptable, a growing corpus of knowledge through team efforts and building an international community in order to collect and share knowledge with all races and foremost on the importance of theory by insisting on the need for empirical basis for knowledge (Haynes, 1994).

Science had now evolved into a discipline with the main focus on the context of discovery whereby its goal is more for research to justify the discovery and whereby problems are set and solved in a context governed by the, primarily academic, interests of a specific community; this is also called Mode One by scientists such as Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons.

Bacon was the founder of The Royal Society of London in 1662. He is also known for his claim that nature is to be explored and manipulated for experiments and as a consequence society held Bacon mainly responsible for the environmental crisis in the twentieth century.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) supported Bacon’s belief in conducting research with a focus on empirical observation and he promoted that it is not sinful to seek knowledge. Newton claimed three features of research structure to be essential namely, simplicity, uniformity and aesthetics. He is considered as one of the greatest scientists ever and inspired literature to depict positive stereotypes of scientists namely adventure heroes, saving the earth from evil space invaders or setting up a utopian society grounded on the principles of science. This period of hero worship was terminated when the bomb fell in Hiroshima (1945). Scientists in Western literature were hereafter depicted as ruthlessly sacrificing individuals and even whole nations, only to fulfill their scientific curiosity (Haynes, 1994).

Epistemic Authority

Modern science developed its own domain, in which it could act in a rather autonomous space, independent from direct social, political and religious control. This created a certain aura of mystique around science. Scientists were dedicated to the experimental method as a means to explore the natural world. Nevertheless, focus was mainly on improving the state of knowledge and to move away from purely religious epistemic authority. Consequently, the Church has had a continuously problematic relation with science, since science has challenged fundamental beliefs of the church.

In the battle for epistemic authority, science has always prevailed. One of the well known battles is the one between the Catholic Church and Galileo Galilei regarding the heliocentric and the geocentric world view. From the perspective of society Galilei, and thereby science, won the battle because of empirical evidence communicated to society. Over the years, since the days of Galilei, the body of evidence in favor of the heliocentric world view has grown immensely. Nonetheless, it took the Catholic Church almost four hundred years before it acknowledged that Galilei, and thereby science, was right. On the 31st of October 1992 the Catholic Church officially withdrew its condemnation of Galileo Galilei and his theories. This incident, among many others, has been shaping society’s perceptions of science in a positive way.

The scientist in the twentieth century had different faces; from conducting research for his own sake (early 20th century), disobedience through the establishments (late 1940’s), social conscience (1970’s) to the belief that technology could solve every day problems such as for example environmental issues (1980’s-1990’s).

From Mode One to Mode Two

Science today, long after Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin have made their contributions to science and the image of science, research is now to a greater extent linked to uncertainty where there is a need to include people in the research process. Some three hundred years after the development of modern science focus has shifted towards applicability and in what ways science can solve everyday problems in society; also by some scientists called Mode Two. Contemporary society expects science to contribute to socio economic development. We have now moved towards science with a main focus on application in a context of implications. Science has become more embedded in society. This means that the scientist of today has to think to a greater extent about the effects of research results (cultural responsibility) which is often very difficult since it is not always possible to predict and guarantee research outcomes. This is a major contrast when comparing to research in Mode One where research was dealt with a scientific independence. With media acting as a filter there is certain need for a strategy to handle this consequence of Mode Two. Concerns such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are today one of a highly debated topic within science and among society.

The scientist today has to deliver social robust knowledge whereby relations are important, research contributes to a process that stabilizes and whereby social knowledge is included. Social robust knowledge means that research is close to acceptability and open ended which means that it is subjected to testing, feedback and improvement. Science has moved from uniformity and homogeneity to variation and heterogeneity which may cause anxiety among researchers (Nowotny et al., 2001).

An increase of supply of researchers as well as an increasing demand of research have led us from segregation i.e. High Energy Physics (impersonal), to integration i.e. Molecular Biology (empirical content as well as individual oriented). In the latter, the borderline between Chemistry and Medicine has diffused.

Society in Mode Two

Due to the information revolution, we are finding ourselves in a knowledge society which is important between countries and companies. Some researchers claim that knowledge comes with risk and so does a knowledge society. They relate to the fact that with increasing uncertainty, expectations and anticipations from the general public combined with flexibility in space (i.e. globalization) there is a much more self organizing capacity of society which leads to difficulties to draw boundaries between science and society.

Society is increasing in its complexity with reduced predictability and irregularity. When looking at today’s turmoil in the financial market we can observe this type of reduced predictability which is leading to irregularity.

The New Agora

There is a phenomenon called the New Agora by some researchers which refers to the scientific arena of today. The word Agora originates from the ancient Greek cities where people came together to discuss and share knowledge. These researchers argue that in the scientific arena of today it is wrong to look upon the intrusion of society as inhibiting, or even destroying scientific novelty. Science in the New Agora is essential since society is a key source of creativity and thereby of innovation. However, there is a need for new rules in this new environment of knowledge producing (Nowotny et al., 2001). These rules might be necessary in order to keep the right balance of borders between Science and Society.

Science and society are linked together in the same way as research is linked to uncertainty. The two cannot live without the other. Being close to the public means that scientists also have the opportunity to promote science as a “brand”, continuously building it, protecting it and keeping it valuable. This should be the mission and dedication of all scientists.

Claudia Rademaker


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