Trust me, I'm a scientist

Prometheus Bedeviled
February 18, 2000

What is a rational intellectual to do in a nation whose citizens set more store by The National Enquirer than Scientific American ? How to raise the status of science, so that one need not worry for the future of a democracy in which the mass of the voters are in thrall to diverse cults of unreason? These questions summarise Norman Levitt's diagnosis of United States political culture. Part of the cure is a reform programme for science. To inspire the kind of confidence that science deserves, he suggests, scientists must give up any institutional political ambitions, stop pronouncing on areas outside the competence of science and concede that research priorities should be under democratic control.

These are all familiar prescriptions for putting science in its proper place in a democratic polity. But the place Levitt wants to put science in is not the one most who might support these proposals have in mind. He wants us to defer to scientific judgement on a host of questions - from the virtues of astrology or creationism, to alternative medicine and the likelihood of health hazards from power lines.

Much of this, like the prescriptions for science, is unexceptionable. But Levitt seems to want more. Like Richard Dawkins, who provides the leading cover endorsement for this book, he seems to hanker after not just a convincing critique of non-scientific beliefs, but their elimination. It is not just that one person's opinion may not be as good as another's - some people's opinions are worth nothing at all. As an exploration of the tension between democratic process and technical competence, I am not sure what this adds to many earlier, and often subtler, discussions of the politics of expertise. And, in spite of Levitt's frequent flourishing of his old-left credentials to assure us that his heart is in the right place, it comes across as basically intolerant.

This is also the reaction he would predict from a reviewer of my departmental affiliation. But I am as much puzzled as irritated by Levitt's endlessly repeated charge that many recent writers about science promote relativism, irrationalism and illogic of various kinds. Irritated because, as he cheerfully concedes in a footnote almost at the end of this baggy book, the suggestion that this is all there is to science studies is a systematic misrepresentation of the field. Puzzled, because in this book the co-author of Higher Superstition is supposed to be looking beyond the academy. Yet in almost every chapter he comes back to a few academic writers whose views of science he abhors. Since he also tells us that their influence in the wider society is vanishingly small, one wonders why he is so preoccupied with those pesky postmodernists and social constructivists.

His other targets are mostly predictable. A string of chapters on topics such as education, health, the law, journalism and science and commerce make points that are often accurate. But a worthwhile cultural critic should surely be telling us things we do not already know, and Levitt's efforts, though always spirited, largely fail this test. When he tackles ideas about technology and nature, his contributions are weaker, and mostly anecdotal.

This is no crime, as no one could engage properly with the literature in all of the areas Levitt tries to cover. But I think he is open to criticism for the slenderness of his ideas about how to remedy the estrangement he sees between science and society.

One indication is a vitriolic attack on the legal and regulatory scholar Sheila Jasanoff - a writer he particularly detests - for suggesting that local school boards in the US have the right to mandate teaching of creationism. Yet he does not really suggest how it could be otherwise. Of course, others have the right, perhaps even the duty, to criticise them if they deny their students the opportunity to hear about Darwinism as well. But how should one go further? Even a national curriculum - which British experience suggests is a very mixed blessing - cannot prescribe what students will believe at the end of the course.

On a host of other matters where technical expertise should affect decisions, from genetically modified crops to measures to slow climate change, there is now a modest but thoughtful literature on more inclusive forms of discussion such as consensus conferences or deliberative polling.

These will not solve all the problems of giving science its due when tackling issues framed by uncertain risks, problematic benefits and competing values. But they may offer more promise than Levitt's conviction that the best way forward is to defer to scientists.

Jon Turney teaches science communication in the department of science and technology studies, University College London.

Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture

Author - Norman Levitt
ISBN - 0 8135 2652 3
Publisher - Rutgers University Press
Price - £26.50
Pages - 416

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