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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > May-June 1998 > Bookshelf Detail

BOOK REVIEW

Science Historian's Bible

Katherine Pandora

No Other Gods: On Science and American Social Thought. Revised edition. Charles Rosenberg. 311 pp. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. $16.95.

This book is a revised, expanded edition that has achieved a richly deserved status as a classic. Upon its appearance in 1976, Charles Rosenberg's thoughtful and provocative explorations of the interactions between science and American social thought served as a touchstone for scholars who were bringing new questions, methods and interpretations to bear on the history of science. That these essays continue to be relevant is a testament to the author's talent for identifying resonant historical episodes and his interest in moving beyond conventional categories of analysis.

The new edition contains the original material, a new preface and three previously published essays revised for this volume. The text is divided into two parts, each primarily focusing on case studies that demonstrate the increasing prominence of science in American life from the mid-19th through the early 20th century. The first part covers biological views of women, eugenics and the origins of the public-health movement. The second part examines the development of a self-consciously professional community of researchers.

Taken as a whole, No Other Gods did much to alert American historians to the benefits of attending to the diverse ways that science had contributed to larger patterns of culture. It also issued a challenge to historians of science to study more closely the cultural contexts in which science was embedded.

But the continued salience of this work owes as much to its analytic framework as it does to its content. Rosenberg examines his historical accounts with a sociologist's eye, concerned with examining how perceptions of science and of the scientist's role in society—by those inside and outside the scientific community—have ramifications for building disciplinary worlds and interpreting social reality. A recurring theme that unifies these essays is the question of scientific authority: how it is won, how it is used and how its effects are negotiated. Indeed, the reference in the title to Biblical commandment places this issue front and center.

Scholarly analyses of the nature of scientific authority, as Rosenberg notes in his new preface, have engendered dismay among some quarters of the scientific community, resulting in ongoing debates characterized as the "science wars." The appearance of this new edition of No Other Gods offers an excellent opportunity for those who may be puzzled by the vehemence of this debate to see for themselves the value of investigating what Rosenberg terms "the ecology of knowledge" that constitutes "a fundamental aspect of our world."—Katherine Pandora, History of Science, University of Oklahoma

 

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