Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing Sheila Jasanoff give a talk as part of York University’s STS Program’s Seminar Series, in which she spoke on the subject of “Science and Reason in the Public Sphere.” For good reason is she one of the more prominent scholars in STS. I have seen Jasanoff speak once before and have read a variety of her works, and overall, she strikes me as a careful, measured, and eminently reasonable scholar.
However, I find myself at odds with various aspects of her work, especially the broader ways she conceptualizes science, its public role, and “our” relationship to it as STS scholars, and a lot of these issues were prominent in her talk. What follows is not meant to be a rigorous critique, just a general reflection, or perhaps, that convenient way of deflecting criticism and meandering around ideas, a “provocation,” about some of the broader problems that I think surround these topics. Indeed, none of these issues are uniquely specific to Jasanoff, they are broad issues that permeate STS. Mostly, they are just things that I found myself thinking about while listening to her speak, which is testament to the fact that she gave an excellent talk.
Two issues that came up were the classic problems of symmetrical analysis, and realism as an expectation from science. These are very old issues that have been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere. Most scholars are firmly entrenched in their positions on them, so it’s unlikely anything said here will change any minds, but discussing them will at least help frame what follows in later posts and perhaps introduce someone somewhere to some new ideas.
In a previous post about Michael Shermer’s perceived “liberal war on science,” I noted that he adopts a “sociology of error” – an asymmetrical form of analysis – in trying to attempt to find psychological explanations for why it is that 20% of Democrats in the US don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, while assuming that assent to the AGW theory by the other 80% is somehow indicative of their rationality. In other words, Shermer assumes that the AGW theories are true, and that this fact about the world somehow constitutes an explanation of why people believe it to be true. Or, perhaps slightly more fairly, Shermer assumes that such a theory is the best available explanation for observed global warming, and that the 80% of Democrats who believe in the theory do so because they are capable of making scientifically valid judgements about climate change and recognize it to be the best theory available. There are philosophical issues involved here, but even disregarding those, it is quite clear that the 80% of Democrats who believe in climate change don’t do so because they are qualified experts in the field of climate science. Shermer would argue that climate change sceptics disbelieve in AGW because of “social” or “political” factors, but it is also the case that people who believe in AGW do so because of “social” or “political” factors.
Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars are trained to look at scientific disputes “symmetrically” – that is, they do not simply try to account for the social factors accounting for false or irrational beliefs, but also those accounting for beliefs that are held to be true or rational. So, in the above example, they wouldn’t only try to explain why people don’t believe in AGW, but they would also try to explain why people do believe in AGW. However, this has caused a great deal of consternation in trying to figure out what normative role STS scholars can have, since it is supposed that we are not allowed to accept that scientific facts “really are” correct or rational; rather, they are the result of social negotiations among scientists. In other words, scientific facts are “social constructs,” not representations of reality.
[Edit: This is a perhaps a silly construal of what is meant by social construction. Sorry for repeating it. Without going too much into it, few thinkers hold that representations of reality are in contrast to social constructs. More reasonably, one version of a social constructivist position holds that representations of reality are social constructs, in that there are many ways we can represent reality, and moreover, there are particular (social) reasons that we should prioritize representing certain realities over others. Very few, if any, scholars think that science does not represent reality in more or less accurate ways. They mostly challenge that such representations are incomparable, or uniquely superior to others, though the details of such comparisons need to be flushed out with specific examples. Sometimes certain representations do appear unparalleled and especially accurate. There is no implication of epistemological equivalence here between all possible representations of some phenomenon. However, this is all normatively and philosophically speaking, that is, in the realm of discussion about how the world “really is.” Returning to methodological impartiality, the supposition is that STS scholars should not accept the truthfulness, or the accuracy of some representation, as an explanation of why that representation comes to be accepted].
The philosophical basis for this view is that realism or correspondence theories of truth are wrong. (Long editorial note: While there are certainly valid philosophical objections to these notions, it is worth pointing out in the name of reflexivity how uncritically these proclamations are bandied about. Very rarely have I encountered thorough-going critiques of realism or correspondence theories that are fully sensitive to the range of philosophical debates on these matters (though they exist). Graduate students are taught to rehearse these idioms, though when pushed, they are barely, if at all, able to articulate why it is that realism or correspondence theories fail, without merely begging the question on social construction. Such accepted wisdom is as egregious as any disciplinary indoctrination that STS scholars find amongst scientists/philosophers of science.)
In any case, because of this philosophical underpinning, STS scholars often uncomfortably find themselves trying to explain why it is that anyone should listen to scientists if what they give us aren’t actually facts about the world. One major avenue is to simply evade the question and proclaim that STS scholars are not in the normativity business – they make no claims about whether scientists are doing good or bad science, they are simply offering sociological analyses. Others find themselves wanting to say that we should listen to what certain scientists have to say, but not because they have facts about the world, but rather because they are a trustworthy epistemic group (a criteria that can be satisfied a bunch of ways), or some other reason that can’t be said to rest on realism.
Jasanoff positions herself somewhere among this second group. The notion of a constitution is prevalent in her views on public science. She supposes that we need something like a constitutional expert governance in which the rights and responsibilities of expert institutions with great public import and authority are clearly outlined. In her talk, she contended that STS scholars (and it was unclear if she intended for this to apply to the general public as well) should not base their trust in scientists on traditional notions of scientific accountability – how well they meet Mertonian-type norms, how transparent their work is, how solid the evidence is, etc. – but instead on the degree to which they offer constitutional accountability. Thus, first and foremost STS scholars should be doing symmetrical analyses and asking questions about what would make the authority of science justifiable, that is, consistent with democratic and constitutional ideals.
After her talk a question was raised concerning her position, which went something like this: if we, as STS scholars, notice in our studies that there is a particular institution or regulatory body or group of scientists, that seem to be colluding with say industry forces to minimize the risk of some technical undertaking (the specific example used was about the Nuclear industry), and this can be shown because the rest of the scientific literature – that is to say, the facts – shows that this group is misleading people, what’s wrong with saying so? What’s wrong with saying these scientists are getting the facts wrong and it’s demonstrably because they are influenced by ulterior motives (i.e. “politics”)?
Firstly, Jasanoff responded by saying that it’s troublesome (and asymmetrical) to talk of a particular scientific claim being influenced by politics, since all science is political. This is a common refrain in STS, but one I often find frustrating. Its tautologous nature serves to conflate all senses in which science can be political, and thus stifles important discussions that could be based on further distinctions. By stating that all science is political, or similarly, that all knowledge is socially constructed, one is trying to further demolish the asymmetrical “realist” view of scientific knowledge. One cannot differentiate, so the symmetrical argument goes, between good and bad science by claiming that the former escapes political influence (and thus gives us real knowledge about the world), while the latter is implicated in it. STS shows us that all science is political, so there need be some other criteria of good and bad science.
Yes, but all science is political in different ways. Science can be political in the sense that some scientists try to have their work be empirically verifiable, robustly supported by relevant data, consistently and thoroughly analysed with accepted methods and tools, and presented as transparently as possible, because if one does not abide by these social norms their work will be dismissed and they will allowed to participate in a particular scientific cultural group. Or science can be political in the sense that some scientists take money from tobacco companies or chemical companies to produce work that does not meet scientific norms in an attempt to mislead the public and politicians about the dangers of cigarette smoke or pesticides. Both are political but in drastically different senses. The latter sense is typically what is understood in common parlance when someone says that science is political. While I completely concede to the underlying theoretical point of pointing out that all science is political, it tends to demolish the distinction between being excellently political and being political in a terrible sense.
Beyond this, she re-emphasized the point about realism – as STS scholars “we” all know that realism is untenable, so we shouldn’t say things like one group is mislead by politics or economic incentives and it is the facts that tell us so. Instead, she said we could couch this critique in our goal of constitutional accountability – if one group out of many is not conforming to accepted standards, then this is all we need to point to this inconsistency and question the degree to which this might affect accountability. It would be something analogous to noticing that a judiciary body does not have accepted standards or that there is a powerful group of lawmakers that are scorned by other groups of lawmakers. This might cause us to be apprehensive about the legislative body’s capacity to guarantee their constitutional obligations. (Or something like this. It was an extemporaneous answer and I am writing from memory. I hope I am not misrepresenting her position. In any case, she’s not the only person to position themselves in such a way, so hopefully it will suffice for the sake of argument).
But there is a persistent problem with this middle position that allows analysts to be normative but does not require them to trust scientists because we believe them to give us “facts” about the world. It’s all well and good to say that there are a slew of social factors that establish some group of experts as trustworthy and others as untrustworthy. We might even say that the most important social factor is how well a group of expert follows the established epistemic norms of their field. But in this case, there is a lingering question about the precise details of those epistemic norms. For many, what constitutes the epistemic norms is far more important than whether a group of experts faithfully follows them. Indeed, one should have little trust in an expert group with dubious epistemic norms, no matter how consistently they are applied.
A consensus is an important and noteworthy thing amongst a group of experts. It should indeed instil a great deal of faith in the knowledge for which it stands. However, though most climate sceptics (for example) make the point almost wholly rhetorically, they are right to insist that a consensus is not a sufficient condition for truth (or whatever less philosophically offensive term you want to use here). The possibility exists, however remote, that the vast majority of experts in a field have colluded to manufacture a consensus about a false theory. So in this case one needs to resort to questions about methods and rules of inquiry.
The more cynical part of me wants to suggest that STS scholars have dug themselves into a theoretical hole. They have spent a great deal of effort to demonstrate that the way science works is not really how scientists (and certain philosophers) think it works, scientific truth really isn’t what scientists (and certain philosophers) think it is, and what makes scientific expertise valuable is not what scientists (and certain philosophers) think makes it valuable. So when bluntly and forcefully asked, “But why should I believe anything scientists have to say if what they give us isn’t accurate knowledge about the world?” an appealing position is to evade the question altogether, or say something about the trustworthiness of certain social networks. They simply do not want to have discussions about epistemic norms per se.
When pushed, however, a third and very popular response presents itself: No one denies that scientists give us useful knowledge about the world, just they don’t give us truth, and that science is not the only way of knowing about the world, and it shouldn’t be afforded as much cultural authority as it has since it’s mostly rhetorical (on that note, here’s a topic for a later post: Are we all just instrumentalists?). But if the discussion reaches this point, we’ve already unwittingly entered the realm of epistemic norms. What is it about scientific knowledge that makes it so useful? Might it have something to do with the principles by which it is constructed? And might there be better and worse ways of constructing useful scientific knowledge?
To have these discussions one need not subscribe to realism or correspondence theories or belief in “facts” or whatever other strawman one wants to say scientific knowledge cannot be held to rest on. And I am perfectly happy to have these discussions. I see absolutely no reason to adopt some sort of meta-impartiality according to which, in virtue of my training as an STS scholar to be able to do symmetrical analyses of the sociological aspects of science, I am not allowed to make normative judgements about the epistemic norms used by scientists. Frankly, I am surprised that a meta-impartial, anormative position is seriously entertained. And let me be clear, I’m not talking about making normative judgements about science well outside my purview as an STS scholar, like when talking at the bar or something. Impartiality depends on the purposes of your study. To believe it to be an institutional requirement of being an STS scholar, or that a study doesn’t qualify as an STS study otherwise, is far too restrictive of a disciplinary standard.
Perhaps one might reply that I simply don’t have the qualifications to make such judgements, that scientific norms are too varied and specific to their context to be able to apply any general philosophical reasoning to these issues. Well, I would say it depends on the scale of the question. Am I able to make judgements about the code used for one climate model as opposed to another? Probably not. Am I able to note that one group relies on systematic evidence and detailed study while the other relies on specious reasoning and rhetoric? Arguably yes. Of course, the most technical debates are typically not so black and white, but it is abundantly clear that at many levels one is perfectly capable of making reasoned judgements about the epistemic merits of scientific knowledge claims. And here we find the reasons for many STS scholars’ reluctance to have normative discussions: it might turn out that we should believe certain scientific knowledge claims for essentially the reasons scientists say we should.