Correspondence

Nature 458, 702 (9 April 2009) | doi:10.1038/458702a; Published online 8 April 2009

Let's not reignite an unproductive controversy

John Dupré1 & Paul E. Griffiths2

  1. Economic and Social Research Council Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis), University of Exeter, Byrne House, St German's Road, Exeter EX4 4PJ, UK
    Email: j.a.dupre@exeter.ac.uk
  2. Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science, A14 University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia, and Egenis

Sir

Far from being dominated by scepticism about science, as Harry Collins claims in his Essay 'We cannot live by scepticism alone' (Nature 458, 30–31; 2009), mainstream philosophy of science opposes the relativism that Collins decries. We are both philosophers of biology, a field that analyses key biological concepts such as species and genes, dissects theoretical debates in biology and examines emerging fields such as systems biology. This work often involves criticism of scientific positions. But if any of it is part of Collins's sceptical 'second wave' of science studies, Richard Dawkins is a bishop.

Collins dismisses philosophy of science as a 'first wave of science studies' largely coinciding with post-war confidence in science and superseded by the work of sociologists of knowledge like himself. In fact, mainstream philosophy of science — which was being developed before the Second World War by Rudolph Carnap, Carl Hempel, Karl Popper, Hans Reichenbach and others — remains a thriving discipline in most universities. It teaches students that science is neither the 'voice of a God' nor merely the view of one social group, just as Collins advocates.

The only contemporary 'philosopher' Collins mentions (though not by name) is Steve Fuller, whose statement to a US court that intelligent design is science Collins uses as evidence that post-modern scepticism pervades science studies. However, Fuller is a professor of sociology. All the philosophers of science who, like Fuller, were witnesses or advisers in the Dover Area School District case (see Nature 439, 6–7; 2006) appeared for the other side, supporting evolution.

Working in an interdisciplinary research centre alongside historians and sociologists of biology and medicine, we can assure Collins that post-modern science sceptics are thin on the ground. The 'science wars' of the 1990s were whipped up by a selective focus on the work of a very few scholars, many of whom did not work in the philosophy, history or sociology of science. Let us hope that Collins's remarks do not reignite this unproductive controversy.

See also:
What does applying 'scientific values' mean in reality?
Dialogue between the disciplines is thriving
Widen the channels of communication with society

Readers are welcome to comment at http://tinyurl.com/anykw6