Where have all the STS’ers gone?

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?

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21 Responses to Where have all the STS’ers gone?

  1. This reminded me of a post I wrote about a Reiner Grundmann paper that ended with

    [i]t is high time the expertise of the social sciences is recognized and assembled.

    I certainly don’t object to their being more recognition of the expertise of the social sciences, but I also thought that one way to do so is to do good research that is promoted effectively, rather than insisting on it being recognised and assembled.

  2. Déborah Danowski says:

    This is just one example, of course, but if you consider Bruno Latour to be part of the STS, I strongly recommend this paper from 2004 http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/89-CRITICAL-INQUIRY-GB.pdf; as well as his entire recent work on the Anthropocene etc.

  3. Deborah,
    Thanks, I am aware of some of Bruno Latour’s work. I did read this interview which I did find quite interesting.

  4. Deborah,
    I haven’t read all of that article you posted, but I did find this an interesting comment.

    My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies because of a little mistake in the definition of its main target. The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the con- trary, renewing empiricism.

    I think this is indeed a good description of some of what has happened with STS in the climate context. Intentionally, or not, they have sometimes been seen as allies by those who dispute AGW, or dispute the need for any kind of urgent action. In my view, that isn’t a great way to help.

  5. Everett F Sargent says:

    Hindsight is 20:20. Expect many many STS papers after the pandemic is over and what all we should have done in the past. Like Obama’s pandemic counsel which Small Hands terminated. Or if the exact same thing were to happen in the future, then follow their recommendations, even though the exact same thing will never again happen.

    Accordingly. STS theory is that we the damned if we do follow their advise and damned if the don’t follow their advice. They will always have an after the facts follow on layup in their minds.

  6. brigittenerlich says:

    The author of the article you discuss asks: “Where are the Mol’s who can explain how the virus exists as multiple depending on its uptake in different socio-material constellations?” (?!) Now it so happens that Mol has written an article for the BMJ on Covid and interdisciplinarity. It starts out with a rather contrived/Strawman definition of interdisciplinarity as a puzzle and then goes on to redefine it as mediation. The advice that emergesfrom this is one that can be found in every STS article, namely to ” foster diversity”. So far I have rarely found any helpful advice on how to do that or how to implement that advice in practice.

  7. Brigitte,
    I have to admit that I don’t even really understand what ” the virus exists as multiple depending on its uptake in different socio-material constellations” really means. Interdisciplinarity is an interesting issue, because there is pressure for research to become more interdisciplinary. However, it does seem that whenever one tries to get funding for any such work, research councils tend to shy away from doing so (i.e., if it crosses research council boundaries, the research councils tend to think it’s the other research council that should fund it).

    However, what does seem to happen is that when it becomes clear that there are good reasons for inter-disciplinarity, it happens. Astrobiology is an example. Twenty years ago, it was a bit of a buzzword, now there are real links between astronomers, geologists, biologists. So, if STS really wants to develop more interdisciplinary work, then it just takes some effort, but – in my experience – it can’t simply be mandated.

  8. brigittenerlich says:

    Yes, I didn’t understand that sentence either. And I was surprised as obscurantism had earlier in the article been flagged up. And yes, true interdisciplinarity is difficult and I think, as you say, it only happens when there is haha a great conjunction once in a while. It can’t be forced. One has to look out for chances to jump into it when the stars are aligning….Sorry, I got carried away there!

  9. izen says:

    STS could have examined the various responses of different societies and the outcomes to explain how best to reduce infection and mortality rates. There are many examples of the divergent methods governments have chosen to take in response to COVID19, and the success, or failure, of the approaches taken.

    How helpful it might have been to have a globally defined ‘best’ system that was derived from all the disparate methods that have been employed. Or at least to have a range of approaches that would respect the balance between individual freedom, collective cooperation and government coercion that exist.

    Although I suspect that Sweden would still have tried its method and New Zealand approached things differently despite the similarity in population and social makeup.
    The political and economic forces would still have defined the way each society would have addressed the problem.

    No doubt STS will have in hindsight a lot to say about the way the UK and S Korea dealt with the epidemic, detailing the social factors that led to the different approaches without any comment on the validity or effectiveness of the various methods. Because such social differences are to be considered inherent in the society, not something that would require change in the light of an evolving pandemic.

  10. “it’s hard to then argue that this contribution was particularly helpful.”

    If the object of STS is to be of help , one ought to ask, “To Whom?”

    Since its beginnings , notably at MIT, and Sciences Po, a half century ago, STS has been, as body of theory and praxis floridly and outspokenly political, and partisan in its upper case progressive outlook.

    The social construction of climate denial certainly deserves scrutiny, and so does the sociology and ideology of the sociology of science itself.

  11. Russell,

    If the object of STS is to be of help , one ought to ask, “To Whom?”

    Yes, I thought the same. It would be good if they defined who they were trying to help, and why. The article implies that it would help understand these complex dynamics, and guide us through the fog of uncertainty and manipulation but even this doesn’t make clear what they mean by “uncertainty” and who is doing the “manipulation”.

  12. Joshua says:

    > 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.

    Wow. If they’re perfectly equipped to do that, they’ve sure been doing a good job of hiding that fact through their work in other contexts.

    But seriously, what an amazingly arrogant thing to say. Maybe I’m being overly semantic, but I would accept that something like “are well – equipped to explore some of these questions.”

  13. Joshua,
    Yes, there is an element of what I shall over-confidence. I found out that the author of the paper is on Twitter, but my interactions with STS’ers have gone so poorly that I thought I would avoid engaging, given that it’s maybe not the right time to start what might end up being another rather pointless discussion.

  14. Willard says:

    > partisan in its upper case progressive outlook.

    Studying reality tends to have a progressive bias.

    Sometimes even moral philosophers may contribute:

  15. Willard says:
    December 24, 2020 at 2:21 pm
    “> partisan in its upper case progressive outlook.

    Studying reality tends to have a progressive bias.”

    In their soixante huitard days Steve Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Stephen Rose. all part of the early STS scene, were leading lights of Science for the People.

    Steve was charmingly candid in explaining why he progressed in Bernal and Haldane ‘s footsteps in the dialectical construction of punctuated equilibrium and many of his popular science essays: “My daddy raised me to be Marxist.”

    What would Joseph Needham, who started writing his monumental Science and Civiilzation in China in the last days of Mao make of progressives like Xi?

  16. Willard says:

    You chose the best season for your red baiting, Russell:

    ELAINE: Well, I’m dating a communist.

    JERRY: Wow, a communist. That’s something.

    ELAINE: Yeah, that’s pretty cool isn’t it?

    GEORGE: Hey, did I tell you I called one of those girls from the personal ads in The Daily Worker?

    JERRY: The Daily Worker has personal ads?

    GEORGE: And they say appearance is not important.

    ELAINE: Yours or hers?

    [Kramer enters dressed as Santa]

    KRAMER: Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas everyone. Merry Christmas.

    JERRY: Wow, look at you. So you got the job.

    KRAMER: Yeah, you’re looking at the new Santa at Coleman’s Department store.

    ELAINE: Oh, congratulations


    Z’obvious that Santa was a communist.

  17. W. returning to MIT from Christmas in Milan, GianCarlo Rota told of his astonishment when his octagenarian aunt, the dowager Marchese, announced she would vote Communist in the next election. He asked why, and she invited him to come for tea the next day.

    He found it being served in front of the television on which she viewed the Italian parliament every afternnoon.

    After offering him a cup, she she pointed to the representatives on the left side of the podium on the screen:
    “You see, Gian Carlo ! The communists are the only ones who always wear neckties.”

  18. What is “upper case progressive”? Typo?

    As maintainer of the (Reddit) Open Science Feed I came across an STS conference in Austria, which has a division on Open Science and on Digital Science. https://sts-conference.isds.tugraz.at/event/14/

    Having seen the contributions of UK STS people to the climate branch of the US culture war I was skeptical, but the titles seem reasonable. So in the end I decided to post it. Maybe it is again an Anglo-American problem, with a side of French philosophers.

    Boris Johnson got an Oxford degree, maybe the Africo-American elite does not have to work and can make dumb assertions on climate change without putting in the work to gain expertise and still be treated as a serious person.

  19. Victor,

    Maybe it is again an Anglo-American problem, with a side of French philosophers.

    Yes, I have wondered the same.

  20. Pingback: 2020: A year in review | …and Then There's Physics

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