On particulars and broad trends

A few months ago Alan Jacobs provided some needed restraint on the temptation to over-generalize, in this instance on the role of social media in the Middle East revolutions:

So when Clay Shirky says, “social media . . . helps [sic] angry people coordinate their actions,” I don’t know how we would even figure out whether a statement that broad is true. Which social media? Which actions? In which societies? Presumably when people connect with each other they won’t always agree, so how do we know that some social media, anyway, don’t exacerbate conflicts? Maybe some people in some societies would coordinate better if they met face to face. Maybe, though there are certainly dangers in meeting face to face, there may be just as many dangers in coordinating via social media, depending on how careful the users are and how technologically sophisticated the oppressors are.

It struck me how much Jacobs’ critique applies to the (all-too-frequent) platitudes often heard about science. I’m not at all sure what it means for science to “lie at the center of policy issues facing our nation and world?” Well, which issues? Do all nations face them? And what exactly do we mean by “the center?” It seems a bit strange to suggest that science is equally center in both climate policy and financial regulation. In discussing both social revolutions and science policy, more particularization can be helpful.

And while, as commenter PEG reminds us, “Broad trends do in fact, exist. There is value in identifying them precisely, analyzing their impact on the present and plotting out their course in the future”…the sloppy, armchair observations about science hardly qualify as precise analysis. Surely we need something more than the exceptionally vague “science and technology continue to transform our lives.” Until we clarify what such statements actually mean, I’ll try my best to stick with the particulars.

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