Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries

by Steven Weinberg

Facing Up Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The enemies of science have always been many and varied. Religions and especially pseudo-religions have preferred their followers to accept an ordered cosmos and society based on faith rather than knowledge. Governments have generally had an unspoken but no less powerful preference for a largely ignorant population more easily kept in check, preferring to have its young people trained rather than educated. The romantic artist and the practical, hard-headed businessman, otherwise divided types, are often united in their dislike of science. Even in the academy, the liberal arts and the other branches of knowledge (especially the “soft sciences,” such as sociology, psychology, or anthropology) are at once jealous and dismissive of their rival, strict science in all its forms. Most people really have little affection for science: It is too hard, too “impractical,” and it makes the human race just one more factor (and not necessarily a very important factor at that) in a large, impersonal, and not very comfortable universe.

Over the millennia, the enemies of science have used, often with great ferocity but varying effectiveness, a variety of weapons against their adversary. Faced with the unpalatable conclusions that stemmed from the experiments of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) , the Catholic Church told the great scientist to keep quiet and he, being a sensible man, did so. However, truth, once out, tends to spread, and the clerical gag order failed to hold. More current residents of the Vatican have gone so far as to agree officially that there is no essential conflict between science and faith, at least as far as astronomy is concerned. During the Stalinist period in the Soviet Union, a weird brand of genetics advocated by the agronomist Dr. Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) all but wrecked Russian agriculture. Lysenko was a bad scientist but a good Marxist-Leninist, a fact of much greater importance to the Kremlin at the time. There have always been eccentrics, kooks, and misfits who advocate their own brand of “science,” ranging from ancient astronauts to psychic auras; fortunately, most of them are less dangerous than Dr. Lysenko. More troubling, however, is the fact that today many are inclined to replace unpleasant or inconvenient scientific facts with more agreeable theories. There are those who insist that evolution is “only” a theory that has never been proven; others—too many of them holding elective office—who would force everyone to accept that “creationism” is a valid approach that should be taught in schools as a reputable concept; and academics who fervently proclaim that “science” itself is really nothing more than a cultural construct, another oppressive legacy of that pesky group of usual suspects responsible for so many cultural problems, dead, white, European males.

In contemporary society, the running conflicts generically known as “the science wars” continue, sometimes breaking out fiercely but mostly going on just below the general consciousness. From time to time, there will be flare-ups when a state board of education forbids the teaching of Darwin or frowns disapprovingly on evolution, or when otherwise reputable university faculty announce some revolutionary, but unfortunately unrepeatable, discovery such as cold fusion. These events draw public attention and when they subside, the public goes back to what it does best: ignoring science as much as possible. There, writes Steven Weinberg, is a large part of the problem, because without a good understanding of what science is and what scientists do, people do not have a way to understand the world and the universe in which they find themselves. Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries is a collection of Weinberg’s essays and articles written during the past fifteen years, and the increasingly embattled role of science in modern life is its central concern.

Clearly written, free of academic jargon, refreshingly straightforward, these essays articulate a reasoned approach to a variety of conflicts and disputes. Weinberg’s rationality is not always appreciated, or returned. In many cases, the more reasoned Weinberg’s arguments, the shriller and more insistent the counterarguments. Nowhere is this better shown than in the several essays touching on the troubled (and troubling) relationship between science and “social constructionism.” Simply put, social constructionism maintains that the human view of the world is formed (constructed) by influences within human society. These...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)