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Issue #19, Winter 2011
The Science Wars Redux
Fifteen years after the Sokal Hoax, attacks on “objective knowledge” that were once the province of the left have been taken up by the right.
Michael Bérubé
I
n 1995, I was invited to speak to the Materials Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I was teaching at the time. The occasion was something they called their “Postmodern Science Forum.” I took it as a good sign that they were not allergic to the word “postmodern,” and I launched into a brief history of the term as it migrated from architecture to literature to philosophy to popular culture–before getting down to the real business at hand, a discussion of the influence of T. S. Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the humanities. Kuhn, I said, had shown us that scientific knowledge was not cumulative, however much it appeared so in retrospect; rather, it proceeded by way of upheavals in which a new worldview displaces the old. But had Kuhn thereby licensed a kind of shallow relativism in the humanities, where we can talk about “paradigm shifts” and “incommensurabilities” without any reference to the natural world of oxygen, Neptune, and X-rays (to take some of Kuhn’s most illustrative examples from the history of science)? Had we read Kuhn backwards from Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, a far more anarchic account of scientific research, concluding that scientists were just as irrational as everyone else, and that therefore both God and Science are dead, and everything is permitted? And when we claimed to be doing “science studies,” did we know what the hell we were talking about?
For some of my interlocutors–and they were a very lively bunch, full of great questions, random expostulations, and a few moderately hostile interruptions–the short answers to these questions were yes, yes, and no. They were willing to cut me some slack, not only because I was nice enough to visit them but because I took my own examples from the history of astrophysics, about which I know an elementary thing or two; but they were not so kind about some of my colleagues in the humanities, who, they believed, were overstepping their disciplinary bounds and doing “science studies” without any substantial knowledge of science. A couple of physicists had clearly read Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s then-recent book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, a free-swinging polemic against science studies, feminism, Jeremy Rifkin, jargon, and much more, and they were mightily pissed off about this Andrew Ross fellow, who had written a science-studies book, Strange Weather, which he dedicated to “all the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.”
Well, yes, I had to admit, Ross’s dedication was rather cheeky. But it was not in itself evidence that Ross did not know his subject matter. Besides, I added, when in Strange Weather Ross called for science “that will be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests,” and Gross and Levitt responded by writing, “ ‘Of some service to progressive interests’ seems reasonably clear, if frighteningly Stalinist in tone and root,” weren’t Gross and Levitt being kind of…nutty? Hysterical, perhaps? What was wrong with wanting medicine or engineering or environmental science to be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests? Why shouldn’t we try to build a world that affords greater public access to people with disabilities, for instance? And since conservatives had even then largely abandoned their early-twentieth-century commitment to conserve the Earth’s natural resources, wasn’t “environmental science” now a “progressive ” in and of itself? It’s not as if Ross was calling for a Liberation Astronomy. Would Ross’s sentence sound out of place in a bulletin issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists?
Back then, of course, the humanities and the interpretive social sciences–the few remaining interpretive social sciences, that is, the fields that hadn’t gone totally over into the parallel Quantification Universe–were still reeling from the so-called “political correctness” battles of the early 1990s, and some of us humanists were kind of defensive about it. Though I wasn’t. I was perfectly willing to say publicly that Dinesh D’Souza was a liar and a scoundrel, and that most of the other right-wing critics of the humanities had no idea what they were talking about. And I was fond of saying to my friends in the sciences that mi problema es su problema: the culture warriors of the right are after English and women’s studies today, but they’ll be coming for you soon enough, just you wait. To a man (and they were all men), my scientist friends refused to believe this. Some merely said, plausibly enough, that debates over PC were irrelevant to their work on dark matter or the properties of metals; others insisted that the conservative attack on the universities was entirely the fault of radical artists and humanists with their queering this and their Piss Christ that and their deconstructing the Other. You’re the ones making it hard for all of us in the academy, they said, and things would be fine if you would just tone it down and knock off the épater-le-bourgeois bit.
And then, the next year, the Sokal Hoax happened.
Social Text Gets Punk’d
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ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
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Andrea OL:
The rise of pseudo-science has something to do with the leftist emphasis on DIVERSITY and INCLUSION. Since most great scientists have been 'evil white males' and since Western Civilization produced most of modern knowledge, many leftists, femininsts, and 'people of color' advocates felt left out and 'marginalized'. If Western white male science is correct, then it must mean that most non-white cultures & paradigms are superstitious, backward, stupid, ignorant, etc. It doesn't do much for non-white or female self-esteem, does it?
So, in order to vilify the 'evil racist white male' and to boost the esteem among 'oppressed' women and people-of-color, the left decided to promote an anthropological view of reality that said REALITY is really a matter of culture and empowerment. In other words, it is 'racist' to say western science is true while Eastern Mysticism is bogus. It is 'intolerant' to say Western medicine is real science while African tribal medicine is just voodoo superstition. We needed to be 'nice', 'inclusiveness', and 'sensitive'. We need to say Eastern medicine has just as much value as Western medicine.
Just as Germans rejected 'Jewish science' as it damaged 'Aryan' intellectual pride, the left, feminists, and people of color rejected 'white male western science' as a 'racist' all-white-boys-club.
Similar thing happened with history. As Mary Lefkowitz explained in her book BLACK ATHENA, white leftists ignored the horribly bad and false histories peddled by Afro-centrists since, well, such was good for black self-esteem and in challenging Euro-centric 'racist' white male power and privilege.
Even though many white leftists knew that postmodern science and history were bogus, they endorsed or tolerated the program in the name of 'progressive politics', of making non-whites feel better and more EMPOWERED.
There was a lot of this leftist Maoist China too. With its cult of the PEOPLE, it chose 'red over expert', especially during the Great Leap Forward when an illiterate was deemed the scientific equal of an elitist college educated egghead. Leftism is contradictory in its elitism and egalitarianism. Its dedication to rationalism favors the most intelligent and best educated; but its commitment to 'social justice' and equality promotes the notion that the oommon man knows just as much as the 'exploitative and privileged' elites.
And then came the horribly anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution, which charmed a good many leftists in the West.
Also, there is no such thing as a 'social fact'. There is a 'social truth'. Fact is a fact, like table is a table. It is materialist and scientific. Social matters are truths, not facts. They are about perspectives, subjectivity, emotions, interests, etc as well as observed facts. Thus, they are 'truths'. Facts cannot be both A and B, but truths can be both A and B. That Jews moved into Palestine and pushed out native Arabs is a fact. But Palestinians and Jews interpret those facts differently and have arrived at and embrace different 'truths'. Truth is an interpretation of facts embellished with emotions.
As for global warming, it is real enough, but the problem is less stupid pseudo-science on the right but the stupid sensationalism and greed on the left. Al Gore is to be lauded for his commitment on the matter, but his movie INCONVENIENT TRUTH was filled with so many half-truths, exaggerations, outright lies, and know-it-all arrogance and sanctimonious that it just gave ammo to his critics that the whole crisis is just a cult cooked up to serve Al's hot air ego. Also, too many politicians, investors, and operatives are lining up to amass great fortune and power by exploiting the crisis, which makes for bad publicity. It's like the Holocaust really happened--and deniers are disgusting vermin--, but too many Jews have turned Holocaust into a vast themepark cashcow pop religion for political and financial gain. If the left doesn't criticize these vulgarians and vultures, its causes will foster only more cynicism among the already weary masses.
Another problem is the left operates too 'conspiratorially', with the elites telling us they know and we should just follow them since they know what's good for us.
Even though experts need to be respected, they should talk to the people(intelligently than condescendingly) than just amongst themselves, only to hand out orders to the rest of us. The left should be like Wikileaks. Greater openness and transparency ON EVERYTHING. But what did we get under Obama? We got bailouts for Wall Street that happened behind closed doors and under the table. Obamacare, good or bad, was pushed throught without proper debate. This isn't a leftism that engages and educates the people but holds them in contempt, with an attitude that says, 'we know, you don't, we speak, you listen'.
Another thing. Science has to be about the search for facts, not about social progressivism. Now, the findings of science can be used for social good via technology. Our knowledge of biology allows better medical technology. Technology must be 'socially moral', but science must only be science. There is a place for the 'noble lie' in religion, politics, folklore, mythology, friendship, social relations, etc. I mean it's not nice to call an ugly person 'ugly'. It's better to compliment his or her looks just to be on nice terms. But science must only be about facts, even if those facts may upset us. When Darwin came up with his theories, it deeply upset many social moralists, and rightfully so. What if man was not created by God but evolved from vicious animals? What if there is no soul or spirit and man is really motivated by naked animal instincts? Disturbing to moralists, to be sure. Such discoveries understandably cause anxiety within the social and moral context, but Darwin, as a scientist, had ONLY ONE responsibility. His research pointed to the fact of evolution. When Galileo observed that the planets revolved around the Sun, that too was deeply upsetting to the moral/spiritual leaders of his time. What if Man was not special in the eyes of God but merely creatures on one planet among many others all over the galaxy? But Galileo's only duty as a scientist to was to reveal the facts of what he observed.
Today, a fact that cannot be mentioned is the reality of differences among basic geographical populations. We are supposed to believe there's no general IQ differences between Ashkenazi Jews and African pygmies, no general differences in physical attributes between indigeneous Mexicans and West Africans. The anxiety over these facts is understandable given horrors like the Holocaust, but facts are facts, and some of the social differences in the world can only be properly understood when we take certain racial or biological differences into account. And keep in mind that while 'gender' is a social construct, there really are sexual differences between men and women.
In society and politics, there's left, middle, and right. In science, there can only be search for facts regardless of whose feathers get ruffled in the social realm. Otherwise, it's not science. It's an agenda.
Jan 27, 2011, 5:33 PM
Andrea OL:
Lefkowitz's book was NOT OUT OF AFRICA, not BLACK ATHENA, which was by Martin Bernal. My bad.
Jan 27, 2011, 5:42 PM
Jonathan Badger:
"And in return, you’ll admit that I was right about the culture wars, and right that the natural sciences would not be held harmless from the right-wing noise machine."
No, as a biologist I can't do this. For the simple reason that the current attacks on science are coming from both wings' noise machine. Yes, from the right in regard to evolution and climate change, but largely from the left on vaccines, animal research, and medical science in general.
"And if you’ll go further, and acknowledge that some circumspect, well-informed critiques of actually existing science have merit (such as the criticism that the postwar medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth had some ill effects)"
Yes, many critiques of science have merit. However, the only reasonable way to make these critiques is *through* science, not obscurantist postmodernism.
"Then perhaps we can get down to the business of how to develop safe, sustainable energy and other social practices that will keep the planet habitable."
So in other words, we scientists will do the work, and you'll cheer us on? Better than critiquing, I suppose.
Jan 28, 2011, 10:57 PM
Walter Sobchak:
Those of us who do not believe in AGW, do not accept any of the cultural critique of science, and it is a libel for Mr. Berube to say that we do.
We believe in science, we believe in objective truth and we believe that the small coterie of so called "climate scientists" have spent the last 20 years peddling a political line not conducting science.
We believe that they have fudged and misinterpreted data, used computer models as inappropriate substitutes for real world scientific investigation, corrupted the peer review and grant making processes, and pretended to a moral and intellectual authority to which they are not entitled.
The entire notion of "the science is settled" is simply post modernism at its worst.
Mr. Berube may want to agree with the "climate scientists" because it matches his other political commitments and his leftist colleagues will not tolerate anybody straying off the plantation in any respect. But, he is going to have allow that somebody might not agree with the PC line and have good scientific reasons for it.
Jan 31, 2011, 11:20 PM
Eli Rabett:
Michael, given the comments you wasted ink
Feb 1, 2011, 8:14 AM
Mark:
One of the problems with the battle for scientific legitimacy is that scientists are not very careful in explaining the limits of our knowledge. Let's use the climate debate as an example. The fact that the earth has gotten warmer is a fact. No reasonable person can dispute it. The fact that humans are responsible for some portion of the increase in temperatures is a fact. Again, the variety of evidence is such that the proposition that humans are responsible for some of the climate change (warming in this example) is not disputable by rational persons. But how much are humans responsible for and what activities cause what portion of the impact. On this, we don't know for certain. We have some evidence as to the overall extent of human impact, but it is hardly conclusive in the way that the first fact of warming and the second fact of human impact are pretty conclusively proven. Well, we say, we have climate models. Speaking frankly, there is too much we do not know about how to model such systems to say more than that the models are consistent with the evidence for human impact on climate. If scientists said only what I have just outlined, the public would have very little to argue with and the "deniers" (a term that I hate because it equates anyone who disagrees with the position of the author with holocaust deniers, for which there is MUCH more conclusive proof) would be seen as fringe elements. The opinions would be then what do we do given the uncertainty -- how much do we accept in terms of risk? That is the real debate, the political debate, which is made harder by those who insist that we "know" (the way we "know" the laws of quantum mechanics or basic astrophysics) what the impact of greenhouse emissions or changes in land-use mean for climate -- especially long term climate trends.
The point, I think, is that science needs to be humble and acknowledge what we really are pretty certain of in scientific terms and what the limits of our knowledge really are. For example, for all the work done on superstring theory and as elegant as it is (see Brian Greene's new book), it may not be true, even though it is consistent and solves a number of problems in reconciling various branches of science. Listen to your opponents respectfully. Point out what is known, what is probable and what is uncertain. Listen to their responses and respond where reasonable and possible. Surprisingly, most people are reasonable when they are not talked down to or treated as the great unwashed. Some are not reasonable (and that is not only the right wingnuts either). If we lose an argument, think about what we did to lose the argument, the appeal of the arguments to which we lost and try to address the weaknesses in our arguments. Do as trial lawyers do, acknowledge weaknesses and try to take the sting out of them.
Feb 11, 2011, 6:38 PM
Michael Bérubé:
Michael, given the comments you wasted ink

Thank heavenly Moloch no ink was used in the production of this essay! But at least I've learned that John Searle was wrong about the existence of social facts, and that claiming that the science is settled is the worst form of postmodernism. Now I will impose my evil moderate-Republican cap-and-trade scheme on the planet, and vengeance will be mine!
As for Jonathan Badger:
"Then perhaps we can get down to the business of how to develop safe, sustainable energy and other social practices that will keep the planet habitable."
So in other words, we scientists will do the work, and you'll cheer us on? Better than critiquing, I suppose.
And here I learn that scientists have exclusive domain over the development of new social practices. I was unaware of this.
Feb 17, 2011, 9:19 AM
Michael Bérubé:
Dang, the penultimate paragraph -- "So, in other words..." -- should have been in italics as well. That's Jonathan Badger assuming that "sustainable energy and other social practices" are all going to be devised by scientists.
And Mr. Sobchak, just let me add that I love your work in that movie, but I marked your comment zero.
Feb 17, 2011, 9:24 AM
Reptoorpapy:
I am looking to allow identical but I am not sure if I am getting a peaches fee at $800. Anyone knowJackson Guitars ?
Feb 23, 2011, 12:29 PM
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Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University.
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