In my previous post I discussed a paper by Harry Collins, and colleagues, that is mainly a response to an editorial by Sergio Sismondo. Collins et al. argue that Science and Technology Studies (STS) must take some responsibility for today’s post-truth environment, and that social scientists should be aiming to understand the formation of knowledge and who can legitimately contribute to expert debate.
I’ve since, however, come across another paper (H/T Mark Carrigan) that also discusses the Sergio Sismondo editorial. It’s by Steve Fuller (whose writings I’ve discussed before) and it asks is STS all talk and no walk? It takes a very different line to that taken by Harry Collins and colleagues, essentially suggesting that STS should take credit for the post-truth world. Steve Fuller’s article claims that STS set loose on the general public — if not outright invented — at least four common post-truth tropes:
1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties.
I find the above competely bizarre; they’re simplistic caricatures of science. Science is a process that aims to understand what is being studied; publishing a paper is simply one way of disseminating the resulting information. It’s true that precisely defining the scientific method is difficult, and that there isn’t actually a single method. However, that doesn’t mean that science isn’t some kind of process of discovery. It is true that there is no definitive scientific “truth” and that what we take to be scientific “truth” today will not be the same as it will be in the future. However, in many cases it is more evolution than revolution and not knowing the precise “truth” now, doesn’t mean that we can’t be confident about things that are not true.
A consensus is not manufactured, it emerges if all the various lines of evidence suggests a consistent picture. It is true that overturning a consensus can be very difficult, but this is often because doing so requires not only illustrating the strength of the evidence supporting the new position, but also why all the evidence supporting the original consensus is wrong, or has been misinterpreted. Overturning a consensus is not meant to be easy. I do agree that determining who is competent and has expertise is non-trivial. However, there is a vast difference between determining who qualifies, and illustrating who does not.
Steve Fuller then goes on to say
What is perhaps most puzzling from a strictly epistemological standpoint is that STS recoils from these tropes whenever such politically undesirable elements as climate change deniers or creationists appropriate them effectively for their own purposes.
His argument seems to be that these politically undesirable elements independently corroborate these tropes’s validity. I’m having some trouble deciding how to respond to this. It seems fairly clear that there will probably always be ideologically motivated people who use simplistic caricatures of science to try and undermine mainstream science for political ends. Why, though, would an academic discipline want to take credit for this, and argue that this somehow validates their caricatures of the scientific process (what Steve Fuller calls tropes)?
This seems to suggest that there are at least some within STS who do not see their role as helping society to understand the nature of knowledge and how to identify those who have competence and expertise (or, maybe, who does not). There certainly seems to be some within STS who regard STS as somehow having provided validity to those who many would regard as having little competence or relevant expertise.
This post is getting rather long, and it’s always possible that I have misunderstood Steve Fuller’s article (or that there is something really deep and clever that I’m missing). I suggest reading the article yourselves and making up your own minds.
I’ll end by quoting something from the conclusion of Steve Fuller’s article:
STS’s most lasting contribution to the general intellectual landscape, namely, to think about science as literally a game
Okay, there are clearly aspects of the scientific process that involve people competing to either find the answer first, or to overturn our current understanding. There are, however, underlying rules, even if they aren’t all that easy to understand/define. I had assumed that one of the roles of STS was to help the public understand the basic process and something of the underlying rules, not rewrite them so that people can essentially make them up as they go along. I don’t see this as either productive, or of benefit to society. Others may well disagree.