The current EASST Review is wrestling with the topical question of Alternative Facts. Clearly this is an issue STS cannot duck. But here’s a little historical context.
Since the creation of STS the world has changed. When SSK started in EuroAmerica science was (taken to be) powerful. Certainly it started its disciplinary histories and its laboratory ethnographies on the assumption that it was ‘studying up’. Obviously science and its innovations are still powerful in many respects. In EuroAmerica most who have access to biomedical care make use of it. And most of us who can use its ICTs. But at the same time it’s also a cliché that science is not powerful everywhere in the West – or indeed beyond. Epistemically or otherwise. It is as if the division between politics and truth established in Restoration England 350 years ago and described by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer has finally started to come undone.
How far has STS been responsible for this? Some think: quite a lot. But as I reflect on this I also wonder what difference we have made overall, as a discipline. I’ve heard it said that we fought the science wars, and that we won. If you buy into military metaphors then I suppose that’s right, and it suggests that STS is pretty powerful. And when you link STS tools to, say, the strength of the feminist movement within parts of EuroAmerica, the combination has often been influential.
That said, I tend to be more cautious. My sense is that our discipline is part of a larger weave of post-WWII changes in which scientific authority has been progressively eroded in parts of EuroAmerica. First selectively, as some of its solutions turned into problems in ways that owe little to STS (the invention of a nuclear world, the environmental crisis). And then less selectively, as a range of western populations, industrial special interests, and politicians became happy to doubt experts as and when it suited them to do so. Sometimes, though not always, using the tools of STS or its cognate disciplines. Though, another qualification, countries also differ. Crises of delegitimation in the English-speaking world – the US and to a lesser extent the UK – are particular. How STS works in the Netherlands or Norway or Japan or India is likely to be quite different. More powerful? Less erosive? It depends on the country – but this is a large topic in its own right
On Alternative Facts and the EASST Review: there’s an editorial from Andrey Kuznetsov, together with short comments from Cymene Howe, Estrid Sørensen, David Pontille and Didier Torny, John Law, Helen Verran and Steve Fuller. All of these form part of a new “STS Live” section of the Review. In his editorial Andrey writes that: ‘“STS Live” will focus on issues that are to some extent urgent, relevant to the community, and not resolved.’ This is an important new space for STS, it is online, and it’s open access.