Edited by Andrew Ross.
Durham, North Carolina and London: Duke University Press, 1996.
$16.95. Pp. 333.
Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science.
by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
$23.00. Pp. xiii, 272.
[Also published in England under the title Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse of Science, London: Profile Books, 1998.]
In 1994 Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, a sharp attack on multiculturalism, social constructivism, and postmodernism in academe, which it clearly identified with the "left." The following year the same authors were prominent in the organization, in New York, of the National Academy of Sciences conference, "The Flight from Science and Reason."
In 1996, to respond to these attacks, the journal Social Text, co-edited by Andrew Ross, had a special issue conceived as a forum where scholars in science studies could comment directly on these matters. Science Wars is an expanded version of this special issue. However, that same issue of Social Text included an unsolicited article by Alan Sokal titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," which was promptly revealed to be a hoax. It was "a parody article crammed with nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotations about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals." Out of this grew Fashionable Nonsense. The hoax article is reproduced, in its entirety, as an appendix to the book. Sokal and Bricmont are professors of physics at, respectively, New York University, and the University of Louvain, (Belgium).
Fashionable Nonsense was first published in Paris, in 1997, and the following year, in English translation (by Sokal and Bricmont), in London. In both France and Britain the book has stimulated considerable interest and discussion going well beyond the usual academic circles. On the one hand, it consists of analysis of texts, taken author by author, from the writings of nine structuralist and poststructuralist philosophers (or philosophico-literary intellectuals as Sokal prefers to call them). On the other hand it includes more technical issues: "Epistemic relativism and the philosophy of science"; "Chaos theory and `postmodern science'"; and "Gödel's theorem and set theory: Some examples of abuse". This is followed by an Epilogue in which the critique is situated in a broader historical and social context.
First, Sokal and Bricmont take two authors, Lacan and (the early writings of) Kristeva, (along with passing nods to Derrida and Foucault), represent. ative of the "extreme structuralist" tendency, which extended through to the mid-1970s. This period was characterized by cloaking vague discourses on the human sciences with a veneer of "scientificity" by invoking the trappings of mathematics. Secondly, they take poststructuralism, where, in the mid-1970s, any pretense at "scientificity" is abandoned, with an underlying trend towards irrationalism or nihilism. Typical of the latter tendency are Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Guattari, as well as Lyotard, Irigaray, Latour, and Virilio.
The choice of the French poststructuralists is justified since they are the fundamental points of reference for English-language postmodernists, who share with them aspects of their writing such as obscure jargon, implicit rejection of rational thought, and abuse of science as metaphor.
The authors identify themselves with the left and point to the contradiction that, whereas over the last two centuries the left has been identified with science and against obscurantism, over the last two decades, a large number of "progressive" and "leftist" academic humanists and social scientists have turned away from the Enlightenment legacy and embraced one or another version of epistemic relativism.
They postulate three causes for these developments. Firstly, new social movements since the 1960s, such as black liberation and feminism, which perceive themselves as being "left out" by the traditional left. Secondly, political discouragement with the collapse of the socialist countries and of political failures in the third world. Thirdly, that science is an easy target, especially with the facile identification of science and technology, and with the mystification of science that then provides no threat to the rulers.
With the main thrust of Fashionable Nonsense I find myself in agreement. However, I believe that their argument would be considerably strengthened by some acknowledgment of the malign influence of philosophical relativism and obscurantism in the writings of many prominent scientists themselves, especially as concerns the interpretations of quantum theory and cosmology. More importantly, I suggest that the identification of science with the most menacing aspects of technology, such as the atomic bomb, genetic engineering, and ecological destruction, together with the complicity of too many scientists and technologists in the worst abuses of the capitalist world order needs to be addressed more directly.
Here Ross's book, despite its obvious postmodernist bias, serves as a needed corrective, with some nineteen articles by American and British writers.
Roger Hart in "The Flight from Reason: Higher Superstition and the Refutation of Science Studies" undertakes a careful and persuasive exposure of that book's shoddy analysis and scholarship.
Richard Lewontin in "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu: a rEVIew Essay," continues the attack on Gross and Levitt. Firstly, they fail to give a coherent definition of the academic left, excluding practicing "lefty" scientists such as Steven Jay Gould, while including the likes of Paul de Man, the deconstructionist guru who, in an earlier incarnation, turned out to having been a hack Nazi journalist and collaborator in his native Belgium. Secondly, while acknowledging some lovely examples of nonsense writing by postmodernists, Gross and Levitt fail to prove that these have created any serious threat to rationality. Thirdly, they claim their book is about politics and not about epistemology and the philosophy of science, thereby evading such real issues, as sociobiology and its nefarious influence. "Higher Superstition is not a serious book about the problems of understanding and constructing science. It is instead, one long fit of bad temper, taking as its object the most vulnerable and easiest targets."
Emily Martin in "Meeting Polemics with Irenics in the Science Wars," draws attention to the connection between the "Flight from Science and Reason" Conference and an earlier and similar conference funded by the National Association of Scholars, whose funding and agenda is largely set by major right-wing foundations.
Ruth Hubbard, writes as a feminist as well as a scientist, in "Gender and Genitals: Constructs of Sex and Gender." She makes the case for a "rainbow spectrum" from male gender through transgender persons to female gender. This, at least, is an interesting example of how "social construction" can be used to enhance rational understanding.
Richard Levins in "Ten Propositions on Science and Antiscience," offers some propositions that have guided his work-"Since radicals began to look to science as a force for emancipation, Marxists both as social critics and as participating scientists have grappled with its contradictory nature." While it is not possible here to do justice to his nuanced schema, it is clear that he holds to a dialectic unity of "the objectivity of scientific knowledge as representing generic human progress in our understanding" with "the obvious social determination and the all-too-familiar antihuman uses of science." He finishes with an appeal for "science for the people" as the best defense of science against reactionary attack.
In the shadow of these two books is an interesting set of contradictions. Sokal and Bricmont have made a clear and needed attack on the prevailing and pervasive philosophical relativism in academia, often with accompanying pretentious writing style and ill-chosen metaphors from physics and mathematics. But they are traveling in some doubtful company that seems to brook no challenge to the received political wisdom. That company sees no ideological influences on the scientific enterprise, and seems to acknowledge no social or historical context to it. Nevertheless, it is often supportive of a different kind of philosophical relativism, in the guise of the interpretation of scientific theories, such as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
At least the best of the postmodernist writers are maintaining, in politically difficult times, some social criticism and questioning of authority, and of conventional wisdom, albeit of an often dangerously nihilistic bent. At times this is like a replay of the "Two Cultures" debate initiated by C. P. Snow in early postwar Britain. Let us hope that this new debate can lead to a philosophically materialist and politically progressive outcome on both sides of the culture divide.