The best books on the politics of science

Philip Mirowski Author Of The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics
By Philip Mirowski

Who am I?

I am an economist who came to realize that the marketplace of ideas was a political doctrine, and not an empirical description of how we came to know what we think we know. Science has never functioned in the same manner across centuries; it was only during my lifetime that it became recast as a subset of market reality. I have spent a fair amount of effort exploring how economics sought to attain the status of a science; but now the tables have turned. It is now scientists who are trained to become first and foremost market actors, finally elevating the political dominance of the economists.


I wrote...

The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics

By Philip Mirowski, Edward Nik-Khah,

Book cover of The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics

What is my book about?

This book is a history of how American economists sought to incorporate “information” into their theories of choice and markets. Far from being driven by psychology or philosophy, we argue most of the options were borrowed from the natural sciences. The version which eventually became dominant by the late 20th century was prompted more by the politics of neoliberalism than by any logical or empirical considerations.

The book illustrates my larger interest, which is to explore how claims to know something are often rooted in a curious admixture of science and politics. I continually find that the supposed separation of science from politics rarely holds up in history.

The books I picked & why

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Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change

By Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway,

Book cover of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change

Why this book?

This is the book that first provoked a realization that something more sinister had long been going on in postwar science beyond vague notions of a ‘Republican War on Science’. The authors revealed that, over and over, a small cadre of natural scientists and think tanks had been expressly undermining the science they disliked through the creation of Potemkin alternatives and fake doctrines, particularly when it came to tobacco-caused cancers, global warming, and a host of other areas. This book jump-started the now popular study of ‘agnotology’, that is, the intentional manufacture of ignorance about science in the general public. It also proved that some scientists were not always on the side of Truth and political neutrality.

The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception

By David Michaels,

Book cover of The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception

Why this book?

If Oreskes & Conway documented the historical trend, Michaels shows what the daily battle over the implications of science for governance is like from within. As former Assistant Secretary for Labor for OSHA, he recounts the never-ending combat over how science is generated and interpreted when it comes to the safety and comprehension of the American public. From dark money to hired guns to compromised scientists, he puts names and faces to the war on science, with truth as the first casualty.

Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients

By Ben Goldacre,

Book cover of Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients

Why this book?

A best-seller in the UK, it never garnered the attention it deserved in the US. As a trained physician, Goldacre explains why doctors cannot trust the information concerning prescription drugs that is made available to them, and why this should concern every patient. The incentives motivating drug regulators constitute a big part of the problem, but the actual conduct of clinical trials comes in for intensive scrutiny as well. The rigors of double-blinded trials are useless if owners of the data can hide whatever outcomes they don’t like. His chapter on how to bend a clinical trial has become a classic.

Has It Come to This?: The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering on the Brink

By J.P. Sapinski (editor), Holly Buck (editor), Andreas Malm (editor)

Book cover of Has It Come to This?: The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering on the Brink

Why this book?

I don’t often praise edited collections, but this book is the most clear-eyed discussion of our current predicament in the face of worsening global warming I have ever encountered. The authors argue that the political deployment of geoengineering to ‘save’ us has become essentially a foregone conclusion—forget all that wishful Green New Deal happy talk. They then proceed to argue out the various potential political scenarios concerning what this means for future politics. Read this and weep.

The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America

By Paul Edwards,

Book cover of The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America

Why this book?

Edwards revealed how the very architecture of early computers owed a debt to the political structures of the Cold War. The innovation of a command/control/information infrastructure set the template for military regimentation, and subsequently for the surveillance society we currently inhabit. The story of how cybernetics—a field that never quite made the grade as pure science—nevertheless conquered the culture, is fascinating.

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