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So is there a way to define science and separate it from other things? Philosophers for a very long time have been quite dubious about this possibility and I think that’s right—right to be dubious. There are all sorts of things that go under the name of science. There are the natural sciences, there are the social sciences, there are also various applied sciences.
It’s not really very easy to find anything that all of those things have in common with one another that isn’t relatively banal and also common to many of our everyday activities. So we start off thinking about, of course, things like physics and chemistry and biology and earth science and so forth, but then there are also the social sciences, the human sciences, various branches of psychology, economics and so forth. But it’s easy to forget that there are also sciences that do rather specific things, like the kinds of scientific investigations people undertake when they try to restore old works of art or the kinds of research that people take when they try to figure out whether a particular document from the past is a new manuscript by a famous author.
So there are lots and lots of scientific studies and they shade over into relatively familiar things like detective work, and those shade over into the kinds of things that we do when we’re trying to solve quite practical problems in our own lives, when we’re trying to figure out what goes wrong with the plumbing or where we’ve left something. So it’s very, very hard, I think, to say that there’s something distinctive about science that doesn’t also apply to lots and lots and lots of other activities.
There are certainly some ways of criticizing scientific practice, some of which I’ve made myself. But I want to begin with some very familiar ones. I mean some people will say that the science that was produced throughout much of the history of science was distorted because it was produced by a certain class of people. The Royal Society famously wanted its members to be “gentlemen, free and unconfined.” They didn’t like having tradespeople in because they might have a pecuniary interest that would lead them not to respect the truth. And they didn’t let women in until after the Second World War! And actually letting women scientists in makes a big difference, and has made a big difference, to certain areas of science.
The study of our primate relatives, for example, was enormously transformed in the ’60s and ’70s as a bunch of women primatologists really started to do very serious research and changed our views about all sorts of things. I mean there was this old view that there were these dominant males and all the action was about how the dominant males got to be dominant and how they treated other males and all the rest of it.
And after women began to look very, very carefully at other features of primate societies they discovered that all sorts of things were going on because of the females influencing the mating patterns, and the females would make friends with males that they thought would be helpful and supportive, and this whole view of the sort of hyperaggressive primate beating his chest was completely deflated in favor of all kinds of subtle strategies pursued by both sexes. And that was a complete transformation in our understanding of primate behavior. It’s a wonderful thing to look back and see what a difference people like Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Shirley Strum and others have made. So there’s a very, very clear case.
Now there are other kinds of critique that are sometimes launched. I mean people will sometimes say, look there are all of these extremely successful non-Western practices that get dismissed by Western science. Anthropologists will sometimes say, “Look how successful this group is, and its belief system seems to be utterly weird and yet they do very successfully,” and indeed Western scientists sometimes can’t replicate those efforts.