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Science In A Democratic Society by Philip Kitcher

01/11/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Science In A Democratic Society in the USA - or Buy Science In A Democratic Society in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 270 page indexed hardback. Price: $28.00 (US), GBP 24.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61614-407-4).

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I haven’t encountered Philip Kitcher’s earlier books but from the write-up on the inside cover, his pet subject is also discussed here ie how can science function in a democratic society. He also spends a lot of time laying out the origins of his arguments in great verbiage which I hope isn’t seen as a means to brow-beat you into his way of thinking, Personally, I think I would have started off with showing that science not doinh particularly well in an undemocratic society.

His strongest point is that for science to flourish it needs open co-operation from various people. I would also have thought that not being oppressed by religious factions has probably been the biggest bane in any scientist’s lives before their knowledge was implemented.

I’m less sure about his view that democracy allows unlimited scientific research, whether in his native America of even this side of the pond. A lot of scientific research is funded by private companies who will want a return within a defined period. Even university research projects have to have some sort of defined period for completion. Yes, there are independent research facilities out there but even these are grant dependent.

His thoughts on maverick thinkers in science do make sense in terms of not taking conventional ways with information but he doesn’t address the problem of whether or not they will be heard or considered cranky. Again, it would have made interesting thought had he compared such things to non-democratic countries and whether scientists there came up with any radical developments by being able to do what they thought was right rather than what their country’s leaders allowed them to do. Considering that the USSR had a tendency to lock up radical scientists as dissidents would have spoken for itself.

I’d like to know where he got his information about people in the UK not believing in evolution though, especially as so many of us over here find it comical that the USA has so many creationists. I hardly think looking at a single poll by a single newspaper is conclusive and without any biasness. Nor is it likely that we are less likely to teach creationism over evolution as some schools are swaying stateside.

I came away from this book with many reservations. Kitcher writes well and at length, too much length which tends to hide what I think he is trying to say. That, unfortunately is a pity because I came away from this book no wiser than when I started. I suspect the target audience is more the academics than the general reader. My main comment about showing the differences between science in democratic and non-democratic societies might have been covered in one of his earlier books which I haven’t seen but you would have thought that some element of this would have been in a book such as this. Living in a democratic society we either know what is going on or we don’t. Showing how science can be oppressed would at least show how lucky we are. Maybe I’m a bit too much of a maverick.

GF Willmetts

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