Three Questions I get Asked

Here are three questions that natural scientists and engineers often ask me, and which are commonly asked of social scientists participating in interdisciplinary collaborations. 

  1. Why do people not like X?

e.g. why do people not like synthetic food additives?

This question usually has to do with a perception that scientists, or a particular field of scientific work, is not viewed favourably by ‘the public’ or by industry, governments, NGOs, and so on. Natural scientists and engineers sometimes have the impression that social scientists will be able to explain why it is that their technical ambitions have been thwarted by a political misconception or misunderstanding.

The question is sometimes embedded in a range of other faulty assumptions about public understanding of science and science communication. As a question, it can position social scientists as experts in the irrational behaviour of individuals and groups. Social scientists can also be positioned through this style of questioning as brokers, and so be expected to help to open governance and/or public doors.

I’d rather talk about:

What do people actually say and do in relation to X? What practices are involved in regards to X and how do you envision X changing, supplementing or supplanting those practices?

When it comes to something like food additives, for example, I’d be interested to know how people make sense of ‘synthetic’ and ‘natural’ from within cooking, eating, feeding and caring practices. We could ask in what ways are these concepts important to the organisation of such practices, or in what ways do these practices organise our demarcations of those concepts? It could be important to explore how novel methods of producing food additives sit alongside or displace existing methods of production, and with what global socioeconomic implications.

In this regard we could begin to understand why the notion or production of synthetic food additives might raise socio-political, economic or ethical questions from publics, NGOs, governments and so forth, rather than assuming people don’t like it because of ignorance.


  1. What will people think of X?

e.g. what will people think of brain-based lie detection?

This type of question usually has to do with natural scientists’ worries about what ‘the public’ will think about their planned innovations or technical recommendations. It comes from a recognition that publics are interested and invested in scientific knowledge production. However, it is often motivated by a desire to ensure that people will think positively about X and so sometimes accompanied by a will to understand how to encourage people to feel positively about X.

The question is sometimes embedded in a range of other faulty assumptions about how people’s negative feelings about proposed technologies will inexorably lead to market failure and that this is necessarily a bad thing. It positions social scientists as PR gurus or pollsters, who can help to take the public temperature and design marketing strategies for innovations.

I’d rather talk about:

What kinds of imagined (necessary, likely, possible or peripheral) actions, routines, relations and social structures are being embedded in the sociotechnical work being conducted? In other words, putting the emphasis not so much on the object of technical interest but on how the envisaged object might impact upon existing practices of life, relations and social order, or open-up new practices. Do we want these kinds of practices and why/ why not? What effects will these changes have and with what implications for people’s experiences of social and technical phenomena?

In the given example of brain-based lie detection, I would want to know more about how we do lie detection now in different contexts and why we do it that way. I’d be interested to know how brain-based techniques would change these contexts if implemented and what implications such changes might have for our ways of living with each other. If we were talking about using brain scanning as evidence for use in legal proceedings, for example, we’d have to think carefully about why we currently use the investigation, interview, interrogation and jury systems. How would brain-based technologies fit in these practices and what would change? What kinds of life and forms of justice are implicated in such changes?

In this regard we could begin to unpick some of the tangle of concepts, practices, norms, politics and so on that are bound up with our current ways of doing lie detection and thus better understand what would be at stake for someone who is asked to give an opinion on a new lie detection technology.


  1. Is it okay to do X?

e.g. is it okay to engineer life?

This question usually has to do with a perceived ethical ‘implication’ of some proposed technical innovation. The questions often centre on technical objects. They involve a recognition that sociotechnical innovation generally implies changes in how things are done or understood. They might have to do with abstract concepts like life or nature. However, by emphasising the objects of technical innovation or abstract questions these kinds of concerns largely miss the everyday practices that are at the heart of how ethical decisions and dispositions are made and formed.

This type of question is sometimes embedded in a range of assumptions about scientific objectivity and how ethical implications arise only from the implementation of knowledge and new technologies in the world rather than in the practices of knowledge production itself. In addition, such questions often come with the implication that X is going to happen anyway, but it would be good to know what moral status it is going to be given when it does happen.

This style of questioning is more comfortable for some social scientists than others, since some of us are experts in ethics. However, in the way the question is generally posed it positions social scientists as ethical arbiters, who themselves are being asked to judge the moral status of objects and so assess the social value of proposed innovations in order to help scientists justify actions they know they are going to take. This is a bit tricky and can be a far less comfortable space to inhabit.

I’d rather talk about:

What kinds of moral or ethical values are embedded in the scientific practices out of which the question has emerged? In other words, what has been decided about ethics already, what kinds of questions have been closed off and with what justification?

I’d also be looking to explore what kinds of ethics and norms are used in contexts in which the proposed X is being invoked. Are there differences in the ethical frameworks used to think about X across different spaces and times and in what ways do these differ? If there are differences of opinion about the ethical valence of X how do we decide amongst such opinions in governance, regulation, and technical innovation practices?