UCL’s Science and Society reading group discussed an interesting paper on the production of non-knowledge, what science decides not to look at, why and how. It’s interesting because the growing literature on the sociology of ignorance – e.g. agnotology – often sees it as a problem, but as this paper points out, it’s a routine part of science. I thought I’d share my notes. You can download the paper here (pdf).
- Kempner, J, Merz, JF, Bosk ,CL (2011) “Forbidden Knowledge: Public Controversy and the Production of Nonknowledge”, Sociological Forum, Vol. 26, No. 3: 475-500.
Historians and sociologists of science have long studied they ways in which the social world shapes the production of knowledge. But there’s a limited amount of work on what we don’t know. We might argue it’s hard to get an empirical grip on the absence of something, except that scientists are active producers of non-knowledge; they routinely make decisions about what not to do, and sociologists can track that. In many respects, a process of selection is endemic to scientific work. To quote Robert Merton, “scientific knowledge is specified ignorance” (Kempner et al, 2011: 477).
This paper is particularly focused on scientists’ understandings of what they call ‘‘forbidden knowledge” (too sensitive, dangerous, or taboo in some way) and the ways particular topics might become seen as such. They see such forbidden knowledge as a rather dynamic category, shaped by culture, political climate, and the interests of researchers and therefore decide it’s best to focus on how knowledge comes to be forbidden rather than consider one specific aspect of forbidden knowledge or another (Kempner et al, 2011: 479-80)
What they did: 41 interviews collected 2002-3 drawn from six subject areas picked because such work might involve forms of forbidden knowledge (microbiology, neuroscience, sociology, computer science, industrial⁄organizational psychology and multidisciplinary drug and alcohol studies). Kempner et al identified the 10 top-ranked universities in each discipline and from lists of faculty, randomly chose names and backups in case they did not respond or simply refused. 30-45 mins, mainly by phone but 3 in person. The interview consisted of four sections: they asked researchers to name a prominent example of forbidden knowledge in their field; respondents were then probed on these responses and asked to comment on their own experiences as well as the experiences of their colleagues; thirdly, they asked a series of closed specific questions about practices and experiences; and finally, the interview ended with attitudinal questions about what the respondent felt about scientific freedom and social and professional constraints they worked under.
In terms of the results, Kempner et al found researchers perceived science as responsible and “safe”, with scientists committed to openness and generally moral. The pursuit of knowledge was seen as worth in of itself and perhaps providing the social function of challenging social norms: ‘‘Truth and knowledge is always the most liberating thing, even though it’s often unpleasant and not what people want to hear’’; ‘‘Our job is not to defend the status quo, our job is to explore truth (Kempner et al, 2011: 484). Research subjects disagreed (70%) or disagreed somewhat (20%) that: ‘‘A journal editor should reject a paper if peer review concludes that the results would undermine or clash with societal norms’’ (Kempner et al, 2011: 486).
When pushed, most of the agreed there are legitimate constraints on the production of knowledge; restrictions which provide valuable and necessary protections to society. However, they were largely dismissive of constraints on science which they understood to be motivated by electoral politics, or, as one respondent remarked, are “just typical of American Yahoo politics”. Stem-cell research stood out as an example of overly restrictive limits and the Bush Jnr era America this research was conducted in may well have been a factor. Many respondents expressed a preference that scientists themselves should determine the no-go areas for research, not policymakers or some abstract notion of ‘‘publics’’ (Kempner et al, 2011: 486).
Most of the researchers were also to outline entire areas of research that they felt could/should not be conducted in their fields. Perhaps most tellingly, terms of areas which were already seen as no-go, they tended to do so by reporting stories about people who had broken norms through a series ‘‘cautionary tales’’ which amounted to a sort of gradually constructed collective memory of ‘‘what not to do’’ (Kempner et al, 2011: 486). It seemed that researchers often stumbled into forbidden territory through no intention of their own, only learning they’d hit upon some area of forbidden knowledge when legislators, news agencies, activist groups or institutional review board raised unanticipated objections.
All that said, according to this data, working scientists do not shy away from controversy. If anything, they are driven by it, as long as the controversy is within the community of working scientists, not those pesky policy makers or publics. (Kempner et al, 2001: 487). Drug and alcohol researchers in particular framed the division between these two worlds using an ‘‘us versus them’’ narrative (Kempner et al, 2001: 488). Still, there were internal forces of constraint mentioned too. More than a third of the respondents reported they or one of their colleagues chose not to pursue/ publish research because they knew it contravened accepted dogmas of their discipline in some way.
Overall, they concluded that “forbidden knowledge” was omnipresent in the research process, routine almost as scientific research often “requires that all working scientists learn to accept the bit so that they can properly march their paces” (Kempner et al, 2001: 494). Accepting forms of what might be called censorship is central to the everyday work of making knowledge. Kempner et al go as far to say they found it “puzzling that scientists could maintain an adherence to normative principles of free inquiry while prodigiously avoiding the production of forbidden knowledge” (Kempner et al, 2001: 496) which I found a bit unfair, or at least it’s not “puzzling” even though it’s worth pointing out and discussing. On a more normative level, as non-knowledge is such a routine part of science we should acknowledge this more. We should also perhaps try to heal that “them” vs “us” divide to build productive debate about science chooses what not to research (something I’m sure would actually liberate a lot of scientists, far from the image depicted in this paper’s interviews).