Science is a social enterprise (A note on Karl Popper’s theory of science)

The following is an essay written in response to an exam question in a course titled ”Social Studies of Science”. The question: ”Is it necessary to employ a social scientific approach for understanding and explaining the development and content of science? If so, why?”

I will in this paper answer the question with a restricted and qualified ”yes”. The reasons for the affirmative answer, as well as the reasons for the qualifications to that answer, will be supplied from Karl Popper’s philosophy of science. My general view is that the social aspects of Popper’s theory are often neglected, and that his ideas are often presented, unfortunately, as methodological rules for heroic individual scientists but with the implication of being of limited relevance for ordinary scientists.

But Popper’s view of science is thoroughly social. Science is a social institution. Even in the highly abstract treatise The Logic of Scientific Discovery ([1935] 1959) the social aspects of science are evident (though not often explicitly discussed). And in The Open Society and its Enemies ([1945] 2003) Popper’s social or institutional view is in full display:

[W]hat we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method; and the individual scientist’s impartiality is, so far as it exists, not the source but rather the result of this socially or institutionally organized objectivity of science. (2003: 243)

Popper is famous for stressing the objectivity of science. His theory of science is highly normative: scientists ought to formulate theories capable of being disproved, and they should try, to the best of their ability, to actually disprove them. Now, one important part of the field of the social studies of science is the empirical study of how scientists actually go about their business. How they formulate theories, how they conduct experiments and behave in the laboratories, how they interpret data, and so on. Such studies often show the irrationality and biases of the scientists, and the (unconscious) unwillingness to accept evidence that goes against their own theories. Knowledge of this practical reality of science ought to foster some healthy scepticism and critical attitude towards the claims of science, the claims of authority and privileged access to the truth.

Even though I agree with this general attitude, I have doubts about the theoretical (or philosophical) importance of these critical studies. I doubt, that is, whether the failures and biases of scientists, such as they are revealed by sociologists of science, entitle one to draw more general and philosophical conclusions about the (non)-objectivity of science. Since if one shares Popper’s view of science in the quote above, the conclusion to be drawn is not necessarily philosophical scepticism about the objectivity of science and its claims to discover truths. “The sociology of knowledge”, Popper wrote…

…shows an astounding failure to understand precisely its main subject, the social aspects of knowledge, or rather, of scientific method. It looks upon science or knowledge as a process in the mind or ‘consciousness’ of the individual scientist, or perhaps as the product of such a process. If considered in this way, what we call scientific objectivity must indeed become completely ununderstandable, or even impossible; and not only in the social or political sciences, where class interests and similar hidden motives may play a part, but just as much in the natural sciences. Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring. If scientific objectivity were founded, as the sociologistic theory of knowledge naïvely assumes, upon the individual scientist’s impartiality or objectivity, then we should have to say good-bye to it. (Popper 2003: 240; emphasis in original.)

Let us turn now to Popper’s own view of objectivity. Popper does not ground scientific objectivity on the individual scientist’s objectivity; rather it is inter-subjective criticism, and the norms that guide this “friendly-hostile co-operation” between scientists that matter (Popper 2003: 241). To further emphasize Popper’s social view of science, we may recollect his thought experiment regarding Robinson Crusoe. The upshot of this experiment is that it would have been impossible for Crusoe to conduct science: Even if we imagine Crusoe as equipped with all the equipment, technology and intelligence needed for formulating and testing theories, it remains the case that Crusoe actually doing all that still can not amount to him doing science. The impossibility of ‘Crusoenian science’ is due to the impossibility of criticism. Intersubjective criticism is simply a necessary condition for science, according to Popper. This shows, as clear as it possibly can, that in Popper’s view science is, by definition, a social enterprise.

It follows, if science has this institutional and social character, that surely science could not be properly understood without the use of social scientific theories and models. Institutions are, after all, the subject matter of social science. I will now try to sketch the various issues that, from a Popperian perspective, such a social study of science ought to concern itself with, and relate these to the themes in our course literature.

David Bloor does well to highlight that in Popper’s view ‘facts’ are theory-laden and never fully justified by experience (Bloor 1991: 60-61). I will now go into greater detail regarding this issue. According to Popper, we can have no direct and unmediated access to the world. Rather, our theories guide our observations, and on account of these observations we formulate what Popper calls ‘basic statements’. It is these statements which potentially falsifies our theory, not the observations themselves, i.e not the ‘protocol sentences’ or ‘observational reports’ describing ‘I saw an instance of x at time y and place z’ (Popper 1959: 98).  The important thing is however that when we usually speak of ‘facts’ in relation to our theories, we actually speak of low-level hypothesis. Facts too are subject to inter-subjective tests before they can be accepted. Basic statements are statements about observable phenomena, ‘observable’ here having a public dimension: the phenomenon will be possible to observe by others given that a certain experiment x is repeated (cf Bucchi 2004: 50-51; Popper 1959: 102).

Basic statements are prompted by experience/observation, but accepted by decision (Popper 1959: 105). This raises questions about how and on what grounds one take the decision to accept a basic statement. That is, how are sense experiences to be related to the low-level statements, ‘statements of fact’, accepted into one’s scientific work? All this might sound a digression from the topic of this paper. But it is not, which will be apparent when now turn to the consequences of this view. In brief, what we have here is actually the most striking argument for why ‘Crusoenian science’ is impossible. The issue I have just digressed into is the key reason why science necessarily is a social enterprise. For what Crusoe never can do is to validate his own observations. That means, for instance, that there is no reliable way for him to make allowances for his reaction-time in making those observations. If we compare this, Popper writes,

…with the way [reaction-time] was found out in ‘public’ science—through the contradiction between the results of various observers—then the ‘revealed’ character of Robinson Crusoe’s science becomes manifest. (Popper 2003: 243)

Turning again to the course literature, we find in Latour the interesting story about Robert Boyle and the Air-Pump. With an apt phrase, Boyle can be described as staging “a theatre of proof” (Latour 1993: 18). This is the birth of the modern empirical and ‘public’ science. I am not going to dwell at this point, but merely point out that given Popper’s account of tests and observations — the upshot of which is that basic statements and ‘facts’ are ultimately accepted through a decision — then the kind of historical studies of the development of new instruments and technology are of great significance. Crucially, such studies ought to be concerned with how these technological developments are interpreted and discussed by scientists, and how consensus on what is to count as evidence is re-established (the re-establishment, that is, of the inter-subjective testability of their theories). To be sure, we could not ‘understand’ science without such studies.

It should also be noted that the ‘decisionist’ character of Popper’s treatment of basic statements and facts, also characterizes his main doctrine: falsificationism. This point has been well expressed by Ian Jarvie. Popper has been criticized on the grounds that falsification does not have the advantages that Popper claims, since it is always logically possible to ‘blaim’ a negative result on other factors and thus avoid falsifying the theory by the introduction of ad hoc hypothesis or by redefinition of terms. But as Jarvie notes, this is a strange point of criticism against Popper, since he is clearly aware of this possibility and his theory is actually developed to deal with it. It is this very possibility that accounts for Popper’s turn to ‘a social view’ of science (Jarvie 2001: 42, 71-72, 83-84). For even though falsifiability does have a logical advantage over induction and verifiability,[1] this is clearly not enough (since falsification can be evaded). What is needed is the decision to adopt a “meta-methodological social rule not to avoid falsification” (Jarvie 2001: 43). The demarcation between science and non-science is not in any sense natural or logical, but social: the convention or agreement of some people to engage in criticism and to let experience (results of inter-subjective tests) refute their ideas and theories (Jarvie 2001: 44). As Jarvie describes it, problems in trying to formulate a pure logic of science led Popper to emphasize instead the institutional character of science. Science is characterised by the adoption of a set of rules, a methodology, by a group of people with certain aims. This is the ‘social turn’ in Popper, according to Jarvie.

Methods are social. Popper’s repeated strategy is to reframe philosophical problems as methodological problems, to turn, that is, metaphysical issues into social decisions. (Jarvie 2001: 35)

Now then, if science is constituted by the adoption of a certain social conventions, and governed by a particular ethos, what would a sociologist of science primarily study? I have already indicated, with regard to Boyle, one such area, namely how ‘facts’ come to be recognized in this community of scientists. But I would like to point out two other broad areas of inquiry. Firstly, we may ask how such social conventions come into being, what cultural factors may underpin institutionalized criticism, and so on. In other words, we may ask about the birth and cultural history of science. Secondly, if science is an institution, we may ask the same questions as of other institutions. Do they serve their purpose? Are they degenerating? Do they need reform in any way?

These two sets of questions ought to interest a Popperian sociologist of science. Popper himself sometimes wrote about the first set, but wrote next to nothing – except briefs laments of ‘Big science’ – about the second. In texts like ‘Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition’ and ‘Back to the Presocratics’ he describes the birth of the tradition of rationalism, the tradition of critical discussion, of criticizing and reformulating theories (Popper 2002: 161-82, 183-205). In connection to Arun Bala’s book on the multicultural character of science and its historical development, it might be worth to point out how Popper viewed the birth of science. It was the result, Popper always held, of culture clash (see for instance Popper 1994: 38-43). In that sense, Popper is not Eurocentric in Bala’s definition; he does not hold that science was “autogenerated within Europe” (Bala 2006: 22). Bala speaks of the birth of modern science as ‘dialogical’. With Popper we can say that also the birth of Greek science was ‘dialogical’ at its core: it was the meeting of cultures and civilizations that provided the impetus for some thinkers to challenge the received cosmological views and explanations of their own culture. Without the contact, the dialogue, with other cultures, the critical tradition would not have been born.

The second set of questions was largely ignored by Popper. This is a great weakness, since it follows from his theory that the institutions of science must be critically studied and evaluated. If science is a ‘special kind of institution’, with a certain authority to its claims, as it certainly has according to Popper, then its institutional workings must be subjected to inspection and criticism. Ian Jarvie has argued for this with great force. It is commonly held that Popper first wrote Logic of Scientific Discovery and that his later treatise on social and political philosophy, The Open Society and Its Enemies, constitutes a kind of application or extension of his philosophy of science. Ian Jarvie present a different view. While the institutional character of science was implicit in Logic it was fully developed in The Open Society. And, crucially, The Open Society contained a philosophy that proposed a critical attitude toward the institutions of social life, and commended that they must always be subject to scrutiny and reform. But Popper then failed to apply this to science itself. Through this failure Popper can be accused of, as Jarvie puts it, ‘beautification’ of science. He thus contributed in keeping the “sacred aura” of science, an aura which, as Bucchi says, inhibited the development of sociological studies of science (Bucchi 2004: 15). Jarvie’s point though, is that by such beautification Popper is not true to his own philosophy (Jarvie 2001: 87, 213). As an institution, science may or may not function well. It may become corrupted and its authority be abused. As Jerome Ravetz says, the social organization of contemporary science is very different from the time of ‘little science’, and some of the old views of science may be obsolete (Ravetz 2006: 47-52). Issues of governance of the institutions of science thus come to the forefront. And especially so if one subscribe to Popper’s account of scientific objectivity, since on this account objectivity is generated (or not, as the case may be) by the workings of the institutions of science. Rather than inhibiting, through beatification, the sociological study of science, Popper ought to have welcomed such studies. Popper’s highly normative philosophy of science ought, for these reasons, to be conjoined with a Popperian sociology of science, so that the institutions of science can be evaluated and the need for reform be estimated. Such a combination of, on the one hand, normative methodology and on the other critical social studies of scientific practise, is in my view highly desirable.

*  *  *  *


[1] As Quine says, ”it would be beside the point to reply that a law is sometimes preserved by challenging the solitary contrary instance as illusory. The point is that one unblack raven, if conceded, suffices to refute the law. Obviously such laws admit no supporting evidence as conclusive as the refuting evidence” (Quine 1974: 218; emphasis in original).











  • Bala, Arun (2006), The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).
  • Bloor, David (1991), Knowledge and Social Imagery (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).
  • Bucchi, Massimiano (2004), Science in Society (London & New York: Routledge).
  • Jarvie, Ian (2001), The Republic of Science. The Emergence of Popper’s Social View of Science 1935-1945 (Amsterdam: Rodopi).
  • Latour, Bruno (1993), We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Popper, Karl (1959), The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Hutchinson & Co.).
  • Popper, Karl (1994), The Myth of the Framework (London & New York: Routledge).
  • Popper, Karl (2002), Conjectures and Refutations (London & New York: Routledge).
  • Popper, Karl (2003), The Open Society and Its Enemies. Volume Two: Hegel and Marx (London & New York: Routledge).
  • Quine, Willard V. (1974), ‘On Popper’s Negative Methodology’, in Paul A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Karl Popper (The Library of Living Philosophers; La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co.), 218-20.
  • Ravetz, Jerome (2006), The No-Nonsense Guide to Science (Oxford: New Internationalist).

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