Some science studies scholars support creationist schooling (Steve Fuller), support free-thinking climate denialist think-tanks (Bruno Latour), lawyers’ dominance above scientists’ evidence and embrace media’s post-truth turn (Sheila Jasanoff), lament top-down reassurances of harmless mobile phone radiation (Jack Stilgoe), believe values and facts to be inseparable (Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke), and consider consensus to be an instrument of social control (Andy Stirling). Some scholars claim that citizens’ epistemologies are fungible with experts’, yet ironically correct citizens’ ignorance around concepts like ‘co-production’, ‘thought-collective’, or ‘the deficit model’. … [please read below the rest of Part I].
Sudall, Edward. 2022. “Constructive Critique: Social Value in Science Fact.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (8): 57-74. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-752.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Editor’s Note: Edward Sudall’s “Constructive Critique: Social Value in Science Fact” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part I. Please read Part II. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.
Articles in this dialogue:
❦ Barker, Erik and Naomi Oreskes. 2017. “It’s No Game: Post-Truth and the Obligations of Science Studies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6 (8): 1-10.
There are, in short, serious problems in science studies, sociology of science, science and technology studies (STS) or whatever the preferred name, which I take issue with in this article. I hope to challenge some entrenched tenets behind this particular school of science studies, namely:
• Thought(less) Collectives
• Experts on Experts
• Values Without Facts
• Material Causes
• Conclusions for Reliable Knowledge
In covering each in turn I hope to rectify flimflam which goes under criticised within the science studies literature.
Science studies’ scholars are guilty of doing what they often criticise naive scientists of doing: enamoured with the pure intellectual questions they pursue, they neglect the social ramifications of their work for society and for workaday people. Sheila Jasanoff exemplifies this negligence in her assertive inflecture to Martyn Pickersgill, a fellow STS practitioner at Edinburgh:
Most STS scholars don’t feel that they have things to say about neoliberalism or justice or equality, or most of those core normative questions about why winners should win and why losers should lose. Even when our community studies something like economics, we tend to get fixated on the instruments and not on the very existence of the market as a form of social organisation and what that means for societies that depend on markets.
An instantiation of this is Donald Mackenzie’s financial trade analysis. While interesting in itself, the study of trade and performativity in the social studies of finance leaves out most of the action, as Philip Mirwoski writes, such as the political economy behind what caused the 2007 financial crash. By taking such a small lens—fixated on the instruments—most of the evidence is left out of the picture, such as the concerted efforts of think-tanks to roll-back regulations and for lawyers to make-up capital assets which extract value from workaday people.
Enamoured with the how questions, science studies scholars lose sight of the why answers. This includes a fey dance-like performance around ‘normative’ and ‘positive’ where key scholars talk about how science knowledge is unwarranted, or doubtful in warranted terms, for example in the loadstar book Designs On Nature Jasanoff writes that “as state-science relations become more openly instrumental we can reasonably wonder whether science will lose its ability to serve either state or society as a source of impartial critical authority”. Other historic examples include: Karina Knorr Cetina claiming scientific knowledge is a “fabrication”; Bruno Latour claiming science is “politics by other means”; Harry Collins saying “the natural world in no way constrains what is believed to be”; David Bloor celebrating how “the same type of cause could explain, say, true and false belief”. How these could be taken literally is doubtful.
In baroque sentences Jasanoff echoes a long tradition of throwing impartial critical authority into doubt as ‘instrumental’ to other interests in state or society. This position is ironic, since why such assertions are to be believed is left unjustified, taken as a given, much as scientists’ factual claims often are alleged to be. For what instrumental aims, does the science studies thought collective put its assertions to? The lambasted claims to warranted critical authority is ultimately similar to other disciplines, even ones it much maligns, such as economics. Joseph Stiglitz and Kay Rosengrad write of the distinction between positive economics (descriptive) and normative economics (prescriptive) with a similar abdication of responsibility for what ramifications descriptions bear.
As Barry Barnes concedes in reference to bold claims like those above: “Occasionally existing work leaves the feeling that reality has nothing to do with what is socially constructed or negotiated to count as natural knowledge, but we may safely assume that this impression is the by-product of over-enthusiastic sociological analysis”. Whenever the writers behind ‘existing work’ are mistaken, however, they can be rendered right, with the right modifications in epistemic assumptions; instead of making it clear what they mean, scholars backpedal into claims that others have misunderstood them in an overzealously literal interpretation. In short, then, scholars want to eat their cakes and keep them too.
To describe the world abstractly as positive economics does, yet with the temerity to prescribe normative answers whilst rejecting—as Jasanoff does above—the role of normative questions. Analyse the world but don’t dabble in how it should work, Jasanoff says of her community, whilst dabbling, for example, in an international Comparative Review of COVID-19 responses. Jasanoff and her 52 fellow writers find and communicate insightful solutions. This document is an empirical refutation of Jasanoff’s claim to impartial analysis and her claim that approaches cannot be transposed from one epistemic culture to another and her imbrications that facts and values are fungible. For, if impartial analysis only analyses rather than prescribe—why prescribe at all? If approaches are not transposable from culture to culture why do comparative analysis at all? Is it a fact—a warranted assertion—that values cannot be separated from fact? If not, what is one trying to prove, and why should we listen?
Ultimately then, these stances should be run aground on the rocks of real-world evidence. But they are not, partially because science studies scholars are subject to biases about themselves and their own techniques.
As Christopher Hamlin observed in a capitalised review of Designs On Nature, JUST DON’T CALL IT SCIENCE: science studies scholars entertain claims from a social perspective (name it thought collective, epistemic culture, civic epistemiology and then it works) but appeals to big-letter Science, scientists or material causes flounder. In short, then, the discipline prioritises closed-mindedness despite claims to its proudly open status. For example the Harvard University webpage “What Is STS?” promises that: “STS teaching seeks to promote cross-disciplinary integration, civic engagement, and critical thinking”.
Instead of taking evidence on its merits, however, epistemic gatekeepers forestall references from other thought-collectives, such as climate scientists’ and human biologists’. Jasanoff, compares international climate policy to Aboriginal sand art, ephemeral and local and intractable; Daniel Sarewtiz claims that environmental science makes the political climate worse as sides can just pick their favourite evidence. Both propositions have been shown false in the particular, since nations do have global Net Zero plans, and climate scientists-as-citizens have been instrumental to policy successes such as the retreat of fluorinated gases and acid rain. (I have my own experience working at the UK Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs to hand here.) Their titles and claims may be mere provocations for the perverse incentive of citations and admirations. But irresponsibly provocative, if so, given the subject matter at hand.
Meanwhile Steve Fuller supports creationist thinking in schools while claiming to be neutral on the scientific matter, and Sheila Jasanoff (herself a trained lawyer) equates lawyers’ own adversarial knowledge to be a science, “litigation science” which if taken at her word, would entail dismissing scientific evidence such as brains poisoned by lead, as merely a social-strategy rather than a physical fact. Jasanoff celebrates leaving “the business of demarcation”, meaning leaving it up to the parties involved. But this side steps how that plays into the hands of parties able to afford powerful lawyers and besmirch incontrovertible physical evidence as biased social interpretation. For the generalisability of this claim, consider how many articles in science studies reference different scientific disciplines. Few do earnestly, and if so, only to critique, rather than to build up. Stephen Hilgartner’s Science On Stage, for instance, focuses deftly on the contrivance, artifice, and drama of the public performance of the National Academy of Sciences, without enough credit to the performers’ wishes to give sound science advice on nutrition, which is indeed more-to-less fact based than the play metaphor suggests. That leads to my criticism of co-production where we turn next.
Co-production means how the social world has numerous inputs that produce its familiar outputs, entities like society, state, and technology are imbricated into each other. Therefore any complete picture requires looking at all the different actors that go into making such results; no one or thing operates in a vacuum. As Jasanoff says, “Co-production is shorthand for the proposition that the ways in which we know and represent the world (both nature and society) are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it.”
Jack Stilgoe for example talks of the co-production of public uncertainties around mobile phone radiation risk. Citizens, regulators, companies etc co-produce the perceived risks, yet regulators hold onto the idea that they can reassure publics that they are safe. But this perspective is limited, because some producers have more say than others, and producers need not be people, but radiation or scientific laws and constraints. Moreover, it bears saying, sometimes privileged human producers ought to have more say or attention. Over time, citizens have accepted the risk is minimal, so the position that the safety-proclamations don’t work has been shown false, or irrelevant. (Conspiracists have moved on from phones themselves to 5G masts; presumably they will move on again soon.) Even from the beginning the evidence may have been ambiguous, but ambiguous either way rather than for the assumption of harm which Stilgoe adopts to stoke the fire of controversy: cellphone radiation is harmless compared with the everyday carcinogenic sun rays, or the gamma radiation damaging our DNA during plane flights, for some examples.
Similar to court cases about lead poisoning, ignoring physical evidence as somehow less privileged is anti-intellectual, for while it promises to deliver producers-working-together, some producers have an outsize influence, including physical producers such as, say, the earth. Science studies scholars who draw and redraw the boundaries of useful knowledge in-house assert what counts as producer; the more powerful are likely to see no problem with power disparities, and acquiesce. Indulging in descriptive analyses with the pretence of offering no prescriptions from them, also betrays a disconnect from the needs of workaday people, making everyday choices, rather than privileged persons, such as policy mandarins and elite academics. This raises my doubts of science studies’ view of expertise.
Jack Stilgoe subscribes to co-production whereby the onus on regulation is on everyone-wins negotiation. The problem is that, again, some have more say than others. Andy Stirling, a professor in Science Policy at Sussex University, similarly wants to forestall technoscientific closure with multiple stakeholders considering the full gamut of possibilities before closing down the conversation into a fake consensus. The problem is, yet again, that in negotiated co-production, some producers, namely experts, have more say than others, such as Stirling, Jasanoff, and Stilgoe themselves. The multiplication of perspectives also does not guarantee a good policy outcome either.
When the terms are set and defined by those in power producing what counts, that is sometimes a good thing. The multiplication of perspectives around race or sexuality for example would have produced racist and homophobic policies in the 1970s: in the UK, parliament legalised homosexuality and allowed black migration despite majority standpoints being against it at the time, as gleaned from representative opinion polls. Most citizens sided with containment and with rivers-of-blood premonitions about racial violence, a back-then popular stance. None the less, science studies scholars cling to the idea of democratic deliberation as a panacea, since everyone is in some sense an expert; but this muddy’s the waters far too much. Especially if you consider time as a factor, some expertise derives from warranted dissent rather than from compromise agreement, as the minoritarian legalisation of homosexuality and black migration attests. And disagreement with experts’ views on expertise actually reifies the need for experts to begin with, despite proclamations that their competence is more about power than about utility.
Despite agreeing with them on other aspects of tech policy, indeed most, the Stirling and Stilgoe positions fall into Protagoras’ error, which is basically hypocritical or inconsistent claims. As the famous Platonic dialogue between Protogras and Socrates goes:
Protagoras: Truth is relative. It is only a matter of opinion.
Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?
Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Truth is subjective.
Socrates: Do you really mean that? That my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion?
Protagoras: Indeed I do.
Socrates: My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you, Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is my opinion, then you must grant that it is true according to your philosophy.
Protagoras: You are quite correct, Socrates.
Some science studies scholars fall into this error, because for someone like Stilgoe to have a privileged say in how science policy or governance works then he must have more useful information than other negotiators for his point to hold—whilst other negotiators disagree with his point. What if negotiators decide they don’t want to negotiate the issue and want to delegate it to experts, for example? This isn’t a thought experiment: populations in China and India, for example, are actually for more top-down power than in liberal lands so any appeal to majoritarian deliberation is questionable on majoritarian, globalist, grounds. The expert opinion about expertise therefore seems to have outsized weight by its own logic.
Negotiators getting together and deciding how science and policy should work out also has physical constraints: during COVID-19 lockdowns for example public deliberation would be superfluous—if not counterproductive—regarding masks’ and lockdown’ benefits as every hour counted tremendously. The assertions in Science Studies around ‘opening up’ science claims leading to better outcomes, for example, flounders to provide examples where it would benefit necessarily rather than supplementarily. Science advice in public consultation is not a required determinant of success against such a big phenomenon as COVID-19. Consider what countries performed best against COVID-19, as ranked by the Australian thinktank, the Lowy Institute, below.
Technocratic Taiwan, semi-democratic Thailand, semi-democratic Bhutan, Westminster-model New Zealand, all performed well. For sure, democratically representative nations did well but so did unrepresentative ones—the advice and response measures meted out therefore matter more than the wisdom assumed to be wrought from crowds about what civic-science needs. Consider the mask. A vote on whether citizens should wear masks early in the pandemic would (inferably given low uptake when recommended) not have gone down well in liberal countries, despite empirically privileged groups like surgeons and nations’ citizens exposed to other SARS strains, already knowing intimately the merits of masks. The Centres for Disease Control and World Health Organisation giving agnostic advice (it’s uncertain, either way) led to more confusion whereas clearly aligned advice worked wonders (wear masks) despite science studies experts’ claims that narrowing uncertainty is indelibly bad science communication. This is itself an instance of Protagoran error for uncertainty to be bad science communication to be believed then that suggestion must be certain-enough. As Stilgoe says without irony in a BBC interview, “the impossibility of certainty” is seemingly a certain-enough assumption.
Furthermore, for Stirling to reject fake consensus and closure from the get-go depends on subscribing to consensus and closure about consensus and closure. For Stirling’s points to have persuasive weight he must make a consensus to agree against fake consensus and close off closure. For example, in 2022, he writes to close off the possibility of nuclear power and build consensus against nuclear power because the facts he has to hand suggest other renewables are better. And in the spirit of opening up as Stirling wishes, an article wrote against that perspective without much consensus or closure for readers to come away with about proposed nuclear power use or misuse; this is an echo of the idea-market we see Barker and Oreskes (2017) criticise. (I agree with Stirling—if you care to know—for I believe nuclear power is now a less effective investment compared with renewables, like wind.)
One might respond that this is a question of values rather than facts—but that ultimately leads to an infinite regress and a blazing straw man. I take on values versus facts now, in Part II.
◈ Part II: “Constructive Critique: Social Value in Science Fact”
Edward Sudall, firstname.lastname@example.org, Independent Scholar. I am an MSc graduate in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) at University College London and currently a temporary executive officer at the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs in Westminister.
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 Pickersgill and Jasanoff, 2018.
 Engelen et al. 2010; MacKenzie 2008, 2011; Mirowski 2013.
 Mirowski 2013; Pistor 2019.
 Jasanoff 2011. Emphasis added.
 Oreskes 2019, 41; Zammito 2004, 52.
 Stiglitz and Rosengard 2015.
 Barnes 1974.
 Jasanoff et al. 2021.
 Hamlin 2008.
 Indeed academics in the STS thought collective have converged on ‘STS’ ideas independently and often long after work from other epistemic communities—Bowring 2003; Federici 2020; Gould 2002; Kavanagh and Belsey 1982; Lentricchia and McLaughlin 2010; Lewontin 1996—such as sociology, history, biology, literature, and identity-politics.
 Sarewitz 2004; Jasanoff 1999.
 Defra 2018; Helm 2020.
 Ritchie 2020.
 Barker and Oreskes 2017.
 Hilgartner 2000.
 Jasanoff 2004.
 Stilgoe 2007.
 Beckett 2020.
 Koch 2019.
 Stirling 2008.
 King 2015; Olusoga, 2020.
 Nowotny 2000.
 Blackburn 2005.
 Halpern 2015.
 Wynne 1999. There are good examples of citizens’ knowledge per the sheep example, but the competence and rightness of the sheep farmers is not necessary to a good outcome: the celebration of their knowledge owes itself as much to the failures of Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), without which failure the local knowledge would have been unnecessary.
 Scones and Stirling 2020; Oreskes 2020; Stilgoe 2007; The MIT Press, n.d.
 Beckett 2020.
 Stirling and Johnstone 2022.