Science: The Human Touch So Why All This Fuss about Science Studies, Asks Steve Fuller, All We Do Is to Treat Scientists as People Rather Than Minor Deities
Fuller, Steve, The Independent (London, England)
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". 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 popularising 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 industrialised 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 spirits 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 their job - 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. …