(De)mobilizing the (STS) facts

by Andrey Kuznetsov

The April issue features a new section, “STS Live”. The idea is to shift slightly the perspective on what a publication in a scholarly review might be. Not only a report, something accomplished, done, and fixed, but also something ongoing, vibrant, interactive, and living. “STS Live” will focus on issues that are to some extent urgent, relevant to the community, and not resolved. Writing on such matters is business as usual for journalists, but quite a challenge for scholars. Our new section is a small vehicle for engaging analytically with what is happening #rightnow and for producing a type of “cloud atlas” (David Mitchell) for STS. An attempt at mapping something that is changing live, on the air, right before your eyes, puts to the fore not just some statements (let alone established facts) and the differences between them, but also the very lines of STS reasoning, the analytical tools of mapping that also envision how STS could/might/should be practiced in the near or distant future. “STS Live” is about STS thinking in the making.

It is indicative that the first topic of “STS Live” is “Alternative Facts”. Discussion of these matters reaches to core issues of the field. I have a strong feeling that we are getting back to the questions of scientific fact-building and the facticity of STS’s own constructions. One way to approach these questions from a different angle is to think about how (STS) facts (de)mobilize and are (de)mobilized.

In the 1970s and 1980s, STS was striving not just to deconstruct the universality of scientific truth-claims, but to show how entities are mobilized to become or to compound facts and what costs should be paid for the facts to travel “further” and “faster”. STS scholars, contrary to their own findings, were loath to do what scientists themselves do: not eager to get rid of the context of its own facts and even less so to black-box them. We are always trying to keep an eye on the alternatives, the others, the silenced, the underdogs. This makes STS descriptions at odds with STS’s own practice if it is supposed to be a science. And this discrepancy also brings on the whole discussion of whether STS is practicing what it preaches that is recurring in current debates on alternative facts (Woolgar, 1988, Fuller, this issue).

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Mol’s (1999) notion of “ontological politics” showed that erasure of alternative versions of reality is not always the case (at least in some places outside the laboratory, such as the clinic) and not even the sought ideal. Alternatives are not just separate options but are partially connected, entangled with each other, and co-ordinated in a situated fashion, as David Pontille and Torny show for scientific publications (this issue). This strand of research strengthened the tendency of STS to be more situated, slow, cautious, and modest, to the point of “fighting” their own success (Law, 1999, Latour, 1999).

But beyond this, the post-truth condition raises major epistemo-political dilemmas for STS scholars.

First, they could become empirically informed “new positivists”, who unlike “old positivists” reflexively learned their science from their partners/objects of study, and who will mobilize (i.e. decontextualize and black-box) their own facts to gain scientific and possibly political power and authority to STS. This would imply that STS becomes yet another powerful, albeit reflexive actor among the others.

Second, STS scholars could also take a somewhat critical stance (not implying judgment) towards the modern sciences (both natural and social) and their ideal of mobilizing the facts. In this case, STS would continue un-black-boxing, producing uncertainty instead of certainty, exchanging matters of fact for matters of concern and care. STS could consider the pace of modern science and technology not as the ideal to follow creatively, but as a problem. It could proscribe itself to follow a red-carpet avenue of sciences (see cover image). But, as Verran (this issue) observes, this strategic achievement could be criticized as a return of the (repressed) detached observer. However, this stance could imply some engagement in the form of “Enlightenment without the critique” (Latour, 1987). STS could not only learn from sciences but teach them how to slow down, how to be concerned, cautious, careful.

A third option is of course a combination of the two alternatives just described and to intervene with one of them according to a particular situation. It seems that some STS researchers proclaim this alternative as the most appropriate tactic (Verran, this issue), but I’m not sure whether anyone is pursuing it seriously.

At such crossroads, STS could and should ask itself whether in the post-truth condition it considers itself a science, or something else. Maybe diplomacy?