We Should All Be Science Critics



A while back my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, created a new major called science and technology studies, or STS. It seemed a little amorphous, but I felt an affinity for it. Also, I’ve liked pretty much every STS scholar I’ve met. They are a diverse bunch, both in personality and interests, but they all grapple with compelling issues, ranging from allergies and pharmaceuticals to marine biology and nuclear weapons (and that’s just at Stevens). One of the most impressive STS scholars I’ve met is a pioneer of the field, Sheila Jasanoff. Born and raised in India (Jasanoff is her husband’s name), she ended up at Harvard, where she earned a bachelor’s in mathematics, law degree and doctorate in linguistics. After founding an STS program at Cornell, she returned to Harvard to create its STS program, which she oversees. Jasanoff is an imposing woman, a force of nature wrapped in a sari. She has thought especially hard–and written many articles and books–about the role of science and technology in a democracy. The time seems right to ask her a few questions. – John Horgan

Horgan: I’m associated, sort of, with Science and Technology Studies, or STS, at Stevens, but I have a hard time telling students exactly what STS is. How do you, an STS pioneer, define it?

Jasanoff: Quite simply, STS is the field that explores what it means to live in a world powerfully shaped by science and technology. STS brings together two broad currents of research. One looks at science and technology as social institutions. How do they work and what makes them special? That, in turn, opens up many more focused questions: how do scientists and technologists discover facts and apply them; how do they decide what counts as good work; what is creativity; how do technical disputes end; how do new ideas replace old ones; and how do new scientific fields come into being? The second stream of research looks outward at the relations between science, technology and society. STS tries to understand the relationships between practices within the sciences and the interaction of discovery and invention with other aspects of society. Here again there are many nested questions about politics and power: who regulates research and on what basis; who assesses risk; who is responsible for harms arising from technology; why do some scientific controversies persist; and why do societies disagree about the uses of science and technology?

Horgan: I think STS, like science journalism, should approach science critically, and skeptically. What’s your view?

Jasanoff: Any social science should approach the things it studies critically and skeptically, that is, with an open mind. Otherwise our research would just end up reaffirming the status quo. STS is no different. The STS scholar’s job is to help us do better in searching for new worlds through science and technology. Francis Crick, borrowing from Keats, called science a “mad pursuit.” I think he meant to invoke a kind of ecstatic vision, not the figure of the mad scientist. But if we want science to stay sane enough for society’s good, we can’t afford to sweep mistakes, wrong turns, and inappropriate uses of expertise under the carpet. That said, being critical and skeptical doesn’t mean rejecting what is great about science and technology. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating creativity and ingenuity, nor ground-breaking discoveries, so long as research and its applications remain congruent with time-tested and widely accepted social values.

Horgan: Should STS scholars try to make the world a better place? Is scholarship compatible with activism?

Jasanoff: Shouldn’t all of us try to make the world a better place? I’ve always thought good scholarship isa form of activism. A powerful one. By studying something thoroughly, we illuminate not only its fine craftsmanship but also its warts and weaknesses. The hope is that good exposés will help us to do better in the future. This is why STS methods have proved so valuable in studying things that went wrong: big technological disasters like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown or the chemical accident in Bhopal, and also ethical disasters like the Tuskegee syphilis study performed on unsuspecting subjects. STS analyses reveal deviations from the ideals of science that are often not obvious to those embedded inside the field. Similarly, STS work on the uses of science by lawyers, judges, politicians, and citizens has demonstrated how science and technology can further both legitimate and illegitimate uses of power.   

Horgan: Have your gender and/or non-western heritage shaped your scholarship in any way?

Jasanoff: Yes, of course. Both make me take fewer things for granted, and hence to question things others wouldn’t find puzzling. I’m one of the few STS scholars who compares science and technology policy across Western societies. That work has opened up unexpected areas of research. One interesting issue is why very similar societies, such as Britain and the United States, imagine different risks and benefits and different future scenarios from the same developments in science and technology. My career is an example of why it’s important to have diversity in the research community. No one was asking about West-West differences in science policy before I did. Yet, when you look closely, you discover that even the most technologically advanced societies have different tolerances for risk and inequality and different ideas for how to allocate responsibility for harm. We need to reflect on these differences, and the reasons for them, as we confront the rapid, global advances of science and technology in this century. 

Horgan: Do any emerging technologies, or scientific fields, freak you out?

Jasanoff: I must confess the idea of constant surveillance terrifies me. It doesn’t matter whether it’s by Google or the NSA. I value my privacy, even a degree of anonymity. I don’t want anybody, humans or machines, to collect all my traces, to figure out where I am and what I’m likely to do next, let alone what I want for my pleasure or comfort. To lose the ability to move around the world unwatched—that is scary to me. It’s laughable to think that one might give up that freedom in exchange for targeted advertising. I want to be free to discover things for myself, to make up my own mind, even change it unexpectedly! 

Horgan: The influence of militarism on science and technology freaks me out. What about you?

Jasanoff: I’m as distrustful of militarism as you are, but—let’s face it—science and technology have profited from military sponsorship ever since Daedalus built the labyrinth to contain the Minotaur. The National Science Foundation, our chief funder of basic research, was formed because of the success of the Manhattan Project. President Eisenhower proclaimed the Atoms for Peace program to assure the world that America would not use atomic knowledge for global military conquest. Our defense establishment touts the civilian benefits of military R&D, like Velcro from the space program or, far more significantly, the internet. Sadly, too, we are not yet in a world where nations are willing to beat their swords into plowshares, and we likely never will be. We should fight with every ounce of strength against technologies that risk the human future. We should do our best to rein in the reckless proliferation of all sorts of weapons and hold militarism in check through democratic politics and demands for transparency. But it would be naïve to think we can entirely break free from the ancient alliance between science, technology, and war. 

Horgan: You’ve written a lot about science and the law. How are their views of “truth” alike, or unalike? Are you satisfied with how science is used in legal proceedings?

Jasanoff: It’s a mistake to think that law and science have different views of what truth is. It’s just that they go about finding facts in different ways to suit different purposes. Legal disputes need to end in real time while science can afford to wait forever. Lawsuits against companies often involve people who have been harmed through no fault of their own. Giving them justice may mean that we settle for a lower standard of proof than we would ask for publication in top peer-reviewed journals. In criminal justice we have the opposite problem. Bad science is accepted because prosecutors are looking for ways to get quick convictions. We need to guard against such abuse. Law, in my view, has often been altogether too deferential to scientific authority, to the point where judges tend to forget that truth and justice are not the same. Take a simple example. When kids with a piece of candy say, “I’ll divide, you choose,” it doesn’t matter if the two pieces are equal in fact. What counts is that both sides think it’s a fair division.

Horgan: Should scientists have more power in shaping policies on, say, climate change, or vaccines? Or would that be anti-democratic?

Jasanoff: Scientists should not be in the business of dictating policy, not unless they have been elected or appointed through the democratic process. In that case, they are public servants, and it’s of less consequence that they are also scientists. Scientists should, of course, have a major voice in debating policy priorities and recommending solutions, including on climate change and vaccines. We just have to recognize that this is not simply a matter of “speaking truth to power.” On complex policy matters, truth is pretty elusive and what matters more is persuading people to act prudently, with concern for others. We should all crave well-reasoned policies, drawing on the most reliable evidence available. Scientists have a duty to provide that evidence, both as citizens and in their professional capacity. They should not act as hired guns, especially on highly consequential public health and environmental issues. But the power to make policy has to rest in hands that are accountable to public challenge. That is the essence of democracy.

Horgan: What’s your take on science’s replication crisis? Any ideas for resolving it?

Jasanoff: Well, those of us with long memories know that crises come in cycles, so the first thing to ask is why are we suddenly so conscious of this crisis? Controversies about statistics in the social and behavioral sciences have been around since at least the 1980s. So why the panic now? Is it because we’re demanding too much of science or is there too much money sloshing around in the system, leading to shoddy work? It’s too big a problem anyway for a silver bullet solution. STS scholars have shown that it is almost always possible to poke holes in someone else’s research design unless there is prior methodological agreement within the field. Such consensus seldom exists in the social sciences, especially on the frontiers. Some modest steps would help. Journals could issue more explicit guidelines for authors and reviewers, funders could ask for better statistical audits, young scientists could get more training in research ethics, we could stop outsourcing so much research to private entities and pay more up front for transparency. But a larger question for society is whether we’re outsourcing too much authority to science, to study things that are too fuzzy and indeterminate to fit into classical paradigms of experiment and replication. There are areas where more could be accomplished by trying to alleviate suffering than by pinning down its precise causes. 

Horgan: How are you feeling about humanity’s future these days?

Jasanoff: Isn’t the question which humanity? The human species is so prolific and resilient that I don’t worry especially much about its catastrophic extinction. I do worry about humanity in the moral sense—our capacity for empathy and fellow-feeling, our respect for human dignity, our hospitality to different forms of truth-seeking, our wonder at the sheer diversity of culture and creativity. In the rush to design everything, from crops and babies to the Earth’s atmosphere, I fear we are in danger of becoming just another cog in the vast machine of planetary history, a species that engineered away its freedom to seek, to explore, to suffer, and to dream. 

Horgan: What’s your utopia?

Jasanoff: Ah, that’s a hard question for a congenital skeptic! The really big things, like world peace and planetary sustainability, seem hopelessly out of reach, so one imagines more modest alternatives. Some days I think it would be good enough to get back to a time when constitutional values seemed to matter in our democracy. Other days I think my cup would be full if my university recognized that every undergraduate needs serious STS training – based, of course, on a definition of STS that I find satisfying. And then I think, hang on, wouldn’t it get boring if we actually got to live in the best of possible worlds? A perpetual hope, a dream of perfection, the means to follow it – maybe that is my real utopia.

Further Reading:

Dear “Skeptics,” Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More

A Dig Through Old Files Reminds Me Why I’m So Critical of Science

Everyone, Even Jenny McCarthy, Has the Right to Challenge “Scientific Experts

Should the Humanities Embrace Scientism? My Postmodern Response to Pinker’s Patronizing Plea

Advice to Young Science Writers: Ask “What Would Chomsky Think?”

See Q&As with Scott AaronsonDavid AlbertDavid ChalmersNoam ChomskyDavid DeutschGeorge EllisMarcelo GleiserRobin HansonNick HerbertJim HoltSabine HossenfelderStuart KauffmanChristof KochGarrett LisiChristian ListTim MaudlinJames McClellanPriyamvada NatarajanNaomi OreskesMartin ReesCarlo RovelliRupert SheldrakePeter ShorLee SmolinSheldon SolomonPaul SteinhardtPhilip TetlockTyler VolkSteven Weinberg,  Edward WittenPeter WoitStephen Wolfram and Eliezer Yudkowsky.



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