Martians and other hot spots

November 13, 1998

There are probably more, and more radically different views of science sincerely upheld today than at any time in the past. Whether science is a boon or a bane, the surest means to justified true belief or the bearer of contingently constructed truths, and scientists a new priesthood in whom we should repose absolute trust or mere "knowledge workers", are all hotly contested.

And these issues grow harder to resolve when scientific practice is also more diverse than ever before, and both the ways scientists work and the research system which supports that work are changing rapidly, with effects that are not easy to measure.

So finding the right level to pitch an introductory book on the social character of science is no easy job. In this slim volume, Steve Fuller has a good try, but I am not sure he entirely succeeds. The book appears in the Open University Press's wide-ranging series on Concepts in the Social Sciences, presumably intended for beginning undergraduates. But this particular contribution is no more a conventional introduction to sociology or philosophy of science than it is to science proper. Fuller is his own man, and the book fizzes with heterodox readings of standard positions, and ingenious arguments about everything from Robert Merton's norms of scientific behaviour to the functions of the Science Citation Index.

Of course there are already plenty of straightforward expositions of, say, falsificationism or the sociology of scientific knowledge. And it would be well to have them on hand when reading Fuller, as he has other business to pursue. That includes a lengthy chapter on science as superstition, using the familiar device of a report by a Martian anthropologist, and an illuminating discussion of the relation of western science with the history and intellectual cultures of China, Japan and the Islamic world.

The whole is offered in a breezy style, though one which is not always as easy to follow as the breeziness promises, and offers much to discuss - most readers will probably find at least one proposition to agree with and one to disagree with on every page. Most will also want to calibrate the plausibility of the assertions slightly differently from the author. Strong empirical claims abound which appear largely speculative, and when Fuller actually says he is being speculative he can be completely off the wall. What, for example, are we to make of the suggestion that, "as science has come to be so thoroughly involved in the economic and political maintenance of the societies housing its pursuit, any truly revolutionary project in science today would pose as great a threat to societal stability as a political revolution normally would"?

Fuller's general stance is the attractive one of an observer who evinces a radical scepticism towards all received opinion. He regrets what he sees as the passing of this attitude in science, and would no doubt welcome the application of the same scepticism to his own work. But the result here is a book which, while a little too idiosyncratic and demanding to be introductory, is not exactly conclusive either. This is partly simply a matter of brevity. A longer book would surely resolve ambiguities such as whether regarding science as universal knowledge implies that it be universally accessible or just universally correct. But it is also because Fuller's ambitions are so wide. It would be an exceptional student, I think, who was able to incorporate the ideas here into a rounded view of the scientific enterprise without a good deal of support, although the book would make an excellent discussion text for advanced seminars. And it certainly made this reader look forward to Fuller's reappraisal of Thomas Kuhn, which he was researching at the same time as this shorter book was being written.

Jon Turney teaches science communication at University College London.


Author - Steve Fuller
ISBN - 0 335 19847 3
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £9.99
Pages - 159

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