Can International Relations & Science and Technology Studies be integrated?

This article is part of the Global Governance Debates series

By Peter M. Haas
Professor, Department of Political Science
UMASS Amherst

I agree entirely with Littoz-Monnet’s claim in Science is Embedded, and yet Legitimate.  Indeed, one of the foundations of the authority of science is an understanding of the process by which expert consensus is forged.  Her interjection provides an opportunity for a broader exercise:  how to integrate Science and Technology Studies (STS) and International Relations (IR) or even Political Science? In this brief rejoinder I outline several questions about the political nature of science, beyond merely scientific advice.

STS has revolutionized the study of science, building an interdisciplinary understanding – or at least a framework for understanding – how science is conducted in the real world.  Thus it provides a sociology of science which engages with the philosophy of science.  We know that expert consensus is always partial, transitory, and possibly forged through extra-scientific factors.

A core claim by Littoz-Monnet and STS scholars is that better transparency of the scientific process, presumably combined with better public education about what science is, can enhance its democratic appeal along with a better engagement between the public, decision-makers, and scientists along with alternative forms of knowledge.

“In a politically fraught environment… might people not wind up more skeptical of the authority of science?”

I want to raise two political points about their claims.

First, is it true?  Do we actually know what informs public attitudes about science?  We have good polling data worldwide about public confidence in science, from the World Values Survey, but little about the warrants for that confidence.  National Science Foundation and Swiss National Science Foundation, are you listening?

Second, what would be the effect of public education about science?  Conducting such education would be a difficult exercise in today’s politically charged climate because the transparency of science about consensus formation is seen in purely dichotomous terms.  The STS vision offers to provide a mid-point on the continuum between mindless deference to anointed experts and denial.  Like in the movie Wizard of Oz when Toto tugs the curtain revealing the charlatanry of the Wizard of Oz:  “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” the Wizard continues to blare during the revelation that his authority (based on mystique and a technologically enhanced booming voice) is concocted on false principles.

Works from STS, the philosophy of science and the sociology of science all demonstrate the transitory nature of scientific truth claims, and the extent of extraneous (or perhaps merely exogenous) factors involved in scientific discovery and dissemination.

Would broadcasting STS lessons about the contingencies enhance the legitimacy of science, by grounding it on scientific findings, or would it run the risk of leading consumers to reject it outright?  Sophisticated philosophers of science, from Rorty to Kuhn to Laudan, provide relativistic arguments about scientific consensus suggesting that while consensus may be rigorous, there are multiple incommensurate frames by which science is conducted or should be conducted. Thus transparency would require a leap of faith by viewers about the deductive foundations of consensual claims. In a politically fraught environment, with an increasingly relativistic public epistemology, might people not wind up more skeptical of the authority of science?

While STS scholars assert that science would gain credibility through more transparency and engagement with non-scientists, it is equally possible that it would lead to further dismissal as people grow disillusioned in the sweeping authority of science.  The Wizard behind the curtain would be rejected outright.  The question is whether familiarity breeds confidence or contempt.

This rejoinder is part of our debate on “Science, politics, and policy.” It is written in response to “Science is Embedded, and yet Legitimate” by Annabelle Littoz-Monnet.

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