The Sources of Confidence

May 17, 2010

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science. By Theodore L. Brown, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 2009, 328 pages, $75.00.

The human activity, both mental and physical, that is known as science has been under close observation and discussion ever since Prometheus stole fire from the gods. It has been pursued, promoted, described, analyzed, evaluated, deconstructed, historicized, condemned, praised, apotheosized, satirized (as with the project for extracting sunbeams from cucumbers at the Academy of Lagado in Gulliver's Travels).

The production of books that provide an insatiable public with an inside track on science, explaining what it is, how it has worked, what it does for us, goes on and on. At one end of the spectrum are the "ain't this wonderful" books trumpeting the miracles of science and its breakthroughs. At the other end are deeply critical works, such as Raphael Sassower's Technoscientific Angst: Ethics and Responsibility. Even more radical is The End of Method, by Paul Feyerabend (who was described by the British journalist Francis Wheen as "one of the founding fathers of post-modern anti-scientific relativism"). Also in this category is John Horgan's The End of Science, claiming that all the basic scientific principles are now known.

Through (or perhaps despite) all this chatter---sometimes upbeat, sometimes downbeat---reflecting an age of scientific angst, and despite popular images in fiction, in movies, in cartoons of the mad scientist scribbling arcane formulas on his blackboard or peering into a chaotic mix of wires and bubbling test tubes, science and its sister, technology, are riding high today. We look to technoscience for our health, wealth, and wisdom. We look to it to bolster our standard of living, our defense against our enemies; to provide amusement, social engagement, information, education, self-understanding; to provide moral and ethical stances.

If a new and threatening virus appears on the scene, we have every confidence that salvation will arrive as soon as the virologists, geneticists, pharmacologists, epidemiologists, et alii, get on with their jobs. If we haven't yet extracted sunbeams from cucumbers, we have at least gotten considerable auto mileage out of ripe sweet corn. Despite the fact that most of us don't have the least idea of what really goes on in the heads or in the labs of the technoscientists, we have come to think of science as objective truth and its avatars as the discoverers of a mix between the contents of the Fountain of Youth and of the Holy Grail. Whence this confidence?

Theodore L. Brown, professor emeritus of chemistry and founding director emeritus of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, has set himself the task of describing and analyzing how science came to be awarded so much authority, as regards both what is the case in nature (i.e., the epistemic) and what should be the case moralistically speaking.

I suppose that an easy, off-the-top-of-one's-head explanation might attribute the authority of technoscience to its successes. After all, if you want an authoritative view on making chile con carne, ask someone who has received a prize in the annual Terlingua cook-off.

This, alas, is simplistic. The path to intellectual eminence and authority has been peppered with difficulties. There have been both breakthroughs and roadblocks, and Brown's book discusses them in extremely rich detail. He documents a succession of specific cases---ones that I have never heard of---and provides biographical and philosophical accompaniments. Among other things, Brown takes us meticulously, if often ploddingly, through the historical origins of scientific authority in contemporary society; he considers the impact of technoscience on law and judicial procedures, the relation of technoscience to governmental authority, the conflicts with religion as technoscientific and theological authorities collide. He wonders about the future status of scientific authority. His book could become a valuable textbook or resource for a course on science and society.

In the remainder of this review I highlight points made by Brown in discussing some of his main themes.

Science and the courts.* Scientific consensus is often lacking, Brown points out. And because a court case is an adversarial proceeding, "one of the mainstays of science's claims to authority--that the scientist is disinterested, objective and fully forthcoming--is weakened." Certain practitioners, moreover, having achieved good reputations within the scientific community, may "testify to matters in which they have little direct experience as scientists."

What scientific evidence (so-called) is admissible in court? Brown refers to a suit brought by a certain Daubert family whose children suffered from a common set of birth defects as the reputed result of their mother's having ingested a certain commercially available drug:

"The Daubert court established a two-pronged test for admissibility of scientific evidence: it must be both relevant and reliable. Reliability means that the hypotheses motivating the study were properly tested, the work had been peer reviewed and published in scientific journals of acceptable quality; that the techniques employed were subject to standards of evaluation and were generally recognized in the relevant scientific community; and that the known or potential rates of error were accounted for."

Alas, to apply these criteria, a presiding judge must have a reasonable grasp of the pertinent scientific area, which is very unlikely.

Science and government. Although in the past century the U.S. government has ploughed billions of dollars into scientific research and development, scientists have lately been obliged to defend the integrity of their fields. Political difficulties have arisen, Brown writes: "There are many ways in which the federal government has acted in recent years to limit the influence of scientific findings in formulating regulatory law and in the operation of regulatory agencies such as the EPA." Recent administrations have been "dismissive of scientific advice in favor of other voices such as religious and political conservatives and business interests."

Science and religion
. The story of Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmine needs no retelling here. But consider the conflicts of authority associated with evolution, or the contention between the science of human reproduction, including stem cell research, and the varied theological opinions on the subject. The issues that arise can extend beyond the scientific areas involved, Brown points out:

"Stem cell research has given rise to many moral questions relating to the ethics of pursuing particular research questions, including issues of intellectual property rights, scientific competition and fraud, governmental control of science, and conflicts between scientific goals and religious beliefs."

Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion as "two non-overlapping magisteria" (i.e., diverse types of authority). Can they be reconciled or balanced? Not easily, according to Brown:

"Jurgen Habermas has argued that for those with deeply held religious beliefs, the very act of attempting a ‘balance' between religious and secular convictions can jeopardize their self-assessment as pious persons."

Science and the public. Despite strong authority and high expectations, despite the plethora of popularizations, the public's knowledge of science is abysmally low and laced with suspicion and even know-nothingism. I recently had a personal experience along this line. Having written a popular article on genetics in collaboration with a mathematical geneticist, I showed the article around. It was met with groans of disapproval. What were the objections? (1) "You have oversimplified and have gotten things wrong." (2) "We don't want to hear about the current state of reproductive techniques and its relation to genetics." It seems to be enough that the naysayers know someone who has availed herself of these techniques.

Genetics and its authoritative implications appear to be a deeply disturbing topic. It is a topic that arouses doubts and antagonisms, a topic that cuts across biological, theological, ethical, philosophical, sociological, ethnological, legal, educational, and even mathematical matters. When the topic comes up in conversation, someone is likely to change the subject. Many popular publications refuse to open their columns to simple statements and evaluations of what is going on in this field.

A.E. Housman was prophetic when he wrote the lines

"I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made."

Brown's conclusion: "Scientists and engineers have been instrumental in creating contemporary American society. They have done so by informing us how the world is." To which one might add: They have done this by exploiting the potentialities of nature.

The priestess of the Delphic oracle often came up with pronouncements that were obscure or ambiguous. Brown's title implies that science can give erroneous, contradictory, or ambiguous answers to the questions we pose. It cannot claim to be the unique and authoritative judge of morality.

*A deeper exploration of the topic can be found in the reviewer's "Jurimath: The Flowering of an Ancient Field," SIAM News, May 2008.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at

Renew SIAM · Contact Us · Site Map · Join SIAM · My Account
Facebook Twitter Youtube