Science Studies: Cheerleader, Marketer, or Critic?

May 12th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A former colleague of mine used to say that social scientists were the equivalent of “lap dogs” for the broader scientific community.


By that, he meant that social scientists were around to entertain, look good, but nothing more. My experiences suggest that there is some element of truth in his description of the relationship of science studies with the broader scientific community, especially in those situations where the funding of the science studies scholars depends upon the largesse of the broader scientific community that they are working with. It is a difficult issue because one of the lessons from science studies research is the need for a close relationship with stakeholders, which for many science studies scholars are the scientists themselves.

I was motivated to blog on this after reading a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, discussing the challenges of putting limits on science. He observes,

The moral standoff that will quickly come to characterize the 21st century is becoming clear. It is not the teaching of intelligent design vs. evolution in American schools. Almost no one but biblical literalists takes the ID position with any seriousness as science. Nor will it be the heated squabble over embryonic stem-cell research. That scrum is actually over as well: Many nations around the world are doing this type of research, so the question is only where not whether.

The real battle – the battle that will come to occupy the moral center stage of American politics, morality, law, public policy, editorial pages, and water-cooler discussions – will be waged over where genetic engineering ought to take us and whether we are satisfied to leave it to scientists to guide us there.

Caplan acknowledges that “there here are plenty of reasons to worry about the misapplication and misuse of genetics.” But even with such concern, Caplan quickly turns to a defense of the inexorable advance of research, and allaying of concerns about the role of scientists in shaping such advances,

Still it is a grave, grave mistake to argue that we must put all forms of genetic engineering off limits. Too much good will be lost. Our only hope of combating some of the worst pests and plagues that beset us and will torment our grandchildren is through genetic manipulation and engineering. The genetic revolution you and I are witnessing is humankind’s last, best hope since it offers the prospect of more and safer food; the repair and elimination of genetic maladies like Tay-Sachs, juvenile diabetes, sickle cell disease, and hemophilia; the conquest of TB, malaria, avian flu, SARS, HIV, and many other plagues. And it will allow us to rebuild broken, worn out, or injured body parts.

Any of these alone would be enough reason to pursue genetic research. Together, they all but obligate us to do it. They are an all but unanswerable reply to those who say “No” to genetic research and engineering. Our society would be foolish and cruel to forbid or ban genetic research given the needs of the sick, starving, impaired and those of future generations for solutions and treatments. Will we really turn away from those who literally are dying before our eyes, or who will die before our children’s eyes, simply out of fear of scientists guiding public policy?

Caplan offers a defense of scientific advancement much like the old saw, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,”

I do not believe we have much to fear from the actions of any individual scientist. Few, contrary to the pope’s concern, aspire to play God. Science has no tolerance for such fantasies.

Geneticists know how little they know individually and how hard it is to manipulate nature. Moreover, none of them, not even the best and brightest, is capable of transforming a discovery from the lab into the real world by himself or herself. That sort of power is reserved for the deity, governments or the market.

What the deity does is beyond our control. But what government or the market does or is allowed to do is very much a matter of politics, regulation and oversight. When theologians or members of the public point the finger of moral worry at scientists, they need to redirect it. It is governments and the marketplace that we need to shape and hold accountable for how genetic knowledge is or is not applied.

I generally agree with Caplan that genetic technologies may hold great promises and that almost every scientist is a good and decent person. But these general feelings about the science and scientists are no substitute for the fact that (a) genetic technologies may pose unknown risks (e.g., concerns raised about GMOs and the environment) and simply be morally wrong (e.g., chimeras), and (b) scientists, like any group in society, are not above democratic accountability.

Caplan suggests that the an unfulfilled role for scientists – and their science studies lapdogs – is to communicate the importance of research so that the public will allow it to go forward and support it.

What scientists need to do – and quickly – is come out of their laboratory lairs and be seen in public. You need to know about their aspirations, dreams, hopes, and values. You need to know they stand shoulder to shoulder with all of us in wanting a better world. They see a better future and a way to get there.

Genetic research in the hands of those who practice is not aimed at power, fame, ambition, or transforming oneself into a god. If it is about anything, it is about love: the love of life, the love of people, the drive to make a better life for the sick and those at risk of becoming so.

These last few statements are pretty incredible. The Hwang Woo-Suk and Gerald Schatten stem cell affair (see the University of Pittsburgh report in PDF) may have been an aberration but it did provide a window into a world where power, fame, and ambition are not so uncommon. In light of this recent experience, for an ethicist to suggest otherwise is a bit pollyannaish, and quite a bit too much cheerleadering from where I sit.

Caplan is of course right on when he asks us to

Hold your politicians accountable. Ask them to explain how funding for genetics is allocated and accounted for. Insist that they ensure that commercial interests do not succeed in keeping private genetic applications and products that might offend the moral sense of the community or, worse, our health and well-being.

But part of such accountability in my view is public engagement in the process of deciding on what research is and is not appropriate, not simply engaging abroader set of stakeholders in decisions about commercialization after the research is well underway or completed in the form of products. Along these lines, a perspective of “upstream engagement” has been discussed here in the context of the excellent work of a UK think tank called DEMOS. (Have a look at their most recent report on governing nanotechnology here.) Caplan goes too far when he asserts, “The genetic genie is out of the bottle. There is not much anyone can do to put it back nor, once we understand its potential for good, ought we to do so.” There are many genies and many bottles. Deciding which genies to free and which to keep in their bottle is an important part of the democratic governance of science and technology.

Caplan’s piece reminded me of Langdon Winner’s comments about the societal aspects of nanotechnology in Congressional testimony in 2003. Winner had some strong things to say about science studies scholars,

The professional field of bioethics, for example, (which might become, alas, a model for nanoethics) has a great deal to say about many fascinating things, but people in this profession rarely say “no.”

Indeed, there is a tendency for career-conscious social scientists and humanists to become a little too cozy with researchers in science and engineering, telling them exactly what they want to hear (or what scholars think the scientists want to hear). Evidence of this trait appears in what are often trivial excercises in which potentially momentous social upheavals are greeted with arcane, highly scholastic rationalizations. How many theorists of “intellectual property” can dance on the head of a pin?

One way to avoid the drift toward moral and political triviality is to encourage social scientists and philosophers to present their findings in forums in which people from business, the laboratories, environmental organizations, churches, and other groups can join the discussion. It is time to reject the idea there are only a few designated stakeholders that are qualified to evaluate possibilities, manage the risks, and guide technology toward beneficial outcomes.

As issues of science and technology continue to occupy an even more central role in important societal questions, there will be difficult questions raised about the role of science studies with respect to their relationship with science, politics, and policy. Science studies scholars will have to confront questions about what sorts of roles they ought to play and under what institutional, financial, and social dynamics. To oversimplify, what will it be, cheerleader, marketer, or critic?

4 Responses to “Science Studies: Cheerleader, Marketer, or Critic?”

  1. Ben Says:

    Winner says, “Indeed, there is a tendency for career-conscious social scientists and humanists to become a little too cozy with researchers in science and engineering, telling them exactly what they want to hear…”
    Could he have it somewhat backwards? Social scientists and humanists may lack the depth of technical knowledge in order to properly frame the ethical discussion of a particular area of research. This being the case, they are dependent on the scientists, who are free to emphasize the benefits of their work while dismissing potential dangers, for such understanding.
    In any case, I fear that both Caplan and Winner are overly generous as to the capacity of the public to fully appreciate the scientific risks and benefits of genetic engineering and nanotechnology. The average person, even the average educated person, relies on entertainment as his primary source of scientific information. Michael Chriton has been discussed on this site before for his mischaracterization of climate science in “State of Fear.” Let’s not forget that his hostility towards the fields of genetic engineering and nanotech. are apparent in “Jurassic Park” and “Prey” respectively. Science fiction in general, Star Trek notwithstanding, exploits general human fear of the unknown. It is this same unknown that motivates scientists. Greater transparency regarding the research and development of new technologies in the public and private sectors are more than likely to be mischaracterized by those standing to lose from such technology and the largely science illiterate public will believe the worst, because thats what they’ve been taught to expect.

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  3. Eric Says:

    “The average person, even the average educated person, relies on entertainment as his primary source of scientific information.”

    Wow. I am stunned by this statement. Can I get some documentation on this “fact”?

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  5. daublin Says:

    “Science fiction in general, Star Trek notwithstanding, exploits general human fear of the unknown.”

    Yow, that is not true at all. The science fiction I have read is filled with wonder. David Brin’s Uplift Series? Asimov’s… anything? Ann McCaffrey’s ship singers? The list goes on and on. The books I have read and shows I have watched exploit wonder far more than fear.

    Anyway, I vehenemently disapprove of any claim that scientists should speak and everyone else should just listen. A cornerstone of science is that the arguments must be convincing on their own.

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  7. replica-watch Says: