Why I am Not a Scientist


By Jonathan Marks. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2009. 325 pp. Hardbound, $55.00; Softbound, $22.95.

At first glance, the title, Why I Am Not A Scientist, seems irrelevant to the discipline of oral history. However, anthropologist Jonathan Marks approaches scientific inquiry utilizing a framework that is often employed by oral historians in their work. Marks examines how scientific facts are a complex web of meaning, influenced by social, historical, and cultural contexts. Additionally, Marks contends that science has been traditionally accepted as a method of establishing certain truths about the universe and is therefore “a voice of authority and . . . a locus of cultural power” (xi). With that said, one of the important focuses of this work is how culture influences the way scientists gather, interpret, and make use of their data, making science a subjective activity. The work of oral historians has sometimes been challenged by those in the hard sciences as being an invalid or unreliable source. Yet, Jonathan Marks clearly shows how narratives that come from the field of science are also an entrenched cultural activity where what constitutes fact from fiction can often be blurred.
Marks begins his analysis by defining science as “. . . the production of convincing knowledge in modern society” (2). Scientific knowledge is produced in relation to the social environment, prior ideas, and the technological means to make the discovery. Furthermore, scientists have to convince the community at large of the validity of their discovery. As Marks points out, there have been many times in the history of scientific discovery when people were reluctant to accept ideas that are now known as correct and have readily embraced ideas that have been proven false. 
This paradox is further explained when Marks looks at the pioneers of scientific thought, such as Copernicus and Vesalius, whose ideas challenged traditional systems of knowledge. The relevance of these works, according to Marks, is the context in which the ideas surfaced and became accepted. For example, at this time authority was being challenged by figures such as Martin Luther. Although science was still wed to religion, this would soon change as knowledge and culture shifted toward ideas of reason and experimentation, ushering in what would be referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. At the same time, the technological innovation of moveable type allowed for the rapid dissemination of ideas and allowed for information to reach larger populations.
Marks observe how the definition of what science is and its methodologies have changed over time and across disciplines. Therefore, the conundrum is whether or not a solid definition of what constitutes the practice of science or its related methodology can be identified. Consequently, Marks writes, “ . . . how different really is the scientist reading the spectrophotometer printout from the shaman reading the entrails of a chicken? ” (62). After all, both the scientist and the shaman are attempting to make sense of the world through the lens of culture which imparts a particular set of values and assumptions.
This is an important point, particularly when science occupies a position of authority and produces information that is often blindly accepted as fact. In the past, this has been problematic, particularly with regard to ideas relating to social Darwinism and eugenics.
Power is a central theme throughout this book. For example, Marks illustrates through numerous cases how scientific misconduct or fraud is more common than one would think. Even more surprising is the contention by Marks that many scientific papers are published without a thorough inspection by peers for errors. Therefore, because scientists are in a high position of authority and at the same time affected by social and cultural influences that may affect their work, scientific theories and data should be “ . . . subject to the same limits and questions as other instruments of power ” (278).
Why I Am Not A Scientist is a stimulating historical account of how science evolved as a system of knowledge production and will appeal to a broad range of scholars, including scientists, historians, and anthropologists. Although his narrative occasionally meanders from the main point of a chapter, Marks’ writing is accessible and instilled with passion and wit. And even though Marks ’ research suggests that scientific methodology has often been heralded as more objective and therefore closer to understanding the truth of things, his analysis reveals how scientists are human actors influenced by cultural narratives and forces that shape their behaviors, perceptions, and interpretations of data. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of this book is that it bridges the divide between the hard sciences and social sciences, opening up a dialogue based on similarity rather than difference.
Mary E. Kohler
The State University of New York — Buffalo

Source: The Oral History Review, Volume37, Issue2, Pp. 283-285.



 
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