Symmetry and the Study of Scientific Controversies
How can scientific controversies best be reconstructed? One of the guiding principles of the sociology of scientific knowledge is the so-called principle of symmetry, which proposes that the researcher invoke the same types of causes or apply the same conceptual tools to explain "true" and "false" beliefs. This principle represents a crucial break with a more traditional approach, which begins by accepting the views of dominant scientists and then sets itself the task of explaining why the other side in the controversy (creationists, say, or anti-fluoridationists) might be so deluded as to persist in its errors. In the traditional approach, "social explanations are selectively applied
to the side without authoritative scientific backing." By contrast, contemporary sociologists of scientific knowledge insist on employing a common conceptual apparatus to explore the knowledge claims and social factors on both (or all) sides of a controversy. In my view, a symmetric analysis is not necessarily a "neutral" analysis, either in intent or in effect. But it is, potentially, the most fair-minded way to approach knowledge controversies, and one that requires the investigator to bend over backwards to consider the arguments of scientific "underdogs."