Some reflections on (corona) truth wars

I wrote this in response to a paper by Jaron Harambam called The Corona Truth Wars, published in a journal called Science and Technology Studies. I submitted it to this journal but it was (desk?) rejected because they felt that the comment represents STS in ways that (we) don’t recognize. In a sense, that was partly the point – maybe STS researchers should reflect on why others perceive them in ways they don’t themselves recognise? I then sent it to Dan Sarewitz as a possible article for Issues in Science and Technology. Dan felt that it wasn’t really a good fit, but sent some useful comments. However, instead of taking it any further, I thought I would just post it here. I should also add that I also received useful comments from two others researchers, who I would be happy to name, but am never sure if they’d be happy if I did so 🙂

Some reflections on (corona) truth wars[1]

Abstract

The current coronavirus pandemic has illustrated how challenging it can sometimes be to assess what information to trust, and which experts to follow.  A recent paper has suggested that STS scholars are perfectly equipped to help us understand these complex dynamics, but also highlights that such scholars have been largely absent in the public and scientific debates.   This response provides some reflections from a non-STS scholar who has an interest in such issues, and who has tried to engage with, and understand, the relevant STS literature.  We present examples that suggest that STS may not be quite as perfectly equipped as claimed, and also reflect on why STS scholars may not be as prominent as might have been hoped.  We also suggest that presenting ideas as to how STS scholars could better exploit the available tools may make up for their apparent absence in current public, and scientific, debates.

Keywords: post-truth; consensus messaging; science communication; The Honest Broker; assessing expertise

1. Introduction

The current coronavirus pandemic has illustrated how it can be difficult to assess expertise, and information, when a topic is both complex and where potential decisions have significant societal implications. In a recent paper Harambam (2020) suggests that Science and Technology Studies (STS) 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”, but also asks why they haven’t been more prominent.

Although I’m certainly not an STS scholar, I have spent a number of years engaged in public debates about climate change, another societally relevant topic where it can also sometimes be challenging to assess expertise and information. As such, I have tried to engage with, and understand, the relevant STS literature but have found it difficult to work out in what way it helps us to understand “what information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust” (Harambam 2020).

This may, of course, be more my own failing than anything else, but I hope that some reflections from a non-STS scholar who has an interest in this general topic may be of interest to those STS scholars who do think that there is merit in trying to develop, and exploit, strategies that would help people to better understand what information, and which experts, to trust.  I also appreciate that some of what is presented may seem slightly provocative, but the intention is to provoke discussion rather than to be provocative simply for the sake of it. 

2. Post-truth

Harambam (2020) comments that the current corona “infodemic” is the “perfect post-truth crisis on which various STS’ers can shine their lights”. However, it has been suggested (Fuller 2016) that STS should “embrace its responsibility for the post-truth world” and that it has let loose four common post-truth tropes (Fuller 2017). Similarly, Collins et al. (2017) suggests that even if STS did not have a causal influence on the emergence of post-truth, there is clearly a resonance and that STS contributions have the potential to give comfort to those associated with post-truth.

Sismondo (2017), on the other hand, suggest that STS is not to blame for post-truth since embracing “epistemic democratization does not mean a wholesale cheapening of technoscientific knowledge”. Lynch (2017) claims that there is no obvious relation between STS and post-truth and that it is the “height of hubris to suggest that [STS] gave rise to, or is otherwise responsible for, the rhetorical means through which controversies have been ‘manufactured”’.

I’m not highlighting this to try and adjudicate between these two positions. However, given that there is debate within the STS community about whether or not STS has played a role in the emergence of post-truth might suggest that STS scholars should be cautious about how they engage with a post-truth crisis. It may also explain why there is some reluctance to turn to STS when thinking of how we might address such a crisis.

3. The Honest Broker

Harambam (2020) cites The Honest Broker (Pielke 2007) as an example of insightful work that describes the various ways in which scientists may provide policy advice. Although this work highlights a number of ways in which scientists may provide advice, it seems to suggest that the preferred role is that of the Honest Broker of policy alternatives. In this role, scientists would avoid being Issue Advocates and, instead, would aim to provide information that expands the range of policy options.

However, Jasanoff (2008) points out that “science does not always serve the public interest best by widening the scope of policy choice”, while others have pointed out that rather than expanding options, a broker typically narrows them (Rabett 2010).  Brown (2008) also points out that “[e]very definition of policy options involves the exercise of power, even those offered by Pielke’s Honest Brokers”. So, even this framework does not seem to be universally accepted, even within the STS community.

It was also surprising that Harambam (2021) suggested that “STS’ers could take the role now of the ‘honest broker’”.  STS’ers could certainly provide advice about how to integrate science advice with policy, but since they don’t have epidemiological, or public health, expertise, it’s hard to see how STS’ers could become the ‘honest brokers’ in this context.   

3.1 Stealth Issue Advocacy

As mentioned above, The Honest Broker (Pielke 2007) suggests that scientists should limit the politicisation of science by acting as Honest Brokers of Policy Alternatives, rather than as Issue Advocates.   It also suggests that a particularly problematic way in which scientists might engage is when they act as Stealth Issue Advocates. This is when someone hides their policy advocacy behind a veneer of science, effectively politicising science without making this clear. According to The Honest Broker, an example of this was the various responses to Bjorn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist (Lomborg 2001). The claim is that many of the scientists who responded to The Skeptical Environmentalist were acting as Stealth Issue Advocates; their political preferences were influencing their responses, and they weren’t being upfront about this.

However, there are clear arguments that the scholarship in The Skeptical Environmentalist was indeed problematic. Pimm & Harvey (2001) suggest that “it is a mass of poorly digested material, deeply flawed in its selection of examples and analysis”. In a series of essays in Scientific American (Rennie et al. 2002) scientists described how Lomborg’s work had misrepresented their fields. An analysis of the criticism and responses (van den Bergh 2010) concluded that “The Skeptical Environmentalist is not a reliable source of information and certainly not a work of science”.

Again, my goal isn’t to necessarily claim that the latter is the correct interpretation, but to suggest that the framing in The Honest Broker isn’t necessarily consistent with the suggestion by Harambam (2020) that STS has the tools that can helps us to determine which “information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust”.

The analysis presented in The Honest Broker would also seem to suggest that attempts to highlight poor scholarship can be framed as Stealth Issue Advocacy if the critic is not open about their political views, and as Issue Advocacy if they are. In both cases, this can be interpreted as politicising science. Rather than helping to determine what information is reliable, and which experts should be followed, this would seem to be making it more challenging to do so.

3.2 An Addendum

Harambam (2020) also highlights that although STS has not played a big role in the corona crisis, the author of The Honest Broker is one who has received funding to evaluate how science advice has influenced the response to the pandemic. It should be noted that the author has been prominent in the climate debate for many years. His contribution, however, has led to them being included in a list of individual climate deniers involved in the global warming denial industry (DeSmog 2021) and in a list of people regarded as contributing to Climate Misinformation (SkepticalScience 2021).

I’m not highlighting this to claim that the inclusion in these lists is justified, but to suggest that it is difficult to reconcile this with suggestions that STS scholars are “perfectly equipped with concepts, theories and methods to help us understand what information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust” (Harambam 2020).

4. Science communication

STS scholars have, on occasion, critiqued science communication. For example, Hollin & Pearce (2015) claimed that the information presented at the press conference for the publication of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report resulted in an “incoherent message” with respect to “what counts as scientific evidence for [anthropogenic global warming] AGW”.

However, rather than an incoherent message being presented, the issue was more that Hollin & Pearce (2015) misunderstood, and potentially mis-represented, what was presented at the press conference (Jacobs et al. 2015). This may imply that the communication could have been clearer, but that’s not the same as it being incoherent.

It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to critique science communication. However, one might hope that STS scholars would be cautious when critiquing the press conference for the release of a major scientific report, especially if STS regards itself as being perfectly suited to helping people determine which information to trust, and which experts to follow.

4.1 Consensus messaging

One science communication strategy that comes under particular STS scrutiny is consensus messaging. Underpinned by various consensus studies (Cook et al. 2013, 2016, Skuce et al. 2016) it is argued that consensus messaging can help to close the consensus gap (Hamilton 2016) and can act as a gateway belief (van der Linden et al. 2015, van der Linden et al. 2019). The idea being that the acceptance of a scientific consensus on an issue can then lead to changes in people’s attitudes and stronger support for public action.

Some STS scholars, however, argue that we should get beyond counting climate consensus[2]  and should instead “focus on genuinely controversial issues within climate policy debates where expertise might play a facilitating role” (Pearce et al. 2017). Cook (2017), however, suggests that this is a false dichotomy and that a “failure to address misconceptions about consensus enables the persistence of distractions that can delay substantive policy discussion”, while Oreskes (2017) points out that in a “political environment where contrarians have repeatedly mis-represented scientific consensus in a deliberate attempt to influence public policy, it is both reasonable and necessary for scholars to participate in attempting to clarify what scientists believe that they have established”.

In a debate between Cook and Pearce (Hulme 2021), Pearce argues that the consensus is strong but narrow, and that we should instead focus on issues that matter most for informing societal responses (Cook & Pearce 2021). Examples given were debates about carbon budgets and discount rates. However, these are both intricately linked to the consensus; a carbon budget provides information as to how much we can emit if we want to limit human-caused climate change, and discount rates relate to the future damages due to human-caused climate change, discounted to today.

What critics of consensus messaging have failed to explain is how it is possible to have discussions about these other important issues if there isn’t acceptance of the consensus that humans are causing climate change. My point here isn’t to re-litigate the debate about consensus messaging, but to suggest that this is an example where STS scholars have been critical of attempts to illustrate which information, and which experts, to trust, without really providing an alternative that would achieve a similar goal. This doesn’t seem consistent with the suggestion in Harambam (2020) that STS scholars are perfectly equipped with tools that will help us understand what information is reliable, and which experts to follow.

5. Conclusion

My motivation for writing this was not to revisit the science wars (Mermin 2008) or to even suggest that STS scholars do not have tools that would help us to assess what information to accept and which experts to trust. I’m well aware that even though I have an interest in this issue and have engaged with the STS literature for some time, I’m certainly not an expert and there are almost certainly aspects that I do not understand. I also agree with Harambam (2020) that this is important, that we should be thinking about how to address these issues, and that scholars who study the science/policy interface would seem to be ideally suited to providing suitable advice.

I also don’t want to suggest that the examples provided above are representative of all of STS; I appreciate that it’s a very diverse field with many different views. My intention was to provide examples that seem inconsistent with what is suggested in Harambam (2020) and that might illustrate why STS scholars may have been less prominent in the current debate than might have been hoped.

It’s also the case that STS scholars have not been entirely absent from the current debate.  For example, Parthasarathy (2021) has written about the vaccine crisis in Europe, Rayner and Sarewitz (2021) have written about policy making in the post-truth world and have included a discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic, and others have been prominent in the mainstream media.  Even though not directly related to the coronavirus crisis, STS scholars have also recently been appointed to prominent positions in the new US administration (Storrow 2021). 

I should also acknowledge that Harambam (2020) did indeed also highlight some of the potential issues with STS. For example, commenting that much STS work is inaccessible, making it difficult for the outside world to understand and implement. As I suspect many STS scholars would agree, it’s difficult to convincingly argue that STS is perfectly equipped with tools for addressing societally complex issues if it’s not possible to apply this in practice.

I don’t want to end with any suggestions, as I don’t think I’m really in a position to do so. I mostly wanted to provide reflections from someone who has an interest in this topic and that might be of interest to those who may be thinking about how to provide tools that can be used to assess what information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust. Presenting ideas about how this might be achieved may also make up for the apparent absence of STS scholar voices in public and scientific debates.

6. References

Brown, M.B. (2008) Review of Roger S. Pielke, Jr., The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Minerva 46, 485-489.

Collins, H., Evans, R. & Weinel, M. (2017) STS as science or politics? Social Studies of Science 47(4), 580–586.

Cook, J. (2017) Response by Cook to “beyond counting climate consensus”. Environmental Communication 11(6), 733–735.

Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P. & Skuce, A. (2013), Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters 8(2), 024024.

Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R. L., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., Carlton, J. S., Lewandowsky, S., Skuce, A. G., Green, S. A., Nuccitelli, D., Jacobs, P., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R. & Rice, K. (2016) Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters 11(4), 048002.

Cook, J. & Pearce, W. (2021) Is emphasising consensus in climate science helpful for policymaking? In: Hulme M. (ed) Contemporary Climate Change Debates: A Student Primer.  London: Routledge, pp. 127-145

Global Warming Disinformation Database, In: DeSmog blog. Available at https://www.desmogblog.com/global-warming-denier-database (https://archive.is/Ybaqy) (accessed 22.2.2021)

Fuller, S. (2016), Embrace the inner fox: Post-truth as the STS symmetry principle universalized. Social Epistemology Review Reply Collective. Available at: https://social-epistemology.com/2016/12/25/embrace-the-inner-fox- post-truth-as-the-sts-symmetry-principle-universalized-steve-fuller/comments (accessed 22.2.2021)

Fuller, S. (2017) Is STS all talk and no walk? Social Epistemology Review Reply Collective.
Available at: https://social-epistemology.com/2017/04/26/is-sts-all-talk-and-no- walk-steve-fuller/ (accessed 22.2.2021)

Hamilton, L. C. (2016) Public awareness of the scientific consensus on climate. SAGE Open 6(4), 2158244016676296.

Harambam, J. (2020) The corona truth wars: Where have all the STS’ers gone when we need them most? Science & Technology Studies 33(4), 60–67.

Hollin, G. J. S. & Pearce, W. (2015) Tension between scientific certainty and meaning complicates communication of IPCC reports. Nature Climate Change 5(8), 753–756.

Hulme, M. (2021), Contemporary Climate Change Debates: A Student Primer. London: Routledge.

Jacobs, P., Cutting, H., Lewandowsky, S., O’Brien, M., Rice, K. & Verheggen, B. (2015) Clarity of meaning in IPCC press conference. Nature Climate Change 5(11), 961–962.

Jasanoff, S. (2008) Speaking honestly to power. American Scientist .
Available at: https://www.americanscientist.org/article/speaking-honestly-to-power

Lomborg, B. (2001) The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge University Press.

Lynch, M. (2017) STS symmetry and post-truth.  Social Studies of Science 47(4), 593–599.

Mermin, N. D. (2008) Science wars revisited. Nature 454(7202), 276–277.

Oreskes, N. (2017) Response by Oreskes to “beyond counting climate consensus”. Environmental Communication 11(6), 731–732.

Parthasarathy, S. (2021), The AstraZeneca Vaccine Crisis in Europe Isn’t About Science at All. Slate.  Available at:  https://slate.com/technology/2021/03/oxford-astrazeneca-vaccine-blood-clots-europe-trust.html

Pearce, W., Grundmann, R., Hulme, M., Raman, S., Kershaw, E. H. & Tsou- valis, J. (2017) Beyond counting climate consensus. Environmental Communication 11(6), 723–730.

Pielke, Jr, R. A. (2007), The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pimm, S. & Harvey, J. (2001) No need to worry about the future. Nature 414(6860), 149–150.

Rabett, E. (2010). The Honest Joker.  In: Rabett Run blog, 23 January. Available at: http://rabett.blogspot.com/2010/01/honest-joker.html (accessed 22.2.2021)

Rayner, S., Sarewitz, D. (2021) Policy Making in the Post-Truth World, Breakthrough Journal 13.  Available at: https://thebreakthrough.org/journal/no-13-winter-2021/policy-making-in-the-post-truth-world

Rennie, J., Schneider, S., Holdren, J. P., Bongaarts, J. & Lovejoy, T. (2002) Misleading math about the earth. Scientific American 286(1), 61–71.

Sismondo, S. (2017) Post-truth? Social Studies of Science 47(1), 3–6.

SkepticalScience (2021).                                                                                                      URL: https://skepticalscience.com/misinformers.php (https://archive.is/nz7F5)

Skuce, A. G., Cook, J., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Rice, K., Green, S. A., Jacobs, P. & Nuccitelli, D. (2016) Does it matter if the consensus on anthropogenic global warming is 97% or 99.99%? Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 36(3), 150–156.


[1] The use of wars in the title is largely to reflect that this was motivated by Harambam (2020)’s recent paper The Corona Truth Wars: Where Have All the STS’ers Gone When We Need Them Most?

[2] In this context, counting climate consensus refers to attempts to quantify the level of agreement, either amongst experts or within the published literature, about a particular consensus position.

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45 Responses to Some reflections on (corona) truth wars

  1. wmconnolley says:

    Judging from the first sentence of the abstract the thing you’re responding to is bit shit: “The current corona pandemic disrupts the entire world like and threatens not only public health, but…”. was this written by a teenager?

  2. WMC,
    The literal answer is “no”.

  3. pendantry says:

    An interesting article, one that has wide-ranging inferences. You may be interested in my recent post ‘One has to acknowledge that a box exists before being able to think outside it‘ (which is mainly a transcript of an interview with two of the authors of the recent controversial article in ‘The Conversation’ about the ‘net zero trap’). In the interview, the point is made that academia has been subsumed into, and made to serve, the very system that has brought the problem — climate change — about.

  4. pendantry,
    Thanks, that’s an interesting topic. As it stands, I’m not a fan of those arguments. I think there is still a difference between the political/societal factors that determine what we fund and what questions are regarded as interesting, aand how this then influences our understanding of what we’re studying. I’m not convinced that these factors are strongly influencing how we develop understanding of the whatever it is that we’re studying.

    My issue with the criticisms of net-zero is that it all seems pretty simple to me. The scientific evidence indicates that to stop global warming we need to stop adding GHGs to the atmosphere. There are multiple ways of doing this. Our current societies are almost certainly biased towards doing it in ways that don’t particularly disrupt our ways of live. I don’t think that this is the fault of scientists, or that there is some other way that we could frame this that would make much difference. While people are unconvinced of the need for drastic action, they’ll probably find many reasons to avoid doing so.

    I also think there’s the issue of what we expect from researchers. I think we should be cautious of thinking that it’s researchers’ jobs to present information in a way that directly influences policy makers. If policy makers can’t work out that we need to stop adding GHGs to the atmosphere, I don’t think there is some alternative framing that would suddenly resolve this.

  5. brigittenerlich says:

    When I read Harambam’s article, which now seems to be a loooong time ago, I had many of the same concerns you express here in your response. I thought here is a topic that STS people can really jump on relating to expertise, trust, policy advice, vaccination and so on. And although many have said that STS voices should be heard more about these matters, such voices actually saying something substantially sounding like advice on what “information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust” is rather rare, I think. I have just discovered this list, but haven’t quite managed to go through it all because today is a bit mad: https://easst.net/covid19/ and this https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rhsr20/29/2?nav=tocList – so there is a lot going on. It would be great if Harambam wrote a second article summarising all these goings on and teasing out those STS strands that deal with the issues he highlighted.

  6. Willard says:

    > much STS work is inaccessible

    I made that point often.

    But then I thought: what if STS work becomes more accessible?

    Then I stopped making that point.

  7. Brigitte,
    Thanks. Yes, it was some time ago now, which is one reason why I thought I would just post the article here (that, and that it probably does need a bit more work and my time has become a bit more limited). There does seem to be quite a bit going on. So – as you suggest – it would be interesting to see how much of it deal with the issues that Harambam suggested were important. My impression is that not much of it may do so, or – if it does – it’s somewhat inaccessible to those of us who’ve tried, and failed, to get a handle on STS terminology.

  8. brigittenerlich says:

    Given the belief in the ‘deficit model’, I think STS people find it actually extremely difficult to give concrete advice on what “information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust”, as that would mean actually telling people something they need to know and don’t know at present.

  9. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    > I think we should be cautious of thinking that it’s researchers’ jobs to present information in a way that directly influences policy makers. If policy makers can’t work out that we need to stop adding GHGs to the atmosphere, I don’t think there is some alternative framing that would suddenly resolve this.

    Then there’s an added complication – that public opinion plays at least a mediating rrole,if not a moderating role, in how policy-makers develop and implement policy.

    Would it only be that scientists had responsibility only for influencing policy-makers. That in itself is an unrealistic burden – but it necessarily wouldn’t 3cen suffice anyway.

  10. Brigitte,
    Yes, I wondered the same. It’s as if a fundemantal tenet of STS is to not do the very thing that Harambam seems to suggest they’re perfectly equippped to do.

  11. Joshua,

    Would it only be that scientists had responsibility only for influencing policy-makers. That in itself is an unrealistic burden – but it necessarily wouldn’t 3cen suffice anyway.

    Exactly. There are some many factors that determine how we go from information to policy, that it seems virtually impossible to claim that if only researchers had framed things in some different way, we would have ended up developing a much more suitable policy (I’m not even sure how this would be defined).

  12. brigittenerlich says:

    I was once at the science-policy workshop and somebody said the only way for a scientist to influence policy is to share a long taxi-ride with a policy maker – and that doesn’t happen very often

  13. Brigitte,
    Yes, I can imagine that the actual influence is fairly small (at least, in a direct sense). It does seem that some people complain about scientists having too little influence, while others complain that they have too much.

  14. Russell says:

    Willard is invited to write a dialog between Estragon and Sheila

  15. Joshua says:

    I think the whole concept of mechanism of influence is questionable.

    Seems to me that one more common mechanism of influence is that policy-makers leverage scientists (selectively) to influence public support for the policies the policy-makers want to enact.

    And the public (broadly) selects among scientists to justify denigrating other segments of the public they disagee with.

    Not to say that multiple mechanisms of influence aren’t in play – that (1) scientists influence policy-makers directly, (2) scientists influence the public directly, (3) scientists influence policy-makers via influencing the public and (4) scientists influence the public via actions of policy-makers (e.g., testifying before Congress at the invitation of policy-makers).

    But the idea that you can isolate a causal chain whereby “authoritarianism because scientists” just seems ridiculously over the top.

  16. Joshua,

    Seems to me that one more common mechanism of influence is that policy-makers leverage scientists (selectively) to influence public support for the policies the policy-makers want to enact.

    There certainly seems to be quite a lot of this. That’s why in the UK when there’s a parliamentary enquiry you have 3 mainstream climate scientists and 3 contrrarians, and in the US (when the Republicans control the committee) those giving evidence can sometimes be pre-dominantly contrarians.

  17. gator says:

    The paragraph from the Harambam article that starts “While some of those conspiracy ideas may indeed be clearly ludicrous, far-fetched, and dangerous, others qualify to be more intensively researched from an STS perspective…” goes on to list a raft of complaints about covid-truthy types being “silenced and shunned”. Some real Honest Broker stuff there.

  18. mrkenfabian says:

    “If policy makers can’t work out that we need to stop adding GHGs to the atmosphere, I don’t think there is some alternative framing that would suddenly resolve this.”

    There is that duty of care for policy makers, that persistent framing issues like climate change around the influence and effectiveness of advocacy evades. That duty includes getting informed or else deferring to expert advice.

  19. Russell says:

    Who was it who said in 2008 that :

    ” expert policy advisers would do best to function as honest brokers of scientific alternatives—disclosing the limits of their information and the extent of their uncertainty in a spirit of professional humility.”

    as these are the undeconstructed words of Sheila Jasanoff.might thiey refer to STS movement?

  20. Russell,
    That would seem to be slightly different to the honest broker of policy alternatives. Also, as I suspect you agree, disclosing the limitations of ones information, doesn’t mean suggesting that nonsensical information is credible.

  21. Willard says:

    > Dan felt that it wasn’t really a good fit

    Obviously, for here’s a part of his current editorial:

    Vaccines build upon more than 200 years of practical experience and research made possible by extraordinarily clear feedbacks between scientific advance and a transparent and unequivocal measure of technological performance—people are protected against the disease being vaccinated against. We know the science is right because we see that the technology delivers its benefits completely and unequivocally.

    Whereas the benefits of a mask are obscured by a range of variables such as: how and where it is worn, what it’s made of, what the exact mechanisms of aerosol transmission are, how close the wearer is to other people, and so on. Masks may (or may not) have behavioral benefits, such as providing social cues about social distancing; conversely, they’re likely to be more effective when other social distancing rules are also being observed. While the scientific tools used to study mask performance have advanced greatly, uncertainty about mask efficacy has not changed much over a century.

    https://issues.org/covid-vaccine-innovation/

    I have not paid due diligence to what we knew about masks one century ago, but I’m willing to take bets that our understanding of their efficacy is at least a tiny bit better back then.

  22. Russell says:

    ATTP: “I think we should be cautious of thinking that it’s researchers’ jobs to present information in a way that directly influences policy makers. I”

    Very cautious:
    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2021/06/kicking-solar-radiation-management-up.html

    Willard is right about the inaccessibility of STS if you’re not in its neighborhood, but if you are ,it can be neigh unavoidable- when it began under the aegis of MIT’s English department back in Chomsky’s day, it featured Doctorow’s pop deconstruction of American history alongside Howard Zinn’s.

  23. Quite an interesting paper here, that covers some of what I was discussing in this post.

    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/09717218211003413

    The anti-science misinformation and conspiracies, among other things, again brought to the fore a long-standing criticism of the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS)—that STS’s symmetrical treatment of scientific controversy and rejection of neutral or value-free science has ‘lowered scientific facts to the level of beliefs’ (Lynch, 2020, p. 51).

    The Lynch 2020 reference is to the paper below, which seems to argue against this.

    https://estsjournal.org/index.php/ests/article/view/309

    However, my initial reading of the above paper seems to suggest that there was an argument in favour of symmetry, but it wasn’t intended to suggest that there was some kind of equivalence between science and conspiracies. However, in general it doesn’t seem to make a particularly strong argument against the accusation that STS contributed to “lower[ing] scientific facts to the level of beliefs”.

  24. Interesting comment in the Lynch paper

    In the case of disputes about climate change, few historians or social scientists are trained to conduct technical evaluations of the current models and predictions that are in dispute. Tentatively suspending judgment about the knowledge, interests, and motives of central parties to the dispute enables the analyst to delve more deeply into the reasoning and evidence mustered
    by the adversaries. Symmetry does not preclude noticing differences between the contending parties, their backgrounds, commitments, and arguments, but it does discourage using familiar, and all-too-easy, arguments to dismiss one or another position as irrational, ignorant, or dishonestly motivated. This is not so much a policy of interpretive charity as it is a strategy for gaining insight into the practical actions, discourse, and institutional supports that give rise to and sustain the resilience of such public controversies.

    I think the idea that there’s value in studying the different parties involved in scientific disputes. The problem, in my view, is when that is done in a way that potentially leads others to conclude that the different parties are in some way equivalent. So, even if the goal of the study is not to suggest that there’s some equivalence, if this is how others perceive it, then that is potentially an issue with how these studies are conducted and presented.

  25. Susan Anderson says:

    As things get ever more outrageous, one gets tired of being outraged. What a hope! The argument:

    “but symmetry …” equates lies with the truth. This is not working.

  26. Bob Loblaw says:

    The quote “…few historians or social scientists are trained to conduct technical evaluations of the current models and predictions that are in dispute.” is the point where I start to wonder how those people then feel they are capable of concluding that ignoring the knowledge “…enables the analyst to delve more deeply into the reasoning and evidence mustered”.

    I mean, if they don’t know enough about the subject material that forms the dispute, then just what kind of reasoning and evidence are they analyzing? Grammar? Politeness? Rhetoric? Sophistry? How colorful and artistic the graphs are? (No, I haven’t read the paper.)

    Scientific knowledge is built on the foundations of technical details. Ignore that at your peril.

  27. Bob,
    Yes, I don’t really get this either. I think it’s one thing to study why some people promote pseudo-scientific ideas, but it’s another to study scientific disputes without really having a clear sense of what is regarded as scientifically credible, and what isn’t.

  28. Willard says:

    In this context, symmetry means that the type of explanation we seek should in principle be used for any kind of knowledge production, whether it’s a successful theory, one that isn’t, or anything in between. This is one of the tenets of the Strong Programme. I’m not a fan of the Strong Programme in general, but I rather like symmetry. It inspired the idea that everything you do or say can be done or said against you on a Climateball field.

    One obvious example is dismissing cranks as cranks. What if cranks had a point? More importantly, what if there were cranks behind the theory of AGW? If we accept crankiness as a causal mechanism behind theory formation, we include it for every theory we study, not only those we dislike. Same for meliorative variables, like ingenuity.

    Sometimes being right is mostly a matter of being lucky. Conversely, one can do everything right but the results ain’t there. If y’all haven’t read this incredible story, check it out:

    https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/dirty-drug-and-ice-cream-tub

    I think I already gave the link, but I keep thinking about it. It’s just incredible how humans often have no idea what they’re doing and everything clicks.

  29. Willard,
    I think I’m getting the point of symmetry, and I can see some value in looking at things in this way. I still think, though, that if it ends up essentially validating what are clearly crank arguments, then it can be problematic. Or, maybe, those who use it should be much clearer about how they’re using it and why.

  30. Something that strikes me about this general issue is that there do seem to be plenty of examples of STS scholars explaining why the way in which their work has been interpreted by others isn’t consistent with what they’re actually doing. At some level this is fine; it is possible that those who mis-interpret should try harder to better understand what’s being done. On the other hand, if it’s a common occurence, there is a point at which maybe it’s worth considering that those doing the work need to try harded to avoid such mis-interpretations, or even consider that they are somewhat justified.

    If, for example, a group starts to get associated with another group that they’d really rather not be associated with, the ideal is to try harder to avoid such an association, not complain that those doing the association are wrong.

  31. Willard says:

    > If, for example, a group starts to get associated with another group that they’d really rather not be associated with, the ideal is to try harder to avoid such an association, not complain that those doing the association are wrong.

    Agreed. My next post will touch that issue.

  32. Bob Loblaw says:

    My curiosity got the better of me, so now I have read the Lynch paper I admitted not reading above.

    Consider me to be someone that is in information deficit on the subject of STS studies, but I don’t think there was much in that paper that significantly decreased that deficit. Nor was there much that made me feel Ia desire to track down the references and read more.

    I’ll accept that scientific knowledge gets spread and accepted due to more than just logic, and I’ll accept that it is worth studying the means by which people are convinced that a particular belief is – well – believable, and I’ll accept that the methods of convincing people of something can be used whether there is any truth at all to the belief. But I resist the idea that knowing how people become convinced is enough to be able determine which ideas are closer to being correct/reasonable/true/etc.

    From a scientific viewpoint, we distinguish between “necessary” and “sufficient”. Even if STS provides some knowledge that is necessary to understand the spread of scientific information, the bits I’ve seen do not leave me feeling it is sufficient to judge the reliability of that information.

    As for treating any idea as equally possible prior to analysis – I tend to take a more Bayesian approach. Decades of experience have given me a lot of priors to work with, and I have an internal Crank Index that tells me certain viewpoints are very likely to be wrong and not worth spending time on. Those priors may be wrong, but before I get out of bed in the morning I am not going to worry if gravity is still working. I am going get up based on the assumption that I should manoeuvre for a soft landing on the floor, not the ceiling.

  33. Bob,
    Indeed. Something I also see quite often from STS (and I think is mentioned in the Lynch paper) is the idea that all “sides” are claiming to be following the scientific method and both sides are presenting facts. Well, the former doesn’t tell me much (anyone can claim to be doing something) and facts don’t mean much if you entirely misinterpret what they indicate (for example, it’s true that the natural CO2 fluxes dwarf anthropogenic emissions, but that still doesn’t mean that the rise in atmospheric CO2 isn’t anthropogenic).

  34. Willard says:

    > all “sides” are claiming to be following the scientific method and both sides are presenting facts

    That tells me that appealing to a scientific method or to factiveness does not mean much.

    If someone tells me “but that’s not how science works” and then proceeds to regurgitate the usual “but Popper” canon, my experience makes me expect that I’m dealing with a contrarian. Sometimes it happens that this someone defends an established viewpoint. That does not increase the strength of the argument. That mostly tells me that humans proceed along similar argumentative patterns.

  35. Bob Loblaw says:

    [ATTP] “…the idea that all “sides” are claiming to be following the scientific method and both sides are presenting facts.”

    I can call my Ford Pinto a Lamborghini Countach, but that does not make it one. Labels are just labels, and ignoring the meaning behind the labels is a fool’s errand.

    Cats have four legs. Dogs have four legs. Cats and dogs are not the same thing, though. The error of the undistributed middle.

    [Willard] “…my experience makes me expect…”

    Applying a prior, I see!

  36. Willard says:

    > Applying a prior, I see!

    Indeed! And something cool happens when we do so collectively:

    [W] Let’s start with the basics, what’s a Bayesian model?

    [J] It’s a probabilistic model that integrates two things: prior beliefs and some new evidence (which can be more or less relevant to the hypothesis under consideration). From these, Bayes’ theorem gives you the posterior degree of belief in the hypothesis given that evidence. Critically, Bayes’ theorem can use subjective probabilities – that is, two people may have different priors and thus arrive at different posterior degrees even when given identical information

    [W] Good point. So it’s how people should in principle revise their beliefs based on new evidence. Your model says that contrarians can’t prevent correct beliefs to spread.

    [J] Our simulations showed that unbiased agents necessarily acquire belief in the climate-change hypothesis, even when they start from an initial position of extreme skepticism and even when they rely on unduly short temperature trends.

    Jens’ Bayesian Models

  37. Steven Mosher says:

    somebody quick feed me the truth cause im hungry

  38. Steven Mosher says:

    what happens when science itself disconnects us from truth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HFFr0-ybg0&t=2s

  39. Someone said …

    ” … so the idea that space-time exists and has existed for 14 billion years as a pre-existing stage on which the drama of life plays out is also deeply wrong, space-time is just a data structure that would create. So what is reality, it’s a long answer to your question, but the answer is [B]I don’t know[/B]!!!”

    To which I reply “Then don’t hurt yourself.”

    Tree. Woods. Falling. Sound? Metaphor. Wrong!!!

  40. Russell says:

    Willard:
    ” all “sides” are claiming to be following the scientific method and both sides are presenting facts”

    Once upon a brief time STS meant doing Bruno Latour doing anthropological fieldwork in labs to understand what scientists do all day,

    Magicians soon followed PoMo anthropologists into the labs, to see what fringe scientists got up to when the lights were out, giving us l’affaire Bienveniste in Nature in 1988.

    Then deconstructive Critical Theory came along , and l’affare Sokal- By 1996 Latour and Sokal were slugging it out at the LSE, and as critical theory expended to fill 21st century space, so did Bruno, giving us the ubiquitous guru of the Anthropocene we see today.

    Just as invoking Popper is a tell for climate contrarians, uncritcial citation of the identity politics oriented STS journals launched in the last decade can signal committed indiference to the history and historiography of science as they existed as 20th century disciplines.

    The Facebook appoved fallout includes Sami shamans as arbiters of taste in stratospheric aerosol research, and , closer to home , neurologists who blame rising CO2 on compass variation, and osteopaths with the bloodcurdling theory that covid vaccination will magnetize you.

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2021/06/are-covid-vaccines-changing-weather.html

  41. Susan Anderson says:

    Thanks for enlarging on the symmetry point. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t think that “symmetry” should not be used as an excuse for promoting bias, dislike of the truth, lies or sloppy work. Of course people should realize that serendipity does happen. Noticing things and thinking about them is part of the scientific process, and even, hopefully, of the process of being alive. My father mentioned that he got a lot of inspiration from dreams (go figure!).

    One needs an interest in other people, curiosity and humility to know what one does not know and ask real questions. The STS business seems to consist of more self promotion than desire for knowledge to me.

  42. Mark Twain said it best: Never argue with an idiot (nee crazy person or crank). You’ll never convince the idiot (nee crazy person or crank) that you’re correct, and bystanders won’t be able to tell who’s who.

    bystanders = STS = Sergeant Schultz

    We need a new paradigm. call it, the Science of Science and Technology Studies (SSTS). So just add new layers of so-called gatekeepers atop the existing layers, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

  43. Steven Mosher says:

    Once upon a brief time STS meant doing Bruno Latour doing anthropological fieldwork in labs to understand what scientists do all day,”

    imagine that. empirical descriptions of what science is

  44. David B Benson says:

    I agree with Susan Anderson’s last sentence.

  45. I think STS is actually quite a diverse community, so there seems to be a wide range of different attitudes. However, it does seem as though there is a sector of STS that see themselves as essentially “policing” (for want of a better term) the scientific community and who interpret any criticism from scientists as being motivated by a dislike of scrutiny. Hence, there does seem a reluctance for the same kind of self-reflection that they’re expecting from the scientific community. It does seem as though they good at trying to impose norms on others, but not so good at following these norms themselves.

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