Ideology and science

Science as a belief system

The impact of science

  • Science has had an enormous impact on society in the last few centuries
  • Faith and religion has been dimmed by the recent discoveries, while science may have helped us in protection against diseases and natural disasters it has also caused such problems as global warming and weapons of mass destruction.

Open belief systems

  • Popper (1959) science is seen as an ‘open’ belief system through how it is open to scrutiny and criticism. Science is governed by the principle of falsification, scientists set out to try and falsify existing theories and try to disprove them. If they succeed, the theory can be discarded and the search for a better explanation can begin.
  • Scientific knowledge is cumulative, it builds on the achievements of previous scientists to develop greater research.

The CUDOS norms

  • Merton (2007) argues that science can only thrive as a major social institution if it receives support from other institutions and values
  • He also argues that science as an institution or organised social activity needs an ‘ethos’ or set of norms that makes scientists act in ways that serve the goal of increasing scientific knowledge. Four such norms: communism (scientific knowledge is shared throughout the community), universalism (the truth of scientific knowledge is judged by universal standards), disinterestedness (publishing your findings in order for others to check their claims) and organised scepticism (every idea is open to questioning and criticism).

Closed belief systems

  • Opposing science, religion is a closed belief system which cannot be challenged, those who do used to be punished.
  • Horton (1973) distinguishes between an open and closed belief system, science is an open belief system however such topics as religion or magic are closed due to how they cannot be successfully overturned

Witchcraft among the Azande

  • The Azande believe that when misfortune befalls someone, they believe that it is due to witchcraft (they believe that coincidences aren’t real)
  • The injured may make an accusation against the suspected witch, the benge will therefore perform a ritual to investigate.
  • The Azande regard witchcraft as a psychic power coming from the intestines, this means that they can unintentionally cause harm. This allows the accused to proclaim their surprise and horror, to apologise and promise that there will be no further bewitching
  • Evans-Pritchard argues that this belief system performs useful social functions such as preventing grudges and forcing neighbours to act accordingly to one another.
  • He also notes that the Azande beliefs are closed, in the event of any criticism they would just proclaim that it wasn’t a good Benge. The argument would reinforce their beliefs, not disprove it
  • Polanyi (1958) argues that all belief systems have three devices to sustain themselves in the face of apparently contradictory evidence: Circularity (each idea in the system is explained in terms of another idea within the system), Subsidiary explanations (e.g. if the oracle fails, it may be explained due to the incorrect use of the benge) and Denial of legitimacy (belief systems reject alternative worldviews by refusing to grant any legitimacy to their basic assumptions)

Science as a closed system

  • Others claim that science as a belief system can be seen as a closed system of belief. Polanyi argues that all belief systems reject fundamental challenges to their knowledge-claims (science is no different)
  • Kuhn (1970) argues that mature science such as geology, biology and physics is based on a shared set of assumptions that he calls a paradigm (lays down the broad outlines of the theory)
  • Scientific education and training is the process of being socialised into the truth of the paradigm. Those who disregard the paradigms were likely to be punished, however during such events as scientific revolutions (where the truth of a paradigm is undermined by anomalies), only then do scientists become open to radically new ideas.

The sociology of scientific knowledge

  • Interpretivist sociologists argues that all knowledge (including scientific knowledge) is socially constructed, they believe that knowledge is created by social groups using the resources they have. Scientific ‘facts’ are the product of shared theories or paradigms that tell scientists what they should expect to see
  • Knorr-Cetina (1999) argues that the invention of new instruments (telescopes or microscopes) permits scientists to make new observations and constructs new facts. Similarly, she points out that the constructed environment of labs are far removed from the natural world
  • Woolgar (1992) argues that scientists are engaged constantly in trying to interpret the world, when confronted by evidence from their observations they have to extract its meaning. They also then have to persuade others to share their views.
  • Marxist and feminists see scientific knowledge as far from the truth, they regard it as serving the interests of dominant groups (patriarchy and ruling-class). For Marxists, and also men, they believe that the advances of science have been driven by the needs of capitalism and the patriarchy.
  • Postmodernists also reject the knowledge-claims of science to have ‘the truth’. Lyotard (1984) believes that science is one of a number of meta-narratives that falsely claims to possess the truth about how the world works as a means of progress to a better society whereas in reality science just is a way to dominate people.


Marxism and ideology

  • Gramsci (1971) proposes the ideas of the ruling class’ ideological domination of society, known as hegemony. The working class have a dual consciousness when they follow the ruling class ideology while using their own exploitation to create their individualistic ideas. Its therefore possible for the working class to develop class consciousness and overthrow the capitalists through revolution.
  • However, some critics argue that its not the existence of a dominant ideology that keeps workers in line and prevents revolution. Abercrombie et al (2015) believes that it’s the economic factors such as unemployment

The ideology of nationalism

  • Nationalism is an important political ideology. Its main claims are that nations are distinctive communities with their own unique characteristics, every nation should be self-governing and national loyalty and identity should come before all. Anderson (2006) however claims that nations are imagined communities of people that binds million of strangers and creates a sense of common purpose.
  • Marx views nationalism as a form of false class consciousness that helps to prevent the overthrow of capitalism by dividing the international working class. This is due to how nationalism encourages workers to believe they have more in common with the capitalists of their country than the working-class of others. This has enabled the ruling-class to persuade the working-class of their country to fight wars for them.
  • Functionalists see nationalism as a secular civil religion, it integrates individuals into larger social and political units by making them feel part of something greater than themselves. In the modern society, nationalism functions as a unity between all regardless of differences such as religion (multi-faith society) or class. Education plays an important role in creating social solidarity, involving collective rituals involving nationalist symbols such as the flag or national anthem.
  • Gellner (2006) sees nationalism as false consciousness, its modern view sees pre-industrial societies that were held together not by nationalism, but by face-to-face relationships in small-scale communities with a fixed hierarch and ascribed statuses. Modern societies however create large-scale impersonal communities with complex divisions of labour where all citizens are relatively equal. Nationalism allows for communication within this society, by using the education system to impose a single standard language on every member and makes economic and social cooperation easier through the equality of its members.

Karl Mannheim: ideology and utopia

  • Mannheim (1929) see all belief systems as having a one-sided worldview. This results in the view point of one particular group/class and its interests created by intellectuals who attach themselves to a particular class. Two broad types of belief system include: Ideological thought (it reflects the position and interests of privileged groups such as the capitalist class, favouring hierarchy and conservative views) and Utopian thought (reflects the position and interests of the underprivileged and offers a vision of how society could be organised differently)
  • The solution is to detach the intellectuals from the social groups they represent and create a free-flowing intelligentsia, free from representing the interests of this or that group. They would be able to synthesise elements of different ideologies to arrive at the ‘total’ worldview that represents the interests of society as a whole. However, many elements of political views are directly opposed so to try to unite partial elements of all views wold be impossible

Feminism and ideology

  • Marks (1979) describes how ideas from science have been used to justify excluding women from education, e.g. the exclusion of training women to be doctors/scientists leading to the creation of ‘puny and unfeminine’ women and ‘disqualifying women from their vocation’.
  • The patriarchal ideologies embodied in religious beliefs have also been used to define women as inferior, e.g. through the ‘purifying’ of women after birth or how women are seen as unclean, particularly due to menstruation
  • However, not all elements of religious beliefs subordinate women, e.g. matriarchal religions with female deities and female priests.