Wednesday’s Book Review: “Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture”

science-talkScience Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture. By Daniel Patrick Thurs. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007, paperback reprint 2008. Vii + 237 pgs., acknowledgments, introduction, notes, index. ISBN: 978-0-8135-4420-5, $27.95 paperback.

Science is one element of modern American society that is ubiquitous. We see it all around us, even when we do not seek it, and we cannot envision a life without its presence. We mostly view science and the scientific enterprise as benevolent and positive. Mostly, however, we ignore it, or do we? Americans have engaged in some of the most heated controversies in the nation’s history with science as the center of the debate. That is what this book is about, and not just the debates themselves, but also how those debates have shaped the nature of scientific investigation itself.

We seemingly love these debates, despite the fact that they may be far removed from the issues that affect our lives. For example, many Americans were incensed in 2006 when the Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The state legislature of California even passed a resolution accusing the IAU of “scientific heresy.” New Mexico’s state legislators even declared that Pluto will always be considered a planet while in New Mexican skies. This is a rather light-hearted controversy to be sure since very little of significance, perhaps beside pride, is riding on the status of Pluto.

Not so with several other scientific controversies.  In Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture, Daniel Patrick Thurs, a fellow in New York University’s Draper Program at the time of its publication, takes aim at five major controversies in science in the United States. Two of those are nineteenth century debates—phrenology and evolution—and the remainder—relativity, UFOs, and intelligent design—are decidedly twentieth century debates. There is quite a lot riding on these debates, not the least of which is religion and worldview. These debates, besides containing deep ideological fissures, are complicated by the complexity of scientific research and its meaning.

This may seem confusing for many casual observers, prompting many individuals to defer to those they trust. This is unfortunate. Among those comfortable with the role of science in American life, this could foster support for the authority of scientific experts. This deference may, but does not necessarily, lead to blind acceptance of all that is done in the name of science. It may also lead to deference to another type of authority. In the case of evolution and intelligent design this could be a privileging of religious ideals and those who espouse them. In the case of something like UFOs or phrenology or the like it might foster deference to those who claim to have firsthand knowledge of the subject, whether or not they might be credible.

It is important note that in every case the author is seeking to explore contrasting opinions about science and its unfolding throughout the more than two-hundred years of U.S. history. Thurs especially tries to unpack the place of skeptics in this process, counterbalancing that trend with the dominant place science enjoys in which it is credited with inevitably leading Americans to a better future. Using a broad set of sources, ranging from analysis of magazines, newspapers, journals, and other forms of public discourse to personal papers and public opinion research, Thurs describes the rising perception of science as something beyond the capability of ordinary Americans to understand and the need to employ translators between those engaged in the practice of science and the general public.

The rising elitism inherent in this term has both aided in creating a high stature for scientists and the scientific enterprise and a distancing of the population from the practice of science. The lack of general understanding about science has ensured that it will be misunderstood. Accordingly, in something like intelligent design where there is a broad-based effort to misconstrue the nature of the science the result has been confusion, obfuscation, and not a little chicanery.

For readers of this journal, the chapter on the UFO craze of the middle part of the twentieth century will probably be the most interesting. This represents a form of pseudo-science in which the majority of the public accepts as a given that Earth is being visited by extraterrestrials with technologies far beyond what is present here. In some cases this is a benign visitation; in others it represents a ruthless process of horrific medical experimentation. The evolution of this UFO craze offers a useful case study in the manner in which something beyond the bounds of science intrudes on the scientific enterprise. For their parts, scientists have dismissed claims to visitation but have failed to persuade, in no small part because of the diligence, perseverance, and imaginativeness of advocates. And this despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever to support the claims of visitation.

There is much of value in Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture and Daniel Patrick Thurs should be commended for bringing to light the process whereby scientific controversies have evolved over time. It is an engaging study, one that will benefit all those interested in science and its place in American history.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture”

  1. rangerdon says:

    Those ‘translators’ of science concepts are all around us. Stressed as they are by administrations of both stripes who viciously underfund them, and also politicize the process of hiring and promotion, National Park Service (and state parks’) Naturalists help millions of visitors to understand the science of a place. They’re called “interpreters,” not translators, since they interpret from the language of science into common English.


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