The most simple lesson science teaches is that there is always more to learn. Dissimilar as scientific disciplines may appear, nevertheless, all scientists are embarked on one journey: to understand the universe more "truthfully" – or, at least, more knowledgeably. The progress that scientists make toward that goal is evident everywhere. We are surrounded by a world of explosive innovation. We expect the world to change from day to day, and change it surely does. Just try to buy the latest version of a computer and you will see what I mean. Scientists are largely responsible for the huge quantity and rapid pace of social change. Oddly, however, in spite of all the evidence of scientific progress, one could argue that scientists know hardly any more about "where we're going" than they did centuries ago.
Paradoxically, the universe is simultaneously a fairly large and also an extremely small place. While the expanding universe may stretch eons into the extraordinary depths of outer space, our experience of infinity is hemmed in by the lamentable circumference of our craniums. Much – although certainly not all – of our universe exists in the fleeting dance of synaptic flashes that dart between our ears. Yet, slight as our experience of the universe may be, nonetheless, our contemplation of the cosmos strives improbably to its farthest frontiers. How can we achieve such a remarkable feat of cognitive transcendence? In a word, with "theory." What we cannot grasp directly through experience, we conjure into comprehension with theory.
To make sense of the inexplicable, we create new theories (McGettigan, 1998). For example, despite dogmatic insistence to the contrary, Galileo beheld objects in space that could not be reconciled with geocentric theory (McIntyre, 1999). As a result, Galileo developed a theory of heliocentric motion that, in turn, instigated a profound revision in scientific philosophy: we and the earth were not the center of all things. By dislodging the assumption of humanity's universal importance, science advanced to a higher understanding of the cosmos by privileging the observable, rather than the presumable, properties of natural phenomena.
Yet, great ideas are not always popular in their own time. The hierarchy of power in mediaeval Europe rationalized itself on the basis of Ptolemaic geocentrism. Suggesting that the earth was not the center of all things constituted a grave affront to the governing elite. Thus, Galileo became caught in a vise between the "truth" of his observations and the unyielding interests of the ruling class. In the end, Galileo was forced to recant: the truth be damned.
While heliocentrism eventually won out over the political machinations of an entrenched aristocracy, Galileo's retraction remains an imposing reminder: speaking the truth can lead to trouble. "Enlightened" as it may ever be, science is inescapably an enterprise that is driven by self-interested egotists who are embedded in complex networks of socio-cultural bias (Gould, 1981). While I disagree with the postmodernists (Baudrillard, 1988; Lather, 1995; Lemert, 1991, 1999; Lyotard, 1984; Richardson, 1996) who assert that the pursuit of truth is an utterly futile or destructive endeavor, nevertheless, I believe that science is a much more prejudiced institution (Kuhn, 1962; Smith, 1990) than most people like to admit. Just as in Galileo's day, "truth" has to survive a gauntlet of personalities and politics before it can ever be heard.
In my own field, sociology, countless theoretical perspectives have been developed to explore the vast scope of human experience: multiple and conflicting feminist theories, multiculturalism, queer theory, cultural studies, Pan-Africanism, etc. Yet, in spite of this rich heritage, one might conclude after examining an introductory textbook that sociology is founded upon no more than three basic theoretical perspectives: functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Certainly, introductory textbooks must compromise quite a bit on complexity in order to produce accessible discussions for newcomers. However, even (or especially) in sociology's publications of leading influence, there is a similar paucity of theoretical breadth (Feagin, 1999). Consequently, if one's work is situated within, and scrupulously extols the virtues of, a narrow set of disciplinary traditions established by a small group of dead, white, European males, then one is more likely to gain access to the discipline's central publication channels. If, on the other hand, one's work fails to evidence these crucial criteria, then, as Kuhn (1962) suggested some time ago, no matter how "truthful" one's ideas may be, one must prepare for survival on the margins.
While not every notion that languishes on margins of scientific disciplines is necessarily a "good" idea, there is always lots of valuable work that suffers for the lack of an outlet. Therefore, in an effort to reduce the number of great ideas that await a hearing, I invite anyone with a truly inspired thought, regardless of scientific disciple, to submit their work to Theory & Science. Radical new ideas – especially dogma-challenging, "subversive" propositions – are hardly ever appreciated in their own time. Nonetheless, the posthumous beatification of subversives such as Socrates, Galileo, Charles Darwin, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, and Simone de Beauvoir (to name just a few) demonstrates that being adored in one's own time is scarcely a prerequisite for true genius. Although it is impossible to say who will be the next great, under-appreciated genius, if you have a lot of ideas that no one else seems to like, you could be well on the way. Naysayers may abound, but, when courageously and carefully stated, great ideas can outlast them all.
Baudrillard, Jean, 1988. America. (Translated by Chris Turner.) Verso: New York.
Feagin, Joe R., 1999. "Soul-Searching in Sociology: Is the Discipline in Crisis?" Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v46/i08/08b00401.htm
Gould, Stephen Jay, 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.
Kuhn, Thomas S., 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lather, Patti, 1995. "The Validity of Angels: Interpretive and Textual Strategies in Researching the Lives of Women With HIV/AIDS." Qualitative Inquiry 1: (1) 41-68.
Lemert, Charles, 1991. "The End of Ideology, Really." Sociological Theory 9: 2 (Fall) 164-172.
Lemert, Charles (ed.), 1999. Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. 2nd Edition. Boulder: Westview Press.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois, 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
McGettigan, Timothy, 1998. "Redefining Reality: Epiphany as a Standard of Postmodern Truth." Electronic Journal of Sociology 3 (4). http://www.sociology.org/vol003.004/mcgettigan.article.1998.html
McIntyre, Lisa J., 1999. The Practical Skeptic: Core Concepts in Sociology. Mountain View, CA.: Mayfield.
Richardson, Laurel, 1996. "A Sociology of Responsibility." Qualitative Sociology 19: (4) 519-524.
Smith, Dorothy, 1990. The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
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