Introducing 'The Received Wisdom'

The first episode of ‘The Received Wisdom’ is coming this September!

Shobita and Jack discuss their plans for the show, which will feature interviews with thinkers, doers, and activists, who are challenging the received wisdom around science, technology, and policy, as well as a discussion of current science/technology/policy news and events.


Shobita   00:16    Hi Jack!

Jack   00:17   Hi Shobita. Welcome everyone to The Received Wisdom podcast. Um, Shobita, tell us why we're doing a podcast. 

Shobita    00:26    So I wanted to do this podcast because I wanted to challenge the received wisdom, as you might say, about science, technology and science and technology policy. You know, we all tend to think that just investing in science and technology is going to benefit society but we, as citizens and as thinkers, are realizing that that just isn't the case. And so I want to think and talk with smart people about how we can do science, technology and policy better to do a better job of benefiting society and the environment, hearing citizen concerns and voices and making ethical decisions. What about you?

Jack    01:09    I mean, if we didn't sort of agree on this then, then I think this whole thing would a disaster. But I think you're absolutely right. So for me, the issue is that the assumption is sometimes that more science is better in all circumstances, and I think anybody that spends any time with scientists or talking about science and technology issues, knows that the questions are rather more complicated than that. So this for me is an opportunity to talk to the people at the cutting edge of those debates—whether those people researching them or people that are involved in some way—about all the various linkages between science, technology and society. And the idea, you know, I think this should help in making the world a better place. I would hope that, even though you and I are academics, we're interested in debates that are going on around us right now and the decisions that people are making in the here and now. 

Shobita    02:04    Yes, absolutely. I mean I definitely think this is an opportunity to think about broader issues and hopefully reach audiences beyond just the academic world. Policy makers and activists and scientists and engineers, who may be are a little bit uncomfortable with the way that they see emerging science and technology unfolding and curious about how we might do things differently or better. And, my hope is that we can start a real conversation that might have some social and policy impact. 

Jack    02:39    Right. I mean it's always been weird, hasn't it? Asking critical questions about science and technology has often been seen as sort of a bit of a taboo. 

Shobita    02:48    And I actually think that it being a taboo or you know, in our field we would say that it's black-boxed, is what makes these conversations even more critical. So, because we tend to think that these are not places where we can ask these difficult questions about whether or not our approach to research funding, for example, is actually benefiting society; Whether the benefits are being distributed equitably; Can we do a better job of making sure that, for example, people who need them are getting the drugs that they're prescribed? That those are incredibly important questions, in part because they seem like they’re not… they're not appropriate questions or that they are in fact taboo questions and that raises the level of importance and hopefully it means that we're providing a conversation to people that is both unique and important. 

Jack    03:46    We should probably say a little bit about who we are. So, who on earth are you Shobita?

Shobita    03:52    During the day, I am a professor at University of Michigan. I'm a professor of public policy and women's studies. And so, from that title you can see that I really do care quite a bit about getting these academic ideas from our field out into the world. I'm trained as a science and technology studies scholar, which I usually describe as people who are thinking about the historical, social, political, philosophical dimensions of science and technology. I also direct the Science, Technology and Public Policy program here at University of Michigan. So I spend a lot of time teaching scientists, engineers, and policy students at the graduate level about why the decisions that they're making in the lab or the seemingly technical decisions that, um, science and technology policymakers are making are incredibly consequential for the world. My own research has ranged widely, I guess. So I've done a lot of work on politics and policy related to genetics and biotechnology. I wrote a book a couple of years ago about the politics of intellectual property in the U S and Europe. But these days, the thing that's occupying my brain and my time—other than this podcast of course—is that I've become incredibly interested in the rise of innovation, the promise of innovation, the imagination around innovation that has now penetrated the world of international development…so. How about you tell us a little bit about what you do for your day job? 

Jack    05:23    We have similar roles. I am an associate professor in science and Technology Studies at University College London where, as well as teaching my own students in our department, I also teach science students across UCL. I work with scientists across UCL. I am a bit of an unusual academic. I feel a bit out of place as an academic because I, my sort of history has been as a policy wonk. So I began my career working for a policy think tank and then I did some time at the Royal Society which is, you know, one of these esteemed institutions of science that reaches back to early modernity, created in the late 17th century, and is now Britain's National Academy of Sciences. So I did a lot of actual science policy work there working with elite scientists to try to encourage their conversations with policy makers. Now my work, most of it is on new technologies and the enormous hype that surrounds them and how we can in the face of that hype still make good decisions about where we're going with them.   

Jack    06:33    Um, I will promise that on this podcast I will try not to talk too much about self-driving cars, but self-driving cars are my new obsession.

Shobita   06:44    Except when prompted!

Jack    06:33    If people ask then I shan’t resist, but they are my current obsession because nowhere does there seem to be more hype, more excitement, and yet enormous questions that go well beyond just the scientific and the technological about what our future might look like.

Shobita   07:06    Great. So when you think about the ideal, who would you like to listen to the podcast and what would you like the outcomes to be?

Jack    07:14    So I would love it if our own students listened. But I think the idea, you know, the ideal would be really if people that are working at the coalface of these debates were interested. So you know, if the practicing scientists who were involved in maybe the development of new technologies who are thinking, “well, you know, these aren't easy questions and I want some help guiding me through these debates…”  

Jack    07:44    If they were listening, then that would be great. If policy makers that were confronting some of these things wanted to get involved, terrific. If Elon Musk, um, happened to have a spare few hours and wanted to download the whole thing, then I would be fine with that as well. What about you?

Shobita   08:02    For me, what is perhaps a tantalizing prospect is that people on the front lines, people who are front lines of science and engineering and in policy who are busy every day, thinking about the immediate decisions that they have to make around, you know, whether or not a drug should be approved or you know, whether or not they should engage in x or y experiment. They may not have the time to really sit back and reflect on the meaning behind the decisions that they're making or the consequences behind them. And they may not even know that there are people out there who are thinking about these issues in systematic nuanced ways and perhaps giving them kind of a scaffolding for thinking about it or in some cases, some ideas, creative solutions for dealing with some of the challenges that they might be facing in the laboratory or in the factory or in the bureaucracy. And my hope is that we can provide that for those people, some opportunity for them to reflect in half an hour or so, every few weeks, about what world their work fits into and how their work might change it and how they might be able to change their work in order to make decisions that might better serve the public interest or that might be more in line with where citizens are in terms of their needs, or concerns. 

Jack    09:38    Right, right. So even though we'll probably get thrown out of our respective universities for saying this, I think we'd both agree that these discussions can and should be engaged-in by anyone and that you don't need to read the textbook first because ultimately they're democratic questions, right? 

Shobita    09:56    Absolutely, and, in fact, I would suspect that a lot of citizens are asking themselves about the technologies that they're increasingly engaging with or have to deal with on a daily basis. That there are little puzzles in their lives, you know, why are drug prices so high? Why do we seem to be running away with excitement around self-driving cars when it seems really complicated and like might have to transform much more than just a single machine. I mean, hopefully we can provide some insights to those folks as well and some ways to think about it and help to develop their thinking in ways that they might be inspired to participate more actively in these conversations. 

Jack    10:44    We should probably say something about the sorts of people that we've got coming up on the podcast.   

Shobita    10:50    Quite a range I would say. So I just finished an interview last week with Ruha Benjamin, who somehow miraculously has produced two books at the same time. But we spent most of our time talking about, uh, this book Race After Technology, which I think fits exactly into what we were just talking about. It's really written for a broad audience of people who are interested in the connections between race and technology. It seems like every day people are opening their newspapers and reading about things like algorithmic bias and, or you know, the ways in which facial recognition is more accurate in recognizing white faces than brown and black faces. And the problem of course is that if, uh, you know, the news in the U.S. just yesterday was that our Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Division is using these faces that are collected from when we get our driver's licenses. And so of course, if they're less accurate when it comes to brown and black faces, then that's deeply problematic. And so this book that Ruha wrote talks about all of those issues and does so I think in a beautiful way that's for a really broad audience. And so I am super excited about that interview. Are there any interviews that we've done that you're particularly excited about Jack?

Jack    12:13    Well, I think some of the, the most interesting ones are the ones with cases that are sort of still to be resolved. So we had an interesting conversation with Ben Hurlbut from Arizona State University who was involved with the recent case of the Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who announced at the end of 2018 that he had brought to term two gene edited twin girls, which stunned the scientific community and I mean could well be one of the big science stories of the decade. Ben was interesting, not just because he is a really fascinating analyst and critic of these sorts of cases, but also because he was actually involved personally in that because he'd had conversations with the scientist. So I think I got a huge amount from that conversation. 

Shobita    13:07    Yeah. And we've got Dan Sarewitz, who is at Arizona State University and is widely known for really provocative and interesting insights about the relationship between science and politics and who wrote one of my favorite books of all time, Frontiers of Illusion. And we have a number of other exciting interviews lined up with other thinkers. And we're also hoping to talk to activists and policy makers who are thinking in perhaps critical or new ways about how to do science and technology policy better. 

Jack    13:48    Right, absolutely. So I think what we'd like to do as well, even though we've done our first set of conversations, we would like to democratize the process of the podcast itself and get people's suggestions about who else we should be talking to. So please, anybody that's listening that can make those suggestions, we'd love to hear from you. 

Shobita    14:08    Yes, please contact us. And our hope is that we'll be releasing an episode every six weeks or so, and we'll showcase an interview and we'll start the interview with a little bit of conversation between Jack and I about what's in the news at that moment around science and technology, which of course there are many of them every day these days. So there'll be plenty of fodder for us to talk about too. 

Jack    14:35    Absolutely right. Get your hot takes right here people!