Powerless science? Science & politics in a toxic world by Soraya Boudia & Nathalie Jas.

Author:Quest, Linda
Position:Book review

Boudia, Soraya, and Nathalie Jas, eds. Powerless Science?: Science and Politics in a Toxic World. New York: Berghahn, 2014. ix + 280 pages. Hardcover, $95.00.

Powerless Science? is the second and most recent title in the series, The Environment in History: International Perspectives, sponsored by the European Society for Environmental History and the Rachel Carson Center. The editors did a heroic job of assembling and connecting a group of articles from contributors active in interdisciplinary research and studies. They span multiple disciplines (sociology, history, philosophy, economics, and political science), assorted methodologies, different time frames, venues, and geographies, as in cases from the United States, Italy, and Taiwan. The substantive proposition is that technological-scientific risks and hazards--particularly environmental contamination--are ongoing scientific, technological, social, and political problems.

The title question--Powerless Science?--recurs throughout the book. It refers to asymmetries of capability and situations. This involves disparities such as ones between knowledge and sufficient motivation to take a stand, unequal stakes between those affected and those benefiting. The introduction helpfully addresses "The Greatness and Misery of Science" (pp. 1-14). It stresses the correlation of wealth and well being as attributes of modernity with the act of putting substances into air, soil, water, and markets. Medicine, pesticides, food additives, petrochemistry, synthetic chemistry, and nuclear industries are toxicants that might (or not) have pathogenic effects--mutagenicity, carcinogenicity, and reproductive outcomes. The editors are emphatic that doing science requires questioning everything and treating any conclusion as tentative and partial. Uncertainty always remains. Curiosity and suspense build from chapter to chapter, so skipping back and forth enhances rather than spoils the effect. In reading, keep watch for asymmetries and also for analogies. We who are social scientists might be as culpable as the chemists and biochemists who participate in "hard science."

Powerless Science? characterizes the choices for scientists as very dire: defining dangers and making them visible versus obscuring them, providing resources for advocacy movements and regulatory systems, guaranteeing systems of regulation for prevention and management, claiming objectivity while putting forward some results and not others, doing...

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