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Who Rules in Science?: An Opinionated Guide to the Wars [Paperback]

James Robert Brown
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 29 2004

What if something as seemingly academic as the so-called science wars were to determine how we live?

This eye-opening book reveals how little we've understood about the ongoing pitched battles between the sciences and the humanities--and how much may be at stake. James Brown's starting point is C. P. Snow's famous book, Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, which set the terms for the current debates. But that little book did much more than identify two new, opposing cultures, Brown contends: It also claimed that scientists are better qualified than nonscientists to solve political and social problems. In short, the true significance of Snow's treatise was its focus on the question of who should rule--a question that remains vexing, pressing, and politically explosive today.

In Who Rules in Science? Brown takes us through the various engagements in the science wars--from the infamous "Sokal affair" to angry confrontations over the nature of evidence, the possibility of objectivity, and the methods of science--to show how the contested terrain may be science, but the prize is political: Whoever wins the science wars will have an unprecedented influence on how we are governed.

Brown provides the most comprehensive and balanced assessment yet of the science wars. He separates the good arguments from the bad, and exposes the underlying message: Science and social justice are inextricably linked. His book is essential reading if we are to understand the forces making and remaking our world.

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From Publishers Weekly

ostmodernists and social constructionists claim that there can be no such thing as "objective science." Indeed, many argue that the underlying "facts" of science are merely social conventions and that any view of the natural world is as likely to be as accurate as any other: "[i]t is one story among many stories," says Stanley Aronowitz. The process of scientific investigation and the knowledge that it yields, therefore, is worthy of neither particular respect nor governmental funding. University of Toronto professor of philosophy Brown (Smoke and Mirrors) ably takes on many of the claims proffered by the antiscience camp and argues that the logic in those claims is faulty. Brown's engaging style makes accessible complex issues central to the philosophy of science. The positions of two of the 20th century's great philosophers of science, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, for example, are summarized deftly and fairly harshly, and contrasted with those of their most famous detractors: Bruno Latour, Jacques Derrida and David Bloor. Brown somewhat gleefully recounts the renowned hoax wherein physicist Alan Sokal sent in "a concoction of cleverly contrived gibberish written in the worst postmodern jargon" to the pomo journal Social Text. But he's no apologist for science, and he contends that scientists are subject to social bias and that science and social justice should be closely linked. "Science," according to Brown, "is the single most important institution in our lives," and thus understanding how it's used and misused is critical to a well-functioning democracy.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


This is a wonderful book: funny, learned, intelligent, strong-minded. In a clear and understanding fashion, James Robert Brown introduces us to the battles over the nature of science. He is never afraid to make judgements, yet always with appreciation of people's positions, however extreme. If you read only one book on the "Science Wars," read this. My only regret is that Who Rules in Science? is not longer. (Michael Ruse, Florida State University)

This book is a lively, engrossing overview of the philosophical and political issues at stake in the current debates about science. Brown doesn't pull any punches in stating his own views, but he always takes care to present fairly even those arguments with which he disagrees. And he's an equal-opportunity debunker: scientists, sociologists and his fellow philosophers all come in for (mostly justified) criticism. (Alan Sokal, co-author of Fashionable Nonsense)

A breath of commonsense, lucidly and wittily argued. (Robin Dunbar, author of Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language and The Trouble with Science)

Who Rules in Science? restores the image of the scientist as a rational actor, capable of generating reliable knowledge and defending the public interest. The book is wonderfully written and should be read as widely as possible. (Ullica Segerstrale, author of Defenders of the Truth)

Meaty and challenging are the words to describe Brown's treatment of the arguments that go on over the nature and social impact of science. "The battleground in the current round of the science wars," he writes, "is epistemology (What is evidence? Objectivity? Rationality? Could any belief be justified?)...The stakes are political, however; social issues are constantly lurking in the background. How we structure and organize our society is the consequence. Whoever wins the science wars will have an unprecedented influence on how we are governed. Brown, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, gives a rich and closely reasoned discussion of the issues in the science wars. (Scientific American)

Brown ably takes on many of the claims proffered by the antiscience camp and argues that the logic in those claims is faulty. Brown's engaging style makes accessible complex issues central to the philosophy of science. (Publishers Weekly 2001-11-05)

While what has been known as "the science wars" seems to have finally played itself out--not, so much as I can tell, that distrust between the sciences and humanities has been settled, but that interest on the part of spectators has pretty well waned--the issues that animated the debate, and their practical importance in everyday life, may not have been successfully clarified for the general public. James Robert Brown's Who Rules in Science? is the clearest, most accessible book on the subject for the general reader that I have come across during the many years of this bickering. (Tom Bowden TechDirections 2002-02-19)

In Who Rules in Science, James Brown...warns that there's much more at stake here than people realize. This is not just a battle between postmodernist philosophers and working scientists over whether an electron is real or merely a social construction. It's about who gets to define reality, truth and rationality. (Sheilla Jones Globe and Mail 2002-02-09)

The latest and perhaps most comprehensive attempt at rescuing the pro-science "hard" Left from the anti-science cons Left is James Robert Brown's Who Rules in Science. Like Sokal, Chomsky, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and others he believes that clear thinking is the Left's best weapon, and that good science is a powerful engine of social justice. Thus, constructivism, which undermines the authority of science and reason, is not only wrong-headed but also socially irresponsible. (Kevin Shapiro Commentary Magazine 2002-02-01)

James Brown...details in this very readable book the Great Divide between the humanities and science, and between constructivist and empirically oriented camps...For those who are quite comfortable with the standard approach in science, Who Rules exposes a very unpleasant underbelly of science, in which scientists can be influenced by personal or political motivations. (Keith Harris Metapsychology)

A close analysis of the 'science wars' examines the link between politics and epistemology. Brown does an admirable job of engaging the general reader in such issues as the role that science plays in creating or changing the social order and the role of social factors in the creating or changing of scientific theories...The author takes readers through a whirlwind course in the philosophy of science in the 20th century, focusing on the concepts of realism, objectivity, and values. He acknowledges that social constructivists are right in seeing social factors at work in science, but he insists that reason and evidence play a dominant role. Brown sees the democratization of science as one of the central themes of the science wars, and he takes the position that when participants are drawn from every affected social group, more objective science will result. He argues that knowledge grows through comparative theory assessment, and that the way to ensure the optimal diversity of rival theories is by having a wide variety of theorists from diverse backgrounds; thus the political act of affirmative action leads to more objective science. Brings the science wars home for the lay reader by identifying the combatants, examining their goals, and exposing the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments. (Kirkus Reviews 2001-09-01)

Brown...here provides a cheerful gloss on some philosophical issues arising from the currently fashionable "science wars." The result is a readable survey of the history of the analytic philosophy of science and the sociology of knowledge from positivism to constructivism, with the positions of the usual suspects characterized and criticized. (P. D. Skiff Choice 2002-06-01)

Many readers will finish James Robert Brown's Who Rules in Science? Feeling that this "war" is more than a little phoney...The idea that these two schools are at "war" serves only to deflect attention away from their furtive collaboration. Who Rules in Science? sheds overdue light on this dark and secret liason. (David Hawkes Times Literary Supplement 2002-09-08)

In Who Rules in Science?, philosopher James Robert Brown argues cogently for public accountability for science--and public funding for scientists. He points out that debates about what science is, its control and its funding are not esoteric; they are the essence of the politics of science. (New Scientist 2004-05-01)

Although opinionated, Who Rules in Science? is one of the least distorted and most generous surveys of the often bitter confrontations in the science wars. Brown's exposition of the ideas and significance of Thomas Kuhn and David Bloor are particularly well done. But Brown's crisp and accessible survey of the various factions in the analytic philosophy of science and the sociology of knowledge is a prolegomenon to his main theme: the role of power, authority, and politics in modern science. (Martin Fichmann History and Philosophy of Life Sciences 2007-01-01)

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The above quote is the title of an essay by Michel De Montaigne written over 400 years ago. The author of "Who Rules in Science" would do well to read it.
As a senior citizen I enjoy reading about current affairs, culture, and science, and bought this book because I felt that I should learn more about the modern philosophers of science. Several people had written very comprehensive reviews of this book on the Amazon web site and gave it a high rating, so I assumed it must be worth a read. In hindsight, that was a big mistake.
James Brown, the author, is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. He states in his preface that "this book is an introduction-an opinionated introduction-to the issues (of who rules in science) for the general reader." The operative word here is "opinionated" and the non-operative words are "general reader."
Early in the book, he begins a discussion of the "Sokal Affair" which was a hoax perpetrated by the physicist, Alan Sokal, on the editors of the journal Social Text, in which he fooled them into publishing an article which, on the surface, appeared to be quite a piece of erudite writing but in reality was nothing but nonsense. If I had not already known what this was about, I would have had a hard time figuring out what he is talking about, because it is certainly not presented in a straight forward manner. His main purpose in bringing up the Sokal Affair is to show how easy it is to fool even supposedly very intelligent people, the unstated implication being that those fooled were somehow deceived because their views of the philosophy of science are wrong.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Democratising science June 24 2003
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Some contend the conflict between the sciences and the humanities is behind us. Reading Brown's analysis on the one hand and the daily news on the other shows how mistaken this view is. This is a refreshing and perceptive examination of the topics encountered over education, workplace behaviour, health and environmental issues. In short, Brown asks what the role of science is in our lives and how should we consider it? While the so-called "science wars" may seem like a remote philosophical debate, Brown brings it home for us all. In his view, you, as a participant in society, have a role to play in what science ought to address. He is adamant, however, that how science is done should remain with those who understand the methods involved in seeking the truth, elusive as that concept might be.
Brown's reviews the famous "Sokal Hoax" in which a physicist scathingly exposed the limits of "postmodern" language and philosophy. He explains how the Sokal Affair raised the public consciousness about views of what science is and how it works. Brown presents and illuminates the issues with admirable clarity and logic. He is a Professor of Philosophy with a deep respect for rational thinking. Unlike some, he doesn't view "cultural relativism" as a fad. Instead, he's aware of its impact in education and the wider world of social and political life. We are daily confronted with decisions to be made. We must make them on a rational basis and not be misled by "charlatans" who would obfuscate the issues. We make decisions on the basis of the values we hold. Brown enjoins us to be clear on our values - their foundations and how they are derived. This all sounds familiar, even redundant.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Not the Best Thing since Sliced Bread May 3 2003
By A Customer
This is a nice little interesting book, but I can't agree with the effusive praise it's garnered. Brown does have some useful things to say, and his analysis is more balanced than that of many commentators on the science wars, but in places that analysis is rather shallow. It seems to me, for example, that the philosophical difficulties of naturalism would be something worth addressing by Brown, but he gives those difficulties short shrift.
Brown is just as capable as the extremists at dismissing those he disagrees with as "mushy-minded", "bad scientists" whose views are "laughable" and whose sanity should be doubted. All those who think moral norms might have divine origin? According to Brown, they're "naively religious". All those who disagree with Brown about capital punishment? According to Brown, they just must not have studied the matter as much as he has. (For Brown, this is apparently an issue on which it is impossible for there to be an honest, informed difference of opinion.) As someone who sympathizes with both Brown and Norman Levitt on many issues but disagrees with them each on others, I have to say that it's a lot more fun to be insulted by Levitt because he does it with such style! (Incidentally, Brown's analysis of Gross and Levitt's book only seems to make sense if Levitt is on the political Right. My reading of Levitt's _Prometheus Bedeviled_ leads me to believe that that is far from the case.)
One last item: Brown writes: "Most people could achieve a high-level understanding of any branch of science, but only if several years have been devoted to its intense study.
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