STS 201: Where Science Meets Society

Semester: Fall
Offered: 2015

Click here for the Fall 2014 syllabus.

What is science? What, if anything, is special about the way that scientists generate knowledge? In university courses, we absorb many implicit rules about what makes for good scientific work—lab reports should be written in the third person, papers must have citations (but not to Wikipedia!), double-blind studies are better than anecdotal evidence—but rarely do we have the opportunity to reflect on why it is that we are taught to know in this way. This course identifies and challenges common (but often unstated) assumptions about what science is and how it works, with the aim of revealing the deep connections between science and technology and our social, cultural, economic, and political lives. The first unit introduces students to central ideas in Science and Technology Studies (STS), a field that uses perspectives from the humanities and social sciences to analyze the dynamics of knowledge production. Through discussions of key concepts and case studies, we will explore how particular scientific facts or technologies become accepted, how controversies are settled, and how science and scientists retain credibility and authority. Unit two examines how science, technology, and society evolve together. Broader questions such as whether scientific and technological advances can really be said to drive social change, whether the institutions and people producing scientific knowledge shape the form that the science takes, and who benefits from how research agendas or new technologies are designed are the focus of this section of the course. The final unit explores how societies can engage with contemporary science and technology. We will collectively choose several controversial current topics to explore in depth (such as stem cell research, digital media and copyright, or bioterrorism), and one of these topics will be the basis for an in-class exercise in participatory science policy decision-making.

As well as serving as a foundational course for students enrolled in the ISSuES certificate program, this course is aimed at students with backgrounds in either the sciences or the humanities who are curious to think more critically about the interactions between of science, technology, and society. It allows students in science and engineering to reflect on their own experience doing scientific work and consider the impact and implications of their work for society, and students with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences will develop a better understandings of the social dynamics of knowledge production and the role of science and technology in contemporary society. There are no prerequisites for this course.