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Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life. Christopher P. Toumey. Rutgers Unveristy Press (1996). ISBN 0-8135-2285-4 (pb). 197pp.
Anyone hoping to address public attitudes about science in the U.S. needs to digest this informative, provocative volume. Toumey is concerned with the "plenary authority" given to science and the conditions under which it is often applied to non-scientific claims. He claims most centrally that certain elements have become cultural markers of scientific endorsement--and that in the gap between a citizen's actual knowledge of science and the recognition of the appearance of science, the clever "conjurer" can use these markers to gain authority. That poses some partly familiar challenges for the science teacher in preparing students for public discourse on science. But Toumey denies some of the familiar solutions.
Toumey begins with a history of attitudes about science in the U.S., leading to what he calls "science in an Old Testament style"--that is, religious-like respect for science without understanding of science. Hence, science can become a simplistic series of "wonders, miracles or life-and-death melodramas," as portrayed on television. Further, today we are so bombarded with scientific information, images and symbols that no single person can deal with it all. Everyone must rely on experts--even other scientists. Thus the inescapable dilemma: we cannot help but trust the symbols of science and succumb at least sometimes to their abuse. Brute "scientific literacy" or deeper content knowledge is not a solution.
These views are even more significant in a democratic culture, where public decisions are made by all, not by a few scientific experts. Science in a public sphere becomes mixed (or mired) with personal meanings--and individuals generally only appreciate science to the extent that it confirms their existing beliefs. What appears as a public debate about science may, therefore, be about other issues instead. Science enters only selectively, reinforcing one perspective or another: where conjuring occurs.
Toumey analyzes five episodes in detail. Controversies over the flouridation of public water supplies, for example, reflected fears about "soul-snatching" by impersonal public institutions, even though argued in terms of flourosis and tooth decay. Referrenda on AIDS and its transmission fed on mass fear of contagion or "plague"; media coverage on cold fusion was governed by "hope," and the promise (or false promise) of progress. The mad scientists of fiction and film represent "evil"--science gone morally astray. "More science" does not solve these problems, because the scientific knowledge flows through non-scientific filters.
The appraisal of the creationist controversy is especially powerful. For Toumey, the "problem" with evolution from widespread religious perspectives is not so much the dignity of humans or the non-existence of a Designer, as the threat of moral anarchy. Here, there is a potential solution--but not through deeper discussion of fossils, natural selection or even nature of science. To address the conceptual hurdle, the teacher needs to teach how evolution explains ethics (see SHiPS 6/3).
Toumey does not address education directly, but teachers may use his conclusions profitably to expose students to the techniques of conjuring. For example, when the media responds to the democratic ideal of equal time, it lends more credibility to experts who are in the minority. The problem is that the public is rarely prepared to make informed judgments: a "balanced" presentation is really distorted. Likewise, Toumey notes, a little bit of uncertainty goes a long way--often carrying far more weight than the burden of evidence might allow. Individuals can gain disproportinate authority by adopting skeptical postures or simply by pointing to the statistical nature of results. Even if we are not immune to conjuring, then, we might still learn how it's done, rendering it not quite so magical.
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