There’s a recent paper in Science and Technology Studies by Jaron Harambam called The Corona Truth Wars: Where Have All the STS’ers Gone When We Need Them Most? The topic is, fairly obviously, the current coronavirus pandemic, and the abstract ends with:
It is therefore quite unclear what information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust. Science and Technology Scholars are perfectly equipped with concepts, theories and methods to help us understand these complex dynamics, and guide us through the fog of uncertainty and manipulation.
I’ve been interested in Science and Technology Studies (STS) for some time now, but have to admit that I don’t really understand the basics of this field. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t equipped with concepts, theories and methods that would help. However, in the climate context with which I’m familiar, these concepts, theories and methods have not, in my view, been utilised in ways that are particularly helpful.
For example, one of the people mentioned a number of times in this paper is Roger Pielke Jr. His contributions to the climate debate have led him to being included in lists of climate deniers and climate misinformers. This may not be entirely fair, but if one’s contribution to the climate debate leads to the inclusion in such lists, then it’s hard to then argue that this contribution was particularly helpful. Some reflection may also be in order.
The paper also makes some rather odd suggestions. For example, it suggests that
STS’ers could take the role now of the “honest broker” given the high knowledge and value uncertainty of how to best deal with the current corona crisis.
The “honest broker” comes from a book I’ve discussed before. This book is about the different roles that scientists could take when giving public advice. Even though STS’ers may have expertise about the science/policy interface, they do not have the expertise to be giving specific advice about the corona crisis. This suggestion really seems to be overstepping their epistemic authority.
The paper does, however, acknowledge some issues. For example, it says:
STS can often turn rather esoteric: it’s research output (books, articles, reports) are full of neologisms and unconventional use of words and their meanings. For the outside world, it is often hard to under-stand, let alone implement our insights in public health interventions or public debates without our concrete help.
I think this is a fairly key point. If some research area would like a higher public profile, then the ideal way to do so (in my view) is to do good research, which you then publish, and promote publicly. You need to put effort into convincing people of the value of your research, not simply state that it exists.
Maybe the reason STS hasn’t been all that prominent in the current crisis is because they’ve failed to do enough to convince people to take their contributions seriously. They have been reasonably prominent in the climate context. Although I’m probably generalising too much, my impression is that they haven’t done a particularly good job in this context.
Rather than asserting that this is a time when we need them most, STS’ers could spend a bit of time reflecting on their contribution to another potentially crucial, societally-relevant topic and why it hasn’t lead to a larger role in our current crisis?