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Imperfect Oracle

The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science

Theodore L. Brown


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Imperfect Oracle

The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science

Theodore L. Brown

“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.”


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  • Table of Contents
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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.

“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.”

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




The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, founded by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld in 1992, is a nonprofit legal clinic and criminal justice resource center devoted to exonerating those wrongfully convicted. At its Web site one can find a color photo of Eddie Joe Lloyd, an African American man of early middle age. Eddie’s skin is the color of caramel; his hair, worn very short, appears to be gray. He is dressed in a white shirt, tie, and dark suit. He’s a nice-looking man, wearing what seems to be a rather forced smile.

Eddie Joe Lloyd was convicted in 1984 of the brutal murder of a sixteen-year-old girl in Detroit, Michigan. While in a hospital as a mental patient, Lloyd wrote to the police suggesting how to solve various open murder cases. The police interviewed him in the hospital, and in the course of their interrogations, they allowed him to believe that by confessing to the murder of the sixteen-year-old and being arrested, he would help them “smoke out” the real perpetrator. They provided Lloyd with details of the crime, including such matters as what clothing and jewelry she was wearing. Lloyd then signed a written confession and gave a tape-recorded statement. He was put on trial and convicted of the murder after less than an hour of jury deliberation. Against the advice of his defense attorney, he refused to plead mental incompetence. The sentencing judge, Leonard Townsend, complained that he could only sentence Lloyd to life imprisonment rather than hanging; Michigan’s repeal of the death penalty prevented the judge from imposing the sentence he thought appropriate. After exhausting all his appeal possibilities while in prison, Lloyd contacted the Innocence Project. Most of the Project’s clients are poor and largely forgotten, and they have used up all their normal avenues of legal appeal. In Lloyd’s case, Project students searched for years to uncover materials that could form the basis of a convincing DNA test. Eventually, DNA profiles from several different items of evidence from the crime scene matched one another and excluded Eddie Joe Lloyd. The Innocence Project was joined by the Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney’s office and the Detroit Police Department in filing a motion to vacate Lloyd’s conviction. In 2002, after serving seventeen years in prison, Lloyd became the 110th person in the United States to be exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing.

Faculty and students at the Cardozo School of Law, the Northwestern University School of Law, and institutions elsewhere throughout the nation have helped bring about more than 216 post-conviction exonerations in the United States. (You can learn the latest number at the Innocence Project Web site: In the process, they have prompted a reevaluation of the death penalty in light of the unacceptably high incidence of wrongful convictions. It is a great story of injustices righted; it is also quite relevant to the theme of this book. Consider this: any jurist or judge who votes to consign an accused to execution or life imprisonment must surely have a strong, virtually unshakable belief in that person’s guilt. Yet a laboratory scientist, armed with a few projection slides, can overturn the aggregate of those beliefs in a few minutes of presentation. How can tests run on biological samples taken from the crime scene, the victims, and the accused have the power to change minds in a matter on which belief must have been fixed so powerfully?

It is as though an unimpeachable witness had come forward to attest that the accused was somewhere else at the time of the crime, perhaps even providing corroborating evidence of his presence there. But what does it take for a witness to be unimpeachable? She must have a character widely recognized as beyond reproach, a proven record of honesty, trustworthiness, and sound judgment. Further, the witness must have no direct interest in the outcome, other than to see justice done. The mother of the accused will not do, but someone in contact with the accused at the time of the crime—such as a bank loan officer, someone interviewing the accused for a job, or a police officer who might have been handing out a traffic ticket to the accused at a distant location—would all potentially qualify. In a similar way, DNA testing serves as the unimpeachable witness.

One can hope to judge the qualities that might make a person an unimpeachable witness, and put her relationship to the accused into perspective. But what sort of informed judgment can someone who is nonexpert in the science that underlies DNA testing form about the assertion that the laboratory results show—not just hint at, but show unequivocally—that the DNA taken from the crime scene and the accused are not the same stuff? For nearly everyone, including the judge or jury who must decide on the evidence, the answer is, virtually none.

To be sure, the slides show clearly that the little bars of darkness derived from the samples do not line up with those derived from the accused. Of course, there is a discourse on how the samples were obtained and treated to get to the slide materials. But people in general really do not know what DNA is at a molecular level, nor do they have any clear idea of the theory of DNA, how it comes to be in the materials gathered, or how the samples give rise to the analyzed pictures. Society simply takes the word of scientists for all that—it accepts science’s authority.

This book is about the authority of science, and about other matters related to that core idea, such as autonomy and moral authority. The story with which I have begun is a simple illustration of science exercising authority. In this case, it is acting as our hypothetical unimpeachable witness. What science declares to be the case, just as what an unimpeachable witness testifies, is taken to be true and relevant to the matter at hand. But our example does nothing to clarify how science can exert such an authority. Why is it that society accepts a conclusion based on a laboratory test even though the science that underlies that conclusion is clouded in mystery to all but a few?

Acceptance does not happen automatically; it has to be somehow earned, not just for science in general, but in any particular instance. In the early years of courtroom DNA application, opponents challenged the results as unreliable, as happened in the famous O. J. Simpson trial, and juries could be convinced that the evidence was unreliable. Although DNA evidence can be, and often is, challenged on the grounds that the means for collecting and processing the samples were faulty, that is quite different from challenging the science on which the test is based. Just as other unimpeachable witnesses need to establish their qualities of reliability, so science must convince judges and juries that its methods are reliable, statistically sound, and productive of true conclusions. My concern is, in part, how that process of establishing credibility takes place.

There are many other instances in which science exerts authority in society’s affairs. For example, think of the standards of weight and measurement. With the passage of time, standards for length, mass, time, and other quantities have become extremely precise and thoroughly grounded in sophisticated methodologies. The modern world is absolutely dependent on these standards, which have been set by a general agreement according to the advice of science. Or think of the innumerable tests, vaccines, and treatments employed in modern medicine, nearly all accepted without question as safe and effective: people by the millions take annual flu shots or consume cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Some scientifically validated procedures will generally be subject to vigorous challenge when the results could determine criminal guilt or innocence. The measurement of blood alcohol level in a driver suspected to be drunk provides an example. The breathalyzer test used by law enforcement officers in the field has an inherent uncertainty, which may call into question whether the defendant was in fact over the legal limit of blood alcohol content. For this reason, the defendant may ask for a more accurate test, based on a blood sample. This test, however, is also subject to errors of various kinds, such as procedural errors or improperly calibrated equipment. The challenge is not primarily to the veracity of the underlying science, but rather to the details of how the test is conducted. It is a matter of law that a particular level of blood alcohol, set by each state, is taken to represent legal intoxication. The appropriate level set into law is judged with reference to studies of performance impairments of human subjects as a function of blood alcohol content. The underlying idea behind the test and the standards set for it are based on scientific principles and experimental results. Society at large accepts them on the grounds of scientific authority.

In some instances a minority may view certain procedures and practices as grounded in faulty science (for example, fluoridation of public water systems, or an Environmental Protection Agency determination of the allowable level of a pollutant in a water supply). Nonetheless, while in specific cases there may be demurrals regarding particular widespread rules and practices, science exerts enormous influence on many important aspects of modern society. In so doing, it exercises a form of authority, even though it may go unnoticed or taken for granted.

Why a Book About the Authority of Science?

It is a cliché to say that science and technology have transformed life on this planet for a substantial proportion of its human inhabitants. The transformations, however, are not always for the better, whether one is considering those who live in the megacities that dominate life in the developed and developing nations, or those whose lives in previously remote places have been uprooted. Arguably, science and its sister, technology, have made life much better for most people, even as challenging problems have arisen. What does seem clear is that the world now cannot do without science and technology (Hughes 2004).

Every day, in communities all over the world, scientific and technological considerations are playing vital roles in business, medical, educational, and governmental programmatic and regulatory decisions. But how are those decisions made? What ideas, values, and motivations prompt them? To what extent are considerations drawn from science itself invoked in making each decision? Even as we acknowledge the indispensability of science to modern life, its place in society as a social force is continually questioned. Today, science seems to be pressed on several fronts to defend its place and to justify in economic, social, and moral terms its effects (as well as those of technology, to which it is symbiotically related). The struggle for societal acceptance and influence often pits science against other societal interests, including those that originate in business, religion, law, ethics, or a wide range of governmental policies. It can be seen as a continuous series of contests for authority, some of which science wins and some of which it loses. But what do the different outcomes hinge on? Is there something about how these conflicts work out that revels an underlying structure and set of values, or are socially adventitious factors at work?

The story of how science operates in society, how it interacts with other social forces and is evaluated, can be told many different ways. We cannot achieve a balanced understanding by thinking of science as just a special economic or social interest group, a domain of knowledge and practice with special privileging characteristics, or simply a resource for solving many of the world’s problems. Each of these and similar conceptions of science reflects some truth about science in society, but fails by itself to capture the diverse nature of science’s relationships to other societal sectors. Each thus fails to fully account for the unique place of science in modern life. By reflecting on science as a source of authority, we can achieve a more complex and balanced understanding of its roles in society. By authority I mean expert and moral authority, not coercive authority expressed in the form of law or power. In this way of looking at science, or any other societal interest group, authority is a measure of the capacity to instill belief; to engender not only understanding, but also assent; to move those affected toward changed attitudes; and to encourage actions.

Although there is a general recognition that science has authority to speak on some issues, most people are not clear on how that authority arises. My aim in this book is to clarify the sources of scientific authority, to identify its historical origins, and to show how that authority is continually challenged from various directions. I want to delineate not only the nature and origins of scientific authority, but also to consider its limits. Looking at science in society through the lens of authority requires that we reexamine the past in order to see how the rise of science in Western culture originated as a process of wresting authority away from other sectors. This process has advanced greatly, if not steadily, to the present day. For example, the contest between science and religion goes on today and is a major obstacle to full social acceptance of many theories and experimental findings widely accepted within science. In similar ways, the contributions of science to the foundations of many social policies and legal and ethical practices often give rise to conflicts with older traditions. For example, think of the influence of scientific findings in genetics and the behavioral sciences on our understanding of race, gender, the reliability of eyewitness memory, alcohol addiction, and many more such topics, and all their attendant implications for social policies and practices.

By looking at science’s influence on society in terms of its expert authority, and in some instances its moral authority, the discussion inevitably turns to the autonomy of science. This is an important aspect of our subject because there is a strong coupling between the authority with which science can pronounce on many topics, and its intellectual independence and freedom. Yet autonomy can also lead to conflicts for science by opening up possibilities for research into socially unacceptable areas, or by generating demands for more resources than society is prepared to make available.

The question of if and how science can or should exert moral authority seems not to have been adequately addressed. Moral authority is distinct from expert authority; it is a measure of the capacity to speak convincingly about what ought to be, as opposed to what is. It is obvious that science and scientists attempt to exert moral authority all the time. One need only look at the editorial pages of prestigious journals such as Science or Nature to find dispensations of general advice, or strongly held positions on various controversial topics. The distinction between expert authority and moral authority, however, is often unclear. When a climate scientist talks about global warming, for example, does she simply report on the results of empirical studies, analyses, and model building, or does she argue, explicitly or implicitly, for actions that might be taken to ameliorate global warming’s effects? What part of what she says can be considered an exercise of expert authority, and what part an exercise of moral authority? Similar questions arise when scientific organizations or individual scientists participate in public discussions of such problem areas as population control, nutrition, biomedical research involving stem cells, or the fight against diseases such as AIDS or tuberculosis. Regardless of the context in which it might arise, one can ask just how science comes to have moral authority, if indeed it does, and the extent to which that moral authority derives from the nature of science itself.

What This Book Is About

The expert, or epistemic, authority of science and the moral authority of science are distinct but strongly coupled ideas. To understand how science wields either expert or moral authority, we will have to pursue the following aims.

First, we need to clarify the ideas of expert authority and moral authority, particularly as they apply to science. What do we mean when we talk of authority generally? What are the limits of science’s authority, and how do those limits arise? How does the authority of science differ from that exerted by other social entities, such as law, religion, or government? In what way is moral authority an extension of authority that arises from expertise? Just what are the grounds on which science can claim moral authority?

Second, we must outline the historical origins of science’s authority. How did Western science come to possess authority? If one thinks in terms of a continuing competition for authority among various sectors of society, what sectors gave way to the growing influence of science? How was that shifting balance of authority expressed through the images of science that held sway during the development of science through the Enlightenment and to the present? How has the growth of science in the United States and its development as part of American culture contributed to its present position?

Third, we are to identify the bases of science’s authority in contemporary society. Here we need to analyze how the enormous growth of science and technology, and their overwhelming effects on modern life, have influenced the ways in which science’s authority is exercised, and—perhaps more important—how its authority and autonomy are constrained. Precisely because science and technology are so deeply woven into the fabric of modern life, they are more visibly subject to constraining forces than in earlier times.

Finally, we must trace the relationships of science to society using the concept of authority. Focusing on science’s expert authority and moral authority in society affords a perspective on how science’s societal roles open opportunities to exercise that authority. The enormous growth in science, and its correspondingly greater influence on societal affairs, has occasioned much more attention on what science produces and how it functions. There is no avoiding its presence in the courtroom, in the halls of government, or when matters of health and education are under consideration. At the same time, society is in a position to implement constraints on science through a wide range of actions that go beyond merely controlling levels of funding. How might such constraints change the nature of scientific inquiry itself, and thus alter the nature of the social contract between science and society?

Before we begin to tackle each of these aims, it is important to get straight some definitions and usages, and to establish the boundaries of our inquiry.

Terms and Boundaries

In what has been said so far, I have referred sometimes to science, and sometimes to science and technology, treating them as an interdependent pair. In the most simplistic way of looking at it, science is the study of the natural world using a characteristic mode of approach sometimes referred to as “the scientific method.” It is widely appreciated that there is no single scientific method, but rather a family of methodological forms of inquiry that share a set of characteristics and have as their aim the production of new knowledge. That knowledge may consist of newly acquired and organized data, new theoretical insights, a new model of some aspect of nature, or a new method for conducting certain experiments. I will have more to say later about what counts as science for our purposes.

Technology, on the other hand, has as its aim the production of something of practical use: a new tool for science, a new way of carrying out complex business calculations, a new kind of glass for high-rise buildings, a new and more effective heart defibrillator. Technology flows from scientific discovery, so in some sense it is posterior to science. Because technology is the source of many of the tools that scientists use in their work, however, it is essential in acquiring certain forms of new knowledge. Indeed, much technology that finds its way into general use results from initial development of tools for use in basic scientific research. Thus, the results of science in fields such as physics, chemistry, and biology are closely coupled to technological applications.

Technology is an all-pervasive presence in modern society, and it is often the case that nonscientists confuse it with science itself. Most scientists, particularly those that form what we might call the “academic science” establishment (scientists working in academic research universities, research institutes, or government laboratories with a strong component of basic research), are generally discomfited by this confusion (Wolpert 2005). For the most part, it is technology that produces effects for both good and ill that are widely perceived throughout society. Technologies seen as beneficial help to justify investment in basic science. Conversely, when the technology is perceived as inimical to society’s interests, public support for science funding may decline, or there may be calls for policies that restrict the conduct of research. Finally, technology is most often the product of commercial enterprises or large-scale government programs, such as the Radiation Laboratory during World War II. Thus, science and business are inextricably coupled, as are science and national policy.

To a large extent, it is through technology, in the form of material changes, that science affects society. Therefore, one cannot ignore technology when considering the place of science in society. But the justification for speaking with authority on a given topic most often rests with science, for reasons that we will be discussing, even though a given issue may rest on a point of technology. As such occasions arise in our discussions, the specifically technological nature of the issue will be highlighted. In the interests of a simpler language, I will generally refer simply to science rather than science and technology.

Science is by no means a monolithic enterprise. In the first place, various kinds of activities and entities count in some respects as science (Ziman 1984).

Basic research is curiosity-driven, more or less independent of any foreordained applications, and conducted with the intent of uncovering new understandings of nature. It may involve the design and performance of experiments, analysis of data collected, formation of hypotheses based on the observations, development of models consistent with the observations and data, and theoretical representations of those models. It also includes the dissemination of scientific findings through presentations at conferences and invited lectures, but primarily through publication in scientific journals.

Applied research is conducted with the aim of applying scientific findings to the solution of a specific problem of interest outside the immediate sphere of the work (for example, research to develop a new anticancer therapy). Clearly, applied research is intended to lead to new technologies, broadly speaking. It is the sort of research conducted in industry, where the focus is on production of new knowledge that furthers the interests—usually rather short-term—of the company. Dissemination of results is an element of importance in applied research, just as in basic research, but considerations of intellectual property rights often limit public disclosure.

As opposed to the activities of research, scientific knowledge is embodied in a scientific literature that reports the results of research and the products of scientists’ thoughts. This literature provides a record of already-published work, is dynamic in content, allows for new results and interpretations to continually replace older ones, and facilitates entirely new areas of investigation being reported on and opened for further work.

Science education is the teaching of science at all levels within the educational system, including graduate education. The teaching may involve imparting information about the content of a particular area of science (e.g., astronomy or organic chemistry), but may also be about the nature of scientific activity more generally: methodology, how to perform experiments or use particular techniques, and so on.

Science writing describes the activities of scientists and the results of their experiments, and may be disseminated for a larger audience through media such as TV, books, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. Science writing may attempt to convey the nature of scientific work or the significance of particular results. It is meant primarily for nonspecialists and the lay public.

A mere categorization such as the preceding, however, does not go far toward capturing the complexity of modern science. In addition to the traditional fundamental scientific disciplines such as mathematics (which we count as science because of its central position as a lingua franca in so many scientific fields), physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and all the subfields of those large-scale divisions, there are more applied fields, such as geology, oceanography, plant science, dairy science, and materials science, devoted to work in specific areas. Then there are the various fields of engineering, such as civil engineering, aeronautical engineering, and electrical engineering, all of which draw heavily from the physical and natural sciences to form the core of the individual disciplines.

Alongside the natural sciences and engineering, there are the social sciences, which include disciplines such as economics, psychology, and sociology, along with interdisciplinary areas such as cognitive science, an umbrella term for a large grouping of disciplines that includes parts of linguistics, philosophy, neuroscience, computer science, and psychology. Medicine, which has its own distinct ethos and practices, increasingly has become “scientific,” as evidenced by its heavy reliance on technology, and through the extraordinary impact of new findings in the basic biological sciences on the understanding of health and disease.

This is by no means a comprehensive cataloging of the scientific enterprise. Suffice it to say that the many fields of science and modes of intellectual pursuit vary greatly in terms of aims and methods, and most especially in their social structures. The individual areas of science are typically embedded within differing kinds of institutional structures, receive their support from differing sources, and are accountable to different societal entities. They vary in their traditions, standards of practice, reward systems, and means of internal communication. In addition, they may not be consistent in terms of what counts as acceptable scientific results. Partly because of such differences, the characteristics of those who practice these various fields of science also differ, in terms of personality type, career aspirations, and motivations.

In light of these considerations, is it possible to speak coherently of “science”? Is there anything in common between the director of a generously endowed medical research foundation; a professor of plant sciences in a college of agriculture; an M.D.-Ph.D. biomedical researcher in a large, research-oriented medical school; an environmental scientist in a department of civil engineering; a social scientist studying the factors contributing to the spread of AIDS in an urban environment; a scientist working in a corporate research laboratory; a program officer in molecular biology at the National Science Foundation; and a graduate student in a neurosciences program?

I will not attempt here what may in any case be impossible: to produce a kind of litmus test for what constitutes “science” or “scientist.” Nevertheless, I think that we can draw some boundaries, albeit rather flexible or even in some cases indistinct, around a body of knowledge and current practice that represents a characteristic outlook toward the physical world, acceptable approaches to the study of nature, an avowed ethic of practice, commitment to critical evaluation of findings, and a commonality of social practices of communication, such as peer-reviewed journal publication. Those boundaries would include the traditional fundamental areas such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, the biological sciences, and the interdisciplinary and applied sciences that derive from these. They would also include much engineering research and the social sciences to the extent that they also embody the characteristics mentioned above.

For our present purposes, scientific practice does not include much applied research, such as process development or product testing; writing or speaking about science; advocacy for science or technology in legislative circles; teaching of science; medical practice; or administration of a science and technology program in a funding agency. Someone with bona fide scientific credentials might very well carry out any of these activities, but the activities themselves are not science in the sense that I would like to think of for our purposes here. A person engaged in any of these activities might speak with scientific authority, but it would necessarily arise from the person’s professional credentials and not out of their activities. Ambiguous cases are bound to arise no matter how we distinguish between someone who can claim scientific authority and someone who cannot. Further, it is certainly the case that many who are not practicing science, but who write or legislate about it, or who administer scientific programs and projects, do have important influences on the authority of science (for example, through their influences on public perceptions of science).

From the perspective of some sociologists who study science, establishing the boundaries of what constitutes science—“boundary-work”—is a continuing process; the “space” of science is a matter of continual negotiation:

Science is a cultural space: it has no essential or universal qualities. Rather, its characteristics are selectively and inconsistently attributed as boundaries between “scientific” space and other spaces are rhetorically constructed. The longstanding question, “What unique, essential and universal features of science justify its authority in politics, law, media, advertising, and everyday reckonings of reality?” should be replaced, I suggest, by this more tractable question: “How do people sustain the epistemic authority of science as they seek to make their claims and practices credible (or useful) by distinguishing them from unworthy claims and practices of some nether region of non-science?” (Gieryn 1999, xii)

Many scientists would like to think that society’s appreciation of science’s “unique, essential and universal features” are at the core of the field’s special epistemic status. But there is no denying the practical realities that underlie Gieryn’s suggested phrasing of the question regarding the source of science’s authority. Nonscientists generally are not interested in finely drawn discussions of epistemology. They need to be convinced on less esoteric terms that science is different from other intellectual arenas, and that it can speak with authority on many matters of societal concern. For anyone speaking for science, that means explicitly distinguishing science from other forms of knowledge and practice—that is, establishing the “territory” of science—in terms that nonscientists can readily comprehend.

What Lies Ahead

The book is organized into two major divisions. The first, comprising chapters 1 through 4, is concerned with foundational materials. In the first chapter I consider what authority generally means: what kinds of authority there are, how it is vested, and the limits that might apply to it. We will also examine the distinction between authority and moral authority before turning to the issue of authority as it applies to science. Does scientific authority inhere in individual scientists, in science as an institution, or in both? On what grounds can science claim to exert authority? What are its limits? Can science itself claim to exert moral authority, or does that flow from something else? How is authority related to autonomy? These questions are at the heart of our inquiry and will arise repeatedly in the chapters that follow.

Chapter 2 is a brief historical account of how scientific authority grew in Western society, beginning with the Ionian Greek thinkers and proceeding through the medieval Christian era. In terms of authority relationships, Galileo represents a kind of watershed. Those who followed him, such as Gassendi, Mersenne, Hobbes, and Descartes, helped to establish a rational authority for science and in the process responded to the challenge of radical skepticism. The Enlightenment period in England ushered in the beginnings of organized science in the form of the Royal Society of London. Science began to have a visible social presence that grew over time and in other nations. I conclude the chapter by examining the career of Louis Pasteur, the charismatic nineteenth-century scientist who immersed himself thoroughly in the affairs of society.

Chapter 3 deals with the rise of American science. The American culture impressed a unique character on its science: a pervasive tension between autonomy and service to society, and between religious covenants and scientific assertions about the natural world. In the early twentieth century, the advance of science was coupled to ideas of national progress. World War II was of particular importance in enlarging science’s roles in national life. Science was promoted as a mainstay of national defense during the cold war era, and at the same time touted by some of its advocates as a kind of ideal social community. But the tensions between scientific autonomy and conflicting societal expectations remain active to the present day.

Chapter 4 is an analysis of science’s present position in society, the claims made by science to objectivity, and its capacity to attain truths about nature. To properly understand how science operates in society we must understand its internal social structure. In the wake of Thomas Kuhn’s groundbreaking 1962 work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, some social scientists adopted controversial new views of the nature of scientific activity. With time, more nuanced models, with deeper appreciations of the roles of testimony and trust, have evolved. The ideals of impersonality, objectivity, consensus, and disinterestedness form the major ingredients of science’s public face. The chapter concludes with a further look at the concept of moral authority.

The second major section of the book contains detailed examinations of the roles of authority in science’s interactions with various major sectors of society. In chapter 5 I examine the contrasting meanings of truth in law and in science, as well as the means for establishing it. A critical issue for the authority of science in law is the admissibility of scientific evidence. The long history of fingerprint identification testimony provides insights into the establishment of authority in the courtroom. I contrast that with the establishment of authority for more modern methods, such as DNA fingerprinting. The landmark Supreme Court Daubert case, and others that followed from it, have profoundly affected science’s place in the courtroom. The rules of evidence in their present form invest judges with a powerful gatekeeper function in deciding which evidence, purporting to rest on valid science, is to be admitted into testimony. It does not appear that present practices are up to the challenges of dealing with rapidly changing science, however, nor do they provide plaintiffs in many cases with fair and equitable access to relevant studies.

Chapter 6 deals with the conflicts between science and organized religion, which each derive their authorities in different ways. Science exercises epistemic authority grounded largely in rational-legal foundations, and religion exercises epistemic and moral authority rooted mainly in tradition. In American society the conflicts between science and religion have been pervasive and continue unabated, despite the growing influence of science in society generally. I explore the nature of these conflicts in three topical areas: evolution, human reproduction, and stem cell research. In all these cases the conflicts are played out in the public media, courtrooms, regulatory agencies, and in federal, state, and local legislative and executive bodies.

Chapter 7 is concerned with science’s authority relationships with government. Since the end of World War II, the protracted cold war period and the growing power of science have forced new examinations of issues such as the rationales for funding scientific research, the uses of science in governmental affairs, the effects of scientific influences on governmental policies, and governmental constraints on scientific research. The influence of scientific authority on governmental policies, as well as powerful resistance to its exercise, are exemplified in recent and current topics: the politics of stem cell research, stratospheric ozone depletion, and global warming. Science’s authority and autonomy have been compromised on many occasions by policies and practices of the executive branch and powerful congressional committees.

If science is to play a significant role in the affairs of society, it must connect effectively with the public. The nature and extent of those connections are examined in chapter 8. In the 1970s, concerns that general harm might result from research involving then-new recombinant DNA brought together scientists and members of the public and local governments in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. The episode illustrates how science can effectively maintain an epistemic authority in advancing its aims when scientists attend to the public’s concerns and respond appropriately. More generally, the science-public nexus depends on the extent and quality of the public’s sources of scientific knowledge, and is conditioned by public views of moral and ethical issues surrounding science, including research misconduct, misuses of scientific knowledge, and conflicts of interest and commitment on the part of researchers. Because science competes with other social entities for attention and support, low scientific literacy on the part of the lay public is a cause for concern. I argue that a broader public understanding of the means by which scientific knowledge is made, of science as a social institution, and of how scientific authority contrasts with other sources of authority, rather than knowledge of specific theories and bodies of descriptive knowledge, is key to science’s more successful interactions with the public.

In chapter 9 I have attempted to synthesize the various insights and conclusions derived from the earlier chapters into a coherent picture of science as a source of authority. This picture paints science as a powerful presence in society, but one with limited expert and cultural authority in contributing to public culture. Science is generally valued highly for its instrumental contributions to human welfare. Indeed, it is the implementations of these that largely form the basis for science’s cultural presence. But science has not established an image that serves well when it comes into conflict with other claimants to authority. It frequently fails to convince nonscientists of the truth of well-established scientific claims. It also frequently falls short in its attempts to exercise moral authority on contested issues. The difficulty lies partly with science’s organization along the lines of a self-contained “republic,” in which controlling standards of performance and evaluation place a low priority on the participation of individual scientists in societal affairs. Further, scientific rationality has limited standing in society at large as a process for resolving the many issues that vex modern life. These and other considerations call for a reappraisal of the tools and strategies employed by science and scientists in interfacing with other societal sectors, especially the general public.

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