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Why Trust Science? - Naomi Oreskes ***

I'm giving this book three stars for the topic and content - if I went on readability alone, I'd only give it two. I wanted to mention this upfront. It might seem a little unfair of me to expect an academic book to be readable but a) there's no reason why they shouldn't be and b) there's no point writing a book like this unless it is approachable by those outside academia, otherwise you're just preaching to the converted. Also the blurb does not suggest it is being aimed at an academic audience.

The book has a strange format. We get two chapters from Naomi Oreskes (based on lectures), then several chapters by other people commenting on what Oreskes wrote, then Oreskes returns to respond to the comments. In those opening chapters, there was a lot to like. It was good to gain a more detailed view of philosophy and sociology of science, as mine had been what is probably the typical view of a scientist who has read a little on the topic but not enough. I tended to think: Popper - good but too simple, Kuhn - interesting but a lot weirder than most scientists think, and the weirdos - anything goes. Here there was far more gradation and some thought-provoking material on subjectivity in science.

I was disappointed there wasn't more on reproducibility, p-hacking, small sample sizes, poor studies and the way that the media picks up on poor studies as if they were facts, giving the public the idea that science flip-flops, but this was discussed at length, if rather oddly in one of the commentaries. There were also a couple of oddities in the main text. It gave the wrong date for a book by Galton, and there was a very worrying statement in support of 'traditional medicine' that seemed to confuses medicine - which is more like engineering - with medical science. Traditional medicine may have some successes (just as medieval architects with no scientific knowledge) but has no scientific validity. Note that this is quite distinct from the problematic distinction between science and technology that Oreskes later describes. Technology here is based on science, but traditional medicine is not.

The book got harder to read once we reached the commentaries. It was partly my fault, as to start with I totally missed that from chapter 3 onwards each chapter was written by someone else. The result was that, for a while, it seemed the author was unnervingly agreeing with herself in the third person: ‘Oreskes shows how much science now needs defenders, and defenses… This kind of argument is utterly persuasive to me.’ It was also the case that some of the authors had less writing ability than Oreskes. I rest my case here with the phrase 'everyday technologies make visible the imbrication of science in quotidian life.' Right.

Much of the response to the commentaries was also distinctly dull, often comprising of two academics patting each other on the back, though it did get mildly entertaining when Oreskes tore the arguments of one of her fellow professors apart.

This is a very important topic, and there are good points hidden amongst the unnecessary academic language - it's just a shame it's not a better-written book.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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