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Globe interview with Steven Shapin July 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Steven Shapin was recently interviewed by the Boston Globe (available on the boston.com web site) concerning the arguments in his forthcoming book, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late-Modern Vocation. (I nabbed this off the University of Chicago Press website’s promo blog, actually). The gist seems to be a critique of commenting on academic-industry relations in terms of a Polanyi-esque emphasis on the sanctity of independent scientific virtue.

The book doesn’t appear until this fall, and I haven’t had any sneak peeks, so we can’t really say much about it for certain at this point. But I’d like to enumerate some common strategies that seem to be at work in the interview (and which regular readers know I take all opportunities to point out).

1) There is a naive position that “we” have held for awhile now [sometimes this is since the 17th century or the Enlightenment, but the “since World War II” time frame gets trotted out here], which is that scientists are inherently free thinkers that must be given freedom to pursue their muses. Shapin helpfully informs us that scientists can see intellectual opportunity in technological application as well as in purer forms of knowledge, and that their freedom can actually be enhanced by pursuing commercial and team-oriented rather than individualized academic goals.

2) Interviewer: “Who still believes in this idealized picture?” Shapin: “If you put to members of the academic humanities or social sciences the question of academia and industry, the presumption is…” The circle of life continues. Since World War II we in the academy have been dumb (Shapin once again hauls out ol’ Robert Merton for some scape-goating), but our discussions obviously have been at the forefront of public discourse for 60 years, so, really, everyone has been dumb. Fortunately, scholars are now in a position to dispel all these misleading notions about this loaded concept of “science”…. This has been the tale for about 30 years now.

3) The question of “science” is the issue at hand. Our ideas about science and the virtues of its practitioners have handicapped us from thinking more analytically about this topic.

Now, before moving on, as with most arguments that use these kinds of strategies, I don’t actually disagree with the general gist. Scholars do need to take industrial science more seriously, and need to cease analyzing industrial R&D in terms of its relationship to academic science. However, I have a few concerns about where this specific framing of this problem leads us:

A) “Science” is not the issue at hand. The vague term “science” was used in many ways within a rich, and profoundly tangled conversation about invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, tinkering, experimenting, musing, and theorizing that has produced many conflicting discourses about science and technology. The interview points to mid-century efforts to sequester academic science against the conformity of business, but this is the same era in which “scientists” were lauded for building rockets and providing consumers with all manner of amazing products. Science, invention, and engineering were not only intertwined in the public mind, but in the university and in industry as well, where science and engineering departments collaborated regularly on semi-technological/semi-scientific endeavors that were likewise widely celebrated. Talk about “science” to address these varied issues should be interpreted carefully and locally. Nobody was trying to define “science” for all places and all times (let alone for us science studies scholars), and any number of conflicting uses of the term could actually be in the service of a more sophisticated perspective on science and technology. (See David Edgerton’s essential “The Linear Model Did Not Exist”, #41 here, for a discussion about how conversations about the relationship between science and technology have been progressively dumbed down over the decades as scholars have failed to read authors like Vannevar Bush as offering sophisticated perspectives).

B) It is therefore probably not appropriate to frame an argument in terms of a response to an isolated scholarly set of conversations, when the upshot of the argument is basically a replication of conversations that have persisted, perhaps even dominated, and can be easily accessed if we scholars only care to look. The interviewer’s question was apt–who does believe in this view of science? The response that we scholars do only serves to make us look silly. Where have we been all these years?

C) This has consequences. Shapin seems to argue that current debates (apparently over things like privatized biotech) arise out of “our” misplaced notions about the work of scientists, and that we should worry less for the virtue of scientists in the face of private initiative. But these debates arise out of nothing like this kind of concern. We, as a capitalist industrial society, have always lauded the entrepreneurial spirit of scientists, engineers, and inventors (considered as a group), and have always accepted intellectual property rights and the attendant lucre as a just reward. As Shapin undoubtedly knows, these debates are quite legitimate, and part of long-standing negotiations concerning what kinds of work should be concealed and which left open; also, which kinds of work represented application-directed versus undirected research and which venues were most appropriate for these kinds of work.

I’m with Shapin in being skeptical about semi-apocalyptic pronouncements about the privatization of science, but there are in fact issues about the differences between knowledge-as-a-public-good and technology-as-merchandise that need to find just solutions that have everything to do with social value and the definitions of the obligations of certain kinds of institutions, and little to do with any presumption of special scientific virtue. The “virtue” issue of public good versus lucre is alive in many places: science, education, law, management, and so forth, and has little to do with perspectives on “science” in particular.

So, to really understand Shapin’s point, we’ll need to wait for the book. But, based on the promo material, I get the sense that a lot of interesting issues (like fundamental conversations about public versus private goods, social responsibility versus legal compulsion, or the consequences of the longstanding ambiguity between science and invention) get covered up through an adherence to standardized strategies like a critique of a naive position and another attack on the “science and society” problem writ-large.

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1. Bookmarks about Interview - August 15, 2008

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