What I’m Reading: The Workshop and the World

The Workshop and the World, by Robert P. Crease, is two books in one: a collection of biographies of important thinkers in history who contributed to what he terms the “scientific workshop,” by which he means the overall structure and authority of the scientific establishment, and a passionate but (I think) ultimately frustrating and unsuccessful polemic against what Crease calls science denial.

The two goals of the book are really intertwined. Crease believes that we live in an age of increasing skepticism of science, where the respect for science that existed only a generation or two ago is diminished, and he hopes that an exploration of how that scientific authority was built up in the first place might provide clues for arresting the decline. He starts with an account of the life of Francis Bacon, who in the early 17th century was the first to recognize the potential improvements to human well-being that could be made by systematic investment in science. He continues through the centuries to Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who after World War II investigated why the rise of totalitarian ideologies like Nazism and Communism had been possible, and concluded it was due to several factors that prevented free inquiry and which, in Crease’s view, tie together many of the themes of the earlier figures.

I think the biographies and assessments of the ten historical figures are the main strength and source of interest of the book. Of course I’d heard of, say, Galileo Galilei and Max Weber, before reading this book, but I didn’t actually know much about their lives or what events informed their thinking. Indeed, of the ten figures, the only one I knew much about was Mary Shelley, and that was due to a personal interest I’ve long had in her book, Frankenstein. Other biographies besides those I’ve already mentioned include Rene Descartes, Giambattista Vico, Auguste Comte, Kemal Ataturk, and Edmund Husserl.

Perhaps the most interesting of the biographies to me was Auguste Comte, a rather megamaniacal 19th century Frenchman who tried to found a new religion of science. This religion, which he termed Positivism, apparently played a major role in spreading scientific thinking in his time. It seems odd I hadn’t heard much of him, but I wonder if his influence might have been greater in Latin nations–after all, Brazil adopted the motto of Positivism–“Order and Progress”–for its own.

While the biographical sketches were by far the better part of the book, as the information was fascinating on its own terms, his arguments against science denialism, and the lessons we can learn from these figures in combating it, were far weaker.

For one, I’m not sure we do live in an age of “crumbling scientific authority,” as he puts it at one point. It seems to me that in the modern world, we’re surrounded by scientific advancements and technology and that the vast majority of people accept these without a thought, much less skepticism. There are few movements that reject the authority of science as a whole, as the Catholic church rejected Galileo’s finding that the Earth rotates around the sun in the 17th century (and as Crease points out, even that was hardly the unanimous opinion of all church leaders). Maybe the Amish? (Although even the Amish accept modern medical treatments.)

Those groups that do reject certain aspects of scientific authority–say, Christian fundamentalists who don’t believe in evolution, or those who refuse vaccinations–are fringe minorities, able sometimes to partly influence policy in only a handful of US states by requiring that high school science teachers teach “intelligent design” alongside evolution (in the case of the fundamentalists), or creating small pockets of students vulnerable to already-conquered diseases in certain vaccine-skeptical upscale California suburbs or Hasidic Jewish communities in New York.

These cases are notable, but is it necessary that 100 percent of people agree with everyone else or the “scientific workshop” is threatened? Crease never really makes a good case that scientific authority is “crumbling” or even diminishing in any significant way from previous generations. I do think it most likely that scientific authority was it its height in the 1950s and 60s, and has diminished a bit since then, though still remaining at a fairly high level. Crease never even makes the case, though. Maybe some survey results? It’s not enough just to cite certain cases where people now don’t agree with the scientific consensus and leave it at that.

One aspect of the book that I believe definitely undercuts Crease’s thesis is that the vast majority of cases of science denialism he cites are climate change skeptics. For one thing, it gives him the appearance of leftward bias in a book that presents itself as a neutral exploration. For instance, I only found one passing mention of anti-nuclear power activism and skepticism of genetically-modified crops. The genetically-modified crops issue, in particular, would seem to be the perfect argument for Crease–there is absolutely no scientific evidence that genetically-modified crops are harmful in any way, yet the European Union has banned them on spurious grounds. Talk about a blow against scientific authority! But one gets the impression that because these two issues tend to be supported by right-wingers and its primarily those on the left who oppose them, Crease hardly considers them.

Moreover, I’m not sure that climate denialism is exactly the same as scientific denialism, and Crease takes this on in a pretty simplistic way, putting all those who are skeptical of climate change in the same basket. Of course, there are some who don’t believe in the scientific authority of climate scientists, and will never be convinced–but they don’t account for everybody who are termed climate skeptics. There are many, like Danish author Bjorn Somberg, who do accept the scientific consensus that global climate change is happening, but simply think it would be more cost-effective to deal with the consequences as they arise, rather than try to stop climate change altogether. And there are also many who believe, I think with some justification, that climate change may be real, but the climate change movement has been hijacked by worst-case-scenario thinkers, who for decades have predicted a far bleaker and more extreme future than has actually occurred.

I don’t wish to relitigate the entire climate change debate here, as that’s neither my purpose nor Crease’s. My point is simply that Crease doesn’t serve his overall argument well by dwelling so much on this one particularly fraught issue. In fact, it sometimes gives the impression that his book is actually a climate change argument in disguise, with the biographies of the various thinkers a pretext for Crease’s real concern. I don’t think this is actually the case! But by focusing so much on this one issue, Crease sabotages his actual thesis.

I can’t recommend this book generally, which is a shame, because his biographies of the ten thinkers and description of how they built up the “scientific workshop” over centuries is really interesting and worthwhile reading. But throughout, these accounts are intertwined with an argument that scientific authority is crumbling in the modern day, which is never adequately proved, and with frequent references to climate change skepticism that distract from, rather than support, Crease’s overall thesis. This book might be an informative read, however, for those readers who are willing to overlook the failed argument to get at the embedded biographies.

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