Writing in the Margins


Roy Wallis (Ed.). On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge. Sociological Review Monograph no. 27. University of Keele, 1979.

This book looks a science and pseudo-science from a mainly sociological viewpoint. In his introduction, the editor explains that until recently sociologists "maintained a deferential attitude towards prevailing scientific orthodoxy accepting that in respect of the esoteric content of science, the scientists knew best". Thus the body of accepted knowledge held by orthodox science constituted the 'truth', so that for sociologists scientific orthodoxy provided a standard by which to judge the behaviour of persons or groups who deviated from it.

Sociologists now take a less deferential line, and the editor acknowledges the role of Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as a major factor in stimulating this change of attitude amongst sociologists and historians. Most of the other contributors also mention Kuhn's book, and it seems that this work has done much to erode the conceptual boundaries between science and pseudoscience. The various authors of the papers in this volume do not in fact refer to 'science' and 'pseudoscience', but to 'orthodox' and 'deviant' science, reflecting the view that orthodox science is now seen not as 'true' science, but as socially successful science.

This is an approach which can confuse readers, particularly those who are not sociologists. Foe example, in their paper 'The construction of the paranormal: nothing unscientific is happening", Collins and Finch discuss the interactions between parapsychology and orthodox science. They describe the parapsychologists struggle to receive recognition from the scientific community, and discuss the arguments and tactics employed by both sides. But they do not offer any opinios as to whether or not the claims of parapsychologists have any validity. Yet when their paper was first circulated, it was seen by parapsychologists and their opponents as being 'favourable' to parapsychology.

Collins and Finch regard 'metamorphosis' as one of the main strategies by which parapsychologists gain recognition from orthodox science; that they become respectable by acquiring all the trappings of conventional science, such as university posts, publication in recognised journals and funding from respectable sources. They do not become respectable by performing the 'definitive experiment', because there can be no such thing, in the view of the sociologists of science. The sociologists are more concerned with looking at science as a human activity, rather than as a repository of truth.

Joseph A Blake, in his paper 'Ufology: the intellectual developments and social context of the study of unidentified flying Objects', notes that there seem to be two distinct approaches to the study of UFO reports, which he terms 'naturalist' and 'macrocosmic'. His naturalists are what most ufologists term the 'nuts and bolts' brigade, who generally employ the ETH as a working hypothesis. In describing the macrocosmic approach, Blake relies heavily on Clark and Coleman's The Unidentified. Macrocosmic ufology refers to what is generally termed the 'New Ufology', that is, any approach which emphasises the universal and subjective aspects of UFO experiences and analogous phenomena.

Blake concludes that ufology is "a science in development, in terms of the coalescing of perspectives on UFOs." These perspectives being the rival view points. I feel that he does not present sufficient evidence to justify this opinion. As he does not indicate how these two approaches can be considered compatible with one another, and is careful not to make value judgements about them, it is difficult to see by what process he envisages them becoming integrated. Indeed, he notes that Vallée has "proceeded from a naturalist to a macrocosmic perspective", but describes him as an exception. He does not consider the possibility that the macrocosmic approach may eventually lead to the subject matter of ufology becoming the concern of presently existing orthodox scientific disciplines without ever gaining formal recognition as a 'science' it its own right.

All of the papers in the present volume are interesting, although some may be rather heavy going for those who are not sociologists. Apart from those mentioned above by Collins and Finch, and Blake I particularly recommend Paul Allison's 'Experimental parapsychology as a rejected science', and Jon Palfreman's 'Between scepticism and sredulity; a study of Victorian scientific attitudes to modern Spiritualism'. Those who think that the controversy between evolutionists and creationists is of purely historical interest are in for a shock if the read the contribution by Eileen Barker. She reviews the controversy, and describes the increasing influence of creationist views among scientists. There is nothing sensationalist about her conclusions, but she does remark that: “ … there is enough sloppy thinking by evolutionists to allow the creationists to point legitimately to difficulties which the former all too often smugly ignore".

This is a very interesting collection of works on the problems of 'rejected knowledge', and deserves a wider circulation than such academic books usually enjoy. -- John Harney. From Magonia 3, Spring 1980.


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