January 22, 2012

States of Knowledge: Autism, bird flu, and co-production

This week for class we read selected chapters from the book, States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order, edited by Sheila Jasanoff. It's important to first understand the concept of "co-production" in the context of science and democracy. Jasanoff's co-production is the co-evolution, co-dependency, and obviously co-production of science and social order. This is a useful conceptual tool for studying science, technology, and society because it refuses to cede to technological or social determinism that is present in other social science scholarship. For example, the theories of Thomas Malthus are social determinist because they disregard the human capacity for innovation. More recently, the controversies around eugenics and intelligence testing (as I discussed last week) assume that intelligence is a "natural," or genetically determined, trait. A technologically determinist perspective would be how technology ultimately shapes our society. For example, one might argue that the confluence of highways, automobiles, and fast food restaurants are the cause of obesity in America. But this ignores the social determinants of obesity, and also the social transitions in post-WWII America that co-evolved with a car-centric, processed food-based society.

Jasanoff further separates co-production into two facets: constitutive and interactional. Constitutive co-production helps explain nationhood and legitimacy of knowledge; more simply, what we consider nature and society, and why. Interactional co-production is more concerned with how we know things. This is broadly referred to as "boundary work"- or interactions between science and society/politics. Looking to the Science section of the New York Times, I can easily find articles that resonate with each category. One article describes how "New Definition of Autism Will Exclude Many, Study Suggests." The American Psychiatric Association sets the standards of mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), with the newest revision causing fears of under diagnosis of autism or autism spectrum disorders. This really clearly demonstrates constitutive co-production, because the DSM definitions of disorders are shaped by both social norms and scientific knowledge. And there are implications for both science and society: presumably, the concern is that people who are not properly diagnosed will miss out on crucial health and social services. The scientific implications are also important: statistics will shift, doctors will change their practices of diagnosis, and new standards are institutionalized.

Another recent article helps demonstrate “interactional” co-production: “Scientists to Pause Research on Deadly Strain of Bird Flu.” As mentioned in the article, an absolute moratorium on research is seldom seen (even with stem cells, research could still continue under private funding). But it seems that cultural differences between America and Europe are playing a part. A Dutch virologist stated, “‘It is unfortunate that we need to take this step to help stop the controversy in the United States’… ‘I think if this were communicated better in the United States it might not have been needed to do this. In the Netherlands we have been very proactive in communicating to the press, politicians and public, and here we do not have such a heated debate.’” It’s funny how the same argument is used about agricultural biotechnology (genetic modification of foods); only switch the positions of the U.S. and Europe. And importantly, the article points out that although we have “never seen the scientific world so polarized, and that led him to urge the researchers to show good faith and flexibility by declaring the moratorium themselves.” This is a clear, although likely unintentional, reference to the idea that science governs itself, rooting back to Michael Polanyi’s “Republic of science,” and that science should be unfettered by government restrictions or impositions. In the realm of post-war science policy, old habits die hard.

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