Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Science moves into the agora" Nowotny et al 2001

[Edit: June summarized the first chapter of this same book. Which has a good definition of Mode-2 science.]

Nowotny, Scott, and Gibbons chapter on the agora is a great analysis based on a flawed observation. First the good bits. The authors list three aspects of Mode-2 societies that create and reinforce the trends they outline with regards to the agora:

  1. Individualization: modern society stresses the rights and responsibilities of people over communities; and likewise science has begun to emphasize agency over structure. (They even take a dig at Giddens' structuration theory [1984].)
  2. Subjectivity: society and science are now valuing subjective perceptions, opinions, and assessments more. Their example is a doctor's mortality rate being replace by a patient's subjective assessment of how well the doctor is doing their job.
  3. Contextualization: their example is drawn from the "customization" efforts in industry to match products to people and settings that need/want them.
That is all background to say that the agora probably isn't going to disappear overnight because it is complimentary to these broader historical changes going on in western societies. So what is the agora?
...the new public space where science and society, the market and politics, co-mingle... a space that transcends the categorization of modernity (p 203)
The examples offered on 204-9 (grant writing, large state universities, research into Chernobyl fallout and GMO plants) are used to show that we could understand the complexities of modern day science within four main constraints:

  1. democratic debate,
  2. global markets,
  3. policy and law,
  4. public opinion and media
However, it would be better if we understood modern science as part of an agora where these four aspects are interconnected and constantly shifting.

They have two big conclusions based on this analysis. First, they claim that scientists are feeling threatened right now and that the scientific community may inaccurately blame one of the four constraints. In reality, it is the process of science becoming part of the agora -- a process they call contextualization -- which is the true threat to scientists: "Science and scientists have not been used to the context speaking back... (pg 207)."

The authors' second conclusion is that the agora (will? may? shall?) force scientists to become "intimate and interactive" with publics that they have ignored in the past; this interaction may lead to a point where scientists are anticipating these new publics at early stages in their research (pg 209). When scientists are anticipating the needs and wants of publics, who exactly are the scientists imagining? That's an interesting question that can only be posed by thinking about science, not as caught among constraints, but as embedded in the agora.

Like I said, this is a good analysis and I think the concept of the agora gives us a useful framework for understanding some of the current events around science, commerce, policy, and democracy. However, the constant reliance on the red herring of the "glory days" of post-WWII science is just poor scholarship. As they note on 206, "Of course, it is ahistorical to argue that the relationship between science and its social and political interlocutors was ever unproblematic; ..." BUT THEN THEY GO ON TO ARGUE EXACTLY THAT.

They set up a false distinction between modern science which has been drug into the agora and post-WWII science which was apparently objective, uncontroversial, and given its due respect. They have a few hand waving references to Galileo and Plato to suggest that maybe, way way way back then, science was in the agora, but surely all us learned people would agree that in 1955 those physicists were living the dream and got to unilaterally proclaim truth with an unlimited budget and didn't even have to wrestle with ethical qualms before smoking their customary pipe at the end of the day.....

The counter example that comes to my mind is the "clean living" movement depicted in the movie The Road to Wellville, which was a curious -- and highly contested -- mix of medical science, pseudo-science, snake oil salesman, Progressive Era politics and puritanical ethics. Surely an agora if there ever was one; the clean living movement flourished from 1890-1910. Maybe Nowotny et al wouldn't call that "modern," but it is certainly a lot closer than their examples of Galileo and Plato. By actively erasing examples of contested science from the 20th century, the authors are giving us false confidence in the distinction between the post-WWII glory days of science and the present day.

Like I said, there is a huge flaw in their evidence, but the analysis they build around the idea of the agora is quite useful nonetheless.

Do you agree with me about the flaw in the evidence?
Are there other examples of agora-like phenomenon in the post-WWII era?

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