2012 was the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Kuhns’ influential and controversial book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2014 is the anniversary of a book that was nearly as influential and nearly as controversial as Kuhn's, at least among historians and sociologists of science. Barry Barnes’ Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory was the first full-length exposition of what soon became known as the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge. The programme was ‘strong’ in the sense that it used sociology to explain established scientific theories, as opposed to explaining scientific institutions or explaining discredited beliefs. When I read the book last week I found it surprisingly radical and surprisingly prescient. I also found what I think are the roots of a gross error that persists to this day. What struck me as radical about Barnes was his fully-fledged relativism. Nowadays historians and sociologists have adopted something called ‘methodological relativism’ (see here for a critical exposition). They concede that some beliefs are objectively more rational or more true than others, but they deny that this fact should play any role in the explanations we give of the beliefs of past scientists. Proponents of this view have started to read it back into the original texts of the Strong Programme. They tend to shake their heads in dismay when anyone suggests the relativism of the Strong Programme was anything more than methodical. For example, here is Jan Golinski’s head-shake:
Since the symmetry principle is primarily motivated by a desire to set aside issues of epistemology it is unfortunate that it has regularly been attacked as a species of philosophical relativism. One can of course assert relativistic claims in a metaphysical or ontological way, saying, for example, that there is no such thing as ‘truth’, or that all beliefs about nature are equally valid, or that there is no ‘reality’ to the material world. But such statements encounter severe difficulties if defended as absolute claims....More pertinently, the constructivist outlook does not depend upon them. Barnes certainly meant his relativism to be methodologically useful. But he meant much more than that:
In arguing that all belief systems must be treated symmetrically for the purposes of sociological explanation, many traditional ways of justifying belief as knowledge were [in this book] incidentally undermined. It transpired that one perspective can only be shown to be preferable to another in expedient terms...Thus, the epistemological message could be said to be skeptical, or relativistic...It is relativistic because it suggests that belief systems cannot be objectively ranked in terms of their proximity to reality or their rationality (p. 154).The prescience in Barnes’ book lies in his account of the debate between internalists and externalists. Barnes drew a then-standard distinction between internalist historians, who focus on the ‘intellectual’ or ‘technical’ aspects of science, and externalist historians, who study the ‘socio-economic’ background to science (the terms in quotes are Barnes’). Nowadays we are inclined to reject this distinction on two grounds. Firstly, the boundary between the internal and the external has changed over time. Secondly, there are as many social phenomena inside scientific communities as there are in the societies that surround them. These are views that have not been read back into the work of Barnes and Bloor, at least not as far as I am aware. Indeed, it is common to distinguish between the Strong Programme, which focused on social factors that originate outside scientific communities, such as class interests and political movements, and later sociologists who focused on the internal politics of scientific disciplines. Golinski himself makes a distinction along these lines . In this instance, I think, there is a case for reading our own ideas into Barnes’ book. He certainly argues for a role for sociology in accounting for the internal development of disciplines and research traditions. In fact he devotes an entire chapter to this argument, entitled ‘The culture of the natural sciences.’ Barnes also gives a subtle account of the ways that scientists—as well as present-day commentators on science—disagree about what counts as ‘internal’ to science and what does not. Again, he devotes (nearly) a whole chapter to this point, entitled ‘‘Internal’ and ‘external’ factors in the history of science.’ What about the gross error that persists to this day? In the first chapter of his book, Barnes repeatedly implies that there is a widespread tendency among commentators on science—including historians of science—to suppose that true beliefs cannot be explained causally. Here are a few examples of this attribution:
Many academic theories about beliefs, whether philosophical, psychological or sociological [have the following form]. Typically, they divide beliefs about nature into ‘true’ and ‘false’ categories, treating the former as unproblematic in the sense that they derive directly from awareness of reality, whereas the latter must be accounted for by biasing and distorting factors (pp. 2-3). ...this particular perspective, treating truth as unproblematic and falsehood as needing causal explanation... (p. 3) Science is conceived [by many] as a uniquely rational process leading to present truth; that which can be set on a teleologically conceived sequence leading to the present is assumed to be naturally reasonable and not in need of causal explanation. (p. 7)These statements are grossly erroneous because it is doubtful whether any historian or philosopher (I cannot speak for sociologists) has maintained that true beliefs do not have causal explanations. Larry Laudan spoke for the philosophers in a 1984 critique of a book by David Bloor, another pioneer of the Strong Programme:
Bloor’s analysis of the philosophical tradition will not stand up to scrutiny. For as long as we know anything about the history of philosophy, epistemologists have been concerned how to discover the true and the rational. The suggestion that most philosophers have believed that true beliefs just happen, that rational behaviour is uncaused, that only ‘aberrant’ belief is part of nature’s causal nexus, is hard to take seriously.Laudan goes on:
It is true that many philosophers have suggested that true or rational beliefs are not to be attributed to sociological causes. But unless we are to imagine that sociology has a monopoly on causes, the denial that true or false beliefs have social causes is manifestly not equivalent to the assertion that true and rational beliefs are uncaused! I believe that the same can be said about historians of science. If we take even the most cursory look at eighteenth- or nineteenth-century histories of science, we find many references to human actions that gave rise to this or that theory. We do find a lack of causal explanations that are social in nature, but we do not find a lack of causal explanations. (I have given some evidence for this view here). Despite the absurdity of the claim that historians and philosophers have long believed that true beliefs are uncaused, and despite Laudan’s protests, the claim has persisted. Nowadays the claim is usually expressed as the idea that ‘science is a human activity.’ The implication is that many people used to believe that science is not a human activity. Indeed, Golinski seems to say that the inclusion of human activity in accounts of past science was a vital transformation—perhaps the vital transformation—in the historiography of science. He writes:
By a ‘constructivist’ outlook, I mean that which regards scientific knowledge primarily as a human product, made with locally situated cultural and material resources, rather than as simply the revelation of a pre-given order of nature. This view of science has attained widespread currency in recent years... (p. xvii)Barnes’ relativism may have fallen from favour, but his peculiar portrait of old-fashioned historians and philosophers of science is still with us.  Making Natural Knowledge, p. 8. I am not sure what to make of Golinski's shudder-quotes around the words ‘truth’ and ‘reality.’ If there are such things as truth and reality, as Golinski seems to be saying in this passage, why put those words in quotes?  Ibid., p. 24.  ‘The Pseudo-Science of Science,’ Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11 (1981): 173-198, p. 178. Expand post.