This is the hardest I've laughed for any book in my 2017 reading theme. "Higher Superstition" is a wickedly perceptive takedown of the absurdities of the "academic postmodern left" and their "perspectivist" critique of science. Gross and Levitt defend the epistemological integrity of science from the relativist onslaught with a biting wit and a cavalier disregard for political correctness. The book is a useful conservative counterbalance to Otto's generally liberal "The War on Science".
Originally published in 1994, this book just pre-dates Harold Bloom's equally hilarious and unapologetic "The Western Canon". Similar in conservative approach and acidic tone, both works take on "The School of Resentment" and its attack on the foundations of Western culture and civilization. On the menu for evisceration are "Marxists, feminists, Afro-centrists, and relativists" (and "ecotopians" for good measure). I suspect that neither book could find a publisher courageous enough to publish it today.
The core argument of the book is that postmodern critiques that treat science as "just another self-referential discursive community" fail to appreciate the unique, self-correcting relationship that science has with reality. Gross and Levitt do a remarkably good job surveying the giants of the philosophy of science - from Kuhn and Feyerabend to Latour and Shapin. I found his refutation of relativism compelling and his no-holds-barred demolition of leftist misinterpretations of chaos theory to be satisfyingly brutal.
Speaking of brutality, here's a list of some of the sickest burns in the book:
- "To put the matter brutally, science works."
- "What Hayles does is not analysis. It is name-dropping."
- "This is exhilarating: it is radicalism without risk."
- "Wishful thinking is the customary name for this such “analysis.”"
- "There is not masculinist or feminist science, just good and bad science."
- "Apocalyptic movements don’t do honest and comprehensive cost/benefit analyses."
- "the only book foretelling the end of the world that routinely advertises next year’s edition."
- "Science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise."
- "In sum, we are accusing a powerful faction in modern academic life of intellectual dereliction."
- "One can’t assume, in these matters, that possession of an advanced degree or a professorship equates to intellectual legitimacy."
The book is full of quotes like these. They makes the text a joy to read, but also underscore how bitter discourse in the academy has become. Gross and Levitt echo Bloom by highlighting this resentment, "It is impossible to understand fully the academic left’s attack on science without taking into account how much resentment is embodied in it." They argue that the humanities envy the increasing funding and prestige of science departments, and thus they have leveled their constructivist weapons upon them. Seems a bit too... Freudian?
My big takeaway was that much of the conflict between the left and science comes down to a matter of perspectivism:
Perspectivism on the left 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 that the intellectual, as well as moral authority of victims is beyond challenge.
Overall, this is a cranky but useful read. It was certainly quite helpful in helping me frame some current scientific controversies in their recent-historical context.
A word of warning: because the authors attempt to engage with contemporary postmodern academic literature, the books is awash in complex, confusing vocabulary ("hermeneutics" comes up with astonishing frequency). In general, the vocabulary level of this book is quite high - I often found myself having to look words up. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised - after all, we're neck-deep in epistemology now.
My highlights below.
Preface to the 1998 Edition
The writing of Higher Superstition was undertaken only when it became clear to us, from separate but remarkably similar experiences at our respective universities, that something new and unwelcome had found its way into the academic bloodstream and thence into lecture rooms, journals, books, and faculty chit-chat: the systematic disparagement of modern science.
For us, however, the greatest surprises have been pleasant ones. Chief among them was the international uproar occasioned by the publication of Alan Sokal’s now-famous hoax, “Transgressing the Boundaries: The Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the trendy cultural studies journal Social Text. The ongoing saga of Sokal’s pleasantry is instructive on several levels. The joke arose from Sokal’s reading of our book.
It was submitted to Social Text, in all apparent seriousness, early that winter. Unknown to Sokal at the time, that publication, under the leadership of Prof. Andrew Ross (see Chapter 4), was preparing a special issue on what it dubbed “the science wars.” The intention was to vindicate assorted poststructuralist, multicultural, and feminist critiques of science and to denounce their critics, most notably the depraved Gross and Levitt. Sokal’s piece, with its seconding and fulsome praise of such intentions, was snapped up by the editors.
Interest stirred up by our book convinced us to try to extend the discussion by organizing a conference under the sponsorship of the New York Academy of Sciences. This conference, held in New York in the spring of 1995, was called “The Flight from Science and Reason”;
Radical science studies, with its do-it-yourself epistemologies, had long enjoyed a certain immunity from serious challenge or criticism. That immunity began to melt away as more and more scientists became aware of the breadth and depth of the misconceptions about science being propagated by constructivist historians, sociologists of scientific knowledge, and feminist epistemologists, among others. Benchmarks in this process included Nobelist M. F. Perutz’s astringent New York Review of Books article on Gerald Geison’s The Private Science of Louis Pasteur and the ensuing correspondence.
Even more striking, the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton University, perhaps the most prestige-laden academic research facility in the country, has been in the thick of the argument. Unknown to us, shortly before this volume was written, there was conflict when “anthropologist of science” Bruno Latour (see Chapter 3) was proposed as a permanent member by the Faculty of Social Science. The Institute’s mathematicians and physicists, acquainting themselves with Latour’s writings, raised the roof, and the nomination was withdrawn.
Quite recently (within the past few weeks) the issue has flared anew in the same place. M. Norton Wise, a cultural historian of science at Princeton, was proposed for the institute position once denied Latour, and rejected.
Many notable historians and sociologists of science have long held misgivings about the intellectual nihilism that offers itself as “cultural constructivism”; but they have been reluctant to challenge it for fear of gaining a reputation as sissies, too weak-kneed to play the exhilarating game of “epistemological chicken.” Just as often, they have been cowed by fear of the academically fatal accusations: political conservatism, sexism, disdain for the Other.
CHAPTER ONE - The Academic Left and Science
We hope to be as clear in our thinking as Bertrand Russell would have wished, though it will be difficult to be as kind.
To put it bluntly, the academic left dislikes science. Naturally enough, it dislikes some of the uses to which science is put by the political and economic forces controlling our society, especially in such areas as military hardware, surveillance of dissidents, destructive and environmentally unsound industrial processes, and the manipulation of mass consciousness through the technologies of popular culture.
Most surprisingly, there is open hostility toward the actual content of scientific knowledge and toward the assumption, which one might have supposed universal among educated people, that scientific knowledge is reasonably reliable and rests on a sound methodology. It is this last kind of hostility that scientists who are aware of it find most enigmatic. There is something medieval about it, in spite of the hypermodern language in which it is nowadays couched. It seems to represent a rejection of the strongest heritage of the Enlightenment.
We try to use the troubling term academic left with reasonable precision. This category is comprised, in the main, of humanists and social scientists; rarely do working natural scientists (who may nevertheless associate themselves with liberal or leftist ideas) show up within its ranks.
What defines it, as much as anything else, is a deep concern with cultural issues, and, in particular, 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.
In turn, postmodernism is embedded and elaborated in the scholarly work of the academic left, notably in fields such as literary criticism, social history, and a new hybrid called “cultural studies.” Postmodernism is grounded in the assumption that the ideological system sustaining the cultural and material practices of Western European civilization is bankrupt and on the point of collapse.
What enables them to coexist congenially, in spite of gross logical inconsistencies, is a shared sense of injury, resentment, and indignation against modern science.
A curious fact about the recent left-critique of science is the degree to which its instigators have overcome their former timidity or indifference toward the subject not by studying it in detail but rather by creating a repertoire of rationalizations for avoiding such study.
The academic left’s critiques of science have come to exert a remarkable influence. The primary reason for their success is not that they put forward sound arguments, but rather that they resort constantly and shamelessly to moral one-upmanship. If you decry the feminist critique of science, you are guilty of trying to preserve science as an old-boy’s network.
Differences are soft-pedaled in the interest of an overriding common purpose, which is to demystify science, to undermine its epistemic authority, and to valorize “ways of knowing” incompatible with it.
The recent critiques of science 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.
To exemplify cultural constructivism, we have chosen sociologists and historians of science: Stanley Aronowitz, Bruno Latour, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. For postmodernism, we have settled upon the philosopher Steven Best, the “cultural critic” Andrew Ross, and the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles. The feminist theorists we consider include some of the best known: Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, Evelyn Fox Keller, Helen Longino. As for the radical environmentalist attack on science, we concentrate on academics like Carolyn Merchant, but also on theorists — Jeremy Rifkin and Dave Foreman to take the most obvious examples — who may not be “academics” in the narrow sense, but whose writings and activist crusades have gained credence and widespread support from the academy, and whose language and intellectual temperament seem to echo closely the styles and prejudices of the most prominent contemporary critics of science.
CHAPTER TWO - Some History and Politics: Natural Science and Its Natural Enemies
In its ineluctable dynamic, the science of the turn of the eighteenth century could not be contained within the shell of any theological system. It was, in important ways, already fully modern. Open-endedness is the vital principle at stake here. It constitutes the lifeblood of ongoing science. Newton said it best: an “ocean of truth” lies undiscovered before us.
Laplace’s famous explanation — “I did not find the hypothesis necessary” — of the absence of the Deity from his system of cosmology is both a succinct lesson in the explanatory parsimony of scientific thinking and a war cry of political and ideological defiance.
Burke, however, is but one of a spectrum of thinkers who begin to show strong doubts about the deification of the merely rational. Far more emphatic and impassioned are the great figures of Romantic individualism, including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and, above all, Goethe. It is in literature and poetry that we first begin to encounter a reaction against Enlightenment values that reveals a specific distrust of science, as well as a strong reluctance to believe that mankind can be reformed along “scientific” lines.
It is impossible to understand fully the academic left’s attack on science without taking into account how much resentment is embodied in it. Science is, if anything, a more natural target for the frustrated spite of the left than literature or art or other aspect of high culture.
The civil rights movement that once stirred the conscience of the nation and seemed the rightful heir to everything noble in American tradition has devolved into a morass of bitter resentments, susceptible to tribalistic fantasies and demagoguery, but unable to formulate coherent goals or effective strategies.
The left, in sum, is at the moment the surviving squad of theoreticians of a nonexistent mass movement.
The corresponding maxim was applied to radical feminism as that movement took shape — men, however sympathetic, could be spear carriers but never theorists or analysts, let alone leaders. These attitudes, recurring from context to context, have a theoretical counterpart, a doctrine declaring that a group traditionally “privileged” has no right to define reality for others. It goes further; the very state of being oppressed is somehow supposed to confer a greater clarity of vision, a more authentic view of the world, than the bourgeois trappings of economic, racial, and sexual hegemony.
Despite all protestations to the contrary, entire programs—women’s studies, African-American (or Latino or Native American) studies, cultural studies—demand, de facto, at least a rough allegiance to a leftist perspective as a qualification for membership in the faculty.
The glamorization of high-powered careers in business, finance, and corporate law has something to do with it. Absent an initial emotional commitment to a radical political vision, a bright young person is likely to be far more strongly tempted by the prospect of having his or her own stretch limousine and Lear jet than by even the cushiest faculty appointment, especially in a mythic atmosphere in which twenty-six-year-old self-made billionaires abound.
It seems to us that the central tenet of the various schools of thought that make up the academic left is one that may be labeled “perspectivist.”
Perspectivism on the left 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 that the intellectual, as well as moral authority of victims is beyond challenge.
The attempts to read scientific knowledge as the mere transcription of Western male capitalist social perspectives, or as the deformed handicraft of the prisonhouse of language, are hopelessly naive and reductionistic. They take no account of the specific logic of the sciences and they are far too coarse to deal with the conceptual texture of any category of important scientific thought.
CHAPTER THREE - The Cultural Construction of Cultural Constructivism
In strong form, cultural constructivism (sometimes, another phrase such as “social constructionism” may be used, depending on the terminological preferences of the expositor) holds to the following epistemological position: science is a highly elaborated set of conventions brought forth by one particular culture (our own) in the circumstances of one particular historical period; thus it is not, as the standard view would have it, a body of knowledge and testable conjecture concerning the “real” world. It is a discourse, devised by and for one specialized “interpretive community,” under terms created by the complex net of social circumstance, political opinion, economic incentive, and ideological climate that constitutes the ineluctable human environment of the scientist. Thus, orthodox science is but one discursive community among the many that now exist and that have existed historically. Consequently its truth claims are irreducibly self-referential, in that they can be upheld only by appeal to the standards that define the “scientific community” and distinguish it from other social formations.
The attentive reader will have noted that this point of view rigorously applied leaves no ground whatsoever for distinguishing reliable knowledge from superstition.
Still, a sense of honor compels us to sketch at least one common argument against the constructivist view. Consider how the theory itself is built up and defended. There is an obvious appeal to rather conventional veridical standards. A model of a phenomenon is proposed and given coherent logical form. Evidence for that model is adduced with every indication that it is evidence of a specifically factual kind. This putative evidence is made to articulate with the presumptive model by means of arguments whose canons of logic and relevance are entirely unexceptional. Inferences from the model — specifically, those inferences we have summarized as constituting the core of cultural-constructivist doctrine — are likewise arrived at by the presumed application of ordinary logic, that is, deduction. Thus, the cultural-constructivist case is brought into being by an intellectual process that implicitly accepts the same methodological paradigm as the empirical sciences it presumes to analyze!
These objections aside, however, we note that the very form of their argument makes the cultural constructivists self-subverting. They appeal to the same canons of judgment that their argument seeks to condemn.
To put the matter brutally, science works.
The state of affairs is best summarized, probably, by the philosopher Paul Feyerabend, one of the thinkers directly responsible for initiating the chain of ideas leading to the cultural constructivist view of science (and, next to Thomas Kuhn, the most often cited), who now expresses deep reservations about the outcomes of this line of thought. “How can an enterprise [science] depend on culture in so many ways, and yet produce such solid results?” he asks. “Most answers to this question are either incomplete or incoherent. Physicists take the fact for granted. Movements that view quantum mechanics as a turning-point in thought — and that include fly-by-night mystics, prophets of a New Age, and relativists of all sorts — get aroused by the cultural component and forget predictions and technology.”
The point of course is not that logic (and therefore mathematics) is culturally contaminated, but that cogent, self-consistent, logically coherent thinking is not ubiquitous.
According to the constructivist canon, all are puppets of the temper of an age, and science is just another inadvertent ratification of its ideological premises. Only the cultural constructivists themselves (of course) are licensed to escape the intellectual tyranny of this invisible hand. For their part, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and biologists must all succumb.
The idea that Latour’s reports on the activities of scientists are to be accorded factual status, while scientists’ reports on nature are not, involves a metaphysical conceit (in both senses of the word) of astounding proportions.
One well-known example is the work of Shapin and Schaffer, whose book Leviathan and the Air Pump has a wide circle of admirers.
Here is Shapin and Schaffer’s last word on the general epistemic principle that their particular historical study is supposed to illustrate: “As we come to recognize the conventional and artificial status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know.” So, in the end, we come back to the dichotomy — fallacious in that it posits total opposition between “reality” and “convention” where there is, in fact, intense and continuing interaction — so favored by Latour and other constructivists. The questions raised by Leviathan and the Air Pump are serious and genuine. No intellectually astute history of the interplay between science and its supporting social matrix could afford to ignore them. The flaw, however, lies in attributing a deep and irretrievable source of error to what is ephemeral, local, and inconsistent in its operation.
Consider, in particular, the rather touching story of the publication of the Principia. It will be remembered that Halley had to drag it out of Newton by main force (imagine a comparable situation involving a contemporary scientist). And Halley, a man of no wealth, put up his own money to see the work through press, taking his compensation in the form of copies, which he had to sell himself. Recall, once more, that Halley was, in fact, an atheist, while Newton, on his own testimony, hated atheism above all things! Clearly, there is more to be said about rigidity and latitudinarianism, intolerance and liberty of opinion, in the seventeenth-century scientific community than that the Royal Society constituted a kind of thought police.
The relevance of these facts to the Shapin-Schaffer hypothesis is that this long and (to Hobbes’s admirers) lamentable history provides a concrete and substantive reason, in contrast to an ideological one, for Hobbes’s notoriety in scientific circles. So far as mathematics is concerned, Hobbes was simply dead wrong in these exchanges, as any competent mathematician would have seen. It is then no wonder that his authority to pass judgment on scientific matters was not well regarded, even if those matters had nothing directly to do with squaring the circle or the like. He was, after all, a strenuous advocate of a rational-deductive methodology based on that of synthetic geometry, as an alternative to the emerging experimental empiricism. Shapin and Schaffer emphasize this fact, but unaccountably fail to link it to the question of Hobbes’s doubtful mathematical competence. His grotesque failures as a would-be geometer, however, can hardly have been irrelevant. Leviathan and the Air Pump would have been a rather different book had it addressed these matters directly. The image of Hobbes as brilliant and devastating iconoclast would have taken some hits, at the least. Moreover, Shapin and Schaffer would have put themselves in the position of conceding the existence of sound, objective reasons for deciding at least some scientific controversies — that between Hobbes and Wallis being an important case in point. Inevitably, they would have been led to concede that there are reasonably valid criteria for deciding the scientific competence of individuals, for distinguishing, in most instances, between worthwhile theorists and cranks. After all, in terms of mathematics, Hobbes was a crank. Such concessions, however, do not sort well with a relativist or conventionalist position, especially one grounded on a radically antielitist politics. Shapin and Schaffer sidestep the issues that might entail such admissions by insisting that all such disputes are ideological.
The central ambition of the cultural constructivist program—to explain the deepest and most enduring insights of science as a corollary of social assumptions and ideological agenda—is futile and perverse. The chances are excellent, however, that one can account for the intellectual phenomenon of cultural constructivism itself in precisely such terms.
Thus, the insights of the constructivists are ripe to be turned against them. One must scrutinize their precepts and their practices for signs that their theories are “value-laden” to a considerable, perhaps an unacceptable, degree.
CHAPTER FOUR - The Realm of Idle Phrases: Postmodernism, Literary Theory, and Cultural Criticism
To give a concise statement of postmodern doctrine would be an almost impossible task. It is too variegated and shifty to allow easy categorization, and too willfully intent on avoiding definitional precision. There is even a risk of misleading in calling it a body of ideas, for postmodernism is more a matter of attitude and emotional tonality than of rigorous axiomatics.
If we accept the notion that there is a generalized intellectual “project” of the Enlightenment, one that is intent upon building a sound body of knowledge about the world the human race confronts, then postmodernism defines itself, in large measure, as the antithetical doctrine: that such a project is inherently futile, self-deceptive, and worst of all, oppressive.
The realm of cultural studies, only a few years old, and yet the virtual center of current left-wing theorizing, is to all intents the institutional embodiment of postmodernism.
If one holds, as most postmodernists do, that “reality” is chimerical or at best inaccessible to human cognition, and that all human awareness is a creature and a prisoner of the language games that encode it, then it is a short step to the belief that mastery over words, over terminology and lexicon, is mastery over the world.
The idea that close attention to the words, tropes, and rhetorical postures of a culture gives one transmutative power over that culture finds acceptance for a number of reasons. First of all, it shifts the game of politics to the home turf of those who by inclination and training are clever with words, disposed to read texts with minute attention and to attend to the higher-order resonances of language. At the same time, it allows scholars of a certain stamp to construe the pursuit of their most arcane interests as a defiantly political act against the repressive strictures of society. This is exhilarating: it is radicalism without risk.
Postmodernism is, among other things, a device for amplifying the special insights of a narrow area of literary criticism or rhetorical analysis into a methodology for making judgments of the entire cultural spectrum.
The most recurrent and inevitable names in postmodernist circles are those of two French philosophers, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
Rather, the reason is the adventitious exposure of two figures closely associated with Derrida — one as disciple, the other as philosophical forebear — as having behaved abominably during the heyday of Nazism. Derrida’s chief American follower, Paul de Man of Yale University, was posthumously disgraced by the revelation of his pro-Nazi writings as a literary journalist in occupied Belgium. This, moreover, turned out to be just one episode in a life filled with dissimulation, opportunism, and betrayal. At about the same time, new facts came to light concerning the enthusiasms of the influential philosopher Martin Heidegger for Nazi doctrine, enthusiasms that now appear to have been heartfelt, and that led Heidegger, as rector of his university during the thirties, to perpetrate unforgivable acts of repression. Since Derrida had always claimed derivation of his thought from Heidegger, his own credibility as a liberatory thinker came under challenge.
The alarums and excursions that have shaken the halls of English and comparative literature departments have reached scientists, even those strictly within the academy, only as vague and amusing rumors. In the social sciences, however, the effects have been drastic.
In Fox’s view, however, many of the peoples whom this strategy is designed to help are, in the end, poorly served: “Science, with its objectivity... remains the one international language capable of providing objective knowledge of the world. And it is a language that all can use and share and learn... The wretched of the earth want science and the benefits of science. To deny them this is another kind of racism.
To toy with ideas in such an idle and self-vitiating fashion would seem to confess a lack of interest in bringing about salutary change in human affairs.
First of all, postmodern philosophy, in its guise as literary theory, flatteringly concedes a high degree of power to the skills and habits of mind of literary critics. The practice of close, exegetical reading, of hermeneutics, is elevated and greatly ennobled by Derrida and his followers. No longer is it seen as a quaint academic hobby-horse for insular specialists, intent on picking the last bit of meat from the bones of Jane Austen or Herman Melville. Rather, it has now become the key to a full comprehension of the profoundest matters of truth and meaning, the mantic art of understanding humanity and the universe at their very foundations.
Secondly, postmodernism, whether chiefly derived from one philosophical source or drawing eclectically on a flock of them — Lyotard, Baudrillard in addition to Derrida and Foucault — is, in its skepticism about everything save itself, an incarnation of the anti-Philosopher’s Stone. Everything it touches is drained of value, authority, validity, and even the right to stand for what it has always stood for and to be understood as it has always been understood.
It is a heaven-sent device for avoiding close argument and the analysis of particulars. Once a postmodern critic has at hand a license to read every proposition as its opposite when it suits his convenience, analytic skills of the more traditional sort are expendable and logic is effaced in the swirling tide of rhetoric.
Given that humanists — and, in particular, literary scholars of the traditional sort — have always labored just as hard, examined the relevant data just as minutely, and argued as exhaustively in reaching their judgments as physicists and mathematicians do in reaching theirs, the news that their conclusions cannot, in principle, even be wrong (in the sense that the contrary proposition is right) was a sour revelation indeed.
This has not forestalled the emergence of a fad among historians, social theorists, and literary intellectuals, a number of whom are given to studding their essays with knowing references to chaos theory as a way of dressing up truisms about the complexity of life, art, and human experience.
Best’s other paragon of contemporary post-modem scientific thought is Jeremy Rifkin, author of Entropy, Algeny, and Beyond Beef, among a series of books and pamphlets devoted to imminent environmental catastrophes. While it is possible that Rifkin’s high-pitched rhetoric performs some service in alerting a sluggish public to the existence of ecological problems, it is widely felt, even by those scientists most passionately committed to environmentalism, that Rifkin’s unrelieved alarmism rests on ill-founded and unscientific theorizing, and that his distortions and fantasies damage the political cause he seeks to inspire.
Certainly, he fails to take heed of Kamminga’s warning (cited above); and in his account, chaos theory does indeed become a new mysticism.
What we have in chaos theory is a recommitment to taking seriously some deep old issues, such as the “structural stability problem.”
What Hayles does is not analysis. It is name-dropping.
We shall not comment on this latest exercise in self-righteous hermeneutics, except to observe that it is tendentious and strained to the point of absurdity.
The lesson to be learned, then, is that cultural constructivist theories of science deserve to be treated with the gravest suspicion, whether they derive from sociology, Foucauldian historicism, or deconstructive literary theory. All the strange pronouncements upon which we have focused occur, as we note, on one page. There is nothing particularly special about that page. This book is stuffed with similar solecisms, which makes reading it a painful experience. Yet the work is published by a distinguished university press and has garnered Hayles a substantial degree of recognition, including an endowed chair at a major university, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the presidency of the Society for Literature and Science, and the chairmanship of the literature and science committee of the Modern Language Association; so we ought not to conclude that this is some kind of crackpot tract of the New Age movement (although the word crackpot unkindly leaps to mind when one has to read it). This is very much in the academic mainstream, as commandeered by the votaries of postmodernism.
CHAPTER FIVE - Auspicating Gender
The key process of this critique is insistence that inasmuch as science has until now been a male enterprise, it is ipso facto biased by unacknowledged assumptions derived from the patriarchal values of Western society. On the other hand, the argument continues, a body of insights, attitudes, and sympathies corresponding to the suppressed female culture has been unable to penetrate official science, depriving it therefore of alternative points of view and condemning it to distortion.
To put it bluntly, the reigning posture is that the weight of men’s historical misdeeds is so great that it is bad form, in fact indecent, for male academics to object, even to the most aggressive and speculative announcements of their feminist colleagues. As a result, “women’s studies” (like “multicultural” programs generally) has almost everywhere a sacrosanct status, an unprecedented immunity to the scrutiny and skepticism that are standard for other fields of inquiry. Feminist criticism of science (and of culture in general) has become, to borrow a favorite item of lit-crit palaver, “privileged” within the academy.
It is that sexist discrimination, while certainly not vanished into history, is largely vestigial in the universities; that the only widespread, obvious discrimination today is against white males.
To examine the issue we need (and are led by feminist authors to expect) not just stories of past or present discrimination, but examples of scientific knowledge informed, reformed, enhanced by feminism. As far as we are aware, there are as yet no examples. It’s that simple.
Feminist cultural analysis has not yet identified any heretofore undetected flaws in the logic, or the predictive powers, or the applicability of mathematics, physics, chemistry, or — much complaining to the contrary notwithstanding — biology.
A young lady who makes a game stab at “Maude and Mabel” problems but balks at “Joe and Johnny” versions of the same is almost certainly without the knack for abstraction that is an indispensable ingredient of mathematical talent.
The purpose of the carefully tailored feminist language and imagery is not primarily to build the self-confidence of woman students, but rather to convert problems and examples into parables of feminist rectitude. It is, at bottom, not different from an imaginary Christian fundamentalist pedagogy requiring that all mathematics problems illustrate biblical episodes and preach evangelical sermons. Campbell and Campbell-Wright really want mathematics instructors to act as missionaries for a narrow, self-righteous feminism. That is far more disturbing than bad philosophy of mathematics!
An imaginative, deconstructive reading of the original, trivial text! The criticism is riper by far than the criticized.
If there is anything of substance in the BGSG critique, it is that writers on science — especially popular writers—ought to be careful with figures of speech and should be vigilant in avoiding the pathetic fallacy.
What is saddest about this well-meaning group — we do not impugn their sincerity or their desire for equality between the sexes — is the contrast between the decency of their intentions and the triviality of the results. “By using feminist critique to analyze some of the history of biological thought,” the authors assert, “we are able to recognize areas where gender bias has informed how we think as biologists. In controlling for this bias, we can make biology a better discipline... We become what biology tells us is the truth about life. Therefore feminist critique of biology is not only good for biology but for our society as well.” Wishful thinking is the customary name for this such “analysis.”
It is a commonplace among relativists of all kinds to ignore or dismiss the self-correction process by which good science survives and bad science — that which is not verifiable by others of different tastes and tendencies — vanishes in due course.
The temptation to construe colloquialisms as tokens of deep epistemological error has been a ceaseless element of feminist criticism, and one of the most fatuous.
Does physics, then, have an explanation for the history of physics? In one very strong sense it does: the history of physics as a collection of ideas is largely explained by the objective nature of the phenomena it describes and schematizes. Thus Kepler’s laws of motion are explained by the fact that, to a high degree of precision, the planets move as predicted by those laws. This seeming tautology will leave relativists and cultural constructivists feeling quite out of sorts; but, as explanations go, it is supremely solid and convincing.
Her stirring assertion to the effect that Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophae Naturalis is a “rape manual” may well have won her a lasting admiration in doctrinaire feminist circles and even a place among physicists. We pity coming generations of freshmen physics students who, titillated by this famous remark, will spend long hours thumbing through that magisterial work, looking for the dirty bits.
We share with enthusiasm the hope that the ethnic and sexual demography of the sciences will come to resemble that of the human species as a whole. But the idea that physics is in for a major conceptual upgrade because multiethnic perspectives will be brought to bear upon it is sheer fantasy. Recall that since the end of the eighteenth century various groups at one or another time regarded by European Christians as lesser breeds have come increasingly to be represented in science. These groups include, inter alia, Jews, Indians, Arabs, Pakistanis, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. As individuals, many of them have made contributions of the first rank and of enormous influence, and many have been honored appropriately. To claim that their ethnicity left a particular stamp on the content of their achievement is to revert to the odious ethnic essentialism of Professor Lenard. Expanding the pool of scientists will produce more and perhaps better science; but it will not create African science or gay science any more than it will women’s science; nor will some new multicultural science arise upon the ashes of the old white European male science.
We are happy to leave the last word on Harding’s book and its admirers to the philosopher Margarita Levin, whose meticulous dissection of feminist science criticism was done half a decade ago: One suspects that feminists themselves sense the emptiness of their enterprise. Those confident of their product do not strain to oversell it, yet much of feminist scholarly writing consists of wildly extravagant praise of other feminists. A’s “brilliant analysis” supplements B’s “revolutionary breakthrough” and C’s “courageous undertaking.” More disconcerting is the penchant of many feminists to praise themselves most fulsomely.
For this “discourse” — and the quoted passages are entirely typical — on what is, after all, a quite fundamental question of scientific epistemology, we have been able to find only one signifier: it is Peter Mayle’s term, invented originally to describe certain goings-on in Provence, especially in the season of wine tasting: “delusions of adequacy.”
Feminist empiricism is, in short, empirical science done (with ambivalence) by feminists. Other empiricisms are wrong; but even this one may not be right. This conclusion is, presumably, one of the “justificatory strategies” for feminism. It is certainly consistent with the radical relativism displayed by less sophisticated voices in the movement.
How one is to pursue a career as a permanent partial instigator of rupture is of course a mystery. Assuming that this doesn’t involve being a straw boss on a loading dock, it may mean that one is to be some kind of epistemological Merry Prankster (although, since high feminism is in play, there is probably strict rationing of merriment).
Goethe’s was a self-limiting empiricism, a romantic oneness with reality doomed to blockade at the level of the obvious — that to which he gave the ringing name Urphänomen. It was an incapacity, as far as physical reality was concerned, and an unwillingness, to see beyond the immediate. Closeness to, identification with, the object, the substitution of ideals for logic and abstraction, of unfettered intuition for analysis, was a transcendent characteristic of romantic natural philosophy. Taken as principle, that characteristic was a root cause of its failure to produce useful science.
Only the most superficial reading of this work and of subsequent commentary by Kuhn on his critics can lend support to strong forms of relativism, a position that Kuhn is at pains most energetically to deny. He is a firm believer in scientific progress and in the power of science to “solve puzzles,” while harboring doubts only about the permanent representational value of any regnant paradigm. Moreover, he clearly believes that the dominant factors in theory choice are, indeed, the ones traditionally celebrated by scientists: logical economy, explanatory parsimony, and the capacity to synthesize once-disparate theories into a conceptual unity.
There is not masculinist or feminist science, just good and bad science.
For Longino, the important question, among the several deeper, subtler ones to be investigated, is why the original question is to be entertained at all. “What sort of sense does it make to talk about a feminist science? Why is the question itself not an oxymoron, linking, as it does, values and ideological commitment with the idea of impersonal, objective, value-free inquiry? This is the problem I wish to address in this essay.”
Longino is at least honest about that. Her conclusion then follows: since standard science is likely to be affected by contextual values we don’t like, let us, as feminists, drive our science by the contextual values we approve of. An answer is thus given to the original question: a feminist science is possible. Indeed, it exists! It is political.
“So,” she asks, “can there be a feminist science?” Her conclusion: “If this means: is it in principle possible to do science as a feminist? the answer must be: yes. If this means: can we in practice do science as feminists? the answer must be: not until we change present conditions.” Hélas! What begins as an epistemological inquiry into science ends as familiar anti-science tricked out in the ambient clichés of the business — science “harnessed to the making of money and the waging of war” — the old moral one-upswomanship, and the call to political action.
CHAPTER SIX - The Gates of Eden
The received version of environmental wisdom has an unmistakably radical — and apocalyptic — flavor.
Environmental piety, albeit in a diffuse and nonspecific form, has become an American civil religion.
The preferred form of environmental piety on the academic left, however, is laced with prophetic disclosures of doom. Under this view, adequate resolution of ecological problems is possible only through a revolutionary reconstruction of society, or, in the more favored language of theory, “dismantling the definitions of privilege and the diagrams of power that undergird industrial capitalist patriarchy.” Moreover, it is almost always assumed that in the redeemed world industry and technology will have at most a minor role; that bureaucracy will have given way to a localized face-to-face democracy, in which trade and commerce are supplanted by a frugal self-sufficiency. Thus that Marxian will-o’-the-wisp, the “withering away of the state,” has in our time taken on a hard, ecotopian specificity.
Such sentiments are echoed ceaselessly in radical environmentalist literature, with or without feminist or New Age trappings (although both are present more often than not). The image of the earth as poisoned, as a deeply wounded victim, is central to the iconography. Human suffering, as such, while not neglected (especially when the victims are female or nonwhite) is notably secondary.
Similarly, the idea of a return to a more primal way of life, stripped of the arrogance and insolence of technology, may seem, especially to the young and historically naive, a newborn vision. In fact the primitivist vision is a recurrent one, and is strictly in the Western tradition.
As Anna Bramwell points out in her remarkable history of ecologism: There are several different guilty parties in common usage. These are Christianity, the Enlightenment (with atheism, scepticism, rationalism, and scientism following on), the scientific revolution (incorporating capitalism and utilitarianism), Judaism (via either the Jewish element in Christianity or via capitalism), Men, the Nazis, the West, and various wrong spirits, such as greed, materialism, acquisitiveness, and not knowing where to stop. The wrong spirit is a twentieth-century explanation, usually confined to the West and derived from the puritan element in Protestant and dissenting Christianity; therefore it is found mainly in Northern Europe and North America. According to this ethic, “bad” spirits are located in Western man, who is seen as the unsaved, expansive, nonecological dominator of nature. Only by rejecting the materialist heritage of the West will man be saved.
Clearly, edenic ecologism, under one label or another, is an idea with a long pedigree in Western history. It has been conscripted for ideological use by radicals, conservatives, and reactionaries, by Communists and by Nazis, and by schismatic sects hard to place on that spectrum. At present, however, there is a particularly good fit between this view of the world and the overall perspective of the academic left. It strikes at most of their devils: industrial capitalism, white supremacy, imperialism, male supremacy, the various expressions of Western triumphalism. Simultaneously, it valorizes women (under the bizarre doctrine that women as a class are in a sympathetic resonance — that men cannot achieve — with nature) and nonwhite peoples, victims of European rapacity, who are assumed confidently to have been in an edenic state before their conquest.
The threat of ecotopian enthusiasms is that they will, in fact and in the long run, weaken or eliminate the possibility of ecologically sound social policy, under whatever ideological banner that may materialize. We believe that such an effect must follow from the fervent antiscientism now embraced by radical environmentalists, an antiscientism that, if broadly influential, cannot fail to reduce the chances of success in answering questions and solving problems that are quintessentially scientific. As Michael Fumento puts it in his splendidly documented exposé of environmental alarmism: Alarmists and people subjugating science to political ends don’t want you to consider relative risk... Indeed, many of them haven’t the slightest idea of what relative risk is... Understanding of how odds work is the last thing they want you to have. They want to be able to present you with a simple model that says that since this or that has been alleged to be harmful, it must be banned or at least heavily regulated.
Let us be perfectly clear: we have no quarrel with environment-consciousness. As successor to “conservationism,” it is based upon a sound conviction. The good life — now, and more so in the future — for our species as for all others, requires the clearest possible understanding of our interactions with nature. It requires avoidance of interactions that do or seem highly likely, on the basis of competent risk assessment, to deplete or damage nature. There is no reason to be concerned about an environmentalism so based: quite the contrary. To a large extent we share its basic fears. Most of the problems environmentalists point to have a real component. Our concern is, rather, with a revived, apocalyptic naturism that has, in several versions, caught the fancy of young people generally and engages a rapidly increasing number of well-meaning adults.
The problem is that we do not as yet have a genuinely reliable or meaningful estimate of Earth’s carrying capacity, in the sense of a constant for the equations of population growth.
There will be global warming and cooling, whether we are here or not. Volcanoes alone will see to it. The question — and we emphasize that it remains a question — of the effect upon this set point of increasing emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other “greenhouse” gases, byproducts of technology and agriculture, is of the highest importance. It deserves the most comprehensive and scrupulous investigation. So does, however, the question of the climatic consequences, a quite different and even more difficult question, about which there remain deep disagreements among atmospheric scientists. The depth and seriousness of these disagreements is visible to every reader of such general professional journals as Nature and Science
Exactness of scientific thought, however, and an honest comprehensiveness in the cost/benefit analysis that should be done before any solution to any global problem is undertaken, are of incalculable importance. Apocalyptic movements don’t do honest and comprehensive cost/benefit analyses. They don’t want to and they don’t know how (again, see Fumento, Science under Siege). To the extent that science — the only reliable source of numbers for environmental cost/benefit analysis — is battered in the course of a primarily ideological crusade, so much greater will be the chance of making disastrous errors of policy.
Given that we believe all this — and hope that every thoughtful person will come to do so as well — why are we so dismayed by radical environmentalism? Our concern is with the dogmas that inform the academic left’s position on ecological matters, dogmas advocated and defended by means of a rhetoric that derives from theoretical positions having nothing to do with science and the facts of the case.
As we see it, radical environmental wrongheadedness is rooted in three interlinked attitudes. First of all, it is intensely moralistic. Among ecoradicals, there is a tendency for surmises to take on the character of articles of faith.
A related radical instinct is to reject any form of amelioration. The radical mentality is, almost by definition, emotionally committed to change that is sweeping and wholesale, change that rewrites the terms under which we live. It is committed to punishing the wicked and rewarding the pure. It follows, then, that ecoradicals are never satisfied with gradual adjustment.
The ecoradical has a tendency to insist that the psychic conversion he or she has undergone must be experienced by all others as well. The ecoradical insists upon redemption; and the language with which one calls for redemption — given the indifference and preoccupation of ordinary people with their daily lives — must be strong enough to scare them into attention.
Finally, we note the reflex dismissal of any but bad news by radical environmentalists (and, to a large extent, the media). To the ecoradical, “No news is good news!” — provided we construe that old saw to mean, “It is impossible, under the current regime, for matters to improve, or even for it to turn out that worrisome threats have been overstated.”
The relativism of cultural constructivist doctrine is the perfect tool for discounting science as biased or corrupt if and when it inconveniences one’s political program.
In short, environmentalism in its modern form, including the radical wing of it, is a reaction, occasionally appropriate, to specific discoveries of orthodox science. The problem with radical environmentalism is, therefore, that its relations with science, upon which it must be based, have become so ridiculously acidulous and so dishonest.
As with biblical millenarians, objections of logic and fact have little effect. They are already convinced that the world is in calamitous decline. They believe, and seem to enjoy believing, that nature is being violated — blasphemously — by their neighbors, and that ultimate retribution is on the way.
As the geographer Martin Lewis notes in Green Delusions, “a large proportion of eco-radicals fervently believes that human social and ecological problems could be solved if only we would return to a primal way of life. Ultimately, this proves to be an article of faith that receives little support from the historical and anthropological record.”
For example, it is likely that most large North American mammals died out at the end of the last ice age because they were hunted to extinction by human newcomers: and there was as yet no population explosion! The Anasazi people of the Southwest turned their homeland into a treeless, eroded waste by their heedless use of timber. Mayan civilization may have collapsed because warfare, urbanization, and overpopulation depleted the fertility of its agricultural system. Slash-and-burn agriculture turned much of the Midwest from forest to grassland, effecting what was one of the most widespread impoverishments of an ecosystem in biological history.
The underlying question is this: What is a responsible, socially aware scientist to do when his researches and legitimate speculations lead him to suspect that some aspect of modern technological society might, in the long run, have horrendous environmental consequences?
Many scientists argue that, in the face of social and political reality, the caution and tentativeness that, in the corridors of professional science, accompany the initial discussion of new ideas are ineffectual. They are inappropriate when one is trying to sound a warning about a grim environmental prospect, however yet uncertain.
Nevertheless, there is a serious downside to the strategy of talking apparent science while actually doing politics. The most obvious danger, and, potentially, the most harmful, is that a long sequence of unrealized predictions of disaster — not so unlikely a prospect, perhaps — will desensitize the public and the policymakers to similar predictions coming later, somewhere down the line, no matter how firmly supported by evidence the latter turn out to be. Environmental alarmism is, to some extent, a fad, a cultural whimsy. Should it turn out that the alarms are false (as some of them have been — for example, the rather recent predictions of global cooling—and will be), the likely effect is that environmental concerns will diminish and that, even worse, the scientific community will have acquired a reputation as wolf cryers. That community has had many kinds of unfavorable reputation in the past, but this one will be new and immensely more dangerous.
It is not clear to us that the emphatic style of some scientists on environmental issues — Paul Ehrlich on population growth, Carl Sagan on nuclear winter, Stephen Schneider on the greenhouse effect — is not for the best, all things considered. Nor can we recommend with confidence, in this volume, an alternative approach. The question of how scientists should address such issues in public forums is difficult.
The career and influence of the activist Jeremy Rifkin provide an instructive case study of the propensity of the academic left for persuasion by the worst kind of pseudoscientific alarmism.
Rifkin has quoted these intact from writing of Lester R. Brown, who produced the passage under the auspices of the Worldwatch Institute — publisher of the annual Worldwatch chronicle of impending environmental catastrophe and, one should note, “the only book foretelling the end of the world that routinely advertises next year’s edition.”
There is something decidedly curious about this commitment of the postmodern academic left to environmental issues. It seizes eagerly on the pronouncements of scientists, judicious or otherwise, that hold out the promise of crisis or catastrophe. It does this despite a firm rejection of the notion that there is any special truth-value in science. The result is a farrago of scientific fragments — some of them sound in themselves, but taken out of context — myths, fancies, resentments and dreams both vindictive and utopian.
Epistemological hubris is a sin into which most scientists probably fall, from time to time. But it is an unremitting flaw of radical environmentalism, despite its pose of abandoning human arrogance and humbly seeking the counsel of nature. This pose is carried along on an undercurrent of unwavering self-righteousness. Ecoradicalism (like so much of contemporary academic radicalism generally) is really a movement of personal salvation. Consequently, in ecoradical lingo facts frequently devolve into mere tropes, and flat assertion is elevated to the status of evidence. Subjectivity is not only not suspect: it is demanded. Objectivity, on the other hand, is dismissed, curtly, as the delusion of a Western consciousness obsessed by domination, exploitation, and profit. Objectivity is Satan’s wile.
To us, it is self-evident that a 1 percent improvement in the efficiency of photo-voltaic cells, say, is, in environmental terms, worth substantially more than all the utopian eco-babble ever published. In this sense, we are unabashed technocrats, unashamed of the instrumentalism behind such assertions.
CHAPTER SEVEN - The Schools of Indictment
Theory choice is not just a matter of politics and style, as Kuhn himself insisted in defending his work against its critics.
The spell of postmodern theory has lured its acolytes into a bizarre philosophical cul-de-sac, where “reality” is effaced as a meaningful term and where representation, rhetoric, and discourse are the only allowable phenomenological categories. Confronted by an epidemic that is all too grimly real, these postulants are driven full circle into a giddy doctrine asserting that control over representation and rhetoric, over language and imagery, will, of itself, dispel the menace of AIDS. This, beneath its ostensibly up-to-date skeptical veneer, is purely magical thinking. It recurs to the ancient confusion between names and things, between mention and use. In a nearly literal sense, it encodes a faith in charms and magic words.
One of the most seductive and overlooked attractions of the AIDS epidemic for postmodern theorists is that it uniquely engages an academic anxiety that has undermined the self-esteem of liberal arts faculties for decades — namely, their belittling awareness of the greater prestige of their scientific colleagues. The utter inability of the latter to find a cure, a vaccine, or even an effective treatment for the disease has created a kind of power vacuum in the university, a temporary eclipse of authority that affords a perfect opportunity for non-scientists to rush forward into an arena from which they have been previously excluded.
In the face of the realities of funding and of chronic personnel shortages, emotional arguments for “inclusiveness” and “compassion” in medical research come close to irrelevance (notwithstanding political statements to the contrary from scientist-administrators, who must answer to the Congress and the media, and who must avoid unpleasant confrontations with activist groups).
The murderous hatreds that rend Northern Ireland no longer seem anomalous. Elsewhere, the racial and religious chauvinism that pits Sikh against Hindu against Moslem, Sinhalese against Tamil, Arab Sudanese against black Sudanese goes on unabated. We might expect the humanitarian conscience to be especially aware, in such a time, of the horrors lurking in tribalism. Yet in the decidedly less lethal venue of academic life, we find that tribalism, in one form or another, is the most-favored project of leftist ideologues, who appear to have abandoned, for the moment, the universalism that once shone through even the dreariest left-wing cant. The “politics of identity” is now sanctified on the campus. Increasingly, many groups are held to deserve their own separate and inviolable space.
If one examines the nascent literature of Afrocentric science, one is immediately struck by two things: the enormous amount of Afrocentrism, and the remarkable paucity of science.
CHAPTER EIGHT - Why Do the People Imagine a Vain Thing?
El sueño de la razón produce monstruos. CAPTION TO PLATE 43 OF GOYA’S CAPRICHOS
We emphasize again that the underlying grievances that ignite their anger are by no means wholly imaginary or capricious.
We shall argue subsequently that matters of greater importance are ultimately at stake; but even if that were not so, we believe that the health of a culture is measured in part by the vigor with which its immune system responds to nonsense. Such an immune response, although sometimes slow in the mounting, has been the richest heritage of the Enlightenment.
Steiner’s darkly brooding essay In Bluebeard’s Castle examines the fate of optimistic humanism in an age that has proved merciless toward hopeful illusions. Steiner notes the great paradox bedeviling our civilization and tormenting its most sensitive spirits. Humanism — post-Enlightenment Western humanism — has created, in the face of all the narrow particularism and dogmatic absolutism that has eternally plagued our species, an ethic of universal justice and universal tolerance. Moreover, history attests to the value of the humanistic view in tokens that go far beyond sentiment. The Western culture that grows from, extends, and intensifies the Enlightenment proves itself and displays its uniqueness most impressively by its ability to fathom nature and nature’s regularities, to a depth unimaginable in prior civilizations.
The very scope of the knowledge we have insisted upon rules out a comforting ignorance. We are bound to Enlightenment values — the universality of moral principles, the sanctity of individual volition, a detestation of wanton cruelty — and yet we have no choice but to indict the very civilization that begat those values as it goes careening through time leaving pain, death, bewilderment, the wreckage of aboriginal tribes and of rain forests in its wake.
And it is true also that the very posture of self-indictment, of remorse in which much of educated Western sensibility now finds itself is again a culturally specific phenomenon. What other races have turned in penitence to those whom they once enslaved, what other civilizations have morally indicted the brilliance of their own past? The reflex of self-scrutiny in the name of ethical absolutes is, once more, a characteristically Western, post-Voltairian act.
In a hundred years, the greatest theoretical physicist in the world may well be Maori or Xhosa by descent; he — or she, as may well be the case — will nonetheless be a Westerner in the most important aspect of his or her intellectual temperament.
As we examine the process by which the current hostility to science within the academic left was incubated and nurtured, we find ourselves naturally turning to the 1960s. Commentators such as Roger Kimball have placed heavy emphasis on the sixties as the breeding time for all sorts of malfeasance. He sees the confrontational style of campus multiculturalists, feminists, Marxists, and postmodernist advocates of nontraditional scholarship as having descended from the attitudes and tactics of the sixties student left, namely, Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other activist groups that engaged in militant civil rights and anti—Vietnam War politics. There is some justice to this charge. The rude tactics of sixties campus militancy — picketing, sit-ins, a generalized rhetoric of suspicion and scorn toward the nominal academic hierarchy — are recycled in our day when questions of making the curriculum more “diverse” or initiating women’s studies programs become hot issues. Many veterans of the sixties are still on hand as leaders or advisors to radical undergraduates, and indeed, to those who know these folk well, the trace of nostalgia is strong and unmistakable.
Racial separatism, which in that era was reluctantly accepted by the white left as a temporary tactical necessity, has long since hardened into a major component of the so-called politics of identity. In this respect, the term integration, which was, after all, the inspirational watchword of the sixties civil rights movement, is now scorned in all politically fashionable quarters.
“leisure of the theory class.” [re. radical ecotopianism]
This thesis is strengthened by the fact that many of the academics who are most actively hostile toward standard science are affiliated, formally or informally, with areas of study that first arose during the sixties — women’s studies, ethnic studies, environmental studies, and so forth. In their very origins, these subjects were linked as much to the oppositional culture of the sixties as to the formal traditions of research and scholarship. It is not surprising that a whiff of the sixties mentality, of LSD mysticism, shamanistic revelation, and ecstatic nonsense, still clings to them in some places.
Totalism, as we would define it, is the impulse to bring the entire range of human phenomena within the rubric of a favored doctrinal system. It erects ideological categories which are viewed as primary, privileged, and comprehensive.
As totalizers, radical feminist theorists are easily a match for the most rigid Marxist. The lurking idea behind this presumptuousness seems to be that the situation of women in society cannot be viewed merely as a “problem,” susceptible to pragmatic amelioration. Rather, it must be seen as foundational, as having cosmic dimensions, and thus it can be redeemed only by a wholesale reconstitution of the entire social fabric. Radical feminism in this vein not only makes a claim on received notions of equity and justice but appropriates the whole notion of justice to itself. It demands to be recognized as morally omnicompetent. It follows that no institution of the existing order may be viewed as free of the original sin of sexism, for to exempt anything from the surveillance of the feminist ethic is to deny the absolute priority of feminist values.
Radical ecology, as embraced by the extreme wing of the European Green parties and such American groups as Earth First!, is hard to understand if we think of it as a mere political doctrine. It is more an embryonic religion, combining syncretically a genuine fear of environmental degradation with all sorts of sentimental, mystical, and ecstatic attitudes toward an idealized nature. As time goes on, it is increasingly impatient with utilitarian arguments giving priority to the safety, health, and well-being of human beings.
Humanity is seen as worthy only to the extent that it takes its place in a static, unchanging world as one species among millions, undistinguished by any special moral worth. Characteristically, ecological radicals call for a drastic reduction of the earth’s human population, not so much to make life healthier and more fulfilling for the people remaining as to create new space for all those species shoved aside by the heretofore exponential growth of humanity. Such a dogma, outwardly gentle but horribly fierce in its inward essence, is impatient with the analytical and empirical style of science.
To a scientist functioning in his professional capacity the questions that arise in connection with ecological issues are subject to the same methodological constraints as any others. Most of these questions cannot be answered with anything like perfect confidence. As scientists, we cannot say, for instance, that a runaway atmospheric greenhouse is the certain result, within a fixed number of years, of continued combustion of fossil fuels, and that it will inevitably bring about ecological catastrophe. We simply know too little, and what we know is imperfect and provisional. Complexity and its attendant uncertainty is part of the scientist’s everyday intellectual environment and he is well aware of his predictive limitations. It may well turn out that the greenhouse scare was a false alarm (which does not excuse us from taking it very seriously and considering public policies that, for the sake of prudence, assume the worst). Environmental fervor, on the other hand, requires a large degree of subjective certainty. It will impose a strict binary logic on the probabilistic estimates of cautious scientists and convert a theorist’s tentative hypotheses to dire inevitabilities.
CHAPTER NINE Does It Matter?
Science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise.
Science succeeds precisely because it has accepted a bargain in which even the boldest imagination stands hostage to reality. Reality is the unrelenting angel with whom scientists have agreed to wrestle.
We worry for the reason articulated by Arthur Potynen, for example, among many others who have begun to ask this question: Those attempting to ignore Post-modernism are many: for example, the natural sciences and business departments often hope that the affected, yet essentially harmless, humanities will remain isolated and irrelevant. But if power is the essence of all human endeavors, then can science escape being labeled willful and coercive? Can business be anything other than rapacious? Can either science or business continue to function in a political culture that assumes them to be oppressive?
It seems clear to us, in fact, that on the whole the academic left’s critiques of science have enjoyed an astonishing free ride. Most evaluation of this work has come, so far, from scholars whose own ideological commitments are strong and whose scientific backgrounds tend to be deficient.
In sum, we are accusing a powerful faction in modern academic life of intellectual dereliction. This accusation has nothing to do with political correctness or “subversion”; it has to do, rather, with the craft of scholarship — a craft that has always had consequences, independently of the behaviors of individual scholars. We allege that eagerness to praise a certain spectrum of work has disarmed skepticism and careful critical attention. Political sympathy has combined with professional vanity to give undue weight, prestige, and influence to a decidedly slender body of work.
Would that we could — but we cannot — recommend practicable remedies for this situation that are also simple and fair. The best we can do, for the moment, is to bring our point of view as honestly as possible, but also as forcefully, to the attention of the academic and scientific community.
The humanities, as traditionally understood, are indispensable to our civilization and to the prospects of living a fulfilling life within it. The indispensability of professional academic humanists, on the other hand, is a less certain proposition. Academic scientists have acceded to it, and properly so, out of respect for their colleagues as well as a deep concern that the great traditions of Western humanism should not be buried under the shabby detritus of popular culture and philistinism. The current stir over the postmodern style of humanist scholarship invokes the possibility that this body of sentiment may erode.
Even more startling, however, is the attitude of school authorities in some upscale, politically “progressive” districts. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, reports (despite the apparent disapproval of the American Anthropological Association) that multicultural antiscientism fulminates in the progressive mecca of Berkeley, California. According to Scott, some Berkeley textbook committees are now trying to bar history and social science books that assert (innocuously, one would think) that Native American populations arrived in this hemisphere from Asia toward the end of the last ice age. Native American myths, they point out, contain no such assertions; why, therefore, should the confabulations of scientists be privileged over the “narratives” that the indigenes tell about themselves?
What ought they to do, as formal or informal educators, about the bizarre war against scientific thought and practice being waged by the various ideological strands of the academic left? Obviously — at least we hope that by now it’s obvious — we are not calling for a purge of the institutions of higher learning in this country. We don’t advocate supplanting one regime of “political correctness” by another, even more odiously high-handed one. Having made that disclaimer, however, we can in good conscience urge that certain forms of vigilance are appropriate, troublesome as they may be to preoccupied teachers and scholars. First and most important is the necessity of seeing to it that whatever is labeled as “science education” in our colleges and universities deserves that designation. Science courses must teach science. It’s as simple as that. They should have substantive scientific content, validated by perfectly well-known and legitimate modes of scientific inference.
Moreover, some of the instinctively deferential habits of academics will simply have to be put aside. One can’t assume, in these matters, that possession of an advanced degree or a professorship equates to intellectual legitimacy. Most of this book has been devoted to a critique of work done by academics whose nominal credentials are quite impressive. That has not prevented them from propounding wrongheaded, even fatuous, theories about matters in which their knowledge ranges from shallow to nonexistent. This is a disconcerting fact of contemporary academic life.
In any case scientists oughtn’t to be reluctant to stick their two cents in. They should insist — always within the bounds of courtesy, of course — on being included in debates and presentations that center on science and the relations between science and culture. If they are nevertheless excluded, as will sometimes happen, they should be prepared to make a bit of noise about it.
Intellectually, these quarrels tend to be tiresome. Nature is the scientist’s worthy adversary (we use the figure in defiance of the fact that science critics will sniff it out as evidence that we are slaves to the Western-patriarchal paradigm of dominance and control). Academic leftists, on the other hand, tend to be unfocused bores, and a certain deliberate, cheerful simple-mindedness is needed to hear them out sufficiently to catch the drift of the arguments and to formulate an apposite response. It is an unlikable chore, but one that a good many of us ought to be doing, out of loyalty to our own disciplines and to — forgive the pretentiousness of the word — civilization.
Finally, there is the question of reconquering lost territory for the scientific approach. As we have noted, some fields, long recognized as scientific in principle, have fallen victim to antiscientific relativism. Anthropology is one example; other, partial examples could be found within psychology and sociology.
That many of these challenges now issue from a community that consists, regardless of ideology, of people who have presumably enjoyed a first-class education and who have, all their adult lives, played a central role in the larger intellectual world deepens our misgivings.
For us to believe that a book of this kind is needed means at very least that, in making our inquiries and absorbing a large and distressing literature, we have had to abandon the complacent feeling that the republic of intellectual inquiry is secure from internal decay.