Science and Technology Studies (STS) is an academic discipline in the social sciences, which purports to analyse how society, politics and culture influence scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture. STS scholars argue that one of its key strengths is its interdisciplinarity. They say that the field welcomes students from diverse backgrounds, and applies their theories to a broad range of questions at the intersections of science, technology and society. But—although some STS scholars are genuinely eager to study science and technology in rigorous ways—STS itself is at odds with other disciplines, because it is a closed system of thought, which rejects, by fiat, the theories of alternative fields.
To illustrate this, I shall share some examples from my time as a masters student in a hermetic academic program, which was more interested in diminishing the merits of science and rationalism than in studying science, technology and society through an interdisciplinary lens.
Science and Technology Studies
STS arose as a distinct field in the 1970s, through the convergence of various disciplines concerned with the study of the nature and practices of science and technology as social institutions, and the relationships between science, technology and societal issues such as health, peace, security, privacy, democracy, environmental sustainability and social justice.
Having adopted the set of philosophical assumptions and theoretical orientations, which I will discuss below, STS’s central mission was (and is) to reveal the social nature and value-laden processes of science and technology. STS is said to “create an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the inside workings of science and engineering,” while aiming “to teach its students how to seek out relevant and important information on a given subject, analyse and evaluate it, and in the end come to a decision regarding appropriate action.”
Doing this—argues the author of the previous citations—requires an interdisciplinary perspective. Many modern STS schools agree—see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. But, as I became familiar with the discipline, I began to observe a striking difference between the interdisciplinarity that many STS scholars publicly advertise and some of the attitudes, which I fear are common behind academic closed doors.
Interdisciplinarity in STS
Some of the literature on the interdisciplinarity of STS contains passages asserting that one central aim of STS thought is the integration of fragmented knowledge bases, that STS has “developed into a versatile and heterogeneous research field,” and that “one of the strengths of STS work is its ability to travel between spheres, encourage conversation and enable novel gatherings of things and people.”
This seems reassuring. But in response to an essay in which I criticized the field for not honouring its commitment to interdisciplinarity, one of my former professors wrote:
let me give you a quick feedback … necessarily from my own perspective as an STS scholar with a background in the life sciences. I and many others in STS would agree that we still have not learned to work together interdisciplinarily in a meaningful—i.e. epistemically relevant—way. Oftentimes we—as STS scholars—just reflect on what others are doing rather than finding ways of working together/producing knowledge together.
A field is interdisciplinary not because of the assorted academic backgrounds of its students, but because it incorporates theories, concepts, methodologies and philosophies from diverse professional fields—a diversity of ideas reflected in the heterogeneous mindsets of its students and professors.
So, how could an academic discipline that enthusiastically waves the flag of interdisciplinarity have trouble working with other disciplines?
One part of the explanation is that the field openly recommends that its students abandon the concepts of truth, discovery and objectivity. Instructors deconstruct these notions, which they regard as problematic chimeras and point out that such concepts are not only theoretically inadequate, but pose ethical and political dangers if taken seriously.
For example, students are taught that the notion of discovery uncritically assumes that an object or law exists independently of the context of its discovery, which neglects the messy and complex social context within which the discovery takes place. The notion of discovery itself is said to be implicitly rhetorical, because it calls for the uninterrogated belief that it is possible to reveal or know something that exists out there, independent of the knowing subject. STS professors prompt students to believe that the idea of a scientist lifting up nature’s veil is meant to perpetuate mythical stories of enlightened geniuses, while obscuring the social conditions in which knowledge is produced.
Seeking to fill the philosophical void left by the abandonment of these three logocentric ideas, the STS program promotes a radical thesis of social constructivism as a cookie-cutter explanation of all human phenomena, including science.
Although some scholars argue for different interpretations of social constructivism, it may be summarized as the philosophical doctrine proposing that our opinions, including our moral and scientific opinions, are determined by our social and historical situation: facts and objective knowledge are not mind-independent, but are products of social interactions and hence sociohistorically contingent.
Facts are true—so the story goes—only relative to a shared set of assumptions, or valid only within some socially constructed epistemic system. And because of the manifest diversity of peoples and cultures, there must be many fundamentally different, alternative knowledge systems that correspond to these varied social circumstances and contexts. These knowledge systems are said to be subject to the ever changing ruling values and social interests found within them. Scientific progress as such is thus a misconception or an illusion: what is called progress is merely a shift from one scientific paradigm to another. As a result, a symmetry principle about knowledge becomes normative: the same types of explanations must be given to both successful (true) and unsuccessful (false) knowledge claims alike.
This position—as Paul Boghossian writes in Fear Of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism—rests on the epistemological axiom of equal validity, which consists in accepting that “there are many radically different, yet equally valid ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them.”
Within this conceptualization of knowledge, it does not matter whether you are talking about the discovery of the planet Neptune, the cause of syphilis or the notion of biological sex. These, and all other concepts, are constructed by human minds and expressed in parochial human languages—and therefore are never objective or true as such. According to these principles, Neptune is a social construct in the same sense as syphilis and biological sex are, for, in order to discuss, study and ultimately know about such things, it is necessary to invoke the meaning of the words we use to name them, through the use of language. But, because language itself is a social construction, scholars who subscribe to this philosophy deem it justifiable to abolish the distinction between words and the objective things to which those words refer.
Accordingly, meaning is said to emerge exclusively from social consensus, and, since people use words in different ways, the world manifests differently for different individuals: reality and the knowledge thereof are therefore the negotiated outcomes of words and narratives and their interpretations.
The STS Perspective
To show how social constructivism is instrumentalized in STS, let’s look at the feedback an STS professor gave me after I submitted a response to the book Laboratory Life: The (Social) Construction of Scientific Facts, a classic STS volume, written by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar:
We have already talked about you finding yourself confronted with a new “worldview.” To think of science and technology as socially constructed can be challenging … I think it would be important to acknowledge that saying that something is socially constructed does not necessarily mean that scientific knowledge is of no value, but opens up the possibility to question the central position and authority of science and technology in our societies, that is often gained from its “naturalness,” something that is the way it is and we cannot do anything about it.
Notwithstanding Latour and Woolgar’s characterization of scientists as a “strange tribe” of “compulsive and almost manic writers”—who spend most of their days coding, marking, altering, correcting and reading—the book’s central argument is that scientific facts are the “objectified” results of a long negotiation process among scientists who have different individual interests, are subject to different social influences and exhibit their own personal “situatedness”—and that the contents of their discoveries are therefore subjective.
Some scholars have noted that the book does not make a persuasive case for its conclusions—and I agree. But, if we regard these conclusions as valid, it logically follows that there is no need to seek truths in science and no possibility of discovering anything about nature and that our efforts to remain objective when conducting scientific or rational inquiry are superfluous and self-deceptive.
Yet, if the field of STS attempts to know—through the lens of social constructivism—how facts and scientific knowledge are really produced, how can it simultaneously assert that all objective claims—which must therefore include its own—are fundamentally futile? Even more importantly, what are the students of Science and Technology Studies expected to do throughout their academic program, without the philosophical resources to claim that anything can ever be objective?
As my professor openly suggests, the goal of STS is to question the authority of science: a project that involves incessant reading of theoretical and empirical “STS work.” The point is to persuade students to believe that—due to its inability to produce objective knowledge—science is a social institution that obtains its authority through coercion of the lay population.
Science is thereby reduced to a social group whose members, in order to win support for their theories, engage in power struggles to enlist allies to boost their prestige and authority. This hasty conclusion is summarized in Latour’s battle cry “Science is politics by other means”: an allusion to Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism, “War is politics by other means.”
The End of Reason
In a Science Communication course I took, my professor ruminated on a guided visit to the Vienna Natural History Museum by musing that scientists are clearly not only concerned with conducting experiments and constructing facts inside laboratories, but with spreading the scientific worldview through institutional apparatuses of propaganda, such as science museums, which he referred to as “instruments of scientific indoctrination.”
Later, I asked my professor why the course—and, more broadly, the STS field—focused its critical studies almost exclusively on the natural sciences, while neglecting to critically assess the social sciences, humanities and STS itself. I was told that the choice was political. But this response suggests that my lecturer fails to appreciate that individuals can and do differ in their political opinions, and that there is no reason to assume that a lecturer’s personal convictions should coincide with those of his students. The politically motivated refusal to embrace self-criticism, or—to use STS terminology—to be reflexive, is both unscientific and irrational.
But, while some STS scholars merely characterize irrationality as “a different form of humanity,” many of them portray rationality as a reactionary, socioculturally constructed paradigm, which threatens people who inhabit other, equally valid paradigms. Students are told that, as a consequence of putting the values of truth and rational thought at the core of its current social institutions, society denies or suppresses other ways of existing in the world. Similarly, STS scholars frequently assert that regarding reason as the way to obtain scientific knowledge amounts to epistemic oppression of other ways of knowing.
The true aim of the STS program is to strip students of the belief in rationality: in a universal, impersonal standard of truth, which unites all individuals regardless of their language, identity or culture. In its place, students are taught to believe that rationality is little more than the intellectual currency of a western capitalist society, which trades in this currency as a means of gaining power and ostracizing certain disadvantaged groups.
Later in my studies, I received the following reaction to a final paper in a seminar compulsory only for STS students from outside the social sciences. My professor wrote:
Problematic in your description of the research question was the psychological definition … I was really surprised that you used psychological theories in an STS seminar. This had the effect, that you focused only on personal, psychological factors in your analysis and were a bit blind to or had difficulties attending to the interesting questions.
My professor’s point was not that the psychological theory chosen to address the empirical problem had been refuted, but that it somehow obscured “the interesting questions.” My professor’s surprise indicates that students are expected to recognize “the interesting questions” without any difficulty, and that my failure to do so revealed a shortcoming rare among the STS student body. Later, I asked my lecturer why psychological theories were judged irrelevant to STS research problems. He explained that the third letter ‘S’ in the acronym STS stood for society—an element that the field of psychology did not properly ponder.
Which theories, then, can guide us toward the “interesting” questions in an academic program that promises to remain open to the heterogeneous disciplinary backgrounds of its students? How can a physicist, lawyer, engineer or psychologist fit into this academic discipline? How can STS be compatible with other equally valid academic fields, which regard truth and objectivity as their main regulative ideals, when STS rejects these ideals as cynical tools of political posturing?
The answer is simple. STS thought—the STS perspective—is inherently incompatible with other types of thinking, because the constructivist philosophy underpinning most of its theories ignores or rejects the objective character of any explanation or fact about the world. This sceptical or relativistic posture effectively denies the existence of objective truths. Indeed, STS unflinchingly partakes in the political posturing it decries among the defenders of rationality, by encouraging students to expurgate any ideas gleaned from outside the STS intellectual bubble:
To the STS Master … I would like to express my appreciation for the total and utter demolition of the previous knowledge that I had acquired before I began this program. The memories of the first semester are still filled with hours and hours of deciphering terms and readings from the introductory lectures and seminars and getting my mind blown as I transitioned from the natural to the social sciences. This program has taught me the important skills of analysing, asking too many questions and thinking for myself and for that I am truly grateful.
I recently came across this passage in the acknowledgements section of an STS master’s thesis. It shows that the prior knowledge that students glean from other academic and professional disciplines that do not share the basic assumptions of STS thought is not integrated into a far-reaching discussion of the complex issues STS claims to rigorously study, but dismissed, attacked, ignored and demolished by the program. As the student quoted above admits, all this happens while we are told that we are developing a critical and reflexive mindset.
Truth Replaced by Fairness
A professor in one of my lectures claimed that science should not be concerned with finding out what is true, but what is fair. But, even if we grant this normative premise, what is fairness and who defines it? Furthermore, to be able to judge a given situation as fair, one must make use of an objective moral criterion: otherwise, any moralistic assertion is only true in relation to a particular moral framework and therefore remains inherently subjective. It is incoherent to defend a constructivist worldview that denies the possibility of knowing objective truths about the world, while implicitly proposing that objective judgments about morality are both viable and desirable.
Knowledge and interpretation are human constructs—but truth is not. Truth is that which corresponds to the facts. Truth is therefore a standard, which STS rejects and which a myriad of other disciplines take seriously. Absolute knowledge—that is, certain knowledge—is impossible, as traditional disciplines also admit. But STS does not concede that mind-independent facts exist in the first place, so its worldview collapses into an epistemic relativism that fails to explain the world in any other terms than as a loose collection of socially constructed phenomena.
But any sound form of philosophy incorporates a distinction between nature and convention, which underlines the impossibility of reducing decisions or norms to facts. Decisions are facts, and vice versa, the social constructivists declare. But this tendency to conflate things that are and things that ought to be into a single category, allows STS to discard as mere narrative any argument about whether something corresponds to the facts, or whether some action is acceptable or unacceptable. This self-immunization from criticism destroys the ability to discuss ideas rationally.
This academic discipline tries to appear pluralistic and welcoming of other ideas and viewpoints, but its claim to interdisciplinarity is little more than a façade, to help it appeal to students from diverse academic fields who, once enrolled in the program, are fed a persistent diet of highly politicized literature, which expounds the constructivist philosophy outlined above.
This misrepresentation is compounded by the fact that STS does not offer much theoretical and methodological counterbalance (quantitative methods, for example, are entirely dismissed), nor does it encourage philosophical heterodoxy. In isolating its system of ideas from theories and concepts from other fields, STS appears less like a healthy interdisciplinary field of scholarship and more like a monolithic ideological echo chamber.
Contrary to the university’s vital principle of intellectual freedom, most of the academic work done by STS scholars adopts a thoroughgoing social constructivist view of science, technology and society: the STS perspective. This attitude towards how students ought to conduct their studies is concealed by various cloaking strategies, designed to make the STS field look unobjectionable, even open minded. The claim that STS is interdisciplinary is perhaps the most effective of these cloaks.
No authority—as Richard Feynman emphasized—should have the right to arbitrate the truth of scientific principles, nor to pronounce on the validity of philosophical doctrines or prescribe the scope and character of the questions to be investigated. If the STS discipline does not respect these elemental guidelines, it will fall short in its explorations and understandings of its subject matter.
STS’s antagonistic attitude towards science and rationalism is unsettling in a university program—particularly in an interdisciplinary social science research program. Any academic field that aims to answer complex and important questions about the relationships between science, technology and society would benefit from engaging in genuine and open interdisciplinary work.
The claim that Science and Technology Studies is an interdisciplinary field is part of what attracted me to it. As an engineer, interested in the role of science and technology in the development of our civilization, I neither expected nor hoped to encounter an academic field that has adopted a constructivist perspective, which rejects the regulative ideals of scientific endeavour. Nor did I expect to find myself in an interdisciplinary program that diligently chases away any theories from other fields.
I am grateful that I completed the program, because it indirectly spurred me to look for other viewpoints, in order to sort the wheat from the chaff among STS-based ideas. But, all things considered, I believe that Science and Technology Studies is a partisan academic program, which is failing in its responsibility to teach students how to think, rather than what to think. And what are STS students taught to think? We are taught to undermine the arrogant pretensions of science, and to deny that it explains much about the world in which we live.
Photo by JJ Ying