Who Rules in Science? is a marvelous book that ranges from the most basic questions to the most contentious: the author considers not only how we should use reason to estimate truth but also how we should apply reason to public policy. His unhelpful handling of the second topic does not at all detract from his successful illumination of the first. On the contrary, his inconsistency is a useful reminder that one can know the value of reason without always being able to apply it properly.

The author, James Robert Brown, is a philosopher of mathematics at the University of Toronto. He wrote the book primarily to defend reason and objectivity in science but secondarily to persuade his allies on the political left that science can be their friend. Brown begins by adverting to the notorious Sokal hoax.

In 1996 the editors of the academic journal Social Text published an essay by New York University physicist Alan Sokal entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” In opaque postmodern prose, the essay claimed to show how even gravity is nothing but a social construct. Soon thereafter Sokal revealed in another journal that he had made up the whole thing out of pomo patter and thin air; physics had nothing to do with it. The hoax got a lot of press, and once the horselaughs had died away the lesson most people took from it was the emptiness of postmodern criticism of science. But Sokal (whose paper pointed out that he lectured “during the Sandinista government, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua”) averred that he intended the escapade to shake the left out of its attachment to unavailing intellectual fluff so that it could become a more effective political force. Brown, with this book, also wants to help the left toward that goal.

Much of Who Rules in Science? is a primer in the history and philosophy of science. Scientists and other naïfs often think that science proceeds in a linear fashion, steadily accumulating data, refining theories, and improving its understanding of the world. But even a brief trip through science history shows that progress can scarcely be called linear. For example, sun-centered astronomy replaced earth-centered, oxygen superseded phlogiston, and absolute space gave way to curved space. Brown roasts Nobel-laureate physicist Steven Weinberg for his confident affirmation that no matter what other differences we may have with intelligent space aliens if and when we meet them, we will find that they have discovered the same scientific laws that we have. “It’s hard to imagine anything less likely to be true,” huffs Brown, noting that we humans haven’t even had the same laws throughout our own history. “There are so many accidents, so many little things that affect the course of intellectual life, that it is extremely unlikely that two unconnected intellectual communities would have identical histories.”

For perspective, Brown gives the reader a Cook’s tour of the major modern schools of thought in the philosophy of science. He contrasts rationalism with empiricism, discusses Popper, Kuhn, and logical positivism, and gives the ins and outs of Bayes’ Theorem. Do things such as atoms actually exist? How about electrons? The vector field? Gravitons? (Answers: Yes. Yes. Maybe. It depends.) Does science really describe reality, or just delineate observable regularities? Brown shows just enough of the complexities to demonstrate that it isn’t easy to figure out exactly how science works.

The book then turns to its main topic”“social constructivists,” the chief belligerents in the “wars” of Brown’s subtitle, who think that science reflects social forces, rather than the results of reason applied to evidence. The main difference between constructivists and other schools of critical thought, says Brown, does not concern whether science actually describes reality (other groups have also argued that it does not). Rather, the critical difference is whether science can be epistemically objective”whether reason and evidence can actually be employed to understand or discover the truth about the world.

Social constructivism comes in a variety of flavors, which Brown sorts into two main categories that he calls the nihilist wing and the naturalist wing. The easily lampooned postmodernists”the folks who were stung by Sokal’s high jinks”comprise the nihilist wing. As Brown tells it, this group is hostile to science and is characterized by its antirationality, rejection of objective truth, and perspectivalism (the claim that accounts of science or history can be given only from local perspectives). What’s more, they seem not to understand the science they criticize.

The more interesting branch for Brown is the naturalist wing, which pictures itself not only as friendly to science but, indeed, as rigorously applying the scientific method to the task of accounting for science itself. It is exemplified by David Bloor, whose “strong programme” in the sociology of scientific knowledge demands sociological explanations not only for questions such as why a certain scientist was interested in a particular problem but also for the content of scientific theories. Here is an example that Brown provides: physicists were in bad odor in Germany after World War I when German society turned away from a mechanical worldview and toward mysticism. According to a constructivist account, German scientists then developed the noncausal, nondeterministic, rather mystical theory of quantum mechanics in order to win back their high social standing. So quantum mechanics was generated by social ambition rather than by reason.

Brown asserts in reply that the constructivists aren’t consistent. First, though they claim that science (and all other knowledge) is a social fabrication, they don’t treat their own argument in the same way. The physicists’ facts are supposedly constructed, but the constructivists’ facts (for example, that German society did actually turn from mechanism to mysticism) are taken to be really true. What’s more, says Brown, even on the social constructivists’ own account those German physicists are behaving quite rationally”it’s just that they have a different goal from the one usually ascribed to them. If the physicists are actually aiming for better social standing, they are taking perfectly logical steps to achieve their goal. Finally, according to Brown, the constructivist account of the development of quantum mechanics is not in any way simpler or more powerfully explanatory than a rational account that would go something like the following: the older quantum theory of Bohr was not completely coherent; the new theory of Heisenberg accounted for the Zeeman effect and other anomalous phenomena; and so physicists accepted the new quantum theory.

That doesn’t seem so hard to see. So why do constructivists give such convoluted, implausible, and inconsistent accounts? Here’s where we cut to the chase. Brown call them the naturalist school of social constructivism because they are firmly committed to naturalism”that is to say, materialism. The naturalist school of constructivism views the world as containing only matter and energy, so any account of science has to be utterly naturalistic. Brown remarks, “This is just science as usual. Like other naturalists, social constructivists . . . give no credence to religious or platonic or any other sort of nonnatural explanation of science (or, indeed, of anything).” Besides social accounts, they also happily accept evolutionary and other naturalistic explanations.

What they don’t accept as valid explanations are reasons. Reasons cannot enter into constructivist explanations because reasons are nonmaterial, no more real than unicorns, and so cannot be causes. But, Brown argues, the constructivists quickly paint themselves into a corner. While rationalists (who accept reasons as causes) can happily admit that many human actions are motivated by nonrational factors, the constructivists by their own logic cannot cite reasons as causes for anything at all, not even for one little thing”no more than an atheist can allow just one or two little miracles. It is not only that full-blown theories cannot be based on reason; neither can minor decisions about what experiment to run, which chemical to use, or what button to push. If social climbing started quantum mechanics, what social factor made a physicist flip switch A instead of B? If he flips switch A for a reason, why can’t a physicist be persuaded of quantum mechanics by a reason?

Although he says he is an atheist, Brown affirms that reasons can be causes. This is because, like some other mathematicians, Brown is a Platonist and believes in a nonmaterial realm beyond space and time where concepts such as “triangle” and “magnetic field” actually exist. He has argued in a previous book, Smoke and Mirrors: How Science Reflects Reality (1994), that our minds can catch a glimpse of these platonic forms, particularly in scientific thought experiments.

To the extent that he persuades his associates on the political left that reason is necessary for effective action, Brown will have done them a profound service. (Recently Bruno Latour, a primary target of Brown’s, seems to have had second thoughts about deconstructing science.) But Brown’s standard of argument seems to go south in a hurry when he exchanges physics for politics in his last two chapters (and at scattered spots throughout the book), for he seems astonishingly unsophisticated in applying reason to politics. At first I thought maybe it was my fault”that because I am not sympathetic to many of his goals I was resisting his usual strong reasoning. But consider this example of Brown as political scientist. Seeking to explain the development of big brains in humans, male scientists advanced a “man-the-hunter” hypothesis (hunting requires a lot of planning), but a woman scientist came up with a “woman-the-gatherer” hypothesis (gathering requires a lot of planning). Thus, says Brown, we see that people of different types and backgrounds might come up with different hypotheses, with new things that hadn’t been thought of before. He concludes that the government should “impose ‘affirmative action’ policies on the scientific community. This is a very political act, but one that will result, paradoxically, in more objective science.”

In like manner, Brown opines on the death penalty, health insurance, and representative versus direct democracy. But to keep the focus on science and reason and public policy, let me offer just two of his recommendations in that area. One is that scientists should disclose their income level in science publications, so as to avoid class conflicts of interest. Another”and here is his best answer to the question of his book’s title”is that those who should rule in science are “the people.”

How to accomplish that last objective? “They just need to hear more intelligent and informed voices.” But which intelligent and informed voices should they hear? Should “the people” listen, say, to the liberal Union of Concerned Scientists, who recently lambasted the Bush administration for its supposed politicizing of scientific findings, or to Bush’s Democratic science advisor John H. Marburger III, who rebutted their claims point by point? How do “the people” decide when experts differ, or when all experts have an interest in the outcome? Brown doesn’t say.

We are indebted to James Robert Brown for a compelling defense of reason in science, and for an unintentional demonstration of the limited role that reason sometimes plays in politics.

Michael J. Behe Who Rules in Science? is a marvelous book that ranges from the most basic questions to the most contentious: the author considers not only how we should use reason to estimate truth but also how we should apply reason to public policy. His unhelpful handling of the second topic does not at all detract from his successful illumination of the first. On the contrary, his inconsistency is a useful reminder that one can know the value of reason without always being able to apply it properly.

The author, James Robert Brown, is a philosopher of mathematics at the University of Toronto. He wrote the book primarily to defend reason and objectivity in science but secondarily to persuade his allies on the political left that science can be their friend. Brown begins by adverting to the notorious Sokal hoax.

In 1996 the editors of the academic journal Social Text published an essay by New York University physicist Alan Sokal entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” In opaque postmodern prose, the essay claimed to show how even gravity is nothing but a social construct. Soon thereafter Sokal revealed in another journal that he had made up the whole thing out of pomo patter and thin air; physics had nothing to do with it. The hoax got a lot of press, and once the horselaughs had died away the lesson most people took from it was the emptiness of postmodern criticism of science. But Sokal (whose paper pointed out that he lectured “during the Sandinista government, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua”) averred that he intended the escapade to shake the left out of its attachment to unavailing intellectual fluff so that it could become a more effective political force. Brown, with this book, also wants to help the left toward that goal.

Much of Who Rules in Science? is a primer in the history and philosophy of science. Scientists and other naïfs often think that science proceeds in a linear fashion, steadily accumulating data, refining theories, and improving its understanding of the world. But even a brief trip through science history shows that progress can scarcely be called linear. For example, sun-centered astronomy replaced earth-centered, oxygen superseded phlogiston, and absolute space gave way to curved space. Brown roasts Nobel-laureate physicist Steven Weinberg for his confident affirmation that no matter what other differences we may have with intelligent space aliens if and when we meet them, we will find that they have discovered the same scientific laws that we have. “It’s hard to imagine anything less likely to be true,” huffs Brown, noting that we humans haven’t even had the same laws throughout our own history. “There are so many accidents, so many little things that affect the course of intellectual life, that it is extremely unlikely that two unconnected intellectual communities would have identical histories.”

For perspective, Brown gives the reader a Cook’s tour of the major modern schools of thought in the philosophy of science. He contrasts rationalism with empiricism, discusses Popper, Kuhn, and logical positivism, and gives the ins and outs of Bayes’ Theorem. Do things such as atoms actually exist? How about electrons? The vector field? Gravitons? (Answers: Yes. Yes. Maybe. It depends.) Does science really describe reality, or just delineate observable regularities? Brown shows just enough of the complexities to demonstrate that it isn’t easy to figure out exactly how science works.

The book then turns to its main topic”“social constructivists,” the chief belligerents in the “wars” of Brown’s subtitle, who think that science reflects social forces, rather than the results of reason applied to evidence. The main difference between constructivists and other schools of critical thought, says Brown, does not concern whether science actually describes reality (other groups have also argued that it does not). Rather, the critical difference is whether science can be epistemically objective”whether reason and evidence can actually be employed to understand or discover the truth about the world.

Social constructivism comes in a variety of flavors, which Brown sorts into two main categories that he calls the nihilist wing and the naturalist wing. The easily lampooned postmodernists”the folks who were stung by Sokal’s high jinks”comprise the nihilist wing. As Brown tells it, this group is hostile to science and is characterized by its antirationality, rejection of objective truth, and perspectivalism (the claim that accounts of science or history can be given only from local perspectives). What’s more, they seem not to understand the science they criticize.

The more interesting branch for Brown is the naturalist wing, which pictures itself not only as friendly to science but, indeed, as rigorously applying the scientific method to the task of accounting for science itself. It is exemplified by David Bloor, whose “strong programme” in the sociology of scientific knowledge demands sociological explanations not only for questions such as why a certain scientist was interested in a particular problem but also for the content of scientific theories. Here is an example that Brown provides: physicists were in bad odor in Germany after World War I when German society turned away from a mechanical worldview and toward mysticism. According to a constructivist account, German scientists then developed the noncausal, nondeterministic, rather mystical theory of quantum mechanics in order to win back their high social standing. So quantum mechanics was generated by social ambition rather than by reason.

Brown asserts in reply that the constructivists aren’t consistent. First, though they claim that science (and all other knowledge) is a social fabrication, they don’t treat their own argument in the same way. The physicists’ facts are supposedly constructed, but the constructivists’ facts (for example, that German society did actually turn from mechanism to mysticism) are taken to be really true. What’s more, says Brown, even on the social constructivists’ own account those German physicists are behaving quite rationally”it’s just that they have a different goal from the one usually ascribed to them. If the physicists are actually aiming for better social standing, they are taking perfectly logical steps to achieve their goal. Finally, according to Brown, the constructivist account of the development of quantum mechanics is not in any way simpler or more powerfully explanatory than a rational account that would go something like the following: the older quantum theory of Bohr was not completely coherent; the new theory of Heisenberg accounted for the Zeeman effect and other anomalous phenomena; and so physicists accepted the new quantum theory.

That doesn’t seem so hard to see. So why do constructivists give such convoluted, implausible, and inconsistent accounts? Here’s where we cut to the chase. Brown call them the naturalist school of social constructivism because they are firmly committed to naturalism”that is to say, materialism. The naturalist school of constructivism views the world as containing only matter and energy, so any account of science has to be utterly naturalistic. Brown remarks, “This is just science as usual. Like other naturalists, social constructivists . . . give no credence to religious or platonic or any other sort of nonnatural explanation of science (or, indeed, of anything).” Besides social accounts, they also happily accept evolutionary and other naturalistic explanations.

What they don’t accept as valid explanations are reasons. Reasons cannot enter into constructivist explanations because reasons are nonmaterial, no more real than unicorns, and so cannot be causes. But, Brown argues, the constructivists quickly paint themselves into a corner. While rationalists (who accept reasons as causes) can happily admit that many human actions are motivated by nonrational factors, the constructivists by their own logic cannot cite reasons as causes for anything at all, not even for one little thing”no more than an atheist can allow just one or two little miracles. It is not only that full-blown theories cannot be based on reason; neither can minor decisions about what experiment to run, which chemical to use, or what button to push. If social climbing started quantum mechanics, what social factor made a physicist flip switch A instead of B? If he flips switch A for a reason, why can’t a physicist be persuaded of quantum mechanics by a reason?

Although he says he is an atheist, Brown affirms that reasons can be causes. This is because, like some other mathematicians, Brown is a Platonist and believes in a nonmaterial realm beyond space and time where concepts such as “triangle” and “magnetic field” actually exist. He has argued in a previous book, Smoke and Mirrors: How Science Reflects Reality (1994), that our minds can catch a glimpse of these platonic forms, particularly in scientific thought experiments.

To the extent that he persuades his associates on the political left that reason is necessary for effective action, Brown will have done them a profound service. (Recently Bruno Latour, a primary target of Brown’s, seems to have had second thoughts about deconstructing science.) But Brown’s standard of argument seems to go south in a hurry when he exchanges physics for politics in his last two chapters (and at scattered spots throughout the book), for he seems astonishingly unsophisticated in applying reason to politics. At first I thought maybe it was my fault”that because I am not sympathetic to many of his goals I was resisting his usual strong reasoning. But consider this example of Brown as political scientist. Seeking to explain the development of big brains in humans, male scientists advanced a “man-the-hunter” hypothesis (hunting requires a lot of planning), but a woman scientist came up with a “woman-the-gatherer” hypothesis (gathering requires a lot of planning). Thus, says Brown, we see that people of different types and backgrounds might come up with different hypotheses, with new things that hadn’t been thought of before. He concludes that the government should “impose ‘affirmative action’ policies on the scientific community. This is a very political act, but one that will result, paradoxically, in more objective science.”

In like manner, Brown opines on the death penalty, health insurance, and representative versus direct democracy. But to keep the focus on science and reason and public policy, let me offer just two of his recommendations in that area. One is that scientists should disclose their income level in science publications, so as to avoid class conflicts of interest. Another”and here is his best answer to the question of his book’s title”is that those who should rule in science are “the people.”

How to accomplish that last objective? “They just need to hear more intelligent and informed voices.” But which intelligent and informed voices should they hear? Should “the people” listen, say, to the liberal Union of Concerned Scientists, who recently lambasted the Bush administration for its supposed politicizing of scientific findings, or to Bush’s Democratic science advisor John H. Marburger III, who rebutted their claims point by point? How do “the people” decide when experts differ, or when all experts have an interest in the outcome? Brown doesn’t say.

We are indebted to James Robert Brown for a compelling defense of reason in science, and for an unintentional demonstration of the limited role that reason sometimes plays in politics.

Michael J. Behe is Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University.