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Mixed feelings about science literacy outreach, part 2

October 24, 2011 1 comment

As much as it annoys me, I can’t bring myself to complain too much about Marcelo Gleiser’s short essay:

This shaping of our worldview is not restricted to abstract ideas; quite the contrary. Much of the way we understand reality and live our lives comes from technological applications of scientific discoveries, driven by engineers and designers. The recent passing of Steve Jobs is an illustration of how cutting-edge science and innovative design can literally change the way we live and communicate with each other…

Under this view, science is more than a collection of explanations about the natural world: science is a means to freedom, offering people a way to control their destiny, to choose wisely in what to believe. As Galileo insisted at the dawn of modern science, “Think for yourself! Don’t take what people tell you at face value. To not bow blindly to dogma!” And mind you, Galileo was a religious man. Being pro-science does not necessarily makes you anti-religion. Paraphrasing Galileo, “if God gave us a mind to understand the world, He surely would be most pleased if we did so.”

I could nit-pick Gleiser’s flawed take on the relationship between science and technology or criticize the mindless hagiography. (What does “science is a means to freedom” even mean?)

But as I’ve said before, there’s much to respect here. Most physicists can’t be bothered with outreach, and so it’s unfair to complain just because Gleiser doesn’t meet my standards. I’m sure he has more interesting concerns than the economics of innovation and better things to do than engage in deep introspection. Gleiser has some vague notion that basic research leads to technology, viscerally feels more science will solve all, and is admirably taking the time to write about it. Yes it’s poorly researched, relies on emotion, and employs unclear language. But we all do that from time to time.

Those of who want a different narrative can get caught doing nothing but refuting Gleiser’s efforts. I actually hope we imitate him. We need STS writers as passionate and deeply felt as he is. We need writers who recognize there’s more to science than academia and more to academia than basic research. We need writers who know “the intersection of science and culture” involves much more than physicists, biologists and philosophers. For every Marcelo Gleiser, we need at least two Jonah Lehrers.

Expanding the conversation doesn’t happen by shutting down voices you disagree with. But it can happen by shouting over them.

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Affirming values and convincing scientists

March 18, 2011 Leave a comment

If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way–Dan Kahan (~3-minute mark)

While Kahan was addressing climate change, I think his message should be taken to heart by those in the science studies community (myself included). Especially given the overblown rhetoric about rationality and scientific thinking, it’s easy to forget that scientists are people too! We have some of the very flaws and tendencies we often criticize in others. And just like everyone else, scientists don’t like to see their values attacked.

Fair or not, science studies is often viewed as attacking science, or at least some of the core underlying values of science. Consider climate scientist Andrew Dessler’s comment on this (rather ancient) blog post: “I guess what I really object to in STS is the assertion that all knowledge is relative.”

I don’t know a single STSer who thinks all knowledge is relative. But since Dessler appears to believe otherwise, he is understandably resistant to some of their other suggestions. I think his distrust comes through in the thread.

As annoying as it may be for some, perhaps such discussions should be prefaced with something like: “I acknowledge there is a a real world which contain objective facts. I also acknowledge that we can and should study the world in a methodological, coherent manner. When possible, we should try to replicate our findings…yada, yada, yada.” I suspect the omission of this type of message is part of the reason STS hasn’t gained more traction among scientists.

Another reason is that STS-folks tend to be typical academics, and are thus content sit in their own little world not engaging in outreach and communication. But that’s a topic for a different time!

Categories: Communication, STS

Science changes in response to economic pressures

February 9, 2011 2 comments

To finally talk about something other than basic and applied research (although I’ll shortly return to the topic!), I strongly recommend this interview with historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller. It’s a part of the “How to Think About Science” series that I brought to your attention before. I’ve been slowly making my way through the series, and this episode has been by far my favorite.

Starting about the 19-minute mark, she makes some insightful comments on how STS scholarship, and feminist studies in particular, has changed science. Keller believes that research like hers has had virtually no impact. In approximately her words:

Science changes for sure. It changes all the time. But it doesn’t change in response to the kind of critique I was offering. It changes in response to economic pressures; to opportunities. Science is first and foremost a domain of opportunism.

The rest of the episode is equally fascinating. Listen to the whole thing.

Categories: STS

The fallacy of attribution

January 22, 2011 5 comments

I think, on some level, when we marvel at how the world has become more egalitarian, we think about King and Lincoln. But do we think about that changes relationship to, say, Louis Pasteur or Henry Ford? How much of our march toward humanism is really technological, a shift from a slavery of human, to a mastery of nature? What were the effects of, say, Koch’s work on tuberculosis on how we came to see ourselves in relation to each other? Was the retreat of death a boon for humanism? Was it a bane for religion? Laundry used to be a heavy-duty chore, mostly performed by women. When washing became automated, how did that effect women’s notions of self? How did it influence feminism? Is humanism a luxury, afforded by individual longevity? —TNC

As any good STS aficionado, my first instinct was to point out that humanism itself was partially responsible for the retreat of death. Human progress is far too often cleanly and directly attributed to the advance of science. Because of science and technology, human beings conquered abject deprivation. Because of science humans now live longer, fuller lives. But of course the story is not so simple. At least for the retreat of death, social reformers played a non-trivial role. There’s even some supporting research on this.

Also typical for STS aficionados (myself included) is the tendency to take this analysis too far. To downplay the the very real benefits science has wrought. To marginalize the importance of rationality and (as problematic as the term may be) scientific thinking. In a sharp follow-up comment abk1985 suggests I did so, and notes that “humanistic agendas [were not] pursued in a void.” The drive to improve sanitation in poor immigrant communities hinged on intelligent medical guessing and enlightened self-interest as well as an honest desire to help the less fortunate.

For better and for worse, facts about the world do affect our moral intuition. Though at times humanism did stand on its own terms, it’s often not possible to isolate it as the driving motivation. It makes no sense to say that early 20th century reformers were motivated 33% by altruism, 33% by self-interest, and 33% by science. For some, a latent desire to address poverty was surely buttressed by data that indicated epidemics in certain communities often spilled over to everyone. All of our actions are imbued with such motivational complexity.

And so while it may be interesting to argue over a beer, and while I’m sure many academics will study it, TNC’s “how much” questions are ultimately not helpful. Even attempting to determine how much of human progress can be attributed to science, or to humanism, or to the rule of law, obscures more than it illuminates. The arc of human history cannot, even in principle, be decomposed and deconstructed like this. Science and technology have always been there and have always played a role. At times they were very important and at others not so much. And that’s pretty much all we can say about that.

Categories: Society, STS

The social relevance of history and philosophy of science

October 19, 2010 6 comments

Over at The Bubble Chamber, they’re having a spirited discussion on the (possible!) social relevance of history and philosophy of science.  I’ve supported this enterprise for quite some time now, and it’s refreshing to hear what practicing philosophers think.

I’d especially like to see more discussion on some of the “big issues” (public discourse anyone?).  Many people already spend time on discrete topics such as climate change and nanotechnology.  I think more people in HPS should try to help create a better narrative of what we call science.

Categories: Philosophy, Society, STS

How to think about science

September 28, 2010 1 comment

Via Matt Nesbit (in a post I’ll also try to comment on in my 3-day blogging rampage), I’d like to draw your attention to a wonderful series “How to Think About Science” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  The host interviews sociologists, historians, philosophers, and even a couple scientists.  Unfortunately, the podcasts don’t seem to be available for download and so you’ll have to listen to them from your computer.  I’ve already listened to the first interview with Steven Shapin, co-author of the allegedly ground-breaking book “Leviathan and the Air-Pump.”

I can’t speak for the rest of the series just yet, but this first installment is excellent.  Shapin stresses the need for a more nuanced image of science to be more widely communicated, something I feel the STS community woefully neglects.  He also points out that the term “public understanding of science” can be taken to have two distinct meaning.  On one hand, it can mean that the public should know or accept scientists’ view of the world.  Alternatively, it can also mean that the public should know how scientists produce knowledge of the world.  A subtle difference that can lead to vastly different outcomes.

A couple other interesting tidbits from the hour-long piece:

  1. During the science wars, Shapin asserts that a few hypersensitive scientists confused the demystification of science with “catastrophic undermining.”  I like that phrasing.
  2. There are two conflicting, yet consistently promoted images of science.  Either scientists are superhumans capable of solving any problem (critiqued by both Ryan and myself), or science is simply organized common sense.  Both images are incorrect.

That’s it for now.  Stay tuned for an upcoming review of Natural Reflections.

Categories: Communication, Literacy, STS

The virtue of mundane arguments*

August 20, 2010 3 comments

Let me expand on an idea I started a couple posts ago, namely that the mundane is always sacrificed for the sexy.  Put another way, all discussions about science inevitably require grand claims.  Consider the delicious symmetry between the science studies crowd and natural and physical scientists.  The latter group insists that biochemistry and supercomputers are the only ways to solve cancer and global warming.  And how do the social scientists respond?  By stressing that these approaches prevent us from solving cancer and global warming!

Don’t get me wrong.  These problems need to be solved, and I’m glad everyone devotes so much energy to them.  But it’s quite strange that all of our arguments have to be framed by such superlatives.  There’s no space to make a simpler point that in the end is probably much closer to the truth.  Physicists can’t say that we focus on numerical solutions not necessarily because we believe it’s the best or only path forward, but because we enjoy that type of work.  Conversely, the science studies crowd does not (as far as I know) point out that the (mild!) hypocrisy of scientists’ exaggerations is intrinsically wrong.  Rather, they string together a series of tendentious links that are very hard to prove.  If the benefits of basic research weren’t exaggerated, then (maybe) we’d spend more on socially relevant research, and then (again maybe) we’d make better progress on solving cancer and global warming.  There are too many hypotheticals here for my comfort, and this argument is no less convoluted than the ones often made in defense of basic research.

We really shouldn’t have to justify everything in terms of majestic solutions to big problems.  Many scientists simply like basic research and they should be allowed to say that.  And we can disagree with scientists’ exaggerations for  the rather boring grounds that the arguments are bad on their own terms and undermine honest debate.  Cancer shouldn’t have to be part of the picture.

It is true that personal motives alone cannot compel public action.  We’re understandably wary of basing policy on something as whimsical as subjective preference.  But my very basic reading in political theory tells me that at its most fundamental level, democratic politics was designed to resolve the empirical fact that people simply care about different things.  And thus we shouldn’t have to justify everything we care about entirely in terms of the common good.  Public discourse suffers if everyone tries too hard to cloak the true reasons for their actions.  These reasons, however mundane and ordinary, must be part of the picture.

* In my never-ending desire to prove my lack of originality, I’d like to credit Kammen and Dove’s wonderful article for inspiring the title of this post