Truth And Credibility Research Paper

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The natural sciences occupy a special place in modern culture. Scientific knowledge substantially defines our culture’s notion of truth, and the overwhelming credibility of that knowledge in our society is widely taken to be sufficiently explained by its truthfulness. The social sciences traditionally have concurred in these assessments and have paid the natural sciences the compliment of emulation. Yet that emulation largely has proceeded by way of textbook idealizations of natural scientific knowledge and how it is produced, while the idealizations themselves—produced by both academic epistemologists and reflective scientists—are much more variable than generally is supposed. It has not been until fairly recent times that social scientists have attempted wholly naturalistic inquiries into how scientific knowledge is produced and how it comes to be believed. The sociology of scientific knowledge that emerged from the early 1970s purposely set aside epistemological evaluation and took as its primary task understanding scientific credibility. How is it that scientific claims succeed, or fail, in being believed? This research paper surveys a number of considerations that recent social studies of science have found to be widely relevant to the interpretation of scientific credibility.

1. Scientific Truth: As Evaluation And Resource

‘Truth’ appears only occasionally as a vernacular term, nor does the special notion of intellectual quality the word connotes in academic philosophy figure much in everyday usages. Professional epistemologists worry how to reliably sort genuine knowledge from belief, opinion, or mere knowledge-claims, and this is the major context in which academic theorizing about truth takes place. Many theorists are agreed that knowledge (properly so-called) is ‘true belief,’ but there is no philosophical consensus about the definition of truth, about the domains in which we can expect to have genuine knowledge, about the grounds for establishing truth, or, indeed, about what it is that can be said to be true (propositions, facts, theories, thoughts, concepts, beliefs, etc.). The major battle pitches correspondence theories against coherence theories of truth, while skirmishes are fought along the margins between conventionalist, pragmatist, performative, redundancy, disquotational, and miscellaneous other theories (or antitheories) of truth.

In ordinary life, the word truth often crops up as a special-purpose term whose employment indicates that some out-of-the-ordinary guarantees are being sought for promises, professions, or claims to knowledge, or that there is some specially occasioned doubt about their genuine status, as in legal proceedings when witnesses are ceremonially sworn ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ (Lynch and Bogen 1996), or in intimate social relationships when one has misgivings about one’s lover’s sincerity and looks for explicit warrants of affection:

‘When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies.’ Perhaps even more commonly, everyday actors, and even philosophers in many circumstances, use the words true or truth just as a way of giving added emphasis or value to assertions of what is the case, the lexical equivalent of thumping the table.

The category of everyday actors may be taken, for the most part, to include professional natural scientists engaged in their ordinary knowledge-producing practices. While their expert employments generate knowledge whose content, methods of production, and value are widely said to differ markedly from lay beliefs about the world and lay modes of cognition and evaluation, epistemological reflection does not occupy much of scientists’ time, nor is it customary for them to engage in metascientific inquiries into the nature and status of their knowledge. The result is a situation in which the bodies of expert knowledge that are widely taken as the touchstone of truth in our culture, and the object of vast amounts of epistemological reflection by philosophers, tend to be produced by practitioners who rarely concern themselves reflectively or systematically with the nature of their knowledge, or its standing vis-a-vis nonexpert knowledge, or with the methods that produce their so-highly-valued knowledge. The paucity of practitioners’ reflection on the nature and quality of their knowledge is an important feature of the modern natural sciences, and the social sciences and humanities are quite different in this respect.

Practicing natural scientists seem to take scarcely any notice of epistemologists’ debates or dicta. Indeed, in the natural sciences, epistemological and metascientific musings, as well as sociological reflections, are often taken as a sign of emeritus (or, unkindly, ‘past it’) standing. They are sometimes explicitly condemned as irrelevant, unprofessional, or even pathological: it may be what philosophers or sociologists do, but (it is said) it is not what practicing scientists ought to do. In the nineteenth century the experimental physiologist Bernard (1865/1957, p. 49) vigorously disengaged the scientific production of truth from scientists’ possible reflections on truth or on how truth was produced: ‘To find scientific truth, we … have little need to know how our mind reasons; it is enough to let it reason naturally …’. Bridgman (1955, p. 157) was one of many modern physicists taking a jaundiced view of philosophers’ attempts to characterize both scientific truth and scientific method: philosophers’ ‘abstractions’ tended to attract a ‘veneration’ that was wholly undeserved. C. P. Snow— a one-time chemist and latterly a spokesman for science—bumptiously admitted that ‘By truth, I don’t intend anything complicated … I am using the word as a scientist uses it. We all know that the philosophical examination of the concept of empirical truth gets us into some curious complexities, but most scientists really don’t care’ (Snow 1961, p. 247). Albert Einstein famously celebrated, rather than condemned, what he took to be the fact ‘that the man of science is a poor philosopher.’ If, Einstein said (1936/1954, p. 296, p. 318), ‘you want to find out anything from the theoretical physicists about the methods they use, I advise you to stick closely to one principle: don’t listen to their words, fix your attention on their deeds.’ Moreover, the small number of empirical studies we now have of natural scientists’ grasp of the principles of formal logical reasoning strongly suggests that the power and reliability of scientific knowledge do not spring from the superior reasoning capacities of individual scientists (Mahoney 1979, Mahoney and DeMonbreun 1977).

When one considers the content of such scientists’ musings about truth as are occasionally produced, further problems are posed for any social science wishing to model its epistemic goals on those of the natural sciences. Many academic, and some lay, views of the natural sciences point to scientific facts, laws, and theories as enjoying the status of accredited truth, and to the proper goals of scientific inquiry as the production of such truth. Yet important strands of practitioners’ metascientific stipulations identify the goal of producing truth as illegitimate, and such special status for scientific representations as a lay misunderstanding of what genuine science is about. Some scientists do indeed say that science aims at, or even arrives at, one universal truth. However, others say that the truths of sciences are plural, or that science is just ‘what works’ and that truth—or even correspondence with the world—is none of their concern—just ‘what stands the test of experience,’ or ‘what seems to be the case to the best of our current efforts and beliefs.’ Oppenheimer (1954, p. 4) followed the nineteenth-century Scientific Naturalists in warning science to shun ‘metaphysical’ notions like ‘real’ and ‘ultimate’ in talking about its concepts and theories: if we say that physical theories are true, we must say so in a carefully qualified non-metaphysical sense. Einstein (1929/1954, pp. 261–2) found it ‘difficult even to attach a precise meaning to the term ‘‘scientific truth.’’ Thus, the meaning of the word ‘‘truth’’ varies according to whether we deal with a fact of experience, a mathematical proposition, or a scientific theory.’ Bridgman (1955, p. 158) noted that ‘In physics we have been forced to recognize … that there are different kinds of truth, depending on the method used for establishing ‘‘truth.’’ ’ Bridgman’s student Oppenheimer (1954, p. 95) vigorously agreed: ‘Perhaps only a malignant end can follow the systematic belief that all communities are one community; that all truth is one truth.’ Just as epistemologists espouse widely varying conceptions of truth, so too do those natural scientists occasionally drawn to philosophizing, while most practicing scientists seem well content to leave philosophy to the philosophers.

2. From Truth To Credibility: Science As A Topic

For these reasons alone, the posture of the social sciences vis-a-vis the natural sciences, and, especially, with respect to emulating their truth-criteria, is problematic. Should social scientists really wish to pattern themselves on the natural sciences in order to solve problems of intellectual identity, authority, and quality, they would find it no easy thing to do, such is the diversity of natural scientific practices and sensibilities, and of professional metascientific stipulations about the natural sciences (Mills 1959, pp. 119–31). This diversity is seldom adequately reflected in textbook accounts of scientific method and scientific knowledge, nor is it apparent when one particular natural science —typically some version of modern physics—is made by fiat to stand for all the rest (Shapin 1999a). Yet once this variability is properly appreciated, it becomes clear that the social sciences will have to make their own claims to knowledge and support them as best they can, using whatever resources and warrants are available and are deemed legitimate.

However, misguided emulation is not the only possible mode of social scientific engagement with the natural sciences. Social scientists can study the cultures of the natural sciences, seeking to understand how a range of natural scientists collectively produce their knowledge, how they make it persuasive, and how they render their intellectual evaluations. This has been the task taken up by the sociology of scientific knowledge over the past 30 years or so. Indeed, the founding gesture of modern sociology of scientific knowledge was the rejection of epistemological evaluation as the proper basis for sociological accounting. Traditional sociology of knowledge—descended from Marx and Mannheim—had reckoned, almost as a matter of course, that true and false beliefs should be explained differently. False beliefs might customarily be referred to distorting social and psychological factors, while the truth of true beliefs—their adequate evidential base, or their logical coherence, or their production and assessment using transparent and impersonal rational methods—could count as its own sufficient explanation (Mannheim 1936, pp. 239, 261, Phillips 1974). It was not considered that much of sociological interest could be said about true beliefs, and therefore about the body of currently accepted scientific knowledge. That is why traditional sociology of knowledge explicitly exempted accepted scientific beliefs from its scope.

Bloor’s (1976/1991) Strong Programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge enjoined sociologists professionally to set aside external judgments of truth and falsity and to explain the acceptance of both reputed true and reputed false beliefs using the same resources. It was not that sociologists were to account all beliefs of equal value—that would itself be an act of epistemological assessment—rather it was that sociologists, in doing sociology, should be impartial with respect to the reputed truth or falsity of beliefs, as true and false seemed to the individual sociologist or as the beliefs were routinely sorted in the culture of which the sociologist was an everyday member. Bloor here identified generally acknowledged academic virtues that would flow from adhering to this maxim of method and academic vices that had traditionally stemmed from rejecting it. On the one hand, it was not the proper business of the social scientist to engage in epistemological assessment; on the other hand, inscribing external judgments of truth and falsity in social scientific accounts illegitimately blocked the free inquiry and rendered explanation circular. In Bloor’s view, the sociologist could and should be as curious about why some cultures—in this case, our own— classify the cassowary as a bird as they had traditionally been about such cultures as the New Guinea Karam that classify what we call cassowaries and what we call birds in different taxa (Bulmer 1973, Barnes 1973, Barnes and Bloor 1982).

The Strong Programme did not mean to ban consideration of truth and falsity but, rather, to encourage sociologists to take a fuller naturalistic interest in the problem of how actors themselves sorted beliefs as between true and false. Actors’ truthjudgments, or judgments of what is the case about the world, were not to be just an asymmetrical resource but a central topic of sociological inquiry. Or, put another way, this newer form of the sociology of knowledge placed the credibility of beliefs at the center of its intellectual agenda. Suppose, taking up the toy taxonomical example, one asked a member of the Karam why it was that they classified cassowaries in a different taxon than the rest of what we call birds. After translating the question into their own vocabulary, the Karam might reply in the prevalent folk epistemological idiom, rolling their eyes, or saying that the matter is self-evident, or citing all sorts of obvious and important empirical differences between the big, ground-dwelling cassowary and the small, aerial bird-of-paradise. Pressed further, the Karam might point to the views of legitimately respected elders and experts, as sanctioned by custom and use. And so it might plausibly strike the Western social scientist that the grounds of credibility of Karam taxonomy had a lot to do with authority, custom, socialization, and with the vehicles that routinely transmit and maintain culture, including classificatory culture.

Patterns of routine socialization are not the only considerations in explaining structures of credibility—indeed, the anthropologist who most closely studied the particular case in question laid greatest stress upon the supposed functions of Karam taxonomy in sustaining social order (Bulmer 1973)—but socialization is everywhere pertinent to giving accounts of what people find credible, whether the socializing agencies are those of Karam agricultural society or departments of zoology in modern American universities (Barnes 1972, p. 271). So, if the sociologist were to put a parallel classificatory question to an academic practitioner of modern Linnaean taxonomy, it is arguable that the responses received would structurally resemble those supplied by the Karam, and, again, patterns of socialization would be major aspects of any explanation the sociologist might offer of the grounds of credibility of taxonomic beliefs in our own expert culture. Note that the empirical adequacy of Linnaean classification is not thereby disparaged—though there is substantial controversy about its theoretical and evidential adequacy within expert taxonomic culture—but the sociologist of scientific knowledge holds that standards of empirical adequacy, and the particular goals towards which classificatory schemes are oriented, are themselves objects of socialization (Dean 1979). All institutionalized beliefs about nature are causally connected to reality, and ‘all beliefs are on a par with one another with respect to the causes of their credibility. It is not that all beliefs are equally true or equally false, but that regardless of truth or falsity the fact of their credibility is to be seen as equally problematic’ (Barnes and Bloor 1982, p. 23, Barnes 1992). The ‘paradigms’ of what Kuhn called ‘normal science’ are exemplary items of technical knowledge, and they are also learned bits of culture. Since this culture is transmitted in authoritative institutions, the sociologist’s whole range of resources for dealing with socialization and its consequences is, therefore, pertinent to explaining the credibility of technical scientific knowledge among expert practitioners (Polanyi 1958, Kuhn 1962, Barnes 1982).

3. Accounting For Credibility: Mundaneness And The Moral Order

So the sociologist of scientific knowledge studies credibility. What actors find credible, and how they account it credible, may include specially occasioned judgments of truth or they may not. The distinction is not crucial, since the credibility of any such reflective truth-judgments (by way of correspondence or coherence or any other criterion) may also be a matter for inquiry. The sociologist, qua sociologist, here differs from the philosopher (and maybe from the layperson): ‘Instead of defining (knowledge) as true belief, knowledge for the sociologist is whatever people take to be knowledge,’ what they find credible (Bloor 1976/1991, p. 5). And patterns of socialization are everywhere pertinent to giving a sociological account of the credibility of beliefs. These are, so to speak, ground-conditions for the sociological study of science, and, as such, they are not themselves answers but necessary conditions for arriving at particular answers to particular questions about particular bodies of knowledge—answers that are sociologically proper, constructive, and interesting. For sociologists to say that they are interested in credibility is not to say that they are concerned with a specific aspect or ‘factor’ bearing on knowledge. Credibility is not a factor in the sense in which, for traditional sociology of knowledge, ‘class-allegiance’ or ‘religious affiliation’ counted as ‘social factors’ contingently bearing upon know- ledge—sometimes pertinent, sometimes not (e.g., Barber 1952, p. 60). Credibility is the state achieved when knowledge-claims become knowledge, and the means for achieving credibility are the assemblage of means by which knowledge-claims become knowledge. From a pertinent point of view, credibility is the only topic for the sociologist of knowledge. As the philosophers might say, credibility has a transcendental character for sociologists of knowledge: no credibility, no knowledge, no object of sociological study (Shapin 1995a, pp. 257–8).

It might also be said, no credibility, no moral order. To give an account of what a community finds credible, and how it comes to find it credible, is tantamount to giving an account both of what that community is and how it experiences the world (Douglas 1975, p. 238). So to say that sociologists of science should shift attention from truth to credibility is a way of orientating practitioners to the proper domain of inquiry, a way of discouraging them from arbitrarily limiting inquiry, and, finally, a way of reminding them of the potential pertinence of a range of social scientific and everyday resources that are available to give accounts of what people find credible.

No matter how highly valued or how technical the form of belief, the sociologist can usefully draw attention to the mundane means by which belief is made credible. In the ethnomethodological tradition, this was a maxim of method derived from the phenomenologists (especially Alfred Schutz) and from the later writings of Wittgenstein. Attention was to be directed to the ‘behavior of seeking truth … the institutional and public character of truth, in contrast to the usual psychological and semantic descriptions that depict private disembodiments of that behavior.’ For the sociologist, there is no other proper way of engaging with truth save through the study of what people collectively do: ‘Truth resides in the rule-guided institutional procedures for conceding it.’ In doing sociology, one should accept ‘that there are no adequate grounds for establishing criteria of truth except the grounds that are employed to grant or concede it’ (McHugh 1970, pp. 320–1, 333–5). This sensibility strongly influenced the ethnographic study of science that began to emerge in the 1970s, especially with the work of Collins and co-workers (Collins 1975, 1983, 1985/1992), but it also left a mark on historical studies of science concerned with how past communities established facticity, proof, and legitimate inference (e.g., Shapin 1994, Dear 1995, Porter 1995, Poovey 1998, Burke 2000).

If, indeed, the practices for making and maintaining credible knowledge are co-extensive with the moral life of a community, then there are very few aspects of that life which do not potentially bear upon the credibility of belief. It follows that there can be no simple and coherent master-recipe for how credibility is to be achieved or model for understanding it. Much will depend upon the items of knowledge in question, the precise scenes in which the knowledge is assessed, and the state of transmitted background belief. Truth— like God and the devil—is in the details, and the sociologist wanting to understand why it is that a specific individual, or group of individuals, finds the special creation of species, or Darwinian evolution, credible may find it pertinent to consider a long list of mundane, and even some apparently trivial, features of cognition and social interaction (Shapin 1999b, pp. 7–8, Lynch 1993, pp. 278–88), while much work in the sociology of scientific knowledge during the 1970s and 1980s pointed to differences in collective goal-orientations (or social interests) as pertinent considerations in judgments of the credibility of scientific claims (e.g., Shapin 1982, 1995b).

4. Accounting For Credibility: Economies Of Trust

A large body of recent historical and sociological work has studied the means by which the veracity of scientific claims or the legitimacy of inference has been made persuasive. Because most natural knowledge—that possessed by experts as well as by the laity—is held on the basis of trust, deferring to others whose knowledge is understood to be more direct or competent, even belief in matters of fact has to be actively secured: how persuasively to communicate the experience to be credited? how linguistically (and gesturally) to display one’s entitlements to trustworthy knowledge? Studies of both historical and present-day episodes have drawn attention to the rhetorical constitution of authorial transparency, virtue, and intellectual entitlements; to the rhetorical invocation of allies leagued with the author and of the consequences of giving or withholding assent; and to the range of rhetorical means by which authors in general seek to assist the translation of individual claims into collectively credible knowledge (Latour 1987, Shapin 1984, 1994; Dear 1995, Golinski 1998, Chap. 4).

Recognizing the ineliminable role of trust in the credibility of knowledge is consequential for two diametrically opposed reasons. First, many situations present themselves—both within science and between scientific experts and the laity—in which the relative trustworthiness of sources is in doubt or is contested. The role of scientific expert testimony in courts of law, for example, is one important setting in which lay jurors are set the task of finding the signs of credibility in conflicting scientific accounts, and some studies emphasize the role of common-sense procedures in that task—monitoring testimony for manner and its sources for biasing interest (Brannigan and Lynch 1987, Lynch and Jasanoff 1998). Wynne’s (1995) work on the public understandings of science, and specifically on the credibility of environmental radioactivity risk-assessments, stresses the complex array of considerations that bear upon lay attitudes towards which scientists, and which scientific pronouncements, are trustworthy. Epstein’s (1996) study of the relations between AIDS researchers and AIDS activists is a richly detailed investigation of the grounds of trust in a situation where the very identity of laypersons and experts has been made problematic. Porter (1995) has asserted the crucial role of ‘trust in numbers’ in modern, complex, and highly differentiated societies, in which, as he argues, personal and familiar warrants for credibility are lacking or deemed inadequate. Jasanoff has examined how trust in expertise is secured in modern environmental science where conflicts over credibility are endemic (Jasanoff 1992), and Hilgartner’s (2000) work on a series of highly contested nutritional reports by the US National Academy of Sciences has drawn attention to the performative aspects of trust in modern expertise.

In the passages of modern ‘extraordinary science’ studied by Collins (1975), where the existence of specific physical phenomena and the competence of detecting instruments were simultaneously contested, members of a scientific ‘core-set’ reached out for a diverse array of contingent considerations to locate trustworthiness, and, therefore, to assess the credibility of technical claims: including the personal characteristics of claimants, the reputation of the institutions in which they worked, their allies, their track-records, etc. Historical studies of scientific controversy (Shapin 1994, esp. Chap. 6) have drawn attention to the imputed trustworthiness of the early modern gentleman in managing scientific controversy, in deciding the credibility of diverging claims, and even in deciding which controversies ought to be left undecided in favor of maintaining the interaction order.

In such lines of research, reposing trust in scientific claims and claimants appears as an actor’s practical problem. Looking to see how and why actors reckon trustworthiness is a way of understanding how they deal with problematic credibility when experts disagree or when it is unclear who indeed is to count as an expert. There are plenty of such occasions in modern science, and especially in those sectors of science in which public participation in decision-making is mandated or pertinent. Is global warming a fact, and, if so, what is to be done about it? Who is to be believed about the risks of genetically modified foods and what policies should be framed for producing and labeling such foods?

Yet the second reason why trust is important in connection with scientific credibility is that the scientific community very often does speak—if not with one voice—then in a comparatively concerted way. Scientists in modern society are regarded as enormously trustworthy, and the credibility of what they concertedly deliver about the natural world is very great. Scientists are masters at trusting each other and they are masters at generating public trust in themselves. That is just another way of saying that consensual scientific knowledge is regarded in our society as the touchstone of truth. Scientific credibility may be an occasional problem, and a vitally important one, but it is also interesting to note how often in our culture the credibility of science does not manifest itself as problematic. Sociologists do not yet adequately understand how scientists achieve and maintain this trustworthiness and the resultant powers of professional credibility (Barnes 1985, Chaps. 2–3), but the consequences of this trustworthiness for the social and intellectual order of modern society cannot easily be exaggerated (Bauman 1992, p.71, Shapin 1995a). To understand the grounds of scientific credibility is to understand quite a lot about modern society. Scientific credibility is so blended into modern society’s institutional life—its schools, universities, government, medicine, the military, and the media—that one cannot readily imagine credible science without the institutions which maintain and transmit it, nor credible institutions without the knowledge which gives them much of their legitimacy.


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