An Introduction to the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge

I mentioned in a recent blog post that the work I do takes place in the theoretical framework of the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, also known as the Edinburgh School.

“Great,” you might have been left thinking, “but what the shit does that mean?”

Excellent question. Like 99.99% of the planet, I had little to no idea about the Strong Programme before I came to Edinburgh this year. My sum total knowledge of it came from one 4-lecture series about the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, delivered by Simon Schaffer (who is by all accounts a fantastic lecturer), who told us that many people in the department (History and Philosophy of Science, at Cambridge) didn’t think he should be teaching us this. It was an excellent series, but the material was so new and so different to any of the core material we’d studied in Philosophy of Science that taking it on as an object of serious study at a time when exams were looming would have been grade suicide. I think the sole reference to it after that came in a supervision I had about expertise, where my supervisor told me about Martin Kusch’s Knowledge by Agreement, which promotes ‘communitarian epistemology’, the idea that knowledge exists only in groups. At the time I thought it sounded like nonsense. It’s certainly a deeply unintuitive concept for anyone to accept, let alone someone who’d spent the last two years immersed in the standard philosophical literature on knowledge – ‘justified true belief’, ‘the Gettier paper’, etc.

But since coming to Edinburgh and throwing myself at some of the literature (not to mention being taught by people who’ve studied and like this stuff), I’ve fallen in love. It’s a rare thing to plough through highly conceptual literature and not end up feeling mystified. It’s rarer still to have it make total sense in your mind, to have it change the way you view the world, the people in it, and relations between us. For me, the Strong Programme has done that. It’s pretty uncommon to find people working within this framework: it’s often dismissed because it’s a relativist theory, or because it’s social constructivism. What’s strange, though, is that there’s rarely any actual weight behind these criticisms. They’re used as heuristics to dismiss it out of hand without ever engaging with the actual substance of what the theory claims. Alternatively, people overlook the SP in favour of Actor-Network Theory, either because ANT seems more readily applicable to other fields, because it already has more work already done using it, or because Bruno Latour is a fabulous self-publicist (he thinks he’s Foucault. He’s not Foucault.).

I want more people to love the Strong Programme as much as I love it. I think it’s an absolute travesty that more people aren’t aware of its existence. Not only could people working in STS benefit from it, but I think it has much broader applicability in other disciplines. The social theory which underpins SP, the Performative Theory of Social Institutions, is extremely flexible and makes a great deal of sense. The underlying ontology, finitism, is not just a useful tool for understanding how knowledge is created in disseminated – it is also, to my mind, correct. I recognise that saying so may undermine my credibility not only with people who despise relativism but also with those who support it wholeheartedly, but frankly it’s a hit I’m prepared to take. I really like the Strong Programme.

So let’s get stuck in.

The Strong Programme grew through the ’80s and ’90s as a reaction to ‘weak’ sociologies of knowledge. Previous attempts at understanding knowledge through a social lens restricted themselves to understanding failed knowledge claims: they were a sociology of error, rather than of knowledge. This meant that phrenology, homeopathy and spontaneous generation theory would all be suitable candidates for sociological analysis; but relativity, evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang theory would not be. Belief in the latter could only be understood as a ‘rational’ response to the evidence of our senses.

There are a number of reasons this claim is total bullshit. Here are two. First, there’s no reason to believe that our current theories are correct. Every single theory we’ve subscribed to, ever, has over time been shown to be incomplete or flawed in some way, and there is precisely no reason to believe that our current theories are going to be the ones to buck this trend. As such, current successful theories are just failed theories waiting to happen, and should be susceptible to sociological analysis on these grounds. Second, it’s just untrue that we believe in, say, evolution because it’s the rational thing to do. I believe in evolution because a large number of people more intelligent than I have spent their entire lives studying evolutionary biology (so that I don’t have to), and have managed to entrench this belief in all of the institutions of our society, so that I was just taught that evolution is the best theory we have to understand how life came to exist in the form we see it today. It would be preposterously arrogant of me to say that the only reason I believe in evolution is because of the evidence of my own senses: I have literally never witnessed evolution take place, and if I had witnessed something which seems to validate the theory of evolution by natural selection, there are a thousand and one other theories which could explain that phenomenon equally well. There is nothing rational which makes me, or you, or anyone, believe in a particular way of understanding the world.

What’s really bizarre is that the same people who are rabidly pro-science (or at least, pro the idea of science as a transhistorical arbiter of objective truth) are also really, really bad at understanding epistemology. Faced with claims from the Bible or another holy text that god exists, they will posit the existence of a Flying Spaghetti Monster, and say that there is just as much evidence for its existence, and so it is just as rational to believe in it. I don’t care to weigh in on that particular shitshow of a debate. What I do want to say is that if you formualte that kind of argument, you should also naturally be a big fan of the Strong Programme, and epistemic relativism more generally. Why? Because you recognise that any set of evidence can be used to push you towards a potentially limitless number of conclusions. If you look at the world around us and decide that there is a god, the form that god will take is underdetermined by the evidence at hand. There could be any number of potential gods or deity-like entities which could explain the way the world is, and belief in any particular one is likely to be best explained by social factors – where you were born, what religion your parents were, what kind of school you went to – rather than by reference to the natural world itself.

You should probably admit that you believe in most scientific theories because someone told you to, rather than because you observed the evidence for them first-hand. That means that there’s a place for sociological analysis in understanding how we, as people, come to believe in some theories and not others based on the say-so of particular individuals.

But it goes deeper than that. Your response to all the above might be, “so what? I know that the scientists who work in gravitational wave physics have good reasons to believe in gravitational waves, based on the evidence before them, and that’s why I believe them over some over schmuck”. Fair enough. But there are a couple of things you might want to consider. First, how do you know they have good reasons to believe in gravitational waves? Sure, you’ve read a really interesting Guardian article about them which explains them super well, but people get tricked into believing convincing-sounding explanations all the time, like when I was 7 and Daniel from down the street told me that he would look after my Pokémon cards for me and then he never gave them back and told me that I’d never given them to him. Fucking Daniel. He can get in the sea.

The gravitational wave scientists tell us they observed the same phenomenon which is supposed to suggest the existence of the waves at two different stations, though. Surely that’s enough for them to believe in the waves based on pure rationality, right? Well, not really. First, we have to explain why each team would believe the other team. Then we have to explain why particular runs of an experiment get to count as ‘good’ runs – what about all the times when they didn’t detect gravitational waves? Then we need to account for why this time is the big one, when various members of the gravitational wave community have been claiming to have detected the waves for the last forty years. What made all the scientists in the community agree with each other that they had, indeed, detected a gravitational wave?

The point I’m making is that it’s not as simple as ‘scientists observe material world, get evidence, evidence leads rationally to theory’, and then ‘scientists tell us correct theory, we believe them’. It’s far, far more complicated than that, and we do ourselves a disservice by refusing to acknowledge that.

There’s an awful lot more to say about the Strong Programme, but this post has just edged past the point where people are likely to stop paying attention, so I’ll leave it here for now and resume in another screed.

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