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Science Peace?

Jan Golinski

The One Culture? A Conversation about Science. Jay A. Labinger and Harry Collins, eds. xii + 329 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2001. $65 cloth, $18 paper.

The 1990s was the decade of the "science wars." It is embarrassing to recall, now that far more serious and deadly wars are being fought, that the term was used for an academic spat about "science studies." Certain prominent scientists attacked the work being done by sociologists, philosophers, historians and others engaged in this field. These academics were undermining public support for science, it was said, by spreading the notions of relativism and social construction; they were putting it about that science was just one belief system among others, the outcome of social processes within the scientific community. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition (1994) was the first salvo in the onslaught, which gained much greater media attention following the publication of Alan Sokal's hoax article in the journal Social Text in 1996. Sokal's piece purported to be a postmodern interpretation of the theory of quantum gravity; the fact that such "nonsense" was accepted for publication by a prominent journal was widely taken to demonstrate the prevalence in certain academic quarters of sloppy thinking about science.

Those who were engaged in science studies found this perception itself very worrying. To be labeled "antiscientific" could be highly damaging for a small academic field, frequently dependent as it was on funding sources controlled by scientists themselves. It also seemed to many historians and sociologists of science that the charge betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of their enterprise. The hostile and derogatory tone of many of the attacks on science studies compounded the perception that the field was under siege by opponents who wanted simply to destroy its credibility. For a while, it seemed impossible to get the two sides engaged in any kind of serious debate.

The One Culture?, edited by Jay A. Labinger and Harry Collins, emerges from a successful attempt to bring together representative voices from the two sides at a 1997 conference at Southampton University in England. Most of the contributors are either physicists or sociologists. Each author sets out his or her case in one substantial chapter and then adds one or two further short pieces for rebuttal or clarification. The tone is serious and respectful throughout, a welcome relief from the invective of earlier polemics. The volume succeeds in clarifying what science studies—or at least the branch of it called "the sociology of scientific knowledge"—is trying to accomplish. Cross-references between the chapters also allow the reader to follow the intricacies of debate on some of the most contentious issues.

On the charge that the field of science studies is "antiscience," the consensus is a verdict of "not guilty." All of the proponents of science studies deny the charge; indeed most of those represented here regard themselves as social scientists. Even those scientists who have other criticisms of the field decline to ascribe nefarious motives to the practitioners of science studies. Furthermore, as Steven Shapin demonstrates, what might be taken for antiscientific statements can be found among the writings of some of the most prominent scientists themselves. For example, a declaration that geometrical axioms are "free creations of the human mind" might raise hackles if uttered by a sociologist but seems to pass without comment when said (as it was) by Albert Einstein.

A further point on which the contributors are able to agree is the unlikelihood that the field of science studies has itself significantly shaped attitudes toward science among the public at large. As David Mermin asks, if postmodernism is responsible for the poor state of public school science teaching, why was it already so terrible when he was in high school in Connecticut in the early 1950s? Sociologists Jane Gregory and Steve Miller put forward the findings of their research, which suggests that public attitudes toward science are actually overwhelmingly favorable. Collins and Trevor Pinch even claim that the science studies perspective, if more widely understood, could enhance public trust in science by making known its limitations and its human fallibility.

The volume would be a dull one if there were not still some significant disagreements; and indeed there are. The most important concerns relativism. Collins articulates the science studies defense of what he calls "methodological relativism"—that is, setting aside one's knowledge of what the scientific facts are while investigating a current controversy or studying a period in which the facts were still in dispute. Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal are not convinced this is the right way to uncover how scientific controversies are resolved. Steven Weinberg argues that the historian is hampered if he or she cannot make use of more recent scientific knowledge to illuminate the past. The debate becomes quite an intricate one—a testimony to the productive value of serious discussion between scientists and sociologists.

Because the notion of relativism has been central to the attacks on science studies, it is appropriate that it is pursued by a number of the contributors. On other issues, such as the degree to which social processes cause scientists to reach certain conclusions, there is less consistent engagement, perhaps because views differ within science studies itself. One of the ways to defuse suspicion about the field among its scientist critics is to draw attention to its diversity. In this respect, as Michael Lynch points out, the volume represents only a selective sample of what is being done. There is mention of empirical work by sociologists, although some of the contributors disavow any interest in that, preferring to concentrate on what they take to be its questionable philosophical underpinnings. There is nothing, however, about history or philosophy of science, or about cultural and feminist studies. Perhaps some readers will find their curiosity about science studies sufficiently aroused to explore further among the items listed in the bibliography. To the extent this happens, the volume could serve as a way-marker, pointing a path away from the unfruitful altercations of the past, toward more productive exchanges among everyone concerned with understanding science and its place in our culture.

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