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What's wrong with scientific truth and technological progress?

What is the meaning of the scare quotation marks that so often enclose truth, fact, reality, or technological progress in postmodern literature? 

“Closure occurs in science when a consensus emerges that the ‘truth’ has been winnowed from the various interpretations.”[1]  More than once in library books I saw “sic” scribbled in the margin and pointed to the scare quotation marks in this and similar texts.  If the readers were not turned off, they would discover that scare quotes around scientific truth, fact, reality, technological progress, and similar terms are fashionable in postmodern literature and are spreading beyond it.  What do the scare quotes mean?  What are their effects?

This note examines some forces behind the postmodern skepticism on scientific truth and technological progress:

  • Destruction of commonsense by dogmatic interpretations of general concepts.

  • Misrepresentation and stereotyping of critics to promote postmodern doctrines.

  • Muddled thinking abetted by attacks on rationality and analysis.

Forcing truth into Absolute Truth

General concepts of truth, reality, and the like have puzzled philosophers since the ancient Greeks.  They are extremely difficult to define precisely, because they involve the deepest metaphysical and epistemological problems, such as the nature of the human mind and its relation to things that are neither parts of it nor created by it.  Efforts through the millennia have produced a plethora of philosophical theories, some clarification, but no satisfactory explanations.[2]

Despite the academic quandary in framing explicit definitions, notions of reality and truth are tacitly understood and almost indispensable in our daily life.  Anthropologists find that distinctions between seeing and dreaming, true or false beliefs exist with slight variations among all cultures [3].  If you tell me about a curious adventure and reply to my incredulity: it’s true, I understand you.  Similarly, when I raise my hand in court and take the oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, no one would mistake me for pretending to be God who knows the Absolute Truth.  On the contrary, if I wiggle my fingers and declare I am telling the quote-unquote truth, I would be eyed with suspicion if not cited for contempt of court.  In this commonsense notion scientists claim truth for scientific facts and discoveries.

Enter elitists and postmodernists with a smug smile to folks and scientists: Define truth.  As a satisfactory explicit definition does not exist, they dictatorially impute Absolute Truth to what they call “the scientist’s account of science,” an account that abhors scientists [4].  The notion of Absolute Truth known only in the absolutely detached and infallible God’s eye point of view has been proposed in some metaphysical philosophies and used in some theories of mind, sometimes dogmatically and sometimes as an approximation to gain a toehold on an overwhelmingly complex phenomenon [5].  As an explicit theory of truth, however, it has been criticized and rejected by most philosophers, not to mention scientists.  In research, scientists try to detach as much as possible from their personal motivations and cultural prejudices, but they never claim to shed their human skin to become God; they are too smart for the hubris.

Scientists and engineers are aware that judgments are indispensable in research and results are not absolutely certain.  Nevertheless, they maintain that lack of absolute certainty does not entail total arbitrariness.  The crucial question is the justifications and presuppositions for rational judgments.  Here lies the chasm between science and social constructionism, a branch of postmodernism.  In making technical judgments, scientists and engineers strive for objectivity and accept such reasoning as because it is true (or false) and because it agrees with objective reality (or not).  These rational criteria are ruled out of court by the social constructionist principle for the symmetric treatment of truth and falsity.  The only criteria of judgments it accepts are social and political; technical judgments “could be made at random, each scientist choosing by the toss of a coin at each decision point.”  The arbitrariness of technical judgments, called “interpretive flexibility,” is a central constructionist doctrine.  It denies the weigh of objective evidence and rejects the commonsense notion of knowledge as justified true belief.  Commonsense relates knowledge to reality through the concept of truth, to rationality through the concept of justification, and to the possibility of errors through the notion of belief.  All three are jettisoned by social constructionism, whose epistemological presupposition is “knowledge as any collectively accepted system of belief.”  Its consequence is a sociological determinism asserting that scientific knowledge is “thoroughly socially constituted.”[6]

In commonsense as in science, objective reality is a shared world that facilitates understanding among people in different cultures.  Lift is required for atmospheric flight no matter what culture one works in.  When physical facts such as this become thorough social constructions, a radical relativism follows: “all knowledge is relative to the local situation of the thinkers who produce it.”  Scientific knowledge cannot be true but can only be “true,” meaning true-relative-to-their-local-culture.  Different cultures inhabit “distinct and disjoint worlds” and are therefore “incommensurate” with each other.  Consequently “there is no obligation upon anyone framing a view of the world to take account of what twentieth-century science has to say.”  They can construct their own physical laws that differ substantially from what our science says but are equally “true,” for instance laws that allow the existence of a atom between hydrogen and helium in our periodic table.  In sum, social constructionism maintains that scientific objectivity is impossible.  Science is “opportunism in social context,” politics by another means or another religion.  Aside from its political success to gain acceptance, science “is merely one in a whole series of knowledge cultures including, for instance, the knowledge systems pertaining to ‘primitive’ tribes.”[7]

To promote their doctrine of relativism that purges knowledge and truth of any reference to reality and the physical world, social constructionists concoct “the scientist’s account of science” in which truth means Absolute Truth.  By bashing this caricature as the only viable alternative to their relativism, by taking Absolutely True as the only alternative to truth-relative-to-a-particular-culture, they develop an arena that permits only extreme positions.

In this arena, scare quotes become fashionable.  “Truth” means either Absolute Truth or what my culture accepts.  Furthermore, people whose commonsense claims to truth are distorted into Absolute Truth begin to use scare quotes to avoid further abuse.  The result is that the meaning of “truth” becomes totally ambiguous.  The commonsense notion of truth is being hijacked or subverted, to use a pet term in postmodernism.

Forcing technological progress into technological determinism

Forcing commonsense notions into the molds of some defunct academic dogmas causes confusion and undermines rational discussion.  The notion of technological progress is another case in point.  For phenomena as complex and heterogeneous as technology, overall changes are usually grasped as broad trends.  This is again common sense.  When a newscast reports that the stock market rises for the year, no one takes it to mean that every stock rises, or that the market rises every day, or that it follows a trajectory.  In a similarly sense we ordinarily talk about technological changes.  Looking at broad trends over the recent centuries, it is not unreasonable to say that technology has progressed or advanced in the sense that overall, its gains in improving human welfare far exceed prices such as polluting the environment, weakening some customs, or dislocating some jobs [8].

Just as commonsense truth is twisted into Absolute Truth, the commonsense notion of technological progress has been twisted into technological determinism, where “progress” implies linearity, monotonicity, uniformity, universality, eternity, inevitability, predictability, and automation; where technology having impacts on society means technology is the only cause of historical change and social transformation, and this cause is not caused.  Some of these extreme doctrines have been advanced by old scholars, but they are dated even in the scholarly literature [9].  They are irrelevant to most scientists, engineers, and common people for whom technological products are parts of everyday life.  Dragging them out to batter ordinary discussions of technological progress can only confuse.

  1. Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T. P., and Pinch, T. J. eds. 1987.  The Social Construction of Technology Systems. Cambridge: MIT Press. p.12.
  2. Kirkham, R. L. 1992.  Theories of Truth: a Critical Introduction.  Cambridge: MIT Press.
  3. Lillard, A. S. 1997.  Other folks’ theories of mind and behavior.  Psychological Science, 8, 268-74.
  4. See for example Pickering, A. 1984.  Constructing Quarks.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. I have analyzed some such theories in Auyang, S. Y. 2000.  Mind in Everyday Life and Cognitive Science.  Cambridge: MIT Press.
  6. Pickering, op cit, p. 406.  Bloor, D. 1991.  Knowledge and Social Image, 2nd ed.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 2f.  Pinch, T. J. and Bijker, W. E. 1987.  The social construction of facts and artifacts, in Bijker, et al, op cit, pp. 17-50.
  7. Bloor, op cit, p.176.  Pickering, op cit, pp. 409, 413.  Pinch and Bijker, op cit..
  8. The NSF regularly surveys American’s attitudes toward science and technology.  In its 2001 survey, 86 percent of respondents think that science and technology are making lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable; 85 percent think they will bring more opportunities for the next generation; 72 percent think their applications make work more interesting (Science and Engineering Indicators 2002: Tb. 7-12).
  9. Smith, M. R. and Marx, L. 1994.  Does Technology Drive History?  The Dilemma of Technological Determinism.  Cambridge: MIT Press.