Cultural Interpretation of Science: A succession of themes

17 Feb '13
The themes to follow were introduced through activities in a graduate course on Biology in Society. The challenge is to revise this exposition so it becomes an intersection of strands through which a student develops into interpreting science in its social context.

0. (from notes on an earlier undergraduate version of the course)
What is science?
This course aims to expand the boundaries of the influences you consider when interpreting the practice, products, and impact of the life sciences. Science is not just a "dialogue" between theory and reality, but works on many levels:
outlet for curiousity
body of accepted knowledge
process of establishing knowledge
what scientists do
institutions (labs, professional associations, funding agencies, etc.)
source of social authority
producer of social impacts

At each level social influences affect the construction (=making, interpretation) of life (= life sciences, life processes, your personal life).

Construction as a central metaphor of the course

Construction as a metaphor (*) for this course connotes that:
i) many elements are linked together ->
ii) things have multiple contributing causes ->
iii) there are multiple points of intervention (points at which the courses of construction could be changed).

More connotations will emerge as the course proceeds.

Complexity and Critical thinking
Obviously, constructionist accounts are more complex than accounts emphasizing proximate causes (e.g., a rhinovirus caused my cold). To ground your constructionist accounts and to engage with (as against become swamped by) this complexity of causes ask:
1. Which elements are most readily changed?
2. Who is/are responsible for changing them (or for resisting change)?
Thinking about what could be different characterizes, in one phrase, critical thinking. A central aim of this course is that you develop as critical thinkers, and a central method we use is to contrast one approach against another. For example:

Deterministic explanations tend in the opposite direction from points i)-iii) above, i.e., the links between proposed causes and outcome are direct; few steps are involved in the construction and a single or small number of causes dominate; few opportunities arise for things to have happened differently (in particular, social policy won’t be able to change much).

Theme 1: Interpreters of science can approach the complexity of particular cases indirectly by motivating simple themes that open up questions and point to further work needed to grapple with the complexities of other, particular cases.

Theme 2: It can be illuminating to ask what the authors (including ourselves) state or imply about what we can do. (This deliberately broad formulation encompasses views about the social actions and organization they support as well as their views about the capabilities of different people growing up in our society and how difficult these are to change.)

Theme 3: Close examination of concepts and methods within any given natural or social science can stimulate our inquiries into the diverse social influences shaping that science, and reciprocally.

"Ideas of nature underlie a great deal of social thought and have done so through recorded history. The changing meanings of "nature" and the tensions among co-existing meanings have been analyzed brilliantly by the English cultural analyst Raymond Williams; he shows us a history readable in terms of the social order being defended or promoted.* The romantic ideal, for example, of a unspoiled places and sentiments (i.e., nature separate from "man") arose at a time when industrialization was rapidly escalating exploitation of people and natural resources (i.e., producing unprecedented interdependencies among peoples and nature), exploitation underwritten by the removal of traditional checks in the name, ironically, of the natural principles of individual autonomy and of unconstrained pursuit of utility in social transactions. Following Williams, whenever we hear the environment and its conservation being talked about we should factor into our interpretations the social concerns and social-historical location of those who hold those ideas. The recent literature on conservation efforts in colonial Africa and India, for example, has been revealing vividly how policies and actions to preserve species and habitats were greatly motivated by anxieties about changes back in the metropole and by the need to assign "primitive" peoples some less threatening place in the colonial order."

A number of structural themes are used implicitly or explicitly by writers (see list of themes and their alternatives).

5. Close reading of foundational texts in science allow us to unpack the multiple layers of a scientific theory. In the case of Darwin's exposition of his theory of natural selection, the layers are: the argument, analogy, metaphor, and defences.

6. When an interpreter of science notes correlations between a scientist's social position and their actual scientific research, how does the scientist do their work in a way that such correlations arise?

7. It is worth trying, in part because it is difficult, to invent metaphors of or analogies to embryological development that do not rely on a central controller but capture the ability of the organism to co-ordinate its own differentiation and change and thereby make itself.

Styles of causal explanation and their relation to ideas about action

Theme 1:
The causes proposed reflect social actions desired/ supported

Theme 2 :
When people make explanations look at how they attempted to identify or locate the causation and consider alternatives/ tensions. If a scientist is emphasizing, say, a unitary cause, consider the multiple factors they are excluding.
This approach will help you raise questions about the other commitments that influence their choice of questions, categories, factors, and admissable explanations. The causal explanation that is advanced often corresponds to the person's commitments to certain forms of social action, e.g. Galton (Darwin's cousin) didn't measure any environmental variables and was thus able only to reach conclusions about (supposedly) inborn characters; Davenport and others similarly denied the significance of Goldberger's experimental evidence for dietary basis of pellagra. Can you identify similar divergences in explanations of causes and proposals for action in the case of other diseases, e.g. cancer, AIDS?

Some tensions:

local/focal , proximate, single factors <---->
+ certain background factors
synthetic, multiple factors

specified & modifiable
generally interacting
linked in specific ways


interactive, synergistic

-- internal to some object (e.g. each individual person) vs. in the external relations
-- in the present situation vs. in its history

causes exposed by:
some data
+ some assumptions


naturally variable observations
experimentally controlled ones

bits of evidence


“false” correlations
good comparative work

Theme 3:
More proximate causes (e.g., a lung cancer gene) are not necessarily needed to ensure the most effective action (we can encourage people to stop smoking independently of knowing the genetic mechanisms of lung cancer).

9. By unpacking the debate between Lewontin and Jensen about genes, race and IQ scores, the following themes should emerge:
a. There are no simple explanation about genetics and socially significant traits, esp. re: average racial differences => be skeptical of anyone who proposes such an explanation (i.e., scrutinize where they are coming from).
b. There are researchers who have detailed often technical cases to make (even if their conclusion is quite simple, e.g., Jensen believes it is plausible that genes account for (average) racial differences), and their case can be teased out into its components (in this case, with help from Lewontin, who can handle the technical side and has views about the political/social implications and underpinnings of the science).
c. What can we do (on the basis of the science)? is worth asking of all sides. (Jensen thinks we have tried and failed to equalize education so educate people according to their innate capacities [actually, educate people according to the typological generalization about the average differences between the races]; Lewontin thinks educational professionals haven't tried very hard and when society is committed to equalizing education ways will be found.)

10. If the case of phenylketonuria (PKU) is any guide (Paul 1998), significant complexities should be expected to arise if neonatal genetic diagnosis and advice about risks and about possible protective measures become widespread. Moreover, just as PKU individuals are subject to diverse influences on their pathways of development over the life course, there are many voices that could be listened to in understanding how to use new genetic information (Rapp 1988).

In this light, design a forum to help supplement advances in genetic screening by leading communities to develop
a) greater tolerance for normal variation;
b) social measures to care for people suffering from abnormal variation; and/or
c) multiple voices/constituencies/ethical positions around gene-based medicine.

11. Diagramming of Intersecting Processes is designed to lead students
1. to understand the development of biomedical and social phenomena in terms of linkages among processes of different kinds and scales that build up over time—genetics, treatment, family and immediate social context, social welfare systems and economics, wider cultural shifts, ….

2. to use graphic organizers to help them visualize such “intersecting processes” and to identify places where detail is missing and where further inquiry is needed.

3. [depending on level of students and prior preparation] to contrast the implications of thinking in terms of direct causation (like spokes going to a hub) with “heterogeneous construction,” my term for the following ideas:
“a) Without any superintending constructor or outcome-directed agent,
b) many heterogeneous components are linked together, which implies that
c) the outcome has multiple contributing causes, and thus
d) there are multiple points of intervention or engagement that could modify the course of development. In short,
e) causality and agency are distributed, not localized. Moreover,
f) construction is a process, that is, the components are linked over time,
g) building on what has already been constructed, so that
h) it is not the components, but the components in linkage that constitute the causes. Points c) and f–h) together ensure that
i) it is difficult to partition relative importance or responsibility for an outcome among the different types of cause (e.g., 80% genetic vs. 20% environmental). Generally,
j) there are alternative routes to the same end, and
k) construction is "polypotent," that is, things involved in one construction process are implicated in many others. Engaging in a construction process, even in very focused interventions, will have side effects. Finally, points f) and k) mean that
l) construction never stops; completed outcomes are less end points than snapshots taken of ongoing, intersecting processes” (Taylor 2001).