Browsing through books: ‘Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science’ by Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers’ Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science is an important book for anyone doing research or dealing with research. It identifies problems in science and research today and suggest ways to overcome these. Although I’m not a natural scientist, I found this book useful and resonating. In fact, using examples from a different field helped me to see the issues slightly from the outside. The first 4 chapters are about describing ‘fast’ science and the remaining 2 chapters focus on slow science.

The most important take-away for me was Stengers’ ability to verbalise how contemporary mainstream ways of thinking marginalise other ways of being. In the case of academia, the symptoms relate to rankings, measuring, efficiency, expectations for delivering results, commodification, among other things. While these are annoying practices, together they create a sense of fastness. Still, they are the symptoms and the root causes are elsewhere.

What are the root causes? But briefly, the argument is that science is put to serve knowledge economy. She argues that many contemporary socio-ecological problems are known and shared by scholars but they are affected by ‘fastness’ and thus scientists and researchers cannot focus on ‘matters of concern’ (Latour). The tricky part is that no one has the right to decide on their own what is a matter of concern but it should be a dialogue among many people, and not only scientists, but also non-human others. In her analysis, such dialogue is not encouraged at the moment but circumvented or even denied.

In truth, the whole book is about articulating the root causes since it is a book about the philosophy of science. Thus, it would require more work from me to cristalise her analysis. While the same goes for her suggestions how to bring about slow science, I will still try.

I read that her proposals include researchers facing the question ‘You knew what you had to know; what did you do?’ (Chapter 5. p. 106). In her opinion, research institutions are not equipped to handle this and to admit that science is messy and not controllable. Moreover, facing the question requires negotiations (or reclaiming, p. 141), which always happens in a specific context – not in general or in abstractions. From the perspective of fast science, this seems like a terrible idea since negotiations require time. Still, time and negotiations are required for formulating answers to the question she poses: ‘You knew; what did you do?’ Moreover, engaging in negotiations as an academic results in need for diplomats who do negotiating. Sometimes scientists can be those diplomats, while sometimes the diplomat is someone else.

This is not a book to digest easily. Yet, it is definitely an inspiring and important one. So I’m happy that I did more than browse and spent time with this one. I have a feeling that I will return to this book later and compare the underlined parts and my notes to new highlights that I make. (And yes, I scribble in my books, but usually with a pencil.)

A new series of posts: “Browsing through books”

Reading is a skill. In her excellent book about writing academic journal articles Wendy Belcher describes how some successful academics read. A revelation: they don’t! Well, they do but strategically and not from cover to cover. This is because there’s too much to read and not enough time. Belcher (2009, pp. 140–141) writes that

“Even a good reader, someone who manages to read five books a week, week in and week out, will only read 250 books a year or about 10,000 books over a career, Since most read more like one book a week, or 2,000 books total, our ability to read even a fraction of what is published in our discipline is limited.”

As a result, academics skim and read only parts of texts. Also, they choose what to read from cover to cover. And that’s fine.

When I started my postdoc in 2017, I was given an advice from someone finishing their postdoc and entering the world of tenured positions: “Postdoc is the best time of your life to read books.” I start to understand that now. When doing exploratory and multidisciplinary research (that’s me), it is important to read many books that present relevant studies to learn from, than only few in depth. Therefore, as part of the remaining time of my postdoc, I have a goal of browsing through more books. This skill complements my dear hobby of reading books from cover to cover.

This post is an official start of a public series in my blog titled Browsing through Books. I will post reviews on (browsed) books that I consider important for my project. Given that I’m involved with on-going fieldwork, my goal is to post 1-4 times a month.

As Gretchen Rubin claims in her book Better than before, for some people making public commitments helps them to achieve the goals they find important. And guess what, since I started to plan this series, I’m already done with one book and halfway to another one. So, for me, sharing is really caring.

I also need your help: In case you have nice templates in mind for academic book reviews or examples of blogs featuring fun and creative reviews, please comment and recommend.

And most importantly, stay tuned for my first reviews: Latouche’s Farewell to growth and Stengers’ Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science.

 

References: Belcher, W. L. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: a guide to academic publishing success. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.