Mullins lecture Steve Hilgartner (S&TS, Cornell University) "Data Science and the Unlimits of Inquiry"
Stephen Hilgartner is Professor of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University. His research examines the making of knowledge and power in contemporary and emerging science and technology. His most recent book Reordering Life: Knowledge and Control in the Genomics Revolution examines how quasi-legal "knowledge-control regimes" took shape during the Human Genome Project. Hilgartner also co-edited two recent collections: the Handbook of Genomics, Health and Society and Science & Democracy: Making Knowledge and Making Power in the Biosciences and Beyond. His book on Science on Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama won the Society for Social Studies of Science's Rachel Carson Prize. Hilgartner is currently completing a project on the politics of making knowledge about risk. Since May 2020, he has been co-leading a comparative study of countries' responses to the Covid pandemic. Hilgartner is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Abstract: Data Science and the Unlimits of Inquiry
In the 1970s, a debate about the "limits of scientific inquiry" raised normative and empirical questions about whether, to what extent, and for what reasons society should impose restrictions on research said to be potentially harmful (Holton and Morrison 1979). This paper takes that debate as a starting point for considering the politics of data science today. I focus on technical vanguards (Fleck  1979; Hilgartner 2015) that are using large databases, sophisticated algorithms, and artificial intelligence to investigate and act upon social entities, such as individuals, groups, and networks. This talk draws on an ongoing study of ethics-in-the-making in data science that is examining activities underway in state agencies, corporations, academia, and hybrid networks spanning these institutions. Using empirical examples, I examine how these vanguards explore and influence the limits--and reciprocal unlimits--of these systems. By adjusting "knowledge-control regimes" (Hilgartner 2017), vanguards configure categories of agents, spaces, objects and relationships among them in order to prototype and test the political and epistemic possibilities of nascent modes of inquiry. In this way, these vanguards play a central role in redefining the unlimits of inquiry and allocating control over the resulting knowledge. Implications for inclusive decision making and accountability are discussed.