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REVIEW - Muddling Through: Pursuing Science and Truths in the Twenty-First Century by Herbert J. Bernstein, Mike Fortun.
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Editorial Reviews
Does science discover truths or create them? Does dioxin cause cancer or not? Is corporate-sponsored research valid or not? Although these questions reflect the way we're used to thinking, maybe they're not the best way to approach science and its place in our culture. Physicist Herbert J. Bernstein and science historian Mike Fortun, both of the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies (ISIS), suggest a third way of seeing, beyond taking one side or another, in Muddling Through: Pursuing Science and Truths in the 21st Century. While they deal with weighty issues and encourage us to completely rethink our beliefs about science and truth, they do so with such grace and humor that we follow with ease discussions of toxic-waste disposal, the Human Genome Project, and retooling our language to better fit the way science is actually done.

As anyone who has done science knows, the ideal flowchart from observation to hypothesis to experiment to theory--with each step shielded from outside, irrational influences--is at best only vaguely descriptive of the work. Fortun and Bernstein want us not to worry too much about that, to accept science for what it is and what it does, and to move on, to "muddle through," to accept that today's best answer will probably be tomorrow's second-best. That's harder than it looks, as we've got centuries of either/or thinking to undo, but the authors are confident that we can manage our anxieties and learn to cope with less than absolute truth. They might be right. --Rob Lightner

Book Description

Messy. Clumsy. Volatile. Exciting. These words are not often associated with the sciences, which for most people still connote exactitude, elegance, reliability, and a rather plodding certainty. But the real story is something quite different. The sciences are less about the ability to know and to control than they are about the unleashing of new forces, new capacities for changing the world. The sciences as practiced exist not in some pristine world of "objectivity," but in what Mike Fortun and Herb Bernstein call "the muddled middle."

This book explores the way science makes sense of the world and how the world makes sense of science. It is also about politics and culture-how these forces shape the sciences and are shaped by it in turn. Think of Muddling Through as the basic text for a new kind of literacy project, a project to re-imagine the sciences as complex operations of language, action, and thought-as attempts, trials, limited experiments.

The sciences provide us with the images and metaphors we apply to myriad situations and phenomena, and create the blueprints we use to make and legitimate crucial social decisions. If democracies are to meet the challenge of the ever more critical world-making role of the sciences, they must fundamentally shift their attention and their attitudes. The quest for social or political mastery of the sciences will have to end; the new journey will begin with a trip to the muddled middle.

Travel, then, with historian Fortun and physicist Bernstein from the workshops of fifteenth-century England to a present-day quantum physics laboratory. Stop at a military toxic waste dump, a courtroom, a colony of baboons. Along the way you might shed your faith in pure inquiry, see the limits of value-free rationality, and breathe the fresh air of change.

Reader Reviews

Science a messy, but great business!, May 31, 2000 Reviewer: Reader in Aspen from Aspen, CO
The March 2000 Physics World reviewer said it better than I EVER could: " Mike Fortun and Herbert Bernstein's book is a masterpiece -- a particularly intelligent, useful and unusual book. It will constitute, I strongly believe, a solid mooring point to help us face the challenges and questions -- scientific, philosophical and political -- that the new century is forcing on us. The book is also refined and subtle enough to help us to avoid (and hopefully to forget) the crude, sterile and empty confrontation, known as the "science wars", that have raged over the last few years. This book must be read, reread and reflected on by everybody -- for by arguing that science is a complex and messy business, the authors could have a major effect on how we think about science, about science as knowledge, and about science and politics.

Muddling Through is divided into two main parts. The first deals with the question that has so agitated and divided academia recently -- namely, what is science and how does it work? The second part describes the authors' own experiences of various social debates about science.

In academic terms -- I mean for scientists and also for historians and philosophers -- this is a good and reliable book. Mike Fortun is a historian who is pretty familiar with today's science, while Herbert Bernstein is a quantum physicist who has taken seriously the task of studying what has been published by historians, philosophers and sociologists about scientific knowledge and its place in contemporary society.

However, the book is important not only because it is so deeply informed and of the highest quality, but also because it is so decisive in political and social matters. More to the point: it is decisive because it is both a "theoretical" book -- dealing with ideas and words -- and a book that relies on field work, particularly on militant action through the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies. The institute, which is led by the two authors, tries to act as a mediator when conflicts or tensions arise in society around science and technology.

Fortun and Bernstein view their ideas, concepts and ways of describing science not as mere words to throw back and forth in debate, but as tools to help them (and society) cope pragmatically with technology, and vice versa. They view their intellectual work as part and parcel of a larger enterprise of helping scientists to interact with society, and so try hard to be precise and to pay attention to everybody's wordings, claims and motivations. Every word and nuance matters tremendously.

In the first part of the book, the authors illustrate through different approaches -- and without believing that there can be a unique, definitive and authoritarian answer -- what it means when scientists practise "rationality", and what "experimenting" and "articulating" a proof imply. Using a series of metaphors to help the reader appreciate the many different aspects of experimentation, they suggest methods and tools that we can use to keep complexity at the forefront of scientific inquiry. For example, when considering the work done by Galileo, Darwin or the agricultural geneticists, they suggest graphical ways of representing the intricacies of theoretical and social practices. They suggest how one should judge results, and how to read and make sense of someone else's scientific claims. And they highlight the social connections and the cultural patterns that contribute to the making of science.

In the second, more novel, part of the book, the authors describe the role they have played in various scientific controversies, such as the decontamination of toxic wastes at military bases and current research into "quantum teleportation". Their aim is to help people talk to each other in situations where dialogue has previously seemed impossible. They also try to find common languages, presenting themselves as "translators" who allow scientists, business leaders, military engineers, politicians and laypeople to break out of deadlock.

Experts themselves, they try to share their knowledge and to have it reappropriated by as many people as possible. They refuse to simply assert truths dogmatically: rather, they try to "muddle through" with others, mobilizing all kinds of possible scientific knowledge, rationality and goodwill to support their arguments. Looking for what they call the "excluded middle" -- for example by refusing to stick to the entrenched positions in the "science wars" -- they value pluralism and responsibility, cultivating a demand for precision but also seeking unusual and new "assemblages" (of theoretical and practical positions, and of people and institutions).

Over and over again they emphasize the importance of science -- but with two caveats. The first is to be "a responsible hole-ist" -- in other words, to not always insist on being a reductionist. The second is: "Keep it complicated, stupid!" This comment refers to what historians often say about history and social sciences: namely, why should we make things simple (or even simplistic) when they are in fact complicated? Which, in the end, makes a lot of a difference."

Great book, don't miss it if you love (or hate) science!, January 7, 1999 Reviewer: A reader from Altoona, PA
This book was GREAT! One of the BEST books about science ever written. I found this book to be terrific!!! It may be the best book that I have ever read.


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