Science Friction


Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 314 pages, $25.95

Sometimes I go off my head and teach a graduate course in world literature from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. Admittedly, this is an odd couple on the face of it, but such interdisciplinary marriages are quite common these days in literary studies. So when I tell my students that they are not going to like what they're about to hear—that my ideas run counter to prevailing orthodoxies—they are at first all knowing smiles. If grad students know nothing else, about either literature or biology, they know that all properly progressive courses should be "subversive" of the status quo.

But the smiles soon fade, the glints in their eyes become hard and accusing; some of their restless number grow surly, others start to scream in my face. How could I possibly believe that behavioral differences between the sexes are biologically disposed when everyone else knows that such so-called differences are merely culturally contrived? Don't I know that capitalism is the source of all hierarchy and competition, that the latter have nothing to do with "natural selection"? Am I not aware that my "science" is simply an arbitrary construct, one that perpetuates not only white male bias but also the bourgeois values of an oppressive social order that seeks to dominate, not understand, the natural world? "Truth," my students scold me in terms that brook no dissension, is nothing but a culturally specific phenomenon, and the "totalizing" tendencies of "scientistic" thought have been exploded completely by those postmodern thinkers who have deconstructed its self-aggrandizing pretensions.

This jumble of earnest ignorance, dogmatic arrogance, naive utopianism, unabashed political special pleading, and uncritical faith in what has come to be known in the humanities and many of the social sciences as "postmodern theory" constitutes the platform of the "academic left" mentioned in the subtitle of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. The authors have adopted the label, they concede, with "great misgivings," since the "academic left is not completely defined by the spectrum of issues that form the benchmarks for the left/right dichotomy in American and world politics."

What defines the term more generally is "a commitment to the idea that fundamental political change is urgently needed and can be achieved only through revolutionary processes rooted in a wholesale revision of cultural categories." Those categories include the assumptions, methodologies, and conclusions of modern science, all of which have been supposedly debunked over the past couple of decades by vociferous critics largely outside the sciences themselves.

Although Gross, professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, and Levitt, professor of life sciences at the University of Virginia, refer to the "quarrels" of these critics with the sciences (especially the "hard" sciences), what Higher Superstition in fact addresses are monologic rants of various kinds. These include outright rejections of the whole scientific enterprise as a mere game "of the rich in which whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right" (to quote the wisdom of the cultural "theorist" Jean-François Lyotard); critiques of its methods as flawed or biased or otherwise unacceptable (invariably for political reasons); and embraces of its findings as profoundly supportive of a "postmodern" outlook and ethos, often in defiance of the implications or even content of the actual findings themselves. Binding together these variations on a theme is what Gross and Levitt characterize as "muddleheadedness"—a muddleheadedness about science that is pervasive among academic humanists and that threatens the integrity of intellectual inquiry in the American academy as a whole.

Although the threat comes from different quarters, it is universally distinguished by its high moral tone. For the "poststructuralists" who march under the banner of recent French thinkers, especially that of the late Michel Foucault, science is simply one "language game" among others in a conceptual universe of competing "discourses." Hence, to elevate its truths over other "constructions" is tantamount to "colonizing" the intellectual landscape and enslaving one's hapless opposition.

For the Afrocentrists, science means an oppressive white Western enclave that has systematically pillaged and ignored so-called African science, especially that of the ancient Egyptians. (Assumed to be black, the Egyptians are credited with achievements ranging from "experimental aeronautics" to "a possible understanding of quantum physics and gravitational theory.") The Marxists, the feminists, the environmental evangelists, etc., all have their own agendas, and the terms of their quarrels are accordingly different. But the underlying message is very much the same: Either give us a science that underwrites our politics or we'll show you a face of scorn.

Gross and Levitt document with caustic—if appalling—specificity just how painfully ignorant most of these critics are of the sciences they criticize, how flagrantly they misrepresent the claims of those sciences, and how rabidly they magnify scientific transgressions that have for the most part receded into the forgettable past.

Consider, for instance, how the feminist "Biology and Gender Study Group" sought to demonstrate the extent to which the language of reproductive biology is poisonously "gendered." In a 1988 article unironically titled "The Importance of Feminist Critique for Contemporary Cell Biology," the group refers first to a popularized physiology text written in 1890, and then to a paper by cytologist C.E. McClung published in 1901: "Using a courtship analogy wherein the many spermatic suitors courted the egg in its ovarian parlour, McClung…stated that the egg 'is able to attract that form of spermatozoon which will produce an individual of the sex most desirable to the welfare of the species.'" Such assaults upon the outdated and the innocuous coexist with pretensions to cutting-edge sophistication that are staggeringly bogus.

The results are no better when the academic left attempts to claim science for its own. For example, in "Chaos and Entropy: Metaphors in Postmodern Science and Social Theory," the cultural theorist Steven Best takes Newtonian mechanics to task for using "linear equations." But, as Gross and Levitt explain, "The Newtonian laws of celestial mechanics are expressed by a decidedly nonlinear system of ordinary differential equations." What might account for such an elementary error? For the postmodernist, "linearity" smacks of the ancien régime that was unseated by the "relativities" of the post-Einsteinian order, and Newton's thinking—hence equations, in Best's mind—must have been, primitively, "linear."

Misunderstandings like these, Gross and Levitt point out, "are not of the kind that can be remedied by a quick refresher course in elementary math and physics." At fault is the main assumption of the academic left itself: that "the sententious generalities that constitute the core of their doctrine are held to excuse them from the necessity of actually learning the particulars of the disciplines they criticize." Ironically, then, even as misinformed academic leftists excoriate the "Enlightenment project" as arrogant and overreaching, they themselves embody F.A. Hayek's definition of scientism. "The scientistic [view]," wrote Hayek in The Counter-Revolution of Science, "as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it." When particulars exist only to validate a preconceived conclusion, they are all too dispensable.

The general roots of the left's disaffection with science are not really hard to find. They reach back into the Romantics' distrust of analytical reason and they've been fed ever since by the rankling waters of science's continually rising prestige. "The recent critiques," note Gross and Levitt, "incarnate attempts to regain the high ground, to assert that the methods of social theory and literary analysis are equal in epistemic power to those of science." But since social scientific and literary methods can't match the hard sciences in either predictive or explanatory power, their purveyors instead nourish the "perspectivist" notion that truths, including scientific ones, possess very limited historical and cultural validity. This "perspectivism on the left," declare Gross and Levitt in italics, "is the true legacy of the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, a time when it was assumed that the oppressed are endowed with uniquely privileged insights, and the intellectual, as well as moral, authority of victims is beyond challenge."

Now victims have turned victors—or at least their academic champions have achieved an armchair "radicalism without risk." It's without risk in a double sense, for not only does that radicalism present very little real risk to the way research science is conducted (its revolutionary calls to arms "generally result in nothing more menacing than aphorisms lodged in obscure periodicals"), but there's also no risk to the "radicals" themselves: Their alarums are repeatedly and routinely shown respect by well-intentioned colleagues willing to indulge their sophistries in the vague interest of egalitarianism.

This isn't to suggest that the academic left poses no threat to the academy. When one realizes that such figures speak for the sciences in humanities and social science departments throughout American universities, it is easy to appreciate Gross and Levitt's characterization of the situation as "increasingly dangerous." Not only is the academy turning out an electorate whose scientific illiteracy is abetted by some of its most influential and highly placed faculty, but the young student-scientists who stand to lose the most by such illiteracy—particularly women and minorities—are encouraged to persist in a folly that ironically has been propagated in the name of democratization. "It is clear," write Gross and Levitt, "that black youngsters who aspire to scientific careers will be in deep trouble if their early education is dominated by the Afrocentrism espoused by Ivan Van Sertima, Hunter Havelin Adams, and their co-workers." And the authors fear that because of the pervasiveness of its appeal to non-scientific educators, the "feminist critique of science…[may have]…even more widely exclusionary results."

Gross and Levitt make several recommendations for remedying the current situation (all of which involve scientific professionals taking a more responsible role in monitoring educational agendas), but they give only glancing attention to the publish-or-perish ethos of contemporary academia. Everyone knows that the way you get to Harvard is much like the way you get to Carnegie Hall: Publish, publish, publish.

In the hard sciences, where "good" research is either replicable or has an obvious instrumental application, this isn't necessarily a problem. But particularly in fields such as literary studies, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, where agreed-upon standards of scholarship are elusive and heavily informed by personal political predilections, the incentive structure of today's universities rewards high-visibility publications over less-sensationalistic scholarship, typically without regard for accuracy. And since serious scientists, as Gross and Levitt confess, have been unaffected by almost all of the attacks on their disciplines (only the feminists have made any kind of impact, mainly by policing the halls of metaphor), it's unlikely they'll acquire much of a conscience about an iniquity that seems to lie well beyond their doors. The upshot is a situation that is indeed "dangerous"—and difficult to remedy.

Gross and Levitt have written an important book, albeit one likely to be ignored by the academic left itself. Anybody who describes the techniques of deconstruction as "hermeneutic hootchy-koo" is beneath the notice of the theoretically hip, and part of the left's strength is in the solidarity of its postmodern hipness. Still, to the degree that Higher Superstition exemplifies the informed scholarship that is the best antidote to "postmodern theory," Gross and Levitt contribute to the eventual discrediting of the academic left.

Robert Storey, professor of English at Temple University, has just completed a book on literary representation and evolutionary theory.