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.