Op-Eds and the Social Context of Science

A few years ago, I taught the third of four special interdisciplinary seminars that students of the CUNY Honors College are required to complete during the course of their degrees. The CHC3 seminar is titled Science and Technology in New York City, a moniker that is open, and subject to, broad interpretation by any faculty member that teaches it. In my three terms of teaching it, I used it to introduce to my students–many of whom were science majors and planned to go on to graduate work in the sciences–among other things, the practice of science and the development and deployment of technology in urban spaces. This treatment almost invariably required me to introduce the notion of a social history of science, among whose notions are that science does not operate independent of its social context, that scientists are social and political actors, that scientific laboratories are social and political spaces, not just repositories for scientific equipment, that scientific theories, ‘advances’ and ‘truths’ bear the mark of historical contingencies and developments. (One of my favorite discussion-inducing examples was to point to the amazing pace of scientific and technological progress in the years from 1939 to 1945 and ask: What could have brought this about?)

If I were teaching that class this semester, I would have brought in Phillip M. Boffey‘s Op-Ed (‘The Next Frontier is Inside Your Brain‘, New York Times, February 23) for a classroom discussion activity. I would have pointed out to my students that the practice of science requires funding, sometimes from private sources, sometimes from governmental ones. This funding does not happen without contestation; it requires justification, because funds are limited and there are invariably more requests for funding than can be satisfied, and sometimes because there is skepticism about the scientific worth of the work proposed. So the practice of science has a rhetorical edge to it; its practitioners–and those who believe in the value of their work–must convince, persuade, and argue. They must establish the worth of what they do to the society that plays host to them.

Boffey’s Op-Ed then, would have served as a classic example of this aspect of the practice of science. It aims to build public support for research projects in neuroscience, because, as Boffey notes at the very outset:

The Obama administration is planning a multiyear research effort to produce an “activity map” that would show in unprecedented detail the workings of the human brain, the most complex organ in the body. It is a breathtaking goal at a time when Washington, hobbled by partisan gridlock and deficit worries, seems unable to launch any major new programs.

This effort — if sufficiently financed — could develop new tools and techniques that would lead to a much deeper understanding of how the brain works. [link  in original]

And then Boffey is off and running. For Congressmen need to be convinced; perhaps petitions will have to be signed; perhaps other competitors who also hope to be ‘sufficiently financed’ need to be shown to be less urgent. And what better place to place and present these arguments than the nation’s media outlets, perhaps its most prominent newspaper?

The scientist as polemicist is one of the many roles a scientist may be called on to play in his work in science. Sometimes his work may be done, in part, by those who have been persuaded by him already. Boffey’s arguments, his language, his framing of the importance of the forthcoming legislation, would, I think, all serve to show to my imagined students this very important component of the practice of science.

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