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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Merchants of Doubt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers. Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific…

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

Why did I love 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.

By David Michaels,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Triumph of Doubt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Opioids. Concussions. Obesity. Climate change.

America is a country of everyday crises - big, long-spanning problems that persist, mostly unregulated, despite their toll on the country's health and vitality. And for every case of government inaction on one of these issues, there is a set of familiar, doubtful refrains: The science is unclear. The data is inconclusive. Regulation is unjustified. It's a slippery slope.

Is it?

The Triumph of Doubt traces the ascendance of science-for-hire in American life and government, from its origins in the tobacco industry in the 1950s to its current manifestations across government, public policy, and even…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Ben Goldacre,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bad Pharma as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Smart, funny, clear, unflinching: Ben Goldacre is my hero." ―Mary Roach, author of Stiff, Spook, and Bonk

We like to imagine that medicine is based on evidence and the results of fair testing and clinical trials. In reality, those tests and trials are often profoundly flawed. We like to imagine that doctors who write prescriptions for everything from antidepressants to cancer drugs to heart medication are familiar with the research literature about these drugs, when in reality much of the research is hidden from them by drug companies. We like to imagine that doctors are impartially educated, when in reality…

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 did I love 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.

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Has It Come to This? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Geoengineering is the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system in an attempt to mitigate the adverse effects of global warming. Now that climate emergency is upon us, claims that geoengineering is inevitable are rapidly proliferating. How did we get into this situation where the most extreme path now seems a plausible development? Is it an accurate representation of where we are at? Who is this “we” who is talking? What options make it onto the table? Which are left out? Whom does geoengineering serve? Why is the ensemble of projects that goes by that name so salient,…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Paul Edwards,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Closed World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Closed World offers a radically new alternative to the canonical histories of computers and cognitive science. Arguing that we can make sense of computers as tools only when we simultaneously grasp their roles as metaphors and political icons, Paul Edwards shows how Cold War social and cultural contexts shaped emerging computer technology―and were transformed, in turn, by information machines.

The Closed World explores three apparently disparate histories―the history of American global power, the history of computing machines, and the history of subjectivity in science and culture―through the lens of the American political imagination. In the process, it reveals intimate…

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