Review: Scientific Controversies

Notice: The final version of this review is published in Contemporary Sociology 45(6):781-782, 2016, doi:10.1177/0094306116671949oo. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

Scientific Controversies is a throwback in three senses. First, and most obviously, it is literally a throwback to 2003, when Presses Universitaires de France published a shorter version of this book in French. Twelve years later, the new English version adds a preface by Mario Bunge, a new chapter on Shams al-Dīn al-Samarqandī, some further elaboration on the book’s conclusions, and a hefty price tag.

Second, Scientific Controversies is an intellectual throwback that explicitly resists historical developments in the sociology of science after 1970 or so. It starts from the position that the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and other “relativist” forms of sociology of science have erred in treating science as the product of social forces. So if, like Mario Bunge, you think that sociologists from Thomas Kuhn forward were “cheeky amateurs” who, in order to gain popularity, “flattered the many students and scholars who had chosen the wide door – that of cultural studies, gender studies, science marketing, and the like” (p. xix), thereby doing serious damage to academia, this might be the book for you!

Third, it is a throwback in the empirical sense, in that it focuses on the past without much regard for present implications. Scientific Controversies looks at cases dating from the 13th to 19th centuries in order to contest claims that SSK proponents made between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Obviously some science has happened since then. Obviously various sociologists have talked about science since the mid-1990s. But few more recent examples appear in this book.

What does appear are detailed accounts of historical controversies selected to disprove specific SSK claims. Raynaud takes on the principle of symmetry by showing that Bruno Latour’s famous analysis of the Pasteur/Pouchet controversy rests on historical inaccuracies regarding power relationships. Raynaud takes on the principle of causality by showing that the Paris/Montpellier dispute between Vitalism and Organicism was determined by internal factors, not external factors. Raynaud takes on the social determination of scientific content by showing that the 13th century optic intromission vs. extramission controversy at Oxford produced different theories despite similar social circumstances. Brief accounts of Al-Samarqandī’s 13th century theory of how controversies ought to work, and of Pierre Duhem, Willard Quine, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s treatments of theory and language, add theoretical depth to the empirical case studies.

While the amount of information packed into Scientific Controversies is impressive, Raynaud’s methods for selecting and interpreting evidence will probably strike sociologists as idiosyncratic. At a broad level, Raynaud’s case selection process remains mysterious. Despite a lengthy opening essay on the many factors involved in scientific controversies, it is never quite clear what gets to count as a controversy, or why some pieces of evidence, or some cases, or some people, or some interpretations (and not others) are appropriate to illustrate his points. For example, in several instances Raynaud introduces, then attempts to disprove, counterfactuals that are inconsistent with arguments that SSK offers, or that pursue digressions detached from central arguments. These efforts are sometimes interesting, but it’s not obvious why they’re in the book.

Sociologists might also find the analytical approach confusing. Operationalization of abstract analytical concepts seems to follow no system beyond evidentiary convenience. Sometimes concepts get operationalized in terms of simple descriptive statistics. For example, at one point Raynaud operationalizes “credibility,” one of the most important and contested concepts in science studies, as “number of reprints and subsequent editions published” (p. 115). But sometimes concepts get operationalized in terms of biographical characteristics of key actors. For example, at one point Raynaud assesses the relationship between institutional and political factors by trying to determine which physicians were “more sensitive to the revolutionary movement than their colleagues” (p. 123). It’s hard to tell whether this makes sense or not, or what the alternatives might be.

Once you get through all of the case studies, Raynaud’s conclusions are clear. Scientific content cannot be determined by social influences. Rational arguments, supported by convincing proof, settle controversies. Though multiple factors may be involved in controversies, factors internal to science outweigh factors external to science. Perhaps most importantly, these conditions obtain consistently over time and place, despite local variation and context.

None of these conclusions are new. They are standard realist/rationalist positions. But what Raynaud rarely acknowledges is that several of the cases that support his conclusions are also compatible with some versions of relativism. Raynaud is right that some controversies are settled in ways that support a rationalist explanation. That does not necessarily refute relativist explanations of other controversies, despite his assertions to the contrary, nor does it disprove anything but the most radical versions of relativism.

This brings us to the book’s fundamental flaw. By lumping together unlike positions, arguments, and claims, Raynaud repeatedly draws general conclusions about SSK and relativism that are unwarranted by his specific evidence. Lumping together separate claims from Latour, David Bloor, Harry Collins, and Michael Mulkay together to create one set of “relativist tenets” (p. 184) may help analytically, but it does not obligate these theorists to be consistent with one another. Their arguments differ, and those differences matter. Sure, people have made some zany claims in the sociology of science. Those zany claims do not exhaust the content of SSK, its intellectual descendants, or its interlocutors. Nor do they absolve Raynaud of the responsibility to take as much care with his opponents’ claims and evidence as he does his own.

The fact of that matter is that we have good reasons to be critical of SSK, whether specifically of Latour, Bloor, Collins, etc, or more generally of relativist projects, without returning to pre-Kuhnian days. But you wouldn’t know that from this book. Feminist science studies scholarship has contributed significantly to this conversation, for example, yet goes almost entirely unremarked. Some of the most compelling arguments against extreme relativism come from later work by the very same scholars criticized in Scientific Controversies. Even Latour criticized Latour! Here in 2016, attacking 1980s SSK with a rationalist exegesis of publication rates in Paris and Montpellier is like bringing sand to the beach. Perhaps the labor is its own reward, but to observers the effort appears rather pointless, and the impact of the contribution seems negligible.

Overall this book’s incredibly narrow focus and lack of engagement with more recent sociology make it impossible to recommend to sociologists. If you’re interested in the sociology of science’s early years, and especially in thinking through the implications of past arguments for today’s sociology, I recommend instead John Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes, which is a much better book at half the price.

Michael S. Evans
Dartmouth College

Scientific Controversies: A Socio-Historical Perspective on the Advancement of Science, by Dominique Raynaud. Translated by Lisa Christine Chien. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2015, 320 pp. $69.95 cloth. ISBN: 9781412855716.

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2017