Pathways of Discovery

Deconstructing the "Science Wars" by Reconstructing an Old Mold

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Science  14 Jan 2000:
Vol. 287, Issue 5451, pp. 253-261
DOI: 10.1126/science.287.5451.253

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Human beings appear to have an innate tendency to describe the world in terms of inherently distinct and logically opposite alternatives. A prime example is the current "science wars," which pit "realists" who uphold the objectivity and progressive nature of scientific knowledge against "relativists" who recognize the culturally embedded status of all claims for universal factuality. Gould argues that this dichotomy is false both as an interpretation of the nature and history of science and as a primary example of our deeper error in parsing the complexities of human conflicts and natural continua into stark contrasts formulated as struggles between opposing sides. As evidence, he reconstructs an episode in the history of science that is typically viewed as a linear "march to truth," showing that it instead demonstrates that science advances within a changing and contingent nexus of human relations, not outside the social order and despite its impediments.