The following is the first in a series of interviews with people who have written about relativism - whether for or against. While many of our interview subjects will be philosophers, we are also interested in what non-philosophers have to say about these topics.
David Bloor is a sociologist, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh where he was one of the founders of the Science Studies Unit. While David has written about a variety of topics, he is best known for advocating the 'strong programme' in the sociology of scientific knowledge. The strong programme has frequently been associated with a form of relativism and a sceptical attitude towards science and its authority. As David tells us in the interview, while he is happy to be placed in the 'relativist camp', he is no critic of science as such. On the contrary. He sees the strong programme as part of an attempt to understand science - both its successes and its failures - scientifically.
David was interviewed by Robin McKenna, Anne-Kathrin Koch, and Natalie Ashton. You can listen to the audio embedded here, and/or read a transcript of the interview below.
RM: David, you are perhaps best known as a proponent of the strong programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Can you tell us what the strong programme is, and what it tried to do?
DB: Let me start with what it was trying to do. My aim was to capture and codify what historians of science were doing already, and doing very successfully. I wasn't trying to tell people what they should do, I was trying to say what they already did.
Now, why was I trying to do that? It was because good historical practice was, as I saw it, actually under attack. Certain philosophers wanted to impose their own recommended method onto the practice of historians, and I thought that they were wanting to impose a bad method on the historians. I'm referring here to Popperians such as Imre Lakatos and others such as Larry Laudan.
What they said is that, first of all, philosophers should decide what counts as truly rational action. So philosophers defined rationality, and then those parts of scientific practice that could be described in a way that shows them exemplifying this idea of rationality, well those parts of science were explained simply by virtue of their alleged rationality. And that left causal explanation with two rather limited tasks to perform. According to the Lakatoses and the Laudans, socio-psychological causes might explain the general circumstances under which rationality would arise, or causes could explain why scientists deviated from rationality. In other words, they limited the role of causality very considerably and they partialled out the history of science into the rational and the non-rational (or the a-rational), and this seemed to me to run directly opposite to good historical practice.
Good historians, as I understood it, were offering, not a dualistic analysis of scientific knowledge, but a more monistic account. In other words, they were exercising causal curiosity and empirical curiosity just in a wholly general way. And this seemed to me to be correct and desirable so that, to me, the taken for granted empiricism and causal sensibility of historians of science, seemed to me itself to be a manifestation of the scientific attitude. So I saw the actual practice, or the best practice of historians of science, as exemplifying science-understanding-itself-scientifically, and I understood the recommendations - the historiographical recommendations and proposed legislation - by the Laudans and the Lakatoses, as itself in fact embodying an unscientific approach, because they were extracting rationality from the real world causal nexus. And that's what I was trying to embody in the strong programme, the sensibility, the codification of what I thought historians of science had already achieved, and that I believed was basically under attack. So that's as far as I can answer the first question, that’s a sketch of an answer to the first question.
RM: Thanks. That was quite high-level; could you perhaps tells us how this particular approach would work with a detailed case study? So what would differentiate a sociological or historical approach to a case study from, say, a philosophical approach to that case study?
DB: Well, take the example of a scientific controversy. It might be Priestley and Lavoisier over oxygen versus phlogiston, or it might be the theory of the electromagnetic ether versus an Einsteinian relativistic approach which discarded the appeal to the ether. You have a fundamental dispute, they can't both be right, and here the asymmetrical methodology of the Lakatoses and the Laudans and their rationalistic approach would tell the historian to make a prior assessment as to who was being rational. And then treat that as in some way unproblematic - simply the unfolding of rationality itself. And hence causal explanation would be, for example, confined to why Priestley did not respond rationality, allegedly, to the evidence, or why the defenders of the ether did not respond, allegedly, in a rational way - why they resisted Einsteinian rationality.
And this really does not make good sense, it doesn't make good historiographical sense, and the instinct of historians was very different: you looked at where this thinking came from, what interests it served, what were the causes of its credibility, or lack of credibility, of some given approach, to some given group. And just instinctively the historians dealt with both sides of the controversy in the same way. They didn’t at all engage themselves with some abstract notion of what was really rational. They assumed, I suppose, roughly speaking, that people on both sides of such scientific controversies were intelligent people, who were not thinking in any particularly corrupted way. They were both thinking, but with different assumptions, presuppositions, purposes, background resources, and so on.
So historians adopted a symmetrical attitude, whereas their philosophical critics trying to tell them how to do their history of science were recommending that they truncate their causal curiosity, and simply let somebody else define rationality, and then they would conveniently run round the edges of this account filling out a few of the details. And this struck me as a travesty, and my intention was really to codify the instincts of the historians here and expose the, well, let's be blunt about it: expose the extraordinary methodological arrogance that lay behind the rationalistic proposals.
AK: Ok, thank you David. Now this strong programme has often been associated with relativism. Could you please say a little about this association?
DB: Yes, but first I need to make clear what I understand by the word ‘relativism’ Philosophers typically use the word ‘relativist’ to describe all manner of irresponsible and rather stupid attitudes. If you look at what is alleged to be relativism, critics will tell you, in effect, that it is a form of irrationalism: that it indicates an indifference to questions of truth, falsity, rationality, accuracy; that the relativist adopts a ‘Who cares? Whatever’ attitude towards important disputes. That, I think, is nonsense. I don’t think that notion of relativism deserves to be taken seriously at all. So the definition of relativism that I use seems to me to be simple and intuitive, and it is that relativism is the rejection of any form of absolutism.
Now, this then raises the question: what is the link between that definition of relativism and the strong programme? And the short answer to that is that once one rejects any form of absolutism, then the only viable perspective on knowledge is to see it as a natural phenomenon. That's to say, to see it as something that is inseparable from the causal processes that take place in nature, and in space and time. It means that, inevitably, one must think of the process of gaining knowledge and constructing knowledge as itself causal and embedded in nature. In other words, relativism points to a form of naturalism, and naturalism is the basic perspective which is articulated by the strong programme.
NA: So you're understanding relativism as the counter to absolutism, so could you just say a couple of words about what you mean by absolutism there?
DB: What is meant by absolutism? Well it's got to be a certain sort of epistemological superlative, hasn't it. If one makes it anything other than something with a very strong, elevated, and superlative character to it, one is simply backsliding away from the connotations of the term, and the sort of contrasts that are implied by it. So, if we ask ourselves what the connotations of the word are, then we immediately have to produce qualities like: it’s something with a certain perfection to it; it is something with a certain eternal character to it; it is something which is not qualified or approximate, or sometimes true/sometimes false, effective here and not effective there. All of those qualifications, I think, have to be removed in order to do justice to something having, or deserving, the label of ‘absolute’.
Now, scientific knowledge itself, if you look at it historically, and just empirically, and ask yourself ‘How does it work? How do scientists behave?’, then, endlessly, there is provisionality, there is qualification, there is approximation. All of those things are just embedded in science, science is saturated with them. Therefore, science stands in fundamental opposition to any knowledge, or any knowledge producing process, that might deserve the word absolute. So I really see the choice between the absolute and the relative as the choice between something that is fundamentally non-scientific and something that is scientific, so it boils down once again to a dichotomy.
AK: So, unlike most people, you do in fact positively embrace the label ‘relativism’, is that right?
DB: Yes, I do positively embrace it. And you're wondering why I positively embrace it, I think? Well, this is a question that I have been asked before, and I ask it myself sometimes, because of course, as I indicated, most people, and that includes philosophers and non-philosophers, simply take the word to have wholly negative connotations, to refer to something really rather silly and objectionable, so why not just say the word has come to mean that, it’s come to have these connotations, why not just be smart and adopt another label?
Now there are two reasons why I don't want to do that. The first is that if I did try to present myself, or present the work that I think is relativist, by using another label, I don’t really think it would really alter the situation. I mean supposing that I started using a word like ‘naturalistic’ - I'm not putting forward a relativist view, I’m putting forward a ‘naturalist’ view of knowledge, or I’m putting forward not a relativist view but a ‘causalist’ view of knowledge - if I engaged in some verbal maneuver of that kind... immediately, if anybody bothered at all to respond to such a maneuver, they would start discovering that really naturalism is relativism or causalism is relativism, and they would slide back to the silly, trivialising definition of relativism, and claim that they’d detected it or could reveal its presence behind the charade that was now being perpetrated. So one would be trying to engage in a game that one couldn’t win, for a start.
The second reason is that I have a streak of stubbornness about this one. I’m not going to let other people dictate to me what words I use, or what words mean in my own mouth, so I refuse to let my language be corrupted by others, as I see it. I think there are very strong and clear intuitions behind the ‘absolute vs. relative, the choice is absolute or relative’ [talk]. I think there are strong intuitions there. I think a lot of philosophers lapse into that sort of talk when they're not on their guard for some reason, especially if they’re talking about moral relativism. You can find dictionaries of philosophical terminology that define moral relativism as the rejection of moral absolutism. As far as I can tell, most philosophers don’t jump up and down with anger on encountering that definition. For many purposes they actually use it. It’s just that they don’t have good control over their own terminology, because as soon as they start talking about epistemology they start denouncing relativism as the equal validity thesis or something like that. So the second thing is a streak of stubbornness; I think this is the correct way to use the language, and I’m jolly well going to stick with it.
RM: A more general question: you’ve set yourself up as someone who wants to, as it were, defend a scientific approach to science, against the anti-scientific, philosophical approach. So I think it’s fair to say that philosophers have not been on board with this more scientific approach towards science, but could you say something about whether scientists have been more receptive to this attempt to understand what they’re doing in a scientific manner?
DB: It's difficult to generalise. In my own experience I've encountered radically different responses. There is of course the whole phenomenon of the Science Wars, as they're called, in which a number of scientists, particularly physicists, have denounced relativism and have denounced work in the strong programme as relativist in the negative, in my terms 'silly', sense of the word. Some scientists do seem to think that any careful empirical account must be read as a criticism. Why they think this, I don't know. I can see no adequate grounds for it, I don't believe any adequate grounds for this complaint have ever been produced, but there is a very strong tendency for critical empirical analysis of the activity to be read as criticism of that activity. In fact, this is possibly the most frequent, or at least the most vocal response - perhaps that’s a better word.
Though on some other occasions I have been extremely surprised and gratified when I have talked to some scientists who’ve read some of this material, and don't react in that way. Who do take it on the matter-of-fact, largely un-evaluative, level on which it’s offered. For example, I had the privilege when I was in Berlin to talk to an expert on hydrodynamics and hydraulics, who was engaged throughout his professional life in ship design, and he was a mathematically sophisticated engineer, and I was very worried, when he, very kindly, offered to read some drafts of my recent book on aerodynamics, as to whether he would very strongly react against the matter of fact relativist analysis that I gave, And I was grateful and gratified to find that he took it as all rather taken for granted and nothing to argue about. We discussed some technical issues as to how it’s best to deal with the relation between some different areas of aerodynamic theory, and I benefited from those discussions, but he did not have any wholesale methodological opposition to offer.
I also recently realised that there was a review of my book on aerodynamics in the American Journal of Physics, which is a journal that doesn't publish cutting edge research - its primary concern is with physics education and textbooks, particularly advanced textbooks, and often the contributions to this journal concern the clarity and accuracy of the presentation of the material of physics and so on. And so, as soon as I realised my book had been reviewed in the American Journal of Physics, I thought ‘uh-oh, what’s going to happen here? Will the person who is writing the review - an emeritus professor of fluid dynamics - will he find mistakes? For example, will he find mis-formulations of the technical content? Will he view the whole exercise as an attack on science?’. I’m glad to be able to report that I survivedthis review intact, and it was a generous and effective presentation of the case that I was trying to make. The reviewer did choose to confine the review to the technical chapters of the book, rather than some of the philosophical reflections at the end, but he didn't say this was because he thought they were wrong. He thought that those fell outside his own sphere of competence, so he was reluctant to talk about it. But to me that was an example of somebody who can read this sort of work and not automatically assume that it was a criticism of the scientific enterprise.
NA: Ok, so I'd like to ask you about public perceptions of relativism and its relationship to science. So relativism and other ‘ism’s like post-modernism are increasingly seen as in conflict with science and the common good, it seems. The recent March for Science, which aimed to celebrate non-partisan science and emphasise evidence-based policy as something in the public interest, saw some protesters carrying slogans such as “science has no agenda”, and it seems like the idea some of these people have is that political and other values would undermine science and make it less accurate and less beneficial. So I’m wondering what you think of this idea?
DB: Yes, this raises a lot of deep, and sometimes very complicated, issues. The first thing I want to say is that I certainly don't think relativism is a threat to science. I think that absolutism is a threat to science. Indeed, I think that relativism, as I understand it, and as I think it can and should be understood, embodies the general approach of science itself to knowledge. Of course, it’s easy to see what's happening here. If you define relativism as some sort of anti-scientific irrationalism, as many people do, then of course, by definition, relativism in that sense is a threat to science. But I think that one can state the whole matter much more clearly and effectively by focusing on exactly what it is one thinks is a threat to science - namely irrationalism - and denouncing irrationalism. And leaving the world relativism out of the discussion.
On this question of whether political values undermine science, or the objectivity of science, perhaps. I think the answer is: no, as such they don't, or they don't necessarily do so. It does of course depend on precisely which political values are in question. There will be those that do and, I’m fairly confident, those that don’t.
In general terms I would want to say that history makes it absolutely clear that the practice of science is saturated with political agendas. Think of the Manhattan Project building the atomic bomb; think of the development of radar as part of the defensive system in British strategic planning and the conduct of the second world war; think, going back a bit further, of electrical telegraphy and the work of Lord Kelvin, who had many commercial commitments; Kelvin’s work on underwater telephone cables. Historically and sociologically science has been inseparable from politics,war and economics. And I think it would be hopelessly unrealistic to draw the rigorous conclusion ‘oh, well, all of that science must be distorted science then’. Kelvin, Einstein, distorted science? No it really won’t work to talk like that. This is not bad science or polluted science, it’s just science. And if we admire science, and I admire science, or a lot of it, then we’ve got to learn to live with the fact that it is a complicated phenomenon - exactly as you'd expect it to be from a historical point of view - rooted in the complexity and contradictions and difficulties of social life and history. It’s a morally complicated thing. It’s a package deal.
AK: You just said that absolutism is a threat to science, or can be a threat to science. Many people might find that rather surprising. Can you maybe help us understand that by giving us an example of something of the practice of science that embodies absolutism?
DB: Yes it’s important to stress, or for me to stress, that I’m saying that absolutism can be a threat to science. I wouldn’t want to commit myself to saying that absolutism is necessarily, always a threat to science, for the very good reason that there are determined absolutists who’ve been excellent scientists.
This is particularly the case if you go back into history. The classical example would obviously be Isaac Newton, who was an absolutist in the general sense that he was a religious person, believed in God, and attributed absolute powers and properties to God in a very orthodox, Christian way. And he developed absolutistic conceptions of space and time. This was one of those most successful technical achievements in science that there has ever been, and he was quite serious about using words like absolute here, and he also connected the technical meaning of the word to his theological thinking. And he said, for example, quite explicitly in his work that absolute space and time were the ‘sensorium of God’. So if Newton can be an absolutist and do the science that he did, clearly absolutism is not in any absolute sense antagonistic to scientific achievement.
When I say now that it’s the absolutists not the relativists who we should be worried about in the present day situation I am talking about absolutist religious thinkers who seek to undermine a naturalistic and biological conception of human beings and of human diseases; who use moral and theological categories for commenting on and seeking to understand, for example certain diseases, particularly sexually transmitted diseases - these things are seen as punishment from God. And the alleged sacredness of life is used as a way of inhibiting research in certain areas in the United States. These people are the enemies of science, these people are the absolutists. That’s why, at least in the present circumstances, and as far as I can see for the foreseeable future, it is absolutism that you should be worried about if you are pro -scientific.
RM: Okay, just to finish, maybe you could recommend for our audience some readings on the topics we’ve discussed that could give them more of a background, some more information, on these topics.
DB: Yes. Two books spring to mind, and shamelessly one of them is my own. But there's a book published not very long ago whose title, if I remember it correctly, is What is a Genome? [Genomes and What to Make of Them] by Barry Barnes and John Dupré - Barnes, of course, was a colleague for many years in Edinburgh - and this is a look at some contemporary science. Science which has been discussed in the public realm rather a lot, and sometimes in an informed way and sometimes not in an informed way, and, for anyone who is interested in biological themes such as what exactly is a genome, this is a very readable and technically well-informed book, as I’m confident that it is.
And if one wants to follow up some of the particular themes that I’ve talked about here then let me shamelessly mention a book i published in 2011 called The Enigma of the Aerofoil - the aerofoil being, essentially, the wing of an aeroplane - and it’s about disputes over how a wing works, and why aeroplanes fly, treated historically, looking at conflicts. But one general feature of the book that might interest people who are not necessarily interested in the details of aerodynamics, is that, in the final chapter of the book, I broaden the discussion and ask where a science like aerodynamics fits into a relativist picture. Can you really be a relativist about aerodynamics?
And one of the vehicles for the discussion that I use is a claim made by Dawkins. Dawkins said - just in case the listener doesn’t know, Dawkins is famous for attacking religion, and he does so in the name of science, he also attacks relativism, allegedly in the name of science - and Dawkins has said, using the aeroplane as an example, he says: ‘show me a relativist at 30 000ft, and I shall show you a hypocrite. In other words he treats the relativist as someone who doesn’t pay attention to reality, doesn’t pay attention to technology, doesn't understand how technology or science works, yet can’t, of course, intelligently sustain such a view. And as soon as they’re confronted by the achievements of technology, such as being in an aircraft at 30 000 ft, then their silly ideas will be left behind and they will become more realistic. I directly address this challenge, and I show that if you're going to understand the science of aerodynamics, you must understand it as an achievement of relative knowledge. Now I could elaborate on that and go into details, but... that’s what you might find in that book, and that might be of some general interest.
NA: That’s great, thank you very much! Thank you for speaking to us.