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The social sciences must be heard

28 June 1999

No attempt to come to terms with the contemporary relationship between science and society can afford to treat lightly the contributions of social scientists

The relationship between the natural and the so-called 'social' sciences has never - at least in the English speaking world - been a particularly comfortable one. Some physical scientists, in particular, brought up to believe in the 'hard reality' of objective phenomena, often find it difficult to accept that another, but equally valid, form of reality can be revealed by what are often disparagingly called the 'soft sciences'. Others have, more recently, used the blatant excesses of some extreme protagonists of 'constructivist' thinking to argue - wrongly - that the social sciences are dedicated to undermining the very concept of scientific truth.

Both lines of reasoning are deceptive, and ultimately damaging. The social sciences may not have recorded achievements comparable to that of placing a man on the moon or deciphering the genetic code. But they have provided a deep understanding of the dynamics of human society that, in its own way, has made an equally fundamental contribution to our social well-being.

More concretely, if we are to get a handle on the tensions and conflicts that often characterize the relationships between science and society, then it is essential that we give full support to those academic disciplines that promise to supply the intellectual - and ultimately practical - tools that we need to deal with topics ranging from the public perception of technological risk to the way that equity gaps become magnified in knowledge-based societies.

It is as arrogant of 'natural' scientists to pretend that such issues require little more than a dose of applied commonsense as it would be for a social scientist to claim that fundamental science has become a luxury in the modern world. Both are essential forms of human knowledge, and it is perhaps to be regretted that the draft Declaration and Framework for Action, each due for acceptance by the conference at the end of this week, are less insistent than they could be on emphasizing this point.

Of course, establishing a firm, synergistic relationship between two very different forms of knowledge is a daunting task. But, as the plenary addresses have already revealed, the tasks confronting the natural sciences as they struggle to meet the new demands being placed on them by society are equally so. Such problems will not be resolved by characterising them as primarily ethical issues. They demand the full and reflective attention of all scientists, 'social' or otherwise.

Macmillan MagazinesNature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1999 Registered No. 785998 England.