Higher Superstition Revisited: an interview with Norman Levitt
Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition appeared
in 1994, rattled a good many cages, and prompted the Sokal Hoax. The book describes
a bizarre situation in American universities in which academics in various (mostly
new-minted) fields such as Cultural Studies, Literary Theory, and Science Studies,
plus a few more familiar ones such as Sociology, Comparative Literature and
the like, make a career of writing about science without taking the trouble
to know anything about it. Gross and Levitt have a good deal of fun exposing
the absurd mistakes perpetrated by people who rhapsodise about quantum mechanics
and chaos theory without having the faintest idea what they’re talking about.
But hilarity aside, there are serious issues involved. The Cultural Studies
brigade attack not only the misuses to which science can be put, but scientific
ways of thinking themselves; not only possible inequities in hiring and promotion,
but logic, truth and the ‘Enlightenment project’. Gross and Levitt did an admirable
job of sounding the alarm which Butterflies and Wheels plans to go on sounding.
Norman Levitt very kindly agreed to answer some question for us.
Benson: Do you think the situation has improved since you wrote Higher
Superstition? Do people seem any more embarrassed or self-conscious about
writing ignorant absurdities? Or do they merely congratulate themselves all
the more on how “transgressive” they are?
Levitt: This is a complicated question in that it depends on the parameters
one chooses to measure improvement or deterioration. My main motivation for
writing HS was to alert scientists to the fact that bizarre views of
science were being taught and fervently advocated in various enclaves of the
humanities and social sciences. The main immediate danger, I thought, was that
"science studies" imperialists were, in many schools, proposing that
the "science requirement" for non-science students be replaced by
courses in "science and society" or some such. This was an attractive
proposition for some of the scientists, who view "Physics for Poets"
and the like as joyless and time-wasting tasks. But since word has gotten round
that science studies is a dubious cult and actively hostile to science to boot,
the prospects for this kind of coup have pretty much crashed. Of course, HS
can’t by any means claim all the credit. The real shocker was the Sokal Hoax,
and there were other instructive flaps as well, such as the Science in American
Life exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Another fact worth noting with some satisfaction is that the enthusiasm for
extreme constructivist claims regarding the nature of scientific knowledge has
cooled considerably. Constructivist slogans are no longer reflexively adopted
and mouthed in literature and sociology departments. This doesn’t mean that
science studies has become any more worthwhile or intellectually responsible,
or that its hostility toward science has lessened. But a lot of the rebellious
glee has gone out of it, as has the smug delight in being outrageous.
Most important, the ultimate ambition of many postmodern science-studies enthusiasts–that
is, to become the primary mediators between science and political institutions
(the commissars, as it were, of science and technology)–have largely been squelched.
Embarrassing questions were raised far too early in the game, well before any
successful infiltration of the corridors of power.
On the other hand, alas, few of the more notorious academic anti-science celebrities
have lost out, career-wise, as a result of being flayed by HS, A House
Built on Sand, The Flight from Science and Reason, and so forth.
There are some partial exceptions to this, most notably the failure of the silly
attempts to appoint a science studies professor at the Institute for Advanced
Study. But even the characters gulled by Sokal’s prank remain pretty much immune
to retribution for their intellectual dereliction. Indeed, being attacked by
one of those dreaded scientists in warpaint amounts to a crown of martyrdom
that nicely adorns one’s curriculum vita. Most so attacked have prospered
quite nicely, thank you. One laments the injustice of it all!
But then, we’re not talking about child rape or looting employee pension funds.
It’s just the university culture being its customary silly self, which is hardly
surprising or curable.
Finally, something should be said about the leaching of postmodern antiscience
attitudes into the more general culture. Some real damage has been done. Schools
of education have picked up a bit of this nonsense, especially in connection
with "constructivist" theories of pedagogy. Even worse, so have some
schools of nursing, which invoke shoddy philosophy and pomo slogans to justify
their flirtation with worthless alternative medicine dogmas and practices. Some
of the same stuff works its way into environmental activism or into the kind
of ethnic activism that has set up western science as an ideological enemy.
Postmodern cant has also softened up many intellectuals for the renewed assaults
of creationists, now taking form as "Intelligent Design Theory." (An
example may be found in The Nation, the best-known American leftist journal,
which recently ran a bizarre, effectively pro-ID review of Stephen Gould’s last
book. It was written by an au courant literary critic with scant knowledge of
biology but a thorough grounding in social-constructivist drivel.)
Benson: Are undergraduates aware of the controversies? Do science teachers
have to waste much energy combatting trendy notions about the situatedness of
truth, or is that one area where ignorance is an advantage?
Levitt: Speaking as a mathematics teacher, I waste a lot of energy,
perhaps, but not in order to combat postmodern attitudinizing. In lower-level
courses, I talk and I write stuff on the blackboard, the undergraduates listen
and take notes (or not). Hence, there’s little interchange that isn’t initiated
by "Is this going to be on the exam?" In upper-level courses, things
are a bit more relaxed and clubby, but students who get as far as upper-level
mathematics are hardly the type to pay much attention to the archdruids of deconstruction,
the pythonesses of feminist theory, or the jongleurs of multiculturalism.
Nonetheless, one can get a sense of overall undergraduate attitudes toward
the spectrum of experiences encountered at a university. I’m specifically talking
about a large, multiplex American state university, which encompasses, academically,
all sorts of activity, from hard-nosed engineering to the squishiest, touchy-feely
"oppression studies," and which serves a host of other functions by
way of baby sitting young people between late adolescence and the grim, inevitable
day they have to go out and earn a living. Most students invest most of their
ardor in having a helluva good time-sex, rock ‘n’ roll, and partying down, with
the occasional foray to the football stadium or the basketball arena for those
rituals of mass mindlessness. To extent that they take education seriously,
it’s as a gateway to the possibility of making a decent income-upper middle-class
or better. So they fight like hell to get into the business and management programs,
and sometimes do some serious grinding to qualify for law or medical school.
But the issues that raise tempers in purely academic circles-the culture wars,
the fights over "diversity," and all that rot-are not undergraduate
issues, by and large.
The PC/Pomo faction, to describe it as tersely as possible, certainly has a
death-grip on a lot of instructional turf. Basic courses like expository writing
are in their hands, and many students have to go through the mill of a pious
course on "diversity" or some such. There they get a fairly strong
whiff of academic-left doxology. But the upshot is not, on the whole, a cohort
of enthusiastic recruits, but rather a mass of skeptical-to-cynical young people
who have caught on to the fact that their instructors, or at least, those who
give pedagogical marching orders to their instructors, can often be prigs, bores,
and bigots-and none too bright, at that. PC/Pomo preaching far more readily
generates disdain for itself than hostility toward its declared foes. This is
even true for black and Hispanic students. It is an obvious corollary that the
quirky attitudes toward science common amongst the pomo faithful do not diffuse
very far or very fast into mainstream undergraduate culture.
This is not to say that undergrads are generally knowledgeable about science
or that they have a sophisticated grasp of the canons of reliable knowledge.
Even science majors have a shallow knowledge of science beyond what they’ve
specifically acquired in courses. The non-science majors know little and care
little about science and tend to be clueless and inarticulate when scientific
matters arise at any level. But PC/Pomo demonology, per se, doesn’t seem to
have been responsible for this.
Benson: Is the issue still alive among the faculty? Are there arguments,
debates, quarrels? Do you personally have to deal with bristling, indignant
colleagues from “Cultural Studies” and such who are outraged by your work?
Levitt: The basic story is this: A certain camp within the PC/Pomo enterprise
made a fetish of "science criticism" and, at its high water mark 10
or 12 years ago, even dreamt of becoming a powerful oracular presence on the
societal scale, a major player in determining science and technology policy.
However, it couldn’t fly below the radar forever; its vanguard was spotted and
chased back to the starting line fairly easily. The "science wars"
have dissolved such susceptibility to its wiles as might have existed among
scientists and science administrators. But its own turf is pretty secure, thanks
to the inertia of the academic world. Its members have their little club and
retain their power to praise and promote each other for as long as the money
holds out (which it will for some time to come).
Hurt feelings persist, and folks like Paul Gross and me, not to mention Sokal,
are still excoriated for our villainy and obtuseness, evoking imprecations from
many courses and published papers (and a good thing, too, since it keeps our
books in print!). Yet people in the science-studies racket have also grown more
prudent; they are chary of making outrageous epistemological claims with flags
flying and trumpets blaring the way they used to on a daily basis. Their dreams
of exercising actual political power over science and scientists are on the
back shelf. But the academic cult as such keeps grinding away on its own narrow
Debates do continue, in some sense, but they have moved to such arenas as schools
of education and-quite frightening-into medicine, where bits and pieces of the
radical science-studies litany are now and then recruited to defend quackery.
But, as I see it, the main thing to keep in mind is that the academic assault
on science began, when you get down to it, because antiscientific attitudes
widespread in the general culture penetrated the academy, becoming over time
increasingly stark and explicit in the thinking of intellectuals who think of
themselves as radically opposed to middle-class politics, culture, and values.
In the universities, this antagonism acquired a particular rationale-philosophies
propounding the situated and socially-constructed character of knowledge claims
and the malign effects of a Eurocentric episteme. It also acquired a vocabulary
and a certain characteristic rhetorical style. At that point, it leached back
into the wider culture, slightly altering the rhetoric, but not necessarily
the essential substance, of demotic antiscience. But it is well to remember
that the basic problem is not that of an assault on rationality by a cabal of
reckless university intellectuals; the assault was going on long before these
guys came on the scene, and will continue even if each and every poststructuralist
and feminist-epistemologist were to convert overnight to logical positivism.
As for my personal experiences; obviously there are people who don’t like me
at all because of HS et seq. Once in a while I get roundly attacked
at a conference where I’m speaking. But this is hardly terrifying; superannuated
as I am, I love being denounced as a dangerous character. In defense of my own
institution, Rutgers University, I must say that it has treated me rather well
as a result of my involvement in the science wars (while treating some of my
local enemies quite well, too!) Post 9/11, we-scientists, intellectuals along
with all the rest–seem to be headed into "interesting times," which
takes a lot of the ginger out of academic quarrels. All this science-wars stuff
may be fading irrelevancy within a few years.
Benson: If some faculty members are indignant, are others as it were
recruited? Do you find new allies in departments such as History, Sociology,
Anthropology, where evidence and the validity of evidence are highly relevant?
If so, could this be a hopeful sign? Could one by-product be a heightened awareness
in many disciplines of the need to ground truth-claims and knowledge-claims
with evidence and logic?
Levitt: Though one could hardly call it a mass movement, there has been
a recurrent "Rally round the flag, boys!" mood amongst some scholars
in areas besieged by relativism and anti-rationality, with the serio-comic episode
of the science wars providing some ground for renewed hope that terminal silliness
will not prevail. I’ve been in touch with quite a few of these people in areas
like psychology, anthropology, and even philosophy. It’s no longer quite so
easy to sneer at words like evidence"" and "objectivity,"
and, to a certain extent, it’s become possible to sneer at the sneerers. Things
are changing slowly, but largely they are changing for the good. The project
of serious inquiry in all kinds of fields is in better shape than it was a few
years ago, and the intellectual fops are no longer quite so sure of their ground.
Norman Levitt is Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University. He is author,
with Paul R. Gross, of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels
with Science (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). Edward O. Wilson
said about this book that it was "original" and "brilliant".