Explanation of Upcoming Topics

The topics coming up in the rest of the course are a little more complex, and may be a little less familiar, than the tropes discussed in the first unit. Here are some explanations of the topics, with some examples, that may help you in deciding on your show and tell presentation.

  1. Science as a Social Process — Many of the tropes and popular representations of science present it as the work of a brilliant loner, and many of our most famous figures from the history of science are thought of that way. And yet, science is a social process, and increasingly so as it has become more complex and more reliant on technology.

    The social aspect of the scientific process exists in three stages: (1) Science is often a collaborative endeavor, produced not by the lone scientist, but by groups of scientists working together. One lab may consist of one or more professors, several postdocs and graduate students, undergraduate assistants and lab techs. (2) Scientific fields produce and assess knowledge in a critical fashion. From publishing in journals (including peer review and discussions), to conference presentations, to discussions between scientists, to hiring practices, knowledge, people, and resources are coordinated socially. (3) Science also must relate to science at large, through the press, science communication, policy advising, seeking funding, and so on. (This element shades into the topics in Unit III: Science and Society.) The social aspect means that scientific work always has a double meaning — not only discovery and knowledge and sought and produced, but social recognition, personal relationships, careers, livelihoods, reputations, etc.

    Examples: The way that the team of researchers and graduate students works together in At the Mountains of Madness, the collaborative attempt to decode the Message in Contact, the interactions between the researchers on the laser project in Real Genius, or the way that the group of scientists works to rescue the astronauts in Apollo 13.

  2. Scientific Discovery as Serendipity — A common representation of scientific discovery is that it is serendipitous—by happy chance, lucky, unforeseeable, unplanned. Many romantic stories from the history of science emphasize just this element. Serendipity is a necessary part of any process aimed at discovery, but what is the goal of emphasizing this element of science? (Over, say, the role of hard work and careful planning?) Examples: Newton’s Apple, Poincare’s Bus ride, Kekule’s Ouroboros, Fleming’s Mold, Chris Knight’s discovery of the cold laser.

  3. Science as Personal Journey — In contrast to the social nature of science, some narratives about the scientific process, especially historically situated ones, emphasize the role of the personal journey of the individual scientists, their trials and tribulations that led them to their personal discovery. Examples: Darwin in Creation, Ellie in Contact, Barbara McClintock in A Feeling for the Organism, lots of biographies and autobiographies of scientists.

  4. Misrepresentations and Irresponsibility in Science — This discussion relies heavily on texts from previous weeks, on two related themes: When the press, politicians, and scientists themselves irresponsibly misrepresent science to the public, and when scientists themselves act irresponsibly in the course of the scientific work, e.g., with respect to the treatment of research subjects or the social consequences of their work. Examples: What the research is used for in Real Genius, various media reports on science that blow single studies out of proportion or manufacture controversy, Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Tuskegee experiment.

  5. Science as Religion / Myth — Science goes beyond solving particular problems or doing narrowly conceived studies to trying to present a unified “Scientific Worldview.” The presentation of this worldview is a major part of popular science writing. The scientific worldview is produced by taking the patchwork of established scientific knowledge and trying to smooth it out into a comprehensive image of the world. In some ways, the scientific worldview replaces the cosmological function once reserved for myth and religious doctrine. Why do scientists pursue this sort of work? Examples: Popular writings by Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkings, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

  6. Science and Nationalism — Science is generally an international endeavor. But sometimes, especially in times of war and international crises, science gets put into the service of patriotic, nationalistic, or even jingoistic goals. Examples: The Manhattan project, the space race, Jim Ottaviani’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Doctor Strangelove, the role of the CIA in Real Genius, some of the discussions in Contact, NSF’s defunct Interdisciplinary Research Relevant to Problems of Our Society (IRPOS) and Research Applied to National Needs (RANN) programs.

  7. Science Informing Politics — Science has had an increasing role in informing and advising a variety of political endeavors, especially since World War II. Whether it comes to nuclear weapons, health epidemics, climate change, or expert witnesses in legal trials, science has played an important role in informing major policymaking initiatives as well as political debates. Examples: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway, science advisors to the President in Independence Day