The phrase “scientific orthodoxy” sounds like an oxymoron. Many don’t think that the words science and orthodoxy make any kind of sense together. Orthodoxy is “right knowledge”—knowledge that is authorized, allowable, and stable. In contrast, the popular image of science is that it is open to new facts, always looking to the next horizon, and pushing forward towards novel discoveries.

And yet, the history of science is full of examples of scientific work or researchers that have been termed “unorthodox” when they have disagreed with existing scientific theories. This intrigued us enough, that the Science, Religion, and Culture Program recently held a workshop called “Scientific Orthodoxy” at Harvard University. Over two days we brought together scholars from a variety of specialties in science studies to think and talk together about the concept of scientific orthodoxy.

Orthodoxies help to create consensus and form communities of authority. But they also determine what questions we can legitimately ask. In the process of fashioning a scientific orthodoxy, certain questions and questioners are deemed inappropriate, religious, superstitious or pseudoscientific. This process is not only part of what makes science authoritative, it also connects science to epistemic and cultural features that are often ascribed to religions—i.e. meaning, identity, ethics and metaphysics. And it is this process and connection that we explored as scientific orthodoxy.

The conversation at the workshop touched on many things—including creationism, endangered species, computer piracy, climate change, and post-colonialism. This week and next, the blog will take selections from some of the papers presented at the workshop to share with our readers. For this series, we are partnering with American Science: A Team Blog, the official blog of the Forum for the History of Science in America from the History of Science Society. Our hope is that the concept of “scientific orthodoxy” will be useful to scholars, but also intriguing to all our readers. We also believe that it demonstrates the power of communication between religious studies and science studies. By sharing methods and tools from one field to the other, we understand better how knowledge, belief and practice shape us and the world around us.

Image from Flickr via Amy

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