Science and Consensus Today



Constructivist orientations in the sociology of science emerging from the late 1970s onward have explored at length the mechanisms at work in the background of scientific consensus formation. In Thomas Kuhn already, consensus formation is separated from innovation by being firmly associated with the production of “normal science.” In Pierre Bourdieu, it is caught up in “ideological functions.” Studies have identified all manner of extra-scientific factors in scientific consensus formation, including culture, funding, and politics. Indeed, ever since Jürgen Habermas’s work on society and communicative action, the role of consensus as a regulative idea in social reproduction is a major topic in sociology and political theory. Many critics from Nicolas Rescher to Gerard Hauser and Chantal Mouffe, have pointed out normative problems and conceptual inconsistencies in the consensus model.

Today, science sceptics routinely misappropriate social constructivist arguments to debunk scientific consensus. They rebrand fringe hypotheses as bold scientific innovation in the face of an oppressive scientific institutions, manufacture counter-consensus formations, and defer policy-decisions, making the sociology of science complicit in a kind of “epistemological filibuster.” The academic response has spanned from theoretical back-pedalling to attempts at placing scientific authority on new ontological foundations, as seen in the often fanciful “new materialism.”

Yet, the problem is rhetorical rather than ontological.

Science scepticism feeds off sentiments of exclusion created de facto by the inaccessibility of much scientific discourse to non-scientists. To alleviate the problem, inclusion through participation is generally seen as the key: the public must be made “a kind of partner in discovery,” to quote Leibniz. Concrete citizen interaction with science is therefore today strongly promoted.

Most scientific production, however, does not allow for such direct citizen participation, in which case the rhetoric of public presentation alone must bear the burden of inclusivity. In other words, given that the public cannot realistically participate or contribute in any substantial way in the practical conduct of science, whether the public can contribute to and participate in the establishment of consensus about the knowledge produced by that science become almost entirely a question of how the rhetorical interface between the scientific community and the broader public operates, that is to say, a question of the means by which scientists disseminate their discoveries.


NOTCOM argues that studying especially the strategies of public dissemination by seventeenth century natural scientists can contribute to resolve these problems. Early modern natural philosophers promoted their “new science” in a social context where they enjoyed no special authority. Crucial lessons about communication and virtual participation of the public in the establishment of scientific knowledge can be learned from how natural and experimental philosophers devised what has been dubbed “literary technologies” to create impressions of “virtual witnessing” as a strategy of inclusive science communication.

Today, the rhetorical virtues of scientific “storytelling” have not gone unnoticed but have mostly been discussed in the context of science journalism. NOTCOM suggests that some of the concerns with narrative approaches to inclusive science communication can be alleviated by turning to historiographical models that do not abide by the deliberately plot-driven methods of journalistic and fiction writing but by standards of historical exactitude which require more complex narrative arrangements to account for the temporal patterns that actually structure scientific consensus formation.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Mogens Lærke (June 8, 2023). Science and Consensus Today. NOTCOM. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from

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