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Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society

A New Social Contract for Science

Jerry Ravetz
Bulletin of Science Technology Society 1988; 8; 20
DOI: 10.1177/027046768800800107

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© 1988 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Bull. Sci. Tech. Soc., Vol. 8, pp. 20-30, 1988. Printed in the USA.
0270-4676/88. Copyright (c) 1988 STS Press.


Jerry Ravetz

Introduction that period, a particular aspect of science became

accepted as representing its essence, that of
In this paper I am viewing science in the &dquo;discovery&dquo; rather than, say, &dquo;invention&dquo; or
perspective of several hundred years of learning. In our times, that has become modified
continuous internal growth and external support. to &dquo;research&dquo;; so that for those closely associated
During this period the &dquo;material&dquo; side of science with a University, and hence near the centre of the
had been doubling every fifteen years, with endeavour of science, research is what it is all
remarkable constancy; and science enjoyed about.
general prestige and the confidence of a variety of
publics. For some, science (in its discoveries and In retrospect all that seems a golden age.
methods) promised a Truth that was genuine and From the very opening of the twentieth century,
reliable, unlike opinions derived from arguments complications set in. Philosophers of science
about words or from obedience to authority. For know of the unsettlement caused by Einstein’s
others, science promised the means to the work. The image of science as the cumulation of
conquest of achievement of general welfare as Truths never recovered from those intellectual
well as private profit. For many, there was the revolutions. The Great War, its aftermath, then the
sheer delight and fascination in sharing the Second World War culminating in the Bomb,
discovery of the structure and workings of the brought evil into the life of science. Since then,
natural world. Whatever its function, science gave problems and complications have increased, so
satisfaction. Although there were always some that &dquo;science&dquo; is blamed for our afflictions, as
who opposed it, in part or in whole, they were a indiscriminately as it was formerly praised for our
steadily decreasing band. All the different aspects blessings.
and images of science, appealing to its different
publics, were in harmony. All that is quite familiar, yet there is a new,
and very troubling element that has recently
This picture, holding roughly for all the become noticeable. It is not merely that science
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a bit must now endure many critics. Worse, science
beyond, now seems a bit too good to be true. Yet now seems to have no effective champions, who
the historical record shows that science was nearly can speak from inner conviction, to bring a
universally accepted as the embodiment of doubting public back to their traditional
progress, itself the symbol of our secular confidence in science. As a result, science is
civilisation. Also, the steady growth of &dquo;pure increasingly vulnerable to any and all criticism
science&dquo; in size and effectiveness, is evidence of a and attack, whether from anti-establishment
sort of &dquo;social contract&dquo; mentioned in the title. intellectuals, or from an anti-intellectual
Science enjoyed ever-increasing support, Establishment*. This is just now worse and more
complete freedom in choosing its problems and
considerable autonomy in setting its criteria of *
Editor’s footnote: This may well be true in Britain. It
quality. In return, it was not constrained to is necessary to point out to U.S. readers that the situation
provide direct benefits for any particular client. It in the U.S. is quite the reverse. There a
was sufficient for science to promise indirect science-worshipping establishment has marketed the magic
benefits in ideology (its particular form of truth), of science to the public, while the intellectuals have been
in industry and in education. In the later part of cowed by their own technological illiteracy.


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obvious in Britain than elsewhere; but it is not at all am sure that every one of such
Now, I
unique to this country. criticisms be countered, as being inaccurate,
misguided, or unfair. But we seem now to lack a
This is the symptom which I shall use to coherent statement that they are all beside the
introduce my study of science in its social setting: point:science should not need to justify the details
the old social contract of science seems to be of its consequences or of its conduct to basically
weakened, indeed discredited; and there is as yet unsympathetic sectarian critics. Under the old
nothing to take its place. social contract, such a blanket defence as this was
plausible and effective; and indeed it even could
I will not here offer a clean and tidy be all the more effective for being implicit. Now
solution to this problem; for I do not know of any. it cannot be stated publicly. What has happened?
Rather, I will offer some examples and ideas, as an
invitation to a discussion; only that, and no more. The basic change from the old
of status
It may be that such a style, rather than theories and science, with the old social contract, be can

blueprints, might even be appropriate for an described as &dquo;industrialization&dquo;. This has several
eventual &dquo;New Social Contract for Science&dquo;. aspects. Most obvious is the union of science with
technology, and the great increase in the aggregate
size of the scientific enterprise. With these
2. Why Science Has No Champion. developments, science has become more like
industry, and has necessarily and inevitably lost
There is no need for me to run through the some of its independence and innocence. But the
doleful tale of attacks on scientific research, both process of industrialization also penetrates into
within and outside the Universities, that are the the life of science itself. Formerly scientists were
hallmark of the present UK government. Nor need independent craftsmen, whose equipment costs
I remind you of the silence of the other major were of an order of magnitude commensurate with
parties on this issue. In the next Government, their means, or at least with those of a patron.
there might well be more money for science and Their standing as members of a community then
education, but at a political price, in reorganisation depended on what they did with that equipment
or re-direction to someone else’s priorities. The seen by the quality of their accomplished work.
old British social contract, so well epitomized in Now, the assessment by &dquo;output&dquo; has been
the hallowed principle of the old Medical seriously modified, for research cannot begin until
Research Council to &dquo;Back Chaps&dquo;**, is no more. some funding agency has decided to invest in it.
Scientific research is now a capitalintensive
Elsewhere the hostility and contempt are enterprise, rather than a craftsmen’s community,
not soobvious, but the end of an era is in this important respect.
unmistakeable. In America, biology has for some
years been increasingly under the sway of the Once that science, or even an individual
commercial interests that are developing scientist, needs to justify a claim on someone
else’s resources, then that someone else’s values
In these English-speaking countries, the inevitably enter the endeavour.
struggle to maintain the integrity and health of the
scientific enterprise is especially sharp, at times With industrialization has thus come a-
nearly desperate. It is not made any easier by decisive shift in the balance between knowledge
those, generally from within the intellectual, and power in the goals of scientific effort.
educated sector of society, who attack science for Formerly, &dquo;science&dquo; was devoted to the pursuit of
its alleged lapses from morality or integrity. Not knowledge; it was thereby &dquo;pure&dquo; in several
merely are the &dquo;experts&dquo; employed by State senses. The application of that knowledge to
agencies and private corporations routinely held power was the task of others; science derived
up to derision and contempt. Worse, the conduct credit for making the means available, and
of research, even within universities, is escaped blame when something went wrong. That
condemned on ethical grounds, as lacking in due happy state of affairs is with us no longer. Science,
sensitivity to the interests of its sentient subjects, as a socially organised activity, is no longer
human or otherwise. insulated from the consequences of its

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applications. The supposed &dquo;neutrality&dquo; of Such

grand insoluble questions are
scientific knowledge, whose good or evil parallelled by quite mundane problems, that can
consequences are the responsibility of the user, be classed under industrial reliability and quality-
has lost plausibility. Now the &dquo;industrialized&dquo; control. Thus we may ask, how to prevent a
scientist usually gets some agency to invest in his repetition of Challenger, Chernobyl, Bhopal, the
research only by promising that its applications poisoning of the Rhine, and so on. In each case
will help their missions, commercial or military. there were identifiable failures in the management
Hence the disinterested scientific seeker after of the system; but can all possible failures be
truth, ignorant and hence innocent!
in -

prevented in advance by scientific management

relation to the morality of the applications of his skills?
work, is no longer credible.
We do know that &dquo;good&dquo; management
Hence, the traditional sorts of power tends produce a reliable, safe operation; but
achieved indirectly through science, in the achieving &dquo;good&dquo; management is a problem more
industrial and military fields, reflect their moral in the political and moral sphere than the scientific
ambivalence back onto scientists and science. or technological.
Worse, some new sorts of power, indeed those that
promise to realise some of the greatest This state of science-based ignorance is
humanitarian aspirations of science, show revealed to the general public not only in the great
themselves to be even more ambivalent. Here I disasters, but also in the daily debates over local
refer to &dquo;biomedical engineering&dquo;, achieving ever hazards. We have seen how, in this country,
deeper intervention in human reproduction, NIREX* effectively lost the argument over the
disease and life and death. This whole field is safety of its proposed installations, and needed to
characterised by the paradox that each innovation call in the police in order to conduct its tests. Their
increases the happiness of some client group, and experts, like those of BNFL**, and those
so can be justified in terms of medical ethics. Yet monitoring the Chernobyl fallout, were revealed
as a whole these developments raise many as only partially in command of real scientific
troubling problems. In the public discussion of knowledge.
these, we now witness an amazing inversion of
roles from those in a traditional debate. For, from To us in the universities, the unfortunate
the time of Galileo through that of Darwin and technical employees whose ignorance is so cruelly
beyond, &dquo;science&dquo; has been displacing &dquo;theology&dquo; exposed on TV, may not count as scientists; but to
and &dquo;philosophy&dquo; as genuine human knowledge. the viewing public, they are the scientists who
But now that scientific power has invaded the matter. The collapse of their pretensions then
areas of the private and the sacred, science alone reacts back on &dquo;science&dquo; in general.
cannot prescribe bounds to what is proper; and
moral philosophy and even theology win places at Returning now to science as we
the conference table on ethical issues in understand it, I must also mention those academic
biomedicine. scholars who analyse science, philosophically,
sociologically, or whatever. Their consensus
Thus the powers achieved by science filters out to schoolteachers and the public within
become compromised in the moral sphere. And a couple of decades; and their images then come to
still worse, they have produced a new sort of dominate public discourse. What do we find
ignorance, something we might even call science- there? It is just a generation, 25 years, since Kuhn
based ignorance, which threatens our very published his classic Structure of Scientific
survival as well as our faith in science. For Revolutions; and since then, for the defenders of
examples, I may remind us of some questions and science, it has been downhill nearly all the way.
problems concerning the environment. &dquo;Will Increasingly, scholars become more sceptical,
there be a ’greenhouse effect’?&dquo;; &dquo;can forest-death more relativist, and more disenchanted with the
from acid-rain be reversed?&dquo;; &dquo;what will happen
when the tropical rainforests are destroyed?&dquo;; and *
NIREX: The UK government agency responsible for the
in the engineering field, &dquo;how can we design a disposal of radioactive waste material.
repository for nuclear wastes that will be safe for **
100,000 years?&dquo; BNFL: British Nuclear Fuels Limited.

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received verities of science. These are people The other approach is that of tough
who, in general, do not support any particular realism. There was a famous advertisement in the
external criticism of science; they are content 1960’s, by one of the leading aerospace
merely to corrode its heart, from within. contractors for the Vietnam war. This displayed
the proud motto, &dquo;North American Rockwell,
In such a context, the writings of eminent where science gets down to business&dquo; - an
scientists about the pleasures of research, or the exquisitely designed ambiguity, so expressive of
promise of science for human welfare, can seem the current social contract of science.
like the ramblings of old men about their bygone
happy youth. Now, to study science as a scholar So we could say that the seduction of
is to criticise, indeed to attack and deny, its past industrialized science by its external clients, in
pretentions to merit. Should such developments business and the State is so historically inevitable;
continue, and there is no sign of their abating, it why not lie back and enjoy it? Already, the &dquo;pure&dquo;
will become increasingly difficult to find anyone research sector has been renamed &dquo;basic&dquo;, and
who can make an effective case for science, to an anyway occupies a shrinking portion of the total
increasingly disenchanted public. As science effort. How much funding of research is now
needs a champion ever more, he will be ever less devoted to sheer scientific curiosity? And
likely to appear. certainly, the rate of innovation in key sectors of
technology and medicine is evidence that
enthusiasm and creativity still flourish.
3. What Sort of New Image?
In this proposed social contract, science,
I am arguing that the malaise of science, its becomes the servant of society. Its work can be
inability to dismiss its enemies and detractors, planned, at least in outline; by negotiation there
reflects the obsolescence of the old social contract could be derived the proportions of total societal
of science. And with this comes the irrelevance of support to be spent on, say, civil technology,
the old dominant image of science, as the provider, defence, medicine, environment, &dquo;basic&dquo;, and
directly, of the True and, indirectly, of the Good. odds-and-ends. As such a situation stabilised, new
The improvement of the state of science, in its self- foci of power and prestige would emerge. The old
confidence, morale, and integrity, will require a &dquo;pure science&dquo; image, corresponding to the old
creative response to its new circumstances. What social contract, could be allowed to wither away.
options are available? Indeed, in the heavily bureaucratized societies,
with a scientific tradition deriving from the
The easiest course to follow is to try more Academie des Sciences of Paris rather than from
of the old mixture, perhaps modernized by some the Royal Society of London, such a social
market research into what the public particularly contract has been a strong, sometimes even
wants. Of course there will be an admission that dominant pattern. So what would be wrong with
science does not have all the answers; and that it here?
values necessarily enter into policy decisions on
technological and industrial questions. But the One thing wrong is that we do not have the
message will be, that &dquo;science&dquo;, meaning the political and administrative traditions in which
activity of the leaders of the research community, such a totally &dquo;incorporated&dquo;’’’science could
is still at the centre of things. Trust them to flourish. Also, we believe that universities should
continue managing, pressure the government to be places for &dquo;teaching in the atmosphere of
provide them again with the prestige and research&dquo;; on that other system, the two functions
perquisites they so sadly miss, and all will be well. are nearly completely separate.
To accomplish the enlightenment of the public to
appreciate so obvious a message, it only needs More to the point, this absorption of
more and better-trained schoolteachers, and more science would not resolve any of the problems I
and better-disposed journalists (and fewer of those have mentioned, that are leading to its rejection by
nasty TV investigators). With a complacency
befitting just such a cause, this case is advanced by *
I am indebted to Hilary Rose for this concept, which is
our surviving scientific elite. complementary to my &dquo;industrialisation&dquo;.

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the public. Suppose schoolchildren get a constant important respects science retains traces of the
diet of criticism of science where it is blamed

times of its origins, and has important features of

for all our ills -
for decades to come. Then a hierarchy and of absolutism, resembling those of
steadily decreasing number will experience that the type of Church and of State to which it has
excitement and fascination which is essential if always been considered antithetical.
they are to make the choices, and possess the
commitment, to enter creative careers as Let me first remind you why this thesis is
scientists. Just as in science teaching now, so in paradoxical. A democracy of culture was an
research soon: a vicious cycle of disillusion and integral part of the programmes of the prophets
discouragement is set up, which can be very hard who created our modem European science.
indeed to break. Indeed, nearly the only positive feature common
to Descartes, Galileo and Bacon was an
Hence, I shall argue that neither a cheap appreciation of the practical knowledge of
nostalgia, nor an easy acquiescense of present craftsmen, and a commitment to the unity of that
pressures and tendencies, will suffice. What will? practice with philosophical theory. They were
I confess that, in detail, I do not know; I cannot quite explicit on this in their writings. For their lay
provide you with a &dquo;blueprint for survival&dquo; for audience, already using the vernacular for their
science. But I can offer an analysis of the problem intellectual work, this may not have been
in terms of the social and institutional history of shocking. But for our institutional ancestry, the
science. On that basis, I can offer some ideas, by scholars and learned professionals of the
way of an invitation to a discussion of possible universities, it must have seemed to be a
solutions. degradation of learning, a dilution of culture, with
dangerous consequences for knowledge and
4. The Social Constitution of Science
Then as science began to fulfill its promise
So far I have argued that science, in its of material power over nature, another important
present industrialized, incorporated state, will not connection appeared. It was the applications of
be able to maintain its integrity and its cultural science that transformed material culture, and then
meaning, until it achieves a new understanding of social and political life, so that &dquo;democracy&dquo; in our
itself that coheres with its real situation. This is not sense, became possible. Norbert Wiener’s phrase,
merely a matter of passive reflection, for a &dquo;The Human Use of Human Beings&dquo; reminds us
scientific enterprise that is merely the servant of that, so long as the productive process, on farms or
industrial firms and State agencies will not in factories, is such as to make the life of ordinary
command the popular respect and enthusiasm that people &dquo;nasty, brutish and short&dquo;, there could be
science needs, if it is to remain healthy and vital. no real democracy in society. There may be some
Hence our attempts to achieve understanding of forms of democracy, and perhaps too some
the present state of science must be guided by our protections of personal liberty; but genuine
commitment to help the forward evolution of democracy, where ordinary people have a real
science, through the present into the future, share in the power of shaping their lives, is absent
beyond simple industrialization. or largely illusory. Hence, as one sees in any
developing country, there is a great respect for
It is in this sense that I speak of a new science as applied,for the eventual achievement of
’social contract’: some new appropriate democracy.
understanding of what science is and how it relates
to its context in society. Before this can be There is also a great tradition of
accomplished, we must be clear about the present popularization of science, frequently by leading
state of science in this respect. As a contribution scientists who wanted to share their exciting
of such a clarification, I want to suggest certain discoveries, or to enlist a broader public on their
ideas that may strike you as paradoxical as well as side in struggles against the enemies of science. In
unsettling. I shall argue the following thesis: this way, quite humble people could feel that they
although the connections between &dquo;science&dquo; and were participating in a great adventure, and were
&dquo;democracy&dquo; are manifold and deep, in some improved intellectually (and morally as well) by

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their vicarious experience. Then movements of final Honours examinations that include questions
reform or even of revolution would make their like &dquo;critically evaluate&dquo; a theory; but they are
social analyses in the name of &dquo;science&dquo;, and only a minority. In our science teaching, we have
derive assurance thereby. a formal curriculum that generally purveys hard
incontestable facts; and a hidden curriculum that
Democracy is also inherent in the moulds students’ thinking into the ruling
processes of research science. Research results assumptions on what sorts of problems, solutions
are (in principle) evaluated without any regard for and even ways of analyzing problems are &dquo;truly
the personal characteristics of social location of scientific&dquo;. This seems to be as absolutist as any
the author. Entry into science, and rewards for doctrines imposed by ecclesiastical or political
excellence, are based on merit, not on personal authorities in the past.
connections. Power in the scientific community is
diffused among members (through peer-review of Well, you may say, there are some
proposals and refereeing for journals); and problems in realising the critical spirit in science-
positions of professional leadership are awarded teaching. But this teaching, as well as research
for excellence and wisdom, rather than for practice, is uniform and open to all; how could one
political connections. All this is more strongly possibly conceive it as hierarchical? Of course,
characteristic of pre-industrialized science; and it the form content of natural science is abstracted
has provided inspiration for scientists as widely from all social considerations. But the practice of
different in their political outlook as Michael science as a social institution cannot be so
Polanyi and J. Desmond Bemal. abstracted. There are enough well-documented
accounts of the history of sexism and of racism in
In view of all this, it may well seem research communities, that I need not labour the
paradoxical, as well as unsettling, if I say that in point here. Such unfair practices are indeed
some important respects modem science bears regrettable, but is this &dquo;hierarchy&dquo;? No; these
strong traces of the times of its origins, when examples were introduced merely to establish the
hierarchy in society and absolutism in religion and point that even &dquo;pure&dquo; science does not necessarily
knowledge were still dominant. have a &dquo;pure&dquo; social practice.

Absolutism and hierarchy - these may Hierarchy comes in more subtly, in the
seem very inappropriate as descriptions of dominant assumptions of what is &dquo;real&dquo; science, in
science. But the points are not new with me. As what institutions and by what people it is done, and
to absolutism, we find in Kuhn’s classic work also how it relates to the &dquo;less real&dquo;. This point
Structure of Scientific Revolutions a vivid does not require political radicals for its
description of an absolutist regime in scientific expression; for many years we have heard
knowledge. The &dquo;paradigm&dquo; is the unquestioned, complaints that &dquo;applied science&dquo; and
indeed unquestionable, framework of current &dquo;engineering&dquo; enjoy significantly less prestige
research. To secure its permanence, students are than &dquo;pure science&dquo; in our country. The effects of
indoctrinated, history is distorted, and difficulties such differences in status operate in many ways;
in research practice are, as he says, &dquo;suppressed or the less favoured activities tend to accept their
evaded&dquo;. The world of open criticism and free inferiority and try to ape their betters. In America,
debate, so prized by Popper in his account of &dquo;physics-envy&dquo; is a well-known neurotic disorder
science, is emphatically conspicuous by its of the behavioural sciences.
absence in Kuhn’s picture of &dquo;normal science&dquo;.
Small wonder that Popper described it as a &dquo;danger The perspective here, particularly as seen
to science, and to our civilization&dquo;, though tending from the educationalist’s viewpoint, is of a
reluctantly to agree with it as a description of pyramid of prestige, with the Royal Society and its
science education. special style at the top, and &dquo;technology&dquo;
somewhere near but not at it. Teaching is oriented
Kuhn’s account of the research process towards getting the pupils as high up that pyramid
has been widely criticized; but no one, to my as their effort and talent will take them. The skills
knowledge, has argued that science education is of comprehending and controlling one’s own
Popperian, critical and democratic, rather than personal environment are generally (though with
Kuhnian, dogmatic and absolutist. There are some an increasing number of important exceptions)

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relegated to sub-academic courses in schools, and 5. Science as Experienced from Outside.

to independent self-help organisations for adults
tending to reach those whose need is in some ways As I have said before, the problems of
least severe). Some of us know of the uniformly maintaining and enhancing the health and vitality
negative response to requests for funding for of science cannot be resolved until science as
development of &dquo;adult science literacy&dquo;. This experienced by its many publics, is in harmony
does not entail the presence of a conspiracy to keep with science as proclaimed by its official leaders
most adults scientifically illiterate. For none is and propagandists. Science is still portrayed as
needed; by the hierarchical assumptions on &dquo;real&dquo; essentially &dquo;pure&dquo; knowledge when it is now
science and its social location, there is simply no predominantly &dquo;applied&dquo; power, and science is
interesting problem to which &dquo;adult scientific still portrayed as thoroughly democratic when it
literacy&dquo; provides a solution. Science, in the sense has such strong traces of absolutism and
of the institution enjoying official prestige and hierarchy. So long as such anomalies persist,
support, is the property of our power and social science will not again enjoy full public prestige,
elite,no less effectively so because the status is and the necessary protection that it brings. It will
unofficial. remain vulnerable to sectarian attacks and to
criticism and contempt, from every quarter in
I am far from being the first to recognise society that has grounds for hostility to some
this situation. Whenever, in modem times, there aspect of it.
has been conflict and instability in relations
between the different orders of society, science How can this change? Only by education;
has been brought into the arena. The rather but this is to be understood in the widest sense.
abstract intellectual democracy proclaimed by the Obviously those now outside science will need
founders of modem science was quite quickly help in developing the skills and the clear
given its limits in the world of real politics. The understanding necessary for selfconfidence, if
most famous instance of open conflict occurred science is to develop as an integral part of a
here in England in the 1650’s, when some of the democratic society. And we on the inside can also
radical &dquo;Puritans&dquo; demanded a democratic benefit from education, perhaps getting some help
education in practical, Paracelsian, Christian, in seeing ourselves as others see us.
natural philosophy for students at Oxford
University. In their reply, the future founders of Perhaps the beginning of such a re-
the Royal Society made it very plain that their job education will have to be conducted mainly
was in providing a finishing-school for the sons of outside the classrooms. At the start there must be
the elite; and the social location of the new science groups of people, acting on their own initiative,
was thus explicitly and firmly settled. There were independent of, or even in opposition to,
similar exchanges during the French Revolution; established authorities; forging their own
and the Lysenko episode in the Soviet Union can conceptions of science as knowledge and power.
be understood, partly at least, in the same light. Then these can eventually be synthesized, and
expressed in a form suitable for teaching. As a
All these earlier attempts at &dquo;Science for contribution towards the enhancement of our
the People&dquo; were bound to fail, because there were perspective on science, I would like to offer three
simply so very few people with sufficient literacy examples. These might be labelled &dquo;alternative&dquo;,
to comprehend, let alone apply, science. These &dquo;political&dquo; and &dquo;practical&dquo; science, respectively.
early failures were analogous to those of the
campaigns in the political and social spheres, like For the first, let me remind you about the
free elections, abolition of slavery, trades unions, state and significance of &dquo;alternative medicine&dquo;. If
generalized civil liberties and equal civil rights, you say, &dquo;but that’s not science&dquo;, you are revealing
which were quite Utopian when first proposed, but your pre-conceptions of what is really science.
are now commonplace. Perhaps now, with the For modem &dquo;mainstream&dquo; medicine claims, with
widespread diffusion of education and of political considerable justification, to be based on science.
activity, the extension of science outside elite And traditionally it has adopted just the absolutist,
culture could in its turn cease to be Utopian. I shall hierarchical style that I have identified for science
now discuss some examples that indicate that this in general. While not claiming infallibility for
may be starting to happen. itself in its cures, it has certainly demanded the

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exclusive power to decide what is real and the present difficulties of science, and of the way
legitimate in the healing arts, and what is not. In to their resolution.
all this, its professed basis is science: scientific
knowledge as the foundation, and scientific So I shall summarise an article in the
method as the warrant for its claims. journal Everyone’s Back Yard, published by the
Citizens’ Clearinghous for Hazardous Waste Inc.,
Hence when a steadily increasing number the current issue, Winter 1986.
of people defy the bans and proscriptions on
&dquo;alternative&dquo; medicine, they are implicitly It’s called &dquo;Lessons We’ve Learned&dquo;; and
rejecting the exclusive claims of mainstream there are four. The first is that &dquo;science and
medicine in some respect or other: either it is not technical information alone will not solve
truly scientific, or its idea of science is itself problems&dquo;, mainly because government agencies
defective. To some extent the latter must be the would rather not know about problems lest they be
case, especially when the patient invests his required to find the money to do something about
practical trust and tentative belief in a treatment them. Then that &dquo;There are only a few answers to
whose theoretical basis is utterly at variance with the many scientific questions raised by dump
science as we know it, such as acupuncture of sites&dquo;, because science out in the raw, confronting
homeopathy. disturbed and degraded natural systems, is a
totally different thing from science in the teaching
Alternative medicine is a useful example or research lab. Third that &dquo;often scientists don’t
for us in forming a perspective on the evolution of admit that they don’t know&dquo;, lest they lose
science, for it forces us to think again about what credibility; instead they argue for the
we mean by &dquo;science&dquo;, in relation to the lives of &dquo;acceptability&dquo; of supposedly &dquo;small&dquo; risks.
people and also to its own essential character. For Finally it was a particularly hard lesson for the
brevity I want to consider another example at the author to learn that &dquo;scientists are not objective&dquo;,
opposite extreme: mixed political-scientific but have their biases like anyone else. Perhaps in
campaigning by local groups on environmental the old-fashioned lab, where scientists enjoy
issues. In that case, the character of science is not control over their experiments and are insulated
challenged; but its public manifestation as official from the economic and political consequences of
expertise is held up to sharp, critical scrutiny. their work, &dquo;objectivity&dquo; is possible. But out in the
world of policy, where scientists suffer great
Such groups, sometimes called NIMBY uncertainties in their research results and
(’Not My Back Yard’) are found worldwide; as
in experience direct pressures from their employers,
yet they have no formal unifying organization or they require exceptional strength to withstand the
ideology. But such groups, allied to special- interests that are concerned with power rather than
interest pressure groups, have already caused either truth or welfare.
important changes in the thinking of industry and
government about &dquo;the environment&dquo; and its We should notice that this account, unlike
proper care. In this country the movement started some from the extreme &dquo;green&dquo; fringe, appreciates
with the anti-motorway action groups of the 1960s that scientists may mean well and do their best.
and 1970s; and it is now most visible with those But the new problems of science in the
opposing the storage of dangerous wastes in their environment, or policyrelated research, strip
neighbourhood. Up to now, the leadership has scientists and science of those protections which
come from America, where traditions of strong had previously enabled the endeavour to seem
local politics, of citizens’ initiatives, and of a &dquo;pure&dquo; in so many ways. Now the innocence is
helpful judicial system, have combined to enable lost, as that of a vanished childhood; the question
the growth of movements of considerable strength is whether, or rather how, science can attain a
and sophistication. mature understanding of itself in its complex and
contradictory social setting. It seems to me that to
Through their struggles they have come to approach the members of the Citizens’
their own awareness of what science is, in the Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, or even the
context of its employment in the control of clients of alternative medicine, with the standard
technology. The picture is not flattering, but it is proposals for more and better school teachers and
important for us to comprehend it, as a symptom of journalists would be somehow missing the point.

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Perhaps the most important lesson of the aspects of more &dquo;academic&dquo; subjects. So here I am
preceding examples was one nearly implicit arguing that science as taught in institutions, and
aspect of them both. This is, that &dquo;science&dquo; in each science as learned and experienced by people, are
case means something quite different from the not so entirely disparate as the contents of our
activity centred on original research, which we in University honours courses would lead us to
the universities generally take for granted as believe.
defining real science. Alternative medicine is,
nearly by definition, not science; some would Third, in all this endeavor
we witness
even call it anti-science. Similarly, debates creativity, and in
personal growth, spite of the
between hired or partisan experts on the hazards of absence of &dquo;discovery&dquo; as defined in
a rubbish dump, may seem best kept quite distinct establishment science. It is all too easy for
from what goes on in the university lab. Yet such scientific discovery itself to become routine, and
examples are of peoples’ direct, personal devoid of, or even inimical to, creativity; such is a
experience of science; other experiences might be very common situation in &dquo;industrialized&dquo;
on their job, when &dquo;science&dquo; can either make their scientific research contexts. In this &dquo;practical&dquo;
work better, or perhaps worse, or even non- science, just as in orthodox science studied as
existent ; or in their homes, where &dquo;science&dquo; hobby or avocation, lies a resource of creativity
appears as nutrition, gardening, Do-It-Yourself, and enjoyment which could provide that elan,
hobbies, first-aid, child-rearing, marriage- enthusiasm, and commitment without which
guidance and so on. Of course hardly any of this science of any sort cannot long survive.
is &dquo;science&dquo; as understood in the context of British
University Honours Degree courses. The Finally, all of this &dquo;practical science&dquo; has a
Americans are not so fastidious. So we in the very important function, only imperfectly realised
universities have in some ways been living in an in institutionalized education, that of enabling
Ivory Tower, not being reminded of the difference people to control their own personal environments
between our rather precious, esoteric conception and hence their own lives. In this sense it is
of science, and that of the broad public on whose profoundly democratic.
good-will our survival ultimately depends.
So, this large body of literature and
Perhaps in this discovery, of the varieties practical skills, generally ignored in polite
of scientific experience, we can find some clues to discussions of &dquo;science&dquo;, offers some important
the eventual re-casting of the social contract of lessons for us. It is not hierarchical, nor absolute,
science. The first is that such &dquo;practical science&dquo; and it is genuinely &dquo;enabling&dquo;, to use that term in
(as distinct from the &dquo;popular science&dquo; purveyed its new sense. Perhaps it is all the more interesting
from on high) is neither hierarchical nor absolute. in that it was not designed that way, but just
It is mainly a handbook literature, commercially happened.
successful where it is felt to be useful, and
embodying much disagreement between sources. These three sorts of science, the
This &dquo;science&dquo; generally lacks institutions for &dquo;alternative&dquo;, &dquo;political&dquo; and &dquo;practical&dquo;, are only
direction, quality-control and adjudication of samples of a wider class. In one obvious sense
debates. Yet it survives and flourishes, as the they are not ’science’. But why not? They all
background to the more self-conscious, involve investigations of Nature, for human
intellectually demanding activities like alternative understanding and control; and that is as good a
medicine or environmental campaigning. definition as any. Of course, they are not
disciplined Research, and so they do not yield the
Second, there is a continuity of content, if sort of knowledge as a social possession, that we
not of formal instruction, between such materials ordinarily consider to be Science. I would only say
and the school syllabuses of &dquo;practical science&dquo; this: perhaps our definitions are in need of
for the less-able pupils, that is those who are revision, so that we could overcome the barriers,
incapable of the real thing. Similarly, there is a social, cultural and intellectual, between our
rich literature on more theorectical topics, ranging mainstream science, with its tendencies to
from medical ethics to environmental protection, hierarchy and absolutism and these other sorts of
that could enrich and enliven instruction in those endeavour.

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6. Conclusion & Perspective. more flags for science.

Or we could engage on a
really look
new at science in society, the sort of
Through all this I have preferred to cite self-scrutiny that becomes possible when, and
examples rather than to articulate theories. This only when, complacency is shaken and the
has had a double use; it has (I hope) made the community’s leaders do not know who are their
matter more comprehensible and interesting; and friends, if any.
it has also enabled the argument to proceed in spite
of the rudimentary state of development of my In this unsettled and therefore potentially
theoretical ideas. As I have said, this is only an creative situation, we can look again at science,
invitation to explore a problem. and think again about its future. I hope that the
perspectives I have offered, on the industrialized
Hence here I can be quite modest in my state of science, the present remnants of hierarchy
claims for these other forms of experience of and absolutism in science, and the diversity of
science, including &dquo;alternative&dquo;, &dquo;activist&dquo; and perspectives and activities in science, can provide
&dquo;practical&dquo; science. I need not claim that these are materials for a discussion of the shape of a new
a panacea for our problems of education and of social contract for science.
science. I doubt that they are. But they can serve
as examples of resources, of activities, who Finally, let me briefly defend my style of
significance has hitherto been insufficiently argument, of offering examples rather than
appreciated. There will, I hope, be other, better advancing a theory and a plan. For some, this may
ones, advanced. well be disappointing, as if I am shirking my duty
to argue in a systematic, scientific way about this
The main function of my examples is to important problem. As I have already indicated,
remind us of the possible usefulness of diversity in this approach seems to me to be coherent with my
any new social contract for science. Rather than a conception of any new social contract for science,
pyramid of prestige, defining what is real and and of its means of achievement. For this I have an
valid, and what is not, we could enjoy a diversity example from recent personal experience, in the
of activities and experiences with their way that in the Peoples’ Republic of China the
appropriate institutions and images of science, and Government and Party organise their discussions
their appropriate publics. Some would be very and activities towards the creation of a new
similar to those we have now, serving &dquo;basic&dquo; or society. For them it is an accepted and public fact,
&dquo;industrial&dquo; research; others (as we have seen) that they are as yet ignorant of the character of their
could relate to education, leisure, health, or desired state, and of the means for achieving it.
politics. In society at large, both religion and They expect to make mistakes, and to need to re-
politics survived the transition from hierarchy and
absolutism to diversified, more democratic forms.
trace their steps
along the path. Such honesty, and
the philosophical perspective underlying it, can
Perhaps, some centuries later, science will soon provide us with the occasion for useful reflection
manage it too. Such could be the basic idea of a on the knowledge achieved by science, now and in
&dquo;new social contract for science&dquo;. its possible new social contracts.

Let me now recaptulate briefly. Over the For this attitude is not a perennial,
previous centuries, science enjoyed a &dquo;social unchanging Oriental wisdom. Only a few decades
contract&dquo; whereby it obtained societal support and ago the leaders of China were sure that they had a
protection. Until recently, its patrons were largely science of society which provided all the correct
within the elite section of society, though the answers to their problems; and then they lurched
image of science always and necessarily had a from crises to catastrophes. Their version of
broader appeal. In these modem times, with its Marxism was, like so many others of its time, both
industrialization, science has been transformed absolute and hierarchical, just like the image of
both as a social activity and in its social contract. natural science on which it was modelled. Now,
This new state is not stable, nor is it one in which through all their very real, passionate debates on
science can easily flourish. The next change in the extremely difficult problems, they know that free
social contract may involve only some shuffling discussion and diversified experimentation are
among the various State and corporate patrons and their only security against another disaster.
paymasters, accompanied by some putting out of

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In the same spirit, I could remind us that

the absolute, hierarchical character of science
under its old social contract, has given us a very
one-sided sort of progress; and that the myopic,
hubristic attitudes it has fostered among scientists
and experts has brought us to the very brink of
ecological disaster. If we are to think about a new
conception of science appropriate to the future,
then I would rather start with an awareness of our
ignorance, mine as much as anyone else’s.
Otherwise, the sins of scientific pride may be our
final undoing, both as members of a scientific
community in a social context, and as members of
a total civilisation, which will live or die, with its

This article is based on a public lecture at the University

of Leeds, England on 9 March 1987.

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