October 30, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich
The social construction of science: What does it mean?
40 years ago science was still carried out in an ivory tower, scientists were highly respected bearers of truth and certainty and labs were mysterious and closed spaces.* Then came along some young and enterprising social scientists and showed that scientists are human, labs are places of messy human practices and science is fallible. Science was taken off its pedestal and asked to walk amongst the people. What is more, the same enterprising social scientists also ‘deconstructed’ the ‘ways that scientists claim their authority’.
Now, 40 years later scientists walk, even march amongst us, engage with us and are as open and transparent as they can be in the context of a marketised university system. However, the authority of science is being systematically undermined in a new political and post-truth world. In this context the same enterprising, but now older, social scientists have come forward to ‘defend’ science. This is great, I thought.
As you will all know, an article appeared in the New York Times by Ava Kofman entitled “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science”. Subtitle: “He spent decades deconstructing the ways that scientists claim their authority. Can his ideas help them regain that authority today”?
It’s a long article and my eyes are not what they once were, so I might have overlooked something…. ‘Reading’ it, I learned a lot about Latour’s life and work. When I came to the end I read this paragraph which makes Latour sound rather patronising and I wondered what Newton would have made of it!
“Gravity, he has argued time and again, was created and made visible by the labor and expertise of scientists, the government funding that paid for their education, the electricity that powered up the sluggish computer, the truck that transported the gravimeter to the mountaintop, the geophysicists who translated its readings into calculations and legible diagrams, and so on. Without this network, the invisible waves would remain lost to our senses. For a few moments, Latour stood reverently before the rolling waves on the screen. Then he said to the assembled scientists, as though he were admiring a newborn child, ‘Beautiful — you must be really proud.’”
What scientists did, even before electricity, was discover the equations that describe how strong the attraction is between two massive bodies, I believe…. These findings, indeed facts, are still valid today and can even be made visible. But can one really say gravity was ‘created’? Does social construction mean ‘creation’? Here is perhaps the point where things may start to grate a bit on natural scientists….
After reading this and not really finding a defence of science (there is a bit of envy regarding the creation of facts), I went and got myself embroiled on twitter in a discussion about ‘the social construction of science’. I learned that saying something is socially constructed does not mean it’s not real. It also does not mean it’s just imaginary (see ‘gravity’). That was reassuring.
Then I went back to the article and saw another paragraph I had overlooked which was however quite telling: “With the rise of alternative facts, it has become clear that whether or not a statement is believed depends far less on its veracity than on the conditions of its ‘construction’ — that is, who is making it, to whom it’s being addressed and from which institutions it emerges and is made visible.”
So, ‘construction’, short for ‘social construction’ I suppose, is actually communication of science! I can live with that and I think so could many natural scientists. Communication is fine….
But I suppose construction is a bit more than that. What is probably meant by this word is that scientific knowledge, facts etc. emerges from the work of scientists, it is, in this sense, ‘constructed’. It is not fabricated.
But, Latour also “believes that if scientists were transparent about how science really functions — as a process in which people, politics, institutions, peer review and so forth all play their parts — they would be in a stronger position to convince people of their claims.”
Here I part company with Latour. I believe it is NOT the job of scientists to convince people (other than their scientific colleagues) of their claims. That’s when trouble starts.
I also believe that there is now a lot of information/openness/transparency about the messy, human and social scientific process out there, ready to be accessed by those who want to know about it – just follow a few scientists on twitter to convince yourself.
An appeal to STS experts
Having read the article and read some stuff about social construction that people recommended on twitter, I would like to appeal to STS people:
- Could you please produce a clear and concise (social constructionist) defence of science, so we can all understand what you mean.
- Could you also please produce a clear and concise defence of social constructionism and tell us why it matters.
I believe it would be great to have such things as the basis for an informed conversation across all fields of science, including the social sciences.
*As far as I understand it, this is the story (told by STS people) against which, at least in part, the emergence of Science and Technology Studies unfolded. It contains, of course, quite a few strawmen.
Some resources, although not short:
Daston and Galison, 2005, Objectivity
Sismondo, 2010, Introduction to STS, second edition
Hacking, 1999, The social construction of what?
and a little thread by Chris Millard