Monday, December 20, 2010

Michael Bérubé - The Science Wars Redux

The current issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Michael Bérubé looks at the new science wars - The Science Wars Redux. This time it's not the liberals waging a war on science (hardcore postmodernist theory views science as only one perspective among many, not the final and only truth), it's the conservatives who now argue that science is not on objectively true version of reality - it's only one perspective (and their Christian perspective is equally, or more true).

The Sokal Hoax refers to physicist Alan Sokal's experiment during the 1990s in composing and publishing a completely nonsensical "scientific" article in order prove the that contemporary humanities (postmodern theory) and its critique of science was lamesauce.
He then placed a big red bow on the package, titling the essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The result was a very weird essay, a heady mix–and a shot heard ’round the world. For Sokal decided to submit it to the journal Social Text, where it wound up in a special issue edited by Ross and Aronowitz on . . . the “Science Wars.” Yes, that’s right: Social Text accepted an essay chock-full of nonsense and proceeded to publish it in a special issue that was designed to answer the critics of science studies–especially, but not exclusively, Gross and Levitt. It was more than a great hoax on Sokal’s part; it was also, on the part of Social Text, one of the great own-foot-shootings in the history of self-inflicted injury.
The fallout from this experiment was considerable. The left split between social issues (wealth, oppression, class struggle) and more academic issues (feminism, gender, language) - with many people painting Sokal and his supporters (mostly liberal) as
“left conservatives.”

Anyway, this is a very engaging article - here is some more:

In his Lingua Franca essay, "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies," he wrote, “the results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy.” At the very least, indeed: for Sokal claimed that his hoax proved much more. He had proven, he wrote, that in the realm of theory, "Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors, and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.” And then he threw down the gauntlet. Sokal was not, as he explained, trying to embarrass Social Text; his broader aim was political, for he believed–and he was not alone–that postmodernism and theory were bad for the left, and that the academic wing of the left was aggressively undermining the foundations of progressive politics:

For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful–not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique.
Sokal’s own left credentials were quite strong; as he noted, he spent part of the 1980s teaching math in Sandinist Nicaragua. But here was an argument worth having, particularly with regard to the phrase “objective reality (both natural and social),” which makes the terrible mistake of conflating two different things, and of suggesting that the analysis of social reality should proceed like the analysis of physical reality–as if the pursuit of social justice is a matter of discovering the physical properties of the universe. Of all the contemporaneous responses–and there were hundreds–only Village Voice writer and cultural critic Ellen Willis honed in on this notion, arguing that the idea that “the left” should see politics in Sokal’s terms was thoroughly self-defeating, inasmuch as the belief that morality and justice are a matter of immutable natural law is far more congenial to conservatism than to a movement trying to imagine that another world is possible. More, Sokal’s essay spoke to a strain of leftist thought, Willis wrote, in which “cultural analysis is a waste of time.”
Now, over the years since Sokal's article and its fallout, the conservative right is making the same arguments he made in his article - that objective science is not the final arbiter of reality. They have built a creationist museum of young-Earth "science," they promote the teaching of mythology as science is school textbooks, they refute the data on climate change, and the list goes on.

That one, alas, has held up very well, for it turns out that the critique of scientific “objectivity” and the insistence on the inevitable “partiality” of knowledge can serve the purposes of climate-change deniers and young-Earth creationists quite nicely. That’s not because there was something fundamentally rotten at the core of philosophical anti-foundationalism (whose leading American exponent, Richard Rorty, remained a progressive Democrat all his life), but it might very well have had something to do with the cloistered nature of the academic left. It was as if we had tacitly assumed, all along, that we were speaking only to one another, so that whenever we championed Jean-François Lyotard’s defense of the “hetereogeneity of language games” and spat on Jürgen Habermas’s ideal of a conversation oriented toward “consensus,” we assumed a strong consensus among us that anyone on the side of heterogeneity was on the side of the angels.

But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists, just as I predicted–and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind. Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of “experts” and “professionals” and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research. For example, when Andrew Ross asked in Strange Weather, “How can metaphysical life theories and explanations taken seriously by millions be ignored or excluded by a small group of powerful people called ‘scientists’?,” everyone was supposed to understand that he was referring to alternative medicine, and that his critique of “scientists” was meant to bring power to the people. The countercultural account of “metaphysical life theories” that gives people a sense of dignity in the face of scientific authority sounds good–until one substitutes “astrology” or “homeopathy” or “creationism” (all of which are certainly taken seriously by millions) in its place.

Please take the time to read the whole article - it's worth the time - he makes some very important points in understanding how the conservative right has now adopted the arguments of the postmodern left (whom they abhor) to further their own agenda.


Peter Clothier said...

A fascinating debate, Bill--though I have to confess that a good deal of the theoretical detail passes right over my head. What I get is that we need more open--and more discriminating--minds.

william harryman said...

His essential point is that the right is now using the same arguments to discredit science that the leftist postmodernists used 15-25 years ago in their critique on science.

What's good for the goose . . . .