by John Preer
Last Thursday, President William McKinney led a science seminar in Powell Hall. More specifically, the seminar was about scientific skepticism and the social contexts that fueled the “Science Wars.”
For those unfamiliar with the Science Wars, the name may be a little misleading because no actual wars were fought. The Science Wars were a series of intellectual exchanges between scientific realists and postmodernist critics about the nature of scientific theory and intellectual inquiry.
McKinney began the seminar by giving the audience a brief overview of his own scientific background in order to frame the conversation that followed.
He mentioned many well-known scientists including Alan Sokal, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. The scientific community criticized all of these scientists because of the controversy surrounding their experiments and reported findings.
Sokal, who was a professor at Duke University, published an article in an academic journal called the Social Text.
Sokal’s article was full of falsehoods and claims that had not yet been peer-reviewed and tested.
Pons and Fleischmann were particularly ridiculed for their cold fusion experiment. In 1989 Pons and Fleischmann held a press conference stating that they had discovered how to harness energy from nuclear fusion.
Initially the scientific community was stunned, but once the two chemists’ methods were called into suspicion, the backlash from other scientists made their names synonymous with scientific scandal.
There was a lot of incongruence within their reports, and other scientists were finding it impossible to recreate the same results as Pons and Fleischmann.
The critiques that most scientists had about their experiment were the little mistakes Pons and Fleischmann made while conducting the experiment. They forgot basic rules such as stirring the contents of the metal lattices to get accurate temperature readings and failed to account for the presence of background radiation when recording their findings.
Suspicion arose, and their findings were labeled a hoax.
The Exxon Valdez fiasco had happened recently, and the scientific world’s focus had shifted to discovering a new clean, efficient source of energy, and cold fusion was being looked at as a serious contender.
All of these procedural blunders made people question the role social constructs play in scientific theory. If these chemists were able to assert completely false results as scientific fact, then the whole system for presenting and proving theories had to be called into question.
People began to take a more philosophical approach and question the validity of scientific discovery. They began questioning the scientific method and how experiments were conducted.
Some scientists asserted that by simply setting up an experiment an environment is created that exists nowhere else; therefore, any findings that are made can only be truly relative to that specific experiment.
The practicality of the scientific method and the philosophy of science were being called into question. Physicist Richard Feynman even went so far as to say that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”
The rest of McKinney’s presentation was about his involvement in the Science Wars, noting his reluctant contribution to the discussion in a book titled “A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science.”
McKinney lamented about the confrontational and biased tone from other contributors and, as a result, wrote a reply titled “Partial Houses Built on Common Ground: Reply to Pinch” to fellow scientist Trevor Pinch who responded to McKinney’s chapter in the book.
McKinney concluded the seminar saying “Science is about the truth in a contextual sense … (science) works precisely because in some ways it is set up to work, but it is also set up to demonstrate its failures.”