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Scientific Knowledge vs Social Constructionism

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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.
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.
(This article first ran in Bacons Rebellion on March 8, 2018)
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