Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture
By Daniel Patrick Thurs. Cloth: ISBN 978-0813540733, $44.95; paper: ISBN 978-0813544205, $27.95. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, September 2007 (hardback), September 2008 (paperback). 237 pages.
Review by Amy L. Thompson, Austin Peay State University
In Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture, Daniel Patrick Thurs explores how the American perception of science has been and continues to be shaped by popular and often controversial scientific topics. Thurs argues that these debatable issues have forced Americans to formulate their own idea and beliefs about science, often leading them to question the ideas and beliefs of others. Thurs suggests that although many Americans avoid science talk, nevertheless, a fascination with some science-related issues (medicine, astronomy, technology, new research) continues to occur, although the term “science” is not used to describe them. The author suggests that while the general population appreciates the importance of science, most people do not engage in “Science Talk” and seem to blindly accept scientific knowledge given to them. This underlying paradox between popular perception and the desire to understand and engage in “Science Talk” is a theme entwined throughout this work. Thurs concludes by bringing in modern-day examples, such as the debate over intelligent design, and makes suggestions for improving “Science Talk” among the non-science public.
Thurs relies on extensive resources to follow the evolution of science talk as outlined in his notes section, although he includes no separate bibliography. The use of these sources is evidenced throughout the book, with each chapter presenting a complete history of a topic including prominent figures of the time, their beliefs and ideas, and the ever-changing opinion of society as a whole. Although this book covers topics that the general public might be familiar with, it is not a work for the non-scientific, general reader. Each topic is presented as if the reader already has extensive knowledge of the subject with little to no background given regarding what terms such as phrenology (the study of bumps and grooves on the head) or relativity (physics theories proposed by Einstein dealing with space and time) actually mean. Also, the work is heavy in dates, people, and ideas. While this provides a complete treatment of the topic, it does not lend itself well to the leisurely reader. Fact after fact is presented in a mix of think pieces that require active engagement and attention.
There are numerous works that present single controversial aspects of science, including global warming, evolution, science and religion, and stem cell research; and several works provide a collection of discussions or debates that argue for or against various scientific ideas. Few exist, however, that tackle the concept of the perception of science and how it influences and has been influenced by American culture. Interestingly, a card game about science also called “Science Talk” encourages children to learn about and discuss different aspects of science, perhaps leading to a new revolution among young citizens. This academic treatment of “Science Talk” is a valuable tool for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of how scientific perception has changed throughout American culture.

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