#11: When Talking About Science is Dangerous (Ten Best of the Decade from Half of the World's Fair)

I'm threading the needle between eight days of Hanukkah, twelve days of Christmas, Top Ten lists, seven deadly sins, and any other enumerations with this eleven-item top ten list. So, as promised earlier, to continue on this Marlowe-esque Long Goodbye here is a reprint of a post I enjoyed writing. It first ran here in February 2007.

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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 Mooney 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 and 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.

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