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Science TalkReview - Science Talk
Changing Notions of Science in American Culture
by Daniel Patrick Thurs
Rutgers University Press, 2008
Review by Taede A. Smedes, Ph.D.
May 19th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 21)

As a European, I am fascinated by the apparent paradox that exists in the US concerning views of science. In the words of Richard Dawkins (quoted by Thurs), it is "bafflingly paradoxical that the United States is by far the world's leading scientific nation while simultaneously housing the most scientifically illiterate populace outside the Third World" (2). This extremely stimulating and exciting book by the historian of science Daniel Patrick Thurs tries to make clear where the complex and ambiguous relationship of Americans with science comes from. Thurs looks at several historical case studies of public debates over the scientific status of certain ideas: phrenology, Darwin's evolutionary theory, Einstein's relativity theory, and UFOs. Thurs concludes this book by giving a brief look into a more recent controversy: Intelligent Design.

The discussion about phrenology raged from about 1820. Nowadays phrenology is no longer considered a science, but in the 1820s it presented itself as such and was accepted by many. Critics of phrenology, as Thurs makes clear, had a hard time claiming why phrenology was nonsense, since the scientific standards we now have were not yet established. Science simply had no clear boundary. "It was much easier to claim something was legitimate science than to justify why it was not," writes Thurs (33). By focusing on the controversy over phrenology, Thurs is able to cover many elements of early nineteenth-century discourse on science: the notion of Baconian science, the manners in which religion and science were intertwined, rhetorical strategies, the democratic nature of science, the focus on the utility of science, etcetera.

"Over the course of the 1800s, much of Anglo-American experience with science remained informal and unstructured", writes Thurs. "Even after mid-century, there was as yet no robust scientific establishment, no powerful arbiters of what science was and was not, no groups of people or sources of information that could claim uncontested authority to determine correct scientific practice or resolve debates over scientific knowledge" (58). This changed, however, during the last half of the nineteenth century, when slowly a formalization of science took place and more stress was put on the idea of scientific method. This was largely due to the growing influence of Darwin's evolutionary theory, which "provided a vehicle for asserting the presence and role of a possible scientific orthodoxy" (63). But as science became more professionalized, it also became more fragmented. Boundaries emerged, for example between science and religion, but also between scientific and popular knowledge, and between "professionals" and "amateurs."

Scientific discourse stabilized between 1920 and 1940 and began to appear as we know it today. However, with Einstein's theory something new happened: science became separated and even alienated from the public. Technology became the link between the scientific and the ordinary world of experience. As science became detached from common sense, journalists took it as their task to intermediate between science and the public. But where science grew more remote from other discourses, scientists often transgressed the boundaries to make quasi-scientific claims about other realms, such as religion.

The UFO-hype which reached its zenith in the 1950s focused on science and on technology but also showed a transgression of boundaries. The era between 1950 and 1970 was the "age of the scientist" where science was given ultimate authority and the scientific establishment became a closed fortress. Science grew even more remote from the public, which also gave rise to suspicion. Scientists initially showed interest in the UFO-phenomenon (mainly because they were asked by the US Air force to study UFOs), but when that interest waned, the discourse about UFOs was taken over by pseudo-scientific, religious ideas and conspiracy theories. Such ideas were considered "pseudo science" by established scientists, but proved resistant and remained present alongside more scientific attitudes. As Thurs describes, this persistence of pseudoscientific ways of thinking was partly due to the remoteness of science from the general public. Because science became alienated from the broader public, "science had become both incredibly powerful and eminently ignorable" (156).

In recent debates over Intelligent Design, Thurs highlights "the ambivalent role of science in the rhetoric of ID": "Like those seriously interested in UFOs, ID's supporters celebrated science, pointed out its limits, and sought to create a self-conscious alternative, more easily accessible, and deeply meaningful scientific enterprise" (161). The success of ID among the broader American public is rooted in the attempts of ID to bridge the historically grown chasm between science and culture. Moreover, where science had grown into a separate discourse among many other cultural discourses, ID tried to build bridges between the different discourses (especially between the discourse of science and that of religion). The "unity of knowledge" which was the focus of nineteenth-century science and had become fragmented during the twentieth century, was reestablished as the aim of ID. Thurs thus shows that in the controversy over ID, it becomes clear that "the meaning of science is actively constructed, not only by scientists but by everyone" (178).

This, finally, is the situation which we nowadays encounter, or at least this is Thurs' claim: "science" has become a construction. We often tend to think that science is made by scientists, but in this book Thurs makes it perfectly clear that this is only partially the case. Scientists may claim to have privileged discourse when it comes to making scientific statements, but this is a situation that has gradually emerged over time from the early nineteenth century until now. And nowadays in the US, advocates of Intelligent Design try to demolish that privileged discourse by claiming that contemporary science has become ideological and needs to be supplanted by real scientific discourse that only has recourse to the bare facts.

Thurs thus concludes: "Those who claim to speak for scientific knowledge in public realms cannot claim to speak for science as a cultural category in quite the same way. They participate in its construction rather than totally determine it. Science as a category exists because we construct and reconstruct it thousands of times a day. Such efforts are not mere word games, but rather means of creating, within the limits of the rhetorical tools available and the idiosyncratic ability to make new ones, the world we live in" (180). This conclusion is rather controversial and will probably be appalling to working scientists who do not see their activity as a social construction at all. Moreover, Thurs' conclusion made me wonder: have we nowadays come full-cycle? Just think about it: in the 1800s, there was no stable notion of science. This notion had to be carved out, fought over and defended -- which happened during the last part of the nineteenth and the entire twentieth century. Now, with the advent of ID, it seems that Thurs is claiming that again the notion of "science" has lost its stability. What is considered science is in the eyes of the beholder. But in that case, ID-advocates have as much right to claim privileged scientific discourse as mainstream scientists. There is no objective agency who determines who makes scientific claims and who does not. This seems to me too strong a claim, but I do not see how Thurs can avoid this as a consequence.

All in all, this book contains extremely stimulating stuff for one who is interesting in the history of science, the dynamics between science, culture, and society, demarcation controversies over science and pseudoscience. Thurs perhaps could have structured his book slightly more; often it seems as if his writing is associative, hopping from one topic to the next without some internal structure keeping things within limits. The lucidity and clarity of his writing style also fluctuates. But besides these critical remarks, Thurs shows just how remarkable and multifaceted the history of American science is.

© 2009 Taede A. Smedes

Dr. Smedes is a philosopher of religion and a research fellow at the Faculty of Religious Studies of the Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.


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