Science and technology as social processes. What science education should not forge.

Jorge Núñez Jover.

Postgraduate Director of the University of Havana

Epistemology. Introduction.

The successes of science, in its alliance with technology, are undoubted. They have given us a great capacity to explain, control and transform the world.

The importance of science and technology increases to the extent that the world enters into what has been called "the knowledge society", that is, societies in which the importance of knowledge is constantly growing due to its incorporation to the productive and service processes, for their relevance in the exercise of popular participation in the processes of government and also for the good conduct of personal and family life.

The enormous cognitive capacity of humanity must exert an ever greater influence on the life of societies and people.

That is why the reflection on science is a subject to which modern thought, especially that of the second half of this century, has devoted special attention.

This essay is aimed at people who study science (natural, social, technical or other) or are interested in them to present a certain image of science as it emerges from the contemporary debate. Teaching and learning science requires a certain "epistemological vigilance" that prevents our epistemic acts from being conducted by approaches that simplify and distort the real nature of scientific praxis.

The thesis that animates my exposition is this: we not only need to know about science but about science.

As I believe, the relevance of this approach is extensive to people who are mainly engaged in technology activity. Science and modern technology are inseparable; consequently they have become almost indistinguishable activities. It is difficult to know what people who work in a research-development laboratory in a large industry are doing: do they do science or do they do technology? Maybe they just do "technoscience", an activity where the old limits are blurred.

In any case, any discussion about science is relevant to technology and vice versa. Ultimately it is about knowledge and its social significance.
The Domain of Science and Technology

Modern technology supported by scientific development (technoscience) exerts an extraordinary influence on social life in all its areas: economic, political, military, cultural. The Scientific Revolution of the XVII Century, and the Industrial Revolution started in the XVIII Century wererelatively independent processes. The reciprocal and systematic fertilization between science and technology is, above all, a phenomenon that materializes from the second half of the century and is accentuated notably in the current century. The transition from the 20th century to the 21st century is a period marked by scientific and technological development.

The first thing a student who joins studies in the fields of science and technology must know is that he submerges himself in one of the territories that define world power to a large extent.

The image of science as an activity of isolated individuals who eagerly seek truth without other interests than cognitive ones, sometimes transmitted by textbooks, does not coincide at all with the social reality of contemporary science. To a great extent, the scientific and technological development of this century has been driven by interests linked to the desire for world hegemony of the great powers and to the demands of industrial development and consumption patterns that are produced and disseminated from the societies that have marked the advanced in modernization processes.

That is why States and large transnational corporations are among the main protagonists of contemporary science and technology.

During the nineteenth century came the so-called academic science linked to the professionalization of scientific work and the consolidation of scientific research as a relevant function of the university (the paradigm is the German University of the early nineteenth century). In this process also crystallized the image of science as a disinterested search for the truth to which I alluded earlier.

But the relationship between science and society has undergone abrupt changes in this century. However, until barely two decades ago an approach that today is considered unsatisfactory prevailed. The idea was that we had to invest heavily in basic research, which in the long run would generate technological innovation and this would favor social development. After this idea, in the period between World War II and the seventies a lot of money was invested for this purpose. The economic crisis experienced by world capitalism forced us to reconsider this approach and move to a much more dirigiste model of scientific and technical development. This is what is characteristic of the so-called Third Industrial Revolution, characterized by the leadership of microelectronics and the leading role of Biotechnology, the search for new forms of energy, new materials, among other sectors.

Today there is little scientific practice away from interests of application for economic or other purposes, which has implications for scientific activity, the lives of scientists, the institutions that host them and their relationships with society. Business psychology and ideology are present in the world of science. It is not by pleasure that the ethical problems associated with science and technology constitute daily concerns today. It has been said that the accumulated power is so much that the question: what can be done? has been displaced by what should be done?

But that extraordinary power is very poorly distributed worldwide. The vast majority of scientific and technological capacity is concentrated in a small group of industrialized countries. The scientific and industrial revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries developed in Europeassociated with the economic, political and cultural change experienced by those societies since the Renaissance.

Over the next two centuries, some countries managed to actively join these processes, including the United States, Russia and Japan.

Most of the world, however, has hardly any participation in the definition and execution of scientific-technical courses. It has been said that world science is even more concentrated than world wealth. Latin America, for example, has very little participation in science and technology: just over 2% of the scientists and engineers who perform research and development tasks on the planet and just over 1% of the resources that are invested for that purpose .

Especially since the sixties it has been insisting that the exit of underdevelopment requires the creation of science and technology capabilities. But discourses have overflowed to practical realizations.

Within this scenario, Cuba's position is very unique: in relation to its economic resources the country has made an extraordinary effort in science and technology which expresses a very defined political will. Cuba continues to bet on scientific and technological development as a vehicle for social development. The ambition to satisfy the basic human needs (in health, food, etc.) and the need to articulate the Cuban economy in a beneficial way to the international economy, are the motives of Cuban scientific and technological development that rests on an educational effort sustained by almost 40 years.

While most of the Third World countries have relinquished their leading role in the scientific field, Cuba insists on developing an endogenous scientific and technological base. The problem of the relationship science-technology-development is for our country a fundamental issue. Within this ambitious purpose, the social responsibility of the technical scientific intelligentsia is essential.

Is science neutral?

In this section I introduce a fundamental discussion for the theoretical interpretation of science. A misjudgment on the subject would prevent achieving a balanced view of the relationship between social commitment and intellectual honesty in science.

To discuss the matter I will follow the thread of the analysis on neutrality developed by Agazzi (1996). For him it is necessary to discern between several fundamental senses of the neutrality: like "disinterestedness", like "independence of prejudices", like "not being at the service of interests", like "freedom of conditioning", or like "indifference towards ends" (p.68).

Is it possible to recognize the neutrality of science in any of these senses? The social studies of science developed during this century (Núñez, 1989) have highlighted the social nature of scientific practice and its consequent commitment to the values, priorities and interests of the structure and social agents. That is, science is a social activity linked to the other forms of human activity. The processes of production, dissemination and application of knowledge specific to scientific activity are inexplicable regardless of the economic, political, military interests, among others that characterize the various social contexts.

In this perspective, science is an institutionalized activity, permeable to social values ​​and interests and can not be neutral.

However, the conclusion may not be so clear if attention is paid to science as knowledge, that is, if we pay attention to the cognitive value of theories and other expressions of knowledge. If, in a hurried way, the non-neutrality preached for science as an activity to the understanding of science as knowledge is extended, one can arrive at the negation of scientific objectivity; An ideal of social commitment for science could be sustained, but in this way I do not see how to retain the sense of intellectual honesty understood as a commitment to objectivity. Agazzi puts it this way: "it must be concluded that science can not be neutral as an activity while it is and it should be as knowledge" (p.71).

Science is activity and it is knowing. Neither one nor the other separately. The limits between both expressions of science can only be recognized with an analytical purpose. However, as will be seen immediately, this distinction can be useful in exploring the different senses of neutrality mentioned above.

Let's start with neutrality as "disinterest." The scientific activity is inexplicable regardless of social interests. These interests are expressed, for example, in the financing of science, in the priorities established for it. These interests, however, do not deny the interest in producing objective knowledge, the properly cognitive interests that favor objectivity. Moreover, the interests that try to instrumentalize science and put it at the service of the most varied purposes, require objective knowledge that makes science useful knowledge. Scientific policies, research programs, institutions that articulate scientific work are not neutral with respect to the social goals that give them life, but this does not make the knowledge obtained the expression of a particular economic or political interest, although its use does usually subordinate to them.

Let's look at the idea of ​​neutrality as "independence of prejudices." Here the word prejudice does not have a pejorative sense; refers to "a certain complex preconstituted convictions, intellectual attitudes, mental habits, valuations, etc." (Agazzi, p.72). The science seen as an activity can not be neutral with respect to the prejudices thus defined. Each individual, collectivity, society, age, carry such prejudices that influence the way of doing science, the choice of fields of research, priorities in teaching and other expressions of scientific practice.

We must recognize that these prejudices also influence science as knowledge. The criteria of objectivity and rationality are subject to certain contingency and historical determination. The construction of objective knowledge is always achieved within preset conceptual and methodological frameworks. Scientists must be aware of the limits imposed by these frameworks on objectivity and endeavor to subordinate their conclusions to the "good reasons" (theoretical, logical, empirical) that can be provided within those frameworks whose limits have been critically evaluated. In this way science as knowledge achieves a certain neutrality with respect to prejudices: "science as knowledge can and must be neutral with respect to prejudices, becoming aware of them and of their partiality" (ibid, p.73).It is obvious that this ability to evaluate and criticize prejudices is limited and therefore objectivity is often threatened. The construction of an objective knowledge requires a permanent disposition to discuss the prejudices that inform the scientific conclusions and through this a reasonable degree of neutrality is attainable.

When we speak of neutrality as "disinterest", we refer to the reasons that drive it. When dealing with neutrality as "not being at the service of interests", the accent falls on the possibility of instrumentalizing science. At the level of science as an activity it is not possible to imagine such kind of neutrality. If we observe science as objective knowledge, the conclusion must be different. Science has contributed to promote within our civilization that moral habit we call intellectual honesty "that is, the underlying attitude that consists in the refusal to silence the truth, to camouflage it, or to pass it off as false, as a gift to the interests of any Even if they were particularly noble and altruistic, it is not possible to renounce this form of neutrality of science without having to pay a very high fee in terms of the bankruptcy of civilization "(ibid, p.76).

Of course, very diverse interests can penetrate scientific knowledge; Intellectual honesty must be an antidote to impose limits on that tendency.

Neutrality can also be interpreted as "freedom from conditioning". Scientific activity is always subject to conditioning; they define priorities, financing, obstacles. Knowledge is not produced in any direction and with speed in all areas. However, the scientific enterprise, the institutions that carry it out, the collectives that work in it, are obliged to claim a certain reasonable level of autonomy, thus avoiding that the properly cognitive interest, the purpose of advancing the knowledge is excluded from the acceptable conditions for the promotion of scientific activity: "If it renounces to fight such a battle it ends up in the bottom renouncing itself" (ibid, p.77).

The sense of neutrality as "indifference to ends" allows on the one hand to recognize the diversity of purposes that can guide science as an activity and on the other, to identify the distinctive and fundamental purpose of science. Even admitting that science can pursue different purposes in diverse contexts such as research, application, teaching or others (Echeverría, 1995), we can admit that its fundamental purpose, the "defining and constitutive end of the field of science as knowledge" it is the production of objective knowledge.

Science can not and should not be neutral with respect to various social ends, it can not be alienated from them by claiming that it does not concern them; this would be myopia or hypocrisy. But science must reserve a space for objectivity by defending its value as an authentic end.

This journey through the theme of neutrality is intended to leave standing that the social nature of scientific activity prevents accepting its neutrality with regard to conditioning, ends, social values. Science always keeps a social commitment. The collectives that accept or promote science can and should ask themselves in reference to what social values, what priorities and interests will develop their activity.


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