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Reviewed by:
  • Scientific Authority and Twentieth-Century America
  • William G. Rothstein
Ronald G. Walters, ed. Scientific Authority and Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. vi + 271 pp. Ill. $35.00.

Scientific Authority and Twentieth-Century America contains nine articles that examine historical paradigms, biomedical science, social science, technology, and advertising. The editor’s introduction, “Uncertainty, Science, and Reform in Twentieth-Century America,” discusses changes in the perception of science—from the claim that it is the “key to human progress” (p. 2) to a recognition that it is socially determined, advances certain kinds of interests, and exerts authority. The leftist critics of science have disregarded postmodernism, feminism, Foucault, conservative philosophies, animal rights, and the religious right.

David A. Hollinger, in “How Wide the Circle of the ‘We’? American Intellectuals and the Problem of Ethnos since World War II,” discusses the replacement of a universalism intended to break down social prejudices with “ethnoracial communities” as sources of “cultural values, social identities, and political power” (p. 18). Under this perspective, “the less one’s raw humanity is said to count for anything, the more important become one’s affiliations. . . . the more it matters [End Page 586] just who is and is not one of ‘us’” (p. 19). The universalistic approach of the natural sciences has been accepted in many different societies. Dorothy Ross, in “A Historian’s View of American Social Science,” states that American social scientists have emulated the natural sciences, while their European counterparts displayed an “understanding of history as a process of qualitative change, moved and ordered by forces that lie within itself” (p. 34). American social science has used “a reductionist language that encourages elite and technological manipulation rather than democratic self-knowledge and participation” (p. 48).

Three of the papers pertain to medicine. JoAnne Brown, in “Crime, Commerce, and Contagionism,” examines how commercial advertisements for hygienic products used the “personification of germs as criminals, enemies, and strangers, and of public health agencies and soap companies as the arms of hygienic law” (p. 57) to intertwine disease and crime. Immigrants and other minorities were often characterized as germ carriers, reinforcing “cultural associations among criminality, feeblemindedness, disease, and immigration” (p. 77). Allan M. Brandt, in “‘Just Say No’: Risk, Behavior, and Disease in Twentieth-Century America,” states that the germ theory depersonalized disease and made it “a random chain of events that brought together a microorganism . . . and human beings” (p. 85). Biostatistics and the use of controlled trials enabled researchers to discover individual behaviors that made chronic disease “a failure to take appropriate precautions against publicly specified risks, . . . an intrinsic moral failing” (p. 91). Regina Morantz-Sanchez, in “Female Science and Medical Reform: A Path Not Taken,” discusses Elizabeth Blackwell, a nineteenth-century American physician who opposed the germ theory, laboratory research, animal experimentation, and the reductionist approach to disease. This has some relationship to the beliefs of modern feminists who “offer an alternative paradigm that stresses intuition and the interaction between the knower and the known” (p. 112).

John R. Stilgoe, in “Plugging Past Reform: Small-Scale Farming Innovation and Big-Scale Farming Research,” describes “pluggers,” small-scale farmers who survived by experimenting and innovating. Special farm machinery was manufactured for them, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture took little interest in their needs. Roland Marchand and Michael L. Smith, in “Corporate Science on Display,” describe the efforts of large manufacturing corporations to publicize their new research departments in the early twentieth century. Rather than educating the public about industrial research, they exhibited it as “magic tricks for the popular audience” (p. 154), culminating in the 1939 World’s Fair. In the 1964 World’s Fair, the problems of technology were becoming evident, and at EPCOT at Disney World, industrial exhibits adopted an escapist perspective. James T. Kloppenberg, in “Why History Matters to Political Theory,” reviews new historical paradigms and notes the indifference of most historians to them. He urges historians to “insist on the diversity of voices, and the centrality of conflict, in the shaping of our tradition” (p. 196), but he does not refer to any particular diversity or conflict theories. [End Page 587]

Most of the articles will be of interest...

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pp. 586-588
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