The Social Context of Science: The Interaction of Science and Society

Part of the Springer Texts in Education book series (SPTE)


This chapter focuses on how science is embedded in various economic, social and cultural contexts. The chapter emphasizes that context is important in understanding both why a given scientific question is important at a given time and place, as well as how that context affected the content of the particular theory. The chapter turns to the “social construction” of science, that is, the process by which scientists (biologists in his case) construct a view of nature using models, metaphors and analogies, along with certain philosophical perspectives derived from their cultural circumstances. This view of science is contrasted to the older “treasure hunt” view, which sees the natural world and its relationships (laws or concepts) already existing, only to be “discovered” by the scientist. The chapter then moves on to consider four case studies dealing with the question of social responsibility of scientists and the use of their work: “eugenics,” the use of genetics to try and improve the social and mental qualities of the human population in the early twentieth century; the use of herbicides, developed initially for agricultural purposes, to defoliate forests in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war; issues revolving around the use of human embryonic stem cells for biomedical research; and the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including their impact on agriculture and farming practices. The ethical issues in the use of humans as subjects in research is illustrated by the history of the long-term Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in the United States (1930–1970). The final two sections of the chapter focus on the relationship between science and religion, including teaching some form of “creationism” or Intelligent Design in public schools alongside Darwinian evolution. Here, the chapter emphasizes the very different philosophical bases on which religious explanations of events in the natural world are built (philosophical idealism), compared to those in the sciences (philosophical materialism).


Intelligent Design Embryonic Stem Cell Research Scientific Creationism High School Biology Stock Market Crash 
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Further Reading

  1. Much has been written on all the areas of science and its social interactions as touched upon in this chapter. A few items for further exploration are listed here by chapter sub-headings.Google Scholar

The Social Construction of Science

  1. Dear, P. (1995). Cultural history of science: An overview with reflections. Science, Technology and Human Values, 20, 150–170. (A thorough discussion of what it means to try and interpret science in its cultural and social context).Google Scholar
  2. Jones, R. (1989). The historiography of science: Retrospect and future challenge. In M. Shortland & A. Warwick (Eds.), Teaching the history of science (pp. 80–99). Oxford: Blackwell. (This is a good review of various methods of interpreting science over the past half century, from the “traditional approach” to social constructionism).Google Scholar
  3. Young, R. (1985). Malthus and the evolutionists: The common context of biological and social theory. In R. Young (Ed.), Darwins metaphor: Natures place in Victorian culture (pp. 23–55). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (A classic essay showing the influence of Victorian social and economic metaphors on Darwin’s thinking).Google Scholar

The Social Responsibility of Science

  1. Allen, G. E. (1999). Genetics, eugenics and the medicalization of social behavior: Lessons from the past. Endeavour, 23, 10–19. (A discussion of the development of eugenics and its political consequences with special reference to the relationship between the movement in the United States and that in Germany after the rise of power of the National Socialists).Google Scholar
  2. Benedek, T. G., & Erlen, J. (1999). The scientific environment of the Tuskegee study of syphilis, 1920–1960. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 43(1), 1–23. (A more sympathetic discussion of the Tuskegee study, trying to argue that in the context of its day, the study was neither racist nor unconcerned with the health of its participants).Google Scholar
  3. Galston, A. (1971). Education of a scientific innocent. Natural History, 80, 16–22. (Arthur Galston details his unwitting involvement in developing herbicides that wreaked havoc on the ecosystems of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war).Google Scholar
  4. Jones, J. H. (1981). Bad blood. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment. New York: Free Press. (A detailed, well-written popular account of the Tuskegee experiment).Google Scholar
  5. Lombardo, P. A., & Dorr, G. M. (2006). Eugenics, medical education, and the Public Health Service: Another perspective on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 80(2), 2006): 291–316. (Provides a detailed discussion of the three major organizers of the Tuskegee experiment in the early 1930s, and their direct involvement with the then-current eugenics movement).Google Scholar
  6. Paul, D. (1995). Controlling human heredity. Atlantic Highland, New Jersey: Humanities Press. (A very readable book that provides a good overview of the whole eugenics movement and its social consequences).Google Scholar

The Ethics of Stem Cell Research

  1. Baker, J. 2013. Shall we laugh or shall we cry? The abortion issue: Scientific information, religious nonsense, political mayhem. Amazon, ISBN-13: 978-1479243587. (A broader exploration of the issues surrounding right-to-life issues, including abortion, women’s rights and reproductive policies in general).Google Scholar
  2. Maienschein, J. (2003). Whose view of life? Embryos, cloning and stem cells. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Contains a thorough historical review of embryological approaches to understanding the development of human life, and attempts to determine when life begins, especially from both the biological and theological point of view, ranging from Aristotle to the present day).Google Scholar

Genetically Modified Organisms

  1. Carter, C., Moschini, G.-C., & Sheldon, I. (Eds.). (2011). Genetically modified food and global welfare. Vol. 10 of Frontiers of Economics and Globalization Series. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing. (An edited volume with a wide-ranging collection of articles on both health and safety of GMOs).Google Scholar
  2. External Link: “Everything You Wanted to Know about GM Organisms”: A compendium provided by the magazine New Scientist.
  3. Finochario, M. A. (2009). That Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for advocating copernicanism. In Numbvers, R. L. (Ed.), Galileo goes to jail and other myths about science and religion (Chapter 8: pp. 68–78). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (An up-to-date assessment and debunking of the traditional portrayal of Galeilo’s trial and its aftermath. The same volume also contains reassessments of many other “mths” about science and religion).Google Scholar
  4. Jon Entine, “GMOs, Yes!” (pp. 15–32), and Robert Millstein, “GMOs? Not So Fast.” (pp. 33-46). These articles are simply and clearly written and together provide a good forum for discussion. They could easily be used as the basis for debate in classrooms and elsewhere. Can be found on-line at Scholar
  5. Kingsbury, N. (2009). Hybrid: The history and science of plant breeding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Although this book covers the history of plant breeding over a much longer period of time than the advent of GMOs, it also places recent developments in biotechnology in a useful historical perspective).Google Scholar
  6. Millstein, Roberta. (2016). GMOs? Not so fast. The Common Reader: A Journal of the Essay, 1(1), 33–46. (A brief simple summary of some of the issues, and answers, raised by opponents of GMOs to their widespread distribution).Google Scholar
  7. Losey, John E., Linda S. Rayor and Maureen E. Carter (1999). Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399 (20 May), 214.Google Scholar
  8. Scientific Creationism and the Relations between Science and Religion.Google Scholar
  9. Nelkin, D. (1982). The creation controversy. New York: W. W. Norton. (This is a brief but useful summary of the creationist debate especially with respect to the Arkansas law of 1981).Google Scholar
  10. Numbers, R. L. (1992). The creationists: The evolution of scientific creationism. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Provides a valuable historical context for the development of various Creationist movements in the United States over the past 150 years. The author places the modern Creationist movement in a long line of evangelical tradition that has taken refuge in Biblical literalism).Google Scholar
  11. Two articles, published back-to-back in The common reader: A journal of the essay, Vol. 1 (No. 1, 2016) succinctly summarize the opposing views.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyWashington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Wesleyan UniversityMiddletownUSA

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