World's Fair

I mean the title in a different sense than most science bloggers or SciBlog readers will likely presume. I mean it as one who studies science, not one who practices it – given the complexity, esteem, importance, and promise of the scientific enterprise, such deeper understandings of what this science thing is would seem requisite. Thus, over the past thirty or forty years, a lot of people have worked to develop the area of study known as “science and technology studies” (or, with slightly differing emphases that I don’t need to get into here, “science, technology, and society” – “STS” in either case).

But what is a science studier to do, when said studies do two things at once: first, they get in the way of the bigger problem at hand; and second, they are necessary if the bigger problem at hand is to be addressed adequately.

What am I talking about?

Let’s take the recent LA Times op-ed piece by Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal as an example.

Chris and Alan make a plea for better science. Their goal is to restore “respect for science — and more generally, for evidence and reason — in the federal government.” That’s a good goal. They make good points. They have something to add to the public conversation on science and politics. (Here is one follow-up thread about the op-ed; here is another, very lengthy but really interesting thread.) I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think scientific evidence and reason deserve greater respect from the current federal government. The more important issue, and the one that leads to debates about relationship between and within science and politics, is that those terms – science, evidence, and reason – are not so clear as we wish they could be.

Chris is on solid ground with his contribution to the piece. He’s done empirical, journalistic research to compile and present the case against Republican treatments of science, evidence, and reason. Why he collaborated with Sokal is not clear. In that collaboration, their case falls apart. Sokal is a physicist known for propagating the Science Wars of the 1990s with his foray into deconstructionist parody. So when the two write the following in their op-ed, sirens start blaring:

“[T]he focus on the academic left’s undermining of science following the Sokal hoax was generating worthwhile debates and even real soul-searching. For instance, the prominent French sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, has wondered whether his earlier work questioning the objectivity of scientific knowledge went too far: ‘Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant?'”

This is manipulative and damaging to the larger case the authors wish to make. But wait, one might say, aren’t I making a big deal about a tiny portion of a larger op-ed? No. I say this because it shows that Sokal (and Chris, too, we have to say) are not armed with a robust understanding of the place of science in society, its practice, terms, forms, uses, and values. This isn’t to say that I have the answers, or that I have a complete or fully developed understanding of the place of science in society, its practice, terms, forms, uses, and values. But for the thorny issues of science and politics to become better addressed, we will have to focus on better understandings that place of science in society (you know, practice, terms, forms, uses, and values). As it is, after Latour asks the questions quoted above, he goes on (in the next 20 pages of a full argument) to say, no, it is not enough to say any of that; he says, no, he was not wrong, at least not in the clear, straightforward sense evoked by the extracted quote; no, there is far more to it; and no, the reason he even asks those questions is to begin a larger discussion of what we are to do if we want “better” science, but are working without an understanding of what “better” might mean. More facts? Stronger facts? Clearer facts? Repeatable facts? No. Better science is about more than facts.

I posted these concerns over at Chris’s page (The Intersection). I’m not sure if he didn’t understand my point, or if he didn’t understand Latour’s still, or if he didn’t see the larger issues at stake. He offered what I consider a very disingenuous reply.

Chris writes: “First off, we weren’t trying to summarize Latour’s essay, we were quoting a relevant part of it. So there’s a difference between that and misrepresentation. I still don’t see how we’ve distorted his meaning.”
This is what I find disingenuous and disappointing. The relevant part was only a portion of a larger point. To quote it as such is to miss the entire meaning of having asked it. It is a distortion, plain and simple. It is an ironic one too – Latour was writing about the misuse of critique, and his part in leading to that misuse. The op-ed misuses the point about misusing critique. If one were to write, “Mooney has asked, was I wrong to highlight the excesses of the Right with respect to science? Had I gone too far? No, in fact, I probably didn’t go far enough.” And then a creationist wrote: “Even Chris Mooney, attacker of Republican science, has asked ‘was I wrong to highlight the excesses of the Right with respect to science? Had I gone too far?'”

[By the way, if you’re looking for a place to skip through more breezily, this might be it. Pick it back up in a few paragraphs. I’ll give you the cue when it comes up…]

I’ll repost -with modifications to remove unspecific referents – my comment from his blog here:

Chris and Alan take a paragraph from the on-line excerpt of Latour’s article. That article was written to show that Latour’s concern was, at lest in part, about how science studies concepts were deployed. The rest of the article, and the full breadth of the argument, goes on to discuss what to do with the question just quoted. You can’t take the provocation of the argument as its endpoint — that’s just the set-up, the thing to be discussed. He isn’t questioning the earlier work, as if to say, that was all bunk. He’s asking if the way that work has been utilized is no longer useful. Reflexively, in part, he’s wondering what the critique has brought us, if it hasn’t helped open up views of science but, rather, become vulgar soundbites for those seizing on the possibility for countering science (say, fundamentalists, e.g.).

Latour writes (here I’m adding a quote that I didn’t offer at Chris’s page): “The mistake we made, the mistake I made, was to believe that there was no efficient way to criticize matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible. But this meant accepting much too uncritically what matters of fact were. … Reality is not defined by matters of fact. Matters of fact are not all that is given in experience. Matters of fact are only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affairs.”

We need not get into a full run-down on this difference between matters of fact and matters of concern. I don’t even completely agree with Latour’s argument, in this sense. But that isn’t relevant for the op-ed at hand. That is, my worry about the Mooney/Sokal op-ed does not hinge on whether or not I agree with Latour.

My sense here is this: L asks this, “What if explanations [have] deteriorated to the point of now feeding also the most gullible sort of critiques?” to push for a yet more elaborate examination of how one examines the place of science in society. To then take *that* starter question as a claim that science is objective is to miss the main point of his argument. Against the superficial readings of science studies literature in evidence with Sokal’s earlier writings, Latour has never claimed that science was no more than discourse; nor that it was no more than politics; nor that nature has no part in it. In my experience in the field, I’ve not come across anyone who thought so. (Sokal (and Gross, and Levitt) talk a lot about Stanley Fish, even though Fish has not had much influence in science studies.) Latour, in the quoted article, asks what we are to do if analyses of science-in-society are interpreted as claiming what Sokal suggests him to be saying — that it’s just politics, or just discourse.

To take that as meaning that Latour questions whether his earlier work on the objectivity of scientific knowledge went too far is to miss the purpose of his argument, and ironically so. He’s saying, well, what do we do if folks like Sokal don’t follow the point? Or, worse yet, and the actual central concern in his article, what do we do if folks like creationists think we are saying only that science is not objective, and therefore it’s whatever you want it to be?
Thus, Sokal hasn’t made it very far in ten years. He takes the provocation of Latour’s argument to be the endpoint. And that’s not helpful. If we want to pursue and promote better science — and everyone I know wants to do this — then supposing that it’s apolitical won’t get us very far.

[Okay. If you accepted my invitation to skip the prior part, come back in here…]

Okay. So there’s all that. That was my blog-space reply to a post about an op-ed. It’s a strange and uncomfortable forum to work through these kinds of issues. But I’m trying.

I’ve written all the above, as it happens, to get back to the initial point, which was: what are science studiers to do?

First, I have common cause with the likes of Mooney and Sokal to work for better science;
Second, my contention is that to do so, we–those discussing and promoting science in society — better have a stronger understanding of what science is;
Third, such understanding cannot be based on wishful thinking, on anachronistic visions of an ideal form of knowledge production that has often been labeled “science”;
Fourth, but what is one who studies science to do?;
Because, fifth: If I call into question the misinterpretation of science studies arguments, pointing out that a quote of a French sociologist claiming he wondered if he’d gone too far, was actually a premise for a far longer discussion of why that isn’t so, then I derail the main thrust of the piece. And we all want the main thrust of the op-ed’ claims to stand out.

But, if the main thrust of the piece is to have any meaning, in any intellectually significant way, it cannot be based on errant assumptions.

If it is based on incorrect, unexamined assumptions, then it cannot be political effective. It has the possibility for a rallying-the-troops kind of phenomenon. Such phenomena are ever short term. But it cuts from under its feet any significance for long term effects.

As for utility, Chris replies later in his blog thread to also say this: “let me say that we’re not claiming science is fully objective either, or apolitical — just useful.” Okay. But maybe this is the heart of it. Useful to whom? Useful for what? Useful in what way? Working to create a science that is useful *to everyone* is precisely the goal of science studies, in all its guises. For the op-ed to do this work, it can’t rest on a unexamined view of science; if it too doesn’t assume science is objective or apolitical, then how far have we gotten? If, after all that, Sokal wants to say, well yes, it is political but we want it to be political in the right way, then I don’t think that will be helpful in the coming battles about the value and meaning of science. If he can’t learn (or understand) the studies of science and politics that Latour refers to, or – for Sokal – represents, then we aren’t getting very far. Again, excellent and precise short-term possibilities. Little or no long-term effect.

Daniel Lee Kleinman and Abby Kinchy, two sociologists of science at U. Wisconsin, wrote a concise and well-put article on science and politics in Dissent a few years ago (here). It’s worth a read. They deal with the same issues and they do so with laudable clarity. They anticipate the kinds of comments and concerns Mooney and Sokal echo, and they too begin with the awareness that science is neither objective nor apolitical. But they go beyond the idea that science is useful to get at the core issues of what useful means, and in just what ways science is, indeed, useful. Here is a part of their conclusion, where, with reference to the “sound science” narrative that Chris is well-familiar with (having done a great job exposing it in his RWOS)*, they write:

“It is clear that existing critiques of the Bush administration’s approach to science in policymaking can gain only so much leverage. We should not forget that it was Newt Gingrich who popularized the “sound science” argument (learning, of course, from Philip Morris’s rebuttals to studies of the effects of secondhand smoke). More often than not, progressive causes are defeated by appeals to “sound science.” Consider the many times in which environmental or health regulations have been forestalled because of the need for “more evidence.” Think of how the biotechnology industry and its backers have repeatedly trumped economic, ethical, and environmental arguments against GM crops with demands for “science-based policy.” Scientific research may be a useful resource, but it is also a fickle friend. It seems unwise for critics to focus on the fact that the Bush administration “disregards” scientific advice or exaggerates uncertainty–above all because the same argument will be (and has been) used against the left. We should instead insist on democratic debate about values, rather than setting ourselves up to be trapped by our own critique.

The notion of “sound science” obfuscates the array of issues at stake on science and technology-related policy matters. In the end, science- and technology-related policies must be debated in terms of the values and interests at issue. We do not, and cannot, live in a technocracy where policy and practice are dictated by experts. The idea that science can provide a way out of contentious ideological debates by providing neutral, universally accepted guidance, is not only fantasy, it is dangerous for democracy. …”

At root with the entire thing is the danger of talking about science.

Is a discussion of science a road to anti-science? (Sokal and his friends thought so. They were so certain of it that they said it was a leftist attack on science. He remains so certain of it that the op-ed piece assumes the leftist attacks as a premise for then saying, ‘now that those old leftist attacks have calmed down…’.)

Folks like to talk about science as a way to bolster their assumptions. When someone questions those assumptions, people get mad. Doing so could give aid and comfort to the enemy. That’s the basic line of reasoning. The final irony, from that line of reasoning, is that the effects of an op-ed like Money and Sokal’s should be long-term, should be far-reaching, should be effective for policy makers and the public alike. But it won’t. And it can’t. Because it rests on unexamined assumptions about the place of science in society that are ideals. It rests in that place where the so-called “enemy” (the magical thinker; the creationist; Nancy Reagan; et al.) can stand. In the space between the ideals and the empirical studies of actual scientific practice and the actual scientific enterprise, there is a great deal of wiggle room. And, I suppose, in that wiggle room is where all those creationists sand anti-global warming folks live comfortably.

What is a science studier to do?

* In fact, it is because Chris knows more than he seems to let on in the op-ed, from writing RWOS, that I can’t understand why he’d co-write with Sokal.


  1. #1 Zuska
    February 9, 2007

    Awesome post. Thanks for writing this, it was very useful and instructive for me. I never forget that, for example, Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer foist off their idiotic evolutionary theory of rape as “sound science” when what it really was, was an apologia for the patriarchy. All sorts of folks will grab at the mantle of science to support any agenda they have in mind. Science is a tool to use in our debate; it can’t be the complete guide or the total deciding factor. I love the quote from Kleinman and Kinchy. It’s very frustrating to see Chris Mooney take up with Sokal like this. Not at all productive.

  2. #2 wjg
    February 9, 2007

    I agree with the main argumentative thread and provocation of this post, and feel that examinations of science, particularly in trying to point to contingencies and ambiguities inherent in scientific analysis, are in danger of being simply labeled as, to borrow Cohen’s term, “dangerous”.

    The analogy that I draw (and I realize in a forum like this, prone to key-word activated flames, that this is a risky move) is from straight-up politics. After 8 years of Clintonian third way politics, the left was sufficiently diverse enough and comfortable enough to begin to entertain alternatives to strict institutional fidelity (to the extent that institutions are by their nature conservative – resistant to change – seeking avenues outside the Democratic party could be viewed as hope for progressive politics). After the theft of the 2000 election, however, such progressive dreams became anathema, a sign of betrayal of the left. The Democratic party, chastened by the “electoral defeat” of 2000, moved ludicrously rightward, and put forth a candidate in 2004 chosen more because of who he wasn’t and a military pedigree than for any specific position or promise. Rather than rethink what the left could be, and how progressive causes might be advanced, people of this political suasion reinforced the existing institution, and even lionized he of NAFTA and “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

    The analogy (admittedly approximate, as all analogies are) suggests to me the danger of suggesting that science is the best we’ve got (arguably true) and is so valuable and useful that we best not try to improve it and other human institutions through exposing weakness (for me, at least, very very false). That’s why I also agree that the misrepresentation of Latour explored above is problematic – Latour’s point includes the idea that critique is meant to strengthen human institutions, not just lampoon them.

    Our society must work to see science become more inclusive and flexible.

  3. #3 markus
    February 10, 2007

    In the space between the ideals and the empirical studies of actual scientific practice and the actual scientific enterprise, there is a great deal of wiggle room. And, I suppose, in that wiggle room is where all those creationists and anti-global warming folks live comfortably.

    if only we could quantify and render empirical our ideals, thereby demolishing the wiggle-room for quasi-sciency-politico but oh-so-effective cat-herdery!

    oh, wait. the last such effort that comes to mind was published as “the bell curve.” nevermind.

    *climbs back up tree, sticks tongue out at loggers.*

  4. #4 Rev. Scott
    February 11, 2007

    Can anyone point me to the original Latour article? Since this conversation is based partly on his intentions, I’d appreciate looking at that, too.


  5. #5 BRC
    February 11, 2007

    The original: in pdf format
    And here it is at Latour’s old website.

  6. #6 David Bruggeman
    February 11, 2007

    BRC writes:
    “Latour has never claimed that science was no more than discourse; nor that it was no more than politics; nor that nature has no part in it. In my experience in the field, I’ve not come across anyone who thought so.”

    My experience in the field suggests that it’s hard to make that point with people who haven’t been exposed to, or engaged with the major arguments within STS. The richness and robust character of the critique within STS has not been well communicated outside of the field. It’s also really easy to devalue the field by making the quick and easy generalizations mentioned in the quote.

    Short, concise communications are integral to the policy and political discussions Sokal, Mooney and others are engaged in. I’ve not seen the effective bridge between STS and such kinds of communication. Can you recommend one?

  7. #7 BRC
    February 13, 2007

    Hi DB — I have had similar experiences, looking for effective bridges between STS and the world STSers study. The Kleinman/Kinchy article quoted above is one good example of doing that; Sheila Jasanoff has also written and contributed to the EU and WTO (and many others have too, but she springs to mind first); David Hess and Langdon Winner (at RPI) have also built that bridge in some of their work; indirect ways are out there too, e.g., I’ve been interested to read Steve Shapin’s book review essays in The New Yorker in the past few years (as another example); and I like that we find more and more input from STS-related scholars on things like Nova or PBS documentaries in the history of science; and then you’ve got books like Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps as big hits for the Barnes and Noble set, too.

    So it doesn’t all have to be strictly policy related –directly and immediately. I’m more intrigued by the premise of contributing to the public conversation in meaningful, more thorough ways. Yet certainly, as you note, being involved in the policy and political discussions Sokal, Mooney and others are engaged in is vital. Part of the problem may be, though, that those policy discussions are at the very end of a long chain of places for elaborating science’s terms.

  8. #8 jody
    February 14, 2007

    I went back to read the op-ed in light of the discussion thatís been started here, and I have to say that there are a number of features that really disturb meónot simply because they make complex issues way too simple (perhaps an artifact of the reductive methodologies of physics?), but because they also offer an absolutely skewed sense of history, blending and mixing issues that ought not be blended and mixed.

    Equating the science wars with current government obstruction and intrusion into science is just foolish, and I simply donít understand what we can get out of this sort of (con)fused sort of story. The science wars, if they existed, were pedantic, childish, and based more on a sense of insecurity than they were anything substantive. The self-proclaimed science warriors seemed to be looking for a place to vent their frustration about their decreasing standing in society, and decide to take a few jabs at a burgeoning field that actually had something constructive to say. The problem is, no one was listening. Itís a shame since a real dialogue could have been taking place (and is for some), which could have helped to bring to light a number of important ways in which scientists of all stripes (natural, physical, social) can collaborate. Instead, folks like Sokal chose to play games and write thoroughly thin books with unsubstantiated and unsupported claims Ė precisely what they were accusing the wacky leftist academics of doing. A shame indeed. So many of us in graduate school were looking to bridge the very gap that Sokal and others were looking to enlarge. I thought the back-biting and odd fantasy world of the science wars had passed. At least we could agree on the strange new developments occurring on the Bush administration Ė right? But, low and behold, the specter of the science wars comes roaring back in the oddest of places: a union between Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal. Sokal (I presume it must be Sokal who wrote the part about the history of the science wars) somehow finds a way to join his rants about the leftist academy with his tirades against the conservative right. By the time Sokal (and I guess Mooney by extension) is finished, no oneís left to be rightóexcept the scientists.

    So is this about government interference with science? Or is this about the Ďliberalí academyís interference with science? Or is this an example of how scientists feel upset because theyíre under increasing scrutiny, public trust has been eroded, and they too are being forced to clamor and scrounge for the meager funds remaining in a bankrupt social state? The truly sad part is this: whatís happening right now *is* troubling and something needs to be done about it. But if we follow Sokal and Mooney, weíll just be falling into a trap from which we might never extract ourselves. As if resurrecting Plato for the 21st century, we find ourselves being asked to just trust the philosopher qua scientist-kings. How can they go wrong with reason and rationality on their side? Oh, and ignore the work they did on the construction of the bomb; the conversion of global agricultural systems to be dependent on endless supplied of artificial fertilizers and pesticides that are likely destroying every major ecosystem of the world; support transgenic crops because theyíve told us theyíre safe; and support nuclear power as the only option for curbing global warming. Anything else?

    The answer isnít less government; itís more government in the right places. Likewise, the answer isnít more science; itís more science in the right places. We have to find a productive way to talk about making science democratic Ė no not making everyone a scientist, but finding ways to make science work for the people. Likewise, people in power have no business bullying scientists into providing the results they want. Thereís room here for a really big, very important discussion Ė but Sokal and Mooney are squashing that possibility.

  9. #9 David Bruggeman
    February 15, 2007


    I don’t see the squashing of the conversation, unless you’re looking for the broader kind of conversation Ben referred to in an earlier comment. Are Sokal and Mooney oversimplifying a lot of things? Yes. But for most of the people Sokal and Mooney are trying to reach, they either don’t know the full history of the ‘science wars’, don’t care, or both. They wrote for the L.A. Times, not Science, Technology and Human Values.

    They aren’t trying to advance an academic argument at all, and they may believe such an argument would distract from the political and policy case they are trying to make. They probably see the value from the piece not in the argument, but in the combination of writers. While Sokal has generated a fair amount of enmity in some academic circles, and Mooney has never ventured further in than the fringes of those circles, for those more engaged in the politics and policy of science and technology, the ‘meeting of the minds’ is an effort to gather different groups behind a similar goal.

  10. #10 BRC
    February 17, 2007

    David — I think the point was that, since “They probably see the value from the piece not in the argument, but in the combination of writers,” then if what they write is not well-grounded, it cannot be effective in any long-term manner. Using famous names to say we need better science doesn’t help if they aren’t promoting a more politically complex notion of what scientific practice is. On my read, Jody’s point was in no way suggesting that the op-ed should’ve discussed the science wars more (as you say). Rather, it was that “those more engaged in the politics and policy of science and technology” can be doing better. And as it happens, I’m aware that a whole lot of academic-based people, this Jody person included, are actually at the front lines of politics and policy of science and technology, so trying to define and then drive a wedge between engaged and academic is not helpful either.

  11. #11 David Bruggeman
    February 17, 2007

    I think much of our disagreement comes from a couple of places.

    I don’t set the bar for encouraging a more complex consideration of scientific practice as high as you or Jody do, so I’m more inclined to see good in efforts you see as not useful (or even harmful). Maybe this is because I’m focused on the advancement and refinement of policy more than the advancement and refinement of scientific/technological practice. Yes, those engaged in the politics and policy of science and technology can do better, but I’m fine with smaller steps toward that point. I guess I’m easy that way.

    On another point, when thinking about whether their argument is well grounded, I would ask in relation to what? To the scholarship they are borrowing from? Then yes, it isn’t well grounded, and you’re right to point this out as effectively as you have. But I believe the piece is better grounded with respect to the discussions over interference (perceived and otherwise) by the government in scientific research. As a non-academic based person on the front lines, I’m more involved with the latter.

  12. #12 jody
    February 20, 2007

    David: Itís interesting to me that you read what I said as somehow reinforcing a line between those in the trenches of the policy world and those working in academe. As you say, Mooney and Sokal posted this on the pages of the LA Times Ė a popular venue. But it was those two that opened the door for discussion of the so-called science wars. Why? Because there is a certain understanding of the science wars that exists in the regions beyond academe. Why else even mention it in the op-ed? So, I definitely donít see the distinction that you seem to be drawing here. As someone who works in a non-academic setting and is working to engage those in multiple fields and institutions, I see this every day as well. But even here we are getting side-tracked. Youíre right when you say that the post is aimed at the current situation of interference, but I disagree that somehow their argument is more grounded in that direction. Again I would say, why even mention the science wars if thatís the point the authors wish to make? They could very easily have discussed government interference in science without this element. But they didnít. They chose to devote nearly half of their writing to that topic. Why? This is the question we should be asking. What do they gain from invoking the likes of Latour and the science wars? My fear is that by doing so 1) the authors can play off of the anti-intellectualism that is so pervasive in our culture right now and 2) itís a way of reinforcing science as a bastion of truth that ought to be left alone. I donít see that as a baby step towards anything positive.

  13. #13 David Bruggeman
    February 23, 2007

    I think they mention the science wars to get past the notion that opposition to the current interference is (or should be) strictly considered as opposition to Bush, or opposition from the left. By invoking the science wars, which they characterize as opposition from the right, they may have thought that it demonstrated bipartisan/across the aisle objections to what’s going on currently. If they weren’t going to mention the science wars, why have Sokal involved at all?

    Clearly that’s been counterproductive in certain small quarters. But I don’t think the authors care, as Mooney’s response to Ben suggests. They might be sympathetic to the idea that the political interference is anti-intellectual, but I’m not sure that’s the point Jody is making.

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