Redefining Science

I’m in the midst of Chris Mooney’s book, and I must admit that while I think he has assembled a masterful catalog of science misuse, the discomfort I’ve felt about his thesis remains – that the Right is not alone in its misuse of science and any useful discussion of the issue needs to recognize this broader issue. I was reminded of that this morning by Dennis Overbye’s piece in the New York Times this morning:

Once it was the left who wanted to redefine science.

In the early 1990’s, writers like the Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel and the French philosopher Bruno Latour proclaimed “the end of objectivity.” The laws of science were constructed rather than discovered, some academics said; science was just another way of looking at the world, a servant of corporate and military interests. Everybody had a claim on truth.

The right defended the traditional notion of science back then. Now it is the right that is trying to change it.

Until we recognize the broader forces at work here on both Left and Right – the willingness of both to select and understand science in ways that fits their individual values and policy choices – we’re not going to make any progress on this issue.


  1. I think you’re a bit off base here….the so-called “science wars” were waged against a strawman. The epistemological relavatism described by Bruno (I’m not familiar with Havel’s work on the subject) never claimed that all “knowledge” was equal, only that sociological factors strongly influenced how knowledge was produced (and who it served). The literature in the sociology of science is quite a bit more nuanced than is represented in the passage quoted.

  2. Bob –

    You’re absolutely correct. The common description of the postmodern critique, which Overbye pastiches a bit here, is something of a strawman. But the more modest relativism that you describe is what I’m on about here, because I think it’s at the root of the anti-science tactics of both left and right that are at the root of the problem.

  3. JF,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree to a degree. I believe most cases of abuse (left and right) are not “anti-science” but rather “bad science” or demagogic argumentation. Predominantly, this is the case in the industry abuse od science described by Chris. The religious strains do, however, appeal to the “anti-science” to which you refer. I think it is important to make this distinction.

    I also agree with your point that Chris’s book in unnecessarily polemic; the title itself is counter-productive in efforts to provide normative critiques for the use of science in policy debates.

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