Concepts: science, technology, etc.

Week 2

Learning objectives:

  1. Define the key concepts for the course
  2. Understand the difference between science and technology
  3. Pose questions about public interest, public policy, innovation, ingenuity, innovation growth, limits to growth, fairness, equity, and security

What are science, technology, knowledge, society, and policy?


Each of the concepts involved in the course has a meaning in common language, and a number of specific meanings for different contexts.  The general meaning is found in dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s, or your laptop or word processor dictionaries.  The specialized meanings are found in specialized dictionaries like the Science Dictionary, or the Oxford Dictionary of Science, in encyclopedias, or reference texts. Authors like Smardon will also define the ways in which they use specific terms. These definition exercises can be extensive, and sometimes an author will change the way in which terms are used.  Important authors, like Thomas Kuhn for his work on the structure of scientific revolutions, can be the subject of conceptual analysis that makes up a whole book or even a field of literature (see Gattei, 2008, for the many ways in which Kuhn uses the word paradigm, for example).

This week, we need simple, robust definitions of the key concepts listed. But we also need to think about how they are used in more specialized discussions like Smardon’s book.

Gattei, S. (2008). Thomas Kuhn’s” linguistic turn” and the legacy of logical empiricism: incommensurability, rationality and the search for truth. Ashgate Publishing. (Preface)

Required reading

If you have not already done so, read the introduction and conclusion of Smardon (2014).

Find at least two definitions from credible sources for each of the key terms listed.

Optional reading

Michael D. Gordin (2015) Scientific Babel: How Science was done before and after global English. Conclusion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Gordin’s insight is that language plays an important role in the way we do science; the special role of ‘global English’ is recent and likely to be transient. (See Figure 1 in Gordin, Introduction).

Funtowicz, Silvio, Martin O’Connor, Iain Shepherd (2001) “Science, Governance, Complexity, and knowledge assessment,” 3.13 in M.K. Tolba, editor, Our Fragile World: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Development, Oxford, UK: UNESCO, and EOLSS Publishers.


Complete required reading.

  1. Prepare notes on definitions and the sources you consulted, and be prepared to discuss them in class.

  2. Feedback on definitions – particularly “society” and “public interest” (Thanks, Jake). ***

  3. Be prepared for 60s on Smardon.

Self assessment questions

Why do definitions and concepts matter?

Where do we look for definitions of concepts?

What are the common elements of specialized and more generic definitions of the key terms?

Is there a useful distinction between science and technology?  How do they overlap?

What constitutes knowledge? How is it generated, preserved and transmitted in society?

What are the different interests involved

What is the distinction between public and private interests in modern democracies?  Are these distinctions converging or diverging?

Who defines the public interest?

What conflicts can arise in competing understandings of the public interest?


Participation evaluation for week 2 Concepts will consist of:

60s: What is Smardon’s main argument? ***

We will revisit this question, but for now, here’s a brief summary of one perspective on the main argument in the introduction: “Smardon argues that Canada has not benefited from the same levels of industrial R&D as other developed countries. Despite tax incentives and direct investment by government, Canadian industry has remained heavily dependent on foreign technology and patents. Canada is thus at a competitive disadvantage. Federal governments have been unable to overcome business resistance to the targeted investment strategies, which made a difference in other industrial countries. He attributes this to the structural weakness of Canada’s economy, i.e. its dependence on US investment and its subordination to US commercial interests. Ultimately, he thinks this has social rather than political origins.”

60c: What else does Smardon suggest? (e.g. Fordism, Taylorism, globalization)

The point of this 60c is that no 60 second summary can cover everything in a chapter or section, so the person giving a critique must listen carefully for what is not said. ***

5R:  Should we use general or specialized definitions of key concepts when we develop policy options for science and technology? Why?  Discuss for 5 minutes. Present the results in 60s. There is an opportunity for a minority report as a 60c.

Questions and discussion.  We may explore some of the self-assessment questions in light of Smardon’s argument as developed in the introduction and conclusion.

Additional references

  1. Pool, R. (1997). Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology. Oxford University Press.  Introduction, “Understanding Technology”.