As depicted in the schema at right (below on phones), much research suggests that S&T fields (and their products) are in two-way relationships with each other and with societies and environments. Sometimes, as about fast foods, people have different opinions about merits of products of science and technology – with controversies, for instance, between people who agree or disagree that societal economic pressures have led companies to include potentially harmful ingredients (e.g., excess sugar, fats & artificial flavours/sweeteners). Such controversies have different names, including socioscientific or STSE issues. To help people make informed decisions about such issues, in turn, many educational programmes provide students with relevant knowledge, skills, attitudes, etc. Such education can involve studies of the nature of S&T (NoST) and societies (e.g., sociology) & environments (e.g., ecology) and relationships among them. It seems particularly important, as well, to educate students about harms – like illnesses from fast foods – where risks seem significant.
Relationships Among Fields of Science & Technology and Societies & Environments (STSE)
Although they have been highly regarded, fields of science & technology also are linked to many harms to wellbeing of individuals, societies & environments. Devastation from climate change linked to fossil fuel combustion is among the most threatening, but there are many others, as described below (and here and here). As illustrated at right, many or most harms are likely not so much due to the nature of science or technology; but, rather, to relationships among science & technology and societies & environments (STSE). Extents to which such relationships are considered ‘harmful,’ though, often are controversial – with some people, for instance, appreciating their products (e.g., fast foods) while others are very critical of them. Among reasons for such debates, a common factor seems to be a person or group’s political values (e.g., as at Political Compass). While acknowledging such controversies, it seems reasonable, nevertheless, to focus on possible harms and attempt to overcome them.
Causes of STSE Harms
Most harms in STSE relationships seem related to products & services – like those at right – generated with help from fields of science, technology, engineering & mathematics (STEM). Most ‘blame,’ however, for such harms seem due to overwhelming influences – even in disasters – of pro-capitalist individuals (e.g., financiers) and groups (e.g., corporations & transnational trade organizations) on most living & nonliving entities – as described by George Monbiot and by me. Capitalist influences are, indeed, resilient – largely, it seems, because they have orchestrated most living & nonliving entities into a global network, co-opting services of STEM fields & their educational counterparts and much more. Nevertheless, STEM fields are major instruments of capitalist dominance – which, as noted by Sheldon Krimsky, The Union of Concerned Scientists and me, for example, often compromise integrity of STEM work – and, so, wellbeing of individuals, societies & environments – for sake of private profits that are now highly concentrated (e.g., Oxfam, 2020).
Commodities as ‘Trojan Horses’
There is much evidence and theory (e.g., ANT) to suggest that capitalists have created vast networks (called dispositifs) composed of myriad living, non-living & symbolic entities that largely cooperate to support common causes. A major capitalist cause is consumerism; that is, strong motivations (often via self-esteem & personal identities) for continuous cycles of acquisition (often with disposal) of goods & services (e.g., The Story of Stuff series [also see T-shirt lifecycle & here). Consumer desires to acquire items is largely generated through semiotics; that is, images that can generate different – often unrealistic – abstract meanings, feelings, ideas, etc. In looking at genetically-modified salmon like that at right, consumers might interpret ‘abundance’ of food supply. Such signs can motivate consumption and distract consumers from noticing or investigating larger networks to which the commodity (fish) belongs – such as that shown at lower right, awareness of which might alter consumer choices (e.g., due to sea lice damage to all fish). Such subterfuge (like a Trojan horse), when used for many commodities, can become normalized – largely subconscious, unquestioned & resistant to change.
Summaries of Some STSE Harms
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 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 fossil fuel mining & combustion.
Natural and manufactured drugs, such as ASA (for pain & inflammation) and methotrexate (for cancer), respectively, have been very helpful to individuals & societies. As indicated in the video at right, although some drugs (e.g., opiods) 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.
Manufactured Foods & Beverages
Among leading causes of sickness & death in many (technologically ‘advanced’) societies are ailments like cancer, heart disease & diabetes – and, to a great extent, they are caused by government legal support for companies 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), electronics 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. 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 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.
Animal Testing of Commercial Products
Before many manufactured products, particularly those containing potentially-toxic chemicals, are sold to humans, they are tested on animals. But, as shown in the video at right, often such testing is very cruel. Organizations, like PETA, investigate such cruelty and attempt to stop such testing. However, often companies persist – with profit often their motive.
As emphasized by Karl Marx, in their perpetual search for private profit, capitalists work intensely to minimize – if not eliminate – 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 wellbeing of many individuals, societies & environments. Some suggest this is a new, ‘modern,’ form of slavery – a phenomenon that now is being intensely tracked and about which we can explore about our own lifestyles.
Fields of science & technology (& engineering, often also with mathematics) have created many ‘products’ – such as laws (e.g., about magnetism), theories (e.g., natural selection) and inventions/innovations (e.g., cell phones). Although it is very important for many or most of us to learn about such products, many scholars & others suggest we also need to learn about the nature (or ‘characteristics’) of the work of scientists, engineers, etc. For example, as shown in the video at right/below, a characteristic of science is that experiments – which are very common – often lead to unexpected results. This page provides descriptions of some major characteristics of the nature of science & technology and some suggestions for helping students to learn and discuss them.
The nature of science & technology (NoST) is studied by scholars in Science & Technology Studies (STS). A very basic conclusion drawn by them is that different people & groups vary in their NoST beliefs. Loving (1991), a science educator, developed the Scientific Theory Profile (STP) shown at right/below to capture such diversity of opinion. (Hovering over the text at the end of each continuum in the graphic provides a brief description of different positions.) Although she suggested that people & groups supported many different positions around the STP, there seemed to be two major, opposing, ‘camps’; that is, Rationalists-Realists (RR, lower left quadrant) vs. Naturalist-Antirealists (NA, upper right quadrant). RRs tend, for instance, to believe that scientists, etc. use very systematic & logical methods that can generate ‘truths’ (e.g., laws, with confidence) about how the world works. NAs tend to disagree; claiming that scientists, etc. often cannot avoid being influenced by psychological, sociological, political, economic, etc. factors. There are, undoubtedly, complex and varying reasons for such diversity of NoST views – which seem worth exploring.
Antirealists - more or less on this spectrum - believe that scientists (& engineers) cannot develop claims (e.g., laws, theories, etc.) that exactly match phenomena of the world.
Rationalists believe - more or less on this spectrum - that scientists' (& engineers') topics & methods (e.g., experiment/study design, measurements, etc.) are highly systematic, logical, unbiased, unemotional, etc.
Realists believe - more or less on this spectrum - that scientists (& engineers) can develop claims (e.g., laws & theories) that match phenomena of the world.
Naturalists believe - more or less on this spectrum - that scientists' (& engineers') topics & methods (e.g., experiment/study design, measurements, etc.) often are, while somewhat systematic & logical, influenced by personal (e.g., emotional) and social (e.g., economic, political, interpersonal, cultural, gender, racial, etc.) factors.
NoST Views in Science Education
Although there are, of course, exceptions, it appears that school science systems (SSS) (e.g., government curricula, textbooks, teacher education, etc.) tend to support more Rationalist-Realist NoST positions (see above) – such as is reflected by the teacher in the video at right/below. There appears, for instance, to be a tendency to limit discussions of sociological studies of science to Ziman’s (1984) Internal (vs. External) Sociology of Science. Related to this, it seems that SSS tend to support Merton’s Norms of ‘proper’ practice. Reasons for such NoST views in SSS are, undoubtedly, complex and uncertain. However, if we assume that a prime orientation in SSS is to identify & education a few knowledge producers (e.g., engineers) while creating masses of knowledge consumers (see here), it seems logical that science & technology would be made to appear highly systematic, logical & unproblematic (i.e., Rationalist-Realist views).
NoST Claims from Science & Technology Studies
Although there is much historical evidence & argument to suggest that scientists, engineers, etc. often are influenced by psycho-social factors, such as Galileo’s conflict with the RC Church about heliocentrism, much contemporary STS research suggests that the most significant influences arise – particularly in certain fields, such as in the pharmaceutical industry – from pro-capitalist entities, as claimed by Dr. Sheldon Krimsky in the interview at right/below and in his books, Science in the Private Interest and Conflicts of Interest in Science. Similarly, there is much concern that Right-wing Populist politicians are working to limit & discredit fields of science & technology. It seems clear, therefore, there is much STS research support for more Naturalist-Antirealist NoST views.
Where students’ science (& technology) education is being limited to Rationalist-Realist NoST views, it seems that efforts should be made to educate them about more Naturalist-Antirealist views, such as those arising from more sociological STS research (also see here). Such education would, in other words, encompass the Internal & External Sociology (& Psychology, etc.) of Science – while, democratically, not valuing either so that students can decide which to support. In this vein, pedagogical approaches based on constructivist learning theory seem appropriate – such as the NoS Card Exchange Game, in which students are first asked to evaluate statements on cards like at right/below and then attempt to exchange (1-for-1) cards with peers, aiming to increase the proportion of cards in their hands that align with their NoST views. After doing so, the teacher could explain the STP and, then, urge students to apply positions to which they agree in different application activities.