Polanyi on science


A Latourian moment in Michael Polanyi’s “A Society of Explorers” lecture:

The popular conception of science teaches that science is a collection of observable facts, which anybody can verify for himself. We have seen that this is not true in the case of expert knowledge, as in diagnosing a disease. But it is not true either in the physical sciences. In the first place, you cannot possibly get hold of the equipment for testing, for example, a statement of astronomy or of chemistry. And supposing you could somehow get the use of an observatory or a chemical laboratory, you would probably damage their instruments beyond repair before you ever made an observation. And even if you should succeed in carrying out an observation to check upon a statement of science and you found a result which contradicted it, you would rightly assume that you had made a mistake.

The acceptance of scientific statements by laymen is based on authority, and this is true to nearly the same extent for scientists using results from branches of science other than their own. Scientists must rely heavily for their facts on the authority of fellow scientists.

This authority is enforced in an even more personal manner in  the control exercised by scientists over the channels through which contributions are submitted to all other scientists. Only offerings that are deemed sufficiently plausible are accepted for publication in scientific journals, and what is rejected will be ignored by science. Such decisions are based on fundamental convictions about the nature of things and about the method which is therefore likely to yield results of scientific merit. These beliefs and the art of scientific inquiry based on them are hardly codified: they are, in the main, tacitly implied in the traditional pursuit of scientific inquiry. (pp. 63-64)

Michael Polanyi (1966) The Tacit Dimension. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

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