cover of book

Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture
by Norman Levitt
Rutgers University Press, 1999
Cloth: 978-0-8135-2652-2 | eISBN: 978-0-8135-5802-8
Library of Congress Classification Q175.5.L475 1999
Dewey Decimal Classification 306.45


In this lucid critique, Norman Levitt examines the strained relations between science and contemporary society. For the most part, Levitt states, we idolize musicians and cheer on athletes, yet we view scientists with a mixture of awe and unease. Significantly, too, we are unsure how scientific discovery actually fits into the broader schemes of politics, and policy.  Even beyond pragmatic questions, we remain anxious about the implications of science for our basic understanding of human values and purpose.

One result of this uncertainty about scientific work is an ill-informed crusade to “democratize” science.  It has become fashionable lately, Levitt states, for non-scientists to attempt to intervene in science policy, which often results in methodologically unsound decisions.  The embrace of "alternative medicine" is a particularly ominous example.

Levitt suggests that science, by virtue of its accuracy and reliability, deserves to be at the top of the hierarchy of knowledge, and that our social institutions ought to take this fact strongly into account. Levitt hopes that Americans will become aware of the limitations of unchecked populism and will be willing to yield a bit of “democratic” control over certain questions in order to minimize the danger that sound science will be ignored or overridden.  However, this trust in scientific methodology must be part of a broader understanding.  Science must not only act responsibly toward our democratic institutions; it must also concede that our society has the right to decide what kinds of research are most consistent with larger goals and therefore deserve the most support.

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