Climate change is an endlessly useful example for examining issues of public science, and it was Jasanoff’s preferred case study in her talk that I discussed in my previous post. As I noted there, the notion of a constitution is an important aspect of Jasanoff’s views on public science, according to which the rights and responsibilities of expert institutions – in particular their accountability to the publics they serve – are clearly outlined. One of the broad problems Jasanoff identified in the public aspect of climate change is that scientific institutions, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (arguably the most important of all institutions regarding climate change – the largest in any case), do not have explicit standards of accountability. Continue reading
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.
“Hastings-on-Hudson is a village, in a Wittgensteinian sort of way,” Mr. Wallach said. (Quoted in “Creating Hipsturbia“)
Intellectual name-dropping is a favourite pastime of pretentious people and a common facet of academic life. In his book, French Theory, François Cusset has a good section about this phenomena which he calls “The Politics of Quotation” (which is, to be frank, a pretty pretentious thing to call pretentious name-dropping – how was that Cusset name drop, by the way?). He notes that like all name-dropping, to cite certain works is to elevate one’s own work by association. In academic works or discourse it is most effective if the audience is only tangentially familiar with the works of the thinker being name-dropped, but nonetheless impressed by their repute because they (by which I mean the audience – the pronouns are getting a little messy in this sentence) heard other people say smart-sounding things about them (by which I mean the thinker). This way the name-dropper doesn’t have to face any uncomfortable call-outs on the potential vacuousness of their reference.
In a recent article on the Scientific American website, science writer, (pop)-psychologist, and general “skeptic” Michael Shermer argues that Liberals are “at war” with science. Ignoring the preposterous war cliché that pervades silly writing about any sort of apparent disagreement, Shermer’s argument is supposed be novel and interesting because it is presumed that it is common knowledge that Republicans (Shermer’s argument is American-centric) have a general disregard, if not disdain, for scientific truth, while there is an attitude of superiority amongst Democrats because, contrary to Republicans, they give science its duly deserved reverence.
Don’t be too smug, says Shermer. While not as bad as Republicans, Democrats are in some regards a bunch of science haters:
The left’s war on science begins with the stats cited above: 41 percent of Democrats are young Earth creationists, and 19 percent doubt that Earth is getting warmer. These numbers do not exactly bolster the common belief that liberals are the people of the science book.
Admittedly, to some the 41 percent of Democrats being young-Earth creationists is a little surprising, considering the way that evolution vs. creationism debates are framed in the United States. In any case, let’s leave this aside for the moment and consider the second statistic that Shermer provides. Citing such a relatively low degree of scepticism amongst Democrats as evidence for a proverbial “war on science” reveals much about Shermer’s totalising view of science, his completely unrealistic expectations of public understanding of science, and I would argue, his wholly inaccurate and generally problematic conception of belief acquisition. Continue reading