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Created: July 5, 2004
Latest Update: July 5, 2004
Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge
Review by Jeanne Curran
Added on July 15, 1998.
Steve Epstein describes the fascinating story of the science surrounding AIDS research, the rush to find a vaccine, the terror of recognition that medical science was a long way from conquering viral infection, the greed of competitive science even in face of many people's imminent death, and the same need for tolerance of ambiguity we find in every situation that has multiple perspectives with no final authority or ability to prove who's right.
This story is told from the perspective of the gay men's perspective in the United States. That makes it no less valuable as a resource for all other groups, for we are facing a world epidemic of major proportions with AIDS. Epstein expresses cogently and clearly the dilemmas we ordinary folkds face when we must assess the credibility of the leading edges of scientific knowledge, especially when it affects our very lives."These conceptions of the social relations that govern scientific knowledge -production have several implications for understanding cases such as AIDS research. First, these analyses suggest that scientists, other professionals, and laypeople alike find themselves frequently in the business of assessing the credibility of knowledge claims and claimants, and asking who or what they should trust and believe. The difficulty is that--for laypeople and to a considerable extent for experts as well--such assessments can usually be made only indirectly, through the scrutiny of external markers of credibility. Who conducted the study? Where was it published? What does the New York Times have to say about it? What does my doctor think? Even such everyday iconography as the diploma on the wall serves an important signaling function within a social system stitched together by assertions and assessments of credibility."
op. cit. at p. 16
Epstein's work is readable, scholarly, caring, and honest. He reminds us that we all have biases, and that those biases can kill. When the book first arrived in bookstores I found I could not put it down. The story is compelling, especially for those of us who understand its implications for discourse."'Scientists constantly face uncertainty,' Susan Leigh Star has emphasized. 'Their experimental materials are recalcitrant; their organizational politics precarious; they may not know whether a given technique was correctly applied or interpreted; they must often rely on observations made in haste or by unskilled assistants.' Yet precisely because contingency, confusion, misgivings, and indecision tend to be 'written out' of scientists' published work as part of their normal persuasive practice, nonscientists often have mistaken notions about the degree of certainty behind the knowledge that science generates. As Harry Collins has concluded, 'There is a relationship between the extent to which science is seen as a producer of certainty and distance from the research front.'"
op. cit. at p. 241-2
Robert K. Merton said this same thing ever so long ago. Take a look. Notice that one way of gaining some faith in the validity of an idea is examining what many well-informed people have to say about it. That doesn't mean that fifty million well-nformed scholars can't be wrong. They can, and probably have been. But, like reading the dissenting opinions in court cases, sometimes the ones who lost, who dissent, are on the leading edge of what is to come.
Visit Amazon.com for more information on Epsteins' Impure Science: Aids, Activisim, and the Politics of Knowledge.
Susan Leigh Star, "Scientific Work and Uncertainty," Social Studies of Science 15 (August 1985): 391-427, quote from 392.
Harry M. Collins, "Certainty and the Public Understanding of Science: Science on Television," Social Studies of Science 17 (November 1987): 692.