The Science Wars Redux
Fifteen years after the Sokal Hoax, attacks on “objective knowledge” that were once the province of the left have been taken up by the right.
In 1995, I was invited to speak to the Materials Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I was teaching at the time. The occasion was something they called their “Postmodern Science Forum.” I took it as a good sign that they were not allergic to the word “postmodern,” and I launched into a brief history of the term as it migrated from architecture to literature to philosophy to popular culture–before getting down to the real business at hand, a discussion of the influence of T. S. Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the humanities. Kuhn, I said, had shown us that scientific knowledge was not cumulative, however much it appeared so in retrospect; rather, it proceeded by way of upheavals in which a new worldview displaces the old. But had Kuhn thereby licensed a kind of shallow relativism in the humanities, where we can talk about “paradigm shifts” and “incommensurabilities” without any reference to the natural world of oxygen, Neptune, and X-rays (to take some of Kuhn’s most illustrative examples from the history of science)? Had we read Kuhn backwards from Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, a far more anarchic account of scientific research, concluding that scientists were just as irrational as everyone else, and that therefore both God and Science are dead, and everything is permitted? And when we claimed to be doing “science studies,” did we know what the hell we were talking about?
For some of my interlocutors–and they were a very lively bunch, full of great questions, random expostulations, and a few moderately hostile interruptions–the short answers to these questions were yes, yes, and no. They were willing to cut me some slack, not only because I was nice enough to visit them but because I took my own examples from the history of astrophysics, about which I know an elementary thing or two; but they were not so kind about some of my colleagues in the humanities, who, they believed, were overstepping their disciplinary bounds and doing “science studies” without any substantial knowledge of science. A couple of physicists had clearly read Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s then-recent book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, a free-swinging polemic against science studies, feminism, Jeremy Rifkin, jargon, and much more, and they were mightily pissed off about this Andrew Ross fellow, who had written a science-studies book, Strange Weather, which he dedicated to “all the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.”
Well, yes, I had to admit, Ross’s dedication was rather cheeky. But it was not in itself evidence that Ross did not know his subject matter. Besides, I added, when in Strange Weather Ross called for science “that will be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests,” and Gross and Levitt responded by writing, “ ‘Of some service to progressive interests’ seems reasonably clear, if frighteningly Stalinist in tone and root,” weren’t Gross and Levitt being kind of…nutty? Hysterical, perhaps? What was wrong with wanting medicine or engineering or environmental science to be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests? Why shouldn’t we try to build a world that affords greater public access to people with disabilities, for instance? And since conservatives had even then largely abandoned their early-twentieth-century commitment to conserve the Earth’s natural resources, wasn’t “environmental science” now a “progressive ” in and of itself? It’s not as if Ross was calling for a Liberation Astronomy. Would Ross’s sentence sound out of place in a bulletin issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists?
Back then, of course, the humanities and the interpretive social sciences–the few remaining interpretive social sciences, that is, the fields that hadn’t gone totally over into the parallel Quantification Universe–were still reeling from the so-called “political correctness” battles of the early 1990s, and some of us humanists were kind of defensive about it. Though I wasn’t. I was perfectly willing to say publicly that Dinesh D’Souza was a liar and a scoundrel, and that most of the other right-wing critics of the humanities had no idea what they were talking about. And I was fond of saying to my friends in the sciences that mi problema es su problema: the culture warriors of the right are after English and women’s studies today, but they’ll be coming for you soon enough, just you wait. To a man (and they were all men), my scientist friends refused to believe this. Some merely said, plausibly enough, that debates over PC were irrelevant to their work on dark matter or the properties of metals; others insisted that the conservative attack on the universities was entirely the fault of radical artists and humanists with their queering this and their Piss Christ that and their deconstructing the Other. You’re the ones making it hard for all of us in the academy, they said, and things would be fine if you would just tone it down and knock off the épater-le-bourgeois bit.
And then, the next year, the Sokal Hoax happened.
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