As part of the MSc in History of Science, Technology and Medicine that I am doing, there is an optional module on the Sociology of Science.

I had a go at it. I tried – I really did. But – well, first of all I had to try and overcome a certain degree of prejudice against the subject. You see, I grew up in the 1960s, and around that time (60s/70s) sociology occupied approximately the same position in the academic curriculum as “media studies” does today – in other words, it was seen as what people studied if they couldn’t get onto any other degree programme. It was fairly common in those days to find, written on the wall of a public toilet just above the toilet roll holder,

“Sociology Degrees – Please Take One”

So hopefully you’ll see what I’m up against. Apologies to any sociologists reading this, but I can’t help it – every time I see the word “sociology”, or some other word prefixed with “social”, all I can see is that toilet roll.

And yet the study of how our immensely complex society works is surely a valid and worthy occupation; and there is no reason why the section of society that is concerned with science should not be included in that study. But then one comes up against a second hurdle: the way science is treated by sociologists seems to be needlessly negative and confrontational.

For instance, the pre-reading for the second lecture in this course included a piece by the intriguingly-named Park Doing, in which Science & Technology Studies (an umbrella term for history, philosophy and sociology of science, together with science policy and science communication studies) was likened to a “hotly contested academic region between the republics of sociology, philosophy, history and anthropology”; and one aim of the sociology of science was described as “taking back the laboratory from the demarcationists”. This aggressive language seems an odd way of talking about an academic discipline; and you may have noticed that the “republic” conspicuous by its absence was science itself.

The other reading piece, by Michael Lynch, was about “protocols”, and how written instructions for laboratory procedures tend to differ from the way the procedures are actually carried out. He illustrates this with two examples, one in molecular biology and one in forensic science. Here, science is, literally, in the dock: the scientist is portrayed as one participant in an adversarial process in which his or her procedures are questioned and criticised by the defence counsel in a court case. To be sure, such things happen. But is it a good model for the sociology of science to base itself on?

Now, I have already had a good old rant about one sociologist of science, Harry Collins, who, despite the best of intentions, clearly had a limited understanding of the science he was observing. Yet it seems that the idea of sociologists, with plenty of sociological training (and the jargon to match) but little scientific knowledge, parachuting into the lab and observing scientists, is the norm in this field. One does not seem to read about any sort of requirement for co-operation between the observers and the observed (although Collins clearly had a good relationship with his laser-building “subjects”, and was even allowed to help with the lab work), nor get any sense of it being an equal partnership.

It gets worse. Doing, paraphrasing the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina, says that

“the contingent, messy, life-world of the laboratory that she brought out with her study cannot be found in the final official published account of the episode, which reads like a high school textbook account of the scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, results etc). The question … is how, precisely, does the fact that this work took place and was subsequently erased relate to the status of the particular technical fact claimed by the scientists”.

The preposterous idea that a scientist would erase anything is not challenged; in fact the word crops up again and again. One of its later appearances, it is true, refers to scientific papers “erasing contingency” so maybe it is not being suggested that information is actually being destroyed, just suppressed. Yet even this betrays a staggering ignorance of what scientific papers are for. They are not, and have never been, meant to contain absolutely every detail of the work done, only a summary of it; if Doing or Knorr Cetina wanted more of the “contingent, messy” details they only had to ask to see the scientists’ lab books.

This is not an isolated misunderstanding; Collins, for instance, seems to have been equally ignorant of the rôle played by the scientific paper when he described the difference between the sum total of a scientist’s knowledge of a particular experiment, and the paper in which the results are announced, as “tacit knowledge”. At least Lynch, in highlighting the discrepancy between written protocols and actual practice, is careful to distance himself from such a claim.

I am not necessarily defending the format of the scientific paper here; I realise that one of the important claims made by science is that the details of experiments are freely available so that others can replicate them; and so not publishing everything in the one paper might be seen as contradicting that claim. However, it does not mean they are not still freely available; and anyone who has ever had an article published in any journal knows that editors are forever trying to cut. They probably have a point; with some modern experiments, a paper giving full details might be hundreds of pages long and thus unlikely to get read; and whole printed journals would be a foot thick. This is one area where the internet can help; if reports of experiments are electronic, rather than printed, there should be no limit to the length of the paper. And trials have been done of “open science” in which all the details of an experiment are made available on-line. (See, for instance, my report of a talk by Ann Grand at the 2012 “Science In Public” conference in the October edition of the BSHS magazine,  Viewpoint).

What I believe is needed is a more sympathetic, co-operative kind of sociology in which the sociologist and the scientist work together, and in which sociologists’ training reflects the kind of studies they are going to make – if “sociology of science” as a discipline means anything, it surely ought to mean a kind of amalgam of the two separate disciplines, whose practitioners are knowledgeable in both?

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