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by James Robert Brown
Harvard University Press, 2001
Review by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D. on Mar 5th 2002

Who Rules in Science

Most of us are taught, beginning in grade school, that science is necessarily impartial and objective because it is… well, because science is scientific.   We learn that the pursuit of new scientific knowledge is an empirical one, and incorporates or derives from data or theories already widely accepted by the scientific community.  Our instructors lecture us on the basic scientific method, which does not willingly permit personal whim or admit emotional bias.

So it may come as a surprise to many that a sizable contingent of the academic community questions whether science is, or can be, truly empirical - - i.e., objective. 

The central theme of Brown’ book can be summarized as follows:  rival groups are at war to dominate the scientific enterprise, and as goes science, so goes the human condition.  The winner will determine not only the future of science but will set the political and social agendas for the world as well.

James Brown, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, details in this very readable book the Great Divide between the humanities and science, and between constructivist and empirically oriented camps.  However, Brown explains, these camps can’t be correctly or completely defined in a straightforward manner.  Even among scientists there are significantly different understandings of what science is, what it is about, what it can achieve, how it can achieve those goals, and whether it should remain pure (so to speak) or be subject to current notions of the public good.  There are liberal scientists and conservative ones, liberal constructivists and those “friendly” to the orthodox model of science.  (See for example Brown’s chart on p. 26.)

(It would be convenient if the combatants could be grouped into two clearly demarked camps but in fact, as Brown points out, there are pro-science and anti-science factions, and politically left-leaning and politically right-leaning contingents.)

Most of us understand the naturalistic view of science, but since many readers will have only vague notions about constructivism, a short summary is in order.  In contrast to the orthodox worldview of science (as described in the first paragraph of this review), constructivism takes the position that all human knowledge is necessarily influenced by, or even created by, social and cultural forces.  For the most radical constructivist, there is no “world out there”.  For the moderate constructivist, there may be a world out there, but it will be forever unknown and unknowable to us, because of the limitations imposed by our senses, our cognitive apparatus, and the very nature of our human consciousness.

Constructivism (or occasionally “constructionism”) is often associated with postmodernism, a term that loosely refers to the writings of and positions espoused by people such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Edmund Husserl, Herbert Marcuse, Ludwig Wittgenstein (once himself a student of the very practical philosopher, Bertrand Russell), Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, and even Karl Marx.  (Also note an excellent, short bio of Wittgenstein by Daniel Dennett.) 

Jean-Francois Lyotard, referred to by Brown as “one of the most prominent postmodern commentators, is described in Who Rules as follows:  “Science for him is just a game with arbitrary rules, and truth is nothing more than what a group of speakers says it is” (p. 75). 

Brown explains that “three ideas are central to postmodernism:  one is the anti-rationality stance; a second is the rejection of objective truth; and the third is localism (p. 76, italics are Brown’s).

One of the first proponents of this kind of view in relation to scientific disciplines (specifically psychology) was Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet philosopher and writer of the 1930's.  Even the titles of his works illustrate his political position: Consciousness as a Problem In The Psychology Of Behavior (1925); The Historical Meaning Of The Crisis In Psychology (1927); and The Problem Of The Cultural Development Of The Child (1929).

We all know that the discoveries and developments of science can be put to good use, not-so-good use, and bad use.  Thus, a more profound debate between constructivists and empiricists is the seemingly insurmountable problem of not being able to predict whether a particular application of scientific knowledge is good or bad.  For example, from the vantage point of our own times, was the use of the atomic bomb better or worse for the world?  When Victorian-era missionaries were busy in equatorial countries treating people with diseases that had previously been fatal, they couldn’t have known that the change they helped bring about in the ecological balance of these groups would later substantially contribute to other forms of disease and death.

For those who are quite comfortable with the standard approach in science, Who Rules exposes a very unpleasant underbelly of science, in which scientists can be influenced by personal or political motivations.  Some readers might conclude that scientists -- at least some of them -- are ready and willing to sell out the truth for what they think science should say about humanity, or in order to influence science to produce what it should provide for the world.  “Almost everyone acknowledges that there are values at work in science.  The real debate is over their role and extent” (p. 197).

According to Brown we find ourselves struggling not so much about what science can be and do, but with the question of what science should be and do.  Should it have a “social agenda” that provides limits on what can be studied, and what knowledge can be released to the public?  This is a position clearly supported by Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and others with strong political leanings.  (E.g., see Segestrale’s Defenders of the Truth.) 

Whether or not the author has his own position is not obvious in the beginning few chapters, and even throughout most of the book:  Brown deftly manages to keep a balanced position that considers the strengths and weaknesses of both mainstream science and its foes. 

But near the end of the book Brown writes, “Who should rule? The people, of course” (p. 206).  While Brown doesn’t deny that there is a reality -- “Scientific objectivity is both possible and actual” (p. 207) -- nonetheless, his position assumes the appropriateness of a strong societal influence on science.  E.g., we’re all on this planet together, the general public has both the ability and the right to decide what science can and should accomplish, and science as an endeavor has an obligation, however abstract, to pursue “socially constructive action” (Brown’s phrase). 

Thus, according to Brown, in order to balance objective science with socially progressive needs, financial and other obligatory relationships that would inappropriately influence scientists should be eliminated.  Writes Brown, “Perhaps the greatest threat to science .... is the commercialization of knowledge” (p. 210).  For example, when a pharmaceutical company pays for the research that subsequently confirms the efficacy of its new drug, that relationship might constitute an undue influence.  By keeping private interests at bay, the public can better hold science accountable.  “Scientists owe it to them [the public] to keep knowledge free for all” (p. 212). 

Even while acknowledging the validity of Brown’s observations, there are, no doubt, many who will continue to harbor visions of a pure science, in which the search for truth is paramount and is not controlled by either financial or societal pressures.

 

© 2002 Keith Harris
 

Keith Harris, Ph.D.  is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley Behavioral Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. His interests include clinical supervision, the empirical basis for psychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.