Sciences as Communicational Communities
Joseph Ransdell

(Version 3.1 of November 21, 1998)

Dept of Philosophy, Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas 79409, U.S.A.

Ransdell's home page

Version 1.0 of this paper was delivered orally as an invited paper at a meeting of the American Physical Society, Lubbock, Texas, October 28, 1995. Version 2.0, November 22, 1997, was posted on-line. The present version, 3.1, differs only cosmetically from 3.0, but the latter does involve a substantial expansion from version 2.0.

Since there is no normal pagination on a web page, paragraph numbers -- included in brackets and placed flush right, just above the paragraph -- are assigned in lieu of that for purposes of scholarly reference.

      People in the hard sciences have become increasingly concerned in recent years with challenges to their research autonomy from within academia itself, arising largely from the social sciences and humanities. An opinion paper in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept 29, 1995) by a sociologist especially concerned with research priorities, Daniel Lee Kleinman, indicates that the concern is justified. Kleinman argues there that it is inappropriate for the sciences in a democratic society to object to allowing nonscientists to have a substantial role in making decisions about research methods employed, about how research is regulated, and about what problems are given priority.
      All of these can of course be affected in one way and another by available funding, and the comment would perhaps be unexceptionable if Kleinman was merely saying that the people who pay the piper (e.g. taxpayers, corporate interests, whoever) have a right to specify the song played--which is perhaps true enough insofar as we conceive science as commissioned work--but he makes it clear that he is making the much more questionable claim that the validation of results arrived at, the acceptance of hypotheses formed, and the choice of trails of investigation--activities internal to substantive scientific inquiry itself--are matters of negotiation that should involve substantive participation by nonscientists motivated by goals extraneous to those of the scientific field in question. Kleinman characterizes the opposition to this attempted intrusion into the actual course of inquiry in the various scientific fields by outsiders as such as an "arrogant elitism" bred by the favored position in academia the hard sciences have enjoyed during the greater part of this century.
      My own academic experience suggests that an attitude of "arrogant elitism" is as likely to be found in one academic field as in another and is rooted in the essentially medieval hierarchical structure of the professorial system rather than in the favoritism which is, indeed, enjoyed by the scientists in academia. But however that may be, Kleinman's dismissal of the objections to the invasion of the scientific disciplines as stemming from an elitist attitude is a rhetorical maneuver that obscures the real issue, which is not whether scientists are to be allowed to do whatever they want at other people's expense--a position nobody is going to defend--but whether scientific inquiry is to continue to be recognized institutionally as a discovery process, guided ideally by the norms implicit in such ideas as that of truth, knowledge, reality, objectivity, and so forth, or is to be controlled instead by the principles of persuasion and accommodation that are used in negotiational and political activity.
      I will not review the many considerations that have made it seem plausible to people such as Kleinman that scientific inquiry reduces finally to bargaining with one's colleagues about outcomes, which is the assumption that is usually at the basis of the argument for broadening participation in the science to include people from other fields who will enter into the supposed "negotiational" process of inquiry as representing other "stakeholders" with interests in its outcomes as well. But if the issue is to be addressed effectively by those interested in defending the sciences against politicization, it should be done by getting clear on what such things as truth and objectivity really do mean as a matter of professional procedure and practice. Armed with a realistic understanding of that, scientists should have no special difficulty in pointing out, as the occasion arises, the absurdity of permitting people not involved in the kind of inquiry in question to have a substantive role in determining how it is to be conducted. In the absence of that understanding, though, it is easy to find oneself lost in the jungle of argumentation that has grown up in connection with this over the centuries and finally find oneself entrapped verbally by the rhetoric of skilled debaters.
      By and large, philosophers have not been of much help in this, but I think Charles Peirce's conception of the nature of scientific practice and of what differentiates it from other forms of human activity--a matter upon which he could speak from the vantage point of an accomplished contributor in an astonishing range of scientific fields--can be of real help in this connection, not by providing scientists with knockdown arguments that will counter effectively the argumentation of the interlopers--such matters are not settled in that way, in any case--but rather by reminding scientists of what is essential to them as such and what is not. For if the sciences do indeed find themselves increasingly politicized in the way Kleinman is working toward, it will not be because this is forced upon them by people external to science but because scientists themselves forget what they are and become politicians in the attempt to defend themselves against that very occurrence.
      In what follows I will speak to this in the spirit of Peirce but will do so according to my own understanding, and will not attempt to explain this in the terms he would use himself. I will try to convey some idea both of what is actually involved in the commitment to truth and objectivity, and also some idea of how this relates to the usual strategies of argumentation used by those wanting to introduce themselves into the sciences in an unacceptable way.
      The sort of case which academic politicians like Kleinman make usually uses the same basic rhetorical strategy, which starts by claiming that -- or speaking as if -- scientists make pretense to being something they cannot possibly be, namely, infallible knowers of the truth about something in virtue of being equipped with methods which guarantee that whatever conclusions they come to with use of them will be the truth. Stated baldly, this depiction of the scientists' supposed self-image as inquirers is preposterous, to be sure, but in fact it is almost always some variation on this that is first attributed to the scientists and then attacked and it should surely give scientists pause that they apparently present themselves so poorly both to students in general and to their nonscientific faculty colleagues that such a travesty of their self-conception is actually found plausible by large numbers of students and faculty alike. Public presentations of science ought never to encourage this false image, either directly or indirectly, in the mistaken believe that science can be "sold" to the public on that basis. The general public supports science as much as it does because of its perceived results, to be sure, but not because of any misguided belief they might have that it is an infallible procedure, even if they do in fact have that belief: the results of theoretical science are now so obvious and important to the public and its political representatives that those who speak for the sciences should be doing what they can to dissuade people from their natural tendency to think that science must be something with magical potency and even infallibility precisely because it is so powerful. For this is not only a false image but also one which runs directly counter to the perception of science as adventure and exploration, which is what must be conveyed if it is to continue to attract the kind of people to it who are wanted. To present science as an infallible machine-like activity or to present scientists as authority figures pronouncing definitively on this or that functions only to dehumanize it and generate deep fears and resentments of it.
      In any case, the next move in the usual attack on the sciences is to claim that careful and extensive empirical study of the actual behavior of scientists by sociologists and historians shows that they have no such method of acquiring truth after all, and that they actually come to their conclusions simply by communicating with one another until they are in agreement and they call that agreement the "truth" of the matter. The communicational process is then labeled by the sociologist of knowledge as "negotiation", and the conclusion is drawn that, in practice, scientific truth is just negotiated agreement among people who call themselves "scientists," and truth and knowledge claims are really just rhetorical devices used by scientists when speaking to the general public to buttress their institutional status as authoritarian dogmatists. This is the image of science as the High Church of Reason, with scientists cast as practitioners of priestcraft, which occurs frequently in anti-science rhetoric in recent years.
      The reason this kind of attack can be effective in spite of its intellectual crudeness is that, for one thing, scientists have helped to lay the groundwork for it themselves by allowing such a grotesque misrepresentation of the nature of scientific inquiry to develop and to stand unchallenged in their own day-to-day academic activities, including their teaching and their relationships with their colleagues in the humanities and soft sciences. Scientists are not, after all, without voice or effective presence in academia, and there is surely something to be explained in the fact that this sort of thing is not simply dismissed as a bad joke but actually taken seriously by what seem to be increasingly large numbers of nonscientific students and academicians.
      A further reason for its rhetorical effectiveness is the fact that there is of course no algorithm--no routine or unfailing method--for finding out the truth about things or knowing for sure when you have it; and since truth and knowledge in the hard sciences is essentially located at the level of the scientific community rather than the individual inquirer, matters are indeed settled by collegial communication eventuating in common acceptance. Insofar as they bring attention to the communicational aspect of scientific inquiry, then, the sociologists and historians are right and are performing a valuable intellectual service. They falsify this by their labeling of the communicational process overall as negotiational and the introduction of a political model of discussion, but even here there is some substance in the claim and it needs to be dealt with explicitly to see what it really does and does not involve and imply. In general, what scientists--or rather, all of us in academia--need to focus attention on if we are to understand what we are doing, using the kind of self-critical awareness we supposedly represent, is the nature of the communicational process itself and of our professional communicational practices.
      I omit discussion here of the way in which something like negotiation does in fact play an important role in the sciences, which I would argue to be secondary and not truly negotiational except in a very loose sense. But to move to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible here, let me simply say that all communication among scientists that occurs in the process of inquiry as an essential part of the process is governed by norms that are usually understood well enough in practice -- in the hard sciences at least -- to be generally effective, but which are still too poorly understood in critical reflection, both within and outside of the sciences, to provide the sort of understanding which is needed if these attacks on the sciences are to countered as effectively as they should be. It is the recognition in practice of these norms that constitutes the commitment to truth and objectivity. But so familiar are they in everyday practice that their significance goes unnoticed and critical reflective discussion of them with the aim of understanding why they are so commonly recognized and how they carry the burden of the commitment to truth and objectivity rarely occurs. Sometimes the obvious, precisely because of its ubiquitous presence, goes unnoticed.
      What are these norms and what justifies them as norms? They are the norms that govern professional publication in academia in general, and not simply in the sciences, and their justification--supposing they really are justifiable--consists in the fact -- supposing it is a fact -- that a research community that honors them in the spirit as well as the letter will flourish whereas a research community which conforms to them only in the letter without a real understanding of what their purpose or rationale actually is, or which does not conform to them at all, will waste its intellectual energies in endless acrimonious dispute about methodology and in the politics of academic empire building and turf protection.
      I am not, of course, referring to publication schedules or publication policies established in mindless emulation of what are often bogus models of research and scholarship having no real connection with the way professional publication actually works at the leading edge of research, but rather of publication as the process of communication of and about results as these results are being fed back into the process that produced them in such a way as to modify that process itself by altering its content or form in some way. Results that do not have that immediate effect may, to be sure, have such an effect at a later time -- possibly even many years later -- and it is important to understand how to control the flow of research results in such a way that what is not assimilated or assimilable at the leading edge at a given time be retained in standing availability. Indeed, it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of a sophisticated understanding of this for the health of a tradition of inquiry, notwithstanding the fact that it is something hardly understood at all at present and typically discussed only in connection with the economics and politics of publication rather than in connection with its underlying logic or rationale. But I cannot devote even the bare minimum of discussion of this that would be required to make its importance clear in the present paper and will simply bracket that for the present in order to focus attention effectively on publication, which will be assumed here to be fed back into the research process at the leading edge or at least made maximally available for that purpose. The question is, what do we have to understand about this to understand what the most fundamental norms of inquiry are?
      I believe that these things can be understood and the norms can even be specified in some detail if it is understood that scientific publication proper, like professional academic publication in general, is (1) communication that occurs within a special public (2) which consists of all persons--living, dead, and as yet unborn--with a common interest in a certain subject-matter, (3) the common interest being to come to a better understanding of that subject-matter (more profound, more comprehensive, and better grounded) than exists at any given moment, and (4) who understand that what binds them together in a communicational community is not their personal affinities and likenesses but their common concern that that subject-matter should be increasingly well understood by all who are similarly concerned.
      Now, if this sounds initially like a sequence of truisms, don't dismiss it on that account: for one thing, truisms frequently have the merit of being true (their deficiency is that they tend to be jejune and require rejuvenation); for another, anything we discover from critical reflection on our own practice should be of the nature of a truism since it is supposed to express what we already take for granted; for a third, there is abundant testimony from philosophers from antiquity to the present to the effect that the most difficult things to perceive are precisely those that are ubiquitous in our lives or in our experience; and for a fourth, from these truisms or something very like them we can unpack a range of implications about the norms not only of scientific activity but of academic intellectual life in general that are by no means obvious and can be of help for the problem at hand.
      My intention in the formulation above is to lay as much stress as possible on the subject-matter of inquiry, and if the occasion permitted I would try to show, first, that the universal--and commonly recognized--form of professional academic publication is based on what is minimally essential in maintaining a common and increasingly adequate reference to the subject-matter of the field of inquiry, and I would argue that the reason the "hard" sciences have been so successful as to warrant that appellation lies in their adoption of the general conception of controlled observation (experiment is the special case) as the stabilizing element at the basis of all professional communication, which functions primarily to insure that it is finally the subject-matter or object of scientific study--not the scientists--that controls science by determining in interaction with the inquiring scientist what is and is not accepted and taken for granted in the science.
      I can say in the present space at least this much, though, by way of suggestion, that the sociologist of knowledge who concludes that it must be negotiation among scientists that lies at the basis of science does so because the sociologist, as an outsider to the inquiry being observed, cannot relate to the subject-matter as the scientist-participants do and indeed cannot locate the subject-matter in its essential internal relationships within inquiry at all, and thus must leave out of account that factor in the process the reference to which constitutes the basis of its objectivity and makes pertinent the concept of truth. The sociologist can, of course, become a participant just as anybody else who qualifies themselves to do so can in principle become a participant, but insofar as the sociologist participates the sociologist is doing something other than sociology (except in the special case of inquiry into sociology as a science), and the sociological account remains radically incomplete and, apparently, incapable of completion -- unless, indeed, the sociologist can find the thread that leads out of this labyrinth (which has been recognized in a variety of forms before) by inquiring into the one case where the sociologist seems clearly to be in position to relate to the subject-matter of inquiry in the way required by inquiry into that inquiry, namely, in the case of sociological self-reflection. The methodological problem is, of course, to avoid disappearing into the mysteries of one's own navel in doing so.
      But leaving the plight of the sociologist aside for the present, I believe that if the basic conception of scientific publication as communication that I articulated above in a crude but basic form is thought through consistently, it will be seen that this entails first of all that everything said about the subject-matter should be said responsibly and sincerely, which is to say that lying, misdirection, evasion, waffling, and all other forms of deliberate or tolerated misrepresentation--in short, any of the many forms of insincerity--are the most fundamental of all violations of scientific method. Secrecy is a limitation on science: where secrecy begins science ends, strictly speaking; but that is a limitation on the scope of inclusion of a scientific community, and although necessarily crippling to whatever extent it is practiced, it is not secrecy but rather insincerity--lying in its most general form--that kills science immediately insofar as it enters into it effectively. Why? Because no real subject-matter can be understood from the perspective of a single person--reality has facets--but is essentially a matter of the coordination of multiple perspectives on the same thing, and lying introduces pseudo-perspectives that tend toward defeating attempts within a scientific community to establish a coherent coordination of the perspectives available at a given time, thus deracinating inquiry by destroying the integrity of its connection with its subject-matter as its ultimate source of control.
      The coordination of the diverse perspectives of the individual members of the community, which is a primary function of the publication process, assumes that the subject-matter which concerns its members is unitary and real, since if it were unreal this would be shown by a continuing inability to establish such a coordination. And what is meant by objectivity in inquiry, considered as an attitude of the inquirer, is the commitment to establishing such a coordination by reference to a common object, and by the cultivation of communicational practices designed to maximize the kind of collaboration that can have such a result. Objectivity considered as a formal feature of the inquiry process, rather than as a stance taken by the inquirer, is that referential structure in the communicational process regarded logically. Where such communicational practices exist, authentic publication policies are in effect and are working effectively; where there is no attempt at such a coordination there is no objectivity in the field, and the publication practices are more likely to be conducive to chaos than to growth and to function more as a blight than a blessing.
      Though it may not be readily apparent, this also implies that every individual in such a community is to be regarded as presumptively equal with every other as a provider of content to be assimilated into the coherent coordination of perspectives sought for, and although it is true that some people's opinions will inevitably be weighted more heavily in practice than others--and no doubt should be if they establish a track record that warrants it--this must remain at the level of individual judgment and not be confused with the shared public understanding of a given scientific community, which is always concerned only with characteristics of the subject-matter since it is that and that only which constitutes the concern constitutive of the particular community of inquirers as such. In other words, no community of scientific inquiry as such can legitimately concern itself with ranking its own members in terms of their status and worth in the community because to do so is to lose sight of its subject-matter by lapsing into group introspection instead. More could be said about this, and will be elsewhere, but I will only add further here that we see here the typical point of attempted entry of authoritarianism into inquiry, and can see why its effective entry always corrupts to the extent that this effect ramifies.
      This is why it is of the first importance not to confuse what it means to be a scientist of this type or that with being a professor of this rank or that in a local hierarchical university system. I don't doubt that such confusions do in fact plague the sciences like they plague every other academic field, causing a falling away from science into the acrimony of politics, and that the essential egalitarianism of science is betrayed in many ways as it actually exists in practice; but these compromises and betrayals are academic diseases and deformities, inherited as congenital birth defects due to the origins of academia as a medieval hierarchical institution, not a norm of the scientific life proper, which is fundamentally at odds with this hierarchical heritage. Let me stress that the point is not to adopt an unrealistic view of the importance of prestige and accomplishment, but rather to recognize that pains should be taken not to allow this to subvert in practice the principle of presumptive equality which is the essential element of the idea of a peer. The reason is essentially the same as in the case of lying: a peer is--logically regarded--equivalent to a respected perspective on the subject-matter, and to treat a peer either as superior or inferior is to derange the coordination of perspectives which is the constant task of the ongoing science.
      But what about truth? Charles Peirce was perhaps the first to recognize -- and recognize it he did, even if he did not phrase it precisely as I do -- that the force of the truth predicate "is true" is that of an assertion indicator, adding nothing to content but functioning instead to signal the way in which what is being said is to be taken. Taken by whom? By whomever it may concern, i.e. by any given member of the communicational community addressed, which exists distributively not collectively, and includes any persons -- some not yet living, perhaps -- who share the same sort of interest in that subject-matter as the person making the assertion or claim. The analysis of truth is the analysis of assertion of this special type, which is not capturable in a speech-act conception of assertion but has to be explicated in terms of a communicational act instead. I cannot go further into the conception of a communicational act here other than to say that the effect of an assertion of this sort--which is the same as the act of professional publication--is to invoke the norms of communication of this community as relevant to critical response in respect to what is put forth in the claim, both as regards its form and its content. The act of publication signifies a commitment on the part of the person publishing to an essentially interminable responsibility to being appropriately responsive to anybody else who is appropriately responsive to what is asserted in the publication. This is not the place to spell out what is appropriate, but common sense and some acquaintance with publishing practices in the sciences or in professional intellectual life generally is all that is required to understand much of what that entails.
      In brief, then, if we ask whether something is true we are asking about a subject-specific property, not about something called "truth", and the answer will always take a subject-specific form. The person who seeks the truth about the constituents of matter wants to know about matter not about truth. But if we are asking the very different question "What is truth?" the answer is that it is the overall form of life of the scientific inquirer as such. I have only attempted to describe it in one respect here, but I believe it is a fundamental one.
      Let me conclude by suggesting that although there is certainly a need to make clear to the general public that commitment to finding out the truth, in the sense of what is true, is what science is all about, the most effective response to the encroachment of the academic politicians into scientific fields is not to debate the topic with them--debate is itself a political rather than a logical mode of discourse and one wins nothing by winning a debate, which is not likely to happen, in any case. when one is debating with people whose skills are primarily political--but rather to focus attention on the communicational practices in one's own field and attempt to understand what in these practices is truly conducive to the health of the field considered as a tradition of inquiry and distinguish that from what may originate instead from considerations of institutional expediency only. With a clear understanding of this--which may not be easy, since there are many factors in academia that militate against the health of any communicational community--the sciences need not worry about the attempts of the academic politicians to politicize science; for this will typically take the form of attempting entry into the professional communicational loop and interrupting the normal flow of communication by diverting it to preoccupation with matters with which it has no proper concern, and the interlopers cannot do this without the unwitting concurrence of the scientific community itself.
      As regards the principles underlying public relations activities, both within and outside of the university, the approach taken should never be based on strategies of persuasion developed by people whose mode of professional life is radically different from that of the working scientist but should proceed rather from scientific self-reflection and be authentically expressive of what science actually is as a form of life devoted to inquiry. Scientific life is highly and essentially idealistic, and its attractiveness as a human activity is due at least as much to this as to its technological productivity. People outside of the sciences already understand quite well that science is highly profitable on the technological side, which is why they support it even when they understand little of what it is really like. What they do not understand is that its success is not due to magically powerful but essentially mechanical techniques of grinding out results--this is, unfortunately, the common view of it--but rather to devotion to the adventurous and chance-taking spirit, informed by commitment to turning failure to success by treating mistakes as opportunities to correct one's course rather than as signs of defeat or incompetence.

END OF:  Ransdell, "Sciences as Communicational Communities"


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