Scientific Knowledge vs Social Constructionism

C.E. Larson

C.E. Larson is a professor of mathematics and applied mathematics at Virginia Commonwealth University, and he’s a big believer in the scientific method as a way of thinking and accumulating knowledge. He’s also worried that a proposed new General Education curriculum winding its way through the VCU bureaucracy is so loaded with trendy, anti-scientific thought that it will make the university “a public and national embarrassment.”

“The proposed curriculum not only appears to be unrigorous and unfocused, but the main problem is that it is implicitly anti-science, at a time when we need to produce graduates — and citizens — who are critical thinkers, and can think like scientists, no matter what discipline they study,” he writes in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

VCU’s current curriculum is conventional, imposing minimum requirements for quantitative literacy, research & academic writing, humanities/fine arts, social/behavioral sciences, and natural physical sciences. The proposed curriculum uses a very different framework for organizing the curriculum: foundations of learning (writing and critical analysis); diversities in the human experience; creativity, innovation, and aesthetic inquiry; global perspectives; and scientific & logical reasoning.

Given the requirement for scientific & logical reasoning, one might be forgiven for wondering what Larson is worried about. It appears that he was triggered by some of the nomenclature in the proposed curriculum.

There is only space here to mention a single offending guideline from VCU’s proposed General Education curriculum: “Recognize how knowledge is constructed differently in various communities.” Knowledge of course is knowledge. But there are fashions in academia that suggest that the most important kinds of knowledge are somehow not universal, and that there is no “truth” to scientific laws.

One of these trends, alluded to in this curriculum guideline, is “social constructivism” or the “social construction of knowledge.” The main idea here seems to be that because people discover scientific laws, the discoveries must be somehow dependent on the backgrounds (cultural, political, etc.) of the scientists who made them. …

A better guideline here would be to recognize how knowledge is universal, and acquired only slowly over time with great effort, by serious and thoughtful researchers across the planet.

A reading of the proposed curriculum reveals other indicators of leftist/progressive thinking:

  • “Understand and evaluate patterns and processes affecting social organization and distributions of power and resources” — again, it’s all about the power.
  • “Examine patterns of inclusion and exclusion, and other forms of social grouping.” The emphasis on inclusion and exclusion, of course, is a leftist preoccupation.

At the risk of getting all philosophical on you, comrade reader, I do believe there is a modicum of truth to the theory of the social construction of knowledge. Knowledge is socially constructed — what else could it be? Embedded in our genome? Further, it is fair to say that there is a powerful tendency for people to construct modes of thought that support and/or justify their own culture, religion, class, nationality, race, ethnicity, affinity group or interest group. Indeed, this is a universal characteristic of human behavior.

However, that’s not to say that all knowledge is socially constructed. Some knowledge comes closer to reflecting reality than other knowledge. Some approaches to acquiring knowledge allow us to send astronauts to the moon and develop cures for cancer that other approaches cannot. Invariably the approaches that advance technology are based upon empiricism and the scientific method. The scientific method — creating falsifiable hypotheses and testing those hypotheses — is, like everything human, less than perfect and subject to bias, blindness and corruption. But over the long haul, it has worked better than any other approach to acquiring knowledge, and the proof, visible in technological marvels, is there for all to see.

Applying the scientific method to the study of human behavior — psychology, sociology, economics, politics, etc. — is more problematic than the physical sciences because (a) human behavior is so extraordinarily complex and influenced by such a vast number of variables, and (b) people have a greater stake in the outcome, which, therefore, may bias the process of scientific inquiry. (Thus, for example, we get supposedly scientific studies finding that liberals have higher IQs than conservatives.)

While the “scientific” process of acquiring knowledge about human affairs is riddled with pitfalls, it is superior to the process that says we all believe what we want to believe, that knowledge is purely a construct of power, and he (or she, or they, or ze) with the most power imposes his language, mental constructs, and cultural/political views on others.

It’s one thing for individual professors to adopt the constructivist paradigm. It’s another thing for a university administration to embed that paradigm within the curriculum. Is that what VCU’s proposed curriculum seeks to do? It’s hard to tell. Is studying “diversities in human experience” a means to entrench leftist/progressive thought? Given the temper of higher education today, I do share Larson’s concerns. But the curriculum also gives emphasis to “scientific & logical reasoning.” I hate to pre-judge the outcome.

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7 responses to “Scientific Knowledge vs Social Constructionism

  1. I’m getting whiplash here… isn’t BR the place that many including JimB express “skepticism” about GW and the current methodologies like the scientific method to develop a body of knowledge?

    And… it’s apparently not just one or two lying scientists… nope.. it actually involves the majority of them on a worldwide basis – i.e. the majority of climate scientists around the world are colluding in a massive deception and group lie about Global Warming.

    So now we have Jim B actually DEFENDING the concept of traditional scientific inquiry and rejecting the populist alternative “theories”?

    Good LORD – does this mean that guy on Tangier Island is spouting some “constructivist ” blather about sea level rise that’s totally at odds with traditional scientific inquiry?

    Great GOOGA MOOGA !!!

  2. Aren’t climate scientists the flunkies that couldn’t hack the hard sciences like physics and chemistry?

    • sure enough – they lie all the time out their backsides… here’s an example of just how bad and unreliable their “science” is. No wonder there are “skeptics”, eh?

  3. You have written a very fine and nuanced article here, Jim. The humanities and the scientific method have long made restless bed fellows. Keeping them aligned and loving one another for mutual advantage is hard.

    Obviously too C. E. Larson is an exceptional professor. He is performing a valuable public service. University scholarship in America yet again is wandering hopelessly lost, but arrogantly so, into the bogs of another tar pit.

    Now it appears that VCU is belatedly trying to jump into the muck, likely going from waist to chin high as it submerges slowly into its own fancy talk full of vacuous words that signal proven nonsense disguised as new powerful ways of learning. Hence, as if a circus clown, UVC claims to be tossing Socrates onto the as ash heap of history, right there on its own campus in Richmond Virginia, the new Athens of the modern western scholarship and learning.

    Why now? Why in Richmond Virginia, of all highly unlikely places?

    Perhaps VCU feels threatened by the nonsense of Ian Baucom’s (UVA’s Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences) proposal that is self described as:

    “As a leading public research university, UVA is dedicated to advancing knowledge and developing citizen leaders for an increasingly complex world that is in constant flux. The new curriculum model will help us build on the historical strengths of our liberal arts and sciences education to better equip our students – to flourish in their chosen careers and to flourish as active, reflective, articulate and contributing members of civic communities.”

    This is a perennial problem of The Academy within liberal democracies, how their self importance invariably inflates them into Fool Errands over cliffs. So off they run into foolishness until the earth disappears beneath their feet.

    You would think that by now VCU would have learned from Ian Baucom, and all the other fools that have so recently gone before. But perhaps Baucom’s experience has happened so fast, he still stands, stripped naked of his Superman disguise, tottering over the edge, peering down into the abyss, as the tides of the latest fad run back out into the sea, leaving only rocks below.

    Only a few know what they are talking about here. They are always head and shoulders above the rest, many of these lemmings and there leaders. Those few include Camille Paglia and Jordan B. Peterson. Their discussion on Modern Times lasts an hour and forty minutes. It is well worth the time.

    See Peterson and Paglia discuss the issues on YouTube :

    • Here with regard to UVA, one needs to focus relentlessly on UVA’s actions, not its words. UVA has learned how to fool people by claiming to be doing the complete reverse of what UVA is doing – it is destroying undergraduate arts and sciences to build a dominate graduate research university that lives off of undergraduate intuitions that keep money losing research grant work afloat so as to benefit a relatively few professors.

      Another words, UVA’s Administration has learned that it cannot, and thus does not, tell the truth as to what their real mission is: research that benefits senior research faculty at the expense of teaching faculty, especially undergraduate teaching professors. Hence UVA lives off a lie that it tells daily.

  4. Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) students will do well with the new VCU curriculum. They have 12 years of foundation “education” that is exactly what VCU plans. The FCPS board is so anti-science in its policies that it is a wonder than any of the STEM students do well. The school board is steeped in the skepticism of the college “education” of the past 40 years.

  5. Larry makes the essential point — global warming, too, has been denied here not on its facts but on its politics. It’s not just science that’s at stake; it’s the culture of “alternative facts” at both ends of the spectrum that preaches slogans and know-nothing nonsense. It’s “creationism” and “cultural relativism” and political correctness and the selective re-definition of words we use to describe common sense. It’s denial that some knowledge is not relative, and some rules of logic are not arguable, and either we teach the certain conclusions that flow logically and inexorably (if inconveniently) from the certain facts or we commit our children to rediscovering them, and meanwhile, to living in ignorance of the truth. And what is higher education, anyway, but respect for the truth?

    Who cares about science if its consequences come after we are gone? Apres moi, le Deluge!

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