‘Higher Superstition’ part 2: What is STS?

Having introduced in my previous post the apocalyptic concerns of the Higher Superstition authors, I’d like to look here at what STS – that’s ‘Science and Technology Studies’ or, in a slightly different incarnation, ‘Science, Technology, and Society’ – is all about. Then in the final post I’ll cover the contortions of language that are sometimes a feature of STS, and suggest that perhaps this is where much of the ‘science wars’ trouble came from.

Note left by the then Culture Minister Kim Howells at the Turner Prize Exhibition in 2002

It’s the sad fate of historians always to frame the world – at times even their own lives – in terms of chronology. But I think it’s useful here: just as controversial contemporary art – the famous ‘cold, conceptual bullshit‘ of a decade or so ago – makes more sense if you look at what went before, and what contemporary artists were responding to and reacting against, so it is with STS.

The concerns of STS go back at least to the 1940s and 1950s, when scientists and non-scientists alike were worried about controversial scientific research and its applications – not least in the wake of nuclear weapons technology, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ensuing arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. From this period we get the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and later the Union of Concerned Scientists.

We also get a generation of academics working largely outside the hard sciences, from the late 1960s and 1970s, who were interested in promoting politically disinterested and publicly accountable science, along with technologies that would benefit great numbers of people rather than simply enhancing the pleasures of the few. (A rich vein in sci-fi literature explores futures where technologies for extending life or providing multiple ‘rejuvenations‘ are developed – and where the lives of the poor are measured in decades of mediocre health while others glide through centuries of gleaming fine fettle.)

A rallying cry here was ‘science is social’. In other words, it was thought time to consider whether the fact that scientists are social beings, members of families, communities, institutions, and societies might have implications for how they do their work. So to older traditions of the history and philosophy of science – exploring the emergence of new ideas and examining the intellectual coherence of scientific methods – was added a range of questions about how scientists are trained, where their baseline assumptions come from and what their quirks and fragilities might be, who pays for science and what they expect in return (governments, businesses, etc), and whether it makes sense to talk about scientists as ‘creating’ things more so than ‘finding’ them.

In case, like me, your subconscious serves you up an image of 18th-century powdered wigs when you think about the 'Whig Interpretation of History' here is a picture of original Whig history critic Herbert Butterfield, with all his own hair.

If there was a single dominant view to which STS was a response – the oil-on-canvas to Damien Hirst’s animals-in-jelly – it was that science is simply the process by which we extract truth from nature. (This is a variant of what undergraduate historians are taught to disdain as ‘the Whig interpretation of history’, according to which the passage of time is marked by more or less constant human progress from ignorance to enlightenment, barbarity to civilization.) STS is chiefly about taking a critical look at this truth-from-nature idea, from all sorts of angles – and this is where the trouble starts.

One of the problems, which perhaps comes from having a field of study where multiple disciplines meet, is that it has not always been clear (even in celebrated STS writings) whether doubts about the truth-from-nature idea have to do with how scientists do their work, more fundamental problems of how humans observe and reason, or the question of whether there is any kind of mind-independent nature or reality out there to be ‘known’ by us in the first place (i.e. a world that is reasonably independent of the way our senses and concepts represent it to us).

The authors of Higher Superstition seem happy to dip their toes in the first of these three realms of doubt – welcoming good, critical work that weeds out bad or fraudulent science – but this is still more about criticising deviations from a truth-from-nature ideal rather than questioning the tenability of that ideal in itself.

The first doubt is broadly concerned with the social contexts in which scientists do their thing – for example the historical or social reasons (frequently with an element of accident or chance) through which one scientific theory ends up accepted over another.

‘Social reasons be damned!’, you say. ‘A theory gets accepted because it’s true!’ Well this is why, for many, STS is so important: the achievements attributed to science – from new materials and ever-improving technologies to breakthroughs in medicine – are such that we have a tremendously powerful urge to acquiesce in the idea that science applied to nature gives us truth, in a relatively unproblematic way. But even if we accept the notion of a mind-independent reality that science is capable of describing to some degree, it is still a misunderstanding of how science is conducted to imagine that any discovery is inevitable – as though reality exerts a gravitational pull drawing scientists towards it. STS instead tries to establish a realistic ‘symmetry': unsuccessful theories might be the result of equally rational experimentation, no more or less affected by ‘human’ or ‘social’ factors, than successful theories.

Ptolemaic geocentrism

Two names that often come up here are Bruno Latour and Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn, who started out as a physicist, claimed that scientists often fight for a theory – modifying it in the face of conflicting experimental data or looking for faults in that data – rather than dropping it straight away. He looked also at how the training of scientists – including the performance of canonical experiments, whose outcomes are already known – has the effect of passing along certain basic assumptions that feed into later experiments and theories but are not themselves typically questioned.

We end up with a ‘paradigm’, Kuhn suggested, within which all is persuasive and commonsensical, until the weight of conflicting evidence belatedly becomes too great and the whole thing collapses. The most famous ‘paradigm shift’ is probably from Ptolemaic geocentrism to heliocentrism, with the latter rejected by a great many thinkers (not just that classic science bogey-man the Catholic Church, fearing for its false and abusive cosmology) for more than a century after serious evidence for heliocentrism started coming in.

Kuhn and Latour stretch across into a second sort of doubt, which blends social activity with human capacities to know. One illustration is the way that the artificial environment of the laboratory involves taking objects and processes out of their context in nature and subjecting them to various interventions – most obviously magnification, to a size we can realistically deal with, and categorization into groups sharing what look like similar features. Useful as these tinkerings are, we end up with a new version of ‘nature’ deeply dependent on us.

Louis Pasteur: 1822 - 1895

With Louis Pasteur’s work on the problem of diseases, for example, and his isolation of microbes as a cause, we don’t need to claim that Pasteur invented microbes out of nowhere to see that there is a profound and perplexing interplay here of the social and the material – through which a reality of potentially infinite complexity came to be chopped up and presented by Pasteur with the microbe as the basic unit of meaning and the centre-piece of a grand theory.

One could talk about ‘social construction’ here, in the sense that a great many social factors went into the way that Pasteur chopped up and re-presented the world in his work. This is similar to the way that people say gender is ‘socially constructed': biological determinants operate alongside ways of behaving, reacting, feeling, etc, that we pick up as we go along, and which get passed on by us to new generations.

Problems come when this very particular sense of ‘construction’ gets mistaken for  something more absolute, even for ‘fabrication’ – which in turn suggests dishonesty or a reductive relativism about human knowledge (‘x is just as ‘true’ as y’) that seems absurd and even offensive to committed scientists. The situation is not helped, as we’ll see in the final post, by STS academics with a penchant for grandiose, misleading, and throughly scientist-baiting turns of phrase…

The third doubt, briefly, is this: rather than worry about social forces or our limited senses and cognition affecting how we interact with the world, ought we instead to worry about whether the idea of a world – of a mind-independent reality – makes sense in the first place…?


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