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Is There a Conflict of Interest between STS and History of Science? October 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

A brief satire:

Q: If you’re an STS scholar, how do you participate in a policy debate?

A: (1) Identify some place where somebody can plausibly be accused of over-certainty and reductionism in their assertion of a solution to a policy problem.  (2) Deploy your meta-knowledge of how controversies work to accuse participants in policy debates of over-certainty and reductionism.  (3) Feel increasingly satisfied with your meta-knowledge that over-certainty and reductionism are the root causes of policy failure.

If aversion to reductionism is indeed the central critical feature of Science and Technology Studies (STS, occasionally “Science, Technology, and Society”), the danger of reductionism is taken to be augmented by the prospect that science and technology carry a certain public authority that can potentially disguise this reductionism.  This authority is thought to be based on the prospect that science and technology enjoy a certain separateness or distinction from the rest of culture and politics.  The central authority-based failure to detect reductionism is taken to lead to follow-on varieties of failure, particularly: the structural failure of formal methodologies to cope with suitably complex and uncertain phenomena, the moral failure of methodologies to take into account divergent social and intellectual perspectives and values, and the failure of methodologies designed to resolve social problems and controversies to transcend controversy themselves.


Life at the Boundary June 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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For decades now, historians of science and their allies in science studies have had an enduring fondness for boundary studies.  The “boundaries” in question are taken to be places where agreements that define what constitutes a legitimate claim no longer clearly apply.  In Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the “paradigm” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962), arguments across paradigms cannot be decided based upon evidence, because the standards of interpretation that would allow a decision to be made differ.

Kuhn’s point spoke to a potential philosophical irreconcilability, but sociologists would adopt the basic idea to discuss the importance of social coalition-building in knowledge-building, which could be hidden beneath an apparent epistemological smoothness where arguments were well-accepted, but which became visible in instances of controversy along coalition boundaries.

Harry Collins wrote in 1981, “In most cases the salience of alternative interpretations of evidence, which typifies controversies, has acted as a level to elicit the essentially cultural nature of the local boundaries of scientific legitimacy—normally elusive and concealed” (“Introduction” to a special issue of Social Studies of Science 11 (1981): 3-10).  Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer wrote in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985):  “Another advantage afforded by studying controversy is that historical actors […] attempt to deconstruct the taken-for-granted quality of their antagonists’ preferred beliefs and practices, and they do this by trying to display the artifactual and conventional status of those beliefs and practices” (p. 7).