What are You Playing At? On the Use and Abuse of Games in STS, Steve Fuller

SERRC —  August 21, 2017 — 2 Comments

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Fuller, Steve. “What are You Playing At? On the Use and Abuse of Games in STS.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 39-49.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3JC

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Image credit: PGuiri, via flickr

What follows is an omnibus reply to various pieces that have been recently written in response to Fuller (2017), where I endorsed the post-truth idea of science as a game—an idea that I take to have been a core tenet of science and technology studies (STS) from its inception. The article is organized along conceptual lines, taking on Phillips (2017), Sismondo (2017) and Baker and Oreskes (2017) in roughly that order, which in turn corresponds to the degree of sympathy (from more to less) that the authors have with my thesis.

What It Means to Take Games Seriously

Amanda Phillips (2017) has written a piece that attempts to engage with the issues I raised when I encouraged STS to own the post-truth condition, which I take to imply that science in some deep sense is a ‘game’. What she writes is interesting but a bit odd, since in the end she basically proposes STS’s current modus operandi as if it were a new idea.  But we’ve already seen Phillips’ future, and it doesn’t work. But she’s far from alone, as we shall see.

On the game metaphor itself, some things need to be said. First of all, I take it that Phillips largely agrees with me that the game metaphor is appropriate to science as it is actually conducted. Her disagreement is mainly with my apparent recommendation that STS follow suit. She raises the introduction of the mortar kick into US football, which stays within the rules but threatens player safety. This leads her to conclude that the mortar kick debases/jeopardizes the spirit of the game. I may well agree with her on this point, which she wishes to present as akin to a normative stance appropriate to STS.  However, I cannot tell for sure, just given the evidence she provides. I’d also like to see whether she would have disallowed past innovations that changed the play of the game—and, if so, which ones. In other words, I need a clearer sense of what she takes to be the ‘spirit of the game’, which involves inter alia judgements about tolerable risks over a period of time.

To be sure, judicial decisions normally have this character. Sometimes judges issue ‘landmark decisions’ which may invalidate previous judges’ rulings but, in any case, set a precedent on the basis of which future decisions should be made. Bringing it back to the case at hand, Phillips might say that football has been violating its spirit for a long time and that not only should the mortar kick be prohibited but so too some other earlier innovations. (In US Constitutional law, this would be like the history of judicial interpretation of citizen rights following the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, at least starting with Brown v. Board Education.) Of course, Phillips might instead give a more limited ruling that simply claims that the mortar kick is a step too far in the evolution of the game, which so far has stayed within its spirit. Or, she might simply judge the mortar kick to be within the spirit of the game, full stop. The arguments used to justify any of these decisions would be an exercise in elucidating what the ‘spirit of the game’ means.

I do not wish to be persnickety but to raise a point about what it means to think about science as a game. It means, at the very least, that science is prima facie an autonomous activity in the sense of having clear boundaries. Just as one knows when one is playing or not playing football, one knows when one is or is not doing science.  Of course, the impact

that has on the rest of society is an open question. For example, once dedicated schools and degree programmes were developed to train people in ‘science’ (and here I mean the term in its academically broadest sense, Wissenschaft), especially once they acquired the backing and funding of nation-states, science became the source of ultimate epistemic authority in virtually all policy arenas. This was something that really only began to happen in earnest in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Similarly, one could imagine a future history of football, perhaps inspired by the modern Olympics, in which larger political units acquire an interest in developing the game as a way of resolving their own standing problems that might otherwise be handled with violence, sometimes on a mass scale. In effect, the Olympics would be a regularly scheduled, sublimated version of a world war. In that possible world, football—as one of the represented sports—would come to perform the functions for which armed conflict is now used. Here sports might take inspiration from the various science ‘races’ in which the Cold War was conducted—notably the race to the Moon—was a highly successful version of this strategy in real life, as it did manage to avert a global nuclear war. Its intellectual residue is something that we still call ‘game theory’.

But Phillips’ own argument doesn’t plumb the depths of the game metaphor in this way. Instead she has recourse to something she calls, inspired by Latour (2004), a ‘collective multiplicity of critical thought’. She also claims that STS hasn’t followed Latour on this point. As a matter of fact, STS has followed Latour almost religiously on this point, which has resulted in a diffusion of critical impact. The field basically amplifies consensus where it exists, showing how it has been maintained, and amplifies dissent where it exists, similarly showing how it has been maintained. In short, STS is simply the empirical shadow of the fields it studies. That’s really all that Latour ever meant by ‘following the actors’.

People forget that this is a man who follows Michel Serres in seeing the parasite as a role model for life (Serres and Latour 1995; cf. Fuller 2000: chap. 7). If STS seems ‘critical’, that’s only an unintended consequence of the many policy issues involving science and technology which remain genuinely unresolved. STS adds nothing to settle the normative standing of these matters. It simply elaborates them and in the process perhaps reminds people of what they might otherwise wish to forget or sideline. It is not a worthless activity but to accord it ‘critical’ in any meaningful sense would be to do it too much justice, as Latour (2004) himself realizes.

Have STSers Always Been Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys?

Notwithstanding the French accent and the Inspector Clouseau demeanour, Latour’s modus operandi is reminiscent of ordinary language philosophy, that intellectual residue of British imperialism, which in the mid-twentieth century led many intelligent people to claim that the sophisticated English practiced in Oxbridge common rooms cut the world at the joints. Although Ernest Gellner (1959) provided the consummate take-down of the movement—to much fanfare in the media at the time—ordinary language philosophy persisted well into the 1980s, along the way influencing the style of ethnomethodology that filtered into STS. (Cue the corpus of Michael Lynch.)

Ontology was effectively reduced to a reification of the things that the people in the room were talking about and the relations predicated of them. And where the likes of JL Austin and PF Strawson spoke of ‘grammatical usage’, Latour and his followers refer to ‘semiotic network’, largely to avoid the anthropomorphism from which the ordinary language philosophers had suffered—alongside their ethnocentrism. Nevertheless, both the ordinary language folks and Latour think they’re doing an empirically informed metaphysics, even though they’re really just eavesdropping on themselves and the people in whose company they’ve been recently kept. Latour (1992) is the classic expression of STS self-eavesdropping, as our man Bruno meditates on the doorstop, the seatbelt, the key and other mundane technologies with which he can never quite come to terms, which results in his life becoming one big ethnomethodological ‘breaching experiment’.

All of this is a striking retreat from STS’s original commitment to the Edinburgh School’s ‘symmetry principle’, which was presented as an intervention in epistemology rather than ontology. In this guise STS was seen as threatening rather than merely complementing the established normative order because the symmetry principle, notwithstanding its vaunted neutrality, amounted to a kind of judgemental relativism, whereby ‘winning’ in science was downgraded to a contingent achievement, which could have been—and might still be—reversed under different circumstances. This was the spirit in which Shapin and Schaffer (1985) appeared to be such a radical book: It had left the impression that the truth is no more than the binding outcome of a trial of people and things: that is, a ‘game’ in its full and demystified sense.

While I have always found this position problematic as an end in itself, it is nonetheless a great opening move to acquire an alternative normative horizon from that offered by the scientific establishment, since it basically amounts to an ‘equal time’ doctrine in an arena where opponents are too easily mischaracterised and marginalised, if not outright silenced by being ‘consigned to the dustbin of history’. Indeed, as Kuhn had recognized, the harder the science, the clearer the distinction between the discipline and its history.

However, this normative animus began to disappear from STS once Latour’s actor-network theory became the dominant school around the time of the Science Wars in the mid-1990s. It didn’t take long before STS had become supine to the establishment, exemplified by Latour (2004)’s uncritical acceptance of the phrase ‘artificially maintained controversies’, which no doubt meets with the approval of Eric Baker and Naomi Oreskes (Baker and Oreskes 2017). For my own part, when I first read Latour (2004), I was reminded of Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase from the same period, albeit in the context of France’s refusal to support the Iraq War: ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’.

Nevertheless, Latour’s surrender has stood STS in good stead, rendering it a reliable reflector of all that it observes. But make no mistake: Despite the radical sounding rhetoric of ‘missing masses’ and ‘parliament of things’, STS in the Latourian moment follows closely in the footsteps of ordinary language philosophy, which enthusiastically subscribed to the Wittgensteinian slogan of ‘leaving the world alone’. The difference is that whereas the likes of Austin and Strawson argued that our normal ways of speaking contain many more insights into metaphysics than philosophers had previously recognized, Latour et al. show that taking seriously what appears before our eyes makes the social world much more complicated than sociologists had previously acknowledged. But the lesson is the same in both cases: Carry on treating the world as you find it as ultimate reality—simply be more sensitive to its nuances.

It is worth observing that ordinary language philosophy and actor-network theory, notwithstanding their own idiosyncrasies and pretensions, share a disdain for a kind of philosophy or sociology, respectively, that adopts a ‘second order’ perspective on its subject matter. In other words, they were opposed to what Strawson called ‘revisionary metaphysics’, an omnibus phrase that was designed to cover both German idealism and logical positivism, the two movements that did the most to re-establish the epistemic authority of academics in the modern era. Similarly, Latour’s hostility to a science of sociology in the spirit of Emile Durkheim is captured in the name he chose for his chair at Sciences Po, Gabriel Tarde, the magistrate who moved into academia and challenged Durkheim’s ontologically closed sense of sociology every step of the way. In both cases, the moves are advertised as democratising but in practice they’re parochialising, since those hidden nuances and missing masses are supposedly provided by acts of direct acquaintance.

Cue Sismondo (2017), who as editor of the journal Social Studies of Science operates in a ‘Latour Lite’ mode: that is, all of the method but none of the metaphysics. First, he understands ‘post-truth’ in the narrowest possible context, namely, as proposed by those who gave the phenomenon its name—and negative spin—to make it 2016 Oxford English Dictionary word of the year. Of course, that’s in keeping with the Latourian dictum of ‘Follow the agents’. But it is also to accept the agents’ categories uncritically, even if it means turning a blind eye to STS’s own role in promoting the epistemic culture responsible for ‘post-truth’, regardless of the normative value that one ultimately places on the word.

Interestingly, Sismondo is attacked on largely the same grounds by someone with whom I normally disagree, namely, Harry Collins (Collins, Evans, Weinel 2017). Collins and I agree that STS naturally lends itself to a post-truth epistemology, a fact that the field avoids at its peril. However, I believe that STS should own post-truth as a feature of the world that our field has helped to bring about—to be sure, not ex nihilo but by creatively deploying social and epistemological constructivism in an increasingly democratised context. In contrast, while Collins concedes that STS methods can be used even by our political enemies, he calls on STS to follow his own example by using its methods to demonstrate that ‘expert knowledge’ makes an empirical difference to the improvement of judgement in a variety of arenas. As for the politically objectionable uses of STS methods, here Collins and I agree that they are worth opposing but an adequate politics requires a different kind of work from STS research.

In response to all this, Sismondo retreats to STS’s official self-understanding as a field immersed the detailed practices of all that it studies—as opposed to those post-truth charlatans who simply spin words to create confusion. But the distinction is facile and perhaps disingenuous. The clearest manifestation that STS attends to the details of technoscientific practice is the complexity—or, less charitably put, complication—of its own language.  The social world comes to be populated by so many entities, properties and relations simply because STS research is largely in business of naming and classifying things, with an empiricist’s bias towards treating things that appear different to be really different. It is this discursive strategy that results in the richer ontology that one typically finds in STS articles, which in turn is supposed to leave the reader with the sense that the STS researcher has a deeper and more careful understanding of what s/he has studied. But in the end, it is just a discursive strategy, not a mathematical proof. There is a serious debate to be had about whether the field’s dedication to detail—‘ontological inventory work’—is truly illuminating or obfuscating. However, it does serve to establish a kind of ‘expertise’ for STS.

Why Science Has Never Had Need for Consensus—But Got It Anyway

My double question to anyone who wishes to claim a ‘scientific consensus’ on anything is on whose authority and on what basis such a statement is made. Even that great defender of science, Karl Popper, regarded scientific facts as no more than conventions, agreed mainly to mark temporary settlements in an ongoing journey. Seen with a rhetorician’s eye, a ‘scientific consensus’ is demanded only when scientific authorities feel that they are under threat in a way that cannot be dismissed by the usual peer review processes. ‘Science’ after all advertises itself as the freest inquiry possible, which suggests a tolerance for many cross-cutting and even contradictory research directions, all compatible with the current evidence and always under review in light of further evidence. And to a large extent, science does demonstrate this spontaneous embrace of pluralism, albeit with the exact options on the table subject to change. To be sure, some options are pursued more vigorously than others at any given moment. Scientometrics can be used to chart the trends, which may make the ‘science watcher’ seem like a stock market analyst. But this is more ‘wisdom of crowds’ stuff than a ‘scientific consensus’, which is meant to sound more authoritative and certainly less transient.

Indeed, invocations of a ‘scientific consensus’ become most insistent on matters which have two characteristics, which are perhaps necessarily intertwined but, in any case, take science outside of its juridical comfort zone of peer review: (1) they are inherently interdisciplinary; (2) they are policy-relevant. Think climate change, evolution, anything to do with health. A ‘scientific consensus’ is invoked on just these matters because they escape the ‘normal science’ terms in which peer review operates. To a defender of the orthodoxy, the dissenters appear to be ‘changing the rules of science’ simply in order to make their case seem more plausible. However, from the standpoint of the dissenter, the orthodoxy is artificially restricting inquiry in cases where reality doesn’t fit its disciplinary template, and so perhaps a change in the rules of science is not so out of order.

Here it is worth observing that defenders of the ‘scientific consensus’ tend to operate on the assumption that to give the dissenters any credence would be tantamount to unleashing mass irrationality in society. Fortified by the fledgling (if not pseudo-) science of ‘memetics’, they believe that an anti-scientific latency lurks in the social unconscious. It is a susceptibility typically fuelled by religious sentiments, which the dissenters threaten to awaken, thereby reversing all that modernity has achieved.

I can’t deny that there are hints of such intent in the ranks of dissenters. One notorious example is the Discovery Institute’s ‘Wedge document’, which projected the erosion of ‘methodological naturalism’ as the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ to return the US to its Christian origins. Nevertheless, the paranoia of the orthodoxy underestimates the ability of modernity—including modern science—to absorb and incorporate the dissenters, and come out stronger for it. The very fact that intelligent design theory has translated creationism into the currency of science by leaving out the Bible entirely from its argumentation strategy should be seen as evidence for this point. And now Darwinists need to try harder to defeat it, which we see in their increasingly sophisticated refutations, which often end up with Darwinists effectively conceding points and simply admitting that they have their own way of making their opponents’ points, without having to invoke an ‘intelligent designer’.

In short, my main objection to the concept of a ‘scientific consensus’ is that it is epistemologically oversold. It is clearly meant to carry more normative force than whatever happens to be the cutting edge of scientific fashion this week. Yet, what is the life expectancy of the theories around which scientists congregate at any given time?  For example, if the latest theory says that the planet is due for climate meltdown within fifty years, what happens if the climate theories themselves tend to go into meltdown after about fifteen years? To be sure, ‘meltdown’ is perhaps too strong a word. The data are likely to remain intact and even be enriched, but their overall significance may be subject to radical change. Moreover, this fact may go largely unnoticed by the general public, as long as the scientists who agreed to the last consensus are also the ones who agree to the next consensus. In that case, they can keep straight their collective story of how and why the change occurred—an orderly transition in the manner of dynastic succession.

What holds this story together—and is the main symptom of epistemic overselling of scientific consensus—is a completely gratuitous appeal to the ‘truth’ or ‘truth-seeking’ (aka ‘veritism’) as somehow underwriting this consensus. Baker and Oreskes’ (2017) argument is propelled by this trope. Yet, interestingly early on even they refer to ‘attempts to build public consensus about facts or values’ (my emphasis). This turn of phrase comports well with the normal constructivist sense of what consensus is. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with trying to align public opinion with certain facts and values, even on the grand scale suggested by the idea of a ‘scientific consensus’. This is the stuff of politics as usual. However, whatever consensus is thereby forged—by whatever means and across whatever range of opinion—has no ‘natural’ legitimacy. Moreover, it neither corresponds to some pre-existent ideal of truth nor is composed of some invariant ‘truth stuff’ (cf. Fuller 1988: chap. 6). It is a social construction, full stop. If the consensus is maintained over time and space, it will not be due to its having been blessed and/or guided by ‘Truth’; rather it will be the result of the usual social processes and associated forms of resource mobilization—that is, a variety of external factors which at crucial moments impinge on the play of any game.

The idea that consensus enjoys some epistemologically more luminous status in science than in other parts of society (where it might be simply dismissed as ‘groupthink’) is an artefact of the routine rewriting of history that scientists do to rally their troops. As Kuhn long ago observed, scientists exaggerate the degree of doctrinal agreement to give forward momentum to an activity that is ultimately held together simply by common patterns of disciplinary acculturation and day-to-day work practices. Nevertheless, Kuhn’s work helped to generate the myth of consensus. Indeed, in my Cambridge days studying with Mary Hesse (circa 1980), the idea that an ultimate consensus on the right representation of reality might serve as a transcendental condition for the possibility of scientific inquiry was highly touted, courtesy of the then fashionable philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who flattered his Anglophone fans by citing Charles Sanders Peirce as his source for the idea. Yet even back then I was of a different mindset.

Under the influence of Foucault, Derrida and social constructivism (which were circulating in more underground fashion), as well as what I had already learned about the history of science (mainly as a student of Loren Graham at Columbia), I deemed the idea of a scientific consensus to reflect a secular ‘god of the gaps’ style of wishful thinking. Indeed I devoted a chapter of my Ph.D. on the ‘elusiveness’ of consensus in science, which was the only part of the thesis that I incorporated in Social Epistemology (Fuller 1988: chap. 9). It is thus very disappointing to see Baker and Oreskes continuing to peddle Habermas’ brand of consensus mythology, even though for many of us it had fallen still born from the presses more than three decades ago.

A Gaming Science Is a Free Science

Baker and Oreskes (2017) are correct to pick up on the analogy drawn by David Bloor between social constructivism’s scepticism with regard to transcendent conceptions of truth and value and the scepticism that the Austrian school of economics (and most economists generally) show to the idea of a ‘just price’, understood as some normative ideal that real prices should be aiming toward. Indeed, there is more than an analogy here. Alfred Schutz, teacher of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann of The Social Construction of Reality fame, was himself a member of the Mises Circle in Vienna, having been trained by him the law faculty. Market transactions provided the original template for the idea of ‘social construction’, a point that is already clear in Adam Smith.

However, in criticizing Bloor’s analogy, Baker and Oreskes miss a trick: When the Austrians and other economists talk about the normative standing of real prices, their understanding of the market is somewhat idealized; hence, one needs a phrase like ‘free market’ to capture it. This point is worth bearing in mind because it amounts to a competing normative agenda to the one that Baker and Oreskes are promoting. With the slow ascendancy of neo-liberalism over the second half of the twentieth century, that normative agenda became clear—namely, to make markets free so that real prices can prevail.

Here one needs to imagine that in such a ‘free market’ there is a direct correspondence between increasing the number of suppliers in the market and the greater degree of freedom afforded to buyers, as that not only drives the price down but also forces buyers to refine their choice. This is the educative function performed by markets, an integral social innovation in terms of the Enlightenment mission advanced by Smith, Condorcet and others in the eighteenth century (Rothschild 2002). Markets were thus promoted as efficient mechanisms that encourage learning, with the ‘hand’ of the ‘invisible hand’ best understood as that of an instructor. In this context, ‘real prices’ are simply the actual empirical outcomes of markets under ‘free’ conditions. Contra Baker and Oreskes, they don’t correspond to some a priori transcendental realm of ‘just prices’.

However, markets are not ‘free’ in the requisite sense as long as the state strategically blocks certain spontaneous transactions, say, by placing tariffs on suppliers other than the officially licensed ones or by allowing a subset of market agents to organize in ways that enable them to charge tariffs to outsiders who want access. In other words, the free market is not simply about lower taxes and fewer regulations. It is also about removing subsidies and preventing cartels. It is worth recalling that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations as an attack on ‘mercantilism’, an economic system not unlike the ‘socialist’ ones that neo-liberalism has tried to overturn with its appeal to the ‘free market’. In fact, one of the early neo-liberals (aka ‘ordo-liberals’), Alexander Rüstow, coined the phrase ‘liberal interventionism’ in the 1930s for the strong role that he saw for the state in freeing the marketplace, say, by breaking up state-protected monopolies (Jackson 2009).

Capitalists defend private ownership only as part of the commodification of capital, which in turn, allows trade to occur. Capitalists are not committed to an especially land-oriented approach to private property, as in feudalism, which through, say, inheritance laws restricts the flow of capital in order to stabilise the social order. To be sure, capitalism requires that traders know who owns what at any given time, which in turn supports clear ownership signals. However, capitalism flourishes only if the traders are inclined to part with what they already own to acquire something else. After all, wealth cannot grow if capital doesn’t circulate. The state thus serves capitalism by removing the barriers that lead people to accept too easily their current status as an adaptive response to situations that they regard as unchangeable. Thus, liberalism, the movement most closely aligned with the emerging capitalist sensibility, was originally called ‘radical’—from the Latin for ‘root’—as it promised to organize society according to humanity’s fundamental nature, the full expression of which was impeded by existing regimes, which failed to allow everyone what by the twentieth century would be called ‘equal opportunity’ in life (Halevy 1928).

I offer this more rounded picture of the normative agenda of free market thinkers because Baker and Oreskes engage in a rhetorical sleight of hand associated with the capitalists’ original foes, the mercantilists. It involves presuming that the public interest is best served by state authorised producers (of whatever). Indeed, when one speaks of the early modern period in Europe as the ‘Age of Absolutism’, this elision of the state and the public is an important part of what is meant. True to its Latin roots, the ‘state’ is the anchor of stability, the stationary frame of reference through which everything else is defined. Here one immediately thinks of Newton, but metaphysically more relevant was Hobbes whose absolutist conception of the state aimed to incarnate the Abrahamic deity in human form, the literal body of which is the body politic.

Setting aside the theology, mercantilism in practice aimed to reinvent and rationalize the feudal order for the emerging modern age, one in which ‘industry’ was increasingly understood as not a means to an end but an end in itself—specifically, not simply a means to extract the fruits of nature but an expression of human flourishing. Thus, political boundaries on maps started to be read as the skins of superorganisms, which by the nineteenth century came to be known as ‘nation-states’. In that case, the ruler’s job was not simply to keep the peace over what had been largely self-managed tracts of land, but rather to ‘organize’ them so that they functioned as a single productive unit, what we now call the ‘economy’, whose first theorization was as ‘physiocracy’. The original mercantilist policy involved royal licenses that assigned exclusive rights to a ‘domain’ understood in a sense that was not restricted to tracts of land, but extended to wealth production streams in general. To be sure, over time these rights were attenuated into privileges and subsidies, which allowed for some competition but typically on an unequal basis.

In contrast, capitalism’s ‘liberal’ sensibility was about repurposing the state’s power to prevent the rise of new ‘path dependencies’ in the form of, say, a monopoly in trade based on an original royal license renewed in perpetuity, which would only serve to reduce the opportunities of successive generations. It was an explicitly anti-feudal policy. The final frontier to this policy sensibility is academia, which has long been acknowledged to be structured in terms of what Robert Merton called the principle of ‘cumulative advantage’, the sources of which are manifold and, to a large extent, mutually reinforcing. To list just a few: (1) state licenses issued to knowledge producers, starting with the Charter of the Royal Society of London, which provided a perpetually protected space for a self-organizing community to do as they will within originally agreed constraints; (2) Kuhn-style paradigm-driven normal science, which yields to a successor paradigm only out of internal collapse, not external competition; (3) the anchoring effect of early academic training on subsequent career advancement, ranging from jobs to grants; (4) the evaluation of academic work in terms of a peer review system whose remit extends beyond catching errors to judging relevance to preferred research agendas; (5) the division of knowledge into ‘fields’ and ‘domains’, which supports a florid cartographic discourse of ‘boundary work’ and ‘boundary maintenance’.

The list could go on, but the point is clear to anyone with eyes to see: Even in these neo-liberal times, academia continues to present its opposition to neo-liberalism in the sort of neo-feudal terms that would have pleased a mercantilist. Lineage is everything, whatever the source of ancestral entitlement. Merton’s own attitude towards academia’s multiple manifestations of ‘cumulative advantage’ seemed to be one of ambivalence, though as a sociologist he probably wasn’t sufficiently critical of the pseudo-liberal spin put on cumulative advantage as the expression of the knowledge system’s ‘invisible hand’ at work—which seems to be Baker and Oreskes’ default position as defenders of the scientific status quo. However, their own Harvard colleague, Alex Csiszar (2017) has recently shown that Merton recognized that the introduction of the scientometrics in the 1960s—in the form of the Science Citation Index—made academia susceptible to a tendency that he had already identified in bureaucracies, ‘goal displacement’, whereby once a qualitative goal is operationalized in terms of a quantitative indicator, there is an incentive to work toward the indicator, regardless of its actual significance for achieving the original goal. Thus, the cumulative effect of high citation counts become surrogates for ‘truth’ or some other indicator-transcendent goal. In this real sense, what is at best the wisdom of the scientific crowd is routinely mistaken for an epistemically luminous scientific consensus.

As I pointed out in Fuller (2017), which initiated this recent discussion of ‘science as game’, a great virtue of the game idea is its focus on the reversibility of fortunes, as each match matters, not only to the objective standing of the rival teams but also to their subjective sense of momentum. Yet, from their remarks about intelligent design theory, Baker and Oreskes appear to believe that the science game ends sooner than it really does: After one or even a series of losses, a team should simply pack it in and declare defeat. Here it is worth recalling that the existence of atoms and the relational character of space-time—two theses associated with Einstein’s revolution in physics—were controversial if not deemed defunct for most of the nineteenth century, notwithstanding the problems that were acknowledged to exist in fully redeeming the promises of the Newtonian paradigm. Indeed, for much of his career, Ernst Mach was seen as a crank who focussed too much on the lost futures of past science, yet after the revolutions in relativity and quantum mechanics his reputation flipped and he became known for his prescience. Thus, the Vienna Circle that spawned the logical positivists was named in Mach’s honour.

Similarly intelligent design may well be one of those ‘controversial if not defunct’ views that will be integral to the next revolution in biology, since even biologists whom Baker and Oreskes probably respect admit that there are serious explanatory gaps in the Neo-Darwinian synthesis.[1] That intelligent design advocates have improved the scientific character of their arguments from their creationist origins—which I am happy to admit—is not something for the movement’s opponents to begrudge. Rather it shows that they learn from their mistakes, as any good team does when faced with a string of losses. Thus, one should expect an improvement in their performance. Admittedly these matters become complicated in the US context, since the Constitution’s separation of church and state has been interpreted in recent times to imply the prohibition of any teaching material that is motivated by specifically religious interests, as if the Founding Fathers were keen on institutionalising the genetic fallacy! Nevertheless, this blinkered interpretation has enabled the likes of Baker and Oreskes to continue arguing with earlier versions of ‘intelligent design creationism’, very much like generals whose expertise lies in having fought the previous war. But luckily, an increasingly informed public is not so easily fooled by such epistemically rearguard actions.


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Schaffer, Simon and Steven Shapin. Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Sismondo, Sergio. “Not a Very Slippery Slope: A Reply to Fuller.” EASST Review 36, no. 2 (2017): https://easst.net/article/not-a-very-slippery-slope-a-reply-to-fuller/.

[1] Surprisingly for people who claim to be historians of science, Baker and Oreskes appear to have fallen for the canard that only Creationists mention Darwin’s name when referring to contemporary evolutionary theory. In fact, it is common practice among historians and philosophers of science to invoke Darwin to refer to his specifically purposeless conception of evolution, which remains the default metaphysical position of contemporary biologists—albeit one maintained with increasing conceptual and empirical difficulty. Here it is worth observing that such leading lights of the Discovery Institute as Stephen Meyer and Paul Nelson were trained in the history and philosophy of science, as was I.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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    […] Steve. “What are You Playing At? On the Use and Abuse of Games in STS.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): […]

  2. Veritism as Fake Philosophy: Reply to Baker and Oreskes, Steve Fuller « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - September 15, 2017

    […] Steve. “What are You Playing At? On the Use and Abuse of Games in STS.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): […]

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