Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Book Reviews

Scientific Democrats

Andrea Turpin

Scientific American, July 1898.

Championing the forgotten understanding of “scientific democrats.”

Andrew Jewett, a professor of history and social studies at Harvard University, has written a book recovering—and commending—past attempts to make science a means of generating moral consensus in American politics. In the midst of a national crisis over the diminishing authority and prestige of the humanities in higher education, particularly in relation to the sciences, this might seem a perverse ambition for a historian. Jewett puts that apparent contradiction to rest by historicizing the word science, pointing out that it has not always referred primarily to the natural or physical sciences. Nor, he notes, have scientists always seen themselves as dispassionate discoverers of absolute truth. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, science referred more to a cast of mind, an approach to consensus building. Its practitioners systematically collected evidence regarding our world, both physical and social. Then they engaged in democratic conversation with others—including the general public—as to the best interpretation of that evidence and, ultimately, as to how society ought to proceed in light of it. But such an understanding of the meaning and uses of science has largely been lost in our time.

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