There’s a post I’ve been thinking of writing, but I thought I might first comment on something else. I wrote a post about a Science and Technology Studies podcast that I’d listened to. This is a topic I find interesting, but my post wasn’t wildly complimentary. Essentially, I felt that their message was a little simplistic, a bit one-sided, and maybe a little arrogant. I do think there is maybe a tendency for scientists to over-simplify the role of science in society, or how science should influence policy making. Similarly, though, I think that some critiques of science, or of scientists, can also misunderstand aspects of the science, the scientific process, and how scientists perceive their role in society, and policy making.
However, I’ve just started listening to the third episode of their podcast, and they started with a brief discussion of their first public critique. Maybe it’s not mine, but since they refer to it as the first, and have linked to it from their website, I think it might be. What was interesting was how they interpreted it. It was apparently framed as them not knowing much about science, as challenging science in unacceptable ways, that they were anti-science, and that it was suggesting that unless someone was a scientist, they don’t have anything interesting to say about science. It seemed to remind them of the science wars.
Of course, maybe this doesn’t refer to my critique, but if it does, it certainly wasn’t what I was going for. I was certainly not trying to suggest that they know nothing about science, that they shouldn’t challenge it, that they’re anti-science, or that they don’t have anything interesting to say. If that is how it seemed, I apologise. I had thought that I had highlighted a few things that I found interesting, and had highlighted how I thought dialogue between physical scientists and social scientists was important, but maybe I didn’t get that across very well. The reason I write about this topic is because I find it interesting and important, not because I’m trying to shut anyone down. If I thought that science and technology studies researchers have nothing interesting to say, I don’t think I’d have listened to the podcast in the first place.
One thing that I found somewhat disappointing about this is the sense that academics who see themselves as in a position to critique another discipline don’t seem to engage all that well with criticism themselves. My perspective, which maybe others disagree with, is that we’re all essentially the same; there isn’t some hierarchy that allows one discipline to have a special position where they get to criticise another discipline, but not face any criticism themself. In a sense, I think we’re all researchers and we should be willing to defend our research when suitably challenged. Of course, I don’t think that people have to defend their ideas against unreasonable challenges, so maybe mine was seen as unreasonable (it was, apparently, sociologically interesting).
It’s of course possible that I misunderstand the role of science in society so badly that I should really just sit back and listen to science and technology studies (STS) researchers and not expect them to engage with anything I have to say. However, having discussed this issue with other colleagues and with other people who engage in public discussions about science, I don’t think I’m alone in being somewhat taken aback by some of the views expressed by STS researchers.
I’ve also found it very difficult to engage in discussions with STS researcher. That could, of course, by an indication of my inability to engage in a suitable way, but it does sometimes seem as though the expectation is that role of STS is to observe and critique science, but not to actually engage with scientists. As I said in my first post about this, I do think that there are some in the physical sciences who do have an overly simplistic view of the role of science in society and that there is a lot that physical scientists could learn from social scientists. However, I also think the reverse is true; that social scientists could also learn a lot from physical scientists.
It is possible that STS researchers have a perfect understanding of the role of science in society, while physical scientists have no understanding whatsoever. However, it would still seem quite important for STS researchers to try to understand why some physical scientists seem to not engage well with what STS research is suggesting. Okay, I’ve just previewed this post, and it’s become extremely long, so I’ll stop there.