The Pennsylvania State University
Cover for the book Imperfect Oracle

Imperfect Oracle

The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science Theodore L. Brown
  • Copyright: 2009
  • Dimensions: 6 x 9
  • Page Count: 352 pages
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-03535-2
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-03536-9
“This book aims to provide a rich, overarching account of the authority of science in American society. It examines the nature of scientists’ cognitive and moral authority; the historical origins of science; its roles and limits in various spheres of society, including law, the courts, state policy, public culture, and religious life; the sources and conditions of scientific authority; and its conflicts with other sources of authority, such as common sense, religious conviction, and legal practices. Ted Brown makes a very significant contribution to the field of ’science studies.’ He succeeds in synthesizing a diverse set of scholarly insights from the literature in various fields and unifies (or reformulates) them into one powerful account of scientific authority that stands on its own. Imperfect Oracle provides a fresh and engaging perspective. The author creates a bridge between different disciplines by approaching issues like scientific testimony, evidence, and credibility through the work of philosophers, sociologists, public policy scientists, historians, and biographers, among others. The book is exceptionally well written, with clear, concise, lively, and well-balanced prose. The virtue of Imperfect Oracle is that it provides a more comprehensive and synoptic view of scientific authority than is otherwise available.”
“A very rewarding analysis of the status of science in modern times. . . . Highly recommended.”
“Theodore Brown is the ultimate academic all-rounder.”
“The path to intellectual eminence and authority has been peppered with difficulties. There have been breakthroughs and roadblocks, and Brown’s book discusses them in extremely rich detail. His book could become a valuable textbook or resource for a course on science and society.”

Science and its offshoot, technology, enter into the very fabric of our society in so many ways that we cannot imagine life without them. We are surrounded by crises and debates over climate change, stem-cell research, AIDS, evolutionary theory and “intelligent design,” the use of DNA in solving crimes, and many other issues. Society is virtually forced to follow our natural tendency, which is to give great weight to the opinions of scientific experts. How is it that these experts have come to acquire such authority, and just how far does their authority reach? Does specialized knowledge entitle scientists to moral authority as well? How does scientific authority actually function in our society, and what are the countervailing social forces (including those deriving from law, politics, and religion) with which it has to contend?

Theodore Brown seeks to answer such questions in this magisterial work of synthesis about the role of science in society. In Part I, he elucidates the concept of authority and its relation to autonomy, and then traces the historical growth of scientific authority and its place in contemporary American society. In Part II, he analyzes how scientific authority plays out in relation to other social domains, such as law, religion, government, and the public sphere.

Theodore L. Brown is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Founding Director Emeritus of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois. From 1980 to 1986, he served as Vice Chancellor for Research and Dean of the Graduate School there. He is co-author of the best-selling chemistry textbook Chemistry: The Central Science, now in its eleventh edition from Prentice Hall. Besides his scientific research publications, he is also the author of a previous study in the philosophy of science titled Making Truth: Metaphors in Science (2003) as well as Bridging Divides: The Origins of the Beckman Institute at Illinois (2009).



List of Abbreviations

Introduction 1

Part I Foundations

1. Authority and Autonomy

2. Historical Origins of Scientific Authority

3. American Science

4. Scientific Authority in Contemporary Society

Part II Science in Society

5. Science and the Courts

6. Science and Religion

7. Science and Government

8. Science and the Public

9. The Prospects for Scientific Authority



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