Clarity, Charity and Criticism, Wit, Wisdom and Worldliness; Avoiding Intellectual Impositions

by David Turnbull

[To appear in Metascience 9.3]

Sokal, Alan, and Jean Bricmont.
Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse of Science.
London: Profile Books, 1998.

As a constructivist and relativist working in Science Studies currently writing from the University of California at Santa Cruz, trying to review Intellectual Impostures seemed at first to create something of dilemma for me. My position was obviously an example of the kind that Sokal and Bricmont's set out to critique, but I found myself entertaining a variety of responses, why be so nasty, so sneering, why overstate the case, why attribute failings of individual's arguments to all of some supposedly homogeneous group be they constructivists, sociologists of science postmodernists or whatever? Why be so earnestly tendentious? Yet, did I not agree with much with what they had to say? I too find plenty of contemporary scholarship obscure and irrelevant, and most importantly, I agree with them about the necessity of criticism, especially political criticism. Hence it seemed inappropriate to respond with equally over the top denunciation. Fortunately, I had time to look at some of the associated literature particularly Flight From Science and Reason and A House Built on Sand where I discovered two writers dealing with important issues in the Culture Wars. Philip Kitcher trying to find some middle ground and a way to recognise that some important and valuable work is being done in Science Studies, and Meera Nanda formulating some telling criticisms of the 'localist' thesis including some of my own work.

Their articles led me to think about the role of the critic/reviewer and the trickster/jester and that I too should try to find some common ground and articulate some criteria for making critical judgments in science, science studies and reviews, whilst in the midst of controversy and overblown rhetoric.

Meera Nanda argues for the necessity of criticism and points to the ways it is vitiated in the hands of constructivists and the postcolonialists. From her point of view the enlightenment project of humans endeavoring to set themselves free through the power of their actions and analysis is still worthwhile, especially in countries like India that have to deal with fundamentalists of all persuasions. A position which I endorse, and presumably so would Sokal and Bricmont since they cite Nanda favorably. Equally, so too would many postmodernists and people in science studies, even if the enlightenment project has become vastly more difficult and complex as a result of the reaction of the third world against the hegemony of the west and the reassessment of the concept of progress, otherwise what is the point of it all? Though problematising progress is one of the currents of postmodernism that Sokal and Bricmont' find so objectionable.

The problem with science studies for Nanda is two-fold. She points out that many people living in the third world, or in oppressed and deprived conditions anywhere, need the tools of scientific rationality and criticism to liberate themselves from superstition and exploitation. Science studies seems to make unattainable this entirely laudable aim of criticism. Even worse, she thinks that those who, like me, argue for seeing all knowledge systems as comparable have given additional strength to whoever are the dominant group enabling them to claim that their beliefs are as good as, indeed even superior to, anyone else's. Nanda is not grateful for what she sees as my condescending charity; the gift of epistemic equality is for her a Trojan horse. This is a serious and important issue. I am inclined to think, as maybe Sokal is too, that it is the issue. In fact I think it is the litmus test for relativists. If the form of relativism you advocate mitigates against or denies the possibility of criticism, of science, indigenous knowledge or your own work, then it is a form that is not worth espousing.

The other side of the problem is that Sokal and Bricmont do not show that criticism is hobbled in this way for all relativists, although they do, for example, show that is this the case for Barnes and Bloor. Instead they go in for a foolishly over inflated rhetoric which is consequently vacuous and trivial (a claim they are so fond of making about constructivists). According to Sokal and Bricmont epistemic/cognitive/radical/cultural relativism 'explicitly means' 'modern science is nothing more than a "myth", a "narration", or a "social construction"'(ix, ff.) and 'while scientists try as best they can to obtain an objective view of the world, relativist thinkers tell them that they are wasting their time and that such an enterprise is, in principle an illusion.'(51)

While there may be some anti-science writers about whom I have no wish to defend, I challenge Sokal and Bricmont to find any writer in science studies who thinks science is an illusion or a waste of time. If this were the case much of their own work would also be illusory and time wasting. Most people in the area recognise science as the best problem solving process yet built, but not the only one, nor one without fault. Their primary interests are concerned with understanding the process and ways to improve it. Why is this critical stance confused with anti-science? What is the point of making such broad brush claims as Sokal and Bricmont's if not to tar every writer in science studies with a brush so black that no one would want to bother reading them? It suggests that rather than sticking to their proclaimed aim of critiquing particular authors, they are seeking to dismiss the possibility of the critical examination of science.

Sociology of scientific knowledge is not indissolubly wedded to epistemic relativism, rather it requires the recognition that science is based in judgments, judgments made by the community of scientists for 'good reasons'. Sokal and Bricmont not only seem to acknowledge this judgmental character of science, but they also acknowledge that such judgments, and the reasons for them, have developed historically and vary according to context. In addition they recognise the nonspecificity of method and rationality. At this point I see no difference between a supposedly 'untenable' constructivist position and their 'tenable' rationalist one. We agree that the production of scientific knowledge is a social process dependent on historically developed and context dependent judgments. They want some acceptance of empirical evidence and testing of hypotheses, again no problem for anyone in history and sociology of science, given the proviso that what counts as 'fact', 'experiment', 'proof, 'evidence' and 'testing' are historical products and hence similarly conventional and contingent. All that is required at this point is recognition of the value of methodological relativism combined with a pragmatic theory of truth that incorporates small doses of correspondence and coherence. However, pragmatism and relativism alike also require explicit recognition of a value system. Objectivity and rationality can never be based in a value free view from nowhere.

What about Sokal and Bricmont's other general claim, that those authors they name have committed some scientific error or used science's name in vain and must therefore stand condemned as heretics. Once again a little charitable modesty is in order. Personally I am not overly concerned about whether Latour, for example, is 'mistaken' about relativity. Latour is frequently, witty, wise and insightful; try reading his classic article on visualisation and you will see what I mean. At least you will if what he says has any value for you, if it throws any light on problems of concern to you. If not you will rightly move on, as indeed we all do in trying to navigate our way through the morass of literature. We ignore the bits we are not interested in. Something like 90% of all the articles published in science are never cited by anyone suggesting that they go unread, unevaluated, and simply ignored. Are they to be seen as a problem, bad or false science, a waste of taxpayers' money, a pathological threat to the body of science? Maybe Science Studies should get together with scientists on this one.

So why don't Sokal and Bricmont deal with Latour's theoretical claims and ask whether they stand up to the practical test? Do they tell us anything useful, do they illuminate any problems? I for one would answer firmly ''. While I have some reservations about actor network theory, as indeed does Latour, I think his work along with that of John Law, Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer and many others has been seminal in enabling us to see, for example, that scientific knowledge is produced in particular places by particular people and that its 'universality' is achieved by making it move. The exploration of how knowledge travels through the establishment of literary, social and material technologies has proved an extremely rich and valuable vein of research in science studies.

Sokal and Bricmont do get stuck into Latour on the question of one of his rules of method. Once again somewhat uncharitably. They complain that Latour is confusing reality with its representations in the following quote. Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome- Nature- to explain how and why a controversy has been settled. (Latour, Science in Action, pp. 99, 258) If we add the required clarification: i.e. Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome- what Nature is now taken to be - to explain how and why a controversy has been settled. Latour's point is clear but the stylistic impact is lost. This methodological rule is non-problematic and non-trivial it is an essential difference between a sociologically informed history and whiggish history written by the winners. I was rather tempted to do a lengthy piece on Sokal as trickster in the long tradition of scientific frauds and hoaxes comparing him to James Randi. But no. The question is why, having set himself up as defender of the truth and trickster with his Social Text parody does he slip from jester to totalitarian inquisitor for whom it is legitimate to lie in order to tell the truth. To mock, deflate, make fun of, all good jesterly things to do; but it does not follow from perpetrating a hoax that you should be believed, rather it raises the question as it does of jesters, tricksters and fools generally, in the service of whose order are they acting? An example of the kind of issue on which they could perhaps be persuaded that there is some middle ground is the 'discovery' of Neptune by Adams and Leverrier. Sokal and Bricmont want to claim it as confirmation of both a scientific theory by successful prediction and of the idea that science is true because it makes successful predictions. They claim:

The credibility of Newton's mechanics was reinforced... by such spectacular discoveries as finding Neptune in 1846. It is hard to believe that such a simple theory could predict so precisely entirely new phenomena if it were not at least approximately true.(61)

Their first point is sociologically valid but their second is far more problematic and epistemologically interesting. Judgments of 'approximate truth' and 'success' in predictions are the stuff of which science is made but they are much more like 'muddling through' than is recognised in the image of science that Sokal and Bricmont confect.

Adams and Leverrier postulated the existence of the unknown planet in order to explain the perturbations in the orbit of Uranus. However, in their calculations they used Bode's law, a purely arithmetic rule relating the distances of the planets, leading them to assume too large a distance and hence a correspondingly greater mass for the planet. Despite having got the distance and mass wrong, the planet was observed by telescope in the predicted position in the night sky because Adams and Leverrier got the longitude or direction right. Whether or not this constituted an accidental or a deliberate discovery is thus open to debate. Sokal and Bricmont are right, it does show Newton's mechanics are approximately true, but there are interesting questions involved in the issue of how Adams and Leverrier managed a good guess when they got so much wrong. The claim '"science works" therefore constructivists are deluded' is rendered otiose if the historical and social details of the actual practice of science are included in the picture instead of being airbrushed out.

After this discursive ramble I could either set this all in a Bourdieuian struggle for authority, ( interestingly Bourdieu he is one of Sokal and Bricmont's allies aligned in the preface), or try to establish the grounds for a critical dialogue. Enough has already been said about the former, about the latter very little. If being charitable means trying to criticise an author's thesis in its strongest possible version, if the wisest criticism is tempered with wit and if we are worldly enough to recognise that we have common interests in improving science, rather than attacking it or acting as apologists for it, then surely we can all agree that clarity, charity and criticism are best achieved in dialogue not denunciation or intellectual imposition. The point is still to understand the world and to change it; aims best achieved by a judicious blend of Feyerabend and Popper. Feyerabend was far from the relativistic anarchist he is typically portrayed as being. He advocated 'letting a thousand blossoms bloom' not because he thought 'anything goes' but because he believed diversity is superior to a monoculture and more likely to lead to the growth of knowledge. Popper pointed out that democracy and science alike depend on differing views being freely expressed.

Sokal and Bricmont have thrown up a welcome critical challenge but in their lust for annihilation have done rather more damage to the world of critical debate than was ever done by any of their targets. It is time now for them to take a stand against the flood of anti-intellectualism with which at least American academe is being inundated, aided in large part by their work.