Back in the mid-1990s, social commentary on science was dominated by the “science wars”—crossfire between one or another humanist scholar and the science establishment. The conversation was often shrill. Observers such as French sociologist Bruno Latour delighted in highlighting the ways in which values were embedded within scientific work. In furious counterattack, scientific realists such as Norman Levitt and, most notoriously, Alan Sokal dismissed such postmodernists as rejecting scientific objectivity, the scientific method, or any standards whatsoever. Over time the controversy faded, perhaps as much from exhaustion as from anything else. Now, some 20 years later, the needle seems to have settled somewhere in the middle: scientific findings are often robust, but they live within a larger social ecosystem, and scientific results are rarely the last word in policy disputes.
This position, however, implies that in important respects the postmodernists have won. From the point of view of the scientific realists the contagion has spread: the autonomy of science has been chipped away, and its status as a uniquely objective view on the world is widely questioned. The politicizing of science, once a distant threat, is today a commonplace. The academy has tried to put a good spin on it, calling it “interdisciplinarity” or “open science,” as social scientists, humanists, and citizens have been brought into the process. And greater societal responsiveness and accountability is a good thing. But this has also raised questions concerning competency of judgment. Walls may be falling, but norms are also breaking down. This is the case not only with science: for more than a year now Donald Trump has had the commentariat atwitter. Trump may have increased democratic participation, but also the rise of post-factual politics. Pundits keep waiting for the political order to reestablish itself, but there’s also a growing suspicion that the categories that once ordered our personal and public lives have lost their grip—a suspicion that Trump’s surprise victory has only accelerated.
Science as it has been practiced now finds itself maladapted to a changing social landscape.
This leaves younger scientists—and those who train them—inhabiting a changed landscape. Scientists not only need to defend their work on more-than-scientific grounds, for example, by satisfying the broader impacts criterion for National Science Foundation (NSF) proposals. They are also living through the breakdown of what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science.” Kuhn argued that scientists spend the vast majority of their time engaged in “puzzle solving,” working on specific problems within well-established and secure frameworks. But whereas Kuhn recognized the possibility of the occasional revolution in science—think of the shift from Ptolemy to Copernicus, or from Newton to Einstein—such revolutions were at least initially intra-scientific affairs. In contrast, the disruption today is between science and the other mega-categories of life.
The growth of an accountability culture and the renegotiation of the social contract of science isn’t a revolution in science. Rather, it’s a redefinition of the basic conceptual space of intellectual life. Kuhn imagined the eventual reestablishment of order with the creation of a new scientific paradigm. Today, however, it’s unclear whether we will ever again have generally accepted social norms for truth, in either politics or science.
Now, as Latour himself pointed out, the traditional view of science—what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas called the separation of the public spheres—was always something of a myth. The contract between science and society as outlined by Vannevar Bush, the architect of US science policy after World War II, did an admirable job of simultaneously asserting the relevance and neutrality of science. But this framing was always unstable. There was too much at stake. As we’ve discovered with climate science, the more striking the results, the more portentous the implications, the more inevitable the push back from one or another element of society. Ambiguities arise in the interpretation of complex phenomena that are a poor fit for a binary political culture. The current situation of science in culture can even be seen as the ironic result of its success—that it was inevitable that anything this powerful would become enmeshed in ethical, political, economic, and religious debates.
Science as it has been practiced now finds itself maladapted to a changing social landscape. It is being asked not only to demonstrate its economic and policy relevance, but also to be more attentive to a wide range of ethical and cultural effects. Criticisms come from unaccustomed corners. NSF’s broader impacts criterion—and similar requirements across the landscape of science—summarizes the new status quo: whether through talk radio or WebMD, science is now grist for everyone’s mill. Scientists may pine for the old days, but they are left with trying to adjust to changed cultural circumstances.
This change suggests the need for a new skill: the ability to spot how scientific work can morph into ethical, economic, or cultural questions at the drop of a hat. Across the next few installments of Issues in Science and Technology this column will try to map this new landscape. The authors, one or another type of philosopher, will trace out the paths whereby science leaves off and other concerns emerge—in the gender wars and genetic conservation, CRISPR and the security state, a political party for science and the nature of impact. What all of these essays will hold in common is the exploration of the redefined public space occupied by science, which functions as a real-world political and philosophical experiment.
Yes, philosophical. Of course, philosophers have a reputation for irrelevance. We’ve come by this status honestly: academic philosophers—and today there is hardly any other kind—are mainly known for their exercises in navel-gazing. The oldest story of philosophy involves Thales, by tradition the first philosopher in Western culture, and his confrontation with a milkmaid who laughed when Thales fell into a ditch while gazing at the stars. Thales, however, also made a fortune when he cornered the olive market. And this highlights the second goal of these essays: to see if philosophy has anything useful to add to debates about the role of science in policy making, and to culture more generally. For if the social space of science is changing today, the same is true for philosophy.
Robert Frodeman is professor of philosophy and religion at the University of North Texas.