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WHO'S AFRAID OF SCIENCE STUDIES?

Steve Fuller

(As appeared in the Independent on Sunday, magazine, 28 June 1998)

Science sets the standard for rationality in today's society, yet our attachment to science is anything but rational. This paradox captures the excitement that currently surrounds scholars who study the social and cultural foundations of science, known as 'science studies' for short. It also explains why practicing scientists like Alan Sokal have found our field vaguely threatening. However, their response has been too often like shooting the messenger who bears bad news. The message remains the same.

For example, each year I ask my undergraduate students whether science or religion provides a better basis for understanding the world around them. Science always receives a ringing endorsement. However, on further questioning, it seems that students have a more detailed grasp of the religion they reject than the science they accept. They can easily deconstruct Biblical stories, but they can rarely recall specific scientific equations and theories, let alone explain their relevance to anything. Almost all have entered a place of worship, but at most one or two have been inside a place of research, a laboratory.

What happens in my classroom is part of a larger trend. Books popularizing science have never been of higher quality or sold better. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time alone has sold over 2 million copies in the last 10 years. Yet, in the same period, science enrolments have generally dropped across the industrialized world, leading to the closure of several university departments and periodic calls to revamp the science curriculum. Faith in the wonders of genetic engineering may be at an all-time high -- but so too is public scepticism about its long-term consequences.

How should one respond to these mixed signals of science's social standing? The scientific community has a characteristic way of handling the matter. The expression 'public understanding of science' sums it up. The underlying idea is that to know science is to love science. Therefore, any dissatisfaction with science must be the result of ignorance. Innocent schoolteachers are then browbeaten for not infusing youngsters with the spirit of 'wonder' and 'discovery' that are supposed to be the essence of science.

But the situation is really much more complicated. If science has a public relations problem, it is not due to public hostility or even indifference to science. Rather, it would seem that science is being taken off its pedestal and shifted to some other place in our culture. Science studies tries to understand and sometimes influence this undeniable sea change in public attitudes. With this in mind, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has recently started its own pilot programme in public understanding of science.

So, what exactly do science studies scholars do -- and why does it seem to bother scientists so much? We apply the theories and methods of the humanities and social sciences to the work of natural scientists and technologists. We study them as people, not minor deities. We observe them in their workplaces, interpret their documents, and propose explanations for their activities that make sense of them, given other things we know about human beings.

This may sound like pretty harmless stuff, but it actually took a while even for sociologists to come round to it. Until the 1970s, the 'sociology of science' was based on a fairly uncritical acceptance of what distinguished scientists and philosophers of science had to say about the nature of science. To see what this means, imagine relying exclusively on the testimony of priests and theologians for developing a sociology of religion. The sociologist would simply not be doing her job, which is to study science as a concrete human activity.

What we find is that science is not a clearly defined activity. Rather, it is many different activities that are typically connected more to their social context than to each other. At any point in its history, science could have gone in many directions. The few paths actually taken have been due to ambient political, economic and cultural factors. There appears to be nothing uniquely 'rational', 'objective', or 'truth-oriented' about the activities our society calls 'scientific'. Make no mistake: it is not that scientists are less rational than the rest of humanity; rather, they are not more rational. Science studies scholars generally credit ordinary people with a good deal of intelligence.

The power of science seems to rest on three pillars. One is science's distinctive social organization, which enables concentrated periods of both teamwork and criticism, nowadays done on a global scale with considerable material resources. Another is concerted political effort to apply the results of scientific research to all aspects of society. Finally is the control that scientists continue to exert over how their history is told. Past diversions and failures remain largely hidden, resulting in an airbrushed picture of 'progress' otherwise absent from human affairs.

Of course, these are controversial claims that, in a sense, 'demystify' science. But they are also meant to encourage scientists to be more modest in their pronouncements so that the public is not oversold on what science can do. The failure of science to live up to its own manufactured expectations has probably done more harm to science's social standing in recent years than anything science studies has ever done. Science studies had nothing to do with the PR disasters associated with research into AIDS and BSE. However, some knowledge of science studies might actually help scientists cope with why the public feels let down by them.

Science studies was suddenly thrown into the limelight two years ago, when an obscure American physicist, Alan Sokal, published an article designed expose what he regarded as the absurdities advanced by our field. Notoriously he managed to publish the piece in a leading cultural studies journal, the editors of which failed to see that it was meant as a parody. From the massive attention given to Sokal's ruse -- most of it favourable -- it was clear that he had tapped into some profound misgivings that still surround science studies. Many of these concerns were simply the result of perverse readings of what science studies scholars say (see Figure 1).

However, the legitimate bone of contention can be summed up in the following proposition: Practicing scientists are only a fraction of those who contribute to what science is. The other contributors are not just the people who use science more-or-less as scientists intend, such as technologists, physicians and policymakers. Science studies also takes seriously the rest of the population who consume science by reading The Tao of Physics, watching Tomorrow's World, and eating fat-free muffins. Where scientists see only the potential for bad puns, technical terms like 'relativity', 'uncertainty' and 'chaos' hold the promise of deep cultural meaning for these science consumers.

Indeed, without all those misbegotten metaphors and half-understandings of science that pervade our culture, it is unlikely that science would enjoy its current levels of economic, political and even spiritual support. Scientific research itself is a very specialized activity that, on a day-to-day basis, is rather alien from the larger concerns of people. Its actual results have been mixed, with every new breakthrough quickly becoming a source of more problems. Yet, people continue to believe -- and perhaps they should. But in any case, it is not clear what is to be gained by ignoring, disowning or maybe even re-educating these people. A better strategy begins by trying to understand them. And that's where science studies enters the picture.

Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Durham. His latest book is Science (Open University Press, 9.99). Details of the ESRC Public Understanding of Science initiative can be accessed at http://www.spsg.org/pus/.

 

When science studies says...

Scientists read...

Science is socially constructed.

Science is whatever enough people think it is.

The validity of scientific claims must be understood in relation to the claimant's perspective.

There is no distinction between reality and how people represent it.

Science Studies has its own aims and methods.

Science Studies willfully ignores the aims and methods of science.

Science is only one possible way of interpreting experience.

Science is merely an interpretation that distorts experience.

Gravity is a concept scientists use to explain why we fall down not up. There are other explanations

Gravity exists only in our minds and, if we wanted, we could fall up not down.

Scientists' accounts of their activities are not necessarily the best explanation for those activities.

Scientists' accounts of their activities can be disregarded when explaining those activities.

Fig.1: A Map of Misreading: How Scientists 'Socially Construct' Science Studies