The Politics of the “Autonomy of Science”: social status, “doctrine,” rhetorical device, negotiated settlement?

Abstract: The trials and tribulations of the “autonomy of science” have a long history: from Galileo’s entanglements with the Roman Church through the short-lived “Aryan physics” to a recent episode of an American president telling scientists how to cure a viral disease. Autonomy is the ability of a profession to control every aspect of its affairs, based on rules it has authored, without external interference. In this paper, I argue three points: 1) science’s autonomy is rooted in its specialized knowledge from which it derives the norms that, in principle, govern scientific life; this cognitive means of production enables science to be in complete control of the work-process, its “puzzle-solving” (Kuhn) activities; 2) to understand both the limits of science’s autonomy and of the lay world’s control over science, I distinguish between the former’s expert knowledge and the latter’s common social knowledge, the beliefs, values, ideologies (political, religious, social) we all acquire by growing up in a given cultural environment and on which we depend to live our daily lives; 3) science is being ‘interfered’ with when the criteria used to manage its affairs are based on common social knowledge instead of on its own specialized knowledge; thus, contrary to conventional accounts, the encroachment need not come from some outside agent (as exemplified above), whose actions, by definition, are informed by common social knowledge, but also from within the scientific community itself. The empirical evidence used to support these arguments consists of past and present cases that reveal which areas of science’s activities are ‘at risk’ of being influenced by non-scientific considerations and which are immune to them.

KEYWORDS : autonomy of science; expert knowledge; common social knowledge

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