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The Uncertain SciencesReview - The Uncertain Sciences
by Bruce Mazlish
Transaction, 2007
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Jul 1st 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 27)

In The Uncertain Sciences, Bruce Mazlish presents a cunning and visionary examination of the scientific enterprise of understanding the human species and, by doing so, of its ability to address real life problems.  He argues that disciplines that traditionally fall under the nebulous umbrella of Behavioral Sciences, such as Psychology, Anthropology and Sociology, and disciplines that are covered by the even more elusive umbrella of the Humanities, such as History and Philosophy, share a common interest, albeit with a different investigative focus. Namely, their desire is to understand the human condition and thus provide useful insights regarding its opportunities for amelioration.  As such, they are the building blocks of what Mazlish calls the "Human Sciences". 

The author argues that the shared goal of all these disciplines would be better served if they were to interact more frequently and openly. He goes even further than simply proposing increased communication among the many and diverse disciplines of the "Human Sciences".  To ensure that these disciplines will transcend their own excessively encapsulated territories, he proposes an institutional change that will force communication and focus them all on their common purpose.  Namely, he proposes the development and implementation of academic departments of the History and Philosophy of the Human Sciences.  The author, however, does not make entirely clear how exactly an institutional change would bring experts from the many and diverse fields of the so called "Human Sciences" to truly recognize the existence of such a discipline.  Indeed, a concrete recognition of the "Human Sciences", beyond mere name recognition, would require a monumental undertaking, starting with the experts of each field attempting to understand the other fields' idiosyncratic and cryptic languages, and leading to the development of a common language whose terms that can be understood by all.  

Of course, there are signs in the broad scientific community that this undertaking is already underway. In this respect, the field of Cognitive Science is a living testimony that Mazlish's dream can become reality. Undeniably, the scientific arena offered by Cognitive Science embodies an interdisciplinary effort to understand the functioning and architecture of the human mind/brain, and, in the form of an academic department, it is a realization of the author's proposal to develop and institutionalize within academia a multifaceted discipline which he refers to as the "Human Sciences".  Cognitive Science as a discipline also highlights both the benefits accrued and the obstacles to overcome by any institutional change that is intended to make the study of the human species one multifaceted field.  Unquestionably, the discipline of Cognitive Science has been quite successful in bringing together experts of such different fields as Computer Science, Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, etc. Its most visible success has been to spotlight specific issues (e.g., what is consciousness?) and, consequently, bring to the table experts from different fields to examine these issues in a fashion that can be understood across the many contributing fields.  The increasing number of professional journals and conferences/meetings that fall under the scope of Cognitive Science is an indication that the communication gap among different fields is shrinking and that a serious attempt is underway to develop a functional multifaceted discipline that puts a premium on understanding the human mind/brain, which can be then used to find solutions to real-life human problems. 

Besides the powerful unifying force of sharing a common goal, the existence of Cognitive Science as a discipline also underscores the powerful unifying force of a shared methodology.  This methodology is the venerable scientific method whereby accurately defined procedures are used to collect evidence in an unbiased manner and accurately defined principles are applied to the evidence for an unbiased interpretation. Most boldly, the scientific method is a way of thinking that can be applied indistinguishably to esoteric phenomena and everyday occurrences, developing objective and unbiased knowledge in each and every arena.  It is a method that teaches humility in so far as its findings and data-gathering procedures are subject to re-examination and theories and hypotheses are subject to correction and even refutation.

A natural consequence of the application of the scientific method to the examination of the human condition is the rejection of a priori, un-testable claims. As such, Mazlish forcefully advocates that the application of the scientific method be separate from political and religious interests. He also advocates the establishment of a global scientific community where sharing data collected by means of scientifically sound methodologies and discussing their interpretation(s) and possible applications is of the essence. Of course, technological advances have already started the development of a global scientific community. Thus, the question to ponder is not whether a global scientific community can exist but how to ameliorate communication among its constituents within a contextual frame that ensures neutrality from political, religious and commercial forces. Naturally, some credit for attempting to develop a shared language as a vehicle for scientific communications goes to the media. Their science sections not only have brought the attention of large audiences to some specific issues but also have overcome the complexities and intricacies of the scientific enterprise to develop a language that can make these issues comprehensible to laypersons. Of course, in some instances, the desire to minimize complexities and intricacies has translated into false and/or oversimplified claims that have damaged the reputation of the media and called into question the notion of a shared language.

Undoubtedly, The Uncertain Sciences by Bruce Mazlish is a thought-provoking read that will force you to break the boundaries of conventional thinking and ask yourself whether it is time to reach out to other fields of knowledge for changes in the conceptualization of human events and for feasible solutions to human problems.  You may not agree with the authors' specific proposals (e.g., the institutional development of departments of the History and Philosophy of the Human Sciences), but you'll certainly enjoy debating the possible consequences of their implementation.  Alternatively, you may find his proposals consistent with your own (e.g., the development and consolidation of a global scientific community) and begin to think about the ways in which these proposals can become reality. All in all, it is a book that will engage your mind beyond the boundaries of the commonalities of scientific discourse.

         

© 2008 Maura Pilotti

Maura Pilotti, PhD., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York


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