What is STS?
Science, Technology, and Society (or Science and Technology Studies) is an interdisciplinary field of study that essentially looks at two issues: how science and technology impacts society (and culture); and how society (and culture) impacts science and technology (STS Wiki definition; Harvard definition). In the 21st century, I, as a professor of anthropology in an environmental studies program, argue that STS is crucial in understanding nearly any social issue in the world today. I prefer the moniker “Science, Technology, and Society” because that is how I first encountered the field as an undergraduate in the 1980s. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I was a Chemistry and Physics major and an NROTC midshipman; part of the requirements for my NROTC scholarship were naval science classes at MIT that I had to take every semester. In my junior year, in lieu of one of my naval science classes, I took an STS class at MIT that looked at how certain military technologies drastically changed the nature of society (e.g., the invention of the stirrup in Asia gave rise to the development of feudalism in Europe); this “History of Science” course is one of those liberal arts courses that I took that has stayed with me throughout the years (as well as William McNeill’s book The Pursuit of Power). In a roundabout way, this intellectual legacy is also what led me to environmental studies (via food and agriculture, but that’s a story for another time). While we do not have an STS program here at Davidson College, this anthropology course (which also counts for environmental studies) is essentially an introduction to STS.
Overview of the Course
As an introductory course, this class is like tapas – we will traipse through the field of STS pausing only for small tastes at each location.
Why is STS crucial in the 21st century?
As an amalgamation of interdisciplinary specializations, STS covers a wide range of topics. I would argue that a number of recognizable fields (e.g., medical anthropology) can be categorized as STS. One related field already mentioned is History of Science, but this year we will not be reading a canonical History of Science book; in the past, I’ve assigned Leviathan and the Air Pump. I did not assign it this year since we do not have electronic access to this book, and have instead substituted a number of history of science articles (including one from Shapin that brings up one of the main points from the book).
In terms of public policy, science and technology (or at least competing claims by politicians, scientists, and other activists) is central to the development of policy and its administration by executive bodies. We will get a sample of this in the next lecture when we talk about evidence-based policy (or science-based policy). Another permutation of this can be seen in the precautionary principle that is oft-cited in law and environmental policy. Regardless, so-called “science” is used by politicians and activists on all sides of any political issue; making any kind of policy involves some kind of “science” (or the explicit exclusion of science – see the NPR story from 2013 below.
Another reason why STS is crucial in the 21st century is in public education; an informed citizenry is needed for an effective democracy. In fact, we will be reading one chapter from Unscientific America that makes this argument. In general, the scientific community has problems talking to the wider public, and the wider public has problems hearing “straight science.” This will come up throughout the semester as we read about issues of the politics of expertise, citizen-science, and other issues. When I help to start an STS program at Butler University (where I taught prior to coming to Davidson College), I discovered that university trustees were most interested in this program because many corporations (pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, etc.) were looking to hire people who could both talk science and talk policy. Even among “scientists” (to which I include both natural scientists like chemists and physicists as well as social scientists like economists and anthropologists), communication can be muddled or non-existent because of a deep level of specialization and career-related structures and processes. Such interlocutors should not be limited to specialized journalists (think of your favorite science reporter – Miles O’Brien, Ira Flatow, Sharon Begley).
For me, STS also fits the liberal arts education ideal; an understanding of how science works within society is part and parcel of developing humane instincts and creative minds for lives of leadership and service. At another level, STS can help spark the ‘re-enchantment of the world.’ (For those with a background in social science, think of Max Weber’s state of disenchantment that characterizes modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). In fact, throughout this course, think of this proposition as you read through our various books and articles: science is the religion of global capitalism. This is the book that I’ve been meaning to write ever since I finished my PhD in 1999 but somehow never got around to doing it. I think it’s a misunderstanding of what science is and does that can lead to a cultural understanding of science as disenchanting, as objective, and demystifying; this misunderstanding of science is what I and other scholars have called scientism. Here’s another taste of science helping us to dream, as professed by another canonical science interlocutor, Neil deGrasse Tyson.