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the complete review - philosophy/science
Who Rules in Science ?
James Robert Brown
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- An Opinionated Guide to the Wars
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B : good, clear introduction to the issues and the arguments, but with some unrealistic conclusions and ambitions
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Social Studies of Science
From the Reviews:
- "Brown makes no pretense of addressing readers who are not on the Left, and at some points even strains to prove his progressive credentials by ridiculing conservatives in an embarrassingly simple-minded way. (...) Brown’s argument against constructivism is a good one, as far as it goes. It is also careful and nuanced, if a little repetitive. (...) What is not clear is whether the kind of science that Brown ultimately advocates is really much better." - Kevin Shapiro, Commentary
- "Brown carefully complicates this caricature, helpfully subdividing constructivists into what he terms "nihilists" and "naturalists", and unravelling the strange political alliances in the US that make this more than just a metatheoretical spat." - Steven Poole, The Guardian
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
James Robert Brown makes no claim for objectivity in Who Rules in Science ? -- even going so far as to call his book An Opinionated Guide to the Wars.
For all that, much of Brown's book is remarkably reasonable in tone and approach -- unlike much of the intemperate spouting that is often found in writings about the so-called science wars.
Brown's book is in many ways definitional: he gets back to basics and tries to make clear what is at issue, usefully considering the terms at play (everything down to what he means by "science" itself).
He also emphasizes (and shows) that the divide in the science wars is not strictly one between "left" and "right" (and, specifically, he convincingly undermines the idea of an "anti-science Left vs. pro-science Right").
Brown believes in science, and that science -- as it is generally practiced -- works.
He allows for the role of values in science, but is careful to not let them intrude in areas where they clearly do not belong -- explaining quite well where he thinks this is the case.
Much of Who Rules in Science ? is a consideration of Alan Sokal's (in)famous hoax, the paper that was published in Social Text (see Fashionable Nonsense (see our review) and The Sokal Hoax (see our review) for the text, the arguments, and many of the reactions).
Brown uses this example as a basis for many of his examples and a springboard for many of his own arguments.
Science is what is important to him, and he argues against the dishonest use of science in all its forms -- by those espousing leftist as well as rightist programmes.
In fact, he sees more danger from some rightists who actually wield great power and influence than misguided postmoderns who can do little harm; Samuel Huntington is one such example (apparently offering "'equations' (...) that are little more than moonshine apologetics for vicious right-wing social policies").
Brown doesn't believe in the popular cry to silence or disfranchise other voices and opinions.
He writes that Mario Bunge's call to "expel the charlatans from the university" is a "recipe for disaster."
Brown argues: "A much better strategy would be to expose the charlatans."
Brown's democratic spirit and faith in reason (or at least common sense) are appealing, but they are also the weak points in his arguments.
Sokal and others have, on some level, exposed many charlatans, but these often continue to be influential academics, authors, and policy makers.
Samuel Huntington's whacky equations may be easily shown to be without any merit -- but most of the world takes little notice and even those that should know better still take him seriously.
Exposure -- and, more importantly, effective exposure is more difficult than Brown allows for (certainly in the short term).
Brown acknowledges, to some extent, the difficulties of effectively exposing bad science, but has no realistic recipe for changing this situation.
His solutions -- e.g. "We should write popular articles for our local newspapers and international magazines, anything with a wide readership" -- are laudable but seem largely unrealistic.
What world is Brown living in ? one wonders.
(Amusingly, another book published at the same time (and by the same publisher) -- Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals (see our review) -- similarly believes that all the (intellectual) fools spouting their foolishness can and should be exposed, thus causing the masses to no longer believe in their ridiculous and unsound arguments.
It is a nice idea (very similar to Brown's ideas), but the public won't have it, seeming to prefer to be deceived (as long as -- or especially if -- the deception reinforces their own preconceptions and notions).)
Brown also doesn't adequately address the fact that in the media and in academe, in person, in print, and on the Internet it is easy to sound convincing and cite examples and statistics -- but it is hard (especially for the non-expert) to know which facts can truly be relied upon.
Exposing bad science is nowhere near as straightforward an exercise as Brown suggests.
Brown himself does fairly convincingly debunk a number of supposedly scientific studies (on homosexuality and IQ tests, for example), but then seems to want to make an example of himself of how not to do (and present) science.
In his afterword he makes some very broad claims about public health care without even providing any basic definitions, references, etc. (i.e. he presents a very unscientific presentation of claims and arguments).
He states that: "Cancer patients in Canada live an average of 14 months longer from the time of detection than those in the United States" without identifying the source of this information, the time span it is valid for (is this a statistic looking back over the past 100 years or only the past year ?), and without considering what factors may play a role in this.
(Other questions that occur to ignorant laypeople like us (with no medical or scientific training): are the cancer rates themselves comparable in the two countries ?
Are the types of cancers that are most common in the two countries the same (or does, for example, the US have a much higher rate of fast-killing cancers) ?
Are there non-cancer ailments that are far more prevalent in US cancer patients that accelerate their deaths (e.g. liver cirrhosis, AIDS) ?
Are the definitions of "cancer" (and "cancer patient") even the same in the two countries ?
How large are the variations in average-survival-from-time-of-detection rates in the US itself ?
(The US has a population more than ten times as large as Canada's, with climatic and environmental conditions differing greatly from region to region (as well as from Canada); possibly time-of-survival rates differ from region to region by the same (or even a larger) amount as between the US as a whole and Canada.))
Brown also goes on to state: "The superiority of public health care is manifestly obvious; it is vastly more efficient, at least when properly funded, which is not always the case."
He offers no foundation whatsoever for this statement -- and he would find himself in disagreement with many health care policy professionals (especially in the United States).
He is not necessarily wrong, but his statement -- as presented -- is a very careless one, and he is guilty of the same sins he tars the abusers of science in the rest of the text with in making it.
(It is also a peculiarly expressed sentence, as it is unclear what proper funding would have to do with efficiency.
Surely one of the arguments for public (over private) health care is that it is more efficient per se -- i.e. you (or rather: the nation as a whole) get more bang for your buck, regardless of the amount spent.)
It is unfortunate that Brown falters at this point, because his argument -- here against "the commercialization of the campus" -- is an important and fundamentally correct one.
But he can't suddenly be fighting with the enemy's methods (as he is here) without calling his whole enterprise into question.
Brown firmly believes that "the people" should rule.
He has faith in them, and he believes it is right that they decide.
He believes it can work out: "They just need to hear more intelligent and informed voices."
It is a nice idea -- the triumph of reason !
But the public isn't always interested in hearing intelligent and informed voices.
In fact, it rarely seems to be -- and often disregards them when it hears them.
Brown's faith in the public also turns out not to be that strong after all.
He understands that there are problems with direct democracy regarding scientific questions (or rather: issues that require a certain scientific understanding).
He has faith in the people, but not that much faith: complex issues are beyond them (not necessarily intellectually, but simply because there is only so much people want to try to understand).
He even goes so far as to suggest that: "Direct democracy stands in the way of knowledgeable and efficient thinking."
His explanation of why this is so is, unfortunately, not convincing.
For one, he gives the example of capital punishment, arguing that: "Opinion polls in Canada have for a long time consistently favored a return to capital punishment."
From this he concludes: "If we had direct democracy (...) then we would very quickly start hanging people once again."
Canada is saved from this fate -- according to Brown -- by the fact that elected representatives quickly discover (once elected) that in fact capital punishment isn't effective and is, instead, "undesirable" (for a variety of reasons).
Elected representatives do the reasonable and smart thing and don't bring capital punishment back.
There are a number of problems with this example -- most notably that for one group (the masses) he is talking about opinion polls and for the others (elected representatives) he is talking about enacting legislation.
These are two very different things.
We suggest an opinion poll of elected representatives in Canada would likely find a similar majority 'favoring' capital punishment (in the same loose wording that is used when the masses are asked).
But enacting legislation to institute capital punishment is something entirely different.
Brown suggests that elected representative decline to institute capital punishment because, even if they initially favour it, "once they start to examine the issues" and "after learning these sorts of facts" (i.e. why capital punishment is undesirable) they change their minds.
But, as Brown notes, the facts around capital punishment are fairly basic and easy to understand.
There is no reason why these facts can not be presented to the Canadian public and they then be allowed to make an informed choice -- at least on this very basic issue.
Brown also suggests the public can not be trusted because a system of direct democracy is "open to abuse and even to parody".
The example he cites is a suggestion to hold "referenda on any topic the public wanted" in Canada in 2000.
The suggested mechanism was to hold a referendum "on any issue if 3 percent of the voting public signed a petition in its support" -- and Brown then mentions that a TV comedy show launched an Internet-petition "demanding that Canadian Alliance leader, Stockwell Day, be forced to change his first name to 'Doris'."
This is, of course, a very funny example -- but a completely misleading, even irrelevant one.
For one: one can argue about the minimum threshold for a referendum (surely a subject that should be decided by referendum ...); three percent seems entirely too low.
More importantly: an Internet petition of this sort is obviously not acceptable -- and it seems likely that many if not most of those that participated were, in fact, not part of the Canadian voting public (but rather amused Americans and the like).
Also: getting the signatures to hold a referendum is not the same thing as getting the votes to pass the measure when the referendum is actually held.
It seems unlikely that a majority of the voting public would actually vote to force a man to change his name (though we suggest that any politician that can tick off so many people might very well deserve to be publicly humiliated in this manner).
Finally: what is wrong with having such an admittedly trivial referendum ?
It would certainly give politicians something to think about.
(Side note: Referenda (and elections) in most Western democracies are decided by a majority of actual voters.
In the United States, for example, referenda are held only at the state and local (rather than nationwide, i.e. federal) level, and turnout is often very low, allowing referenda to pass despite being officially approved by only a small percentage of the population that is eligible to vote.
We suggest that anything that claims to be "direct democracy" should, at the least, require approval by at least 50 percent of all those eligible to vote to pass any referendum -- or elect any official.
(This is not the case in any US election; even the President of the country usually only receives the votes of about a quarter (!) of all registered voters (and it should be noted that there are many eligible voters who are not registered (and in the United States a significant number of citizens (several million) -- notably convicts and ex-convicts -- are not even eligible to vote)).
A true, direct democracy with a 50 percent threshold would likely yield more acceptable results and would certainly be less susceptible to abuse and parody.
Note that, for example, the Swiss seem to do quite well with their referenda -- and haven't forced any of their leaders to change their names.
Whether all this is relevant to questions of science is open to debate -- but unfortunately Brown forestalls all debate with his poor presentation of the issue.)
Brown suggests that a much better solution is "representative democracy".
Curiously, he does not even address the obvious (or should we say: "manifestly obvious" ?) point that the problems that arise in direct democracy also arise -- at least in the initial stage (i.e. when the masses actually are allowed to participate) -- in a representative democracy.
For example: the 1996 election in America of then nearly 94 year old Strom Thurmond (Senator from South Carolina, still in office in 2002) surely is as stark an example of the "abuse and parody" of the democratic process as one can imagine -- and one with a dangerous and lasting impact.
(For those not familiar with Senator Thurmond: he is a man who, at least in our opinion (based, admittedly, on untrained eyes) has clearly been non compos mentis for quite some time and appears to be a sort of oblivious human rubber stamp, used by his staff of puppeteers as they see fit.
He is also one of the most powerful men in the United States Senate.)
Brown is not necessarily wrong that "Direct democracy stands in the way of knowledgeable and efficient thinking" and that representative democracy (allowing for a greater role for expertise) is the better way to go, but his very slanted presentation does not help readers decide (or even think about) the issue.
Perhaps he is right, but his examples are not chosen to allow for an informed decision.
It is unfortunate, because much of what he says (and his position generally) is in many respects sensible.
To his credit, Brown is interested in "getting the right representatives" -- at least in the scientific field.
His case for democratic ideals is however -- as he presents it -- not fully convincing.
He concludes that: "the way to democratize the practice of science is by having representative scientists from all relevant groups that have potentially competing interests."
His group of scientists ("from all relevant groups") is even more narrowly defined in the next sentence, as "participants drawn from every affected social group".
This, too, seems a limitation -- and probably not an ideal one for the scientific process.
Anyone affected by the outcomes comes with an obvious bias.
Arguably, of course, everyone is biased in some way and all these biases will possibly affect the outcomes (or the scientific determinations or whatever it is that is being done); nevertheless, those who will be obviously affected by the outcome have the most at stake and are most likely to be biased in their approach.
This is perhaps in some ways fair, but it is also far removed from the idea (and ideal) of the dispassionate and objective practice of science.
In fact, it sounds like it could easily come down to being a power struggle, with whatever faction wields the most power in a given situation emerging 'victorious' (rather than truth emerging victorious).
Brown also doesn't make enough of some of the problems within science, especially regarding expertise.
The "experts" are often merely those that have been around the longest and have built up a reputational and academic power.
They are often worthy -- but they also are part of the establishment (in their narrow field as well as in science generally), and likely to be less open to change than the young.
Yet it is radical rethinking of approaches that often yields the most exciting results.
(We merely sketch the issues here -- but it is obviously something that at least should be addressed, and it is by and large ignored by Brown.)
Whereas Brown is willing to look at both sides of much of the debate surrounding the Sokal-hoax (including usefully exploding the myth of an "anti-science Left vs. pro-science Right"), he displays much less rigour in examining his own proposals.
His arguments are interesting and his ideas worth considering, but his obvious biases and unwillingness to acknowledge the weaknesses of some of what he proposes (and the strengths of some of the alternatives) are disturbing, especially in light of his criticism of other commentators (since implicit -- and occasionally explicit -- in that criticism is that this is not the way to go about making one's case).
Who Rules in Science ? is worthwhile for the very solid foundations it provides on the fundamental questions in the science wars.
What comes after is also interesting but should be considered with extreme care -- i.e. highly critically (in the sense that Brown's claims and his arguments must be closely questioned, since he is clearly not presenting all sides of the possible arguments any longer).
There are valuable examples and ideas throughout this book.
It is just unfortunate that Brown was not willing to practice as he preached for the entire book.
He should have presented (or at least considered) the opinions "from all relevant groups that have potentially competing interests" here.
He probably could have found his way to the same conclusions -- and he certainly would have looked much better doing so.
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Who Rules in Science ?:
James Robert Brown:
Other books of interest under review
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About the Author:
James Robert Brown is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
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