Science is (Not) Science.
Though they often softened their claims with Christian rhetoric, positivists assumed that science was also the only sure guide to morality, and the only firm basis for civilization. As their critics began to realize, positivists had abandoned the provisionality of science’s experimental outlook by transforming science from a method into a metaphysic, a source of absolute certainty. Positivist assumptions provided the epistemological foundations for Social Darwinism and pop-evolutionary notions of progress, as well as for scientific racism and imperialism. These tendencies coalesced in eugenics, the doctrine that human well-being could be improved and eventually perfected through the selective breeding of the “fit” and the sterilization or elimination of the “unfit.”
Every schoolkid knows about what happened next: the catastrophic twentieth century. Two world wars, the systematic slaughter of innocents on an unprecedented scale, the proliferation of unimaginably destructive weapons, brushfire wars on the periphery of empire—all these events involved, in various degrees, the application of scientific research to advanced technology. All showed that science could not be elevated above the agendas of the nation-state: the best scientists were as corruptible by money, power or ideology as anyone else, and their research could as easily be bent toward mass murder as toward the progress of humankind. Science was not merely science. The crowning irony was that eugenics, far from “perfecting the race,” as some American progressives had hoped early in the twentieth century, was used by the Nazis to eliminate those they deemed undesirable. Eugenics had become another tool in the hands of unrestrained state power. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued near the end of World War II in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the rise of scientific racism betrayed the demonic undercurrents of the positivist faith in progress. Zygmunt Bauman refined the argument forty-two years later in Modernity and the Holocaust: the detached positivist worldview could be pressed into the service of mass extermination. The dream of reason bred real monsters.
The midcentury demise of positivism was a consequence of intellectual advances as well as geopolitical disasters. The work of Franz Boas, Claude Lévi-Strauss and other anthropologists promoted a relativistic understanding of culture, which undercut scientific racism and challenged imperial arrogance toward peoples who lagged behind in the Western march of progress. Meanwhile, scientists in disciplines ranging from depth psychology to quantum physics were discovering a physical reality that defied precise definition as well as efforts to reduce it to predictable laws. Sociologists of knowledge, along with historians and philosophers of science (including Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger and Thomas Kuhn), all emphasized the provisionality of scientific truth, its dependence on a shifting expert consensus that could change or even dissolve outright in light of new evidence. Reality—or at least our apprehension of it—could be said to be socially constructed. This meant that our understanding of the physical world is contingent on the very things—the methods of measurement, the interests of the observer—required to apprehend it.