The Politics of Symmetry, Bernhard Isopp

A little while ago, historian of science Nathaniel Comfort wrote a piece for Nature in which he gives an overview of historically shifting senses of identity—both human and personal—that have accompanied changes in scientific understanding of human biology. He argues that to a large extent these identities have been a product of scientism, which he defines as “the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems” … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Naoki Takano via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Isopp, Bernhard. 2020. “The Politics of Symmetry.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (1): 12-18. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4L4.

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A little while ago, historian of science Nathaniel Comfort wrote a piece for Nature in which he gives an overview of historically shifting senses of identity—both human and personal—that have accompanied changes in scientific understanding of human biology. He argues that to a large extent these identities have been a product of scientism, which he defines as “the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems.” In other words, predominant thinking about what it means to be human has been reductionistic and grounded primarily or exclusively in biological science, which themselves have been historically reductionistic, even on the level of natural phenomena.

Nothing struck me as remotely controversial about this argument (and while not my area of research, I would estimate that it is well supported by other literature). My overall feeling about the piece was positive: this was a relatively gentle way of introducing the concept of scientism to a broader scientific audience, and it was a constructive move by Nature to publish it.

However, others did find the piece controversial and objectionable. The response of two prominent scholars stands out here, especially considering that their views on science could hardly be more different.

First, the one who made the bigger public splash: Steven Pinker. Pinker is essentially a caricature of scientism, or perhaps, someone with cartoon views of science, so his reaction was predictable. His persona offers a walking case-study to explore any number of STS concerns—about the socially-mediated authority of science, about scientific celebritism, about myopic reductionism, about the political nature of pretenses to rationality and so on. He is the quintessential science warrior—so fervent about the cause that even a whiff of a lack of devout adoration of Science will spark angry denunciations. Anyone who dare question the rationality and objectivity of science (and by extension, his rationality and objectivity) deserves a public shaming. And to which Pinker tried to subject Comfort—bringing out his disciples to condemn the heretical non-believer (one of them calling him a “Po-mo Shaman”).

That a major public scientist could read the claim that perhaps we should rely on more than biological science in defining what it means to be a human being as a existential threat to scientific rationality amply demonstrates just how useful pieces like Comfort’s are. But, from Pinker this was not so surprising.

Fashionable Anti-Scientism?

But Comfort also found criticism from a more surprising source: Steve Fuller.

In an (edited) letter to Nature (later published in full), Fuller argues that Comfort “misuses” history by recruiting to bolster his moralistic positions (Fuller 2019).

This recounts longstanding historiographical concerns about the “judgementalism of the present”: the moral status of the historical examples Comfort uses—IQ as a justification for eugenics, genetics as a grounds for defining narrow ethnic or gender identities—are in the grand historical scheme of things, indeterminate, certainly not to be defined by the ethical concerns shaping Comfort’s societal milieu.

Fuller also takes issue with Comfort’s conceptions of scientism. Fuller claims that Comfort “offers a fashionable positioning of ‘scientism’ as the abuse of science in ways that obscures today’s concerns for ‘equity, inclusion and diversity.’“ Further: “Comfort seems to want ‘scientism’ to mean whatever practices and policies that scientists have endorsed which have had adverse consequences for vulnerable groups in society.” In doing so, Comfort has violated a principle of symmetry: “What counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ [i.e. what is scientistic] in scientific practice or science-based policies can be understood only in retrospect precisely because their causes are exactly of the same sort.”

But these are not the claims Comfort makes about scientism; Fuller has misread his arguments.

Comfort is not employing historical analysis to demonstrate that the particular episodes that he examines are (“objectively”) morally wrong. Rather, Comfort selects his examples—in vitro fertilization, immunology, microbiomics, neural technologies—precisely because of the moral ambiguity they entail. His argument is that moral conflicts are a crucial part of understanding how developments in biology lead to shifting interpretations of what it means to be human. In particular, scientism shapes these conflicts (precisely by pretending that they are “objective” scientific matters, not moral ones), and subsequently, conceptions of human identity.

Fuller appeals to a longstanding characteristic of symmetry: if some factors play an explanatory role for some outcome in the analysis (what counts as “good” science), then they should play a role for all actors. But there’s no violation of this principle in Comfort’s piece: values affect the practice, uptake, and influence of the biological sciences, always. Similarly, scientistic thinking is recruited by actors with opposing moral commitments and differing conceptions of human identity. As Comfort says, “scientism cuts both ways.”

Fuller imagines the notion of scientism is being asymmetrically applied to particular conceptions of the human that Comfort finds morally problematic. It’s not. Scientism is not problematic because of one or another conception of human identity. Rather, any notion of human identity that one pretends is “objectively” borne out by some scientific understanding is scientistic, and hence, problematic. Scientism has limited the scope of thinking about human identities.
So Fuller is correct that Comfort seems to suggest that “perhaps history can help make sure that ‘scientism’ does not happen again”—when scientism is understood in these terms. Indeed, I would be so bold as to say that cautioning against scientism is a crucial normative contribution that STS can make (though we have obviously not been particularly successful in this regard). What I would add to Comfort’s definition (though hardly originally) is that scientism is precisely the pretense to a value-free science, which we know does not exist.

Symmetry and Normativity

Comfort, for his part, has further elaborated on these points. For me, this episode is more interesting as an opportunity to revisit some of the arguments Fuller has made about symmetry and other aspirations to methodological principles in STS.

Fuller’s critique of Comfort regarding symmetry would make more sense if scientism were an actor category: if a conflict about conceptions of human identity emerged among historical actors and the resolution of that conflict resulted in accusations of scientism sticking (or not). But it’s not. Comfort employs scientism as an analyst category.

This distinction is, of course, crucial for a fruitful methodological application of symmetry. The basic point of symmetry (and its conjugate principle, impartiality) is to help avoid explaining some case in the actors’ terms. This is most easily achieved when applied to specific knowledge claims made by the actors under study. More carefully, this can also be extended to the categories and concepts actors use to produce and define those claims. But this has always created conceptual difficulties, namely because there is often actor-analyst overlap.

As sociological or historical analysts of science we employ all kinds of similar concepts as our actors: empirical accuracy, methodological soundness, inductive and deductive reasoning. Even “truth”! We are obviously not impartial to these concepts in some philosophical sense (or we might be, but that is a distinct position). When our actors say that some scientific theory was adopted because it was the most robust account of the evidence, we know exactly what this means. “Impartiality” has always overstated the methodological maneuver that we are trying to accomplish: to simultaneously accept that this kind of reasoning makes sense when we want to justify our own knowledge claims, but not as a sociological account of why scientists believe the things they do. It’s a temporary and circumscribed suspension of belief.

Thus, for Fuller to suggest that “scientism is an observer effect” is to either confuse symmetry or go way beyond it.

First of all, it’s a weak analogy, because scientism is the product of analysis, not measurement. But who’s the observer? In this case, the historical analyst. In one regard, then, all that is being said here is that scientism isn’t some intrinsic and obvious quality of some scientific episode. A judgement needs to be made about whether it’s scientistic or not. Further, as Fuller says, “As we move forward in history, those judgements will [might] change.” That’s quite a banal point: Maybe in the future historians will have different concepts to think about things and come to different conclusions. This applies to every single bit of historical or sociological analysis. This is not a reason to doubt any particular judgement.

Maybe the cases Comfort points to are not examples of scientism: maybe these actors were more aware of their moral assumptions, maybe they were less reductionistic than Comfort suggests, maybe they advocated more complex conceptions of human identity. Or maybe, scientism, as defined above, does not give a good account of why certain conceptions of human identity emerged in particular times and places. In that case, one would have to offer an alternative analysis. Merely appealing to a thorough-going principle of symmetry doesn’t do that.

The broader issue here is one of normative epistemology. Much has been said about whether or not any STS principle in particular, or constructionist analysis in general, should have any epistemological bearing on knowledge claims in the natural sciences. There are still camps in STS who say no. Symmetry, impartiality and other forms of relativistic stances are only methodological: STS is “epistemographical,” not epistemological (Dear 2001).

I’m inclined to agree with Fuller that STS has normative implications, for example, in affecting greater “epistemic democracy“ (Fuller 2016). But here we should be very wary of imagining that STS methodological principles can be “universalised” to be employed as fodder in broader public knowledge disputes. Take Fuller’s own “post-truth tropes.”

If we imbue these with normative implication, what these tell us is that knowledge cannot be defined as the negative of these tropes. For example, take Fuller’s third trope: “Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.” Thus, we cannot say that good scientific knowledge claims are those that have demonstrated a “natural” consensus. These tropes can be added to others that undermine traditional conceptions of science—as “objective,” non-political, individualistic, regulated by free-standing formal logics, etc. Similarly, it makes no normative sense to say that good knowledge is that which is free from politics.

But the crucial catch is that these tropes cannot tell us which specific knowledge claims we should or shouldn’t accept. So, it is odd, that Fuller imagines that the post-truth world is somehow an “‘independent corroboration’ of the tropes’ validity,” and moreover, that the tropes are being “wielded effectively” by post-truth actors (Fuller 2017).

Groups like climate change “sceptics” or “deniers,” for example, do not in any serious way adopt the lessons of STS. They manifestly do not “apply the symmetry principle for themselves”; they rather engage in the most basic violation of symmetry. To the extent that they have employed ideas about the “social construction” of science, it has always been asymmetrically: as a means to dismiss specific knowledge claims made by their political opponents. They are not genuine social constructionists. Indeed, they are typically positivists—they hold their own claims to be verifiably true. They operate with an epistemology that is in direct contrast to Fuller’s own post-truth tropes.

So contrary to Fuller’s claim that STS scholars object to the misappropriation of STS ideas on “political, not methodological grounds,” the issue is very much methodological (Fuller 2017). The “undesirable elements” are not doing STS, unless Fuller thinks that STS shows that climate science has been politicised to perpetuate a globalist hoax, and that the objectively true explanation of climate change based on solar cycles has been artificially suppressed.

Universalised Symmetry?

Before moving on, I’ll offer one brief contention about how symmetry might be fruitfully wedded to a normative epistemology.

Fuller argues that Naomi Oreskes is an example of someone who abandons the insight of trope number three in her work and instead makes the case for the “natural emergence of a scientific consensus and the artificial attempts to create scientific controversy.” I agree that Oreskes work is asymmetrical in her case studies (e.g. she does not give the same analytical treatment to those with opposing viewpoints in climate change debates), but her overall body of work clearly shows that she recognises a scientific consensus requires “manufacture and maintenance.”
The critical normative move she makes is not that the consensus on anthropogenic climate change is “natural,” but rather that it has been manufactured well, whereas climate contrarians push their claims in (consciously and intentionally) deceptive ways.

This conclusion is perfectly compatible with symmetrical analysis. Symmetrical analysis does not mean symmetrical conclusions. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing the analysis? To say that “both sides” construct their claims? That both make alliances, that both use rhetoric, that engage in negotiations of power? As we know, that basic critique “ran out of steam” a long time ago.

Taking Fuller at his word that “intelligent design theorists are trying to play by the Darwinists’ rules,” the same cannot be said of climate change sceptics (2017). Analyses of climate change sceptics show that they employ qualitatively different tactics, logics, rhetoric, resources, etc. than mainstream climate scientists. They have different conceptions of expertise, and operate with different epistemologies. Most simply, you can make a straightforward case that many climate change sceptics deliberately mislead. This distinguishes them from mainstream scientists.

Moving out into the public realm is more complicated, but even there, you cannot make the argument that climate activists and climate contrarians are fundamentally engaged in the same kinds of maneuvers. Here we could easily add a fifth post-truth trope stemming from STS: all knowledge is political. Yes, but what matters are the details. All knowledge (and all science) is not political in the same way. Thus a specific danger of “universalising” symmetry is that it can create false equivalencies.

This brings us back to the importance of an actor-analyst distinction: it’s conceivable that actor categories are such radically indeterminate “moveable feasts” that the same term, say, “expertise,” could come to define two entirely different sets of practices from the analyst’s perspective. But if our own categories are so tautologous that we can’t identify the differences, then maybe we need better concepts. Once in hand, leveraging STS to detect fundamental differences in knowledge-claiming practices is one potential route to normative STS (which has of course been taken up for quite a while now: e.g. Longino 2004).

Politics, Not Methodology?

Fuller’s case against Comfort overlaps with his arguments against Sismondo, Oreskes, and others who fail to “walk the STS walk”: they denounce the appropriation of STS concepts by “undesirables,” but this objection is not grounded in methodological principle, but rather their “political correctness.” As I argued above, there is indeed a cogent methodological objection to be made—the “undesirables” are almost never doing symmetrical STS (or even asymmetrical STS).

Fuller is no doubt correct to assume that some of the values discussed in Comfort’s piece also overlap with his own. And it seems to me that what Fuller is really asking for is greater reflexivity on behalf of Comfort—that he can make it clearer that he shares values with some of his actors. Should this kind of reflexivity constitute a principle in STS? This precise issue is of course what impartiality and symmetry tries to address. In Comfort’s case, these shared values don’t appear to bear on the conclusions he (actually) makes about scientism, because he grants these values no special explanatory power. Impartiality and symmetry has been exercised here: both “bad” and “good” values bear on historical conceptions of human identity. If you’ve done these successfully, what would an explicit statement of one’s political position add? Is it something like a conflict of interest statement?

It should be reiterated here that this is yet another way that we share values with our actors! The STS principles of impartiality and symmetry were originally conceived of as analogous to the various principles that scientists try to abide by so as to not let their preconceptions affect their analyses.

There are a couple of ironies here. First, Fuller tries to frame his own critique of Comfort as methodological. But it seems that he is more bothered by Comfort’s politics. This is why he hones in on Comfort’s “fashionable positioning” that aligns him with concerns about “equity, inclusion, and diversity.” To say that these are “fashionable” is not to merely say that they are contemporary concerns. This term connotes a flimsiness and an opportunism, as well as a groupthink. Likewise as he defends against “politically correct STS.” If Fuller is really trying to make a methodological point, those terms are extraneous. He should just say that STS is politically ambivalent—that there is no intrinsic reason that STS should be aligned with one particular politics or another. But to call them “politically correct” is to take a knock at those politics—and if Fuller thinks this is an innocuous term, he should be a bit more reflexive, especially since the phrase is typically used to draw attention to the political nature of views you disagree with while hiding one’s own.

In this regard, the other irony here is the very politics vs. methodology distinction that Fuller tries to impose. This can be read in the same way as Comfort’s critique of scientism: we as STS scholars should know better than anyone that apolitical methodological soundness is just a pretense. Thus, what Fuller is really saying is that STS scholars should not pretend that they are making purely methodological arguments since they are always also political. Ditto. I would have rather seen Fuller take his own advice and be more explicit in laying out his views in political terms, not feigning a purely methodological critique. Practicing reflexivity, how might Fuller account for the political alliances talk of “political correctness” implies? Perhaps the most interesting discovery of this episode is the apparent political affinity Fuller shares with Steven Pinker against in rallying against “fashionable politics.”

Contact details: Bernhard Isopp, Technical University of Munich, bernhard.isopp@tum.de

References

Comfort, Nathaniel. 2019. ‘How Science Has Shifted Our Sense of Identity.’ Nature 574 (7777): 167–70.

Comfort, Nathaniel. 2019. ‘Science, Scientism, and Steven Pinker.’ Genotopia 11 October.

Dear, Peter. 2001. ‘Science Studies as Epistemography.’ In The One Culture?: A Conversation about Science, edited by Jay A. Labinger and Harry Collins, 128–41. University of Chicago Press.

Fuller, Steve. 2016. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 25 December. https://social-epistemology.com/2016/12/25/embrace-the-inner-fox-post-truth-as-the-sts-symmetry-principle-universalized-steve-fuller/.

Fuller, Steve. 2017. ‘Is STS All Talk and No Walk?’ EASST Review 36 (1). https://easst.net/article/is-sts-all-talk-and-no-walk/.

Fuller, Steve. 2019. ‘Science Is a Quantum Phenomenon and Scientism Is Its Observer Effect, Steve Fuller.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 13 November 2019. https://social-epistemology.com/2019/11/13/science-is-a-quantum-phenomenon-and-scientism-is-its-observer-effect-steve-fuller/.

Longino, Helen E. 2002. The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.



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5 replies

  1. Hey I’m a Po-Mo Shaman….I’m getting that on a t-shirt

  2. This article is difficult to respond to because the author is attempting to leverage a defence of Comfort into a critique of me, which leads him to discover my position through the ‘back door’, which creates more confusion for him than is necessary. So, here’s the front door version.

    First of all, yes, I believe in a kind of ‘universal symmetry’ as an STS methodology. In fact, I think STS is most distinctive when it adopts this strong position. And yes, I realize that not all – perhaps not even most – STS practitioners are comfortable with such a stance. (This debate, which centred on ‘reflexivity’ originally took place in the early 90s, just before the Science Wars got into full flow.) The ones who are least comfortable are those who wish to maintain a strong distinction between ‘analyst’ and ‘actor’ standpoints, as Comfort and the author seem to want to do. In other words, they do not want to place themselves as agents in the field of play. They want, in some sense, to stand above it. The ‘post-truth condition’ is partly about demystifying the analyst/actor distinction. This means that one is ‘always already’ arguing not only about what is true/false or good/bad in a given domain but also the frame of reference in terms of which these binaries distinguish opposing sets of things in that domain. The meta-level and the object level are being constructed simultaneously. This what I mean when I say ‘scientism is an observer effect’.

    Comfort thinks he is simply stating something about the historical misuses of science when he refers to ‘scientism’, as if this concept has some independent facticity. In contrast, I maintain that he is engaged in constructing the science/scientism binary, where ‘scientism’ stands for whatever counts at a given time as an inappropriate use or extension of science. As a matter of fact – a ‘post-truth fact’, if you will — that binary shifts over time, as different agents enter the field. And while Comfort’s construction predictably tracks the received wisdom of today’s scientific establishment, he presents it as a kind of independent historical verdict, which accords his judgement much greater normative weight than it deserves. Indeed, it reminds of the waspish comment that one Harvard historian of science made of a colleague’s relationship to the scientific establishment – namely, he is the ship’s figurehead who mistakenly thinks that he is its engine.

    Moreover, I’m not sure what independent grounds the author has for claiming that ‘good guys’ (i.e. Naomi Oreskes and other science saviours) use STS methods properly and manufacture their consensuses properly, whereas the ‘bad guys’ (i.e. climate change sceptics et al.) don’t. I suspect that some circular reasoning is lurking in the author’s characteristically circuitous mode of argumentation. For example, 2009 witnessed so-called ‘Climategate’, whereby e-mail exchanges among a top international team of climate scientists revealed their efforts to cast their findings in the strongest possible light that would not open the door to sceptics. Of course, STS – as well as the university tribunal – would say that’s just normal scientific practice, the sort of finding that made Latour & Woolgar’s ‘Laboratory Life’ and Knorr-Cetina’s ‘The Manufacture of Knowledge’ such seminal works 40 years ago. But it’s easy to let that pass because the scientific establishment not only published the findings but also those findings comported well with previous work in the area.

    To put the point bluntly, what might have been regarded as methodological malfeasance on the part of the climate scientists was in the end treated as operating within the discretionary bounds of methodologically sound behaviour because of who the agents were and what they were saying – both understood in the context of the current state of play in the climate change debate. My own view is that science being the dynamic enterprise that it is, it’s entirely possible that in the future – as our understanding of climate change changes – Climategate may appear in somewhat less benign terms.

    • Thanks for your reply. I appreciate the impetus your ideas give me to work out some of my own.

      I do not maintain a hard distinction between actor and analyst. I try to convey this by explicitly pointing to shared actor-analyst categories and argue that this distinction can only be understood as a “temporary and circumscribed” “methodological maneuver” defined carefully by the aims of the analysis. You cannot, for example, be meta-impartial/symmetrical. You are only impartial/symmetrical to specific concepts/knowledge-claims/objects/etc. that you don’t want to play an explanatory role in your analysis. An impartiality to the entire worldview of your actors is simply not possible. The actor and analyst will inevitably share concepts. Those that don’t bear on your analysis don’t matter. Outside of the analysis, you can happily go about seeing (parts of) the world in the same way as your actors.

      I’m wary of all talk of universals, and I’m particularly sceptical about turning methodological principles in STS into normative epistemological principles. Even reflexivity, which I regard as the most important of all STS commitments, reaches its limits. Of course, as you point out meta-level and object-level interact, but this is a different kind of process than simply mapping one onto the other (and this can be more or less explicit, more or less deliberate).

      In this regard, I would reiterate that you have misread Comfort. Indeed, Comfort is (intentionally) constructing the science/scientism binary. That is precisely the way in which his work is normative. But this judgement is not a reflection of “whatever counts at a given time as an inappropriate use or extension of science.” What leads Comfort (and others who use the term in the same common way) to talk about scientism in the first place is all the uses and extensions of science are not widely seen as inappropriate. It is thus also hard to see how his normative assessment of scientism tracks onto the “received wisdom of today’s scientific establishment,” since I would estimate that the vast majority of scientists do not talk about scientism or recognize it as a problem. (And if they do, it’s likely precisely because they’ve been influenced by STS analysis).

      The key point here is that he is only able to do this normative work because he is situated – in a temporary and circumscribed manner – as the analyst. Through this analysis he is trying to inflect science with this norm. Thus, the methodological actor/analyst maneuver is now over, and the levels are free to intermingle. That is the whole point.

      The climate change example offers another way to explore these issues. The extent to which one accepts there are “independent grounds” for this assessment (or whether it is “circular”) depends on how you conceive of the actor/analyst distinction, and through this, what kind of normative commitments are placed out-of-bounds.

      As I said, symmetry, impartiality, and other methodological STS principles can only be sensibly recruited vis-a-vis a specific problematic. If your question is, “What accounts for the emergence of a consensus on anthropogenic climate change?” then these can play obviously useful roles. If your question is, “Is anthropogenic climate change a robust account of the observed increase in global mean temperatures over the last 50 years?” I’d say they play less obviously useful roles. Some would say that that’s not a question for STS at all. I think STS can offer something here. But: you cannot answer the latter with making normative commitments that you don’t have to give (and would hinder) an answer to the former.

      The go-to example of the hacked CRU e-mails is illuminating here. I think your brief analysis is sound – in STS analysts’ terms. I read your framing as impartial/symmetrical as well as naturalistic/pragmatist. It says something about the former question, but does not say anything – as is – about the latter question.

      Of course, plenty of people – namely, climate sceptics – would want to leverage your analysis to make claims about the latter question. Indeed, as you know, they routinely do in terms familiar to STS – politics, manufacture, alliances, etc. But they’re obviously not adopting any genuine sensibilities from STS, demonstrated by the case that most climate sceptic narratives adopt a politics/science distinction, where politics is a necessarily distorting force on science.

      Now, could an STS analysis of the CRU e-mail case become part of an answer to the latter? I think so. Maybe you have to reframe the question: “Should we trust the scientific community on the question of anthropogenic climate change?” But you would have to make additional commitments, add concepts, and do different kinds of work. You would have to care about whether the case represents a transgression of good scientific norms, as such.

      What kind of additional commitments? Collins and Evans are one attempt (notable for being framed mainly in terms of social characteristics). If you adopt their account of expertise, this can go a long way in assessing climate debates. Most climate sceptics are not contributory experts, even prevalent ones with scientific credentials. They present themselves as legitimate scientific claims-makers, and try to demonstrate they are “playing by the rules,” but they don’t engage in the practices that contributory experts do.

      The question is whether or not these substantive differences are worthy of becoming the criteria for normative distinctions. You’re not compelled to. But let’s not pretend that there’s something sacrosanct about symmetry or impartiality that prevents this kind of commitment.

      For my part, I’m perfectly willing to go further and look at the actual claims and arguments that climate sceptics make and evaluate these normatively. I’m obviously not a contributory expert, but we presumably have enough interactional expertise (or meta-expertise) to spot specious arguments: red herrings about outlying weather phenomena, disingenuous recruitment of uncertainty, non-sequiturs about CO2 being good for plants, or misrepresentation of data (or the repetition of obviously problematic data), even when the data is not our own. As social scientists, we invariably share all kinds of norms of knowledge-production with natural scientists. This is not a difficult move. We wouldn’t tolerate our knowledge-claims being undermined or misrepresented in the same manner that climate sceptics misrepresent anthropogenic climate change. The “science wars” demonstrated this.

      This doesn’t at all mean an abandonment of the lessons from STS that were always normative. I think that all of your “post-truth tropes” are perfectly compatible with normative assessments of scientific knowledge claims-making communities. But they add crucial qualifications to kinds of claims that can be made. We can even accept your long-term pragmatist assessment: is expertise such a “moveable feast” that it’s possible that a climate contrarian like Anthony Watts will eventually be seen by a well-established scientific community as a legitimate expert on climate change? Yes. But I would certainly resist such a move!

  3. Well exchanges on this forum concerning ‘Scientism’ have involved persons who label their position ‘Scientism’ and defend the view that ‘Scientism’ is an appropriate response to the putative ‘success’ of science. Thus, it is not quite accurate to imply that ‘Scientism’ is simply a polemical term for the illegitimate extension of science into other domains of knowledge. I don’t know if Mr. Comfort is using it in the expanded, descriptive sense or not so perhaps that needs clarification.

    As for ‘fashionable concerns about diversity and equality’ there is something I need to point out about this. At my institution this is not a fey intellectual ‘fad’ but an actual institutional requirement. I am expected professionally to respect the perspectives of our local indigenous community. I am sure I am not the only person in this position and it does raise concerns about the ideological uses of science. What is interesting though is that the scientific consensus on climate change is backed up by the observations indigenous hunters are making of their own environment. To move forward on climate we do not need to make imperialist claims about the special objectivity of western science because multiple and apparently conflicting forms of discourse and justification are converging on the same basic perception.

  4. Pretty rare that one gets two ‘Bernards’ in the same thread, but this comment is simply a response to the German one.

    Of course, in a sense, Comfort has been a foil for my own position all along — and it’s worth pointing out that Nature itself decided to publish my letter, which slightly surprised me. 😉

    Yet, after wading through your words, the bottom line seems to be that Comfort was indeed constructing the science/scientism distinction but as it turns out, the product of this construction coincides with how the science/scientism distinction is drawn by the scientific establishment, when it can be bothered to do so. It reminds me of Wittgenstein’s view that the ultimate outcome of doing philosophy is ‘to leave the world alone’…

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