Brett Williams's Reviews > Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It

Science Wars by Steven L. Goldman
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

it was amazing

Goldman is magnificent. His breadth and depth of knowledge, his pace, speech cadence (even his accent), integrated with morsels of insight and humor make this lecture series fun, occasionally hilarious, and always riveting. Take notes, pause the iPod, and make sure you get it, as each lecture builds on the last and concepts can be subtle, turning on a word or line that makes all the difference. This topic is of massive current importance.

The story told is focused on the historical development of scientific knowledge over the last 400 years as an introduction to “knowledge” of any kind since Plato and those remarkable Greeks. That is, what do we “really” know, and how do we know it? This has become a question of paramount importance for a variety of reasons: Since the mind-bending surprises of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics early in the last century confounded reality and experience; since radicalized byproducts of the Sixties giving birth to inanities of Postmodernism on the Left influencing our university humanities departments; since organization and muscular financing of Creationists (Intelligent Design, “Critical Analysis,” etc.) on the Right; and given a widespread failure of Western education, especially in the United States. For Goldman, attacks on science from the Postmodern Left (gunning for objectivity and universal truths), and Creationists on the Right (teaching religion in science class) are due to ambivalent faults in the concept of knowledge itself. Is our view of nature what nature “really” is, or is what we know simply a convenient model? If the later, knowledge can seem uncertain, so what we thought we “knew” we didn’t know, and yet somehow, all those devices still work just as scientific knowledge designed. Political ramifications of this are apparent. Who can claim to know truth if “even science doesn’t know.” Anything goes, and facts have “alternative facts.” Facts become mere opinion as political utility unless they’re “our facts,” also a political service. The costs come in our inability to decipher science from junk science, politics, entertainment, and conspiracy gibberish. The ultimate price of fostered ambiguity—the passport to successful lies—is civilization’s failure.

Throughout Goldman’s survey, there can, at times, seem too much made of evolving theories in a Thomas Kuhnian fashion of replacement rather than refinement. Differences between phases of theoretical development are emphasized rather than their similarities. This leads to the all-or-nothing opinion that incomplete is incorrect, requiring every discipline be born fully-grown with no opportunity for discovery, where expanding the initial idea is indictment rather than affirmation. Granted, some hypotheses deserve to be abandoned (and frequently are), but substantiated ideas may simply be graduating from adolescence, not something entirely new. Einstein did not replace Newton used more now than ever. While Goldman is far from either a Postmodernist or Creationist (occasionally you’ll wonder because he so convincingly articulates each position), this all-or-nothing perspective might be seen as a tool for both sides against science and reason.

Sometimes Goldman overstates matters, perhaps to make a point. For example, Kepler discovered elliptical orbits from Brahe’s data when only perfect heavenly circles were “believed” possible. But there was insufficient resolution to see ellipses in that data. Thus Kepler violated one particular aspect of the scientific method. Or was it influenced by insight? Ellipses are not so different from circles after all. It’s not as though Kepler said, “Aha! Proof of string theory and eleven dimensions!”

Goldman’s inspection of debates between pragmatists and positivists reveals little-known battles between giants and friends like Einstein and Bohr. His chronicling of this struggle among scientists to rectify the basis for certain knowledge (almost nothing comes from modern philosophers) produces some exciting turns, tips off the listener to unheard of great minds (Michael Polanyi), and does so with the thrill and humor of a well-written novel.

Tremendous series. Again, my highest kudos for Goldman. I hope, like Adam, Goldman lives to a ripe old 930 years so we might gain many more of these gems from him.
2 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Science Wars.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

May 16, 2008 – Started Reading
June 29, 2008 – Finished Reading
April 29, 2020 – Shelved

No comments have been added yet.