Science and Technology Studies Podcast

I’ve been trying to listen to more podcasts, and came across a new one that might be of interest to my readers. It’s called The Received Wisdom with Shobita Parthasarathy and Jack Stilgoe. Both are researchers in Science and Technology studies, and my regulars will know that this is an area I’ve discussed on a number of occasions. The first episode was about climate activism – a topic I also find interesting – and featured Dan Sarewitz.

The initial part of the podcast was the two presenters just discussing some aspects of science/technology in society. There was an interesting discussion about how science and technology is used in society and how it can often be used in a way that benefits many people, but can also be used in ways that do a lot of harm. However, even here there was a suggestion that scientists don’t understand this and that they might do better if they were lucky enough to stumble into a Science and Technology Studies class.

The interview with Dan Sarewitz didn’t really get much better. It was full of generalisations about those who work in science and technology. There were claims that the typical academic scientist doesn’t reflect about how their research interfaces with broader societal issues, that the scientific community doesn’t think deeply about the enterprise in which they’re engaged, and that they’re clueless about the benefits of progress and about truth in the face of fraught politics.

I do think that there are some real issues with how scientific understanding interfaces with society, and with policy making. I do think that there are real issues with how scientists present their research to the public; there is indeed a tendency to over-hype results and to suggest that some new finding will solve all sorts of problems. I do think that the incentive structures in unversities encourage behaviour that may not always be optimal.

However, this is very complex and the issues aren’t the same across all areas of science and technology. People who work in science and technology are not some homogeneous bunch who behave in the same way and who all perceive the role of science in society in the same way. In many respects, the problems are not even unique to those who work in science and technology; over-hyping the significance of what we do is probably a common human failing, rather than something done only by those in science and technology.

I do think that it would be great if there was more interaction between social scientists and physical scientists; I think both could learn a lot from each other. However, I don’t see how this is going to be all that effective if the assumption is that it’s mostly the physical scientists who would benefit. Maybe social scientists who feel comfortable generalising about the failings of those who work in science and technology should reflect on this and should maybe consider that although the knowledge they’ve generated might benefit society, it can also end up doing more harm than good.

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12 Responses to Science and Technology Studies Podcast

  1. One of the things stressed in the podcast was the idea that the generation of knowledge tends to drive inequality and that it can be used both to benefit society and to do things that may end up harming many people. The latter certainly seems true, and the former may be true (I’m not sure it’s quite that simple). The problem, though, is that it’s hard to see what researchers can do about this. Clearly, researchers could choose not to research certain topics. However, once they’ve generated some knowledge they don’t really have some right to determine how it’s used. If anything, it would seem quite concerning if researchers could determine how knowledge was used in society. We, mostly, live in democracies. If there are reasons to govern how knowledge should be used, then this should – as far as I can tell – be decided by our elected policy makers, not by the researchers who develop the knowledge.

  2. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:


    There was an interesting discussion about how science and technology is used in society and how it can often be used in a way that benefits many people, but can also be used in ways that do a lot of harm. However, even here there was a suggestion that scientists don’t understand this and that they might do better if they were lucky enough to stumble into a Science and Technology Studies class.

    Symmetry suggests that such betterment should work both ways.
    Oddly, I have never seen an STS researcher stumble into a laboratory.

    Silos full of free advice for occupants of other silos, everywhere.


    There were claims that the typical academic scientist doesn’t reflect about how their research interfaces with broader societal issues, that the scientific community doesn’t think deeply about the enterprise in which they’re engaged, and that they’re clueless about the benefits of progress and about truth in the face of fraught politics.

    If only those naive, nerdy, child-like scientists with their slide-rules would get out more, things would be so very different.

    The geek meme never gets old.

    Have you met my friends Sheldon, Howard, and Leonard?

  3. The Very,

    Silos full of free advice for occupants of other silos, everywhere.

    Yes, that does seem like an apt way to describe it.

  4. Joshua says:

    > The problem, though, is that it’s hard to see what researchers can do about this. Clearly, researchers could choose not to research certain topics.

    I see a problem with (what seems to me to be) their underlying logic – that existing societal structures, which inherently reflect the power of the elite to enhance their own status, will inevitably turn scientific advances into “force multipliers” for inequality – not so much with their conceptualization of the science/society interface in itself (I think it’s probably more likely to be true than false), but because they seem to lay the responsibility for that interaction with scientists themselves.

    It seems to me that have some embedded desire to blame scientists for shit.

    Just as it’s true, as they say, that “science can’t solve complex societal problems,” so it is true that scientists aren’t responsible for complex societal problems.

    I suppose it gets a bit more complicated when you start to discuss whether tech is responsible for the deliterious impact of social media on society, as the architects of social media designed it specifically to leverage their research into human psychology and addiction, but these guys seem to conflate the IT/social media industry and “scientists,” which is problematic.

  5. It would be so useful to have a study of science. How could we make this work? Start it in an anthropology department where they have a tradition of making an effort to study groups of people in detail as objectively as they can.

  6. Everett F Sargent says:

    Something like Nero fiddled while Rome burned comes to mind here.

    Blame Gaming is that a meme? If not then it should be.

    Perhaps the problem is much bigger than all scientists per se?

    I think we should put all scientists in a ‘so called’ public box, then make them say things that they will never really do. You know like study Ukraine involvement in the 2016 USA national election and getting to the bottom of Burisma and the Bidens. You know some really important stuff. :/

  7. Joshua,
    I noticed that some Dan Sarewitz was very certain about how knowledge generation influenced social issues like inequality. It struck me that some of this was possibly more complicated than he made it seem. He seemed to think that those who were developing the internet could have spoken to some experts and discovered how it would probably end up being exploited by populists. Easy to say that in hindsight. Given that the internet didn’t exist when it was being developed, it’s not even clear that people really knew how it was going to evolve, let alone how what developed was going to be exploited.

  8. Victor,
    I do wonder how objective that would be if you were studying scientists who were operating in the same environment as the anthropologists. We work in the same institutions, we – ultimately – get funding from similar sources, we have the same sort of pressures and incentives. Is it actually possible for a group of researchers to study another group in a way that would really be objective?

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Everett F Sargent —- There were no fiddles in Nero’s day. Moreover, upon learning of the fires, he hastened from his villa south of Rome to go and direct the fire fighters. His enemies seem to have given him a worse history than he deserves.

    aTTP — I am under the impression that anthropologists no longer wish to be considered social scientists, but rather classified with the humanities.

  10. Everett F Sargent says:

    DBB,

    Tony Hayward is an Anthroapologist …

    Not to be confused with Anthrobromorphism (The mistaken attribution of the capacity for rational thought to a “bro” or any citizen of the brominion. Applicable most often to any close cohorts of the broverlord.)

  11. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    > I noticed that some Dan Sarewitz was very certain about how knowledge generation influenced social issues like inequality. It struck me that some of this was possibly more complicated than he made it seem.

    Agreed.

  12. I do wonder how objective that would be if you were studying scientists who were operating in the same environment as the anthropologists. We work in the same institutions, we – ultimately – get funding from similar sources, we have the same sort of pressures and incentives. Is it actually possible for a group of researchers to study another group in a way that would really be objective?

    Being objective is always hard. Many of the STS “scholars” seem to be perfectly capable of hating science and rejecting its findings while working in academia and being funded by universities. So something in the middle should be possible. Anthropologists have made that their trade, not easy, never perfect, but improvements are learnable.

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