History of Knowledge and Contemporary Discourse on Science

The polarizing contemporary debate on science in the United States could be extraordinarily interesting for historians of knowledge, if it were occurring in the past. Still, if we could divert our attention from the news for a moment, we might find it still offers some food for thought.

In the midst of the current conversation, which is experiencing renewed fervor under the new administration, the Twitterverse is exploding with talk of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fact-based journalism,” “fake news,” and “lies.” This rhetoric encompasses not just climate science but also everyday policy-making and “s/he said” – “s/he said” arguments. It is easy to get caught up in this conversation, whose ideological and epistemological battle lines seem so clearly drawn, but one thing gets lost—most of the time, anyway.

A pair of tweets offered a funny and useful reminder recently. Alice Dreger remarked:

When the science march happens, I plan to be with my fellow historians and sociologists of science in the “yes, but” crowd.

And Ben Gross replied:

WHAT DO WE WANT?
* ACCEPTANCE THAT SCIENCE IS A COMPLEX SOCIAL PROCESS!
WHEN DO WE WANT IT?
* AFTER A WELL-RESEARCHED HISTORICAL DISCUSSION!

If the concerns of historians studying science in particular and knowledge more generally do not lend themselves to sloganeering, they nonetheless have something constructive to offer. For starters, the above tweets remind us that scientists are social beings in specific institutional and disciplinary contexts. The embeddedness of science goes further, however, for science coexists with other modes of knowing.

Thus, if the scientific consensus about climate change is broadly correct, that does not mean we get to dismiss climate change deniers merely with rhetoric about “facts,” which themselves have a history. Instead, what if we were to take seriously the knowledge not only of the climate scientists and their allies but also of their opponents?

This question does not represent a naive argument about everything being relative. The point, instead, is to recall that the producers and adherents of science and other forms of academic knowledge coexist in sociocultural matrices with other forms of knowledge.

Leaving aside religion, metaphysics, or issues raised by quantum physics and the nature of consciousness, most people—scientists and laypeople alike—take the existence of objective reality as a given, at least in their everyday lives. They are also willing to accept many scientific findings that they cannot verify with their own senses. For many of these same people, however, climate science is a bridge too far. Why?

It is easy to blame the U.S. education system or the scientific community for not communicating the scientific method adequately. It is also easy to portray science and religion as mutually incompatible. Such approaches do not take seriously the agency of climate change deniers (or immunization rejectors, GMO opponents, etc.) and so cannot engage their opponents in a meaningful fashion. Disagreement takes on an ideological air. There is only right and wrong, good-faith actors and bad—or the terribly ignorant.

Such struggles are almost inevitable and probably necessary. Nonetheless, wouldn’t it be useful to explore the operations and logics of the alternative, non- or antiscientific knowledge that informs climate change deniers and skeptics of other scientifically supported practices? Put differently, the privileged position of scientific and other modes of academic knowing should not be allowed to blind us to other forms of knowing practiced by other social actors.

From this point of view, it seems to me, a knowledge perspective has much to offer, even if historians will have to leave current societal challenges surrounding knowledge to the sociologists and anthropologists.

Mark Stoneman holds a PhD in history and is an editor at the GHI, Washington, DC. This piece first appeared on his personal blog, Stoneman’s Corner, on February 11, 2017.