Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:   
Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…