Scientific Method as Social Praxis: Towards Resolving the Tension between Reason and Relativism
Several features of the current world conjuncture of development seem eminently to justify a reappraisal of the debate on the social impact of science and the societal underpinnings of scientific activity. Conceptually, the debate on the subject has been reduced to a clash of fundamentally irreconcilable postures. Notions of science and scientific method are endlessly confounded, and used with little concern for either the practice of science or for the history of scientific advance. And at the core of these theoretical disputes is an unresolved tension between reason and relativism.
The luxury of remaining confined within this framework of debate is becoming unaffordable. With aspirations for a better life among the overwhelming mass of the world's population continually running up against the limits imposed by underdevelopment, it is becoming increasingly clear that the promises of plenty made on behalf of science have been premised upon far too simplistic a conception of its social impact. In this conceptual vacuum, the viewpoint is gaining ground that science—whether as a method of procedure or as a body of doctrine—has no greater claims to universal validity than any other tradition, and that insistence on the primacy of science is a device of cultural dominance which needs to be challenged and defeated.
Within the contemporary philosophical milieu, the case for reason is sharply stated by the logical positivists, of whom a notable instance is Ayer: "There is no field of experience which cannot, in principle, be brought under some form of scientific law, and no type of speculative knowledge about the world which it is, in principle, beyond the power of science to give".1 Popper is broadly in concurrence, though his philosophical arguments have a greater depth of emotion: science is the most valuable inheritance of human society, not just "for its practi-
* Chief of Bureau, Frontline, Delhi
Social Scientist, Vol. 24, Nos. 7-8, July-August 1996