Lunch with Sheila Jasanoff

Sheila Jasanoff is one of my personal academic heroes*, so her visit to ASU last week was perhaps the highlight of the many lectures I’ve attended so far. I remember back when I was a sophomore, and Shelley Hurt handed us Designs on Nature and said something like “this is a difficult book, but this is a very important book, so pay attention!” Since then, Jasanoff has come up in nearly all of my ASU classes. Her many contributions to the field include a bunch of brilliant comparative studies on environmental and healthcare regulation in the US, UK, and EU. The idiom of co-production, which explains how “Orderings of nature and society reinforce each other, creating conditions of stability as well as change,” and her latest masterpiece, bio-constitutionality, which I won’t even attempt to explain (wait for the book).

Along with a general lecture on bio-constitutionality, Jasanoff spent a lunch with a group of graduate students, with the goal of helping us become wise. She is simply an absolute joy to listen to, intelligent, precise, relevant. She hit us with three solid thesis topics in 15 minutes, which almost makes me wish I didn’t have mine set, but onwards to the meat of the issue.

Jasanoff covered several topics of interest to STS practitioners, how to use theoretical paradigms, comparative studies, and the like. STS is a diverse field, but it shares the common question, “What difference does it make that science and technology are forces in our society?” Methodologically, you can attempt to bash everything into a theory, which leads to rigid, wooden papers, or do pure ethnography, where you go in with no preconceptions, take notes on everything, and hope that at the end of the day, something interesting emerges. Realistically, you need some conceptual guideposts, the challenge is to pick ones that help problematize and explore your research question.

A second topic was how graduate students can change the world. Jasanoff explicitly discourages trying to be policy relevant, or an intellectual who changes the world. If you want to change the world, go do it! Be a politician, or an engineer, and make things, don’t be a critic or adviser and try and sidle towards influence that way. One person asked about policy relevance, which Jasanoff is also not a big fan of. Being policy relevant means chasing the headlines, trying to use scholarship to beat professional spin-doctors and lobbyists, and that’s a race a good scholar will never win. At best, you’ll become captured by the kinds of people who control Washington DC, and who wants to work for them? What we should do, “If you succeed in crafting a voice, and talking about interesting things, the right people will find you.”

I asked about my perennial hobby-horse, the lack of conservative scientists, and conversely, the lack of credibility that science has for conservatives. While there is some truth to the idea that scientists like big government because it pays for their labs, that model is overly simplistic. Rather, in her view, scientists have become arrogant, and have failed to justify their support to the public. (True, Science the Endless Frontier is still the primary justification for federal R&D, and it’s 60 years old) Scientists shouldn’t discredit Palin et al, rather they must be humble, must empathize and understand why arguments about big government encroachment are effective in these situations. Theories of public irrationality are profoundly anti-democratic; it’s anthropologists hunting for fuzzy-wuzzies in their backyard. Scientists have effectively abrogated a public position, with disastrous results. “The Enlightenment was not a historical event. It is a process, a mission, a continuous duty to explain yourself.”

*for the record, Sheila Jasanoff is my role model, Bruce Sterling is my guru, and Robert McNamara is my idol.

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