Which Scientist Can You Trust?

Since science is the defining intellectual enterprise of our age, it would seem worth understanding who the scientist is. This is the task Steven Shapin takes on in his latest book, The Scientific Life. Shapin’s book represents something of a departure from his previous efforts. The Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, Shapin is perhaps best known for two works on seventeenth-century science, A Social History of Truth (1994) and The Scientific Revolution (1996). He is also coauthor, with Simon Schaffer, of Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985), a fascinating account of debates between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the legitimacy and proper interpretation of experimental manipulation in science. In his new book, Shapin ventures beyond the strict boundaries of the history of science. While he spends some time on the evolution of the scientific vocation, he’s also concerned with how scientists live and work now.

The Scientific Life considers a diffuse set of big questions. Who are scientists? In what kinds of institutions do they work and how do those institutions shape their work? What’s the relationship, if any, between the authority of science and the moral status of scientists? In particular, are scientists priests of nature, endowed with exceptional moral competence, or ordinary people who have acquired esoteric technical knowledge? And to what extent do personal virtues matter in the practice of science?

Shapin focuses almost entirely on twentieth-century “technoscience” in America—technoscience being the various scientific and high-tech enterprises that engage in research and so shape our future. He is interested not in gentlemen amateurs like Darwin, who typified Victorian science, but in professional (and often obscure) researchers. Shapin chooses to examine science during what he calls “late modernity”—roughly 1900 to now—partly because he believes that too many humanists and social scientists have lost touch with the realities of technoscience. Consequently, he claims, these thinkers subscribe to a number of mistaken, or at least dubious, views about science and scientists. To correct these misapprehensions, Shapin seeks to sketch the worlds of university professors, industrial researchers, and Internet entrepreneurs. As he emphasizes repeatedly, his goal is neither to celebrate nor to criticize modern science, merely to describe it. The result is a kind of natural history of the American scientist.

The Scientific Life confirms Shapin’s reputation for erudition. The book is packed with facts culled from wide reading that ranges from the pages of long-extinct trade journals like Industrial Laboratories, through congressional testimony, to the memoirs of now-forgotten scientists. Shapin also draws on formal interviews he conducted with twenty-five or so scientists, as well as on his informal observations of meetings among high-tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and other investors. While extended chapters on the management of research in chemical companies may sound less than enthralling, Shapin’s treatment is lively and full of surprises. In the end, his claims are contrarian. He hopes to convince you that many of your ideas about science and scientists …

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