Learning Outcomes: Science, Technology, Society & Environment (STSE) Relationships
This page provides perspectives about STSE relationships, including possible harms in them and research-informed & negotiated sociopolitical actions to overcome harms, that may be taught in school science/STEM education. STSE education, promoted in Ontario curricula, is related to socioscientific issues (SSI) education, which is globally popular. As described below, STSE/SSI education should largely be informed by STS Research.
To teach about STSE relationships, educators learn from professionals in STEM fields; but, perhaps more importantly, from scholars in fields of Science & Technology Studies (STS) – professors & graduate students who conduct research into the nature (characteristics) of myriad other fields that create or use science & technology (S&T). These include studies of biology, chemistry & physics; but, also, fields like museology, political economy & STS education. A major organization of STS scholars is the Society for Social Studies of Science, who publish findings in journals like: Science, Technology & Human Values; Science as Culture; Minerva; and, Issues in Science and Technology. Early work, such as Latour’s studies of laboratory life, suggested, for example, that science conclusions involved psychological ‘warfare’ among scientists and that decisions could be influenced by inanimate objects like bacteria.
Dynamic STSE Relationships
Contrary to ‘isolationist’ and/or ‘foundationalist’ (e.g., Science –> Engineering) conceptions of ‘science’ like that depicted here, STS research suggests that – as depicted at right/below – fields of science are in 2-way relationships with fields of technology and societies & environments (STSE), reflecting more sociological views of science. STS scholars have long claimed, for instance, that fields of science & technology (S&T or ‘STEM‘) often are influenced by ‘outsiders’ – as with Galileo’s conflicts with the RC Church. More recently, based on actor-network theory from STS scholarship, STSE relationships are seen as highly dynamic – like here.
Pro-capitalist Global Relationships
Although all actants in the world are thought to co-affect each other, and, therefore, perhaps equally-spread their influences across networks, there is much evidence to suggest that networks tend to be biased – forming what Foucault calls dispositifs which, like machines, are assemblages of actants that generally cooperate to serve certain goals. Among dispositifs, perhaps most important are those servicing capitalists – which, broadly, aim to maximize personal profit, often regardless of external related harms. Although capitalism exists in different forms, a dominant version is neoliberalism – which, generally, ’employs’ governments, supranational organizations (e.g., WTO), think tanks (e.g., Atlas Network), etc. to help align myriad other actants (e.g., STEM fields; technologies; universities; currencies; populations; etc.) so that they accept as normal capitalist values like competitive possessive individualism and cost externalization. In that vein, it has been suggested that capitalism is like cancer (here & here).
Pro-capitalist STEM Fields
Given co-productive relationships between S&T/STEM fields and societal zeitgeists (Jasanoff), capitalist influences on the ‘nature’ of such fields are very important. Although there are many exceptions, much evidence suggests that topic choices, research methods, outcomes and sharing of outcomes, etc. often are compromised due to powerful pro-capitalist influences on them (e.g., A; B; C; D; E; F; G). Regarding the schema at right/below, for instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists have suggested that pro-capitalist acts (e.g., manipulated government regulations) can, for example, ‘muzzle’ negative results of scientists’ investigations (e.g., about climate change). Meanwhile, in terms of ‘technology,’ they can prioritize development & marketing of problematic technologies like those involving petroleum. Consequently, pro-capitalist STSE relationships often are associated with numerous STSE Harms like those described below.
Sanitizing S&T/STEM Fields Using ‘Trojan Horses’
A major way that pro-capitalist dispositifs influence S&T/STEM fields and many other actants is to sanitize their activities & effects through promotion of cycles of consumption and disposal of commodities that are like Trojan horses (e.g., GE Salmon); that is, projecting positive, perhaps ‘spectacular,’ semiotic (symbolic) messages – leading consumers to enthusiastically & unquestioningly purchase them (often repeatedly). As depicted in the video at right/below, for example, engineered salmon may be ideally depicted in reductionist (punctualized) ways as abundant & ecologically-friendly food supplies, depictions that may distract consumers from awareness of networks involving harmful actants like parasitic sea lice.
Summaries of Some STSE Harms
As discussed above, it seems very important to teach students several cases of personal, social & environmental harms that appear to result from influences of pro-capitalist dispositifs on fields of S&T/STEM and much else. The brief descriptions of such harms below are meant to give educators some ideas in this regard. At the same time, some debate may be necessary regarding concerns about overly-emphasizing human destruction – like that depicted in the video at right/below.
As the teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has repeatedly advised (e.g., Rolling Stone, Time Magazine & WEF 2020), based on her readings of IPCC reports, humanity is facing an existential risk; that is, a climate emergency – with only about a decade to address devastating and irreversible temperature increases. A group of prominent climate scientists also have published a dire warning to humanity about this. Amounts of atmospheric CO2 can be monitored at the Scripps Institute. As might be expected based on claims above, it appears – e.g., according to Naomi Klein – this emergence is largely due to persistence of pro-capitalist entities in continuing to promote petroleum extraction & combustion. For further (and frightening) reading, see: The Uninhabitable Earth.
Natural and manufactured drugs, such as ASA (for pain & inflammation) and methotrexate (for cancer), have been very helpful to individuals & societies. As indicated in the video at right, although some drugs (e.g., opioids) have been useful for treating severe pain, aggressive promotion by pharmaceutical companies (among other factors), often with government legal sanctioning, have expanded uses of such drugs so that many people have been harmed or died. Although it may seem obvious to blame drug companies, there are concerns that causes of unhealthy drug uses are more societal – perhaps stimulated largely by capitalist ideologies.
Cigarette smoking has a long history (e.g., 2000 years ago), often for religious and cultural reasons, but it took a long time before scientists were able to gain strong evidence of its many harmful health effects. The video at right/below and the CDC summary here outline some of the many serious problems. Many people who would like to stop smoking have turned to vaping, but that, too, is not safe (e.g., here). Clearly, because of addictive effects of nicotine in them, it is very difficult to quit cigarette and vaping. Some suggestion for help with this are available, such as here for quitting vaping.
Manufactured Foods & Beverages
Among leading causes of sickness & death in many (technologically ‘advanced’) societies are ailments like cancer, cardiovascular diseases & diabetes – and, to a great extent, they are caused by government legal support for companies – with few owning most ‘brands’ – to manufacture unhealthy foods & beverages. In addition to perhaps obvious problems with fast foods, processed foods (often in central rows of supermarkets) often are harmful. At the same time, there is much justifiable concern that people in poorer communities and countries have inadequate access to healthy food (i.e., food security). Analyses of food sources & availability can be found via the Nutrition Action Health Letter.
Although mainly in technologically ‘developed’ regions (e.g., G20 nations), electronic devices (e.g., computers, cell phones, televisions, etc.) use many minerals mined in poorer regions of the world. Some of these, such as tin, tungston & tantalum, though, are mined in regions where armed militia abuse miners, their families and others to maximize profits. Big companies, like Apple™ & Google™, apparently use such ‘conflict minerals,’ despite knowing about related abuses. Problems like these are tracked and opposed through organizations like Global Witness.
The air we need to breathe often is not safe! Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, about 7 million people around the world die from air-borne pollutants every year (also see Air Quality Life Index). Much of this comes from burning of fossil fuels which, as you might expect based on comments above, companies – with assistance from government laws – continue to encourage, rather than switching to renewable energy forms. Air pollution is worse, unfortunately, as air temperatures increase – which, again, is tied to government-company supported fossil fuel consumption.
Many of us choose to frequently purchase new clothes to maintain our status as part of a dominant, mainstream, group. This can be highly problematic if the clothes are part of a ‘fast fashion’ movement; that is, frequent cycles of purchasing & disposal of relatively inexpensive clothes that are associated with numerous social & environmental costs – such as poor labour conditions, uses of toxic pesticides, deforestation and massive additions to landfills. One of the most basic clothing items in such regards are ‘T-shirts,’ as depicted in the video at right/below.
Petroleum may often be thought of as a fuel and, related to that, as the major source of climate disruption. But, it also has affected individuals, societies and environments in terms of its conversion to various plastics. On the one hand, there are several kinds of plastics that can be made into myriad products that people find very helpful. However, there are numerous harms linked to plastics – largely for those that are not biodegradable. In some – still very ubiquitous – cases, they are or can be degraded into micro-fibres found in common commodities and in myriad organisms’ bodies. But, of course, incredible masses of plastic refuse (e.g., as Nurdles) are routinely deposited in most of our environments – and, infamously, have accumulated in large ocean patches, forming ecosystems called ‘the plastisphere.’
Many of us spend much of our spare time being entertained through different forms of popular media (e.g., in television, movies, phone gaming, etc.). These can be informative and stress-reducing. However, to a great extent, many of these represent – as described in the video at right – types of propaganda by powerful individuals (e.g., financiers) and groups (e.g., corporations). Much such manipulation is accomplished by subliminal aspects of media. To a great extent, such manipulation encourages consumerism, but also particular political views. Particularly vulnerable are children, who are increasing targets of powerful advertisers.
Although products and services generated, in part, by fields of science & technology have been beneficial in many ways, there are growing concerns that living & non-living things are being increasingly connected to form the Internet of Things – which, in turn, appears driven by surveillance capitalism, as stated here. As Dr. Shoshana Zuboff suggests in the video at right, companies mine user data from smart phones, social media, automobiles, fitness tracking devices, (increasingly) living things, etc., etc. to, in a sense, learn about us and engage in behaviour modification processes for profit. Such privacy invasions and manipulation appear, moreover, to be increasing a result of increased online work, etc. due to CoViD-19.
Near the beginning of the CoViD-19 pandemic, Naomi Klein predicted – e.g., via the video at right/below – that the pandemic would be another example of disaster capitalism, exploit public disorientations and fears to further implement neoliberal capitalist policies & practices like: promotion of continuous growth; tax cuts (especially for the rich); de-regulation of industries & commerce; reduced social spending (e.g., for health care); disempowering trade unions; and much more. Among major examples of such changes are increased surveillance capitalism – increases recently elaborated in Pandemic Surveillance.
Smart-phone Privacy (& Democracy) Threats
As suggested in the video at right/below, surveillance has massively increased with development of spyware like Pegasus – which can be inserted over networks onto Apple and Android smartphones. Once installed, the software can capture existing information – such as photos and text messages – and turn on apps like audio and video recording to further capture information. Much of the software has been purchased by governments wanting to learn much about opposition – such as from pro-democracy activists – so they can suppress dissent. More about this can be learned about such oppressive spying via an article in here and here.
Animal Testing of Commercial Products
Before many manufactured products, particularly those containing potentially-toxic chemicals, are sold to humans, they may be tested on animals. But, as shown in the video at right, often such testing is very cruel – treating other living things as expendable commodities. Organizations, like PETA & HSI investigate such cruelty and attempt to stop animal testing. However, often companies persist – with profit often their motive.
Most nations use currencies backed by central government regulations and market forces that determine their value. Cryptocurrencies, however, are typically not issued by a central governing authority, instead they rely on multiple networked computers to create a decentralized record system to monitor and anonymously regulate transactions – a distributed ledger. Due to lack of government oversight, cryptocurrencies have been implicated in a number of crimes like pyramid and “pump and dump” schemes that have defrauded speculators millions of dollars. Centralized oversight creates a paper trail when moving large sums of money, the anonymous nature of crypto has made it a facilitator of drug trades, human trafficking and money laundering. Massive environmental costs of cryptocurrencies should not be understated, as the energy costs of producing many of them is ever increasing.
As emphasized by Karl Marx, in their perpetual search for private profit, capitalists work intensely to minimize their costs. Besides using less expensive – often inferior – materials and more efficient technologies, for example, they have typically worked to reduce labour costs. With help from neoliberal capitalism, job losses (e.g., via offshoring) and, recently, increasing precarity (the ‘gig’ economy) seemed to have greatly increased private profits – at expense of social justice (e.g., poverty). Some suggest this is a new, ‘modern,’ form of slavery – a phenomenon that now is being intensely tracked and about which we can explore regarding our lifestyles.
Long History of Harms
Harms like those above (and many more) are mostly not new. They have persisted for many decades. Severn Suzuki, age 12 in 1992, expressed (in the video at right/below) great frustration about such lack of positive change. Now, about 30 years later, many or most of these problems – like climate disruption, species losses, habitat destruction, myriad forms of pollution, etc. – continue, with no apparent end in sight. It certainly makes you ask why they persist. Her prescient speech seems to carry an important answer: greed. And, as she suggested, (sociopolitical) actions, rather than just words, are necessary.
The Nature of RiNA Projects
As illustrated in the image at right/below, RiNA (research-informed & negotiated action) projects are efforts to engage in sociopolitical actions that are meant to help overcome harms – like the climate crisis – in STSE relationships that governments and others often have struggled to effectively address. Often, ‘harms’ are controversial (as ‘STSE Issues’) – for many reasons – and, so, directions for and kinds of actions are best settled through ‘secondary’ & ‘primary’ research and some social negotiation. Also, people who have some relevant prior education – e.g., about science & technology knowledge, STSE issues, research & actions, etc. from the 3-phase STEPWISE pedagogy – often have most successes with their projects.
The schema at right/below is one way of understanding RiNA projects. It was initially used by Roth (2001) to depict relationships between ‘science’ & ‘technology’ (engineering); but, assuming mathematics often is involved throughout, it could also depict STEM fields. The model suggests that students’ RiNA projects can, generally, focus on World –> Sign and Sign –> World translations. Among many variations, students’ actions may be either or both suggestions (e.g., via posters) for changes in the World &/or more direct changes (e.g., new technologies) in the World.
Ontological Gaps (mis-translations) occur because of differences in composition of World (e.g., tree) & Signs (e.g., drawing of tree); Ideological Gaps are intentional mis-translations; e.g., climate change deniers narrowly depict global temperature changes.
Needs to Assemble Dispositifs
For RiNA projects to be effective, their actions often need to form one or more dispositifs; i.e., networks of co-supportive living, nonliving & symbolic ‘actants.’As illustrated below, Foucault explained that a hotel manager was able to convince more guests to leave their keys at the front desk by adding supportive actants.
For example, as illustrated at right/below, citizens of Québec City who were alarmed by excessive dust deposits (especially in 2012 [A]) had some successes from supports from actants like: data they collected & had analyzed; earlier dust deposit reports; activists’ website; general public consciousness; class action suits; etc. At the same time, activist dispositifs often are challenged by dispositifs supporting alternative, often dominant, perspectives – such as supporters of continuing and, often, increasing storing of nickel ore in open piles at the city port. In other words, STSE issues often involve competing dispositifs (B), each a set of actants aligned to support different values, principles, actions, etc.
Links to STEPWISE Framework Elements: