Monday, April 05, 2010

Perhaps we should think about Science as a culture.

Have you heard of the Anasazi culture or the Inca culture? We use "culture" in that sense to connote a pattern of knowledge, beliefs and behavior that characterizes a group of people, serving to distinguish that group from other groups. Perhaps we should think about a "science culture" that distinguishes scientists as a group from other groups.

  • share knowledge and beliefs that differentiate them from non-scientists, and indeed share an approach to knowledge itself which is special to science;
  • share practices in their work and knowledge acquisition that are not shared by non-scientists.
  • share values specifically on knowledge and information, but others as well that are not widely shared by non-scientists;
  • participate in institutions which we may characterize such as scientific institutions, including professional societies, research laboratories and schools of science that are specific to their community.
  • share a language not understood outside of the community of scientists, including mathematics and statistics, as well as scientific nomenclature and jargon.
  • utilize tools and approaches in their work which are not widely used nor understood outside of science;
  • have a social structure with defined stratification of both prestige and leadership roles specific to science;
Scientists are acculturated into science not only by years of formal education, but also by participation in the community of scientists in which they obtain tacit knowledge. Indeed, surprisingly often, scientists are the children of other scientists.

We should not be especially surprised that the culture of science is not constrained to exist within countries since many other cultures span national boundaries, nor that members of the culture of science may participate in other cultures.

We tend to consider a culture to be defined by a community. Thus Inca culture is the interrelated set of knowledge, beliefs and behaviors that was shared by the Inca people; Anasazi culture those shared by the ancient people we now know as the Anasazi.

Anthropologists of course do the opposite, identifying the inhabitants of an archaelogical town or village site as belonging to the culture of the people whose artifacts are most similar to those of the village or town.

So too, I suppose we can define Science itself as a cultural pattern. That would lead us to define scientists as individuals who share the traits of science. So in fact we distinguish paradigms such as astrology or alchemy, creationism or evolutionary biology as fields of science as they share the characteristics of scientific culture.

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