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Fatal Attractions:
THE TROUBLES WITH SCIENCE Point here for more book info

by Henry Bauer

Paraview Press, 2001
ISBN: 1-931044-28-7 
Science, 237 pp
Trade Paperback: $14.95
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From the Introduction:


Science, in its role as investigator of Nature, has been hugely successful. It has gone from strength to strength in unraveling how the world works. If anything, the rate of progress in science is increasing. So how could there be any trouble with it?

In a nutshell, the trouble is that science, in large part through its very success, has become a great deal more than our storehouse of knowledge about the mechanics of the world. Science has become our arbiter of truth. It has become a universal role model for how to acquire knowledge. Science has even become a surrogate religion. As a consequence, science now occupies an impossibly demanding cultural role, and it is in the impossible demands of that cultural role that the troubles reside.

Science is troubled, or in trouble, at many points. Society in general, and especially governments, seem no longer to appreciate science, as research funds become continually scarcer and Ph.D.s cannot find the jobs they trained for. Science itself is blamed for causing trouble—by contributing the means for polluting the environment, destroying the ozone layer, bringing about global warming—and it is at the same time blamed for failing to find cures for AIDS, cancer, pollution, and so forth. At times, scientists even seem to be regarded as potential criminals, as Congress and federal agencies inquire into misconduct in science and write regulations describing how scientists ought to behave. Though we pride ourselves on living in a scientific age, this is clearly not a particularly good time to be a scientist.

These troubles have been brewing for quite some time, of course, but now they have become sharply prominent. Partly it may be an inevitable reaction against the reverence in which all things scientific have come to be held. Perhaps science has become so over-valued and over-sold that inevitably the pendulum would begin swinging toward the opposite extreme.

Of course, some of science’s troubles may not be science’s alone. Science may be experiencing stress just because our cultural arrangements in general are under stress. Government and other institutions have, like science, become increasingly intrusive into our lives, in ways that are widely resented on a number of counts. Authority and elites are increasingly distrusted: for instance, most of the press used to consider it proper to turn a blind eye to such establishment peccadilloes as extra-marital affairs by presidents, but nowadays the game is to bring everyone’s dirty linen into public view.

So it should come as no surprise that science is no longer seen as an ivory-tower pursuit but as an immediate servant of society and a member of society’s establishment. The fact that science is an authoritative and elite meritocracy—at least good, successful science is—doesn’t help matters either. It is obvious and unavoidable that not everyone’s view in science is as valuable or as valid as another’s. So it is consonant with the anti-elitist spirit of these times that moves should be afoot to discredit science.

Still, some present-day troubles are peculiar to science itself. At root, those troubles stem from the fact that very few people, scientists included, have a good understanding of what science actually is, who is qualified to speak about it, or who is qualified to speak for it. The various experts who claim to explain it—the philosophers and the social scientists, the science journalists and the popular media—all tend to say rather different things.

We know how to be scientific within science, juxtaposing and blending evidence and theory until ultimately they jibe with what is really out there in the actual world. But we have not been very scientific about science. We may (almost) all agree that scientific literacy would be a good thing, but there is no agreement over what it actually is or how it might be attained. We (almost) all agree that science curricula could and should be improved, but we disagree over the details, which are actually all that matters. And, perhaps most telling, we accept that science means using the scientific method even as the evidence plainly disproves that hypothesis.

Science has explained a great deal about the world. But what explains science’s success at finding good explanations? A resolution of this conundrum is far from a purely academic matter. Without it we cannot resolve a host of concrete issues that call for concrete answers. How much of society’s resources should be devoted to science? Should the resources be devoted to exploratory or applied science? And to which fields—physics, biology, chemistry? And how much should be devoted to attempts to find a cure for cancer, or for AIDS, or for heart disease?

What should every educated citizen know of or about science? What place should science have in the curricula of elementary schools, of high schools, of colleges? What should science teachers know of and about science? What about science writers? Or journalists in general?

Those questions—and others as well—are of the widest concern; yet there is no consensus on answers. Over each and every such issue, politicians, media and public find ample room to disagree. And so do disparate experts, even as they all claim authority for their particular viewpoint.

There is a fundamental lack of agreement over how science actually works, how reliable its knowledge is, how any given bit of science can best be appraised, and how we can judge when science is able to supply a specific recipe for something we want done. This lack of understanding is a critical matter and it is critical for one simple reason—science is inescapable in modern life. Whether we are obsessed by it or whether we try to ignore it, science is pervasive. It behooves us to make sense of it now.

Copyright 2000-2002  Henry Bauer



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