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Galison’s Q’s #s 6: The Politics of Technology June 2, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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Galison’s 6th question is kind of the same as his 5th, which deals with the politics of technology. Galison notes that historians of science have shown a traditional strength in the philosophy and sociology of knowledge, and that we should augment our growing concern in the philosophy of ethics with a further concern in political and legal ramifications of science and technology.

Galison’s question is rooted in the 20th century sea change in the relationship between science and technology. One possible response would be to claim that history of science has rightly been a form of intellectual history, and that questions of technology are beyond the pale, and best left to the SHOT folks. However, this is just a dodge. Because science and technology are now so much more strongly intertwined than science and philosophy, it would be disingenuous for us to just pass the buck.

That said, it also seems disingenuous of us to suddenly become political theorists. Our specialty is in epistemological issues, and to suddenly stake a claim to political and legal issues because they concern science (really, what doesn’t?). What do those of us who study science have to contribute to these questions? How is the politics of sci-tech issues different from the politics (or the law) of anything else?

Is it even dangerous to stake a claim to an issue as pertaining to science? Take global warming–an enormous amount of robustness has been achieved in the science of climate change, but, because global warming has been branded a “science” issue, the onus has remained with the scientists and the question of “proof”, while policymakers have been allowed to sit on the fence and avoid responsibility. We will note that the onus on, say, military intelligence, is not nearly so strong even though the political role of intelligence is virtually the same as that of science. Yet, no one would forgive a general for not taking effective action in a timely manner because intelligence had failed to provide absolute clarity.

Thus, to repeat the claims of last time, I don’t think we have much original to contribute to the theory of science in politics and law. I’m pretty sure gesticulating about shifting or collapsing boundaries (between the public-private, the artificial-natural, etc…) doesn’t qualify–lawyers parse issues like these all the time. It doesn’t take a scientist, or a historian thereof, to discern and articulate the implications of science, once the capabilities of technologies have been articulated. That said, I do think our own historical work would benefit greatly if we schooled ourselves further in political and legal theory and history (I suspect our generally accepted interpretation of the Enlightenment is subpar–a post for another day). To foster a good 20th-century historiography, we’ll absolutely need to find some realistic way of grasping how managers, policymakers, and legislators have perceived and reacted to scientific issues. To be better historians of science, we’ll need to be better political and business historians.

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