Science Studies

In 1994, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt published Higher Superstition,
and the pigeons have still not recovered from the shock of that particular cat.
Higher Superstition is a funny-painful ‘deconstruction’ or rather demolition
of an array of trendy anti-science ‘studies’, stances, branches of putative
scholarship: Postmodern, cultural constructivist, feminist, sociological, environmental.
Most of these orientations are on the left, although it has been frequently
pointed out (e.g. by Richard J. Evans in his article on Postmodern history on
this site) that PoMo is at least as useful to the right as it is to the left
and that there are indeed right-wing Postmodernists. But the majority of the
attacks on science come from the left (and could be seen as a kind of displacement
activity, at a time when the non-theory-driven variety of leftist work seemed
moribund), which to old-fashioned leftists can be a very puzzling turn. Yes,
naturally, science can be turned to exploitative or sinister uses, but so can
many good and useful things; the solution would seem to be to expose and resist
the misuses, not smash the thing being misused. And frivolously confusing issues
like the is-ought gap or how evidence is to be evaluated, is a weapon that can
be very quickly and decisively turned against its user.

Higher Superstition is not only an eye-opening and hair-raising expose
of various fatuous anti-science critiques or broadsides, it’s also a very good
read. There’s a certain pomo-ironic hilarity in the fact that this book by a
mathematician and a biologist, in addition to flattening the pretensions of
the anti-science crowd, is witty and eloquent and lucid beyond the wildest dreams
of their literary opponents. So unlike the old ‘Two Cultures’ debate between
Snow and Leavis, in which Leavis was able to make much play with Snow’s lack
of talent in the rhetoric department. No fear of that with Levitt and Gross!
They escort us, Virgils to our Dante, through the antiscience “arguments” of
cultural constructivism, postmodernism, feminism (or one branch of feminism–one
could argue that they paint with too broad a brush there), and ‘radical environmentalism’
or deep ecology. The first two are the funniest, the most replete with non-sequiturs
and grandiose claims based on non-understanding of Gödel’s incompleteness
theorem, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and the like. In the chapter on Cultural
Constructivism we see Stanley Aronowitz misunderstand the uncertainty principle,
translating it into “a kind of epistemological and spiritual malaise”. We see
Bruno Latour leap from observations of laboratory politics to the notion that
science reaches its conclusions via wheedling and agreement. We learn that Steven
Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump converts Hobbes’
mathematical ineptitude into an episode of the class war, and that Wallis’ math
and Boyle’s physics were not superior knowledge but the unfair privilege of
an excluding elite. We see Jacques Derrida pontificate about topology under
the mistaken impression, apparently, that’s it’s just a slightly grander word
for topography. We see N. Katherine Hayles claim that the Zeitgeist did
Einstein’s work for him:

“If we think of these projects as attempts to ground representation in a non-contingent
metadiscourse, surely it is significant that the most important work on them
appeared before World War I. Einstein published his papers on the special theory
of relativity in 1905 and the general theory in 1916; the Principia Mathematica
volumes appeared from 1910 to 1913; and logical positivism had its heyday
in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. After World War I, when the
rhetoric of glorious patriotism sounded very empty, it would have been much
more difficult to think language could have an absolute ground of meaning.”
[N. Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound]

And Andrew Ross portray scientists as an arbitrary cabal of all-powerful snobbish

“How can metaphysical life theories and explanations taken seriously by millions
be ignored or excluded by a small group of powerful people called ‘scientists’?”
[Andrew Ross, Strange Weather]

In 1995, a year after the publication of Higher Superstition, the New
York Academy of Sciences held a conference titled ‘The Flight From Science and
Reason’, and the papers that were read at the conference were collected in a
book of the same name. It is a rich source of fascinating examinations of the
subject from participants such as Susan Haack, Janet Radcliffe Richards, Gerald
Holton, Mary Lefkowitz, James Trefil, Frederick Crews, who discuss history and
evidence, feminist epistemology, Freud, social construction, education, and
many more subjects. The book makes it all the clearer that attacks on science
and reason in one discipline amount to an attack on them in all.

And at the same time, shocked after reading Higher Superstition, Alan
Sokal came up with his famous hoax. He read another great pile of books and
articles (which was a noble sacrifice of time and effort), wrote his article
‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum
, and got it published in the 1996 Spring-Summer issue of Social
–even though the editors, at least so they later claimed, found it
a tad ‘hokey’. Then he published a follow-up article in Lingua Franca declaring
the hoax…and the fur flew. Sokal’s article is full of blatant mistakes and
transparent parody; but not quite blatant or transparent enough to get it rejected.
The Science Studies crowd has never quite recovered. The editors of Lingua
put together an excellent collection of journalism and essays called
The Sokal Hoax, and Sokal and Jean Bricmont co-wrote the book Fashionable
[US]/Intellectual Impostures[UK]. Finally the work is continued
in the 1998 book edited by Noretta Koertge, A House Built on Sand, another
excellent collection of essays.

Norman Levitt tells Butterflies and Wheels in his interview with us
that the situation is a little better in some ways. In particular, “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.” This is good to know. But ill-founded
nonsense has not by any means been laughed out of town yet, so there is still
work to be done.


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