New Frontiers in Science and Technology Studies
Polity Press, Cambridge
Idiosyncratic books which challenge the common knowledge prevailing in well established intellectual communities can always be interesting. If they reveal antinomies which put their own assumptions in perspective, this is sometimes even better. Both merits can be found in Steve Fuller's New Frontiers in Science and Technology Studies. The dense introduction, which presents in a remarkably lucid manner the structure of the book, and the main bulk of the text comprising a wide variety of theoretical and historical images, unfold a theoretical scenery diverging from the usual presentations of the STS-field which build on versions of social constructivism. The author does not put emphasis on the internal dynamics of communities of scientific and technological practices, nor on the discursive organisation of accounts of discovery, invention and innovation. His intellectual game is different. He departs from a multifaceted approach to the history of ideas and finally lands in the domain of the politics of scientific discourses. These depend on a 'chain of intellectual command'. Historians of science (and eventually of technology) assemble the facts, philosophers create meaning through concepts, theories and methodologies, and sociologists market ideas to policymakers and the general public. What they are supposed to market are ideas enhancing the sense of the specificity of science. Demarcation becomes then one of the main aspects of the discursive politics of scientists. The revolt of science against religion was succeeded by a more recent revolt against technology (especially after the technological use of science for martial purposes), and lately by opposition to the political misuse of science. This demarcation requires a constant questioning of the relationship between science and politics.
The 'New Frontiers' in the title of the book should thus read 'The Political Frontiers'. Their exposition is set out in a text which extends over seven chapters divided in three parts with pointed titles: demarcation (where the focus is on the place occupied by science in modern culture), democratization (where the focus is on the political processes defining the discursive and practical organisation of science), and transformation (where the focus is on the impact of science and technology on societal and personal change). The reader can spot in the various chapters highly attractive themes with labels such as: open society, democracy and science; the university as the rhetorical space of the unity of science; Bruno Latour's 'politics of nature'; sociology versus biology as a political issue; the politics of science Journalism; the politics of research ethics and the image of science. The political common denominator of the treatment of these subjects is the following: all science has religious or more generally metaphysical roots which make the preference among theoretical frameworks un-decidable. It is thus legitimate to let the people decide, and not exclusively the universities and the research institutions.
In spite of any further criticism of this course of argumentation, we must admit that Fuller, in order to make his case, exploits the history of social and political thought, but not with the analytical rigour expected. One can find controversial statements such as: ' … in the US, the ballot box more reliably removes sub-optimal politicians than the peer review identifies sub-optimal science.' (p. 136). Other passages get polemical: 'Sometimes it seems that the US scientific establishment and the Democratic Party are united in death's embrace in their failure to grasp this elementary lesson in practical politics.' (p. 138). A few pages further we can read that a good reason to reject the monopoly of evolutionary theory can be that '.. the US, the worlds undisputed superpower in science, is one of the few countries where evolution is not uncritically accepted'. (p. 144).
These excerpts should not prevent us from paying more attention to subtler formulations. The idea of the origins of knowledge in politics, as presented here, can be neither accepted nor rejected with simplified arguments. In this sense this book is suitable only for painstaking critical readers. The ones who might use it for cherry-picking will not serve a higher intellectual cause. The latter view implies also that it is inappropriate as a textbook. But it can fuel research on the political dimensions of internal contradictions of the field of Science and Technology Studies.
University of Athens