Science Studies

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The phrase "science studies" is sometimes used as an umbrella term referring to work in history of science, philosophy of science, research ethics, and so on. But it can also designate a new interdisciplinary approach to the study of science, technology, and society, one that challenges traditional views about the epistemic basis of scientific knowledge and the proper role of science in society. It is this intellectual movement called Science and Technology Studies (STS) that will be discussed here.

Science Studies in the STS sense discards almost all of the distinctions common in traditional philosophy of science, such as the demarcation between the context of discovery and the context of justification, prescriptions versus descriptions, and theory versus observation. Instead, it looks at science as a social activity that cannot be usefully understood in isolation from either technology or society at large. More important than analysis is contextualization. Case studies of local scientific practices are the preferred route to understanding.

What we now call Science Studies (or STS) has a surprising variety of geographical roots. The Strong Program began in Edinburgh in the 1970s. Harry Collins's study of the experimenters' regress was done in England, where Steve Woolgar is also located. Bruno Latour's actor-network theory was developed in Paris. Karin Knorr Cetina worked in Bielefeld, Germany. Feminist standpoint epistemology stems from Sandra Harding's work in America. The 1980s saw a plethora of influential books and articles centered on the notion of social construction, some of it directly influenced by the pioneers such as that of Andrew Pickering, who earned his PhD at Edinburgh, and Trevor Pinch, who worked with Harry Collins at Bath. Systematic criticism of both the historical work and the philosophical claims of STS scholars resulted in the so-called Science Wars, which was triggered by a hard-hitting critical study in 1994 by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt.

Contributors to Science Studies (or STS) draw on resources from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, such as sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, and linguistics. But all the studies share starting points based on interpretations of work in more contemporary philosophy of science. It is to these common philosophical presuppositions that we now turn.

Philosophical Roots

Although Thomas Kuhn himself repudiated some of the most radical extensions of his theory of normal science and scientific revolutions, Science Studies is certainly part of his legacy. There are frequent STS references to his thesis that scientific knowledge is embodied in the practices of a community. Because observation is theory-laden, it is assumed that empirical studies can never be used as a neutral arbiter between rival paradigms. The logical fact that any universal theory is underdetermined by the evidence in support of it is taken to mean that there can be no rational basis sufficient to justify the choice of one theory over another. The point, noted by Pierre Duhem and W.V. Quine, that it is always logically possible to save a theory from refutation by altering auxiliary hypotheses is deployed to advance the skeptical conclusion that philosophical accounts of scientific method and scientific rationality cannot explain why scientists prefer some theories to others and assign great epistemic weight to certain claims and not to others.

Most philosophers of science in the early twenty-first century would agree that there is no ironclad defense against these kinds of skeptical argumentsindeed philosophers are the ones who undermined the quest for unrevisable foundations in the first place! It is a truism today that there is no instant rationality in science. Instead, philosophers look for the fallible canons of comparative rationality that underlie scientific judgments. For example, in his theory of Scientific Research Programmes, Imre Lakatos argued that most of the history of science could be understood in terms of his methodology. It was only when the evaluations of actual scientists differed from his normative account that one should invoke extra-scientific considerations such as ideology, personal rivalries, or economic interests. Earlier historians of science also drew a distinction between internal history, a narrative of the mostly rational development of scientific ideas through the experimental method, and external history, the story of scientific institutions and their interaction with the larger society. And when sociologists such as Robert Merton studied those scientific institutions, they looked for the operation of special norms that would show why the output of science was superior to the knowledge produced by theologians or grocers!

Adherents to the Science Studies find little use for the internal or external distinction: Trying to isolate ideas from the people who hold them impedes understanding. Similarly, they would invert Lakatos's order of analysis. Instead of looking for the intellectual problems motivating researchers and their attempts to bring evidence to bear on proposed solutions, they begin with a rich sociological description of a scientific episode. What are the lines of authority and collaboration? Through what mechanism is expertise awarded? An important focus of the analysis should be the various rhetorical stratagems employed in communication: How do they reflect the conflicting interests or differing cognitive resources of the participants (for example, theoreticians versus experimenters, policy makers versus scientists, and funding committees versus referees)? The factors that philosophers of science or internalist historians find of interest would be embedded within the STS account, but they would never be privileged. Merton's norms of objectivity and organized skepticism are viewed primarily as part of the rhetorical arsenal of scientists, not as fundamental guides to behavior.

The Strong Program

Let us now take a brief look at some detailed proposals of the Science Studies approach, bearing in mind that there are disputes within this loosely-knit, interdisciplinary field. We begin with an early, very influential initiativethe Strong Programme of the Edinburgh school. David Bloor describes the program as a sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) that is based on four tenets.

First, our accounts of science should be causal (one is reminded of Marxian attempts to explain the content of scientific theories). Secondly, they should be impartial with respect to truth or falsity, rationality or irrationalityboth are in need of explanation (many philosophical accounts take rational inference as self-explanatoryin fact to go further may lead to an infinite regress). Furthermore, the explanations of true and false beliefs should be symmetrical; that is, the types of causal factors invoked should be the same (if ideology or political interests are invoked to explain false beliefs, they also need to be brought into a story of the origins of true beliefs). Finally, our approach should be reflexive: The claims made from within the Strong Program are to be analyzed and explained in exactly the same manner as are episodes in the history of science.

As laid out above, the Strong Programme is a variety of philosophical naturalism, a position that underlies most work in cognitive science. Its most controversial aspect is the symmetry thesis. Why should we posit a priori that the causal chain leading to hallucinations should contain exactly the same elements as the process that produces ordinary visual experiences? Or compare the stories of adherence of Soviet scientists to T. D. Lysenko's theory of acquired characteristics with that of the acceptance of Dmitri Mendeleev's Periodic Table in Czarist Russia: Undoubtedly both situations involved elements of nationalism and the striving of scientists for recognition. But are not the asymmetries more significant? In one case a major factor was the coercion to conform with the wishes of Joseph Stalin; in the other, chemists followed their noses to arrive at a workable classification of chemical phenomena.

Many of the case studies produced by adherents of the Strong Programme focus on scientific controversies. The general pattern is to look at a wide range of social factors, such as class, political pressures, disciplinary commitments, and power structures within the profession. They then argue that these kinds of interests have a strong influence on the conclusions that scientists reach about which of the competing theories is deserving of their allegiance. Their account of the resolution of a controversy does not privilege appeals to epistemic considerations such as predictive accuracy or theoretical coherence.

Social Constructionism

Much work in Science Studies is based on the tenet that all scientific entities are socially constructed. In certain instances, such a claim is nontrivially true: John Searle uses the example of money. A metal disc with Sacagawea's portrait stamped on it does not count as money without the construction of a vast social network that turns it into legal tender. One can also make sense out of the assertion that there were no homosexuals until the late nineteenth century, by adding a gloss to the effect that the term homosexual is to be read as connoting a historically specific, medical-psychological category. But how are we to understand Latour's claim that there was no anthrax before Louis Pasteur's research or that TRH, a product of the hypothalamus, was invented in a certain California laboratory?

It is important to appreciate the difficulty scientists face in isolating natural products, especially when the process involves new sorts of instruments or laboratory procedures. But what is gained by blurring the distinction between a new concept, which certainly is a social construction, a chemical or biological entity, which either existed in nature or was synthesized, and the development of scientific consensus about the match between concept and the object described? It perhaps helps a little bit to understand why Latour and Woolgar would make such perplexing claims if we note that they set out to apply ethnographic approaches to life in the laboratory. Anthropologists who are studying an exotic culture dutifully describe the behavior of the people they are studying. An ethnomethodologist's thick description of a rain dance need say nothing about whether rain actually ensues. In a similar fashion STS scholars can describe the interactions and assertions of scientists without saying anything about whether the object the scientists claim to be studying actually exist. However, radical social constructionists go on to say that social constructions exhaust realitythere is no underlying strata that is being more or less accurately represented.

Even more startling is the so-called Actor-Network Theory (ANT) developed by Latour and Michel Callon, which posits a symmetry between humans and nonhuman entities, such as scallops (Callon's example) or technological devices. These so-called actants form networks in which their competing interests are negotiated. The result is a complex ecological system in which ideas and artifacts, scientist, and resources form an ontology based on what they call relational materiality. Difficult to understand, ANT has generated considerable critical discussion among STS practitioners. Some draw the line at assigning agency to scallops; others object to attributing stability to inscription devices and the implication that scientific findings involving instruments can be exported from one lab to another without intervening social constructions by the local community.

Feminist Studies

A branch of Science Studies that has generated wide interest is the large corpus of feminist writings looking for the effect of gender ideology on both the content and practice of science. These range from significant, but relatively uncontroversial, empirical analyses of the social factors that lead to the attrition of women at every stage of their professional careers to radical claims about the intrinsically sexist nature of the science of mechanics. A central claim, and one that fits in well with some of the STS approaches described above, declares that scientific concepts of sex and gender have historically been strongly influenced by biases inherent in patriarchal societies. One recalls Aristotle's association of the active form with maleness, whereas females were the bearers of passive matter. Anne Fausto-Sterling argues that similar nonscientific influences have entered into the modern study of sex hormones. These are typical examples of social constructionist analyses: Scientific results are held to be strongly influenced by the social milieu; they are not simple reflections of empirical studies.

Feminists posit the influence of gender ideology on the content of science in areas increasingly distant from the study of reproduction. Londa Schiebinger claims that Carl Linneaus's characterization of the class mammalia was influenced by political debates about the propriety of wet nursing. Some have argued that the development of the science of hydrodynamics was delayed because men were uncomfortable dealing with material that was moist and yielding and that the interest in mechanical interactions between hard, rigid bodies that characterized the beginning of the Scientific Revolution was a masculinist preoccupation. And what about the scientific prejudice in favor of linear theories, reductionism, and simplicity? Relying on object-relations theory from psychology, it has even been claimed that the traditional norm of objectivity, of distancing oneself from phenomena, is a reflection of the process by which male children are psychically separated from the mother.

All of these studies follow the STS pattern of trying to show the radical contingency of scientific developments: If social circumstances had been different, the content of science would have been different. Feminists accompany this descriptive analysis with prescriptions for changing science. Sandra Harding calls for what she calls strong objectivity: If present science is distorted by the predominance of male perspectives, would not science become more objective by the deliberate inclusion of views from the standpoint of women, minorities, workers, and any other group that is underrepresented in today's scientific community? Helen Longino advocates a sort of affirmative action for approaches to understanding the world that are anti-reductionist, nonhierarchical, and unabashedly politically progressive. If science is always socially constructed anyway, why not deliberately construct scientific inquiry in a humanitarian fashion?

Reactions to Science Studies

The above descriptions of the leading STS approaches give an indication of why their underlying philosophical posits might be viewed as tendentious. Many of their case studies of the factors affecting the acceptance of scientific theories have also generated historiographic skepticism. Critics argue that, contrary to STS claims, Pasteur's religious views, Robert Boyle's preoccupation with chastity, or Karl Pearson's upwardly mobile class interests had a negligible effect on their scientific positions. As an explanation of the acceptance or rejections of scientific hypotheses, STS accounts are not satisfactory.

Ironically, however, the academic reaction to work in Science Studies cannot be understood purely in terms of its intellectual meritsor demerits. Instead, we must also invoke the sorts of interests and ideological factors that STS brings to the forefront! Members of the so-called academic left found the rhetoric of STS very congenial. Already suspicious of the authority of science and troubled by the pace of technological change, they eagerly took up slogans to the effect that science was a creature of the military-industrial complex and a handmaiden to imperialist regimes. The title of a popular textbook by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch sums it up nicely: Science as Golem. There were calls for science for the people, feminist science, and postcolonial science.

Scientists and other intellectuals concerned about the level of funding for scientific research and the general low level of scientific literacy in America mounted a vigorous response. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science set off intense debates both in the media and in universities. Science Studies practitioners were sometimes lumped in with postmodernists, new age mystics, and so-called scientific creationists. Although STS people sometimes protested that they were not antiscience per se, but only objecting to what they considered to be overly adulatory accounts of science as a hyperrational activity, they did not make a concerted effort to disassociate themselves from their more radical fellow travelers. Some critics took their ambivalent response to a hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, who succeeded in publishing a factually absurd, but politically correct, paper in a leading journal called Social Text, as an indication of a weak commitment to traditional scholarly norms.

Science Studies in the STS sense has spurred the attempts of historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science, who favor more traditional approaches to science studies, to provide accounts of the development of science that give us more understanding of the social dimensions of scientific inquiry (see Philip Kitcher's calls for a new socio-historico-philosophical approach). It has also highlighted the importance of developing a more detailed and realistic picture of scientific inquiry. This project is nicely described in the title of Susan Haack's book: Defending ScienceWithin Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism.

See also Feminist Epistemology; Kuhn, Thomas.


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Noretta Koertge (2005)

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