Scientific Facts as Social Constructs

What we believe is real depends in part upon our sense of safety in society

Amethysta Herrick
Amethysta Herrick
So close...and yet so far - image by the author via Midjourney

When discussing sex or gender in modern discourse - particularly in internet forums in which anonymity is guaranteed - the phrase "social construct" makes frequent appearances. As a countertactic, critics and outright disbelievers of the LGBTQ experience are quick to dismiss the phrase with an appeal to what they call "basic science," another catchphrase of modern discourse.

Both phrases are spat at opponents with righteous indignation and the intent to kill, but neither phrase even lands a punch. The juxtaposition of dogmatic misuse of science to the outright rejection of science as a limitation to personal experience solidified a truth I never expected to write.

Scientific facts are social constructs.

That is, a society's knowledge of events, concepts, and data derive meaning and value only by their continued use and application within the social environment.

As a scientist, I rebel against this truth with every fiber of my being. But in a recent conversation, I watched a demonstration of both scientific dogma and unquantifiable experience from the same group in response to the same topic. The participants were blind to their own inconsistencies, even as they were uncovered.

The experience made the truth inescapable. What science discovers, proves, or predicts becomes truth or falsehood by the social environment that accepts or rejects them, not by the quality or universality of the science that acquired them.

In a social environment, science takes a back seat to politics.

Constructing social knowledge

The concept of a social construct predates Judith Butler's use of the phrase to describe gender by centuries. As a mélange of sociology and epistemology, the concept describes knowledge acquired not necessarily through direct observation or shared experience of reality, but through interactions among members of the society that knows it.

Linguists have long proposed words are meaningless phonemes without underlying concepts to quicken them. Although we may "know" a fact inside our heads, knowledge must be shared either by direct experience or by communication.

Communication, however, presupposes a method by which to communicate - that is, symbols, letters, words. What happens when the meaning of a word is the personal experience it describes? Can an experience particular to each person be communicated to another?

The meaning of the word becomes the sum experience of all people who use the word to communicate with each other. None of the people possesses an understanding of how another person uses the word, but each person knows what the word means as their personal story.

Within the social environment, the word's meaning exists as the collective experience, and its value is only as great as its reinforcement within the group by frequent use. The meaning of the word is constructed by the society that uses it.

Science can, too, know!

At this juncture, any scientist - say, me - will cry that there are facts knowable outside the context of a social environment. Of course, objective facts are the realm of science: to catalog reality, categorize it, and give humans a method by which to communicate those facts as knowledge of reality.

But not all knowledge is treated equal. Philosophers considered this, too - and any open discussion of sex and gender eventually lands on a statement plagued by the Problem of Induction. Neglecting the statement itself for a moment, the Problem of Induction is described succinctly by the question "How do we know the Sun will rise tomorrow?"

Much of the answer - at least to early philosophers - derives from past experience. Humans observed the Sun rises every day. In fact, the very definition of the word "tomorrow" implies when the Sun rises. But how do we know the event will occur?

Our knowledge stems from trust in our prior experience. The Sun has risen every day since the beginning of recorded human history. There is no reason to believe it will not rise tomorrow.

But a question presents itself immediately: why does the past necessarily imply the future? There is no valid answer other than "because." The event was observed countless times; it will be observed again...because.

Definition as a method of exclusion

Before Johannes Kepler devised equations predicting planetary motion, the answer "because" had to suffice for why the Sun will rise tomorrow. But science won the day afterward.

Science could describe the motion of the Earth relative to the Sun, and any astronomer willing to endure the spherical geometry could then fold his arms and - with a smug look on his face - assert the equations demonstrate the Sun will, indeed, rise tomorrow.

As a practice, science is most adept at creating definitions, such as mathematical equations, written theories, or flat-out "we define this term by this range of numerical values." By necessity, definitions are not intended to be inclusive of all experience. They must be exclusive - they must create a clear boundary around that which they define.

Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion, for instance, predict the Sun will rise tomorrow. But they encompass only planetary motion. There are many other factors inherent in the question "Will the Sun rise tomorrow?"

Could a comet hit the Earth before tomorrow and knock it out of orbit? Could the Sun run out of fuel before tomorrow? Does the question apply only to the astronomer, unfortunately strangled for the smug look on his face, who now will not experience the Sun rising?

A definition excludes most of reality to provide value. While Kepler's equations predict where Mars can be found in the night sky, their greater value is to predict the remainder of the night sky where we can be certain Mars will not be found.

Linguists win the day

The lack of inclusivity of experiences in a definition does not exclude the possibility of other experiences. A definition is not the same as an experience.

Physicists define the color red as a range of wavelengths between 740 - 625 nm. The definition is precise. It does not exclude the existence or experience of other colors, such as violet.

But the definition does not give insight to the experience of a red sphere, a red car, a red cent, or a red herring. Further, the definition - scientific in nature - must also be accepted by the social environment of (at least) physicists. What appeared at first blush as a fact is a convention.

To return to the discussion of sex and gender, biology provides clear definitions for the words, as I've written before. But any discussion of the distinction between or the experience of sex and gender typically focuses anywhere but on the definition, because definitions require mutual acceptance in order to acquire value.

And if there is one thing difficult to find in internet discussions, it is mutual acceptance in definition of terms.

Constructing reality

Can humanity ever understand sex or gender? Are they so ineffable as to escape the realm of knowledge?

Past observation of humans and their genetics indicates humans with an XX genotype will develop primary sex characteristics of a female, express the gender of a woman, and be attracted to humans who exhibit the primary sex characteristics of a male.

But can past observation of existing humans predict the biology, psychology, and behavior of future humans? Or does the current anti-LGBTQ rhetoric immediately fall victim to the Problem of Induction as well as logical fallacy?

Gender - as an experience of the individual, not of the species - must be understood as the sum experience of all humans. That is, in order to communicate gender, it must be understood as a social construct.

But the experience of gender by an individual does not prevent its observation and classification. The purpose and value of gender can be described without simultaneously explaining every gender of every human across all time and space or giving up explanation as a lost cause (or a red herring).

Current anti-LGBTQ rhetoric dissipates to social dogmatism that negates and invalidates observation and experience of at least 1 billion people living today, let alone throughout human history. Knee-jerk invocation of social constructs dismisses centuries of science in a quagmire of social relativism. Both assertions depend on scientific facts accepted within the respective social environment - on scientific facts as social constructs - preventing any resolution of the disagreement.

It is possible to view sex and gender as separate concepts with separate purposes and separate implementations. But to do so requires giving up the attempt to control others in order to focus on understanding the general human experience instead.


Amethysta Herrick

Ami is a transgender woman dedicated to exploring identity and gender. She is Editor-in-Chief of Purplepaw Publications, LLC.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the offical policy or position of Purplepaw Publications, LLC. Please view the Disclaimer page for further information.