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Defining Science: A Rhetoric of Demarcation.

Taylor, Charles Alan. Defining Science: A Rhetoric of Demarcation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. vii + 292 pp. Cloth, $53.00; paper, $22.95--What is science? This seems a simple question, but it turns out to be both difficult and important. The answer depends on who asks and who answers. In almost any beginning science text we are likely to find a short essay on the "scientific method." Scientists seem to say "Do this and you'll be doing science," or "Watch this! This is science." The social authority and the funding given to science attest to the importance, while many disputes and controversies--among scientists, philosophers, and others--confirm the difficulty of our question.

Scientists, philosophers, and, today, sociologists have been defining science all along. Taylor's view is that they are talking publicly, to each other and to other audiences, so that rhetoric, too, has a useful perspective from which to "demarcate" science. "Science ... is a production of historically shifting social communities that rhetorically demarcate themselves from other communities" (p. 7). Taylor creates the interesting metaphor of a "scientific ecosystem," where even "the primacy of certain species within their ecological niches ... comes ... from the ecosystem's profound interconnectedness" (p.7, his emphasis).

Taylor reviews the philosophical, historical, and sociological literature on science from a rhetorical viewpoint, acknowledging that this goes "against the grain" (p. 11). These chapters are necessary background for his later discussions of creation science and of the controversy over cold fusion, but outsiders to rhetorical scholarship will find this part of the book slow reading. Taylor can write clearly and even lightly, but his presentation here is often extremely dense.

In a transitional chapter, Taylor highlights the importance of his project: "Demarcating science rhetorically might help prefigure more democratic discourse of and about science in our age" (p. 103). He exemplifies this in chapter 5, on science and creation science, and in chapter 6, on the cold fusion controversy of 1989. Space permits only a brief discussion, and I will leave the cold fusion case to the readers of the book.

Although both the scientific community and the courts have rejected creation science as science, the majority of the public at large supports the presentation of both in public school science education. The grounds for the misunderstanding may lie in competing views of what science is. Creationists and the public view science in a "Baconian" light, stressing observation, induction, verification. Scientists today stress the nature of theory and falsification. This oversimplified summary will at least allow me to mention Taylor's points that (a) the public is likely to see science more as the creationists define it in their anti-evolution rhetoric; and (b) when scientists define science away from this understanding, the public sees only an elitist exclusion of other ideas. Misunderstanding remains, and the social costs may be high.

Taylor's point becomes clearer and more compelling as these latter chapters proceed. Science and the wider community each need the other and need to understand the other. The relationships among communities and within them are carried on through discourse. The quality of those relationships, and the quality of life in the "ecosystem," can depend on the character and (mis)understanding of this discourse. Although I resisted this book, I found in the end that it contributed to my understanding of the controversies it discussed, and pointed toward other constructive conversations.
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Author:Hunter, A. Richard
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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