Wednesday, December 24, 2008

And on the first day...

I recently returned an edited copy of my new book, Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science, to Pennsylvania State University Press PSU Press. If all goes well, the book should be out by September, and should appear on bookseller lists long before that. I felt a great sense of relief and something like finality for a project that has occupied much of my attention for the past few years. At the same time, I now realize more intensely than I could ever have when I began it that the book deals with a very broad and multifaceted set of topics. Every day as I hear and read news and commentary on the web, in newspapers and other media, I see connections with ideas dealt with in the book. Or, as also happens with some frequency, I see matters arising that are relevant to the major themes of the book, but which I did not treat in any detail, in the interests of saving space or becuase they are new. I hope to make amends for these shortcomings in this blog, which I intend to be a locale for a broadly-based discussion of science's authority in society; both its expert, or epistemic authority and its moral authority.

To get started, here are a few quotes from the preface to the book. I hope that they will set the tone for what I want to do here.

"We all know that science, whether we love it, abide it or even detest it, is here to stay and that science and technology in important senses define modern culture. They are the agents on which much else depends, whether it’s food and fresh water for the world’s billions, or new fabrics being shown on the fashion runways of Paris and New York. From matters of life and death to trivial pursuits, contemporary life hinges on science and technology. There is no turning back the clock on scientific and technological “progress”; even the most resolutely organic farm commune finds itself partaking of scientific knowledge.
It is this very omnipresence that gives people the willies, as indeed it should. If the world holds itself in thrall to all the instrumental offerings of science and technology, with little regard for their larger implications, for what they mean for our destiny as a species, or for our moral obligations to one another and to the world in which we live, human civilization is not long for this planet.
We seem to have overrun ourselves as a species; we’ve been very clever in dealing with the physical world, in using our evolutionary biological inheritance to such good effect that we can do quite amazing things. But we still carry with us cognitive predilections that served humanity well on its way up the evolutionary slopes, but which may now contribute to our undoing. A rational approach to study of the physical world that employs the methodologies of scientific research has provided humanity with a cornucopia of beneficial products. Ironically, some have consequences that can be disastrous over time if not properly dealt with. Science has much to offer in addressing the complex social, economic and political problems confronting society, but its voice is only one of many. There is no doubt that science exercises influence, but it often falls short of what it might attain. So it’s worth asking why it does not have a stronger voice in shaping the culture of society, as distinct from simply delivering a great many products.
I’ve chosen to analyze this and important related questions by using the concept of “authority” as a kind of lens through which to view science’s interactions with the larger society. Part of my task has been to identify the kinds of authority exercised by science, and to show how scientific authority stands in relationship to the authorities that characterize other social sectors. approach has been to consider authority generally: a classification in terms of the kinds of authority that exist, and their origins in social institutions. I then deal with how science came to have authority, and the contests with other societal sectors through which that authority was won. "

So I've set my point of departure. I hope in the next few posts to more clearly illustrate my interests and intentions, and I hope that you, the reader, will be sufficiently interested to offer your views.

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