The Scientific Revolution

From the London Review of Books:

* For the great majority of people, believing in the truths of science is unavoidably an act of faith. Most of us neither witness the successful experiments nor would be able to understand them if we did. So we put an extraordinary amount of trust in things we know virtually nothing about…

* The rhetoric of science has, however, acquired such prestige since the 17th century that it has become difficult not to believe that through science the world is finally telling us what it’s really like. That if the world could speak for itself it would speak science. Indeed it can sometimes seem as if scientific descriptions are not made by people at all, especially when these descriptions involve accounts of our cosmic irrelevance. Science often suggests that the most brilliant thing about us is that we invented science. There is something ironic about such persuasive man-made accounts of our own unfreedom and redundancy. It is like God proving that God is dead.

* Science proves that science is true. In other words, scientific criteria of value dictate most of what we are supposed to take seriously, or believe in (or rather, put our money on). It is part of Steven Shapin’s point to explain how we have been prepared – taught, encouraged and sometimes coerced – to put so much of our trust in such things. And that trust is what is at issue. It’s not that Shapin is in any way anti-science: his interest is in what he calls the ‘pervasive stories’ we tend to be told about it. In his view there is no essence to the scientific revolution: what we now call science has always been – despite its will to consensus – the site of a multiplicity of competing social practices. When Shapin states in his Introduction, ‘I take it for granted that science is a historically situated and social activity and that it is to be understood in relation to the contexts in which it occurs,’ the italics are not to be quibbled with. It is the story of this distinction between the scientific and the social, between fact and value – and the fact that we talk in these terms at all – that Shapin tells so incisively.

* When Galileo assembled various eminent fellow practitioners of astronomy to view the moons of Jupiter through his telescope they were mostly disappointed. But when we learned to use such instruments at school, “we belonged to a culture that had already granted the reliability of these instruments (properly used), that had already decided for us what sorts of things authentically existed in the domains of the very distant … and that had provided structures of authority in which we could learn what to see (and what to disregard).”

* We can privilege what we say by claiming it comes from a superior source that we, or some of us, have unique access to – God, the Tradition, the Unconscious, Scientific Method.

“The more a body of knowledge is understood to be objective and disinterested, the more valuable it is as a tool in moral and political action. Conversely, the capacity of a body of knowledge to make valuable contributions to moral and political problems flows from an understanding that it was not produced and evaluated to further particular human interests.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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