Science studies – blending traditional disciplines
By James Dacey
I’m a big fan of The Guardian’s Digested Read in which John Crace reviews new books by condensing them into short narratives. They’re always informative and often satirical. So borrowing his style, I’ve reviewed a new paper by the eminent sociologist Harry Collins, which looks at the changing face of “science studies” since its birth in the post war years. Hope you enjoy…
Back in the Fifties, social scientists were confident in science; in part because of the success of physicists during Second World War. My predecessors developed the naïve view that science works under democratic ideals with scientists interested in nothing but scientific truths. Socio-political realities — like the ongoing debate surrounding Eddington’s ‘clear-cut’ proof of Relativity — were simply ignored.
So hooray for the swinging Sixties! Everything from sex to ideology started to loosen up and even academics wanted in on the action. Sociologists finally realized that even science is underpinned by people power — despite what that stuffy Merton chap had said before.
Sadly though, the party was short-lived as by the late sixties / early seventies, a new scepticism was taking its grip. Terribly inconvenient eco groups were pointing out environmental damage, and after all the post war hype, society was disappointed with science and all its groupies.
At this time, a new way of thinking was sweeping through the humanities. We called it postmodernism and it passionately rejected the ontological hierarchies of modernism. Extremists proposed that all forms of knowledge are shaped equally by faith and politics. Science — previously hailed as the ultimate form of knowledge — became an obvious target and during the Seventies and Eighties we launched a series of attacks.
One of my offensives was to prove wrong Karl Popper — science’s pin-up philosopher — by showing you cannot always check a result by simply repeating it. Take, for example, physicist Joseph Weber’s claim to have detected gravitational waves in the 1960s. It was very difficult to disprove this experimentally, because Weber and his allies would not accept that those who could not repeat the results had tried hard enough.
Now on the defensive, some of the more aggressive scientists began to retaliate. We were accused of trying to deliberately undermine the ancient craft of science and things reached a bloody head in the Nineties during the so-called ‘science wars’. Sociologists were now blamed publicly for the growing troubles in science, from the rejection of confidence in GM foods to the drying up of government funding, symbolized by the demise in the United States of the Superconducting Supercollider in 1993.
Then at the turn of the century, troops on both sides quickly disarmed as serious sociologists and serious scientists made friends – in some cases even publishing joint works. In the past few years a few scientists have turned their attack on the state; former president George Bush Junior was accused of leading a War against Science. You might think this would have galvanized the postmodern attack but in truth it probably united us all in a defense of intelligent thought.
So where do we go from here? It’s pretty obvious to progressive academics like myself that — in some cases — we can put our faith in scientific thought over other “ways of knowing”. And Obama seems to think so too; all this talk of “putting science back in its rightful place” — sounds dangerously like a return to modernism! And that’s the problem now: we’d all look a bit silly if we start calling ourselves modernists again. So we need a new -ism.
At first, I toyed with “post postmodernism”, but soon saw the clunkiness of this. So then I thought, “why don’t we could just say we picked out some of the more desirable aspects of modernism and call it ‘selective modernism’?” but I quickly realized the inherent elitism – who would be the selectors? So after a very deep think I finally arrived at my new ism: “elective modernism”.
Now, I’ve been in this game long enough to realize that you can’t just coin an -ism without first establishing a few doctrines or norms a la Merton. So I’ve drawn up a “periodic table” of what defines scientific expertise in the 21st century. You want to see these? Go check out my new book Rethinking Expertise — it’s on Amazon.