I came across a paper by Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Martin Weinel called STS as science or politics? For those who don’t know, STS stands for Science and Technology Studies and I have written about it before. I haven’t always been all that complimentary, but I should probably acknowledge that this may reflect more on my ignorance than on anything else.
The reason I found the paper by Harry Collins and colleagues interesting is that it seems (if I’m reading it right) that I’m not alone in my confusion and in some of my critiques. An impression I have is that the STS narrative is essentially that science is inherently value-laden and that scientists should be more aware of the societal/political implications of their research (and also the societal/political influences on their research). A consequence of this is a perception that there is no objective reality and also that expertise somehow depends on societal, and political, values (I may not have this quite right, but I think this is roughly it). Some have argued that this means that STS bears some responsibility for the post-truth world in which we now live (for example, Shawn Otto suggests this in his book The War on Science).
Others, however, suggest that STS bears no responsibility and that debates about the nature of expertise are irrelevant. Harry Collins, and colleagues, disagree, saying
In contrast, we argue that whether or not STS had a causal influence on the emergence of post-truth politics, there is a clear resonance between the two positions and that the current political climate makes empirically informed and scientific analyses of expertise and the form of life of science more important than ever.
[the] claim is that STS is not to blame for post-truth because the arguments never pointed in that direction. Thus the ‘science warriors’ must have been mistaken because STS had never threatened scientific truth.
This highlights an aspect of STS that has always bothered me. Certainly the narrative that I have got from STS is that science is somehow value-laden and that scientists should not ignore the societal/political relevance of their research and how their research might be (is) influenced by society/politics. However, they seem to ignore this when it comes to STS itself; it’s as if they think STS can produce “emergent truths” despite their own research suggesting that this is somehow not possible in other research areas (this may not be fair, but is my impression). If “science warriors” regarded STS as threatening scientific “truths” then, by STS’s own arguments, surely this is a valid conclusion, even if it wasn’t explicitly what STS was actually suggesting?
Part of my confusion about STS is that I think I initially thought that it was more about how society could identify scientific knowledge (and expertise) than about the scientific knowledge/experts themselves. However, in their paper Harry Collins and colleagues, seem to actually suggest that this should be one of the key roles for STS research. For example
understanding who can legitimately contribute to expert debate requires social scientists to use their special understanding of the formation of knowledge to reject the misuse of expertise by certain elite experts and give credit to the work of low status, experience-based experts.
[e]xpert knowledge, and particularly the substance and degree of consensus between experts, needs to be properly understood so that it can be, and will be, fairly and accurately presented to public and policy-makers.
It’s interesting that the above comes from researchers in the same discipline as those arguing that we should move beyond climate consensus.
Okay, this post is getting rather long, so I’ll just quote some parts from the conclusion of the Collins et al. paper.
Hard questions for STS were posed long ago but were largely ignored in the relatively politically benign years before the recent terrifying outburst of populism. Sismondo argues that these questions are based on a misunderstanding of what STS claimed and that…… This would be right if STS was a political movement for promoting democracy but it is not. STS is an academic/scientific discipline aimed at understanding the nature of knowledge.
….. Unless we want to engage in post-truth activities ourselves we should not be pretending that our major contribution to this new understanding of knowledge – recognising the role of social and cultural factors in the creation of scientific knowledge – does not have the potential to give comfort to post-truth politicians and their supporters. We need to face up to the fact that it does, and find new ways to justify a choice between the knowledge-claims competing to inform public opinion and policy. It is ironic that the one place this is not recognised is in the heartlands of STS.
My own view is (unsurprisingly) very similar to that of Harry Collins and colleagues; it is important to understand the nature of knowledge, but those who do so should be careful of providing ammunition for those who are promoting misinformation for their (and their supporters) benefit. This is especially ironic if those doing so are those who argue that people should be very conscious of the societal/political implications of their research.