Scientific methods and societal paradigms

From Sustainability Methods

Note: The German version of this entry can be found here: Scientific methods and societal paradigms (German).

In short: This entry discusses how scientific methods have influenced society - and vice versa.

The role of scientific paradigms for society

From early on, scientific paradigms were drivers of societal development. While much else may have happened that is not conveyed by the archaeological record and other accounts of history, many high cultures of the antiques are remembered for their early development of science. Early science was often either having a pronounced practical focus, such as in metallurgy, or was more connected to the metaphysical, such as astronomy. Yet even back then, the ontological (how we make sense of our knowledge about the world) and the epistemological (how we create our knowledge about the world) was mixed up, as astronomy also allowed for navigation, and much of the belief systems was sometimes rooted, and sometimes reinforced by astronomical science. Prominent examples are the star of Bethlehem, the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, and the Mayan calendar. However, science was for the most part of the last two millennia in a critical relation to the metaphysical, as there was often a quest for ontological truths between religions and science. While the East was more open to allow science to thrive and made active use of its merits; in Europe, many developments were seen as critical, with Galileo Galileo being a prominent example. Since this changed with the Enlightenment, science paved the way for the rise of the European empires, and with it the associated paradigms.

Three examples for an active interaction

While the history of methods was already in the focus before, here we want to focus on how the development of scientific methods interacted with societal paradigms. It is often claimed that science is in the Ivory Tower, and is widely unconnected from society. While this cannot be generalised for all branches of science, it is clear that some branches of science are more connected to society than others. Let us have a look at three examples.


A prominent example of a strong interaction is medicine, which has at its heart the care for the patient. However, this naive assumption cannot hold the diverse paradigms that influenced and build medicine over time. Today, ananmesis - the information gained by a physician by asking specific questions of a patient - gained in importance, and the interdisciplinary conferences of modern treatments combine different expertise with the goal of a more holistic recognition of the diseases or challenges of the individual patient.


Engineering is another branch of science which builds on a long tradition, and has at its early stages quite literally paved the road for many developments of modernity. While factories and production processes are today also seen more critically, it has become clear already since Marx that the working condition of modern production are not independent of questions of inequality. In addition, production processes are shifting in order to enable more sustainable production processes, indicating another paradigm shift in engineering.

Agricultural science

The last example, agricultural science, is also widely built around positivistic methodology of modern science, allowing of an optimisation of agricultural production in order to maximise agricultural yield, often with dire consequences. The so-called 'Green Revolution' wreaked havoc on the environment, destroyed local livelihoods across the globe, and untangled traditional social-ecological systems into abusive forms that led ultimately to their demise in many parts of the world.

These three examples showcase how the development of modern science led to abusive, unbalanced, and often unsustainable developments that would in the long run trigger new paradigms such as the post-modernity, degrowths and other often controversially discussed alternatives to existing paradigms. Science was clearly an accomplice in driving many negative developments, and willingly developed the basis for many methodological foundations and paradigms that were seen in a different light after they were utilised over a longer time.

Equally did society drive a demand onto scientific inquiry, demanding solutions from science, and thereby often funding science as a means to an end. Consequently, science often acted morally wrong, or failed to offer the deep leverage points that could drive transformational change. Such a critical view on science emerged partly out of society, and specifically did a view on empirical approaches emerge out of philosophy.

Science looking at parts of reality

Since the Enlightenment can be seen as an age of solidification of many scientific disciplines, prominent examples of an interaction between scientific developments and societal paradigms can be found here, and later. Since scientific disciplines explicitly look at parts of reality, these parts are often tamed in scientific theories, and these theories are often translated into societal paradigms. Science repeadtedly contributed to what we can interpret as category mistakes, since scientific theories that attempt to explain one part of the world were and still are often translated into other parts of the world. The second mistake is that scientific progress can be seen as continuous (see Laudan: Progress and its Problems), while societal paradigms are often utilising snapshots of scientific theories and tend to ignore further development in the respective branch of science. This makes science in turn vulnerable, as it has to claim responsibility for mistakes society made in interpreting scientific theories, and translating them into societal paradigms. In the following message I will illustrate these capital mistakes of science based on several examples.

Social Darwinism

The evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin can be seen as a first example that illustrates how a scientific theory had catastrophic consequences when it was adapted as a societal paradigm. Ideas that the poor in late Victorian England were unworthy of state intervention, and that social welfare was hence a mistake were build on a misunderstanding of Darwins theory, and Darwin opposed the application of his theory for societal debates. Furthermore, he was horrified that his ideas was also taken as a basis to claim superiority of some races over other races, a crude and scientifically wrong claim that paved the road for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

The Friedman doctrine

Another example is Milton Friedman's theory of shareholders, which claims that corporations have first and foremost responsibility against their shareholders. While this seems like a reasonable thought, the consequences for the global economy were considered to be catastrophic by many. Friedman's theory demanded privatisation at a country-wide scale, also for many countries outside of the USA this was attempted and destroyed entire economies. Finally, the stakeholder theory offered a sound development that could counter Friedman's doctrine, and allowed for a recognition of resources, market as well as other important factors such as corporate social responsibility. While the word 'stakeholder' is deeply ambiguous, stakeholder theory and the relation to Friedman's doctrine showcases direct and drastic interactions between science and society.

Mode 2 research

A last example to showcase how a new research paradigm can even become deeply entangled with social paradigms is the concept of 'Mode 2' research. This new paradigm proposed the systematic recognition of the context that is investigated by multidisciplinary teams in a mode of knowledge production aimed at the real world. By focusing on problems of civil society, this new mode of research departs from basic research, and attempts to develop an active interaction between science and society. While academia hence opened up, gatekeepers criticised this new paradigm, or claimed that it had existed long before it was officially proclaimed. What is clear is that this line of thinking grew in importance, and that it showcases that interactions between academia and civil society gained a wider recognition, and were increasingly institutionalised, although most of academia is to this day organised in disciplines. Deep understanding in one branch of science is undeniably helpful, but there is an ongoing debate whether academia should be problem- or even solution-orientated, and whether many of the wicked problems society faces have to be addressed not only in collaboration between different disciplines, but also together with society. From a methodological standpoint, this posed new challenges, since this type of new knowledge production demanded not only a new array of methodological approaches, but also questioned the still widely dominating paradigm of positivism.

The grand abduction of science and society

Since the Antique, science and society have been in a continuous spiralling movement around each other. While scientific methods are shaped by their time, the times are also shaped by scientific methodology. What is however necessary is the close and mutual interaction between empirical inquiry and the question how we ought to act based on our growing knowledge. Science is only starting to unlock the complicated relation between epistemology and ontology, and the confusion between the two created many problems in scientific tradition to date. In order to develop a robust and critical theory of science, learning from the past development of science offers a great chance. However, between the recognition of positivism, critical theory and Kuhn's recognition of scientific revolution, there is also a more continuous understanding of the history of science, which Larry Laudan coined 'a History of Ideas'. Laudan spoke of a 'History of Ideas' instead of a history of disciplines or scientists and criticized the focus on elites in the history of science. He highlighted that many people had similar ideas and that ideas can break through realities. Larry Laudan was deeply sceptical of disciplines whose alleged boundaries he did not see as strict. He preferred ideas as a unit of thought to understand concepts and the development process of solutions. A central element of his 'History of Ideas' was the question what is real and what was real in the past, which is strongly connected to Critical Realism.

When looking at past developments in science, there is a clash between rational views on past developments, and the role of social, cultural and societal factors that influenced the past developments of science. Laudan differentiated between the modes of organisation and institutional structures that science and scientists of the past had, and differentiates these from their beliefs. Laudan made a distinction between 'cognitive and non-cognitive aspects', and thus claims that science is not always made in a rational conduct. Instead - Laudan argues - scientists often made bold but irrational decisions, choose less convincing theories, alienated traditions, or even opted for non-progressive theories in their research. All this should be well understood as scientific dispute, yet sociology of science has as of yet to come up with one or probably several explanations on why scientists have chosen to deviate from rational paths in the past. The myths that scientific progress, and with it the formulation of knowledge that may be summarised as scientific revolutions, is produced by rational agents should be seen critical at best.

Methodological paradigms over time

Concerning the tensions between new paradigms and the existing methodology, an adaptation of existing methods or a development of new methods altogether may be needed. While for instance in the 1720, following Locke and Bacon, the approach to Newtonian theory was widely inductive, the following decades saw a proclamation of heat, electricity and phenomena of chemistry that could hardly be claimed to be inductively derived, as they are not observable as such. In consequence, a methodology was derived which enabled the hypothesis-forming deduction that should prevail and even dominate for quite some time to come. Lakatos offered a modification to Kuhn's "revolutions", as he proclaimed that several alternative "research programs" can exists in parallel, and these are interacting, maybe even several theories that are built around a heuristic core. However, Lakatos - equally like Kuhn - still considers empirical evidence or methodology as pivotal, allowing only the measurable reality to be the measure of success of a new paradigm. Again, Laudan introduced a new argument to add to the measure of the success of a theory: instead of relying on how many significant problems a new theory can solve, he raises concern about the truth of theories, and instead suggests to compare how one theory is more effective or progressive than another theory. Kuhn and Lakatos both claimed that a paradigm, and with it the associated branch of science, reaches maturity if it gains enough standing to ignore anomalies, and becomes independent of outside criticism. Both Kuhn and Lakatos consider this to be positive, as it makes this part of science more progressive.

Laudan criticised this notion deeply, and considered their view on history of science widely flawed and constructed. In addition, history of science looks at parts of reality, beyond the illusion that it is rational agents acting as scientists. This notion of parts of reality can be linked to Roy Bhaskars view that all science can only unlock parts of reality that are not necessarily connected or can be meaningfully connected, since some parts of reality cannot be observed. This is an important connection towards Laudan, who claims that we have not yet understood rational scientific choice, yet this understanding is a precondition to investigate the social background that the respective science is embedded in. What I call the grand abduction here is hence the seamless interaction between science and society, where we have to recognise that these two realms are not two different entities, but instead are often embedded, integrated, and at times cannot be differentiated at all. While much of positivism often claimed a deductive position, societal development surely operates at longer time scales. Society has questions that science may answer, and demands that science needs to fulfill. Science has willingly fulfilled many demands of society, and has also contributed to many developments in society, many of which are rightly criticised, while other developments also lead to positive merits. However, following Laudan we should not only question that scientists are objective, but following Bhaskar we also have to question their claim of trying to explain objective reality. Neither is science rational, nor can scientists be framed as rational actors, nor can society claim a complete disconnect from the proposed ivory towers of science.

A way out of the current dilemma of societies doubt towards science, and the arrogance of science towards society

Why is this relevant today? Following Bhaskar we could argue that many parts of reality will never be unlocked by us, despite being part of reality. These phenomena will never be part of our reality, and shall not concern us further. This is the first obstacle societal paradigms and society as such face today, since the overarching acceptance of the limitations of science does not exist. Instead, the pendulum swings between criticism of science - often as a means to an end as for instance climate change deniers attempt - or a naive surprise whenever scientific results change, calling the recognition of so-called 'facts' into question. The recognition of critical realism that permanent realities may not exist is especially quite alien from the current societal debate in the Western world, where the distance between a acceptance or rejection of scientific paradigm grew larger of the last years. Regarding the changeability of paradigms, we have to follow Bhaskar in recognising that it can be wise to act based on certain scientific results, yet we also need to be critical. Blindly following everything that scientists claim does not work, because as Laudan highlighted, we cannot assume that scientific actors are always rational. Post truths and fake news are thus facets of knowledge that can be equally driven by irrational scientists or by an ignorant thrive for knowledge by societal actors. Surely, many more complex phenomena are part of the reality of post truths, fake news and associated challenges we currently face. Yet by blaming either scientists or society we will fail to overcome these challenges. Instead of claiming what science ought to be, we should shift to the responsibility of the individual scientist, and building on a critical 'history of ideas' will allow for a better understanding of how scientific innovation happened in the past.

To summarise, science and society were never as disconnected as it was framed in the past. Instead, such constructed realities were built with misleading purposes, and during the last decades, philosophy of science has increasingly tried to solve these problems. Considering the current state and validity of knowledge debates in science and society, we can clearly claim that the responsibility of the individual researcher is a good starting point in order to further overcome these challenges. Current scientific methodologies still widely resolve around dogmas and rigid traditions that participated and built the challenges we currently face. Recognising these flaws is a first step in order to overcome these problems. Seriously engaging with this will be one of the leading challenges of our generation.

Additional Information

The author of this entry is Henrik von Wehrden.