Paradigms U Like

The hostility to science goes back for millennia. We don’t like brute facts, we don’t like having to check our wishes and hopes against the reality of how the world is. We’ll submit to the necessity for survival purposes, we’ll learn what we need to know of leopards and rabbits, fire and ice, but beyond that we want the right to believe our fantasies. ‘May God us keep/From single vision, and Newton’s sleep!’ said Blake, and Wordsworth agreed: ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;/Our meddling intellect/Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–We murder to dissect.’

But there is a new kind of animus that has become conventional wisdom in many universities over the past three decades. It goes by the name of perspectivism or situatedness or social constructionism . This view purports to show that science is neither universal nor peculiarly well equipped to arrive at the truth; that on the contrary it is local, Western, socially and culturally embedded, and therefore, merely one form of knowledge among many. Its claims of objectivity and dispassion are an illusion, rationality is window dressing for power, evidence a matter of negotiation and agreement, and truth an outdated metaphysical word that should be confined to the dustbin of history. Indeed, in this view science is not only no better at discovering the truth about the world than any other method, it is worse. Some epistemologies are more unequal than others. Science is crippled by its blind infatuation with reason, its foolish insistence on evidence before believing something, its tiresomely pedantic insistence on replicability, peer review, statistics, falsifiability, distinguishing correlation from causation, and all such nit-picky hair-splitting rules that impede a good imaginative hypothesis. If Freud had gone about things that way, imagine what would have become of his daring theories. Furthermore science is Eurocentric, and male, and white, and a product of the Enlightenment. And in spite of all those obvious faults, science has an enormous amount of undeserved status and prestige and power and influence. Scientists sometimes use this power and prestige to say that other people are wrong about certain things, and that is a very undemocratic situation that shouldn’t be allowed.

Perspectivists like to mention Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend to back up their claims, although both these philosophers of science explicitly repudiated the more radically relativist conclusions some people drew from their work. Michel Foucault is another name to conjure with, and critics of ‘the scientific medical system of knowledge’ make great play with his comparison of hospitals to prisons. The ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of science claims to give a sociological explanation, not of the practices of scientists but of the actual content of scientific theories. The thorough success of this modest ambition is an article of faith among social constructionists: it is now received wisdom that scientists don’t discover facts about the world, but rather negotiate with each other until everyone agrees on a story, not unlike a gang of bank robbers in imminent danger of arrest. This putative insight is loyally re-cycled as constructivists admiringly quote each other. The anti-science branch of feminism also leans heavily on the idea. Evelyn Fox Keller puts it this way: ‘Recent developments in the history and philosophy of science have led to a re-evaluation that acknowledges that the goals, methods, theories, and even the actual data of science are not written in nature; all are subject to the play of social forces.’ [1] And Sandra Harding this: ‘An outpouring of recent studies in every area of the social studies of the sciences forces the recognition that all scientific knowledge is always, in every respect, socially situated.’ [2] They agree with each other, at any rate. The upshot of all this agreement is, it is universally acknowledged that science does not deserve its ‘privileged’ epistemological status. David Bloor writes: ‘It is those who oppose relativism, and who grant certain forms of knowledge a privileged status, who pose the real threat to a scientific understanding of knowledge and cognition.’ [3]

Witness the censorious tone of Andrew Ross’ Strange Weather. From the first page Ross takes it for granted that the ‘accredited authority’ of science, its place in the ‘knowledge hierarchy’, its ‘legitimacy’, the ‘deference’ to its ‘power and prestige’ are arbitrary. ‘In this respect, it is perhaps worth drawing an analogy between the demarcation lines in science and the borders between hierarchical taste cultures–high, middlebrow, and popular–that cultural critics and other experts involved in the business of culture have long had the vocational function of supervising. In both cases, we find the same need for experts to police the borders with their criteria of inclusion and exclusion.'[4] Science, with its ‘institutional scientific orthodoxies’, ‘orthodox rationalist view of the natural world’, ‘licensed rationalist center’, and ‘dominant paradigm’, is the equivalent of a monarchy or plutocracy, an exploitative boss or rent-gouging landlord, a robber baron or war lord. Paul Forman, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, deals this way with epistemological issues: ‘postmodernity ceases to regard Truth as a prime value. No longer is truthfulness expected anywhere in our culture, and its breach is regarded as excusable in any circumstance covered by a moral intent and guided by a sense of responsibility.’ [5] Steven Best and Douglas Kellner close the is-ought gap in a few words: ‘Rejecting the positivist dichotomy between fact and value, theory and politics, critical theory interrogates the “is” in terms of the “ought,” seeking to grasp the emancipatory possibilities of the current society as something that can and should be realized in the future.'[6]

The result is a kind of happy free for all, in which science and New Age and folk wisdom all mix it up together, with no ‘way of knowing’ privileged over any other, all crafting their paradigms as they like. This idea licenses a magic, instant egalitarianism, one free of struggle or conflict, that is just spoken into being. Simply announce that all ‘ways of knowing’ are epistemologically equal, rather than doing any of the hard work of examining evidence, and it shall be so. This makes possible the refusal to make any invidious distinctions whatever. It is never legitimate to say that science is more accurate than myth, or that astrology is not science, or that evidence to support a given belief is lacking. Thus there is never any occasion for colonial arrogance or Eurocentrism or hegemonizing the discourse of the Other, for being judgmental or elitist or for ‘policing the borders’ as Andrew Ross puts it.

Thus, perspectivism is an essential tool for the deconstructive work much of the left has turned its hand to over the past few decades, in the absence of much success in real-life political action. So every ounce of political energy is devoted to the endless task of adjusting attitudes. Eurocentrism must stop, ethnocentrism’s gotta go, scientism is out, postivism has had it. The shift is, as Meera Nanda points out, citing Ernest Gellner, from political equality to hermeneutic equality: the careful elimination of every possible social, cultural or intellectual pretext there might be for saying any idea is better than any other. Nanda calls it epistemic charity, and says thanks but no thanks. She acknowledges the good intentions, and the value of challenging colonial ideas of the inherent superiority of the colonizers, but she then presses the argument to its obvious conclusion: science and rationality are not the exclusive property of the West. They are available to all and useful to all, and should not be considered a Western monopoly even for the sake of empathy and tolerance. ‘What from the perspective of Western liberal givers looks like a tolerant, nonjudgmental, therapeutic “permission to be different” appears to some of us “others” as a condescending act of charity.'[7] And this charity comes at a high price. What the donors give with one hand they take away with the other. Self-esteem comes at the cost of remaining subservient to tradition and authority. It is just as possible to feel loyalty to shared ideas, to larger communities, to global ‘perspectives’, to new and rationally chosen traditions and ways of knowing, as it is to those one was born into. Nanda again: ‘The constructivists, then, confer on the “Others” the ability to think, but then take away the ability to choose, on occasion, the knowledge of aliens over the knowledge of ancestors.’ [8]

Nanda is eloquent and impassioned on the way postmodernist and constructivist ideas have been adopted and used by the fundamentalist Hindu Right in India for purposes that are anything but progressive. ‘I submit that the moment the Indian left began to talk the language of cultural constructionism, it lost the battle to the Hindu nationalists.'[9] The anthropologist Frederique Apffel Marglin, for example, in her essay ‘Smallpox in Two Cultures,’ writes about the campaign by colonial administrators in the 19th century and the Indian government in the 1970s to vaccinate the Indian people against smallpox. She does not stop at making a limited, reasonable point that colonial officials and the Indian government were tactless and counter-productive in telling those who resisted vaccination that they were superstitious and irrational. Her aim is larger: to show that science’s claims to get things right is an imposition. She says as much in the opening sentence of the essay. ‘The present essay is an attempt to challenge science’s claim to be a superior form of knowledge which renders obsolete more traditional systems of thought.’ [10] Marglin makes this attempt by means of a sympathetic depiction of the Indian worship of Sitala, the goddess of smallpox, which she contrasts with the binary opposition Western medicine makes (very usefully, one might think) between disease and health, death and life. ‘In absolutely negativizing disease, suffering and death, in opposing these to health and life in a mutually exclusive manner, the scientific medical system of knowledge can separate in individuals and in populations what is absolutely bad, the enemy to be eradicated, from what is good, health and life. In the process it can and does objectify people with all the repressive political possibilities that objectification opens.'[11] There is something a little breathtaking in a level of science-phobia that can see ‘negativizing’ disease, suffering and death, as harmful and repressive. One is reminded of Woody Allen’s retort to a character’s reproach, in ‘The Front’, that he really wanted success: ‘So what should I want, a disease?’ Does Marglin seriously think that disease, suffering and death (the death of other people, remember, as well as one’s own) would be a source of joy and pleasure if only it weren’t for the ‘scientific medical system of knowledge’? Has the postmodern left become so tone deaf that it can hear no echo of the complacent droning of landowners and priests (and colonialists, surely) about the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate?

Historically, the recognition of a sharp difference between justified assertion and mere assertion tout court has been a force for liberation and progress, and against arbitrary power and illegitimate institutions. As Gross and Levitt point out in Higher Superstition, the left has traditionally seen science as an ally, not an enemy. ‘The dissecting blade of scientific skepticism, with its insistence that theories are worthy of respect only to the extent that their assertions pass the twin tests of internal logical consistency and empirical verification, has been an invaluable weapon against intellectual authoritarianisms of all sorts, not least those that sustain social systems based on exploitation, domination, and absolutism.’ [12] But perhaps that idea has been around too long, has become too familiar and dull and unhip. It’s so much more knowing and edgy and transgressive to laugh at essentialism and meta-narratives and let it go at that.

We want the freedom to believe what we like, ignore facts, sugar-coat reality, but then we have to recognize that there is a price to pay. If we abdicate reason and clear thinking and reality checks, the result is not only that pesky scientists can’t gainsay our beliefs–neither can we gainsay those of fundamentalists, theocrats, obscurantists, Nazis, Holocaust deniers. We have to choose, we can’t have it both ways, we can’t embrace irrational ideas we just happen to like and reject the ones we don’t. If you insist on setting sail for the realm of hunch and intuition and thinking with your gut, you’re likely to meet some fellow voyagers who are not all peace and love and light.


1. E. F. Keller, ‘Long Live the Difference Between Men and Women Scientists’, The Scientist, 4 (October 15, 1990)

2. Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking >From Women’s Lives (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 11.

3. B. Barnes and D. Bloor, ‘Relativism, Rationalism and the Sociology of Knowledge’, in Rationality and Relativism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981) pp. 21-47.

4. Andrew Ross, Strange Weather (London and New York: Verso, 1991), p. 25.

5. P. Forman, ‘In postmodernity the two cultures are one — and many’

6. S. Best and D. Kellner

7. M. Nanda, ‘Epistemic Charity of Social Constructivist Critics’, in A House Built on Sand, ed. Noretta Koertge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 288.

8. Ibid., p. 295.

9. M. Nanda, ‘The Science Wars in India’, Dissent, vol. 44, no. 1, (Winter 1996).

10. F.A. Marglin, ‘Smallpox in two Systems of Knowledge’, in Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture and Resistance, eds. F.A. Marglin and S.A. Marglin (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).

11. Ibid.

12. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: the Academic Left and its Quarrels With Science (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1994) p. 24.

This article is to be published in the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal, Think. It has a web site here.

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