Does Science Studies Hate Science? No.

Right now, I’m reading Mirowski’s (2011) Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. The book is provocative, as we expect from Mirowski, and much less technical and more accessible than some of his earlier works. The basic argument is that neoliberalism ruined American science, and the American university (among other things). Neoliberals, with Hayek foremost among them, argue that The Market is the only really good source of information:

The Market is an artifact, but it is an ideal processor of information. Every successful economy is a knowledge economy. It knows more than any individual, and therefore it cannot be surpassed as a mechanism of coordination. (Mirowski 2011: 29)

Because The Market is, for neoliberals, the ultimate information processor, it makes sense that the production of information should also be thrown into the market. That is, scientific research, R&D, and all that should be privatized.

So far so good, I suppose. But along with his criticisms of neoliberalism, Mirowski simultaneously targets many of the most prominent scholars in science studies of the past 30 years (Latour, Shapin, Porter, etc.). Mirowski argues that science studies has been complicit in the neoliberal project, or at least that most* science studies research comes to neoliberal conclusions. For example, Mirwoski quotes and critiques a review by Ted Porter of John Carson’s book on the history of intelligence:

“We also are chipping away at the public image, indeed the self-conception of ‘intellectuals’ and scientists, who typically have argued in universals. These individuals speak and write of what should be valid for everyone, of what is true or just or good. Intellectual history and history of science aspire to undermine these universals by recovering their specificity and locality.” (Porter 2009, 642)

This could just have easily been written by Hayek himself; all one needs to add is an explicit appeal to the market test to supersede the discredited universals. (Mirowski 2011: 319)

Mirowski is not exactly arguing that science studies scholars hate science, but he is arguing that they are attempting to dethrone it in a way similar to Hayek by equating it to marketing, and accusing scientists of self-interested behavior. It’s worth noting, of course, that Porter does not add an “explicit appeal to the market test to supersede the discredit universals.” Mirowski is right to note that science studies scholars often take a critical stance towards scientific overreach – the famed criticism of scientists’ tendency to “speak from nowhere”, as if outside society (cf. Haraway 1991). But the point is not to undermine science the way that Mirowski claims neoliberalism wants to undermine science (and replace it with the very profitable manufacture of ignorance). The point, or at least one point, of science studies scholarship is to resituate science in its various localities precisely to make it stronger, at least stronger against certain types of criticism.**

One of the common moves in science studies*** is to show how science is produced by flesh-and-blood(-and-machine) people, who are potentially fallible, racist, sexist, self-interested, and more generally shaped by the prevailing institutions and ideas of their times (just as they are in turn shaping the ideas and institutions yet to come). For me, this emphasis on the how and the who of science, the reinserting of the active tense into scientific discourse, comes from a belief that science is most susceptible to critique when it is least understood.

An example might serve better than a generic explanation. Consider the “climate gate” email scandal. As a brief refresher, the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University had its email hacked, and released. Some of the emails led to accusations of scientific malfeasance because they discussed the manipulation of certain graphics to emphasize the argument of a paper. This supposed malfeasance was rhetorically employed to criticize the current consensus on climate change as one big hoax or conspiracy. But digging into the emails, all we actually see is flesh-and-blood-and-spreadsheet researchers trying to make their graphs look prettier to emphasize their research findings. Here’s the summary from Wikipedia****:

Many commentators quoted one email referring to “Mike’s Nature trick” which Jones used in a 1999 graph for the World Meteorological Organization, to deal with the well-discussed tree ring divergence problem “to hide the decline” that a particular proxy showed for modern temperatures after 1950, when measured temperatures were rising. These two phrases from the emails were also taken out of context by climate change sceptics including US Senator Jim Inhofe and former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as though they referred to a decline in measured global temperatures, even though they were written when temperatures were at a record high.[32] John Tierney, writing in the New York Times in November 2009, said that the claims by sceptics of “hoax” or “fraud” were incorrect, but the graph on the cover of a report for policy makers and journalists did not show these non-experts where proxy measurements changed to measured temperatures.[33] The final analyses from various subsequent inquiries concluded that in this context ‘trick’ was normal scientific or mathematical jargon for a neat way of handling data, in this case a statistical method used to bring two or more different kinds of data sets together in a legitimate fashion.[34][35] The EPA notes that in fact, the evidence shows that the research community was fully aware of these issues and was not hiding or concealing them.[36]

Of course a research paper is a form of rhetoric, produced by particular speakers trying to convince others of their conclusions. What else could it possibly be? But the fact that there is rhetoric in science doesn’t mean it’s wrong, a lie, a conspiracy, or a hoax. It simply means that science is the product of actual people (and their tools) and progresses through the back-and-forth of a dialog, not the uniform march towards enlightenment. Readers of Paul Edwards’ fabulous book on the history of climate data and climate models, A Vast Machine, learn about the immense effort that goes into our historical and contemporary knowledge of the climate. They would learn that there is no single measurement of the climate, that we have to cobble together thousands and thousands of diverse sources, from tree rings to ship’s logs to satellite imagery, to produce a uniform dataset. After reading A Vast Machine, the East Anglia emails seem commonplace: scientists working to make sense of a complicated piece of data insider a community of knowers. It’s only when we possess a tremendously lionized view of science-as-revealed-truth that we can have our faith shaken by seeing into how the sausage is made.

Similarly, returning to John Carson’s work on intelligence, good STS research should leave us skeptical, especially when the scientific tradition in question has such tight links to overt forms of social domination. In Carson’s case, the history of intelligence is inextricably bound to the history of racial hierarchies and more generally to the justification of inequality. The point here is not to say that IQs are “wrong”, but rather to inquire, what do they mean and what purposes have they served? What Carson debunks is not psychology, but rather America’s pretensions of meritocracy founded on a scientific form of discrimination. Understanding the positions of key figures in the history of intelligence testing – “recovering their specificity and locality” as Porter put it – helps us to understand how IQ ended up embroiled in this whole project, as well as the other purposes to which it has been usefully put.

In any case, I think Mirowski errs grievously when he collapses science studies’ rediscovery of science’s locality with Hayek’s worship of the market as the sole arbiter of truth. More generally, I think critics of science studies miss the mark when they imagine STS to be “anti-science.” At times, STS has indeed sounded like a Republican anti-science talking point (as Latour himself points out!). But that is not science studies’ project, and it never has been.

* Mirowski speaks favorably of, for example, Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, which makes somewhat similar arguments but with a specific focus on high-profile moments of the production of ignorance by anti-regulatory business interests (Tobacco Science, climate change skeptics, etc.).
** My thinking here is guided by Latour’s (2004) Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?, where he asks and attempts to answer several related questions. Latour focuses on the similarities between STS arguments and the claims of conservatives in their war on science.
*** Note that I use science studies and STS interchangeably. STS stands for Science, Technology and Society, or Science and Technology Studies, and there have historically been tensions between the various terms one could apply to the field, but they are beyond the scope of this blog post and frankly I’ve never quite figured out what was at stake there anyway.
**** Another little gripe with Mirowski concerns his dislike of Wikipedia. What’s with that? I understand his skepticism towards the copyleft movement generally (which he argues is basically too little, a conclusion that Lawrence Lessig himself came to as well when he switched to working on political corruption and campaign finance as a root cause). But that’s no reason to hate Wikipedia, which is a pretty neat community, and produces incredibly useful (if imperfect) resources for free. All this could lead to another rant about how we need to teach our students how to use Wikipedia rather than simply enjoining them to never look at it (while simultaneously using it ourselves routinely).

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  1. joshmccabe

     /  August 15, 2012

    Dan, I think Mirowski is actually pretty perceptive in seeing the similarities between STS and some of Hayek’s work. My issue is that both Mirowski and you err when you make statements like “Hayek’s worship of the market as the sole arbiter of truth” and such. Hayek never wrote anything remotely close to your characterization. I urge you to go beyond his 1948 AER paper and The Road to Serfdom and really read some of his more STS-ish stuff like The Counter-Revolution of Science or all of Individualism and Economic Order. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    • Josh,

      I’d be curious to know more about you see as the connections. And apologies for not making this clear: I was trying to accurately represent Mirowski’s view, not my own, of Hayek’s work. My own views of Hayek are not as well-thought out, but also not as monolithic.

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