I came across an interesting interview with Bruno Latour, a sociologist with an interest in Science and Techology Studies (STS), who was involved with what has been called the “science wars”. I actually found much of what he said in the interview quite sensible. For example, he suggested that the earlier “science wars” were more a dispute than a war, but suggested that
[w]e’re in a totally different situation now. We are indeed at war. This war is run by a mix of big corporations and some scientists who deny climate change. They have a strong interest in the issue and a large influence on the population.
Part of my confusion about STS (which I’ve written about before) is that I had initially assumed that a key aspect of STS was about understanding how science and society could deal with science denial and with those whose agendas were mainly to undermine our scientific understanding. However, some of what I’ve seen from STS is more akin to enabling denial, than countering it. I have been told that this is more due a vocal minority, than some reflection of STS as a whole. If so, maybe the silent majority should really become a bit noiser, as Bruno Latour may be trying to do.
However, there were some parts of the interview that I found a little odd. For example, when discussing the “science wars”, Bruno Latour says
It was a dispute, caused by social scientists studying how science is done and being critical of this process. Our analyses triggered a reaction of people with an idealistic and unsustainable view of science who thought they were under attack.
I’ve been doing scientific research now for more than 25 years (I published my first scientific article in 1992). Until I started writing this blog a few years ago, I had never heard of STS. If STS researchers did indeed come up with valid criticisms of how science is done, I don’t think many who did scientific research took any notice. So, either they highlighted valid issues that have been ignored, or their critiques weren’t particularly compelling.
In fact, Bruno Latour goes on to say
Some of the critique was indeed ridiculous, and I was associated with that postmodern relativist stuff, I was put into that crowd by others. I certainly was not antiscience, although I must admit it felt good to put scientists down a little. There was some juvenile enthusiasm in my style.
Well, yes, and this does seem to be a key issue (which Latour seems to mostly ignore). A good deal of what I’ve seen from STS has indeed been ridiculous, and it does indeed appear to be partly motivated by a desire to cut scientists down to size.
It is, of course, perfectly normal for a discipline to go through a phase where some of what is presented turns out to be ridiculous. However, the ideal is that as more and more information is collected, the more ridiculous ideas are rejected and the dicipline converges towards “emergent truths”. From what I’ve seen, the ridiculous elements of STS are still there. It’s not clear, to me at least, that they have somehow converged on some “emergent truths” about science and society.
It’s possible that this is not representative of the majority of STS and that the underlying principles are actually sound. However, how are we meant to know this if the ridiculous elements are over-represented in the public sphere? Maybe someone could do some kind of consensus study that highlights the majority view, and then communicates this to society and to the broader scientific community. The problem with this, of couse, is that according to some STS researchers consensus messaging is polarising and ineffective.
However, I did find the interview with Bruno Latour quite interesting and it is worth reading (it’s not very long). It may well be that STS does have a constructive and positive role to play. If they do, then – in my view – they will have to do a much better job than they’ve done to date.