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Science criticism - what is it, and why do we need it?

Brian Trench  

French physicist and science-essayist Jean-Marc Lévy Leblond argued twenty years ago 'The Case for Science Criticism'. In one of his many explorations of what it means to consider science in and as culture, he observed that science lacked a 'critical function'. This function is assumed to be an integral part of, for example, the performing and visual arts, literature and music. The mediation of these aspects of culture, and their relation with wider society, is effected and shaped by critics and criticism. Critics help audiences situate new work and make sense of it. Is there something about science that makes criticism of this kind impossible? Is the absence of science criticism a hindrance to science's deeper immersion in general culture? Such questions are still relevant two decades after Levy Leblond explored them. His essay has now been published for the first time in an English translation and is thus available to a wider readership (in M. Bucchi and B. Trench, eds. Critical Concepts in Sociology: Public Communication of Science, an anthology due for publication in late 2015). In a 1980s book entitled 'The Science Critic' Maurice Goldsmith argued for "a new type of communicator", and neuroscientist Steven Rose has continued in that tradition, writing critically on biological determinism. Outside science, feminist authors have criticised aspects of scientific research, including military and reproductive technologies, as male-oriented. Activist groups have criticised some research as environmentally or ethically irresponsible. However, a comparatively small number of science communicators and writers have taken on the critic's role; these include authors Phillip Ball and John Horgan. The European Commission is promoting the concept of 'responsible research', and holding science to standards of 'responsibility' is itself a critical action. But where might science criticism find a platform?

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