A Plea for Reason, Evidence and Logic

by Alan Sokal

Transcript of a talk presented at a forum at New York University on October 30, 1996. It was reprinted in New Politics 6(2), pp. 126-129 (Winter 1997).

This affair has brought up an incredible number of issues, and I can't dream of addressing them all in 10 minutes, so let me start by circumscribing my talk. I don't want to belabor Social Text's failings either before or after the publication of my parody: Social Text is not my enemy, nor is it my main intellectual target. I won't go here into the ethical issues related to the propriety of hoaxing (although in the question period I'd be glad to defend my ethics). I won't address the obscurantist prose and the uncritical celebrity-worship that have infected certain trendy sectors of the American academic humanities (though these are important questions that I hope other panelists will address). I won't enter into technical issues of the philosophy of science (although again I'd be glad to do that in the question period). I won't discuss the social role of science and technology (though these are important issues). Indeed, I want to emphasize that this affair is in my view not primarily about science -- though that was the excuse that I used in constructing my parody -- nor is it a disciplinary conflict between scientists and humanists, who are in fact represented on all sides of the debate. What I believe this debate is principally about -- and what I want to focus on tonight -- is the nature of truth, reason and objectivity: issues that I believe are crucial to the future of left politics.

I didn't write the parody for the reasons you might at first think. My aim wasn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit or sociology. I know perfectly well that the main threats to science nowadays come from budget-cutting politicians and corporate executives, not from a handful of postmodernist academics. Rather, my goal is to defend what one might call a scientific worldview -- defined broadly as a respect for evidence and logic, and for the incessant confrontation of theories with the real world; in short, for reasoned argument over wishful thinking, superstition and demagoguery. And my motives for trying to defend these old-fashioned ideas are basically political. I'm worried about trends in the American Left -- particularly here in academia -- that at a minimum divert us from the task of formulating a progressive social critique, by leading smart and committed people into trendy but ultimately empty intellectual fashions, and that can in fact undermine the prospects for such a critique, by promoting subjectivist and relativist philosophies that in my view are inconsistent with producing a realistic analysis of society that we and our fellow citizens will find compelling.

David Whiteis, in a recent article, said it well:

Too many academics, secure in their ivory towers and insulated from the real-world consequences of the ideas they espouse, seem blind to the fact that non-rationality has historically been among the most powerful weapons in the ideological arsenals of oppressors. The hypersubjectivity that characterizes postmodernism is a perfect case in point: far from being a legacy of leftist iconoclasm, as some of its advocates so disingenuously claim, it in fact ... plays perfectly into the anti-rationalist -- really, anti-thinking -- bias that currently infects "mainstream" U.S. culture.

Along similar lines, the philosopher of science Larry Laudan observed caustically that

the displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is -- second only to American political campaigns -- the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.
(And these days, being nearly as anti-intellectual as American political campaigns is really quite a feat.)

Now of course, no one will admit to being against reason, evidence and logic -- that's like being against Motherhood and Apple Pie. Rather, our postmodernist and poststructuralist friends will claim to be in favor of some new and deeper kind of reason, such as the celebration of "local knowledges" and "alternative ways of knowing" as an antidote to the so-called "Eurocentric scientific methodology" (you know, things like systematic experiment, controls, replication, and so forth). You find this magic phrase "local knowledges" in, for example, the articles of Andrew Ross and Sandra Harding in the "Science Wars" issue of Social Text. But are "local knowledges" all that great? And when local knowledges conflict, which local knowledges should we believe? In many parts of the Midwest, the "local knowledges" say that you should spray more herbicides to get bigger crops. It's old-fashioned objective science that can tell us which herbicides are poisonous to farm workers and to people downstream. Here in New York City, lots of "local knowledges" hold that there's a wave of teenage motherhood that's destroying our moral fiber. It's those boring data that show that the birth rate to teenage mothers has been essentially constant since 1975, and is about half of what it was in the good old 1950's. Another word for "local knowledges" is prejudice.

I'm sorry to say it, but under the influence of postmodernism some very smart people can fall into some incredibly sloppy thinking, and I want to give two examples. The first comes from a front-page article in last Tuesday's New York Times (10/22/96) about the conflict between archaeologists and some Native American creationists. I don't want to address here the ethical and legal aspects of this controversy -- who should control the use of 10,000-year-old human remains -- but only the epistemic issue. There are at least two competing views on where Native American populations come from. The scientific consensus, based on extensive archaeological evidence, is that humans first entered the Americas from Asia about 10-20,000 years ago, crossing the Bering Strait. Many Native American creation accounts hold, on the other hand, that native peoples have always lived in the Americas, ever since their ancestors emerged onto the surface of the earth from a subterranean world of spirits. And the Times article observed that many archaeologists, "pulled between their scientific temperaments and their appreciation for native culture, ... have been driven close to a postmodern relativism in which science is just one more belief system." For example, Roger Anyon, a British archaeologist who has worked for the Zuni people, was quoted as saying that "Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. ... [The Zunis' world view is] just as valid as the archeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about."

Now, perhaps Dr. Anyon was misquoted, but we all have repeatedly heard assertions of this kind, and I'd like to ask what such assertions could possibly mean. We have here two mutually incompatible theories. They can't both be right; they can't both even be approximately right. They could, of course, both be wrong, but I don't imagine that that's what Dr. Anyon means by "just as valid". It seems to me that Anyon has quite simply allowed his political and cultural sympathies to cloud his reasoning. And there's no justification for that: We can perfectly well remember the victims of a horrible genocide, and support their descendants' valid political goals, without endorsing uncritically (or hypocritically) their societies' traditional creation myths. Moreover, the relativists' stance is extremely condescending: it treats a complex society as a monolith, obscures the conflicts within it, and takes its most obscurantist factions as spokespeople for the whole.

My second example of sloppy thinking comes from Social Text co-editor Bruce Robbins' article in the September/October 1996 Tikkun magazine, in which he tries to defend -- albeit half-heartedly -- the postmodernist/poststructuralist subversion of conventional notions of truth. "Is it in the interests of women, African Americans, and other super-exploited people," Robbins asks, "to insist that truth and identity are social constructions? Yes and no," he asserts. "No, you can't talk about exploitation without respect for empirical evidence" -- exactly my point. "But yes," Robbins continues, "truth can be another source of oppression." Huh??? How can truth oppress anyone? Well, Robbins' very next sentence explains what he means: "It was not so long ago," he says, "that scientists gave their full authority to explanations of why women and African Americans ... were inherently inferior." But is Robbins claiming that that is truth? I should hope not! Sure, lots of people say things about women and African-Americans that are not true; and yes, those falsehoods have sometimes been asserted in the name of "science", "reason" and all the rest. But claiming something doesn't make it true, and the fact that people -- including scientists -- sometimes make false claims doesn't mean that we should reject or revise the concept of truth. Quite the contrary: it means that we should examine with the utmost care the evidence underlying people's truth claims, and we should reject assertions that in our best rational judgment are false.

This error is, unfortunately, repeated throughout Robbins' essay: he systematically confuses truth with claims of truth, fact with assertions of fact, and knowledge with pretensions to knowledge. These elisions underlie much of the sloppy thinking about "social construction" that is prevalent nowadays in the academy, and it's something that progressives ought to resist. Sure, let's show which economic, political and ideological interests are served by our opponents' accounts of "reality"; but first let's demonstrate, by marshalling evidence and logic, why those accounts are objectively false (or in some cases true but incomplete).

A bit later in his article, Robbins admits candidly that "those of us who do cultural politics sometimes act as if ... truth were always and everywhere a weapon of the right." Now, that's an astoundingly self-defeating attitude for an avowed leftist. If truth were on the side of the right, shouldn't we all -- at least the honest ones among us -- become right-wingers? For my own part, I'm a leftist and a feminist because of evidence and logic (combined with elementary ethics), not in spite of it.

This plea of mine for reason, evidence and logic is hardly original; dozens of progressive humanists, social scientists and natural scientists have been saying the same thing for years. But if my parody in Social Text has helped just a little bit to amplify their voices and to provoke a much-needed debate on the American Left, then it will have served its purpose.