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By Steve Fuller


The Montréal Review, June 2011



Science by Steve Fuller

(McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010)


We live in a time of devolved authority from the state to communities, groups and individuals. This applies no less to science. Surveys reveal paradoxically that strong general pro-science attitudes are married to scepticism about established scientific opinion. Such results explain a variety of seemingly unrelated phenomena ranging from the revival of alternative medicine and scientific creationism to the use of 'freedom of information' laws to access climate change data, not to mention the anti-expert mentality that informs Wikipedia.

This development recalls the Protestant Reformation, during which the printing press and the promotion of literacy served to fragment the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, eventually leading to multiple Christian denominations, each founded on a particular reading of the Bible. Something similar may be now happening to science with the advent of the Internet and its corresponding form of literacy. I have called it 'Protscience'.

No doubt some will find the juxtaposition of science and religion in this way invidious. But insofar as science claims to provide universally valid knowledge - all that is true for all to know - then professional scientists should expect to be treated the same as clerics who made comparable claims on behalf of religious forms of knowledge in the past. Thus, in the not so distant future, peer-reviewed research in a top scientific journal may be regarded with the same wariness as Christians typically regard a pronouncement from a church official. The official line is not outright accepted or rejected. Rather, people will seek second and third opinions, both in person and on-line, before drawing any conclusions for themselves.

Truth be told, the histories of religion and science in the West are not merely analogous but outright continuous. An increasingly literal understanding of the biblical claim that every human is born 'in the image and likeness of God' inspired the radicalisation of Christian thought that began with the rise of Protestantism, was accelerated during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, resulting in the modern science-based secular world-view.

The upshot for today is that people are increasingly taking science into their own hands, not least the biomedical sciences. It is ushering a new era of 'bioliberalism' and 'self-sciencing', in which individuals and self-organized groups are doing for themselves what states in the past would have done for them - or at least in their name - such as defining the terms of appropriate health care.

Aspects of this trend are familiar. Ordinary bodily self-maintenance, such as weight management, has always blurred the boundaries of medicine, nutrition and cosmetics. Here the scientifically trained physician is taken to be offering rather general advice that the patient then customises as he or she sees fit. Indeed, critical discussion about such matters may help to reinforce social bonds in one's own community by drawing on religious and folk knowledges to complement, if not countermand, the scientific orthodoxy.

In response, the medical establishment has tried to sharpen the distinction between 'science' and 'pseudoscience'. But probably the most that is feasible in these bioliberal times is a rigorous enforcement of current standards of 'false advertising' for the sale of drugs and treatments.

Still more challenging are the efforts by 'user groups' to test the efficacy of existing drugs and treatments to their limits, even if these exceed the bounds of the law. It provides the grassroots basis for much of today's interest in 'enhanced' performance, be it in an exam or on the pitch.

Even as scientific and political authorities decry this underground behaviour, they realize that it contains valuable information that can feed into future research and legislation. Moreover, the Internet-based character of many of the relevant user groups allows the authorities to gather intelligence by eavesdropping, or 'lurking', on their discussions - a practice pioneered by commercial software developers twenty years ago.

The most radical tendency is literally a 'do-it-yourself' activity increasingly known as 'open source science'. Its practitioners hold sufficiently advanced science degrees to engage in the reverse engineering of existing drugs and even organisms for purposes of modifying them. These 'bio-hackers' form on-line communities that develop 'counter-expertises' that may be opaque to established science. Their motives are quite diverse: self-enhancement, commercial gain and old-fashioned curiosity each play a role.

In the 18 th century, the Enlightenment offered under the name of 'science' the prospect of a form of knowledge that would account for all things to all people. The devolution of state-supported science in our time has added new dimensions to that prospect, as science becomes an activity to which everyone may contribute and then apply for themselves. Whether the result will realize the dreams of 250 years ago remains an open question.


Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, UK. The ideas in this essay are further developed in Science: The Art of Living (McGill-Queens University Press, 2010). His next book, Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past, Present and Future, will appear with Palgrave Macmillan in September.


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