Science, politics and (post-)truth

—Marko Monteiro—

Forty-three years ago, Max Weber observed that ‘the belief in the value of scientific truth is not derived from nature but is a product of definite cultures.’ We may now add: and this belief is readily transmuted into doubt or disbelief.  Robert K. Merton (1938: 321)

Merton’s (1938) early comments on science and society were articulated in a period not unlike our own, in which questions about the value of both science and democracy were on the agenda. Although we don’t need to agree with the central tenets of Merton’s sociology, we might remind ourselves of his insight that science, if isolated from broader society, invites opposition and disbelief. Science, according to Merton, needs constant engagement by interested people and institutions. Although Merton can often be read as providing a simple defence of the autonomy of science, this autonomy is socially negotiated; as such, it can be questioned.

As our field has strived to show throughout its history, science does not happen in a political vacuum. Neither does STS. Because of this, we should not conflate STS’s positions with post-truth ones (Sismondo, 2017): STS’s primary subject is truth, rather than lies. I would go further: Accusations that STS is post-truth push STS practice away from a supposedly more ‘solid’ truth that could have impact in politics (Collins et al., 2017). Arguing for a more democratic approach to expertise or opening black boxes is not by itself eroding our place in society. Rather, in the current political climate, we need STS more than ever, as a tool to defend a place for science in society.

As Latour has argued, constructivism has nothing to do with the idea that science isn’t real (Latour, 1999; Latour and Woolgar, 1986). I would add that it is through constructivism and a situated, engaged perspective (Haraway, 2004) that we can hope to navigate the dangers of post-truth more productively. It is exactly because knowledge is always political that we need to engage politically with it, both to defend science’s place in democracy – as Collins and Evans (2017) and many others are doing – but to also defend our own place within science and within democracy. As in 1938, the discussion is not only about science, but is also about politics, and about an enduring place for democracy. This is something authors from STS are arduously trying to foster when they argue for more democracy in expertise (Jasanoff, 2003a, b).

Framing science as a truth in need of restoration does more to feed post-truth than does symmetry. It hides how political these epistemic moves are and how our actions as scientists are situated in broader disputes. Saying that STS is helping to destroy science, or that symmetry has opened the floodgates to populism is, I believe, creating an alignment with positions that see our expertise as destructive. Addressing how science is always political, however, helps us to understand how we need to align with democratic values if democracy is to prosper. Critiques of technocracy do not weaken democracy, but make it stronger.

Living and working in a country (Brazil) where science does not have much weight in politics, and where democracy is not a consensual value, makes the fragility of those constructs very visible, as recent events have shown (e.g. Stokstad, 2017). But that animates us in the periphery of global scientific networks and flows to appreciate the urgency of defending a place for science and for democracy in politics. As Law (2017) has put it, we don’t need STS to be the philosopher-prince, but it can aid in performing the political ideal of plurality: creating frictions, enabling differences to prosper and thus expanding the scope of possible framings through our science. I would add: just as any other scientist should.

We are always also taking sides, and thus choosing democracy is a political position and not a given. And since both science and society are constructed, they require constant engagement. STS can have a central place in that work. Defending STS as valuable expertise can mean, thus, defending our ability to participate in framing the world through our knowledge practices. Aligning with the idea of STS as creator of post-truth (Fuller, 2017) does not do us any favors, but feeds into the very forces that are actively trying to diminish science’s place in democracy.

References

Collins H and Evans R (2017) Why Democracies Need Science. Cambridge: Polity.

Collins H, Evans R, and Weinel M (2017) STS as science or politics? Social Studies of Science 47(4): 580-586.

Fuller S (2017) Is STS all talk and no walk’  EASST Review 36(1): 21-22.

Haraway D (2004) Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. In: Harding S (ed) The Feminist Stand Point Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge, 81-103.

Jasanoff S (2003a) Breaking the waves in science studies: Comment on HM Collins and Robert Evans,’The third wave of science studies’.  Social Studies of Science 33(3): 389-400.

Jasanoff S (2003b) Technologies of humility: Citizen participation in governing science.’  Minerva 41(3):223-244.

Latour B (1999) Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Latour B and Woolgar S (1986) Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (2nd ed). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Law J (2017) The little tools of difference.  EASST Review 36(1):17-18.

Merton RK (1938) Science and the social order.  Philosophy of Science 5(3): 321-337.

Sismondo S (2017) Post-truth?  Social Studies of Science 47(1): 3-6.

Stokstad E (2017) In controversial move, Brazil may outsource Amazon deforestation monitoring.  Science, 3 May. doi: 10.1126/science.aal1145.