CBC Radio Series: "How to Think about Science"

Starting in the 1970s, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists began to apply their methods and theories to understanding the processes and assumptions that shape the production of scientific knowledge and technology.

These scholars argued that science does not stand apart from society as a collection of objective facts and theories, but is influenced by institutions, social norms, ideology, and even the laboratory technology that is used to observe nature. This new field of science studies offered important insight into the practice and craft of doing science while providing valuable analysis of the science-society relationship. In many cases, the scholarship produced was in part intended to help scientists better understand their own work and its place in society. Several of the leading scholars were themselves former PhD scientists.

Unfortunately, in the mid-1990s, the field was unfairly caricaturized in sophomoric attacks such as the Sokal affair and the book Higher Superstition. The ugly debate that ensued, known as the "Science Wars," served as a major distraction from a true threat to American science.


While critics such as Norman Levitt were leading the charge by arguing that journalistic accounts at Scientific American were better sources than the work of "philosophically naive, silly, and self-deluded" sociologists, Republicans in Congress were abolishing the Office of Technology Assessment, engineering their own brand of expertise on issues such as climate change, and rolling back important environmental regulations.

When students or colleagues ask me about the Science Wars, I usually suggest as a defense of science studies a short article that was penned by the late sociologist Dorothy Nelkin. But now I have a very strong complement to that reading...

At CBC radio, there is currently a 10 part series on science studies, titled "How to Think about Science." The series interviews some of the top people in the field such as Brian Wynne, Simon Schaffer, Margaret Lock, Ulrich Beck, and Bruno Latour.

Each episode does a great job of articulating the leading scholarship in this growing field and its contributions to understanding science and society. And in each episode, there is at least one rejoinder to the silly attacks of the Science Wars. I have listened on my IPOD to 3-4 of the 50 minute episodes while exercising, and they are well worth engaging with. I recommend starting with the first episode featuring the historian Simon Schaffer.









Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

What is the rarest blood type?

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
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Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?

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  • Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
  • But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.

Catacombs of Paris: The city of darkness finds its new raison d'être

Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.

Excerpt from a 19th century map of the Paris Catacombs, showing the labyrinthine layout underground (in color) beneath the straight-lined structures on the surface (in grey).

Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain
Strange Maps
  • People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
  • They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
  • Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
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