Margaret A. Strom (ed.), Societal Issues: Scientific Viewpoints. New York: American Institute of Physics, 1987. US$41.25 (hb), US$31.25 (pb).

(A review published in Metascience, volume 7, number 2, 1989, pp. 102-104. Pdf of review)

Though not its intended purpose, this volume provides a telling picture of the worldview of elite United States scientists. The editor, who taught writing to engineers and scientists, sought a collection of readings on social issues to trigger the thinking and writing of the students. Finding none suitable, she invited numerous leading scientists and engineers to submit pieces for this anthology on social issues.

So here are some 46 scientist authors, mostly in their role as socially concerned intellectuals and citizens. Their contributions span a range of topics from education to overpopulation. Nuclear war is a favourite focus, but also covered are famine in the Third World, space travel, professional ethics, energy policy, and reflections on the scientific life. The authors are mostly senior male scientists, including 12 Nobel Prize winners. About two-thirds of the writings have been published before, in a variety of journals, and many others were speeches. There are also some sermons and poems.

What will science students learn from this collection of earnest writings by top scientists? The unspoken messages are mostly predictable to metascientists, but worth recounting.

Most obviously, the collection is dominated by engineers and natural scientists. Apparently a "scientific viewpoint" on a "societal issue" is the view of someone who has achieved fame in the natural sciences. Social scientists are conspicuous by their absence. Furthermore, hardly a single author has taken the trouble to examine what social scientists might say about social issues. (Interestingly, the humanities are treated more favourably, with a number of contributors dropping names of classic thinkers and supporting education in the humanities.)

The attitude seems to be that if one can succeed at solving scientific problems, one can use the same techniques of 'critical thinking' to tackle social problems. This is apparent in the many pieces on nuclear war, where a 'logical' analysis of the nuclear arms race, deterrence and so forth is the norm. Analyses by scientists such as Victor Weisskopf, Hans Bethe and Andrei Sakharov follow a standard set of assumptions: nations are unitary actors, there are two sides, and national military policies should operate on the basis of logic. There is hardly a mention of peace movements. Clearly, these writers, while certainly sincerely concerned about the problem of nuclear war, are caught up in using the orthodox conceptual tools of nuclear strategists. That there might be other types of analysis is not mentioned.

This volume also appears to testify to the failure of the metascientific community to have any impact on the thinking of leading United States scientists. An exception is Alvin Weinberg, who cites Pinch and Bijker on "The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts" - but only to dismiss such analysis as a "caricature of science". Andre Cournand cites Stephen Brush's "Should the History of Science be Rated X?" - again to dismiss it.

The lack of any critical dimension is consistent. For example, there is a long article by Jay Forrester on world modelling, but nothing about the now well-known limitations of such modelling. Of greater concern is the fact that not a single author hints that one's own role and experiences as a scientist might influence one's attitudes towards science and social problems.

Another message of this book is that the United States is the only country in the world that counts. Foreign viewpoints and foreign authors are again conspicuous by their absence. This parochialism is unfortunately typical of a great deal of US intellectual work. The exception is Andrei Sakharov, who has a special section. Still, he seems to be an honorary American, and certainly his view of the world is little different from others included here.

Needless to say, the 'standard' view of science, as something objective and useful for humanity if applied correctly, predominates. But the collection is quite varied, and for every generalisation above there are exceptions. A few of the articles are politically sophisticated and avoid scientism.

For metascientists, one message of this book may be that more effort is needed to communicate in ways and in arenas which get through to scientists and science students in the United States. Articles published in Science or Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, on contemporary social issues or just on the nature of science, can be very influential. The task of breaking into such journals is formidable if one is not a (famous) scientist, does not accept the standard view of science, and is outside the United States. The effort may be worthwhile nevertheless.


Brian Martin is Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong.

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