The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)

Invisible Science

Steven Shapin

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 3)

There’s a McDonald’s restaurant near where I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roughly equidistant from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and close to one of the beating hearts of modern science and technology, the restaurant sits across Massachusetts Avenue from a nondescript building full of entrepreneurial electronic gaming companies. Walk a little toward the MIT end of the avenue, and you pass major institutes for bioinformatics and cancer research, at least a dozen pharmaceutical and biotech companies, outposts of Microsoft and Google, the Frank Gehry−designed Stata Center, which houses much of MIT’s artificial intelligence and computer science activities (with an office for Noam Chomsky), and several “workbars” and “coworking spaces” for start-up high-tech companies. You might think that this McDonald’s is well placed to feed the neighborhood’s scientists and engineers, but few of them actually eat there, perhaps convinced by sound scientific evidence that Big Macs aren’t good for them. (Far more popular among the scientists and techies is an innovative vegetarian restaurant across the street—styled as a “food lab”—founded, appropriately enough, by an MIT materials science and Harvard Business School graduate.)

You might also assume that, while a lot of science happens at MIT and Harvard, and at the for-profit and nonprofit organizations clustered around the McDonald’s, the fast-food outlet itself has little or no significance for the place of science in late modern society. No scientists or engineers (that I know of) work there, and no scientific inquiry (that I am aware of) is going on there. And yet there is a sense in which such places are scientific sites, touching our lives in ways that bear comparison with the science that happens at places like Harvard and MIT.

If no science is going on at the McDonald’s, much of what happens in it has passed through channels carved out by scientific and technological expertise. Any McDonald’s restaurant is a site of embedded science. The products that are its reasons for being have been subjected to extensive scientific and technical inquiry and assay, and whatever products come to be added to them, or to replace them, will be subjected to further inquiry and assay. The electric wiring, the lighting, the heating, the ventilation, the air-conditioning, and the refrigeration systems—all have been designed, tested, and monitored for efficiency and safety by legions of technical experts, as have those of public buildings throughout the city and nation. Standards for the safety of the food, its storage and preparation, are set and monitored by scientifically informed government expertise. The McDonald’s is one of very many late modern “Pasteurian” places, where nineteenth-century “old science” provides a foundation for the latest findings about, for example, strains of bacteria and the toxins they may produce or about the physiological effects of trans fats, sodium, and high-fructose corn syrup. The nutritional content of the food is displayed near the counter and on the company’s website—so many calories, so much fat (saturated and otherwise), so much fiber—the constituents tallied according to the federal government’s ever-changing assessments of the physiological effects of and requirements for different nutrients.

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Steven Shapin is Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. His books on the history and sociology of science include Leviathan and the Air-Pump (with Simon Schaffer, 1985), A Social History of Truth (1994), and The Scientific Life (2008).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.3 (Fall 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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