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In writing the In Praise of Science, Sander Bais, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Amsterdam, set himself three main tasks: first, to give a positive account of the unity and connectivity of the natural sciences; second, to show that natural science is a central ingredient of human culture; and third, to argue that scientific knowledge and practice should be appreciated, safeguarded and promoted by society and its institutions. The book is addressed to new students of the natural sciences, as well as to the general reader. For this reason it is written in an accessible, largely non-technical language and is packed with pictures, diagrams and tables to which the author constantly refers.
The attempt to satisfy the first task takes place in the third and longest part of the book, entitled "Turning Points" (pp. 80-149). Here Bais really excels -- the narrative is hugely informative and enjoyable. Following the physicist and Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow, Bais uses the image of the Ouroboros (the snake that bites its own tail) as the basis upon which to build his account of the unity of the natural sciences. In the form of symbols, he places the most important discovered phenomena of the macrocosm (cluster, galaxy, solar system, earth, ecological system) on the left side of the Ouroboros and the most important discovered phenomena of the microcosm (quark, nucleus, atom, molecule, DNA, cell) on its right side. The symbol of the Big Bang -- at the top -- and the symbol of the Human -- at the bottom -- unite the two sides. Next with the help of arrows and narrative Bais makes manifest how these phenomena themselves, the sciences that investigate them, and the technologies that employ them connect with one another.
The narrative of this third part consists of a perfectly balanced blend of historical and systematic discourse. The reader becomes acquainted with the protagonists of the history of natural science and the problems which they were trying to solve, as well as with the intricate content of the main concepts involved in each of the natural sciences. They also become acquainted with the major developments in the realm of technology and how these connect with the history and systematic content of the natural sciences. Bais concludes by making explicit the complexity of natural science and of the object of its concern, namely nature. This has the effect of making the reader realize that the future of science lies in the development and practice of interdisciplinarity -- the age of extreme specialization has indeed come to an end.
The relation between natural science and technology, which the third part of the book discusses in some detail, is introduced in a general and sketchy manner in its second part, called "The Double Helix of Science and Technology" (pp. 60-79). The title refers to the reciprocal -- rather than causal -- relation between the two. With the help of a few examples (the invention of the telescope, the discovery of the structure of DNA, and the invention of the computer) Bais argues -- quite successfully -- that scientific observations usually give rise to or enable the construction of certain instruments, which in their turn allow us to increase the range of our observations.
The second task Bais set himself was to show that natural science is a central ingredient of human culture. This is pursued in some sections of the fourth part of the book, entitled "The Pursuit of Truth" (pp. 150-181) as well as in the "Introduction" (pp. 8-14). His main thesis, which he advances with the use of many examples and which I find difficult to argue against, is that natural science has contributed to the shaping of our perception of ourselves and of the world around us. This is most obvious in the case of technology, which the author treats as an extension of natural science -- but it cannot be denied that our perception of ourselves and of the world has been influenced also directly by certain revolutionary theories in the fields of biology (e.g. the theory of evolution) and physics (e.g. the heliocentric theory).
However, sometimes Bais attempts to promote the much stronger thesis that our perception of ourselves and of the world is determined absolutely or at least predominantly by natural science. Statements like the following repeat themselves quite often:
Perhaps more than anything else, fundamental science has shaped human perceptions of the world that both surrounds us and is inside us. It has given us a clear account of what our place in the cosmos is and how it came about. Indeed one could go so far as to claim that science comes close to defining what it means to be a human being. (p. 9)
Unfortunately, neither Bais' narrative nor my own experience of other people's views confirms this claim. It seems that most people's perception of themselves and of the world is determined mainly by religious, socio-economical, political and, most of all, philosophical rather than scientific theorizing. This is an option that Bais nowhere in the book treats with any seriousness.
Where Bais really disappoints the reader is in his attempt to satisfy the third task he set himself, that is, to argue that scientific knowledge and practice should be appreciated, safeguarded and promoted by society and its institutions. This attempt occupies most of the fourth part and the whole of the first part of the book, entitled "Curiosity beats Prejudice" (pp. 15-59). The reason why the author felt the need to set such a task in the first place is that, according to him, there is an "ever-increasing marginalization of the natural sciences in the public arena, in other words the problem of scientific illiteracy" (p. 9).
The discussion disappoints because none of the arguments Bais gives in order to establish the need to resolve "the problem of scientific illiteracy" really works. One such argument is that lack of scientific knowledge generates uncritical behavior, which can hinder our struggle to create a better world. Since we do struggle to create a better world, it is imperative that "the problem of scientific illiteracy" is resolved. The premise, however, that lack of scientific knowledge generates uncritical behavior is fallacious, since one can be highly critical without having any knowledge of the natural sciences. Indeed, our critical abilities are developed and strengthened through logical and -- mainly -- philosophical, not scientific, discourse.
A second argument goes as follows. A world in which the relations between people are based on the quest for truth and the ethics derived from it would be a better world than the one in which these relations are based on the quest for power or money. Since the quest for truth lies in the province of (natural) science, society should find a way to resolve the problem of scientific illiteracy. Again, there is a premise that is problematic here: Why should one accept that the quest for truth lies in the province of (natural) science? Yet, the problem is not so much that the author neglects to give a detailed and well-thought answer to this question, but rather that he never explains what he means by the term "truth," why his conception of this notion is preferable to other conceptions and why he thinks that the scientific method alone generates truth. (The problem of truth is the most important and difficult philosophical problem.) Bais tries to justify this negligence in the following way:
You may be surprised or even irritated by the cavalier way in which I deal with such serious philosophical matters as the "scientific method." I am sure that I do so because I am a scientific practitioner; over the years I have become tired of an overdose of philosophical, epistemological [and] ontological [...] deliberations. [...] The reason for my own above-mentioned fatigue is that I found that such considerations did not add very much to the content of science, and therefore could not give me comparable satisfaction. (p. 165)
What is sad here is that the author does not realize that this statement undermines the claim he tries to establish throughout the whole book, namely that natural science is a source of critical behavior and of ethics of truth. If what mattered is only the content of a discipline and its esoteric development, there would actually be no difference between the scientific practitioner and the religious practitioner, from whom Bais constantly tries to distance himself. Without the mediation of the "annoying" philosophical questions about the method of truth scientific knowledge and practice cannot be placed above, for example, religious knowledge and practice on the level of the pursuit of truth.
A third argument is that technology has made our life easier and more enjoyable and since technology -- Bais believes -- derives from scientific knowledge and practice, the latter should be appreciated, safeguarded and promoted by society. Of course, no one can deny that technological advances have indeed improved many aspects of our life. Nevertheless, no one can deny also that both these advances and scientific knowledge and practice per se have had many negative consequences: decrease of spirituality, isolation and depression of large parts of the human population, environmental pollution, manipulation of weaker by stronger technologically countries, radical increase of ruthless competition between individuals or countries, globalization, estrangement between the human and its immediate natural environment, to mention only a few. These negative consequences of technology, scientific knowledge and practice are simply ignored in the book. In other words, the author presents an idyllic picture of science that is far from the truth. Since the title of the book is "In Praise of Science," one would expect Bais to take seriously and discuss in detail the main arguments against technology and scientific practice. But he never does that. When he mentions Theodore Roszak's brilliant observation that "under [the] auspices [of the scientific method] we subordinate nature to our command only by estranging ourselves from more and more of what we experience, until the reality about which objectivity tells us so much finally becomes a universe of congealed alienation" (p. 167), he brushes it aside by making one or two ironic comments.
On the whole, the In Praise of Science is written in an accessible language and can be read enjoyably from beginning to end. The reader will benefit enormously from the discussion in the third part, which gives a bird's eye, up-to-date view of the natural sciences, their interrelation, and their technological extension. Where the book dramatically fails is in its attempt to provide support for its title, since the views that are opposed to the ones that the author holds are not taken in any serious consideration.
© 2010 Ioannis Trisokkas
Ioannis Trisokkas has written his PhD thesis on Hegel and Ancient Skepticism. He held a DAAD Junior Research Fellowship at the University of Tübingen and an Early Career Fellowship at the Warwick Institute of Advanced Study. His research focuses on the historical areas of German Idealism and Ancient Philosophy, and the systematic areas of epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language and philosophy of science.