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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Is science objective or influenced by culture?

– By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

Franz Boas (1858 – 1942) was another scientist trained as a physicist who made a name for himself in another field, in this case, anthropology. He was the founder of modern anthropology and brought to the field the methodology of the natural sciences; the idea one should formulate theories and conclusions only after thorough and rigorous collection and examination of hard evidence.  In cultural anthropology, he established the contextualist approach to culture, cultural relativism. Culture can be thought of as the paradigm that gives context and meaning to social interactions. Cultural relativism recognizes that comparing cultures has the same incommensurability problems as comparing other paradigms. The same words (actions) have different meanings depending on the paradigm (culture).

To see how this different meaning works in practice, consider headgear. The rules on what is acceptable head covering is cultural and religious and varies over time and place. What one group considers good and proper, another considers inappropriate. At one time, the English considered the Irish uncouth because they doffed their hats to people they met on the street. The horror of it. At another time, no self-respecting woman would appear in church without a hat (following Paul’s instructions), but they now condemn Muslim women for covering their heads. The Canadian Legion considered it an insult to the Queen not to remove head covering in Legion halls. At least in the case of Sikhs, the Queen did not agree.  What one culture praises, another condemns.

Cultural relativism had two main tenets: 1) all people are civilized and 2) there are no higher and lower cultures. This gave a much-needed antidote to the evolutionist idea that preceded it; the idea of the innate and absolute superiority of the western culture, since it was considered more evolved than other cultures. Western culture was then used as the hallmark against which other cultures were judged. In England, it was the White Man’s Burden (now mostly dead) and in the USA, American Exceptionalism (not mostly dead). To understand exceptionalism, think of Raskolnikov—he thought himself exceptional so he did not have to follow normal behaviour—in Crime and Punishment, or Dostoyevsky’s statement to the effect that most people are not sufficiently intelligent to realize they are not exceptional. Be that as it may, the only truly exceptional people are Nova Scotia born physicists [1]. Hmm, perhaps I should not have juxtopositioned that next to Dostoyevsky’s statement. However, it seems all people like to think that their own particular group, culture or religion is exceptional, so why not Nova Scotian physicists?  Cultural relativism is a direct attack on this common idea that one’s own group is exceptional or superior. It instead says that all cultures should be evaluated and judged on their own merits, not against the standards of another culture.

Unfortunately, the idea of cultures being self contained and statements being valid only within a given culture has been extended too far, to exclude all cross-cultural statements. But in the context of science, what does it mean? In some cultures, does the sun rise in the west and sets in the east? Or is “the sun rises in the east,” a cross-culturally valid statement? Can we solve the energy crisis by finding a culture where the second law of thermodynamics does not hold—“Build your perpetual motion machines in Lower Slobbovia!”—or is the second law cross-cultural?  I mean, in Australia the swans are black, the sun is in the north and they play Aussie rules football. But as far as I know, all the models of science are equally valid there (except perhaps on the football pitch). It is only in Douglas Adams’ imagination that we have bistro mathematics.  Whether the Higgs boson or another particle will found at CERN or Fermilab depends on the nature of the accelerators and detectors, not the culture at the two labs. Trying to change by the culture by bringing in mystics or other counter culture people will not result in finding different types of particles.  It has never been observed to work that way.

Now, the supporters of relativism (or its double cousin post-modernism) will complain that the examples I have given are too simple. But a general rule must apply to simple cases, as well as the complex ones where the very complexity makes it hard to see what is happening.  If you want me to believe the model of germs causing disease is only cultural, you must first explain why the model that the sun raises in the east is also only cultural. They both arise from the same method.  In the cold fusion debate, I heard the statement, “if it wasn’t for those damn physicists we would have an infinite supply of energy.” If the physicists had not debunked cold fusion, it would still be happening and we would have cold fusion powered Hondas (why not if all statements are relative, perhaps science is different in Japan). Unfortunately, scientists do not make the laws, only discover them. Culture could not make Lysenkoism [2] valid, even in Stalinist Russia.  In the same way that raw observations are valid across scientific paradigms, scientific models are valid (or, as in the case of Lysenkoism, invalid) across cultures or cultural paradigms.

And yet—to balance this argument out—culture and context does play a role in how the results of science are expressed and in who discovers them.  A pessimist would be more apt to discover the second law of thermodynamics than an optimist. In England in the 17th century they discovered laws—Hooke’s Law, Boyle’s Law—but now such regularities are just rules–the OZI rule [3] for example.  Thus, how things are expressed changes with the fashion, but the ideas behind them stay the same. If there is an enduring cultural influence in science, it is the culture of mathematics. As Poincare said, “But what we call objective reality…can only be the harmony expressed by mathematical laws. It is this harmony then which is the sole objective reality, the only truth we can obtain.”


[1] It is entirely coincidental that this describes the author.

[2] The biological inheritance principle which Trofim Lysenko subscribed to and which derive from theories of the heritability of acquired characteristics. It contributed to the collapse of Soviet agriculture.

[3] The Okubo, Zweig, Iizuka rule on the decay of excited nucleons and other hadrons. It contributed to acceptance of the quark model.

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  • Ted Nellon

    Is there a universal wave function? Or does conciousness collapse a wavefunction?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wigner%27s_Friend

    Does science even have an answer to these questions? Socrates vs. Sophist. Kant vs. Hume. Einstein vs Bohr. This seems to be the biggest intractable problem in the history of science.

  • Byron@TRIUMF

    I hope to do a blog on quantum mechanics at some point in the future. In brief, one can either have consciousness collapse the wave function or have the have function a property not just of the quantum system but of the quantum system plus the observer.

  • georgehants

    If one follows the Cold Fusion story one would see the terrible state of Science today.
    It after 23 years is still hidden, denied and abused, well October will change that situation and Main-Line science is going to look very foolish indeed.

    Main-line Science, Establishment and Journals apparently condone this action and like with so many other important subjects, close their eyes and ears.

    The Scientific World has deteriorated to a community of closed minded ineffectual followers instead of the leaders in research and discovery they should be.
    Every advance has to pass years of hurdles erected by mediocre, non-achievers dominating, funding, peer review, journals and, academia.
    The few Rebel, True Scientists, at every turn gamble with their careers if they try to persevere with an idea, “beyond known science.” unless they have achieved at least Nobel status and then their forward looking theories are just quietly laughed at and tolerated as the ravings of old men.

    The Media must take much of the blame for allowing such incompetent and unscientific (scientist means, seeker of Knowledge) people who infest science by blindly accepting any rubbish they give out.

    Let one person give solid sound reasons why the UFO enigma or the Placebo Effect are not openly and professionally treated as the major scientific problems that they are.

  • Byron@TRIUMF

    The placebo effect has been studied. In particular it has been shown in Parkinson’s decease that a placebo can cause the release of dopamine. UFO have been studied for decades with little to show for the effort. As for cold fusion, one working cold fusion powered device would be worth a million words. Why after 23 years have the proponents not produced even one?

  • João Gonçalves

    “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” Those were the words spoken about Dan Shechtman when his results about quasicrystals were published. This week he won the Nobel Prize, but it took many years before his results were accepted and not ridicularized. For many years it seemed those results where doomed to stay in the closet. Quasicrystals were there, Dan Shechtman research and results were there, hard evidence was there, but it took many years for the scientific establishment to accept them. Maybe someday we will have science with no scientists, science with no human intervention, but until then, scientists will be humans