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Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond by Jon Agar

Vincent di Norcia finds fault with Jon Agar’s analysis of 20th century science.

This is an extensive chronicle of twentieth century science, from 1900 through World Wars I and II and the Cold War to contemporary times – but there is no index. Agar devotes a chapter each to physics, life science, psychology, and quantum mechanics – but he errs in overusing the Newtonian term ‘matter’ rather than ‘energy’, which modern physics has shown to be the ultimate reality (since matter is equivalent to energy, but energy cannot be created or destroyed, only change its form). Agar goes on to consider the military, political, commercial, ideological and medical contexts of research, small- and large-scale science, and technology – but the book is too wide-ranging and unfocused, and two hundred pages too long. Indeed several sections could have beneficially been dropped: namely, those on the social sciences, networks, large- and small-scale science, and on several non-sciences, such as psychoanalysis, gestalt psychology, Vienna Circle positivism, scientific management, Lysenko’s biology, and Nazi eugenics – all theories of varying, and dubious, validity.

Agar’s aim is ‘synthesis’: he wants “to look for patterns common [to] scientific projects across different disciplines and nations.” In this context he associates Anton Pavlov’s view that “A laboratory is a small world, a small corner of reality [in which] man labours at the task of knowing this reality in order correctly to predict what will happen … and to command it, if this is within our technical means” (quoted in the Introduction, p.4) with General Electric’s use of electronics research to develop the light bulb, citing it as evidence for his claim that scientists “solve the problems of working worlds.”

Pavlov, I note, said that science seeks to know reality. John Dewey agreed, in a statement cited by Agar himself, that “science is the method of intelligence at work in observation, in inquiry and experimental testing.” Note that Dewey’s definition of science ignores ‘working worlds’. Neither Pavlov nor Dewey, therefore, support Agar’s interpretation of science as “the natural study of the artificial,” and they speak even less of his opaque definition of science as “the making, manipulation, and contest of abstracted, simplified representatives of working world problems.” In fact, it is only because scientists have been successful in the pursuit of knowledge that their findings have been useful to people in ‘working worlds’ such as managers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, engineers, and so on. My point is simple: science can only solve working world problems to the extent that it advances knowledge. That is what Pavlov and Dewey were telling us, and what Agar seems to overlook. So the main problem with this book is that it conflates science with the practical projects and social interests of the working worlds whose problems the knowledge scientists attain helps to solve.

Agar defines ‘working worlds’ as “arenas of human projects that generate problems” that scientists tackle. But, one asks, do the different working worlds mentioned – the worlds of transportation, power, communication, farming, computers, the military, government, medicine, and commerce – have anything in common? And how do the different elements of a working world – funding sponsors, the social uses of science, and science’s application to technological development – affect each other? This is an important question, for while the social and technological applications of science presuppose that research produces knowledge, funding sponsorship doesn’t.

This concern raises yet another question; namely, are some kinds of working world more supportive of science than others? Is government funding more science-friendly than commercial funding, for instance? Do commercial, military or technological applications confirm research findings? In sum, do those who pay the science-piper tend to interfere with how he plays his tunes? While this study does show how wrong the conventional view that science is pure reason untainted by social interests and historical contexts actually is, Agar does not develop a clear conceptual framework that identifies and sorts the different aspects of working worlds and their connections with science. Nonetheless, his study does tend to suggest that, apart from Soviet and Nazi science, funding sponsors in fact tend to respect scientists’ autonomy. But, I note, the book neglects mentioning the notorious suppression of research findings unfavourable to their interests by tobacco and pharmaceutical firms, such as Canadian pharmaceutical firm Apotex, which sponsored part of Dr Nancy Olivieri’s research on a new drug therapy and then threatened to sue her if she published her concerns about its dangers.

Technologies are a different part of working worlds; but Agar does not make it clear that the pursuit of scientific knowledge differs in kind from its use in developing new technologies such as radio, TV, X-rays, radar, drugs, nuclear energy or weapons, computers or pesticides. His discussion of these technologies should have been subordinated to his focus on science. Such practical systems should also be distinguished from the technologies scientists use in their research, for example to enhance observation (microscopes, radio telescopes, etc); or to replicate natural processes in the laboratory (e.g. with chemicals). In addition, I note, the relationship between science and technology differs from that between science and social worlds, whether in terms of funding, the uses to which scientific knowledge is put, or the control of research projects. Agar does not consider these distinctions, how they affect the scientific pursuit of knowledge, or their impact on the solution of practical working world problems. In consequence, despite its length and detail, Jon Agar’s study of twentieth century sciences and their working world connections is, unfortunately, significantly flawed.

© Dr Vincent di Norcia 2012

Vincent di Norcia, PhD, is an ethics and sustainability author, consultant, and speaker living in Ontario.

Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, by Jon Agar, Polity Press, 2012. £30 hb, 587 pages; no index. ISBN: 978-0745634692

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