Professor Donnelly Dives into the Character of Scientific Knowledge
“Scientific knowledge is no more than valid and reliable knowledge that is reproducible,” Donnelly said. “Scientific knowledge is no less than valid and reliable knowledge that is reproducible. That is the character of scientific knowledge.”
Requesting to speak after attending the lecture by colleague Martin Rhodes, Donnelly delivered the fifth installment of the Korbel Lecture Series on “The Specter of Ignorance: On the Limits to Knowledge in Scholarship and Practice.” Professor George DeMartino, one of the organizers, explained that the Series seeks to define the role of ignorance and the unknown in scholarship.
“I worry more and more as social scientists act as if they have a knowledge of the world that we don't have and can't have,” DeMartino said. “Armed with these misapprehensions we can do great harm.”
In his lecture, Donnelly reiterated that science does refer to the world but it does not refer in an unmediated way.
“Science does not rest on a known correspondence between our knowledge and the world out there,” he said. “Science does refer to a reality independent of the observer and the scientist.”
Donnelly said that is not to deny that there is a world out there, but the question is our capacity to know that world.
“Truth is ultimately a matter of coherence rather than correspondence,” he said. “The foundation of truth is the coherence of a set of claims that we have good reason to believe are true.”
This belief stems from scientific knowledge that is validated by a set of procedures that are accepted in the scientific community.
“The world sets limits,” Donnelly explained. “Reality is what you stub your toe on, stumble on. Our scientific knowledge is within that set of limits. Rooted in procedures rather than any kind of correspondence with reality. We don't need to make heroic claims to a Reality with a capital R. We do not have unmediated access to reality.”
Donnelly continued to state that social scientists are going to have to take seriously that there is some degree of human mediation.
“All of our knowledge is mediated in some way through human subjectivity,” he said. “What counts as objective knowledge has been through certain kinds of tests. The problem is unacknowledged subjectivities and biases of different sorts.”
That is to say, there is always a narrative dimension.
“The questions you ask shape the answers you can find,” Donnelly said. “At the very least, science is always shaped by the questions we do and do not ask and that shapes the kind of stories we can tell. We always have to be careful about the character of the claims that we make.”