What’s Wrong with Fast Science
Academia’s immense research apparatus seems stuck on empty paradigms. Consider Dr. Vinay Prasad’s 2016 Nature Perspective arguing that precision medicine –the idea that we can tailor chemotherapy drugs to a person’s unique genome – has simply not shown to be revolutionary in cancer treatment. A more sobering concern is a recent New England Journal of Medicine article perpetuating the “one-drop rule” in its desire to insist on a racial difference between black and white kids with asthma (an idea that recreates racist science that began on the Antebellum plantations). Beyond biomedicine, the field of psychology suffers from an ongoing reproducibility crisis. As an example, the famous “marshmallow test” that correlated a child’s educational aptitude with their ability to delay gratification was often cited by policymakers trying to tie achievement to individual traits rather than environmental factors like poverty and widespread inequality. These stories demonstrate how disconnected scientific investigation has become from the political society it serves.
All these scientific failings point to our current climate of fast science, which Isabelle Stengers describes as the “cumulative advance of disciplinary knowledge along with a correlative disregard for any question that would slow this advance down.” This ethos that started in the nineteenth century has – at this point – cornered the claim to objectivity and reliability. Yet, this same fragmented research system continues to produce knowledge that fails to be applicable in the messy and complicated world beyond the laboratory.
In response, Stengers wrote Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science to provide readers – especially a trapped scientist-activist like myself – with a theoretical language to talk about how unhelpful fast science has become. This brief manifesto honestly reflects on the identity of scientists and calls for a new kind of political responsibility for experimentation. Stengers moves beyond oft-repeated clichés about scientists making their work more impactful by communicating their work more clearly to the public, and instead offers up a more audacious challenge to researchers. In her vision of slow science, scientists must generate their hypotheses and research questions by anticipating the democratic needs and expectations that other members of society will have. This paradigm shift requires the reader to reimagine the unseen the relationship between scientists and society, a relationship that directly affects the kinds of facts and answers scientists work to uncover.
Gender Making Science Making Gender
Stengers writes each chapter as a series of binaries, as if constructing a cathode ray tube that will let us see the invisible particles floating there in the vacuum. This technique keeps her argument abstract and generalized to a wide scientific audience. She considers the production of scientists and the rigorous “hidden curriculum” that teaches its disciples the “right” questions to ask. The “right” questions allow pupils to begin cocooning themselves away from public discourse and the distracting questions it might generate about the values and principles of a given research question. And in the act of cocooning, Stengers describes an implicit gendering of scientists that occurs just under the visible wavelengths. Undergraduates quickly learn they must demonstrate a kind of Apollonian drive: “How can one talk of the virility of a man who presents himself as a modest witness, deferring to the facts and seeking no glory other than that or revealing them?” Asking why a certain kind of question matters becomes perceived as a weakness. Another Science is Possible wants the reader to consider how science is full of these perceived weaknesses.
In one passage, Stengers recounts an anecdote from Elizabeth Potters’ Gender and Boyle’s Law of Gases where upper-class women were shocked that a scientist would asphyxiate birds to prove that his air-pump worked. Without those women, the experiment would be read as a resounding success by the other men of science in the room. Instead, in their outcry, these women complicated the research and forced the audience to consider that no universal law is worth animal cruelty. Stengers uses these vignettes as part of a classic rhetorical technique in the feminist science studies toolkit: show how the history of science is a history of irrationality repeatedly called out by marginalized voices.
Today, the very procedure of verified knowledge production passively submits to the industries that profit off scientific labor and ecological destruction. While Stengers lays out the problem, she adds a caveat for the inquisitive reader: “We have to think in order not to fall into the trap of a nostalgia for a world which is actually in the process of collapsing into the past.” This is a cunning way to interrogate today’s knowledge economy without falling into despair. These are not totalitarian systems holding a vice grip on the future, these are often flimsy institutions already in disarray.
Other chapters play within similar dipoles: esoteric vs exoteric knowledge, science and values, the making of facts according to Thomas Kuhn and Ludwik Fleck; all to explore the titular binary of fast and slow science from different angles. In the brief space allotted each topic, the passages never quite stick to a single method of explanation. Stengers, at times, speaks from personal experience, from scholarship in her field, and with a few useful metaphors carried over from chapter to chapter. The recurring image is the scientific method as the goose that laid the golden egg; scientists keep insisting— out of both fear and reverence— that this goose cannot be questioned, even while industry wrings its feathery neck for every penny of profit. She characterizes fast science as “not isolation, but rather working in a very rarefied environment, an environment divided into allies who matter and those who, whatever their concerns and protests, have to recognise that they are the ultimate recipients of the golden benefits, and therefore should not disturb the progress of science.” The importance of this definition is its vagueness. Stengers acknowledges the usual criticism of contemporary STEM (the corruption of peer review, the boredom of conference presentations, etc.) but pushes deeper to consider the ideological milieu that allows problems to perpetuate under the current model.
The Slow Scientist as the Antifascist Scientist
Given the risks inherent in articulating any not-quite-materialized idea, Another Science is Possible makes sure you don’t walk away with the wrong definition. Slow science is not some sort of “make science great again” sentimentality, nor is slow science trying to insert liberal arts into every graduate science curriculum. Most importantly, slow science is not about isolating and insulating scientists to achieve purer results (whatever that might mean). Instead, Stengers proposes that slowing down science will mean “civilizing” science, or making its members more presentable and amenable to the other parties at work in a democratic society.
For Stengers, this kind of democracy-making promises to improve the value of science by giving scientists the skills to bring research out of the lab and into a messier world with more complicated needs. This project is inherently feminist— not just because it cites women like primatologist Jane Goodall or economist Elinor Ostrom as model case studies in research methodology, but because democratizing science means moving away from the paternalism of rationality. A slow science will be comfortable considering questions that fundamentally impede the initial direction of research or invite public criticism of the observer and research subject.
Throughout the book, the author refers to the system of social pacts that her fellow science philosopher, Bruno Latour, theorized as essential to the practice of science. These unspoken rules somehow allow “the hard sciences” to delegitimize certain kinds of knowledge creation, despite its applicable value (as an example from my own experiences in medical school, the juggernaut of hard science takes the form of neurobiology’s steady advance into the discipline of psychiatry). Appropriately, Another Science is Possible invokes the metaphor of the sleepwalker to explain the unrelenting march of hard science; a figure somnolently strolling across balconies and rooftops without stumbling or hesitation. “Having the right stuff, then, means having faith that what a scientific question doesn’t make count, doesn’t count; a faith that defines itself against doubt.” If we can change “the stuff” then we can change the questions and maybe find more executable answers against the growing list of catastrophes.
All these observations help Stengers reach her claim that scientists will better serve society and their disciplines if they reject the unquestioned capitalist hegemony that marches us towards planetary destruction:
Resistance that can only exist alongside what American activists call ‘reclaiming’ – recuperating, healing, becoming capable once again of linking with what we have been separated from. This ‘recuperation’ process always begins with the jolting realisation that we are well and truly sick, and have been for a long time, so long that we no longer recognise what we are lacking, and think of our sickness, and whatever sustains it, as ‘normal’
For her these acts of reclaiming will happen locally in the context of specific disciplines or institutions. Stengers boldly connects grassroot reclamation to the diffuse networks of resistance efforts in Nazi-occupied Europe. It is a strange moment in the book, fitting, perhaps for a philosopher born in 1949 and raised in the shadow of World War II but even more interesting when she ties anti-Nazi resistance to the mass movement for desegregation and civil rights in the United States as model forms of organizing.
The subtext is evident; fast science carries a legacy of fascism on both sides of the Atlantic. A science that embraces democracy must be slow. Even as capitalism propels ecological destruction into higher gears the temptation to match velocities is a dangerous one. Stengers makes a point that, like the plastic particles multiplying in our oceans, “we face a future where claimed ‘facts’ will accumulate at full speed.” It is up to those individual members of research centers to reclaim the institutional space as a site of listening to society’s needs, responding with the facts so far available, then planning experiments according to society’s next question.
Page Quotations from
Stengers, Another Science is Possible, trans. Stephen Muecke. Polity Press 2018.