- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003


By Susan Haack

Prometheus Books, $28, 411 pages


Radical philosophers and sociologists tend to be the snarlers of the university scene, perhaps because they consume so much time fighting against non-existent conspiracies. Over the last several decades, they have set their sights on the scientific establishment, arguing that just like politicians and CEOs, scientists are also powerful instruments of social control.

For the most part, scientists have responded poorly to those challenges, probably because they’ve been too busy poring over data while simultaneously pouring the contents of their coffee mug on the floor — again.

Scientists have found a faithful friend in philosopher Susan Haack — an ardent defender of the scientific establishment who is forthright in acknowledging its flaws. In her new book, “Defending Science — Within Reason,” Miss Haack displays a light touch while dissecting (and occasionally drawing and quartering) the arguments of both those who view scientists as simple instruments for the perpetuation of the power structure, and those who view them as completely unbiased members of an intellectual elite.

As its title suggests, the book bounces back and forth between two poles: scientism, “an exaggerated kind of deference towards science,” and cynicism, “an exaggerated kind of suspicion of science.”

The New Cynics (identifiable by their Karl Marx beards, dissheveled wardrobes and tenure at Ivy League schools) see science as little more than a tool of the powerful. They make the philosophical claim that all truths are relative and assume that scientists, either deliberately or unconsciously, attempt to benefit from the creation and perpetuation of propaganda.

The Old Differentialists, contrastingly, regard science as nearly infallible. They take the position that truths are absolute, and assume that scientists are purely dedicated to the objective pursuit of those truths, with no thought of their own benefit.

Miss Haack argues that both sides are wrong. She sees the scientific establishment as made of neither demigods nor mini-devils, but simply men and women. Early in the book she argues, “Science is not sacred: like all human enterprises, it is thoroughly fallible, imperfect, uneven in its achievements, often fumbling, sometimes corrupt, and of course incomplete.” Toward the end of the volume she repeats, “Science is a human thing.”

Through the first several chapters of the book, Miss Haack uses the metaphor of the crossword puzzle to explain the mechanism of science. As she sees it, the truths that scientists discover build on one another, but in an incomplete fashion, always subject to revision. Some entries are erased entirely when new evidence surfaces. Others are copied over enough to become components of the scientific canon.

Although scientists are just as prone to error and corruption as people in any other investigative pursuit, Miss Haack argues that the scientific enterprise has led to an enormous increase in humanity’s knowledge of the world around us — of the laws underpinning everything from expanding waistlines to the expanding universe.

That belief in progress puts Miss Haack at odds with the New Cynics, and she spends page after page pointing out the paradoxes inherent in their positions. She’s had the patience to read through the academic papers of radicals, and she possesses the logical skills required to see where their rhetoric actually leads.

Her human-based science, along with a heavy dose of common sense, allows Miss Haack to explain why the Old Differentialists failed to fully account for how science works. Their pure logic did not square with the fact that different scientific theories have different degrees of warrant, ranging from unsupported (such as cold fusion) to fully supported (such as Newton’s law of gravity).

Miss Haack devotes a chapter to comparing the similarities between the methods of natural scientists and those of social scientists. Natural scientists may not agree with all her parallels, but the basic point is well put. Though she acknowledges that the social sciences have often been little more than masked advocacy, she argues that objective inquiries in the social sciences are possible, if extremely difficult.

That analysis is followed by three case studies of science in society. Miss Haack explores the confusing role of scientific evidence in the courtroom, with its countervailing claims presented to often clueless jurors. Her chapter on the conflict between science and Christianity is disappointing, not because of her conclusion that creationism should not be taught in biology classrooms, but because she seems to make the mistake of insisting on a logical construct for something which, by definition, requires a leap of faith.

It is difficult not to laugh at some of the absurdities of the academy that Miss Haack argues against. For instance, she relates how anthropologists in (where else?) California spent two years studying the behavior of laboratory-bound molecular biologists as they isolated, analyzed and then synthesized an important compound involved with cellular signaling. The anthropologists studying the scientists later described them as “a tribe of writers and readers who spend two-thirds of their time working with large inscription devices.”

Miss Haack also displays a good ear for puns and word plays. That bit of leavening goes a long way to offset the volume’s heavier passages. However, the book is not for beginners. The author assumes quite a bit of baseline knowledge of philosophy and science, and rarely provides much background on the personalities to whom she refers.

Sentences in the book tend to be long and winding — paragraphs unto themselves. Meanwhile, photos and diagrams are sparse. However, the chapters are well structured, and Miss Haack’s clarity of thought is consistent throughout.

Miss Haack concludes “Defending Science” by looking to the future. Her predictions end with humans — what we may find and where our scientific discoveries might take us. She’s optimistic about both, and it’s a refreshing perspective.

From beginning to end, the book is a hopeful one. Miss Haack acknowledges man’s follies, but she is convinced that he can rise above them given his great powers of discovery. That’s reason enough for humans of all sorts — including scientists and cynics — to give her book a serious read.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide