Is Science a social construct? – a response to Richard Dawkins

With characteristic certainty and self-assurance, Professor Richard Dawkins recently tweeted his irritation with those who describe science as a social construct.

“Science is not a social construct. Science’s truths were true before there were societies; will still be true after all philosophers are dead; were true before any philosophers were born; were true before there were any minds, even trilobite or dinosaur minds, to notice them,” he wrote.

In a world awash with crackpot conspiracy theories, and with world leaders who publicly promote skepticism towards aspects of science that stand in the way of their immediate wishes, many welcomed this statement from Dawkins, who is an influential promoter of the scientific world view.

But the statement is wide of the mark, and ultimately it contributes to disorientation and confusion, on a question of vital concern for the working class.

There is an element of truth in Dawkins’s statement: the recognition that material reality exists outside of human consciousness, that nature exists, that its motion is lawful, and that it is knowable.

Professor Richard Dawkins Photo: Matthias Asgeirsson  Creative Commons

If, instead of making his statement about science, Dawkins had said “the laws of nature are not a social construct – they existed before there were societies; will still exist after all philosophers are dead; operated before any philosophers were born; operated before there were any minds, even trilobite or dinosaur minds, to notice them,” he would have been much closer to the truth.

The existence of objective reality outside of and independent of human perception is fundamental to the scientific world view, and of the scientific method of inquiry. Dawkins is absolutely correct to defend it. 

Nature exists outside of human consciousness and is lawful; but nature is not science. Science is the attempt by human beings to understand the laws of nature and to act in accord with them. Science is a uniquely human activity. It therefore had no “truths that were true before there were societies.”

As the literary critic Roz Kaveney pointed out in response to Dawkins, the map is not identical with the territory. Science is part of human consciousness, that is, the reflection in our minds of how nature works; it is not the same thing as nature itself, and cannot be.

Nature is not a social construct, but the efforts to understand it are. Those attempts are rooted not just in the material human brain (which is, of course, a part of nature), but also in human society and culture at a particular stage of historical development. Truth is the degree to which those reflections in human minds correspond to the objective reality of nature.

Does it denigrate or diminish science to recognise that it is a social construct? That may well be the intention of those who make the statement. The expression “…is a social construct” is often used today as a more sophisticated and high-sounding version of “It’s only a theory.” The implication is that scientific explanations are no more valid than any other widely-accepted explanations of natural phenomena. Two opposite examples may clarify this question.

19th-century illustration of the ‘races of man’

Not so long ago, the prevailing view among scientists was that humanity could be divided into various distinct ‘races,’ which were named Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, Australoid etc. In recent years, as a consequence of the colonial revolts and anti-racist struggles of the post-World-War 2 period, the whole category of distinct ‘races’ has been demonstrated to be a fiction. “Race” is, and always was, a social construct, and in this case, one without any objective basis in nature. In nature, there is only a continuum of variation among human beings. The explanations provided by this scientific fiction were false ones.  They were simply after-the-fact justifications of the existing social order of vast inequalities among peoples and nations.

Both the scientific fiction of race, and the revelation that race is nothing more than a social construct, owed more to political struggle than to science. The fiction was born by the slave trade; it was overthrown by the colonial revolts and anti-racist political struggles. In neither case did scientific evidence for or against ‘race’ play much part.

Racism – the systematic social discrimination against peoples identified by their physical features – remains a fact, but a fact of human society, not a fact of nature. Recognising that race is a social construct does not diminish the importance of racism or the fight against it; on the contrary, it locates the source of the problem of racism more accurately, and advances the struggle to eliminate it. Scientific thinking is thereby also advanced.

Some similar efforts – similar at first glance – are now being made with respect to sex. If race is nothing but a social construct, then perhaps sex is, too? Is there a continuum of sexual variation rather than distinct male and female sexes?

But sex, unlike race, has a very clear basis in nature. The defining character of sex in nature – in all the myriad different forms of plant and animal life that reproduce sexually, including even those species in which individual organisms change sex in the course of their lives – is reproduction by combining matching pairs of chromosomes from the sex gametes at fertilisation. Without a binary pair, the strands of DNA can’t match up, and sexual reproduction can’t take place. Always and everywhere in nature, sex is binary. Sex, then, is not merely a social construct, but a fact of nature. The scientific category of binary sex, unlike race, has objective truth. Therefore the push to degrade it to the status of nothing more than a social construct does seriously degrade scientific thinking.

In short, there is an attack on science, which takes the form of a claim that it is nothing more than a social construct, with no basis in material reality (An equally anti-scientific counterpart of this is the claim that there is a biological basis for social phenomena such as ‘gender identity.’) But scientific thinking cannot be defended by asserting, as Dawkins does by implication at least, that it is identical with nature.

There is another aspect of the question which must be considered. Science is more than a body of knowledge, and more than a method of investigating the world – important as those things are.

Science is also an institution of bourgeois society (or more accurately, a set of institutions.) Science is a product of the universities in the first instance. Science as an institution arose together with the capitalist class, in the service of that class.

The universities were not the first communities of learning. Specialised institutions of learning have existed in many cultures and in many periods of history – even including pre-class societies. In medieval Europe, the principal institutions of higher learning were the monasteries, serving the feudal ruling class of landlords and its religious and ideological underpinnings. (The madrasahs in the Islamic world were similar.)

Orthodox monks planting potatoes, Russia 1910. Photo: Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii (public domain). Monasteries had gardens for edible and medicinal plants – and occasionally, for scientific studies

These institutions undertook secular as well as religious studies, especially in medical and agricultural sciences, for the benefit of the landlord class, although their primary function was to uphold the power of the religious order which they served, and the existing social order. (As late as the nineteenth century, Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk – albeit one trained in science at a university – made major contributions to the emerging science of genetics. Mendel conducted his experiments in the monastery’s experimental garden.)

As the power of the feudal landlords began to decline in the late middle ages, a mercantile bourgeois class emerged in the great cities of Italy, France, Holland, Germany, Spain, and England. The learning required by this merchant class could not be provided by the monasteries and cathedral schools. For example, the expansion of trade stimulated the growth of ocean navigation, which required deeper knowledge and more precise observations of astronomy. But such studies were incompatible with the view of an unchanging heaven and earth needed by a social order where the vast majority of people were bound to the soil for life, and lived their entire lives within a short radius of their place of birth. The monasteries did everything in their power to suppress this learning.

So the bourgeoisie founded their own institutions of learning, the modern universities. These were connected not so much to the feudal power of the church and its scriptures as to the medieval guilds, and the knowledge required by members of the guilds. The word used to denote their self-governing societies of scholars in a particular discipline – collegium – was the same one used to denote guilds in ancient Rome.

University of Bologna – the oldest modern university in the world. Photo: Gaspa

The universities were often founded by monarchs, who were at the time acting in league with the rising bourgeoisie in creating national markets and nation-states based on language.  Universities of the modern type – though with deep roots in the past – were founded in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford as early as the twelfth century. In a few exceptional cases, of which Paris was one, these institutions grew out of existing cathedral schools and monastic institutions; more commonly they directly competed with and displaced those earlier institutions. By the year 1500 there were seventy universities in Europe, by 1700 there were 170.

The universities flourished in connection with the development of the technology of navigation and astronomy, mining and metallurgy, mathematics, biology and mechanics that culminated in the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The thinkers engaged in these increasingly secularised institutions burst the fetters of scholasticism under which they had laboured at the beginning.  The sterile efforts to reconcile all learning with scriptures, and with the teachings of the ancient authorities like Aristotle, gave way to a new science founded on the primacy of empirical evidence above all else – the modern scientific method was born. Meanwhile, the monasteries slowly declined. The class which these institutions served was approaching extinction.

George Novack’s Empiricism and its evolution outlines the philosophy of empiricism which emerged with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the historic advances in scientific thinking that it enabled, and the limitations of empiricism today. Available from Pathfinder Press

The growth of science and the universities foreshadowed the conquest of political power by the capitalist class in the great bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. As capitalist trade gave rise to capitalist relations of production, science revolutionised the technology of production, and further consolidated the power of the bourgeoisie over its feudal opponents. Science reached its peak of influence at the peak of the power of the capitalist class in the nineteenth century.

Today there are over four thousand universities in the United States alone, and a further three thousand in China. But science is in decline, along with the universities and other scientific institutions, and with the class that these institutions serve.

One measure of the decline of the universities is the extent to which they have been reduced to degree-factories, selling entitlements to a privileged income that bears little relation to the actual skills learned, and where the price demanded for this entitlement is political support to the existing order. In this respect, they closely resemble the monasteries of the feudal past.

In the epoch of mercantile capitalism, the capitalist class nurtured science in order to broaden its economic activities; later, in the epoch of industrial capitalism, it continued to foster science because the constant revolutionising of the productive technology is a necessary feature of the capitalist mode of production. Their need for constant technological advancement continues ­– hence the continuing growth of universities in the centre of world manufacturing, China. But in the epoch of capitalist decay, scientific thinking and practice increasingly becomes an obstacle, both to capitalist profit-making, and to capitalist political rule.

As the rate of profit in industry continues to fall, capitalist investment shifts from industrial production towards unproductive speculations in real estate, currency trading, trading in stocks and bonds, and other forms of gambling that create no new value. This produces a corresponding shift in bourgeois thinking and culture – away from scientific investigation of the real material world, towards idle speculations and reactionary fantasies of all kinds, including conspiracy theories. Science is of less and less use to the capitalist class.

In his book Bad Pharma Ben Goldacre describes one example of this. Goldacre presents a picture of scientific corruption on a vast scale – corruption of evidence, of scientific methods, of academic institutions, of government regulators, of individual people and their morality – as the drug companies bring their colossal economic weight to bear on the process of testing and marketing drugs.

Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by Ben  Goldacre
Bad Pharma, by Ben Goldacre, warns of dangers of the subordination of science to big capital

The book lays bare the mechanisms of corruption which are the normal modus operandi of the pharmaceutical industry: The drug companies run the drug trials. They own the results – so unfavourable results simply go unpublished, while favourable results get published. The aims of the trials get altered after the fact, in order to paint the results in a more favourable light. And vast sums get spent on procuring ‘opinion leaders’ in the medical institutions to promote their products. If questions are raised about the safety or efficacy of a drug, the drug companies mobilise the patient associations to protest. They fund and ‘own’ the patient associations too. All this demonstrates, among other things, the routine violation of scientific method by scientific institutions. The rot goes deep.

Such practices contribute greatly to a widespread public distrust of science and suspicion towards scientific authorities. This is a growing element in bourgeois politics, clearly visible in the politics of the Covid pandemic, where it is manifested in widespread opposition to necessary public health measures, vaccine refusal in the midst of a pandemic, and at its extreme, conspiracy theories claiming the virus itself is a deliberate creation of the scientists.  The responsibility for the widespread suspicion towards vaccines rests entirely with these corporations and the institutions and governments that pander to them.

It is against such science-skepticism that Dawkins raises his voice in his tweet. The motive may be commendable, but the effort is bound to fail. For “science”, as well being as a body of knowledge, a method of inquiry, and a bourgeois institution, is one more thing in addition: a profession. When Dawkins defends science, it is the profession he is defending above all. From the viewpoint of the professional scientist, the scientists are the embodiment of scientific thinking and practice. For them, “trust the science” and “trust the scientists” mean the same thing.  Dawkins’s inability to distinguish between objective nature and the social construct of science reflects this outlook.

The scientific profession is a part of the middle class, subject to all the pressures and insecurities of that class. In times of deep social crisis such as we are entering, scientists are far from immune from the moods of panic, hysteria and craziness that seize some other members of their class. Under such pressures, even some scientists abandon scientific thinking. For example, in 2018, several thousand professional scientists in the United States, flying high the banner of their doctorates and other marks of their expertise, signed a petition whose aim was to diminish the objective reality of biological sex and claim a biological basis for gender identity.

Workers are not generally in any position to undertake scientific research – that task remains the domain of professional scientists today. Professional scientists will be needed for some time to come. Nonetheless it falls to the working class to defend scientific thinking and practice from the essentially political pressures which are bearing down on it.

The working class struggle for power will not re-vitalise the bourgeois universities; it will bury them, just as the bourgeoisie in its time buried the monasteries. The working class will build its own institutions of learning and scientific research. Whatever form they take, the institutions of learning built by the proletariat in power will be as closely connected to the organisations and needs of the working class as the universities at their inception were tied to the medieval guilds.

The working class will retain from bourgeois science and culture all those elements that are worth retaining – and the materialist conception of nature will certainly be one of these – while ruthlessly discarding the rest. Empiricism as the philosophical foundation of science will not so much be discarded as transcended – it no more constitutes the last word in scientific method than Newtonian mechanics constitutes the last word in physics.

And the best of the professional scientists will support this course, will be won to an alliance with the working class, and will enrich the movement with their contributions.

Post Script on ‘social constructs’

Shortly after I posted this article, a friend wrote to me, strongly disagreeing with the article, and saying that it contradicted the Marxist attitude towards science.

In particular, he disagreed with the statement that ‘science is a social construct.’ Discussing through this disagreement with him, it became apparent that he and I had quite different understandings of the term ‘social construct,’ and this was a major element in our disagreement. It is a term of relatively recent popularity, and therefore does not appear in the writings of the Marxist authorities. It is not a Marxist category, and contributes little to scientific clarification – but it is in common use nonetheless, and so can’t entirely be avoided.

My understanding of the term, the one I had in mind in writing this essay, is this: a belief or explanation that is generated by a society and widely shared, and which may or may not correspond to objective reality. I gave two examples in the essay – binary sex, which does withstand scientific verification, and race, which does not. My understanding more or less coincides with the definition given in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary: “an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society”.  A rough synonym for my understanding of ‘social construct’ would be the term ‘common sense.’

My friend’s understanding of ‘social construct’ differs from mine in that it excludes ideas which correspond to objective reality, that is, scientifically proven ideas. A rough synonym for this understanding of the term would be ‘myth’. Hence his sharp disagreement with my statement that “science is a social construct” – which sounds like saying “science is a myth.” We would both agree that it is correct to speak of ‘the myth of race’, and also that saying ‘science is a myth’ would be quite wrong.

Perhaps my friend’s understanding of the term is the prevailing one – in which case saying ‘science is a social construct’ would be a mistake, as he argues, as it would lend support to those who wish to disparage scientific thought. I am not closely acquainted with the universities today. A quick Google search tells me that there is a whole school of ‘social constructivism’ in the universities, which argues, among other things, that “language does not mirror reality; rather, it constitutes [creates] it,” and that “human subjectivity imposes itself on facts that we take to be objective, not solely the other way around.”

That being so, it appears that the anti-scientific rot in the bourgeois institutions of learning goes even deeper than I thought.

Footnote: Does science in capitalist society have a bourgeois bias?

In a Facebook discussion on my post, it was suggested that saying that science in capitalist society has a bourgeois bias is an attack on the integrity of science and scientific knowledge.

Recognising a bourgeois bias in science is not tantamount to an attack on the integrity of scientific knowledge and method, as some have suggested. Nor is it a comment on the misuse of science by a reactionary class. It simply a recognition that scientific thinking, like all human thinking, is conditioned and limited by its social environment.

A couple of examples: The ancient Polynesian migrants to New Zealand had a deep knowledge of navigation science, including a detailed knowledge of astronomy, animal behaviour, observations of atmospheric effects and swell patterns in the ocean. Is it correct to call this knowledge ‘scientific’? I believe so – it was based on direct observations of nature, and it was *subjected to the test of practice* by human beings: its correspondence with objective nature was such that it enabled the navigators to travel safely for thousands of kilometres over open ocean, and to make return journeys, and find in that vastness islands which disappear below the horizon at a distance of only a few kilometres. This knowledge was preserved in oral tradition, completely bound up with myth and religion. In other words, it was constrained by the stage of evolution of that society – or, if you like, science with a primitive-communist bias.

Science in medieval Europe, such as Ptolemaic astronomy, was likewise constrained by its deep attachment to Christian theology and the Christian world-view of heaven and earth – yet it was still science. It was based on observations of the stars and planets, and was tested – albeit in a limited way – by its ability to make predictions about their motions. It was science with a feudal bias.

Science emancipated itself from theology in a revolutionary way with the Copernican-Newtonian scientific revolution. But it did not thereby drop all social bias. Human thinking was still conditioned by its social environment. The very images employed by the scientific imagination are drawn from this environment. Harvey’s 17th-century description of the circulation of the blood drew on analogy with pumps and hydraulic systems used in mining – this would have been impossible to imagine in an earlier stage of society.

And the new thinking was also constrained by its environment. It was the age of mercantile capitalism. The mercantile capitalist looks behind the use-value of commodities to what is essential in them – exchange-value. As George Novack explains1, this conditions thinking throughout society. “The whole world comes to be conceived in similar terms of abstract quantities… homogeneous quantity rules like an absolute monarch at the expense of the manifold diverse qualities of things. Nature is deprived of its infinite abundance and diversity of real determinations, just as society’s concrete wealth is obscured by exchange relations.”

Recognising such biases and limitations of scientific thought in the bourgeois epoch does not in the least invalidate any scientific knowledge or investigation.

Scientific thought today is constrained and warped above all by the fact that bourgeois society is divided into a class of workers who don’t think and a class of thinkers who don’t work – cramping and stunting the thinking of the professional scientists as surely as it wrecks the bodies of the workers. The primary function of its education system is to reproduce this division, and to justify it. When the working class takes power, as Trotsky explains2, it “rejects what is clearly unnecessary, false and reactionary, and in the various fields of its reconstruction makes use of the methods and conclusions of present-day science, taking them necessarily with the percentage of reactionary class-alloy which is contained in them.”

As it makes use of this ‘alloyed’ science to reorganise society in such a way that the producers become one with the thinkers, scientific thinking will experience an emancipation that will eclipse even the greatest advances of the bourgeois epoch.

1. Novack, Empiricism and its evolution, p40-41 (linked in main body of text)

2. Trotsky, What is proletarian culture, and is it possible?

One response to “Is Science a social construct? – a response to Richard Dawkins

  1. Excellent, James. In my own postgraduate work, I was delving into science as a human and social process, and my interest was especially the turns taken in the 19th C. Indeed, the map is not the terrain. Neither is advancement of human knowledge the objective of the vast majority of daily work at universities and research institutes.
    Unfortunately, for many otherwise thoughtful political people, an idealized notion of science (Science!) is an obstacle to understanding the well-founded distrust of many ordinary working people to measures taken under its name. It’s fair to note that many pandemic measures, including those based on data, are ultimately political calculations. And the chorus of academics ready to enshrine gender notions while scrapping binary biology only hastens the process.

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