Imperfect Oracle

Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science

Theodore L. Brown
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Imperfect Oracle
    Book Description:

    Science and its offshoot, technology, enter into the very fabric of our society in so many ways that we cannot imagine life without them. We are surrounded by crises and debates over climate change, stem-cell research, AIDS, evolutionary theory and “intelligent design,” the use of DNA in solving crimes, and many other issues. Society is virtually forced to follow our natural tendency, which is to give great weight to the opinions of scientific experts. How is it that these experts have come to acquire such authority, and just how far does their authority reach? Does specialized knowledge entitle scientists to moral authority as well? How does scientific authority actually function in our society, and what are the countervailing social forces (including those deriving from law, politics, and religion) with which it has to contend? Theodore Brown seeks to answer such questions in this magisterial work of synthesis about the role of science in society. In Part I, he elucidates the concept of authority and its relation to autonomy, and then traces the historical growth of scientific authority and its place in contemporary American society. In Part II, he analyzes how scientific authority plays out in relation to other social domains, such as law, religion, government, and the public sphere.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05507-7
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-16)

    The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, founded by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld in 1992, is a nonprofit legal clinic and criminal justice resource center devoted to exonerating those wrongfully convicted. At its Web site one can find a color photo of Eddie Joe Lloyd, an African American man of early middle age. Eddie’s skin is the color of caramel; his hair, worn very short, appears to be gray. He is dressed in a white shirt, tie, and dark suit. He’s a nice-looking man, wearing what seems to be a...

      (pp. 19-37)

      Before anything significant can be said about the authority or moral authority of science, we need to be clear on what these words denote. There are several types of authority. Joseph Raz, in his introduction to the 1990 volumeAuthority, writes: “An authority on medieval coins, or on Chinese eleventh-century porcelain, or on quantum mechanics, or on aerodynamic properties of some new materials: these are all people who are expert in their fields, i.e., who are good at stating how things are. Their judgement is a particularly reliable guide as to how things are, independently of that judgement” (2). He...

      (pp. 38-66)

      The encounters with science that occur in the course of people’s everyday lives shape their appraisals of science andhow it fits into society. They also ultimately establish how much and what kinds of authority science can exercise. But science’s place in contemporary society is also the product of historical development. To better understand the present relationships of science to society, it helps to know how things came to be the way they are. The entity that we think of asscience does not have such a long history: perhaps four hundred years with respect to some of its aspects, much less...

      (pp. 67-92)

      In every nation, region, or culturally identifiable society, the contemporary roles of science owe a great deal to the particulars of history and culture. For example, the capacity of science to exercise epistemic or moral authority is vastly different in a Muslim nation such as Pakistan or Egypt than in a Western nation such as Germany or England. This book is primarily about the exercise of epistemic and moral authority by science in the United States. It makes sense for me to limit the scope in this way because, in the first place, American science and culture is what I...

      (pp. 93-122)

      Our concern in this book is mainly with the authority of science in society at large, but authority also operates within the scientific community. In either case, reputation counts for a great deal. The authority with which a scientist makes a case for a controversial position ultimately rests on his standing in the scientific community. The weight of scientific evidence he presents is of course important, but because matters of evidence are often in dispute, the esteem in which ascientist is held is also important, especially when the claims made are novel or contentious. The scientific career of J. Robin...

      (pp. 125-165)

      Because so much of what constitutes the modern world derives from science and technology, it is inevitable that considerations of science and its outcomes are interwoven into nearly every important domain of society: art, law, religion, economics, politics, and government. This chapter is about the ways in which scientific authority is exercised in law, and the special conditions that limit its influence there. Sheila Jasanoff explains why the relationship between science and law is so important:

      Law and science are two of the most important sources of authority for modern governments. Perhaps nowhere is this statement more transparently true than...

      (pp. 166-207)

      The epistemic and moral authority of science in American society are more vigorously and publicly challenged through its conflicts with religion than with any other sector of society. Religion and science are frequently seen to be in dramatic opposition. Consider, for example, the contentious matter of teaching evolution in public schools; restrictions on the uses of pluripotent (“embryonic”) stem cells for biomedical research; contested policies regarding the use of government funds to provide contraceptives or birth control information; and attempts to limit funding for aids research. In all these instances, arguments based on science stand on one side and those...

      (pp. 208-243)

      This chapter is about the ways in which science exercises epistemic and moral authority in the affairs of government, and how governmental policies and actions in turn constrain the scope and autonomy of science. It is in some sense a continuation of the theme of chapter 3, which dealt with American science. Much has been written about the roles and status of science in the federal government over the past half century and more. I will not attempt to reprise this literature. Our concern is with the particular question of the limits of the exercise of authority by science in...

      (pp. 244-269)

      The scientific discoveries of the past few hundred years have brought with them new, radically different understandings of both the physical world and our human nature. Galileo added experimental studies of the moon, Jupiter, and comets to Copernicus’s model, and in the process made the new heliocentric universe seem much more vast than the old one. Harvey revealed a beautifully complex system for circulation of the blood, and in doing so gave new impetus to the idea that many mysteries lay hidden from sight within the body. The complex chemical nature of the world came into focus through the work...

      (pp. 270-294)

      I have claimed in this book that it is possible to discern two kinds of authority for science. One of these is expert, or epistemic, authority: the capacity to convincingly speak about features of the natural world. The second is moral authority: the license to argue convincingly about how the world should be. To properly understand science’s roles in society, we need to distinguish between these two forms of authority, and at the same time recognize their interdependence. Related to the concepts of expert and moral authority is that of autonomy, the capacity for self-determination. For example, the autonomy of...

    (pp. 295-316)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 317-334)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 335-335)