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Golem science and the public understanding of science: from deficit to dilemma

DOI: 10.1088/0963-6625/8/2/301

Locke, Simon (1999). "Golem science and the public understanding of science: from deficit to dilemma." Public Understanding of Science, 8(2), 75–92.

p.76: “Golem science” is Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch's humanized image of science, filled with irresolution, that they wish to substitute for the “god-like” image of definitive knowledge characteristic of public presentations of science. This god-like image creates unrealistic expectations that fuel “anti-scientific” reactions when unmet. This paper argues that the “flip-flop” view set forth by Collins and Pinch is a deficit model that positions the public as sociologically incompetent. It reflects the dilemma of professional social scientists who deconstruct science whilst appealing to the authority of science. This dilemma is an outcome of a deeper tension within science between the universal status of knowledge claims and the particular, human conditions of knowledge production. Drawing on discursive (or rhetorical) psychology, I show that this tension plays out in the rhetorical organization of scientific discourse in the form of a characteristic contrast between empiricist and contingent repertoires. A similar tension is discernible in everyday, mundane reasoning, which suggests that a golem image of science is already present in commonsense understanding alongside the “god-like” image. Thus, the public understanding of science is dilemmatically constituted, providing the conditions of argumentation with science seen in “antiscience”—itself a “folk devil” and rhetorical label. The analysis in this paper is illustrated using the example of creationism, which arises from an argumentative engagement with science that draws on the resources provided by the dilemma of science in conjunction with other resources drawn from Christianity. There is no simple “flip-flop” here. Further research into rhetorical reasoning in public understanding is called for on the grounds that greater appreciation of this is needed alongside golem science to improve relations between scientists and the public. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.77: This implies an idealized vision of scientific enquiry as internally harmonious, self-consistent, and resolved around its empirical, methodological and theoretical substance. However, this is the very view of science around which debate is focused. Is it, in fact, the case that science—to say nothing of other academic disciplines—is internally unified and uniform in this way? If we claim or assume that it is, then we are likely to view the central problems in the public understanding of science as involving matters of scientific communication and literacy and addressed to questions of how best to transfer knowledge without information loss or corruption. If, on the other hand, we take a different view of science, that it is filled with conflict and irresolution, that it is—in the delightful image suggested by Collins and Pinch (hereafter, C&P)—a “golem,” then our view of the questions in public understanding is likely to be quite different. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.77: This paper brings these dilemmas to the forefront in order to raise the possibility that they not only shape the institutionalized professional practices of scientists and other academics—including, not least, public understanding researchers—but also shape the public response to science. This is done first through a focus on C&P's image of “golem science,” which is used to show that the dilemmas of science in relation to the public bridge the two sides of the “science wars.” Additionally, I argue that the “golem” image holds implications for the public understanding of science that are not properly identified by C&P. Whereas C&P stress the novelty of the image, I argue for its continuity with the particularized and humanized image of science that is the counterpoint to the universalist image and, as such, is widely available as an interpretative resource within modern culture. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.78: For this god-like image of science, C&P wish to substitute the more fallible image of the golem. They outline a series of cases from the history of science in order to bring out the unresolved nature of the episodes and their general messiness, despite the received wisdom of science, which characterizes them quite to the contrary. Thus, C&P contend that from within the institutionalized forms of the presentation of science, we would never appreciate the messiness and irresolution; rather, we would find only the prevailing image of a smoothly finished product, clear and precise in its knowledge, authoritatively accurate in its judgments, and coherently reflecting a singular empirical reality, seemingly directly accessible to the scientist's expert scrutiny. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.78: This textbook image, C&P argue, is a dangerous one, because it may encourage higher public expectations of science than can actually be delivered. And when science fails to live up to this ideal, it may elicit “a still worse anti-scientific movement” in reaction. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.78: In C&P's terms, this “flip-flop thinking” about science, in which it is “either all good or all bad” can be avoided by substituting the humanized image of the golem. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.78: The key feature of the golem metaphor for C&P is that it is a product of human invention. The term comes, they explain, from Jewish mythology, where it refers to a man-made, magical entity, which is powerful but rather stupid and clumsy. As such, although intended to act as a human helper, a slave or protector, it has the potential to cause great harm if not adequately controlled. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.78: C&P's intention then is to replacewhat they see as a simplistic contrast in public attitudes to science—all good or all bad—with this more tolerant, humanized image, as a fallible creature, reflecting the weaknesses and inadequacies of its makers. In a word, science is a human product, or in the more prosaic commonplace, scientists are human too -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.79: For social scientists, however, the critique of the social institution of science and the form of knowledge it produces disables any commitment to this type of deficit model. The deficit model is readily identifiable as the rhetoric of professional ideology, masking inequities of power in the language of democratization; citizenship through science comes at the price of expressing knowledge in ways acceptable to professional (natural) scientists—it is our way or not at all. Hence the presence of competing knowledge claims and knowledge bases are rejected as simply “anti-science,” all of a stripe regardless of whatever specifics may define them. In unmasking this ideology, however, social scientists are left needing to find other grounds on which to defend their own claim to superior knowledge. Regularly, this is done through appealing to the critique of professional ideology itself; the superiority of social science over everyday public knowledge resides precisely in its lack of acceptance of the ideological self-image of science, and its special expertise resides in the skills required to use the tools of critical insight. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.79: The appeal is clearest in arguments from political economy that emphasize the role of science in maintaining and legitimating a dominant institutional order of modernity and concomitantly advocate an active role for the social scientist as participant in public critique. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.80: Notably, whilst C&Pmight allowfor themessiness of science, they do not seem to allow also for the messiness of the public, especially with respect to the public's variable capacities and potentials for playing science at its own game. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.80: The monolithic image of science has, as its counterpoint, a monolithic image of the public, a construction of the professional interest of scientists in maintaining the claim to superior knowledge; it is defined, as in bas-relief, against a background of general ignorance. Thus, C&P's image of public understanding parallels the “deficit” model, but whereas this presents the public as only scientifically illiterate, C&P, in accord with the claim of the professional social scientific expert, take the further step, at least implicitly, of viewing the public as sociologically incompetent. Thus, the public are now doubly deficient. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.80: The question for public understanding research is, Can we maintain the stance of experts whilst also accommodating the public's critique of expertise? We can ifwe take as our problem the nature of the critique of expertise, the forms and nuances it takes, and, most fundamentally, the conditions of its possibility. The question should not be, How mistaken are public critics of expertise? nor, What nonscientific (i.e., social) interests do they express? but rather, What is the nature of the social conditions that enables such critique to arise? -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.81: The broadness of this frame encompasses a humanized image of science that goes beyond cardboard cutout “mad scientists,” enabling narratives of varying subtlety and sophistication to be imagined. Cranny-Francis argues that the “science of science fiction. .. has one major function: it establishes the constructed nature of knowledge by drawing attention to theways in which science and/or technology determine and/or reflect the dominant rhetoric and ideology of a society.” -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.85: Talk of “anti-science” becomes, in effect, a fact-constructional move, a stage in a labeling process whereby the purported phenomenon of an “anti-science movement” within the wider society can be said to exist. “Anti-science” becomes the “folk devil” accompanying the “moral panic” over the public understanding of science. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.88: Science shows this with its internal dilemma between context-free universalism and context-bound particularity, as expressed in the contrasting discourses of empiricism and contingency. The analysis given here supports the contention that this dilemma and argumentative logic is played out in public arenas within modernity, as in the case of creationism. However, the case of creationism also suggests that the dilemmatical discourse of Enlightenment science stimulates argumentation both within the discursive field of science as to its nature and implications and between this field and those of other ideologies. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.89: The need for such research shows the need for public understanding experts. But rather than being experts of the technical kind, who position themselves in judgment over the paucity of public understanding, they would be experts who, in Barnes's words, “seek to discover... [science] as a segment of culture already defined by actors themselves.” -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014

p.90: The virtue of golem science is that it speaks to people as open rhetorical reasoners; it does not try to beat them into shape but to persuade them with its clumsy charm. It must also be prepared, nonetheless, for the people to remain unpersuaded and to be outraged when its clumsiness does harm. At times golem science will have to allow itself to be directed, to be taken in hand and guided by the open palm. In such a case, rhetorical analysis will not, and should not, make the choices for us; it may actually make the choosing more difficult. But it will at least help us understand how the choices are constituted and foster dialogue about them. -- Highlighted aug 22, 2014