Further reflections on The First Global Cyberconference on Public Understanding of Science: The Challenge of Multiculturalism

Professor Steve Fuller, University of Durham
September 1998

Work on the Cyberconference here at Durham has progressed well. Slightly more than half of the participants in the cyberconference were from outside the Anglo-American orbit in which most PUS research is conducted today. At least a quarter of the exchanges involving these participants centred on the challenge posed by "multiculturalism" to the image of PUS that is increasingly taken for granted in the West, and especially the English-speaking world. According to this image, the distinctions between scientific research, social policy, and technology are largely blurred. This blurriness is supposed to enable researchers to trace the entanglement of actions and interests needed to maintain and extend the complex social order that often goes by the name of "technoscience". Moreover, this interpenetrability of science, policy, and technology is often coupled with a relatively hard sense of the boundaries between "cultures," which make possible easy claims about whether or not a form of knowledge is "appropriate" to the culture in question.

Several of the more articulate voices for a multicultural approach to PUS in the cyberconference wanted to turn this standard picture on its head. In other words, they wanted to retain relatively hard boundaries between science, policy, and technology as societal functions, while treating cultures in a porous or patchwork fashion that encourages a more "pick-and-choose" attitude toward their offerings. The following comment was typical:

Soraj Hongladoram (Philosopher of science at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand): In my country people do not typically see a necessary conflict between Thai cultural tradition and science, whereas they see a lot of conflict between their culture and Western philosophy. There is no separate study of "Western" and "Eastern" biology, for example╔. [Yet,] Thai people had some kind of "science" as their explanation of the phenomena and indigenous technologies; however, when Western science was adopted in full force these indigenous knowledge was overlooked and now "Western" science is a redundant term here too. However, the case of philosophy is different. There is always the consciousness that it is a Western product, something foreign from the local culture, which has a philosophy all of its own. Now if science is part and parcel of the thinking that constitutes "Western" philosophy, then how can it, and it alone, be singled out for adoption? It seems that this is only possible through viewing science as a finished product, something readily exportable╔. Instead there are attempts to put together science and the traditional Asian thinking, and Buddhism is now being redescribed so that it can go along with science. (No wonder Fritjof Capra enjoys a great popularity here.

In a nutshell, from a multicultural standpoint, the one clear advantage of viewing science as a set of discrete products rather than an undifferentiated process is that the former sets limits on what exactly is appropriated from Western culture. Moreover, the stakes are lowered, so that appropriation is no longer an "all or nothing" matter. It is possible to selectively borrow from the West's scientific legacy without accepting the history of Europe as a societal blueprint, or even a philosophical or political template. One can adapt a technology or even the technical part of a scientific discipline to local needs by aligning them with theories and interests quite alien to their original contexts.

There was at least one moment in the cyberconference when a non-Western attempt to resituate the multicultural character of PUS was rhetorically rejigged to match the standard technoscience model. The interlocutors were Hideto Nakajima, an historian of science at Tokyo University who organized the first Science, Technology and Society (STS) conference in Japan, and Chris Stokes, a lecturer in science studies at Lancaster University:

Nakajima: Should we promote public understanding of science (PUS), or public understanding of technology (PUT)? If the linear model (that science leads to technology) is not correct, public understanding of only science won't automatically boost science-based technology. Isn't there a confusion of science and technology in much talk of PUS? Actually, science literacy in Japan is far beyond the level of major western countries. Do we really need the project 'public understanding of science' in Japan now? If we are to develop information technology, direct investment to information industry seems far better. And I would like to insist that what we really need is not PUS, but PUT. It will also serve to identify problems concerning technology like those relating to the Internet.

Stokes: Using 'science' as an abbreviation for technology or for technoscience or whatever other entity that overflows the narrowest definition of science is not, to my mind, merely a device for saving paper and ink or retaining prosaic elegance. It helps to perpetuate the science-technology, scientist-engineer, knowledge-application dichotomies. And as STS scholars (even those who dabble in PUS) have been problematizing these dichotomies for years now, isn't it about time we banned the word 'science' and the term PUS and accepted as a first step out of this hole SET [Science, Engineering, Technology] and PUSET? Personally I'd prefer SETetc. and PUSETetc., just to drive home the extent of the impurity of technoscientific entities, processes ...

Clearly two PUS-related agendas are working at cross-purposes here. Stokes is a "lumper" who wants to display the culturally rooted character of science's allegedly universal claims to authority, whereas Nakajima is a "splitter" who wants to display the detachability of certain parts of the West's technoscientific legacy from its entire cultural package. At the very least, we have evidence of a failure of cross-cultural communication over the core issues of PUS. Over the coming weeks I plan to explore the implications of these findings fully and have already taken steps to reopen the conference as a listserv, the details of which are given elsewhere in this newsletter. A more detailed analysis of these initial findings may be found in an article scheduled to appear in the journal Public Understanding of Science at the end of this year.

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