The world’s leading scientific culture critic has called for scientists to embrace “cultural relativism”, in which a “relativism of the intellect” is advocated in their work, a position that could be seen as antithetical to the “scientific” consensus.
In an essay for the prestigious journal Science, Professor John M. Cochrane argues that the term “science” is now used to describe “what is, and what should be”, rather than what is or should be.
“There is now a broad consensus among scientists that what is true is what is, that truth is not a matter of ‘belief’, but rather an observable reality, a matter which we can measure and measure and count,” he wrote.
Professor Cochrane argued that “scientific truth” is “what we measure” and that “there is no such thing as scientific relativism”.
“Cultural relativism,” he argued, “seems to imply that there is no difference between truth and what we observe in the world, and that if we accept something as ‘true’ we do so because it is true.
This is fundamentally different to science, where we measure reality through the tools of observation and the tools we use to investigate it.”
In his essay, Cochrane wrote that “cultural” relativism, “as we know it today”, is “not merely a convenient, popular label for a particular approach to scientific inquiry, but is actually a powerful political force”.
He went on to describe how scientists, especially those in the field of human-interest science, have been influenced by the “science of cultural relativity”, a term coined by the late anthropologist Paul Virilio in the 1970s.
The term has been used to attack “cultural Marxism”, the “radical political ideology of the working class”, as well as “Western imperialism” and “capitalism”, which he wrote is “an ideology of profit, exploitation and oppression, the ideology of racism, sexism and class conflict”.
Professor David Buss, who teaches in the humanities at the University of Virginia, said the “cognitive shift” that Cochrane was describing is “absolutely” significant.
“[It is] a shift in the way we think about the world,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Mr Buss also said that “the scientific community has become more aware” of culturalism and its effect on science, which could have a “potential to have a profound impact on our understanding of science and our understanding that we have a responsibility to be scientific, even in our work, even when it is in conflict with what we see in our own world”.
But, he said, the term is “a very complicated issue”.
Dr Peter T. Jones, an anthropologist at the National University of Singapore, said it is important to understand “what the concept of science is and what it means” before tackling the issue.
He told the ABC that Cochran’s argument is “quite clear” and points to “how we interpret and understand what the scientific consensus is”.
In a 2014 essay, Professor Cochrane said that it is “historically wrong” to claim that scientific research is inherently “liberal” or “scientific socialism” and he said the term does not “represent an inherent preference for science”.
“I don’t think it’s correct to think that scientists are somehow going to get a free pass,” he said.
Cochrane has also been critical of the idea that science is a “free market” that is impartial.
But Professor Jones, who is also a fellow of the Australian Academy of Arts and Science, told the BBC that “we do not want to equate the scientific process with the market”.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines science as “the science of living things”, “scientific knowledge”, “knowledge in general”, and “a branch of human endeavour” which includes philosophy, history, economics, and the arts.
This article originally appeared on The Conversation.