The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority

The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority

A fascinating look at key thinkers throughout history who have shaped public perception of science and the role of authority. When does a scientific discovery become accepted fact? Why have scientific facts become easy to deny? And what can we do about it? In The Workshop and the World, philosopher and science historian Robert P. Crease answers these questions by describi...

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Title:The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority
Author:Robert P. Crease
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The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority Reviews

  • Todd

    Early modern philosophy of science made relevant for today.

  • Will Byrnes

    - image from Physics World

    Crease is a world-renowned teacher and writer on things pertaining to philosophy and science. He chairs and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook University in New York, is co-editor-in-chief of

    , and, for almost twenty years, he has been writing a column called

    in the publication

    . There is a lot to be learned in the very reasonably-sized

    .

    - image from Philosopher.co.uk

    The core intent of the book is to show how, throughout history, science and math, what Crease calls “the workshop,” has had to contend with rival forces in the world. Some great thinkers have gone to considerable trouble to analyze this tension and attempted to figure out why that was, and still is. Each of these luminaries came up with interesting theories on how things should be vs how they are, and offered their takes on the forces underlying that battle. One primary core is that people will accept the findings of science if it is backed with the imprimatur of authority. At one time, authority vested mostly in trans-state entities like the Church. Thus, if the Church decried the findings of the workshop (meaning you, Galileo), authority was denied to the science being presented, and thus people at large were less likely to embrace new findings. There have been other sources of such authority over the years, each with interests that sometimes ran (still run) counter to the findings of the workshop. What constitutes

    today and how can science successfully gain its protection in order to best serve to inform and assist us all?

    - image from Smithsonian

    Crease traces the history of this conflict, taking us through brief bios of ten great thinkers. (which is definitely not the same thing as ten great

    . Some of these folks you might want to admire from a great distance). There are some names here I confess were news to me. Giambattista Vico, of Naples, was an ardent defender of study of the humanities, fearing that reducing human interaction to mechanical and math-based rules would cause us to “go mad rationally.” Speaking of madness, the likely unbalanced Auguste Comte was a name I had heard, but frankly knew nothing about. He held a very high view of science, seeing it as a way to explain nature without reliance on gods of any sort. He promoted a theory called

    , where you might substitute the word “scientific” for “positive.” It did not help that the guy was a world class jerk, egocentric at a Trumpian level, unkind to his wife, getting into constant battles with employers and peers, generally detested. Think Ted Cruz anywhere outside a Texas voting booth. Edmund Husserl was another unfamiliar name. He argued for scientific exploration that was well attuned to immediate human experience and not locked away from the world of people in a lab.

    - image from Target Health Inc.

    There are some core concepts to take away from this book. The authority thing is first, noted above. Science has innate uncertainty. Every observation, every experiment, every measurement, has the potential to be overturned by the next advance in observational, or analytical technology or the next great theory. Religion, despite the vast array of conflict within each brand, sub-brand, and sub-sub brand

    , claims its truths to be divinely revealed and eternal. Once you settle into whatever set of beliefs you choose, there is no need to re-adjust when extant circumstances change, or new ideas offer better explanations. There is comfort in holding close the accepted, the revered, the worshipped, and considerable distress to be had by allowing in alternate understandings. So, right off the bat, to many with a firm religious perspective, (and that

    could just as easily include ideologies as well), upending the extant scientific view of the world is gonna be a hard sell. Francis Bacon came up with an ingenious strategy, maintaining that nature was the

    book that God gave to man, and it was up to us to use the tools we found in studying that book to better obey God.

    - image from Wikipedia

    Another core element is that there has to be an arena in which people with a contrary scientific view can

    , which, in this context means bringing their ideas to a public forum, where they can be examined, debated, refuted, maybe even improved, without the person bringing the new view being put in fear for his or her life. (publish

    perish?) This has particular impact in places where there is limited or no free press, namely totalitarian countries. Our friend Galileo, for example, was denied the right to teach, or to espouse his views in any public way, by the Church. He espoused a third source of authority, independent of religious and civil, the scientific.

    There is a gap between the world of science and the world of human experience. Go head, try explaining string theory to just about anyone. It makes science, a lot of it, anyway, almost entirely remote from day-to-day personal experience, and thus easier to dismiss. Also there is a real challenge with applying first-hand, worldly knowledge based on experience to research based on theory. There is not always, but certainly can be a tension there, if those on the ground feel that their perspective is not being heard.

    Science does not exist in a sociopolitical vacuum. It requires interaction with the world outside the workshop, connection with human values. Mary Shelley certainly offered a resonant image of what science might do, uninhibited by social (meaning either state or religious/moral) control. We still think today about Franken-this and Franken-that as a dark result of science being done in the absence of adequate foresight and control.

    - image from Vision.org

    In addition to the household names, others were familiar, the material here offering reminders of information once known, but adding other info that had never found its way through my personal screen of ignorance. Max Weber is a giant in the foundations of social sciences. Crease focuses here on Weber’s concern that the so-called rationalization of scientific and social enterprises would ultimately rob both of their humanity. He believed that it would take charismatic leaders to lift societies our of their bureaucratic ruts. Of course, that can lead to even bigger problems if your charismatic turns out to be a lunatic. The chapter on Hannah Arendt grabbed me the most. No doubt one element of this is that she is the most contemporary of the great minds under view here. Also, the subject matter to which she dedicated so much of her attention is alarmingly relevant today.

    - image from Crisis Magazine

    There are some fun details to be found in here. Galileo, for one, made a big deal out of trying to figure out the physical shape of hell that was described by Dante in

    , and screwed up the math. The tale of Comte’s ongoing unpleasantness was entertaining if quite bleak. And the dark existences some of these folks endured, with less than happy endings, is interesting, if a bit bleak.

    - image from WomensNews.org

    Ok. Let’s be real here. People whose approach to science is to hold their hands over their ears and repeat LALALALALALALALALA as loudly as possible to drown out any potential incoming information, will never be persuaded by an argument offered in the past by world-class scientists who had to contend with the mindlessness of their times. Unscrupulous political and religious leaders, fueled by self-interested corporate interests and/or personal faith or ideology, will do whatever it takes to keep reality-based positions from gaining too much power. Consider that there are still morons in our legislative bodies who contend that global warming is a hoax. And some (yes, I mean you, Louis Gohmert), and the people who vote for him, who are simply too dumb to understand much of anything, and too mean to admit their error should they ever actually acquire understanding. Don’t waste your breath. You could drown their communities a hundred times and they will still insist that the river will never overflow again because global warming is a hoax, or, better, find a way to blame scientists, immigrants, Muslims, minorities, or liberals for deliberately flooding them, just to, I don’t know, maybe make them feel bad.

    - image from Literariness.org

    The solutions, the approaches Crease offers seem pretty obvious, and not necessarily a product of the preceding journey. They are of a short and long-term sort. On the short stack is

    - This has worked pretty well for Grover Norquist and his toxic, and dishonest

    , so I suppose it might be of some use, but pols are nothing if not flexible in figuring ways to either not sign or to interpret a pledge in whatever way best suits them.

    Next up is

    - This minimizes the talent most politicians have for dancing around uncomfortable questions and limiting our ability to get answers. And some seem immune to any sense of shame. Trump, for example, seems to thrive on hypocrisy. For some, hypocrisy is not so much a bug as a feature. To the cult member, it is a non-issue, easily parried as fake news.

    - Has Crease not been watching any of the late night talk show, the huge number of people posting disparaging comedic material on pretty much every available venue, print and digital?

    - I really like this one. If people come up with resonant metaphors they might have the capacity to slip past the bars of political bias He offers a pretty good example.

    – Well, we are working on that, but when the polluters decide who the prosecutors are, that approach is doomed – See the deal

    made with the state of New Jersey under Chris Christie. Like Trump installing onto courts the people who will ultimately judge him.

    These suggestions are not useless, but they are not exactly news. I was hoping for something a bit more surprising than tactics that are already ongoing. The long-term approaches are minimally different from the short-term ones noted above.

    So, if the goal of this book is to provide new tools to do battle with the forces of ignorance, I would call it a miss. However, and this is a big HOWEVER, there is a lot of interesting information in these pages, and it is at least somewhat reassuring that the battle between illumination and darkness has been going on for a long time, and we are still here, alive, able to carry it on. Also, it is worth refreshing our familiarity with some of the major progenitors of our world, and understanding the foundation on which demagogues build their

    of fear, misinformation, rage, and doubt. The Truth is what you make of it, so we need to remain vigilant and keep ours and succeeding generations from descending into another know-nothing dark age.

    Review posted – March 22, 2019

    Publication date – March 26, 2019

    I received this book from Norton in return for an information-based, unbiased review, but one based in real-world experience.

    =============================

    Links to the author’s

    , and

    pages

    -----a list of articles for

    -----Co-author of an article in

    -

    -----Francis Bacon’s

    -----Descartes’

  • Dale Bentz

    Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one that highlighted to me the ideas and proposals of (what were to me) some (new) members of the historical philosophical society. As the author points out, a safe space for useful and constructive discourse has all but disappeared and is unlikely to re-emerge from amongst our extremely polarized society. Perhaps the middle can demand such a discourse, but where is its leadership to do so. Instead, the middle is truly caught in the middle, choosing between the

    Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one that highlighted to me the ideas and proposals of (what were to me) some (new) members of the historical philosophical society. As the author points out, a safe space for useful and constructive discourse has all but disappeared and is unlikely to re-emerge from amongst our extremely polarized society. Perhaps the middle can demand such a discourse, but where is its leadership to do so. Instead, the middle is truly caught in the middle, choosing between the lesser of two (polarized) evils, and perhaps not always choosing wisely. This is a great read to show how we have arrived at this point.

  • Christopher

    Authority, both generally and in particular areas, is under assault today. Just because you are the trained referee of a professional game, a government bureaucracy, or a renowned scientist doesn’t mean that people will automatically listen to your expertise. Skepticism of authority can be a healthy thing, but too much can lead to disaster. This book tries to tackle our current moment in history, where science denial (despite overwhelming evidence by some of the best minds in the world) is consi

    Authority, both generally and in particular areas, is under assault today. Just because you are the trained referee of a professional game, a government bureaucracy, or a renowned scientist doesn’t mean that people will automatically listen to your expertise. Skepticism of authority can be a healthy thing, but too much can lead to disaster. This book tries to tackle our current moment in history, where science denial (despite overwhelming evidence by some of the best minds in the world) is considered a badge of honor, by telling the history and intellectual development of science through 10 different lives.

    Starting with Francis Bacon and moving through such figures as Galileo, Descartes, Mary Shelly, and Hannah Arendt, Robert Crease tells the story of how science gained its authority, but also how the very things that give science authority and power are the same things that make it vulnerable to science denial. It is an absolutely fascinating look and most of the lives are summed up quite well. It makes me want to go back and read some of the luminaries to get a better grasp of Western thought.

    However, this is not a perfect book. At times, Prof. Crease gets too carried away. For example, he compares politicians who deny climate change and seek to keep scientific evidence for its existence from being used by the bureaucracy to ISIS militants that destroy irreplaceable cultural relics. It’s an extreme analogy, to say the least, and one that he readily acknowledges. He tries to back it up, but I found it to be incredibly harsh nonetheless. Also, in his conclusion he gives some recommendations on how to combat science denial. Most of the recommendations are sound, but one of them, the call to have politicians sign a pledge, seems unnecessarily hostile, just like his ISIS analogy. Lastly, while most of his chapters are solid summations, his chapter on Kemal Attaturk had a major flaw: it barely mentioned Attaturk or his life at all. Instead, the chapter focused on the the Ottoman Empire’s attempts to integrate Western science into its culture, which was achieved when the Empire transformed itself into the modern nation of Turkey, which Attaturk played a critical role in. Compared to his other chapters, this one fell a little flat.

    Everything else in this book I heartily endorse. This is not just for philosophers, scientists, and historians. This should be read by anyone who has seen the rise of science denial, from climate change denial to flat earthers to anti-vaxers, before and during the Trump era. This book reminds us not just how we got to this age of scientific wonders, but points the way towards combatting those who would undermine it.

  • Edward B.

    I really liked this.

    It is about how we got to a world in which people (especially Republican politicians in the United States) consider scientific facts to be optional - and what can be done about this problem.

    But the approach that Crease takes, in examining the strengths and weaknesses of science and its practitioners, is surprising. He examines the development of science-within-society historically, by looking at the lives and works of ten important figures, starting with Francis Bacon, Galile

    I really liked this.

    It is about how we got to a world in which people (especially Republican politicians in the United States) consider scientific facts to be optional - and what can be done about this problem.

    But the approach that Crease takes, in examining the strengths and weaknesses of science and its practitioners, is surprising. He examines the development of science-within-society historically, by looking at the lives and works of ten important figures, starting with Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, and René Descartes.

    Both the biographical details and the development of the author's thesis are very interesting, and they are woven together quite seamlessly.

  • Chad Brock

    3.75

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