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Feb 06

Science criticism, or, what is this thing about science called?

When I’m talking to a new group of students, I frequently find myself fumbling for the word that will briefly capture the realm of scholarship on which I draw: a sort of super-league that includes Beer, Collins, Daston, Latour, MacKenzie, Haraway, Schaffer, Shapin.  I find myself calling on flabby phrases like ‘historians and anthropologists and sociologists of science’.  Sometimes I say ‘STS’, but then I have to follow up by expanding the phrase into ‘Science and Technology Studies’ and explaining, after all, what all its constituent disciplines are.  (STS also presents a problem of nouns: what is a person who does STS?  A student of science and technology?  An STSist??)  Occasionally I simply and rather imperially denote the whole lot as ‘historians of science’, and hope it won’t get back to the epistemologists and social scientists and textual experts what I have done.

I believe that my interdisciplinary list of authors would be recognised by many colleagues across the world: that it is a natural group in need of a name.  In the UK it would be recognised by people calling themselves historians of science, but it is a contingent product of the history of British academia that ‘history of science’ predominates in visibility over other, cognate disciplines.  The absence of a neat phrase for the super-discipline that encompasses critical perspectives on science is more than an inconvenience; without it we lack coherence and visibility from an external perspective.  A clearer label would also help us all to reposition our scholarship in the changing world of funded research, in particular in relation to the type of client groups that the impact agenda (and arguably praxis) requires us to cultivate.

Suppose, then, we called ourselves ‘science critics’?  What would happen if we analogised ourselves by name with literary criticism?

As a scholarly discipline, literary criticism is housed in departments of ‘English Literature’ or similar, but it is understood that its staff are literary critics.  Their angles on texts are manifold, but they are all literary critics.  Students may say, for brevity and convenience, that they are studying literature; but they are being trained to be literary critics, not writers.

On the other hand, a student who says she is studying science is training to be a scientist.  A history of science undergraduate would not, analogous to our person training to be a literary critic, say that she was studying science.  She would say that she was studying history of science.

The impreciseness of the literature academic’s label, ironically, is what enables them to participate in public conversations about literature.  They are critical connoisseurs, called upon in public forums, where they appear alongside writers.  If we could present ourselves to scientists, science policy-makers, science communicators and so on as critical connoisseurs of science, we might open many interesting conversations and projects, in places where impact happens.  It would be a most tremendous opportunity.

Another advantage of the term ‘science criticism’ might be that it would occupy a clear place in the panoply of academic disciplines, a catch-all term for constituent methodologies.  We might, thus, also have a clearer pitch to students: an ideal undergraduate or postgraduate destination for the many young people who enjoy science but don’t want to become scientists.  We would produce a cohort of graduates who have well-developed critical skills and subject knowledge appropriate to the world of work, leisure and commerce, dominated as it is by technology and science.

Of course, the term ‘science criticism’ is not unproblematic.

For one thing, premising the name upon a distinction between training to be, and studying about – aligning oneself with the latter and not the former – reasserts the distinction between ‘useful’ (economically valuable) disciplines and critical (economically doubtful) ones.  It places science criticism squarely in the struggle to justify the humanities in the framework of economic value.  This, alas, is inevitable; but having a humanities subject (science criticism) orientated towards that most unimpeachably productive of fields (science and technology) might at least refresh the debate.

One unintended consequence of adopting the term ‘science criticism’ would be to challenge the new and growing teaching of creative writing within the teaching portfolio of Literature departments.  Such students are not, primarily, learning literary criticism but rather how to produce literature.  This would be the equivalent of students in a Science Criticism department learning to be scientists.  The analogy appears to break down here: surely this is a step too far – unrealistic in the realm of science?  It may be that creative writing degrees are not realistic preparation for professional activity in the field for most students: that the criticism rebounds upon literature departments.  On the other hand, although it’s hard, it’s not impossible to imagine science criticism as a part of the training to be a scientist.  This could work with some kind of semi-formal relationship between a science criticism department and science departments.

A second issue is that criticism, at least to the lay person, sounds like a negative thing.  Although literary criticism carries no such connotations, it might still have a negative ring when allied with science, especially to those who remember the science wars of the 1990s.  However, the science wars are now (just about) over, and it may now be permissible to admit an admiration for certain science.  It may even be important to do so, as Latour has suggested.[1]  In this period of climate-change denial (in practice if not in theory), it is important to stress what an extraordinary and robust thing is the human network of trust that produces scientific knowledge.  Here, there may be something to learn from literary criticism, where investment in one’s object of study is expected (if rarely explored).  One of the reasons I like going to literature conferences because there is a palpable pleasure that literary critics take in their subjects.  They like the literature they study, and their role is, critically, to explore what works about it.  What would it be like for science critics to allow themselves more emotion and attachment to (or, for that matter, dislike for) their subjects of study?

In 1833, William Whewell famously accepted the challenge to create a single word for those gentlemen who did science.  Maybe, by 2033, we might have one for those of us who study it.  Why not call ourselves, for the time being, ‘science critics’?

[1] Latour, Bruno. “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern.” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (2004): 225-248.

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  1. Whewell's Ghost

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