Science, Technology, and Society

Over 2,000 years ago, when Aristotle began to explore the nature of scientific inquiry, he was setting the stage for the modern field of the philosophy of science—the philosophical inquiry into science’s foundations, methods, assumptions, and merit. 

But by the end of the 20th century, the increased complexity of scientific and technological development—from the microchip to nuclear power, the internet to the deciphering of the entire human genetic code—necessitated an additional set of tools for understanding how society is affected by these developments, and how, in turn, those developments are influenced by society. 

Enter the interdisciplinary Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program of The Claremont Colleges, formalized as a major in 1990, which brings together courses taught in a variety of departments, with content divided into three principal areas: history of science and technology; philosophy of science; and political, cultural, and social perspectives on science and technology.  

“STS majors take several courses in a scientific or technical discipline, so they have some firsthand experience with the important developments in that field,” says Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pomona College Laura Perini, who serves as the STS coordinator. “But they also bring in a whole conceptual toolkit that enables them to think through various possibilities for how and why that result happened and how it may be influencing society now and in the future.”  

Take, for example, the worldwide gap in vaccination rates where vaccines are available. According to the World Health Organization, about 86 percent of infants worldwide received the scheduled three doses of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP3) vaccine in 2018. This statistic isn’t news to physicians, but why 14 percent of infants—not counting those who didn’t have access to DTP3—had parents opt out of the vaccine has long confounded 
the medical community.  

Having come to Scripps with interests in virology, internet culture, and the history of vaccinations, Marta Bean ’14 set out to answer this question in her STS thesis. By analyzing the ways that people justify not vaccinating themselves or their children in online parenting forums, she found that these virtual communities maintain themselves, even while rejecting scientific consensus, by deploying specific strains of anti-vaccination rhetoric.

“It’s interesting, because even if there exists the most compelling scientific data, people have a way of tossing it aside,” explains Bean, who is now an internal medicine resident at Penn Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Some people try to manipulate data, others think vaccination programs are about government control, others still just don’t understand the science, and others know vaccines work, but are against the preservatives used in vaccines and think that they are toxic.” As a physician, she says that this understanding of science and society is fundamental to her work with patients. 

“There are many patients I encounter daily that are resistant to medical interventions, and my research at Scripps has made me more empathetic, because I understand all of the different social forces that lead them to come to those conclusions. I’m more understanding and willing to work slowly but surely to help my patients understand more about their conditions and share in their decision making about how to best move forward in a way that aligns with their values,” Bean says. 

For Amelia Hamiter ’16, the STS framework enabled her to write a thesis that posits that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) exists due to a network of external factors that we take for granted, in contrast to the more widespread understanding of the disorder as having a neurological basis. These external factors include, among others, a cultural value system that pathologizes certain behaviors and not others. 

“Specific expectations for an individual’s behavior and capabilities are built into our society, and ADHD consists of traits that are barriers to meeting these expectations, and therefore have been conceptualized as symptoms of a disorder,” explains Hamiter, who works in the field of public health and maintains that regardless, the traits of ADHD do function as a disorder and should be taken seriously. “But what if these implicit expectations were vastly different? Can we imagine a different world in which ADHD traits are neutral or even beneficial?”

Scripps students have also explored how a clever marketing campaign led to the widespread acceptance of the lobotomy, conducted an STS analysis of refugee camps, and explored why the U.S. was so slow to recognize that the AIDS crisis was a threat to women. “The projects coming out of Scripps have been wonderful,” says Perini. “They’re thinking about how technology can disrupt society in ways that are hard to foresee—they’re looking at the history and thinking about long-term effects.”  

These projects emerge out of the type of critical analysis encouraged by facultylike Jih-Fei Cheng, assistant professor in the Department of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In his STS class, Feminist and Queer Science, Cheng teaches students to consider how scientific and technological discoveries and the advent of scientific fields of study emerge in concert with their larger historical, political, and economic contexts. 

For Cheng, the AIDS pandemic is a prime example of the confluence of science and context. He studies the pandemic not just from the standpoint of biological infection—the epidemiological tracking of HIV transmission—but also from a socioeconomic standpoint: Why did the HIV/AIDS diagnosis emerge during the late 20th century when the infection had been present in certain communities for much longer?  

“HIV had already begun affecting people of color and the global south much earlier, but public health concern and theorization of this new virus did not happen until white men were impacted during the early 1980s. In turn, Black and Brown people, and especially women and trans people of color, often did not fit the models and definitions of AIDS, which were based largely upon the bodies and lives of mostly white men,” explains Cheng. This is crucial, he says, because meeting the criteria of AIDS determines whether someone can access life-saving resources such as public subsidies for pharmaceutical therapies and housing. 

The consideration of the conditions under which the production, distribution, and utilization of scientific knowledge and technological systems occur, and the consequences of these activities upon different groups of people, is of paramount importance in an increasingly complex and globalized world. “STS encourages us to recognize that scientific knowledge and technology shape the ways we think, observe, and act,” says Hamiter. “They structure the questions we ask and the ideas we come up with, and this applies just as much to the scientists and engineers themselves. This is not to discredit the value and relevance of scientific research, but rather to affirm the importance of self-examination and awareness.”  

As for Bean, she says that her STS degree was instrumental in her medical school admission because she offered a humanistic take on the hard sciences. “People loved to talk to me about my thesis. Physicians are fascinated by this research, because in their own practice they see this phenomenon of rejecting science, and they [want to know] about the history,” she says, adding: “And I have to say, as a physician trained in humanistic inquiry, vaccines are still good.”