Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sunday Thoughts: Taboos of Science

SciShow recently did a video about some of the taboos in science:

For a long, long, long time, the science of human sexual intercourse was also taboo. Really bad. Many of us now know of (or have heard of) the Kinsey Report. Some more of us might well have seen Kinsey. There has been a lot of additional scientific research into human sexual intercourse, continuing to (quietly) dismantle the taboo of researching sex. There are even journals like the Journal of Sex Research that present research on findings of human sexual intercourse. Still, though, in many cultures (including many in the so-called "enlightened" and "liberal" countries of the "West"), the scientific study of human sexual intercourse remains a taboo (even though it is an activity that almost every adult will do at some point during their lives). A recent book by Mary Roach - Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex - provides an interesting and humorously written account of the history of human sex and science.

In fact, Mary Roach has written several books that touch on topics that are somewhat taboo in science (or at least somewhat taboo in the social perspective of what science is doing), these are - including Bonk - Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and (somewhat less controversial in topic matter; at least socially so) Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

There are many types of social taboos, too, that have been raised through time, and Gribben does a great job of wending the way through Western science (primarily from 1542, but he does delve back in time to explore the "roots" of certain areas of science) in his highly readable account: The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. Through this, we discover that there are many times when scientific theories have been postulated that then get overturned by the work of (often) one (often) man, even though the reality of the time may have been a little bit more of a battle field of ideas. (Indeed, he makes allusions to this when he describes why Newton wrote the line that included the now-famous phrase, "standing on the shoulders of giants".) Still, Gribben - possibly due to his not wanting to focus too much on processes of change through history - didn't focus on the what Thomas Kuhn wrote (not so eloquently) about in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; namely that changes a scientific paradigm involves a certain amount of addressing topics that may be taboo within the scientific community (but not necessarily taboo in general society, since the implications of such changes are not readily apparent or readily understandable).

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