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Critiquing science from outside

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One of my favorite stories of the perceived war between fuzzies and techies is that of the Sokal Affair. Increasingly irked by a faction of postmodern critical theorists who claimed, among other things, that the field of physics was unfairly masculine, the NYU physicist Alan Sokal submitted a hoax article to the journal Social Text. Liberally salted with nonsense about ‘morphogenic fields’ and the progressive political implications of quantum gravity, the article intended to highlight the lack of insight that critics of science and the scientific method had into the very ideas that they were supposed to be criticizing. The article was of course published, Sokal announced his prank, and physicists could be smug about their intellectual superiority until the Bogdanov Affair happened a few years later.

I started thinking about this story again a few weeks ago when I heard a friend mention a STS class titled “Critique of Technology.” While the syllabus mentions plenty of material about the social implications of technology, including clips from “Black Mirror,” sections of Heidegger, and manifestos for ‘technological resistance,’ it conspicuously avoids any actual scientific literature.

I noticed a similar pattern in a class I took on the history of science and exploration last quarter. Even though we discussed the impact of advances in navigational science on European expansion throughout the world, we did not spend time diving into the details of these technological advancements, instead restricting ourselves to a discussion of their implications alone. As the only person with a science background in the class (I am a physics major), I was slightly perturbed by the fact that so many people in the field of history of science did not meaningfully distinguish between the different branches of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and mathematics, instead lumping disparate advances in these fields into a catchall category broadly defined as ‘science’ or ‘technology.’ The impact, and implications, of advances in string theory are vastly different from those of genetically modified microbes.

As we move into a world where science and technology play increasingly central roles in our lives, we must have a healthy debate about the implications of things like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and the internet of things. However, it is imperative that those engaging in these debates have at least a cursory understanding of the physical processes that drive these technologies and of the thinking that underlies our understanding of the natural world. Otherwise, we might be left with important people believing the implications of joke ideas over and over again.

Much has been said about requiring a humanities core for STEM students at Stanford. However, let us remember that the point of this core is to have all our students go through a broad, liberal education. It would do us well to require humanities students to do the same, especially when it is possible to fulfill breadth requirements without taking a single serious math, science, or engineering class.

Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.