Truth Claims in Science, Technology, and Society

Within the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS), one notion has been discussed and debated pervasively: truth claims, more specifically, scientific truth claims. What does it mean to claim a truth? What does a typical truth claim entail? This essay aims at delineating the dominating discussions surrounding the idea of truth claim in STS. Throughout this essay, I will argue that scientific truth claims are always socially constructed – they are produced, not discovered; they connect to human beings, objects, and the environment, instead of being isolated on their own. First, I will start by introducing how general audiences perceive scientific truth claims and whether scientists hold the same belief. Then, I will move on to draw the picture of developing truth claims in science. A few key STS concepts will be presented and examined. After that, I will talk about some effects that can be caused by these truth claims. Finally, several methods to disclose the real nature of truth claims will also be investigated.

Scientific truth claims are trusted by general audiences. What can be considered as a scientific truth claim? For example, the moon rotates around the earth – this is a truth claim. An elephant weighs more than a lion – also a truth claim. To hold belief in a truth claim, one first needs to trust. Steven Shapin, in his Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Talking about Truth, notes that “people’s trust in science is based upon their acceptance of certain transcendental and absolutist stories about science. [15]” Therefore, for general audiences, truth claims in science are really true. They are not to be questioned. They are, simply, facts.  But people do not always set out to these truth claims so easily. Shapin also talks about how people used to judge whether a certain claim is true by evaluating if the one who claims is reliable or familiar [16]. At that time, the reliability of men was taken into consideration more seriously. Later around eighteenth century, people began to assign more weight to expertise [16]. It is acceptable if the truth claim is not made by somebody we know personally, as long as that person is an expert in a relevant institution that belongs to the field. Abstract and isolated knowledge claimed by formal institutions means truth. Nowadays, it is hard to convince anyone without referring to media, press, colleges, research labs and so on. This is how general audiences trust.

However, are these truth claims absolutely true? Should they be taken as facts? To answer these questions, many STS scholars look closely at how these truth claims come into being. Bruno Latour describes in detail of how a certain truth claim like “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix” is constructed [9]. Take this statement as an example for now. First, it is claimed based on many experiments that are completed in different laboratories. Second, these experiments are conducted by various human researchers. Third, these human researchers discuss and argue with each other during the entire study period (sometimes even longer). They often, if not always, actively seek for allies that will support their own ideas. Finally, one side will dominate the discussion and therefore the experiment results from this side with be considered as a scientific conclusion. Here, it means that “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix.” When being presented to the public, this scientific conclusion is crafted as a black-boxed truth claim, leaving all these experiments, labs, or human researchers’ names and actions aside. Clearly, the situation in the experiment laboratories can be crucial. The way each piece of discussion or argument is framed is also vital. One more example: thanks to Collins and Pinch, we are able to learn that scientists have yet reached a consensus whether female whiptail lizards have lesbian mating habit or not [3], simply because there are too many doubts and confusions in either side of the debate. Examples like these two are numerous. What Latour intends to address is that scientific truth claims are always socially constructed. Their construction relies on social relations – one may have more say if he or she has gained trust from a big name. Hence, these truth claims are not isolated absolute truths as perceived by the general audience. They are true only in specific situations, if, luckily, one is hidden from the fighting on the backstage. They are not black boxes and they will never be.

What’s more, these truth claims tend to change. In Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Ludwik Fleck, by delineating how syphilis has been understood across time, discusses deeply about the change of thought collective and thought style [6]. If we listen to Fleck’s words and clarify thought collective as a collection of thoughts of a certain topic and thought style as the most prevailing style of thought for that topic in a specific period of time, then here the change of thought styles for syphilis is clear: syphilis was first seen as a mystery, then a pathogenetic idea, and finally an etiological disease entity, due to Wassermann reaction [6]. Similarly, Kuhn describes how a scientific paradigm can shift because of an “accident.” Different from Fleck’s thought collective, Kuhn’s scientific paradigm focuses more on a specific disciplinary (i.e. a closed community), and his accident means something that is unexpectedly discovered or derived but ultimately adjusts the direction of the entire paradigm [8]. One example can be Coulomb’s law. Paradigm shift is an ongoing process. It happened before and it is still undergoing at present. Foucault [7], Clarke et al. [2], and Rose [12] all point to the paradigm shift from medicalization to biomedicalization. To uncover the problematic notion of race in science, Fausto-Sterling [5] and Pollock [11] both draw the maps of how race is perceived, used, and in fact not being legitimate for bone density research and heart disease studies respectively. Therefore, truth claims are subject to change. They are not only socially constructed but also time dependent. They are not universally true.

While truth claims are situated in contexts and time, they inevitably will influence the world in one way or another, especially when they are embedded in artifacts such as technology. Yes, technology, as one form of scientific product, conveys truth claims. The procedure of “materializing” truth claims involves categorization, classification, standardization, etc. Bowker and Star have talked extensively about what they mean by classification and standardization [1]: Classification is a segmentation of the world, either based on time, or space, or both time and space. The resulting categories of classification are consistent and complete within themselves, while being mutually exclusive among each other. Standardization, however, is the process of imposing a certain classification to enable the collaboration of various things so that they can work together. Classification and standardization collaboratively materialize scientific truth claims. For instance, to produce a touch-screen smartphone, both classification and standardization have to be involved to include certain truth claims from biology, cognitive science, ergonomics and more. The consequence is that although this smartphone is suitable for some people, it is not friendly to everybody – imagine a blind person using it. Additionally, it can only be used in some occasions, but not all the contexts – imagine if there is no electricity. Hence, the world is then classified and/or standardized by these artifacts and by the truth claims they represent. These artifacts have politics. Langdon Winner delves deep into this issue and concludes that artifacts are always political [18]. Atomic bombs are designed to deter and destroy. When being materialized as artifacts, truth claims can have real political impacts to the world and to us in positive and/or negative ways.

Due to this effect, numerous scholars have proposed approaches for scientists to understand the possible results of their “truth claims” and then make science and technology more inclusive for people. Latour raises an “actor network approach” to think about how artifacts, as actors who have independent capability in the world, can affect people’s lives by substituting, shaping, or changing their actions [10]. He focuses on both the power of human and non-human actors and how they relate to each other to form a network. Cowan, when examining the history of cooking stove in the United States, proposed the inclusion of consumer by looking at the “consumption junction,” where consumers actively chose among competing products [4]. Back to then, people tended to think about producers solely and ignored consumers entirely, not including them in the whole network. Rosenberger and Verbeek learn from phenomenology and come up with the idea of “postphenomenology” [14]. Postphenomenology’s focal point is the relation between human and technology and it cares more about empirical analysis. Four major human-technology relations include embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations [14]. They also raise the concept of “multistability” to talk about the flexibility of technology to be understood and used different under distinct contexts by distinct people [13] [14]. Different from all the approaches above, who are basically theoretic frameworks, Vertesi et al. introduces a variety of design methods that are used widely by designer and researchers to study human-technology relations [17]. Examples include participatory design (i.e. design with stakeholders) and reflective or critical design (i.e. design to reflect and provoke). All these scholars suggest means to think more deeply and comprehensively about artifacts and technologies and what they bring to human beings and our society.

Scientific truth claims are not isolated. They situate in contexts and time and they rely on people to be developed. Even though general audiences prefer to view truth claims as ultimate truths, they are always socially constructed. They are not neutral and therefore bring real impact to our lives. Scholars advocate various ways to think about science and technologies more inclusively, but it is everybody’s responsibility to open the black box of truth claims and understand everything better.


[1]  Bowker, Geoffey C., and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999, Intro and Chapt 1 (pp. 1-50).

[2]  Clarke, A.E., Shim, J.K., Mamo, L., Fosket, J.R., & Fishman, J.R. (2003). “Biomedicalization: Technoscientific transformations of health, illness and U.S. biomedicine.” American Sociological Review, 68(2), 161-194.

[3]  Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, “The Sex Life of the Whiptail Lizard,” from The Golem: What You Should Know about Science, pp. 109-119.

[4]  Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “Consumption Junction” in Bijker, Wiebe, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch The Social Construction of Technological Systems.

[5]  Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “The Bare Bones of Race,” Social Studies of Science 38.5(2008): 657-694.

[6]  Fleck, Ludwick. Genesis and the Development of a Scientific Fact. First published by Benno Schwabe, Basel, 1935; English translation by Bardley F. and Trenn T.J., University of Chicago Press, 1979.

[7]  Foucault, M. (1978). Excerpts from The history of sexuality, Vol 1: An introduction.

[8]  Kuhn, Thomas S. “Scientific Paradigms.” In Sociology of Science edited by Barry Barnes, 80-104. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972.

[9]  Bruno Latour, Science in Action. How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Harvard), pp. 1-100.

[10]  Bruno Latour: “Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts”, in Bijker, Wiebe E.; Law, John, Shaping technology/building society: studies in sociotechnical change.

[11]  Pollock, Anne. Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. Introduction, pp. 1-27.

[12]  Rose, N. (2007). The politics of life itself. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Introduction pp. 1-8).

[13]  Rosenberger, R. (2014). “Multistability and the Agency of Mundane Artifacts: from Speed Bumps to Subway Benches.” Human Studies. 37: 369-392.

[14]  Rosenberger, R., and P.-P. Verbeek. (2015). “A Field Guide to Postphenomenology.” In: Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations, R. Rosenberger and P.-P. Verbeek (Eds.). Lexington Books, pp. 9-41.

[15]  Steven Shapin, “Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Talking About Truth,” Configurations 7:1 (1999), 1-14.

[16]  Steven Shapin, A Social Construction of Truth. Civility and Science in Seventeenth Century England (Chicago), Epilogue.

[17]  Vertesi, Janet, David Ribes, Laura Forlano, Yanni A. Loukissas, and Marisa Cohn (2016). “Engaging, Critiquing, and Making Digital Systems: Crossings between STS and Design,” in The STS Handbook. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[18]  Winner, Langdon, “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” in The Whale and the Reactor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 19-39.