Technologies of Knowing: A Proposal for the Social Sciences

John Willinsky (Boston: Beacon, 1999)


Table of Contents

  1. Random News
  2. Corporate Prospects
  3. Information Explosion
  4. Reading Exasperation
  5. Social Contract
  6. Knowledgeable Technologies
  7. Enlightenment, Democracy
  8. Knowledge Futures

Chapter 1 / Random News

It seems apt to begin a book on the strained relationship between social science research and the public with an editorial cartoon that attempts to sum up what the public has learned to expect from research. The heading on the Jim Borgman cartoon from the Cincinnati Enquirer gives it away: "Today's Random Medical News, from the New England Journal of Panic-Inducing Gobbledygook." Beneath the heading sits a newscaster announcing, "According to a report released today..." At this point you may notice his finger is on a button that appears to drive the pointers on three labeled wheels above his head. The wheels are obviously used to generate the day's Random Medical News. On the first wheel are such terms as "smoking," "fatty foods," "coffee," and "computer terminals." Between the first wheel and the second wheel are the words "can cause." The second wheel lists "breast cancer," "depression," "a feeling of well-being," and "hypothermia." This wheel is linked by "in" to a third which includes "children," "rats," "7 out of 10 women," "two income families." By a push of the button, the newscaster has apparently found that "Coffee can cause depression in twins." And what will the news be tomorrow? So much research, so much random news.

Borgman's cartoon gets at the skepticism that has grown up around the value of health-related research. We have learned not to expect consistent or coherent information on what happens to affect us most directly. Where research on social issues, such as diet and health, does not breed public indifference, it can induce a minor crisis of confidence, of the sort on which Borgman plays. That crisis comes in the face of just how much research is going on, against how often it appears to produce inconclusive, contradictory, or seemingly unrelated bodies of knowledge. It can seem as if we are awash in a world of well-funded research, while sinking in a sea of churning information.

This may just be a public relations' problem. It may be interpreted as a sign that universities need to do a better job of getting the word out on the value of its research programs and accomplishments. My institution has taken to hanging the slogan "Think About It" from its lamp-posts, as if that would not perhaps draw attention to the very crisis of confidence I am addressing here. Yet the problem is limited to specific fields of inquiry, to where academic research could be said to meet public knowledge.

After all, there is little public concern with the technical sciences of, say, resilient road surfaces or food packaging. And while the public may be interested in passing over the expansion of the universe or the collapsing of white dwarf stars, few despair over the progress being made in astronomy. What brings out the editorial cartoonists and writers, among others, is research which would otherwise seem poised to make a valuable contribution to public knowledge. Research on heath and educational practices, research on criminal justice and social welfare. This is research which appears to promise a body of knowledge that people should be able to freely turn to, take advantage of, call on, and challenge, as it might help them make sense of what they and others face on a daily basis.

This knowledge generally falls within the compass of what are known as the social sciences. In university settings, the social sciences include the disciplines of anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, sociology, as well as the professional schools of education, social work, business, and health sciences. Research in these areas is conducted using statistics, surveys, interviews, the analysis of documents, and ethnographic descriptions of how people live. It builds models and theories of how people act, and how programs and policies work. It is knowledge concerned with how we are governed and educated, how we work and play, how we live and die in a cultural sense

Given that this broad body of knowledge may not be delivering its full value to the public, I'm proposing that one of the great intellectual challenges facing this Age of Information is not proposing a unified theory of the forces governing the universe nor is it proving the Eve hypothesis on the origins of human life. The great challenge is how we can be better served by what we already know. How do we ensure that the value of this much information contributes to the public good even as it is doing much for private gain in this knowledge economy? For the business world is eagerly pursuing "knowledge management" systems, while capitalizing on cyberspace to transform the service economy into a knowledge economy. This intensely electrified private market in knowledge needs to be matched by a similar bolstering of public knowledge. My proposal, then, is to see whether the social sciences can help achieve that balance.

For roughly two centuries, the social sciences have been engaged in building up various forms of knowledge which are ostensibly directed at improving the social lot of humanity. The question I am asking is whether the public could possibly be better served by all of this research activity. Is there not some way to take advantage of these new information technologies to test this basic faith in the public value of the social inquiry? Could the social sciences use these technologies to bring greater coherence and coordination to this body of diverse knowledge, to render it more broadly intelligible in its limits and diversity of approaches, while improving public access to what is supposed to be, after all, a public good? This is only to move the particular knowledge economy of the university, as it is dedicated to understanding and improving human conditions within the social sciences, into far more general circulation, so that it might better attune itself to those it aspires to serve. It is to recognize that the public status of knowledge has changed in the latter years of this millennium, changed in ways that the social sciences may not have been keeping up with.

At this point, the corporate world scrambles to manage, package and commercialize knowledge on behalf of its shareholders. It speaks of knowledge as power and product. It uses new technologies to turn knowledge into the dynamo driving innovation, marketing, and client satisfaction. This may not seem like knowledge as you tend to think of it, but it is still very much about what people work at knowing and it is becoming a force in the world that cannot be ignored because it has taken on new forms. By contrast, those in the universities who work for knowledge as a free and public good, often on public money, continue to place what they know on campus library shelves, waiting for the public to come by looking for it, much as they did a century ago.

So it is that I can't help feeling that something more needs to be done to develop the public sector of this otherwise privatized knowledge economy. The resources are in place. The universities are developing the latest in information technologies, and they have been warehousing the knowledge for centuries. In the social sciences little regard is paid to ensuring the public value of that knowledge, to making it part of what people can turn to and count on, as if the social sciences were a public utility or resource dedicated to providing the power to help people find a way forward. This is, after all, what researchers in the social sciences claim for this knowledge; it is what they are rightly proud of achieving on occasion. One has to ask whether, given the interest and technology, there is not more they could be doing to deliver on this promise?

This book is a response to that question. It takes the form of a proposal for improving the public value of social science research. It is concerned with the social sciences delivering on their sustained promise of contributing to the quality of human life. It comes out of a concern for current shortcomings in social science research, shortcomings amid information explosions. It calls for a renewal of the social sciences' original social contract, combined with the imaginative use of new information technologies, could make an enormous difference to the public value of this field. The changes I am calling for are intended to add as much to the social sciences' sense of accomplishment as to its accountability.

Simply stated, I believe that social science research can be and must be made more helpful to more people. In particular, the social sciences can contribute far more to forms of public knowledge that not only help us to understand different aspects of the world but, with some care, can do so in a way that expands the reach of democracy. Or so I will argue in the pages ahead. The alternative? The social sciences continue producing knowledge that induces a sense of public indifference punctuated by moments of exasperation. Let me begin with one of those troubling moments and the urgency of this contribution to public knowledge.

Setting aside the cartoonish coffee-and-twins studies, there are many real failings of research to provide adequate support for what people need to know. One source of consternation is the confusion that women face in trying to manage the risk of breast cancer. The problem is that the research has failed to ascertain the efficacy of mammograms for detecting cancer in middle-age women and for breast self-examination more generally. This is not for a want of research, although there is more to be done. Nor is it a matter of the medical science conducted in laboratories with cell cultures, at issue. It is about social science research that tracks what happens to large groups of women who do and do not undertake the procedure.

The resulting research is such that the health community is divided over whether the research supports the value of mammograms for middle-aged women. The American Cancer Society says yes to annual mammograms. The U.S. National Cancer Institute has gone back and forth on the issue. And the Canadian Cancer Society finds the evidence does not warrant having a mammogram. When the ever-present New England Journal of Medicine reviewed the research, it declared it a "toss-up" between doing nothing and having an x-ray. Only after the age of 50 are the mammogram's advantages in detecting the mortality rate of the disease unequivocal.[2]

A similar lack of resolve to the research has led increasing numbers of doctors to stop recommending breast self-examination. The "lukewarm" research findings, as the New York Times put it, are not thought to warrant the psychological burden of searching for this deadly disease on a monthly basis. The United States Preventative Services Task Force has taken it a step further with its declaration that there is "insufficient evidence to recommend either for or against breast self-examination."[3] These various Societies and Task Forces feel it is their job to declare in favor or against these practices, and this is not proving helpful. They appear convinced that the public could not handle the far more subtle and tentative forms of knowledge to which this research leads. [4]

On the other hand I believe that women should be able to turn to adequate summaries of the research that convey the effectiveness of self-examinations and mammograms at a certain age. Those summaries should make it apparent that too many contradictions abound or that there is insufficient evidence. As it stands, little enough concern is given to making this research relatively accessible to women. Certainly, the current range of studies leads to a messy and entangled state of the literature, typically making it impossible to compare and combine the data that has been gathered. This book explores ways to limit the incompatibility of existing research programs, while defending the public value of opening up the diverse range of inquiry to public scrutiny.

The reaction among women to this element of ineptitude surrounding the research and treatment of breast cancer has grown from anger to activism. The public outcry is aimed at, among other things, the right to information. This info-age can breed info-rage. It can also foster a sense of information interests and rights among the public. The "surging breast-cancer movement," as the newspaper names it, has resulted in massive conferences of breast-cancer survivors, environmentalists studying the role of toxins, and researchers in alternative medicine. [5]

On a broader medical scale, this public interest in knowing has led to the launching of an online version of the National Library of Medicine, with a compendium of nine million references and 4,000 medical journal abstracts. Launched in June of 1997, it now received 50,000 "visits" a day.[6] "Consumers don't want just a general overview of a particular diagnosis or a particular treatment," observes William Reece, the founder of HealthGate Data Corporation which conducts research for doctors and patients, "What we're finding is that they are really drilling down into clinical articles that, three years ago, only a physician would have read." [7] This "surging breast-cancer movement," as the newspaper names it, has resulted in massive conferences of breast-cancer survivors, environmentalists studying the role of toxins, and researchers in alternative medicine. Feminism has proven a powerful force for turning away from professionals' interpretation of our best interests to finding out for ourselves. If there was a single turning point in taking control of their health, it was with the 1973 manifesto, Our Bodies, Ourselves, published by the Boston Women's Health Collective.[8]

Yet how much farther ahead are we in the quarter-century that has passed since then? You just have to ask why what we know is so often at odds with what we knew last year, so un-reassuring, at a time when we are otherwise wired into an Age of Information? How can the enormous public and private investment in research be generating this dual impression of both information explosion and exasperation? If "civilization is an enormous device for economizing on knowledge," as Stanford social scientist Thomas Sowell has put it, one has also to wonder just how civilized we are, amid the seeming haphazardness and incoherence that exists within the social science sector of this often proclaimed knowledge economy. [9]

A number of tightly contained information systems have been perfected. How else could the U.S. government place a remote-controlled wagon on Mars or, for that matter, how could manufacturers turn out mildew-resistant shower-curtains that work? Yet across a broad front of human activities of no small consequence, the social sciences and related research activities are failing to inspire a great deal of public confidence, and for good reason, as I will illustrate with examples in what follows from bilingual education, reading instruction, welfare reform, IQ research, and the status of the family. For all of the research going on across a thousand campuses and institutes, for all of the studies amassed and indexed during this century, why is it that the knowledge generated by the social sciences of so little value to people? It is not for a lack of interest in knowing, as the breast-cancer movement and National Library of Medicine examples illustrate, with further instances to follow. As it stands, the dedication and talent invested in creating it is largely lost to the public, as well as to practitioners in such related professions as medicine, education, and social services. The quality of this knowledge may well benefit from the vitality and dynamics of this greater public engagement.

Certainly, research in a variety of fields regularly surfaces in the press, sometimes breaking across the front-page, before disappearing from sight. But then contradictory studies appear and controversies flair up, and new research initiatives are announced. Professors of this and that are regular pop-up features on the evening news, part of the sound-bite info-economy the media, where a life-time of research and inquiry is reduced to a couple of sentences in the studio, often interrupted by an opposing colleague from across the continent. A few write for the op-ed page and the serious press. But that great body of academic inquiry largely marches off into the indexed obscurity of academic journaldom, perhaps where most of it belongs, but perhaps not.

Yet it is not as if the social sciences operate in total isolation. Research studies have helped governments form policy and citizen groups fight that policy. They have guided doctors' advice to a patient and school teachers' selection of reading programs. Studies have helped union leaders working to organize employees, and big corporations devise recruitment strategies for minorities. Even now, the entirety of social science research is publicly available, often for no more than the price of university library parking. But there is no getting around how difficult that information is to navigate, find, sort out, and reconcile. It would seem to require its own Freedom of Information Act, in which freedom would amount to reasonable access and comprehensibility.

My proposal for improving public access is to lay out across these pages the makings of a somewhat whimsical, somewhat serious, corporate enterprise dedicated to turning social science research into public knowledge. This fictional company I describe in what follows is intended to provoke and focus the debate over the relationship between the social sciences and the public. The idea for the company grows out of my work as a professor of education who conducts social science research on teaching and learning. You might say that when it comes to the public value of this research, I am either part of the problem or the solution, to recall the challenge the late Eldridge Cleaver threw at my generation some years ago. With this book, I step back from more typical educational studies to consider one possible solution.

Perhaps it would have been wiser to mind the quality of my own work rather than seeking to disturb the well-oiled machinery of the profession with such large-scale proposals. Writing about the near-future prospects of knowledge in an age of information technologies is not, as we say in scholarly circles, my area. My scant but not improbable preparation for this work includes studies of earlier knowledge systems, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, that "great engine of research" as the Victorians called it, and imperialism's global research apparatus of expedition, exhibition, and education.[10] The difference with the project I am presenting here could be summed up as that was then and this is not-yet. The empire of the future may well be the empire of the mind, as Winston Churchill observed while the sun set on the British Empire. But that mind will be net-worked and data-based, as it stands poised to participate in the tele-imperium of the next millennium. How we, who research the social world, can ensure that a greater part of our contribution to it falls within the scale of democratic and public knowledge is the subject of this inquiry.

It is obvious that both the problems and solutions to our knowledge troubles are bound to involve information technologies. Those of us in the research trade have been using computers for some years now to speed up and ease up - that is, to automate - what it takes to produce knowledge in our respective fields. We use these machines to gather, store, sort, calculate, analyze, write, circulate, present, and archive information, with an efficiency that might be accused of accelerating information glut and data smog. If the machines extend the researcher's reach (assuming we are not simply extending the machine's reach), it is mostly about extending our professional contacts within the research community. We are creating more of the same, more quickly and at greater expense. The social sciences are not yet using the technologies to assist the public in taking whatever advantage they can from this body of publicly sponsored research.

In what follows, I am pushing for a possible history of knowledge's near-future. The corporation for public knowledge that I describe amounts to a social science fiction.[11] It is intended to ensure that we do not go gentle into that good night of information technologies and professional expertise which might otherwise only serve to diminish public knowledge and democratic participation. I want to imagine how we might better organize existing and future inquiry so that it constitutes more of a public resource than it currently does. I want to consider new forms of public access to research and a new responsiveness of research to public interests. I want to propose new ways of gathering and sharing the data as part of a new ethos for social science research.

This calls for an expansion of research ethics - currently directed only at protecting the research subject - to cover the obligations owed to public interests in research, in what should be public knowledge. It perhaps calls for a different sort of public theater for knowledge, following the actor Vanessa Redgrave's insistence: "I often hear it said that you've got to be prepared to work in the theater as it is, but actually you must never work for things as they are but for things as they could and might be."[12]

To see through this fiction of things as they could and might be, I am turning to new information technologies. But I ask that you not mistake the machines for the point, when they are only the provocation of this inquiry. They are incontournable, in the French sense of an impediment which one cannot avoid or circumvent in the knowledge trade today. [13] The machines serve as both metaphor and mechanical force. If, as literary critic I. A. Richards realized long before the computer, that a book is a machine to think with, then what we have made of our machines is a way of thinking about what we want of the world, whether in our recreational vehicles or through a World Wide Web.

The technologies I deploy here are so slightly futuristic that I can use the present tense in writing about them. They exist in the here and now, and are not the least anthropomorphic or human-like. They do not require the soft-spoken Artificial Intelligence of HAL or the charmingly mechanical busy-bodiness of 3P-CPO, let alone the deadly cyborgism of the Terminator. This effort to expand public knowledge is not a sinister story of Big Brother prying into our every moment, seeking out our every secret. The social sciences, after all, are interested in studying what randomly chosen and anonymous individuals and groups of people tend to do. It is not a story of putting our faith in machines which, by virtue of network and database, will come up with the grand answers that currently allude us. It is only about asking whether there is not some way of testing and extending the public value of the knowledge which the social sciences continues to accumulate in the hope and good faith that this knowledge can make a difference in the knowing. It all begins by imagining a fictional corporation in the public interest.


[1] Reprinted in the New York Times, 27 April 1997, E4.

[2] Stephen G. Pauker, "Contenious Screening Decisions: Does the Choice Matter," New England Journal of Medicine 336 no. 17 (24 April, 1997).

[3] Abagail Zuger, "Breast Self-Exams Save Lives? Science Still Doesn't Have Answer," New York Times, 6 January 1998, B1, B15. The issue is all the more urgent with the incidence of breast cancer rising by close to 2% a year, even with mortality rates slightly decreasing. Meanwhile, the source of the disease still pose something of a mystery with genetic and environmental causes identified in only about a third of the cases.

[4] See Suzanne W. Fletcher, "Whither Scientific Deliberations in Health Policy Recommendations? Alice in the Wonderland of Breast-Cancer Screening," New England Journal of Medicine 336 no. 17 (17 April, 1997) for a review of how the conclusion reached by a "consensus-development panel" convened by the National Institute of Health, which held the "data currently available do not warrant a universal recommendation for mammography" in women 40-49, was deliberately ignored by policy makers and politicians who came out in support of this procedure.

[5] Jane Gadd, "Disease Survivors Mobilize," Globe & Mail, 23 June 1997, A1.

[6] National Library of Medicine, For a discussion of setting up a National Education Library on this model, see T. Brandhorst, "What Are the Possibilities for Coordinating Education Information Data Bases," Knowledge: The International Journal of Knowledge Transfer, 3 no. 2 (1990).

[7] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Now, Prescribing Just What the Patient Ordered," New York Times, 10 August 1997, E3. A recent poll reports that 60 percent of women "get most of their medical information" from the media, while only 13 percent rely on their doctors. Janet Elder, "Poll Finds Women Are the Health-Savvier Sex, and Warier," New York Times, 22 June 1997, WH8.

[8] Boston Women's Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book by and for Women. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973).

[9] Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions (New York: Basic Books, 1980), ??.

[10] See The Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), and Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

[11] This fictional license seems to be less dangerous and intellectually vulnerable than Immanuel Wallerstein's call to move "utopistics" to the center of the social sciences. He seeks "the analysis of possible utopias, their limitations and the constraints on achieving them" in a search for goodness reconciled with the search for truth. But then he also sees the social sciences "as the inevitable ground of a reunited world of knowledge," which is the dream, as will unfold, that Automata Data speaks to and against. "Social Science and the Quest for a Just Society," American Journal of Sociology 102, no. 5 (March 1997): 1254, 1256.

[12] Matt Wolf, "Finding Out How Tennessee Williams Got That Way," New York Times, 21 April 1998, B2.

[13] Borrowed from George Steiner, "Inscrutable and Tragic: Leo Strauss' Vision of the Jewish Identity,"Times Literary Supplement, 14 November 1997, 4.