Starting in the 1970s, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists began to apply their methods and theories to understanding the processes and assumptions that shape the production of scientific knowledge and technology.
These scholars argued that science does not stand apart from society as a collection of objective facts and theories, but is influenced by institutions, social norms, ideology, and even the laboratory technology that is used to observe nature. This new field of science studies offered important insight into the practice and craft of doing science while providing valuable analysis of the science-society relationship. In many cases, the scholarship produced was in part intended to help scientists better understand their own work and its place in society. Several of the leading scholars were themselves former PhD scientists.
Unfortunately, in the mid-1990s, the field was unfairly caricaturized in sophomoric attacks such as the Sokal affair and the book Higher Superstition. The ugly debate that ensued, known as the “Science Wars,” served as a major distraction from a true threat to American science.
While critics such as Norman Levitt were leading the charge by arguing that journalistic accounts at Scientific American were better sources than the work of “philosophically naive, silly, and self-deluded” sociologists, Republicans in Congress were abolishing the Office of Technology Assessment, engineering their own brand of expertise on issues such as climate change, and rolling back important environmental regulations.
When students or colleagues ask me about the Science Wars, I usually suggest as a defense of science studies a short article that was penned by the late sociologist Dorothy Nelkin. But now I have a very strong complement to that reading…
At CBC radio, there is currently a 10 part series on science studies, titled “How to Think about Science.” The series interviews some of the top people in the field such as Brian Wynne, Simon Schaffer, Margaret Lock, Ulrich Beck, and Bruno Latour.
Each episode does a great job of articulating the leading scholarship in this growing field and its contributions to understanding science and society. And in each episode, there is at least one rejoinder to the silly attacks of the Science Wars. I have listened on my IPOD to 3-4 of the 50 minute episodes while exercising, and they are well worth engaging with. I recommend starting with the first episode featuring the historian Simon Schaffer.