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.
I may perhaps here remind you of the extent to which in certain societies the roles of men and women are reversed, not only regarding domestic and social duties but also regarding behavior and mentality. Even if many of us, in such a situation, might perhaps at first shrink from admitting the possibility that it is entirely a caprice of fate that the people concerned here have their specific culture and not ours, and we not theirs instead of our own, it is clear that even the slightest suspicion in this respect implies a betrayal of the national complacency inherent in any human culture resting in itself.
So why does Sokal single out this passage for mockery? Is it as patently ridiculous as the idea that there is no external world? In the follow-up book Fashionable Nonsense, co-written with Jean Bricmont and published in 1998, Sokal argued that his target was humanists’ “fondness for the most subjectivist writings of Heisenberg and Bohr, interpreted in a radical way that goes far beyond their own views (which are in turn vigorously disputed by many physicists and philosophers of science).” Sokal ascribed that fondness to “postmodern philosophy,” which “loves the multiplicity of viewpoints, the importance of the observer, holism, and indeterminism.” Yes, very well. But in dismissing Bohr’s attempt to apply the principle of complementarity to social life, Sokal ducks the question of whether a multiplicity of viewpoints might in fact be more adequate to the phenomenon at hand. What if postmodern philosophy turns out to have good reasons for its love of the multiplicity of viewpoints? Why wouldn’t it be useful to understand cultural conflicts in terms of “complementarity”? What counts as a legitimate inference from the world of the physical sciences, and what is just a sloppy analogy or a metaphor?
The Left and Science
Those were not, of course, the questions Sokal wanted to raise. He wasn’t concerned with this relatively obscure academic circle; he was trying to call attention to what he saw as its pernicious effects on the larger world of progressive politics. 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.”
But Willis was also right to argue that the essay saw the light of day because the editors of Social Text “belong to an intellectual community in which certain linguistic tics and brands of glib relativism are such a taken-for-granted part of the conversation that they are barely noticed, let alone criticized” (a remarkable admission, not least because Willis’s longtime partner was Stanley Aronowitz). Like Willis, I didn’t think Sokal’s hoax showed that we should think in terms of “objective reality (both natural and social).” But I did think that it exposed something important about the hermetic intellectual milieu of that wing of academe, and its imperviousness to critique from without. As physicist David Albert put it one year later, “the article pointed to something alarming about standards of scholarship in certain quarters, and standards of argument, and highlighted how much could be gained by simply declaring allegiance to certain kinds of agendas. There was an enormous gap between what [Sokal] presented himself as doing and what was actually interesting about what he was doing.”
In that gap, Sokal’s admirers have projected almost anything they desire–and they have desired many things. In early 1997, Sokal came to the University of Illinois, and quite graciously offered to share the stage with me so that we could have a debate about the relation of postmodern philosophy to politics. It was there that I first unveiled my counterargument, namely, that the world really is divvied up into “brute fact” and “social fact,” just as philosopher John Searle says it is, but the distinction between brute fact and social fact is itself a social fact, not a brute fact, which is why the history of science is so interesting. Moreover, there are many things–like Down syndrome, as my second son has taught me–that reside squarely at the intersection between brute fact and social fact, such that new social facts (like policies of inclusion and early intervention) can help determine the brute facts of people’s lives (like their health and well-being). The debate drew a crowd of 1,000; the only other time in my life I have appeared in front of so many people, my college-era band was opening for the Ramones. But the feedback afterwards was not nearly so gratifying. “We didn’t want to see a debate about brute fact and social fact,” said one of my colleagues. “We just wanted to see blood on the floor.” I did not ask whose.
Enter the Right
But what of Sokal’s chief post-hoax claim that the academic left’s critiques of science were potentially damaging to the left? 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.
The right’s attacks on climate science, mobilizing a public distrust of scientific expertise, eventually led science-studies theorist Bruno Latour to write in Critical Inquiry:
Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth…while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?
Why, indeed? Why not say, definitively, that anthropogenic climate change is real, that vaccines do not cause autism, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that Adam and Eve did not ride dinosaurs to church?
At the close of his “Afterword” to “Transgressing the Boundaries,” Sokal wrote:
No wonder most Americans can’t distinguish between science and pseudoscience: their science teachers have never given them any rational grounds for doing so. (Ask an average undergraduate: Is matter composed of atoms? Yes. Why do you think so? The reader can fill in the response.) Is it then any surprise that 36 percent of Americans believe in telepathy, and that 47 percent believe in the creation account of Genesis?
It can’t be denied that some science-studies scholars have deliberately tried to blur the distinction between science and pseudoscience. As I noted in Rhetorical Occasions and on my personal blog, British philosopher of science Steve Fuller traveled to Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005 to testify on behalf of the local school board’s fundamentalist conviction that Intelligent Design is a legitimate science. “The main problem intelligent design theory suffers from at the moment,” Fuller argued, “is a paucity of developers.” Somehow, Fuller managed to miss the point–that there is no way to develop a research program in ID. What is one to do, examine fossils for evidence of God’s fingerprints?
So these days, when I talk to my scientist friends, I offer them a deal. I say: I’ll admit that you were right about the potential for science studies to go horribly wrong and give fuel to deeply ignorant and/or reactionary people. And in return, you’ll admit that I was right about the culture wars, and right that the natural sciences would not be held harmless from the right-wing noise machine. And if you’ll go further, and acknowledge that some circumspect, well-informed critiques of actually existing science have merit (such as the criticism that the postwar medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth had some ill effects), I’ll go further too, and acknowledge that many humanists’ critiques of science and reason are neither circumspect nor well-informed. Then perhaps we can get down to the business of how to develop safe, sustainable energy and other social practices that will keep the planet habitable.
Fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the Sokal Hoax was making that kind of deal impossible, deepening the “two cultures” divide and further estranging humanists from scientists. Now, I think it may have helped set the terms for an eventual rapprochement, leading both humanists and scientists to realize that the shared enemies of their enterprises are the religious fundamentalists who reject all knowledge that challenges their faith and the free-market fundamentalists whose policies will surely scorch the earth. On my side, perhaps humanists are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place. Is it still possible? I don’t know, and I’m not sanguine. Some scientific questions now seem to be a matter of tribal identity: A vast majority of elected Republicans have expressed doubts about the science behind anthropogenic climate change, and as someone once remarked, it is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his tribal identity depends on his not understanding it. But there are few tasks so urgent. About that, even Heisenberg himself would be certain.
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