How to think about science studies

I’ve been passing my driving time recently listening to the podcasts of an excellent series from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, called How to think about science. It’s simply a series of long interviews with academics, generally from the field of science studies. I’ve particularly enjoyed the interviews with historian of science Simon Schaffer, sociologists Ulrich Beck and Brian Wynne, science studies guru Bruno Latour, and Evelyn Fox Keller, who has written some interesting books about some of the tacit philosophies underlying modern biology. With one or two exceptions, even those interviews with people I find less convincing still provided me with a few thought provoking insights .

That strange academic interlude, the “science wars”, gets the occasional mention – this was the time when claims from science studies about the importance of social factors in the construction of scientific knowledge provoked a fierce counter-attack from people anxious to defend science against what they saw as an attack on its claims to objective truth. My perception is that the science wars ended in an armistice, though there are undoubtedly some people still holding out in the jungle, unaware that the war is over. Although the series is clearly presented from the science studies side of the argument, most contributors reflect the terms of the peace treaty, accepting the claims of science to be a way of generating perhaps uniquely reliable knowledge, while still insisting on the importance of the social in the way that knowledge is constructed, and criticising inappropriate ways of using scientific or pseudo-scientific arguments, models and metaphors in public discourse.

9 thoughts on “How to think about science studies”

  1. Hi Richard,

    What a fascinating resource! I will have to work through them one by one. I’ve always seen the science wars as a massive distraction from the conversations that need to take place between scientists, social scientists and others. The mistake of sociologists at the time was to get drawn into a debate that was being run on terms defined by a particularly fundamentalist group of scientists, who felt they were under attack and whose response was in turn to make the more epistemologically-inclined sociologists nothing but defensive. For the last 10 years of so, the most interesting discussions have been constructive, with scientists and social scientists working together to explore the social within and around science – especially around emerging science and technology (science-in-action as Latour would have it).

  2. Hi, Richard.

    I’d like to echo Jack’s comment. I listened to the Brian Wynne interview during a train journey from London today and found it fascinating! My only minor and pedantic complaint is that the files are in Real Player and not .mp3 format (but it’s not so difficult to convert between the two formats)!

    As regards the science wars, it’s interesting to note that Terence Kealey argues in his recent book, Sex, Science, and Profits that “There’s no such thing as science – only scientists”. So, as you say, while there’s been an armistice, there are clearly those who’ve yet to “come in from the cold”. Alan Sokal’s acerbic and insightful comment – echoed by Brian Wynne in the interview – also still amuses me:

    “…anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

    Best wishes,


  3. Jack, of course I agree with you about where the more interesting conversations between scientists and social scientists are to be had. But perhaps, as Philip says, I overestimate how many people are ready for the sort of dialogue we need to have. My perception is that a few on the science studies side used some really unfortunate and inflammatory rhetoric, and occasionally their sayings demonstrated a lack of a deep insight into science that instantly discredited them in the eyes of scientists (and I should stress this is only a few – when one thinks of people like Brian Wynne and Arie Rip, one may disagree with some of their conclusions but it’s clear that they have a really deep understanding of the scientific enterprise). On the other hand, many scientists were, and still are, extremely reluctant to let go of some of their deeply held myths about the history and philosophy of their subject, despite the careful and fascinating scholarship demonstrating how much more complex and interesting matters are than one learns in the textbooks.

    Philip, if you go to the CBC podcasting link on that page you can download them as MP3s. I must confess I haven’t read Terence Kealey’s book, so what I think of him is based on a combination of reading some of his journalism, and (I’m sure) my prejudice. Which is that he lives in some kind of neo-conservative fantasy world.

    Your Alan Sokal quote is more interesting, though. It’s clear that we all agree about the consequences of jumping out of windows (as my rock climber friends sometimes say, “Gravity: it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law”). But to say that F=GMm/r^2 isn’t really to explain anything, and it’s when we try to explain things that social conventions – or at least climates of thought – do start to matter. Newton himself had big difficulties with this, being responsible more than anyone else for the mechanical worldview, saying “That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum… is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it”, and this sparked many attempts to construct increasingly baroque models that would give some kind of mechanical explanation of the law.

    We all agree on the observable effects of gravity, but it’s at least arguable that what conclusion we take from that, whether we take the purely instrumental view that we have rules that allow us to predict its effect, or the realist view that those rules tell us about the actual deep fabric of reality, in this case about the structure of space and time, is less clear cut. A fascinating book that talks about the tension between realism and instrumentalism throughout the history of science, and the way broader intellectual currents contribute to conflicting notions of what it means for science to explain something, is “The intelligibility of nature” by Peter Dear.

  4. I always thought it would be good for the science studies people to study science studies. Do their own conclusions represent objective truth or merely social conventions? Eliminate the middleman! And the subjects can hardly complain when they are also the investigators.

  5. I just found this thread (and this blog…). For those interested in the post-science wars, there is a fine book (actually a collection of essays by various protagonists) edited by Ullica Segerstrale, “Beyond Science Wars : The Missing Discourse about Science and Society”.

  6. By sheer coincidence, I just found out that Segerstrale is a Senior Fellow of the Center on Nanotechnology and Society. What a small world!

  7. Richard,

    In a similar vein to the CBC series, I came across the following on Richard Dawkins’ website recently: What Is Science For?. The instrumental (utilitarian) vs non-instrumental science argument is revisited by John Sulston and John Harris (with an intro from Dawkins).

    Best wishes,


  8. Thanks, Philip, I’ll look it up – John Sulston is someone whose opinions are worth a lot.

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