Advertisement

No Radical Excitement Offered Here

Radical Science Essays. Les Levidow, ed. Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1986. 240 pp. $29.95 HB, $9.95 PB. Science maintains, quite admirably I believe, an ethic of absolute impartiality and objectivity. To what degree this ideal is approachable is another matter, one. often sidestepped by practicing researchers, but of great concern to those observers of science troubled by the political implications of technological innovation and the public impact of sociological or b

By | February 23, 1987

Radical Science Essays. Les Levidow, ed. Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1986. 240 pp. $29.95 HB, $9.95 PB.


Science maintains, quite admirably I believe, an ethic of absolute impartiality and objectivity. To what degree this ideal is approachable is another matter, one. often sidestepped by practicing researchers, but of great concern to those observers of science troubled by the political implications of technological innovation and the public impact of sociological or biological research. Does a particular line of inquiry serve the general good, or does it merely legitimize narrow class interests? Are there some questions that science had best not ask? Issues of this sort came to the fore, not for the first time, in the turbulent 1960s, spawning a number of organizations and publications, such as the American Science for the People, and the British Radical Science Journal. The latter is the source of most of these essays, drawn from the issues of the early and mid-1970s.

Having come of age in the same period, more comfortable with picket lines than Laffer curves, I looked forward to a change from the Whiggish rhetoric of the Reagan/Thatcher era toward a freewheeling critique of science and society. Yet this book suffers from a stodginess all its own. Most of the essays, whether dealing with the social dynamics of biology labs or the intellectual origins of physics, seem intent on grappling only with the most hoary, and to my mind the least interesting, questions of Marxist analysis: how can this or that field of study be shown to be an expression of the prevailing modes of exchange and production? How can this or that research situation be cast as a struggle between exploiters and exploited?

Fitting every situation into the Procrustean bed of a standard debating scheme seems at best tedious, at worst, self-deceiving. The editors themselves seem to admit something of the sort in an introduction to a piece on Galileo by the German social theorist Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who insists on seeing the law of inertia as a reflection of 15th century commodity exchange structures. Though they are indined to regard this as academic overkill, like giving a psychoanalytic reading of a "No Parking" sign, the editors go along with the effort: "An account which appears not to call for further explanatory factors may demand them for Marxist reasons, as a condition of replacing a bourgeois academic level of understanding by a political level." This is a formula for polemic, not reasoned argumentation, and it has the musty flavor of a 19th century political pamphlet.

The most provocative pieces in this short volume deal not with matters of abstract theory, but of concrete analysis of specific sciences, for example Jack Stauder's brief history of the role of anthropology in the legitimizing of Western colonialism and Charlie Clutterbuck's essay on occupational hazards in the plastics industry. Judging from a listing of other Radical Science issues in the back of this volume, there would have been a number of similarly interesting essays that were not selected for inclusion—on "Star Wars," science fiction, sociobiology and the like. As it stands, this collection seems more conservative than radical in its doctrinaire vision of the scientific enterprise.

Marschall, a contributing editor of The Sciences, is a visiting scientist
at the Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, MA 02138.

Advertisement

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Advertisement
Life Technologies