Responsibility in social sciences

by Kaya Akyüz

Catherine Bliss’s book “Social by Nature” is at the core of a currently on-going debate (Picture provided by K. Akyüz)

Recently, a controversy among social scientists unfolded on twitter about the book Social by Nature: The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics by the STS scholar Catherine Bliss. A review of the book was published in Nature with the title CRISPR’s Willing Executioners, alluding to Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Bliss’ endorsement of the review on twitter raised sensitivity among some of the individuals interviewed for the study, who are mainly social scientists, working at the intersection of genomics and their disciplines. At the center of the controversy, however, are not just the arguments of the book, but social science practices.

The critique came mainly from Jeremy Freese, a sociology professor from Stanford and the interviewee #9 mentioned in the book, in the form of a tweet thread that was started on January 16, 2018 and included a plethora of “errors” in the book [i], retweeted and responded to by many, including other scientists who were interviewed for the book. Freese’s response on twitter begs many questions, some of which are exemplified by a heated exchange on a sociology discussion board. From the perspective of a social scientist, I share the view that Freese could have selected a better venue and form for his critique of a social scientific work. Nevertheless, Freese defends the tweet thread by stating that the interviewees should have been included in the publishing process. The aim of this blog post is, however, to discuss “responsibility” in social science and STS research through this case. This controversy raises the question: Should we incorporate our interview partners in the (pre-)publishing process as part of ‘good’ scientific practice, or is this controversy a special case because the interview partners were themselves social scientists?

Freese thinks social science genomics researchers are likened to Nazis in Nature, which makes the urgency of a rapid response as a “self-defense” through tweets understandable. But is Bliss, the author of the review, the editorial staff of Nature or the Stanford University Press the main target here? Freese criticizes these actors and points out the problems from his perspective as a research subject, but he barely scratches the surface of what seems to be a web of entrenched issues in the contemporary publishing system and knowledge production. A mutual critique among social scientists in the traditional form of commentaries and responses in journals would have contributed more to opening up the underlying issues. I’d have liked to read more of a sociologist’s perspective into the network of actors (e.g. the author and collaborators, funders of the research, reviewers of the book, and editorial team of the publishing house) that made such “errors” publishable and what this book means for the field of “social genomics”, rather than reading only the nitty gritty details and a few systematic issues without allusion to practices in science that lead to such controversies. If we are not able to achieve meaningful mutual critique even within social sciences as in the Bliss-Freese case, how could we move forward?

There is another layer of the controversy, exemplified by tweets (1, 2, 3), that says more about STS than about Bliss’ book; according to Freese, some STS scholars believe to be “morally superior” (e.g. to social science genomics researchers) and feel a “strong incentive to twist things that scientists say in order to make them look bad.” Although Freese’s target here is a specific, but unidentified, “vein” of STS, if this is to be taken as a valid argument, it should apply symmetrically to the broader community of social scientists, whom Freese is also a part of. Nonetheless, the quote made me consider the controversy as an alarm to view our scientific practice from a critical lens and imagine things “we” can do as social scientists.

We have to think about being more reflexive and how to achieve mutual respect between the researchers and the research subjects without forcing ourselves into normativity or losing our critical capacity. We have to re-think what we owe to our research subjects, who have devoted their time and made our research possible. All this may be difficult to achieve, in conditions in which we have to be fast in publishing, getting new grants, finding jobs and publishing further, but we have to slow down, even stop for a second, and, think what the consequences are. We have to realize the risks of “bad publicity” and think about the not-so-immediate consequences. We have to be active when we feel our ideas and research are misused. Succumbing to the publish or perish system, can save our careers in the short term, but in the long run, continuous controversies like this could start a new wave of science wars, where we all lose as members of science and society. With this blog post, I kindly invite contributions from readers on practical aspects of responsibility in (social) sciences going beyond the rhetorical meaning of the term.

[i] I roughly categorized the mentioned “errors” as: wrong affiliations of scientists mentioned  (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4), misspelled names (of a scientist, of a company, of a profession, a term), wrong names (a scientist’s expertiseof the leader of a program, of a funding agency), non-existing collaborations (e.g. 1, 2),  confusion of a graduate student and his advisor/committee member, wrong years (of a first special issue, of first partnership, of introduction of a term, of a cohort’s incorporation of genetic data), wrong transcriptions of terms in interviews (estimate existence of equations instead of estimating systems of equations, no hypothesis testing instead of null hypothesis testing, a number of factorial partners instead of number of sexual partners, Freese’s own words), wrong court case details, wrong quoting of a scientist’s televised talk, disputed figures, existence of things claimed non-existent (epigenetic studies by social genomics researchers, incompleteness of Bliss’ listing of “the only full courses” with Freese’s own teaching as an example), “non-existent” terms (genetic methodological validity), interview quotes that are deemed by Freese to be “weird or dumb” or “not making sense,” and many interpretive disagreements, which I won’t mention further. However, among these, Freese claims numerous times that the quotations from interviews/empirical material are contradicting (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4) or not supporting the analysis that follows.

Kaya Akyüz is a PhD student and uni:docs fellow at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna. Having finished his bachelor and master’s studies in Molecular Biology and Genetics at Bo?aziçi University, his current research is on the dynamics of making and unmaking a new field in science through the case of genopolitics, an emerging research field at the intersection of political science and genetics.