Reasonable Doubts: Benighted Elite

Postmodernist critics of science get their comeuppance


Some Navajo schoolchildren, like many other children, have trouble in math class. According to an article published in a leading journal for mathematics educators, one reason may be that "the Western world developed the notion of fractions and decimals out of a need to divide or segment a whole. The Navajo world view consistently appears not to segment the whole of an entity." Teachers in the rural Southwest might therefore want to begin with concepts more "naturally compatible with Navajo spatial knowledge," such as "non-Euclidean geometry, motion theories, and/or fundamentals of calculus," and de-emphasize or postpone "segmentation…into smaller parts."

One of the many high points of the essay collection A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodern Myths About Science (Oxford University Press) is watching the volume's editor, Indiana University philosopher of science Noretta Koertge, struggle to keep her patience as she apprises readers of such developments. The notion of teaching calculus before fractions is "quite astounding," writes Koertge, for reasons that begin with the difficulty of expressing the slope of a line, one of the fundamentals of calculus, in any way other than by using a fraction or decimal. And while well-meaning teachers puzzle out such difficulties, Navajo children are presumably supposed to grow up without learning how to compute sales tax.

The notion of a special "Navajo way of knowing," assuredly more spiritual and holistic than European ways, is just one of an array of by-now-familiar "standpoint epistemologies" associated with the idea that, as Koertge puts it, claims of fact "are always to be understood as a product of the culture, gender, ethnicity, [or] class of the observer who made them." Aside from Afrocentrism, there are such developments as "female-friendly science," some of whose supporters have proposed starting out girls in physics class on the study of wave phenomena or fluid mechanics, which they might find more congenial than the motions of "those darned old rigid bodies." (The phrase is Koertge's; in the 1994 book Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales From the Strange World of Women's Studies, she and co-author Daphne Patai brought to light many similar follies). Most widespread of all such doctrines is postmodernism, which treats assertions of scientific fact as indeterminate texts constructed by readers. All these various streams converge to form the body of work known as the "new sociology of science," a.k.a. Science and Technology Studies (STS) or simply Science Studies, brought to many readers' notice for the first time in Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's 1994 exposé Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Gross and Levitt's polemic against "hermeneutic hootchy-koo" is so spirited that you might consider it overdrawn, until you check out what leaders of Science Studies have to say on their own behalf. Quite a few are fond of asserting that critical observers of science should stay agnostic as between, say, astronomy and astrology. "What makes a belief true," declares one prominent figure, Trevor Pinch of Cornell University, "is not its correspondence with an element of reality, but its adoption and authentication by the relevant community." After all, "many pictures can be painted, and…the sociologist of science cannot say that any picture is a better representation of Nature than any other."

"The truth value of scientific knowledge is not necessarily at stake for its STS researcher," agrees Marianne de Laet of Columbia University in what is billed as "an insider's perspective" on the field in the Columbia Webzine 21stC. "Most of its practitioners subscribe to some form of subjectivism….For them, material reality is not ready-made, independent of the knower, waiting to be discovered." "Science is politics," adds the editor of the journal Science As Culture.

One consequence of such ideas is to make newcomers think it less urgent than they might once have to obtain a thorough grounding in scientific literacy–after all, the concepts are all "contestable" anyway, right? Writing in The Nation two years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh recounted an incident at an interdisciplinary conference on the emotions in which University of Michigan psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth ventured some favorable comments about the experimental method. Several audience members promptly rose to criticize her for collaborating with a methodology so identified with white Victorian males. Ellsworth allowed that she too had problems with some of those dead males but noted that they had laid the groundwork for such crucial accomplishments as the discovery of DNA. Came the retort: "You believe in DNA?"

Academics making careers in Science Studies may know better than to carry fact skepticism quite that far, but, according to the various scientist-contributors to A House Built on Sand, their basic knowledge of the fields they presume to deconstruct is often woefully lacking. Bruno Latour of École des Mines in Paris, by some accounts the leading figure in the field, commits "crude factual blunders." French theorist Luce Irigaray's critique of the gendered nature of the physical sciences contains "preposterous" assertions, while a hapless professor of English who attempts to popularize Irigaray "misconstrues every one of the mathematical and physical issues she addresses." Histories of the scientific method which contrive to portray alchemy as somehow in tune with women's needs, while pouncing on occasional sexist metaphors to malign Francis Bacon and other forerunners of the modern method, are at best perversely selective. Supposed feminist insights into the mechanism of egg fertilization turn out to be spurious in the extreme (though they fool Newsweek). And even the most careful works in the field–Andrew Pickering's 1984 Constructing Quarks receives some mild praise–don't prove what their authors think they do.

Some of this material will be of interest mostly to specialists, but it serves as background when the book takes up the question of what effect all this has had on the real world. Few practicing scientists, apparently, pay close heed to the Science Studies sideshow, and it would be easy to dismiss it as just a form of academic self-entertainment, especially given the jokey stance of many in the field, who often deny that they're really against science and instead claim to view it affectionately as a "bumbling giant" (an "attitude of tolerant superiority and epistemological condescension" which, as Koertge scathingly puts it, suggests that "we are now too sophisticated to be moved by the intellectual ideals or accomplishments of the last three centuries"). Yet Science Studies has had real influence.

To begin with, as the editor contends in one of the book's final essays, social constructivism has had a significant effect on science pedagogy, not least by encouraging curriculum makers "to substitute courses `about' science for courses in science." "After taking this course," reads one catalog description, "the student will be able to: 1. Describe the political nature of mathematics and mathematics education. 2. Describe gender and race differences in mathematics and their sociological consequences…" After enrolling in another politicized course, some students turned in heartfelt comments saying that they were "relieved to learn it was not their fault that they had previously not done well in mathematics."

Also "particularly vulnerable to the blandishments of postmodernism," Koertge writes, "are the professional staff at university presses, government and private foundations, and other organizations that mediate between science and the public," such as the news media. A further example that might be adduced is the field of law-and-science scholarship: Trial lawyers trying to fend off closer scrutiny of scientific testimony in the courtroom have enlisted as allies numerous Science Studies proponents who decry it as elitism for courts to "privilege" some scientific assertions over others by any efforts at quality control in the admission of expert evidence.

Postmodern critiques of science have also been surprisingly popular in the less developed world–but perhaps not in the ways their Western originators foresaw. In India, for example, according to contributor Meera Nanda, Hindu nationalists have been delighted to seize on Western multiculturalist doctrines proclaiming the superiority of "local ways of knowing."

Such ideas have helped the rightist Bharatiya Janata party rally support among intellectuals for curricular reforms aimed at "awakening national pride" by, for example, easing out "universal" historiography in favor of a greater emphasis on patriotic myth (such as India's role as home of the original "Aryan race") and by downgrading such instructional topics as algebra (with its unwelcome Islamic/Western associations) to make way for the "Vedic mathematics" derived from rule-of-thumb computational formulas found in certain Sanskrit verses. Even more remarkable, Pakistani proponents of "Islamic science" and "Islamic epistemology" have been "explicitly citing the work of feminist science critics" in their campaign to purge many Western ideas from the schools, and certain feminist professors in the West–perhaps caught up in the thrill of having their work cited half a world away–have favorably cited the Islamicists right back.

That isn't the only odd meeting of minds under way between academic trendiness and religious fundamentalism (see "Dark Bedfellows," January). Matt Cartmill, writing last year in Discover, refers to "the strange alliance against Darwin that's emerged in recent years between the forces of the religious right and the academic left" (which of the two, one wonders, hates Richard Dawkins more?). Ehrenreich and McIntosh likewise observe in The Nation that the dogmatic "antibiologism" of much of the feminist left results in an "ideological outlook eerily similar to that of religious creationism."

In both cases it's thought a menace to dignity and good morals to inquire too closely into our lineal closeness to the brutes, the main difference being which brutes are in question (for the hardcore feminists, the unwelcome member of the family tree is not so much the outright ape as the macho caveman). Indeed, Gross and Levitt report that at least one prominent Science Studies advocate has endorsed the introduction of creationism into public school classrooms–a position that may take on multicultural momentum as it is more widely noted that evolutionary doctrine conflicts with the creation myths not just of Judaism and Christianity but also (as one leftist professor points out) of "many traditional Native American, African, and Eastern religions." Since multiculturalism has already led to the avoidance in school curricula of archaeological findings considered touchy for Native Americans–some textbook publishers, for example, have apparently omitted reference to the Bering Strait migration after they were informed that many tribes hold as faith that they have "always been here"–it's hard to see in the long run how the schools can say no.

In many ways the perfect complement to A House Built on Sand is Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (Picador USA), in which NYU physicist Alan Sokal and co-author Jean Bricmont document in comic detail the tendency of Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and other high French theorists to spout off about scientific matters which they appear to understand very poorly. (Sokal gained fame with a 1996 hoax in which he got the journal Social Text to publish his lampoon of deconstructionism, full of deliberate nonsense about the nature of science, as serious criticism.) Aside from being a crucial influence on Science Studies, the French theory mafia has some direct overlap with it; Latour and Irigaray get extended treatment in both books.

Fond of invoking such terms as non-Euclidean space, discontinuities, and nonlinearity, the Parisian savants fall painfully between the stools of poetic and literal usage. They keep imagining that the acceptance by the scientific world of such concepts as irrational numbers, relativity, incompleteness, Heisenbergian uncertainty, and chaos theory must somehow mean that science's account of the world or of human society has grown more irrational, relative, incomplete, uncertain, or chaotic, a notion that plenty of scientists would have been happy to talk them out of. Lacan's obsessively pursued analogies between psychoanalysis and topology are "the most arbitrary imaginable," Baudrillard's musings on exponentialism and turbulence lead him into a "gradual crescendo of nonsense," and so forth. They wanted "anti-foundationalism"? They got it: Sokal and Bricmont have kicked the props out from under them.

But why, one wonders, has it been left to the left to do so much of the heavy lifting on these refutations? (Sokal, Levitt, Ehrenreich, and several of the House Built on Sand contributors proclaim themselves on the left, and there's scarcely an acknowledged conservative in sight.) Perhaps one reason is that much of the right in recent years has grown markedly uncritical toward its own irrationalist and anti-scientific factions, as reflected by the spread of creationist arguments in one conservative journal of opinion after another in recent years. (See "Origin of the Specious," July 1997.) In a newly written preface to last year's softcover edition of Higher Superstition, Gross and Levitt ruefully note this continued resurgence of creationist agitation and declare that if they were writing the book today, "the `academic right' would have to join the academic left in its subtitle and there would have to be a chapter on `Intelligent Design Theory.'"

In the meantime these books strike much-needed blows against the charlatanry of the learned.