More than the Echo, part 3: into the science wars

As far as I know there has never been another degree quite like it. From lab work and maths to science communication and cultural studies with plenty of history of science in between; a true interdisciplinary mix of science and humanities – at the height of the science wars.

In 1990 I took up a post at Bristol Polytechnic. They were looking for someone to teach into their cultural studies programme but whose key responsibility was helping to develop a new cross-faculty award. I think the original idea was to build a bridge across the “Two Cultures” (Applied Sciences and Humanities) but with all the fuss about PUS an extra strand of science communication was added.

What we developed was, I think, quite extraordinary and I look back on it with pride.

At the time there was a sprinkling of courses in science communication but they tended to be short courses or post-graduate courses. There was very little at undergraduate level and nothing on the scale that we were working with. Our first cohort was 45 students and this would later rise to 60 students. Our shiny new degree was called Science, Society and the Media.

The core of the degree was a series of modules on the Development of Science in a Cultural Context. This placed a history of science within a more general cultural history and used a historical approach to introduce students to basic scientific concepts and methods. Beyond this there were extra modules on science, scientific issues and media studies as well as modules where students acquired practical skills in communication (video, web, photoshop and journalism) to present their ideas. Even with this range and diversity of subject there was still enough science content in the course for it to attract science levels of funding (my colleagues in humanities could not believe how much money was attached to each student).

However, it was (much like cultural studies had once been) a “project” rather than a subject or discipline. We created a space not only for the undergraduate award but also for an associated magazine, a series of seminars, and PhD research(1).

The project leader was theoretical physicist Chris Philippidis (a former student of David Bohm). My job was to lead and co-ordinate things within the Humanities Faculty. The people we worked with had expertise in history, English, physics, chemistry, biology, environmental studies, and media studies. Nevertheless despite this range of disciplines it was a close-knit team (sometimes viewed from outside as a clique) and at one conference in London our contingent was referred to as the “Bristol Mafia”.

What was particularly striking (both then and looking back) was the stark contrast between the close working relationship we had within our team and the divisive exchanges of the science wars that were exploding around us.

Our first students were still to graduate when Gross and Leavitt published their book Higher Superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science. It was an inflammatory response to what they saw as an attack on science from literary criticism, social history and cultural studies – a rag bag of “muddleheaded” ideas influenced by postmodernism, Marxism, feminism, multiculturalism and radical environmentalism.

In that same year (1994) they could also read about the “fiery exchange” between Lewis Wolpert and Harry Collins at the annual meeting of the British Association. Wolpert’s book Unnatural Nature of Science (1992) had taken regular sideswipes at the constructionists and relativists. While Harry Collins with Trevor Pinch had tried to popularise a sociological understanding of science with their book The Golem: what everyone should know about science (1993).

The clash between Wolpert and Collins prompted a special feature in the Times Higher Education Supplement on the question ‘Is science a social construct’ which included a characteristically robust contribution from Richard Dawkins:

Lewis Wolpert is to be congratulated for standing up at the British Association and blowing the whistle on the chic drivel of the ‘all knowledge is a social construct and merits equal attention’ persuasion. …

Western science works…….When you take a 747 to an international convention of sociologists or literary critics, the reason you will arrive in one piece is that a lot of western trained scientists and engineers got their sums right. If it gives you satisfaction to say that the theory of aerodynamics is a social construct that is your privilege, but why do you then entrust your air-travel plans to a Boeing rather than a magic carpet? As I have put it before, show me a relativist at 30,000 feet and I will show you a hypocrite.

This public face to the science wars was especially important since some of the most high profile and fiercest critics of the sociological perspective such as Dawkins and Wolpert were also leading players in the PUS movement – Dawkins as Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and Wolpert as chairman of COPUS.

If nothing else the science wars raised the stakes, because in “understanding science” what was it that the public should understand? What was science? A collection of facts? An access point to the ‘truth’? Simply something that some people do? Most importantly, was it a social construction or not?

Note:

1. The PhD research was carried out by Adam Nieman and his thesis on The Popularisation of Physics: Boundaries of Authority and the Visual Culture of Science can be read here. Adam is now creative director for Carbon Visuals working on the concrete visualisation of greenhouse gas emissions (well worth taking a look).

Some of this is edited from Understanding Popular Science

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