After the Science Wars

Abdelkader Aoudjit reports on which beleaguered positions are still held After the Science Wars.

The widely accepted view according to which the goal of science is to explain how things really are has been the target of serious attacks in the last few decades – attacks by philosophers and sociologists of science, by postmodernists, feminists and postcolonial critics. The philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) famously challenged the notion that there is a sharp distinction between scientific theories and other kinds of belief systems, that observation is theory-independent, and that science describes what the world is really like independent of what people think. He also argued that the historical and political contexts in which theories are embedded influence paradigm shifts in scientific thinking. Other critics have argued that social and political factors play important roles in the choice of research funding. Some commentators go so far as to suggest that the very content of science – the questions that are asked, the way observations are interpreted, even what counts as data – is subject to political, cultural and psychological influences. For example, the feminist Sandra Harding contends that science as it has been pursued until now, is patriarchal, sexist and homophobic. She also claims that the very ideas of objective reality and of value-neutrality are myths invented by neurotic males to satisfy their perverted psychological needs. Therefore, she urges that science as we know it be overthrown and replaced by another kind based on female ways of knowing.

Postcolonial critics, in turn, argue that despite its pretense to be universal and to be the standard of knowing, science is ethnocentric; it not only represses some of its non-European origins but it also marginalizes other ways of knowing of other cultures.

For much of the second half of the twentieth century, scientists were happily oblivious to the critiques of the sociologists, postmodernists, feminists, etc. Then, in the mid 1990s two major events ignited the Science Wars. The first was the publication in 1994 of Higher Superstitions: The Academic Left and its Quarrel with Science by biologist Michael Gross and mathematician Michael Levitt. The second was the so-called ‘Sokal Hoax’ of 1996 (see box).

On one side of this controversy are the defenders of the orthodox view of science according to which it is fundamentally objective, rational, and value-free; on the other side are some of those Gross and Levitt called ‘cultural constructivists’ and ‘postmodernists’ who maintain – for different reasons and according to different premises – that everything in science ought to be understood in terms of socio-political factors and that what scientists take to be facts are constructs contingent upon the social context in which they are established. For a while, each side accused the other of ignorance, idiocy, obscurantism, sloppy scholarship and so on. It seemed as though the differences between the two sides were so deep that there was little hope for productive dialogue between them.

The goal of After the Science Wars, which is the edited version of papers given at a conference on ‘Science and Its Critics’ at the University of Kansas in 1997, is to remedy this situation. The organizers of the conference wanted to encourage scientists and researchers in the humanities to talk to each other, to present various viewpoints from across a wide range of disciplines regarding the objectivity of science, and to find common ground.

Following an introduction by the editors which provides important background information, the book opens with Sokal’s ‘What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove: A Critical Look at Science Studies.’ Sokal tells the story of the hoax and explains what motivated him to play a practical joke on the editors of Social Text. Then, he repeats his (in)famous critique of what he believes is the misuse of science and scientific terminology by some prominent French thinkers. Finally, he mounts an attack against what he thinks are “the sloppy thinking and glib relativism that have become prevalent in many parts of science studies.” He argues that this ‘sloppy thinking’ is due to the fact that social critics of science conflate five related but conceptually distinct levels of analysis: ontology, epistemology, sociology, individual ethics, and social ethics. He goes on to say that he is willing to admit that social and political factors such as American militarism have influenced the selection of scientific projects and their funding. He also concedes that the ethical investigation of the development and use, of quantum electronics, for example, is important. Yet, he claims that these questions are totally irrelevant to the ontological question such as whether atoms (and silicon crystals, transistors, and computers) really do behave according to the laws of quantum mechanics and the epistemological question such as how scientists might decide to accept or reject a particular theory.

In the next chapter, ‘Reading and Relativism: an Introduction to the Science Wars,’ mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg criticizes what he describes as the ‘shabby’ scholarship of self-proclaimed defenders of science and reason. Gross, Levitt, Sokal and their followers’ claims that the writings of postmodernists and social constructivists are unintelligible, silly, absurd, and incomprehensible rest, according to Stolzenberg, on insufficiently attentive readings of postmodernist texts. He accuses Sokal and his supporters of being more interested in ridiculing their opponents than in understanding what they say. For Stolzenberg, a careful and thorough reading of philosophical texts demands a certain degree of sympathy on the part of the reader; it also demands that one appreciates the structure of thinking underlying the conclusions of the writer. He compares the kind of reading that good scholarship requires to the way people who are in love read a love letter and quotes Mortimer Adler: “When [men and women] are in love and are reading a love letter, they read for all they are worth. They read every word three ways; they read between the lines and in the margins; they grow sensitive to context and ambiguity…. Then, if never before or after, they read.” In the section called ‘hatchet jobs,’ Stolzenberg provides examples of the kind of shabby reading he associates with Sokal and his followers. Thus, according to him, if Thomas Nagel showed a minimum of interpretive charity and tried to understand what Luce Irigaray means by ‘sexed’ and ‘privileged’ in the context of her philosophy instead of mimicking Sokal and Bricmont’s condescension, he would not have dismissed her as easily as he did.

In ‘Objectivity and Ethno-feminist Critiques of Science,’ Anne Cudd uses examples from biological theories of intelligence, economics of the family, and the paleontology of human origins to show how gender and racial biases can influence science. According to her, a number of researchers in the fields mentioned above fail to recognize that race is a cultural rather than a biological category and to distinguish between the biological concept of sex and the socially constructed concept of gender. As a result, gender and racial biases in the form of stereotypes, metaphors, and symbols are read into science as if they were woven into the very fabric of things. She believes that recognizing such biases, confronting them and questioning them “can make science better on science’s own terms, namely, the open-minded pursuit of truth.” And the way to do so, according to her, is through logic, rationality and the pursuit of truth and objectivity. Unlike Sandra Harding, Cudd believes that these notions are not hopelessly male and can be used to advance science and women’s causes even though they have often been perverted by masculinist bias throughout the history of science and philosophy.

Like Cudd, Keith Ashman argues in ‘Measuring the Hubble Constant: Objectivity Under the Telescope’ that non-scientific factors – in his case, loyalty, careerism, desire for fame, and peer pressure rather than sexism and racism – influence the process and results of science. Ashman uses the Hubble Constant as a case in point. In 1929 Edwin Hubble found that the Universe is expanding, which suggests that it had a definite beginning: the Big Bang. He also determined that galactic distance and velocity are related; the galaxies nearer to us are moving away more slowly than the distant galaxies. This presented a problem of determining the rate at which the universe is expanding – the relationship between the distance and the velocity or ‘the Hubble constant.’ To arrive at the constant, astronomers started by measuring the distances to several galaxies, and then they compared the distances to how fast the galaxies are moving away. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, two groups of researchers, one in Texas and one in California, consistently found wildly different values for the Hubble constant. The Texas group found 100 km/s/megaparsec, the California group found 50 km/s/megaparsec. Each group became set in its view of how to measure distances to galaxies and stars, and how to measure the speed of a receding galaxy. “These were highly technical issues that outsiders had a hard time judging,” says Ashman. “So for 20 years the community was far too influenced by the reputation of these people, and that hindered attempts to find a consensus figure for the Hubble constant.” Ashman goes on to explain that depending on who a cosmologist’s friends were and whom she or he studied under, the scientist aligned with one camp or the other. In addition, he says, the few dissenting voices suggesting that the correct value might lie between 50 and 100 were ignored. The right value, as determined by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, eventually turned out to be around 75. With more objectivity, astronomers might have learned that sooner, says Ashman. It is an increase in epistemic objectivity and the self-correcting nature of science rather than agreement, he contends, which solved the Hubble controversy: “either the Hubble constant was solved by astronomers objectively measuring this parameter and gradually eliminating uncertainties and biases, or astronomers have, through social and cultural pressures, mutually agreed on a value of a parameter. (In the latter case, I suspect, we have to throw out ‘measurable’, since if science is nothing more than a process by which scientists agree on certain results, I see no sense in measuring anything).”

In ‘The stigma of Reason: Irrationality as a Problem for Social Theory,’ Norman Smith argues that anti-science is part of a larger irrationalist movement which started with Romanticism. He gives an overview of the philosophical aspects of this irrationalism as it developed from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th and its influence on what he calls ‘antiscience.’ The main point of Smith’s essay, however, is to argue against using logical reasoning to refute postmodernist critics of science because, in his view, postmodernists reject reason altogether and therefore, logic and arguments are impotent to change their minds. He suggests that instead of trying to debate the critics of science, defenders of science and reason should prove them wrong indirectly by pointing to the social and political origins and influencing factors of irrational beliefs. Smith concludes by saying: “For critics of irrationalism, who wish to contribute directly to the understanding and undoing of anti-rational prejudice, I would argue that social constructionism … has much to offer.”

Also informative are two other essays in the collection, one by Ziauddin Sardar on non-European origins of modern science and the other by Robert Pack on pseudoscience. In ‘Above and Beyond, and at the Center of the Science Wars,’ Sardar criticizes Western philosophy, sociology and history of science for forgetting the contribution of other cultures to modern science. In ‘Voodoo Medicine,’ an essay that isn’t directly relevant to the Science Wars but which makes for interesting reading, Park criticizes Deepak Chopra’sQuantum Healing as an example of the kind of quackery that is totally wrong by established scientific standards, yet attracts large crowds of followers and sometimes even gets the support of corporations and governments.

Most of the essays in this book steer a middle course between extreme realism and extreme constructivism – with varying degrees of success and originality – and to this extent the book has achieved its intended purpose. Yet, some criticisms are in order. Firstly, although some of the articles included in the book, especially Cudd’s essay, are clear and direct, the ‘average reader’ for whom this collection is intended may have difficulty understanding the articles by Stolzenberg and Fuller. Secondly, the editors wanted to bring together the opinions of the opposing camps in one book but, instead, they ended up making the collection a defense of the kind of weak constructivism which sociologist David Bloor calls the ‘sociology of error.’ All the contributors who tackled the issue of the objectivity of science directly, Sokal, Ashman, Cudd and Smith argue that non-scientific factors only explain bad science; good science is free of non-scientific factors.

The most significant flaw of the collection, however, is the absence of any essay on the political aspect of the Science Wars. This is a major weakness given that much of the debate between the defenders of science and rationality and the science critics, especially the postmodern critics, hinges on the nature of leftism; each side claiming the other is undermining progressive political causes. Thus according to some science critics Gross, Sokal and Levitt are conservatives who defend science as part of a general defense of the status quo. In response, Levitt, Gross, and Sokal proclaim that they are the true leftists and their goal is to defend the old brand left against the relativism and irrationalism of ‘the academic left.’ In an article published in Dissent Sokal wrote, “I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class.”

Despite these drawbacks, Ashman and Baringer’s book provides a fair and useful introduction to the Science Wars.


Abdelkader Aoudjit studied philosophy at the University of Algiers and at Georgetown University. He teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.

• After the Science Wars edited by Keith Ashman and Philip Baringer, (Routledge 2001) pb £17.99/$27.95.

The Sokal Hoax

Alan Sokal suspected that the writings of many French theorists – complex, erudite and larded with references to modern science – were so much meaningless nonsense. Like a good scientist, he devised an experiment to test this theory – he concocted a deliberately nonsensical paper in a similar style, replete with trendy jargon and pseudo-scientific references. Titling it ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, he then sent it to a journal called Social Text, to see if they would be fooled. They published it; he then revealed the hoax and people have been arguing about its significance ever since.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s