Month: April 2013

Between STS and the Sciences

At last weekend’s STS workshop I facilitated a discussion that explored the relations between STS and the sciences. Here are some summary thoughts from that discussion.

We began thinking about the relationship between faculty in the different disciplines—STS/History of science and the various sciences—but quickly shifted focus to students. For many of us, the relationship between STS and the sciences seems to be mediated through students who take classes in both areas. Consequently, we talked about some teaching practices—such as team teaching or peer teaching—and important curricular differences—such as requiring more science coursework.

In general we agreed that one of the goals of STS in the undergraduate program was to get students in the sciences to question what they are doing and why, to disrupt easy notions of fact and reality, and to make the familiar and comfortable both strange and uncomfortable. May of us also thought that STS students should not be separated from the sciences. An STS curriculum without a grounding in science risks losing something important.

Some of the key themes:

  • how are we seen by departmental colleagues differs from how we are seen by science colleagues;
  • students majoring in one of the sciences often take our classes for validation;
  • science faculty rely on us as “story tellers” and the STS as source of stories;
  • courses like “Physics for poets” indicate a broad interest in STS by faculty in the sciences;
  • courses like “Physics for poets” and looking at STS faculty as story tellers was considered problematic by some;
  • we need convince our colleagues to recognize and take seriously our expertise in STS.

The participants represented various departments: anthropology, biology, history, philosophy, and STS. While many of us have appointments in particular departments and teach in STS programs, a few have positions in STS programs. As such, the particularities at our different institutions shaped our discussion. Faculty from institutions with strong STS programs seemed more comfortable with the relationship between STS and the sciences. Faculty at colleges with no STS program or with a particularly strong tradition in the sciences seemed to want to defend STS as on par with the sciences.

History of Science in High School, ca. 1958

In the middle part of the 20th century the American Historical Association engaged in a concerted outreach program. I don’t know if the discipline and the profession were experiencing one of those perennial anxiety attacks, but the association seemed to feel that it needed to bolster the image of history as a profession and the quality of instruction provided in secondary and undergraduate classrooms. Predictably, committees were formed and propaganda was produced (because nobody actually forms a committee or produces propaganda). As always, a favorite vehicle was the cheap pamphlet. Some of these celebrated history as a professional career. Other pamphlets sought to provide high school and undergraduate teachers the expertise and knowledge of established scholars in various historical areas. As one pamphlet declared:

Prompted by an awareness of the fact that the average secondary school teacher has neither the time nor the opportunity to keep up with monographic literature, these pamphlets are specifically designed to make available to the classroom instructor a summary of pertinent trends and developments in historical study.

In the late 1950s, one of the “pertinent trends and developments in historical study” was the history of science. To address this trend, the “Committee on Teaching” convinced Marie Boas to write a pamphlet for high school teachers introducing the history of science to them.

Marie Boas’s pamphlet for the AHA: History of Science
Marie Boas’s pamphlet for the AHA: History of Science

Marie Boas opens bluntly, connecting the history of science to modernity and Western Civilization:

In an age when high school students regard space travel as an eminently attainable and desirable practicality, it is hardly necessary to emphasize that we live in a civilization infused by and dependent upon applied science. It has indeed been plausibly argued that what distinguishes the most recent period of history, and particularly the history of Western Civilization, from other ages and from the whole history of other civilizations, is precisely the triumphant justification by results of that scientific method which first clearly emerged in the seventeenth century. If this is true—and there are cogent arguments to support it—then to study the history of our culture without studying the development of science within that culture is clearly to render any historical appraisal both incomplete and distorted.

Further, she suggests, the history of science appeals to “curiosity about the world around them which is so natural to most boys and girls.” The history of science engages those students whose interest lies in the sciences by offering a “valid and useful point of contact with history.” At the same time, history of science offers students baffled by science “some insight into the scientific point of view“ so common in the late 1950s.

She considers the history of science to be part intellectual history—concerned with the “internal development of science”—and part social or economic history—primarily how “science has influenced society through its application to technology.”

In one passage, Boas laments the struggles of past and present scientists: “One of the perennial problems of the scientist has been how to earn his livelihood.” Despite the increasing demand for scientists in universities and industry, “scientists have often grievously felt the lack of adequate funds and facilities … and the attempts of scientists to gain funds from governments, especially from democratic governments, presents a fascinating study of the relation of the scientist to the society in which he lives.” While some individual scientists today may want more money, it’s difficult to see the sciences as struggling or as underfunded. And salaries in the sciences are not particularly depressed.

The bulk of her pamphlet presents a bibliography of secondary and primary sources in the history of science. Technology is merely applied science and so does not merit inclusion in the bibliography. Boas’s occasional editorial comments in this section are entertaining because they continue to be commonplaces today—e.g., when referring to Joseph Needham’s work, Boas says “Volume I is a general survey of that strange peculiarity of Chinese civilization that a high state of technology did not lead to an advanced understanding of nature,” or later Boas comments “While historians continue to argue about whether there was such a thing as the Renaissance or not, historians of science are generally agreed that a special name is needed for the activities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when a dying medievalism clashed with new forces in a highly complex transition,” or about the seventeenth century Boas confirms it as “the century of genius, the first indisputable age of modern science.”

Joseph Agassi on the History of Science

The history of science is a most rational and fascinating story; yet the study of the history of science is in a lamentable state: the literature of the field is often pseudo-scholarly and largely unreadable. The faults which have given rise to this situation, I shall argue, stem from the uncritical acceptance, on the part of historians of science, of two incorrect philosophies of science. These are, on the one hand, the inductive philosophy of science, according to which scientific theories emerge from facts, and, on the other hand, the conventionalist philosophy of science, according to which scientific theories are mathematical pigeonholes for classifying facts. The second, although some improvement over the first, remains unsatisfactory. A third, contemporary theory of science, Popper’s critical philosophy of science, provides a possible remedy. On this view, scientific theories explain known facts and are refutable by new facts.

It is little surprise to see Joseph Agassi supporting a version of Karl Popper’s philosophy. From Joseph Agassi, “Introductory Note” to Towards an Historiography of Science.

I am as amused by his criticism of scholarship in the history of science as I am unconvinced by his proposed solution.

How to think about STS at the Liberal Arts College

To prompt debate and structure discussion, the organizers of last weekend’s workshop offered the following provocations about STS and the scholars who work within it. I am both encouraged by some of these topics and daunted by some. If you have any thoughts or comments, I encourage you to address them in a post, and link back to here so I know you wrote about them. Let’s use these as an opportunity to have a broader discussion about what STS offers to students, institutions, businesses, and government.

1 :: STS works on the cutting edge of our world’s grand challenges.

STS tackles some of the most central problems of our contemporary world. In our age of information technology, global warming, and bioengineering, STS scholars are providing essential analytical and normative insights into the complex linkages between what we build, what we know, and who we are. As such, STS is one of the most vibrant fields of study and deserves to be funded by government agencies and universities.

2 :: STS offers several paths to policy-relevant scholarship.

In addressing fundamental questions facing our world, STS scholarship often tackles matters of contemporary policy relevance, such as the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of emerging and controversial fields of study. But these considerations of policy or ELSI relevance should not be the sole measure for evaluating the contribution of STS to public policy. Much STS work is powerful because it offers critical frameworks that can allow policy makers to rethink what constitutes fundamental concepts such as “science” “society” and “policy.” Therefore, we must promote and fund a spectrum of research projects including those that analyze the pressing questions of public policy as well as those that help us conceptualize which policy questions we should be asking in the first place. The links between STS and public policy should be understood broadly.

3 :: STS is more than simply the sum of a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

While history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, political science, and other disciplines have contributed immensely to our understanding of science and technology in society, STS is a distinct field of study that offers unique insights unattainable through the agglomeration of existing perspectives. STS, while drawing on other approaches, has a disciplinary standing of its own. It merits having its own departments, curricula, and standing. Universities cannot expect rigorous education of their students in the social and cultural dimensions of science and technology without dedicated programs and faculty members.

4 :: STS scholars are responsible for the field’s institutional standing.

STS scholars must take responsibility for the institutional security of the field. We cannot expect others to do it. Nor can we assume that once programs are created, they will be automatically sustained. As scholars, teachers, and members of universities, we must take the initiative to demonstrate the relevance and need for STS scholarship and push to secure lines of funding for its practitioners. Academic fields are not natural kinds. They are social constructs whose boundaries can be shaped by STS scholars and must be maintained through practice.

5 :: Funding agencies and STS scholars should work together.

The vast majority of scientific funding agencies recognize that it is important to support research into the societal dimensions of science and technology. In order to ensure that these funds promote cutting-edge scholarship, funding agencies should be willing to work with STS practitioners to make sure that their categories and grant structures are consistent with the research practices of the field. Similarly, STS scholars should be willing to work with funding agencies to help them identify promising research opportunities that can support the organizations’ missions. Collaborative dialogue can produce improved results for both funding agencies and STS scholars.

6 :: STS scholars should collaborate to provide consistent graduate education.

One of the hallmarks of conventional academic disciplines is a recognized canon of literature and set of methods. While different programs will likely emphasize different analytical approaches, STS scholars should work together to create a few broad frameworks for teaching our students the intellectual foundations of our field.

Observatories at Vassar College

While at Vassar College this past weekend for the workshop on “STS in the Liberal Arts Curriculum,” I couldn’t resist having a look at the college’s two observatories.1

The original observatory, the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Completed in 1865, this was the first building to be completed at Vassar. It is named after the famous 19th-century American astronomer Maria Mitchell, who was the first manager of the observatory.

The newer observatory, the “Class of 1951 Observatory” was completed in the late 1990s. Two separate domes at the observatory house the main telescopes, a 32-inch and a 20-inch reflecting telescope.


1I also couldn’t resist finding my way onto the grounds of the former Hudson River State Hospital with its stunning Kirkbride main building.