March 12, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

Symmetry as false balance? Questions for STS

I am not getting involved in the Richard Dawkins tweet debate about whether ‘science’ is a social construct or not. However, seeing the debate flow past me on Twitter triggered a stream of thoughts which I’ll summarise in this blog post – about STS, the symmetry principle, false balance, and how to find ways to distinguish between what’s true and false.

I first thought how much of that debate has happened before and before and before and how much of it will be repeated again and again and again. However, if you want to navigate some of the central issues of that eternal debate, I can recommend this blog post by Philip Moriarty and the comments underneath it, from 2014. This will give you a flavour of the debate and of the impossibility for it to ever end.

I then began to think about something more tangential. Reading the blog post and the comments again, I came across a founding principle of STS scholarship that I have, I have to confess, never quite understood: the symmetry principle. In its simplest formulation it says that: “STS treats all beliefs, true and false, in the same terms”. To put this into context, here is the comment left underneath Phil’s blogpost that mentions the symmetry principle (I have added a hyperlink):

“One of the origins of STS, the Edinburgh ‘strong programme’ started by applying scientific principles to the study of scientific knowledge. Here are their famous four elements as bullet points:
Causality: Scientific knowledge is caused by physical, psychological and social factors;
Impartiality: Sociologists cannot judge scientific knowledge, only explain it;
Symmetry: Treat true and false knowledge claims in the same way. Both are socially caused. This view is different to ‘debunking’
Reflexivity: Same principles apply to the sociological research.”

This seems to say – to come back to my train of thought prompted by the Dawkins debate debacle – that all scientific knowledge is socially constructed (I think that’s what they mean by ‘socially caused’) and therefore all knowledge should be treated the same.

That then made me think about how this may play out in a world of fake science, post-truths and misinformation. Some STS scholars, like Jaron Harambam, have said that STS can help us find our way through the current “fog of uncertainty and manipulation”, that is, can help us distinguish between reliable and unreliable information or knowledge claims.

But I wondered: Can a discipline do that which treats everything that people claim they know the same way? That, finally, made me think about one of the ‘causes’ of current information uncertainty, namely ‘false balance‘ (or, as one article paraphrased it “cultivating counterfeit controversy to create confusion” – nice alliteration to attract attention!).

And I thought: is there perhaps some overlap between STS’s symmetry principle and false balance, predicated on giving two sides in a debate equal weight although one side has a ton more evidence for its arguments than the other? I am not sure. I am basically, posing this as a question. If there is some similarity between the symmetry principle and false balance, then STS should perhaps be more careful in invoking the symmetry principle. May it lead to the normalisation of harmful misinformation? Does it really help to find a way through the currently proliferating maze of misinformation?

So, the question is: How can STS scholars help ordinary citizens, confused by conflicting claims about climate change and pandemic policies for example, find a way out of their confusion? How can people establish what’s true and what’s false? How can they distinguish between a valid explanation and an invalid one? How do they decide whom to trust? How do they know who is an expert on something and who is not? What methods, procedures, standards, heuristics can ordinary citizens use to make up their minds? I would love to see a few examples underpinned by STS scholarship.

Outside STS, here is an example of good advice via a tweet from Timothy Caulfield:“How to spot misleading science reporting… by @justmccaus Things to watch for: – Sensationalistic headlines – Overly dogmatic/definitive conclusions (reality: science is dynamic!) – Questionable sources (peer reviewed?) – Wonky stats”.

Image by Eluj from Pixabay

Posted in Social science