Science Wars

Social Text

The science wars were a series of intellectual exchanges, between scientific realists and postmodernist critics, about the nature of scientific theory which took place principally in the United States in the 1990s. The postmodernists questioned scientific objectivity, and critiqued the scientific method and scientific knowledge in cultural studies, cultural anthropology, feminist studies, comparative literature, media studies, and science and technology studies. The scientific realists countered that objective scientific knowledge is real, and accused postmodernist critics of having little understanding of the science they were criticizing.

Until the mid-20th century, the philosophy of science had concentrated on the viability of scientific method and knowledge, proposing justifications for the truth of scientific theories and observations and attempting to discover on a philosophical level why science worked. Already Karl Popper had begun to attack this view. Popper denied outright that justification existed for such concepts as truth, probability or even belief in scientific theories, thereby laying fertile foundations for the growth of postmodernist attitudes.

During this time there had also been a number of less orthodox philosophers who believed that logical models of pure science did not apply to actual scientific practice. It was the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ in 1962, however, which fully opened the study of science to new disciplines by suggesting that the evolution of science was in part sociologically determined and that it did not operate under the simple logical laws put forward by the logical positivist school of philosophy.

Kuhn described the development of scientific knowledge not as linear increase in truth and understanding, but as series of periodic revolutions which overturned old scientific order and replaced it with new orders (what he called ‘paradigms’). Kuhn attributed much of this process to the interactions and strategies of the human participants in science rather than its own innate logical structure. Some interpreted Kuhn’s ideas to mean that scientific theories were, either wholly or in part, social constructs, which many interpreted as diminishing the claim of science to representing objective reality (though many social constructivists do not put forward this claim), and that reality had a lesser or potentially irrelevant role in the formation of scientific theories. In 1971, Jerome Ravetz published ‘Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems,’ a book describing the role that the scientific community, as a social construct, plays in accepting or rejecting so-called ‘objective’ scientific knowledge.

A number of different philosophical and historical schools, often lumped together as ‘postmodernism,’ began reinterpreting scientific achievements of the past through the lens of the practitioners, often assigning political and economic conditions as formative a role in theory development as scientific observations. Rather than being held up as heroes of knowledge, many scientists of the past were scrutinized for their connection to issues of gender, sexual orientation, race, and class. Some more radical philosophers, such as Paul Feyerabend, argued that scientific theories were themselves incoherent and that other forms of knowledge production (such as those used in religion) served the material and spiritual needs of their practitioners with equal validity as did scientific explanations.

Somewhat of a middle view between the ‘postmodernist’ and ‘realist’ camps is that put forward by thinkers such as Imre Lakatos. For Lakatos, scientific knowledge is progressive; however, it progresses not by a strict linear path where every new element builds upon and incorporates every other, but by an approach where a ‘core’ of a ‘research program’ is established by auxiliary theories which can themselves be falsified or replaced without compromising the core. Social conditions and attitudes affect how strongly one attempts to resist falsification for the core of a program, but the program has an objective status, notwithstanding, based on its relative explanatory power. Resisting falsification only becomes ad-hoc and damaging to knowledge when an alternate program with greater explanatory power is rejected in favor of another with less. But because it is changing a theoretical core, which has broad ramifications for other areas of study, accepting a new program is also revolutionary as well as progressive. Thus, for Lakatos the character of science is that of being both revolutionary and progressive; both socially informed and objectively justified.

In ‘Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science’ (1994), the scientists Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt attacked the anti-intellectual postmodernists, presented the shortcomings of relativism, and proposed that postmodernist critics knew little about the scientific theories they criticized and practiced poor scholarship for political reasons. The postmodernist science studies critics were identified as ‘misunderstanding’ the theoretical approaches they criticized given their ‘caricature, misreading, and condescension, [rather] than argument.’ In the event, the book proved a spark for the Science Wars. Moreover, ‘Higher Superstition’ then inspired a New York Academy of Sciences conference titled ‘The Flight from Science and Reason,’ organized by Gross, Levitt, and Gerald Holton. The conferees were critical of the polemical approach of Gross and Levitt, yet agreed upon the intellectual inconsistency of how laymen, non-scientist, social studies intellectuals dealt with science.

In 1996, ‘Social Text,’ a Duke University publication of postmodern critical theory, compiled a ‘Science Wars’ issue containing brief articles, by postmodernist academics in the social sciences and the Humanities, that emphasized the roles of society and politics in science. In the issue introduction, the editor, Andrew Ross, said that the attack upon science studies was a conservative reaction to reduced funding for scientific research, characterizing the ‘Flight from Science and Reason’ conference as an attempted ‘linking together a host of dangerous threats: scientific creationism, New Age alternatives and cults, astrology, UFO-ism, the radical science movement, postmodernism, and critical science studies, alongside the ready-made historical specters of Aryan-Nazi science and the Soviet error of Lysenkoism’ that ‘degenerated into name-calling.’

Historian Dorothy Nelkin characterized Gross and Leavitt’s vigorous response as a call to arms in response to the failed marriage of Science and the State — in contrast to the scientists’ historical tendency to avoid participating in perceived political threats, such as creation science, the animal rights movement, and anti-abortionists’ attempts to curb fetal research. At the end of the Cold War, military funding of science declined, whilst funding agencies demanded accountability, and research became directed by private interests. Nelkin suggested that postmodernist critics were ‘convenient scapegoats’ who diverted attention from problems in science.

Physicist Alan Sokal had submitted an article to ‘Social Text’ titled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,’ which proposed that quantum gravity is a linguistic and social construct and that quantum physics supports postmodernist criticisms of scientific objectivity. After holding the article back from earlier issues due to Sokal’s refusal to consider revisions, the staff published it in the ‘Science Wars’ issue as a relevant contribution. Later, in an issue of ‘Lingua Franca,’ in the article ‘A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies,’ Prof. Sokal exposed his parody-article, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries’ as an experiment testing the intellectual rigor of an academic journal that would ‘publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.’ The matter became known as the ‘Sokal Affair,’ and it thrust the academic world’s in-house scientific objectivity wars into the public eye.

In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s response, ‘Sokal and Bricmont Aren’t Serious,’ first published in ‘Le Monde,’ he writes that the Sokal hoax is rather ‘sad [grave],’ not only because Alan Sokal’s name is now linked primarily to a hoax, not science, but also because the chance to reflect seriously on this issue has been ruined for a broad public forum that deserves better. Derrida reminds his readers that science and philosophy have long debated their likenesses and differences in the discipline of epistemology, but certainly not with such an emphasis on the nationality of the philosophers or scientists. He then notes that it is ridiculous and weird that there are intensities of treatment by the scientists, in particular, that he was ‘much less badly treated.’

Derrida then proceeds to question the validity of their attacks against a few words he made in an off-the-cuff response during a conference that took place thirty years prior to their publication. He suggests there are plenty of scientists who have pointed out the difficult of attacking his response. He also notes that there’s not a trace of ‘relativism’ or a critique of Reason and the Enlightenment in his works. After having severely indicated all of the witch hunt aspects of their campaign against sincere philosophers, he then writes of his hope that in the future this work is pursued more seriously and with dignity at the level of the issues involved.

In the first few years after the ‘Science Wars’ edition of ‘Social Text,’ the seriousness and volume of discussion increased significantly, much of it focused on reconciling the ‘warring’ camps of postmodernists and scientists. One significant event was the ‘Science and Its Critics’ conference in early 1997; it brought together scientists and scholars who study science and featured Alan Sokal and Steve Fuller as keynote speakers. The conference generated the final wave of substantial press coverage (in both news media and scientific journals), though by no means resolved the fundamental issues of social construction and objectivity in science.

Other attempts have been made to reconcile the two camps. Mike Nauenberg, a physicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, organized a small conference later in 1997 that was attended by scientists and sociologists of science alike, among them Alan Sokal, N. David Mermin, and Harry Collins. In the same year, Collins organized the Southampton Peace Workshop, which again brought together a broad range of scientists and sociologists. The Peace Workshop gave rise to the idea of a book that intended to map out some of the arguments between the disputing parties. ‘The One Culture,’ edited by chemist Jay A. Labinger and sociologist Harry Collins, was eventually published in 2001. The book, whose title is a reference to C.P. Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures,’ contains contributions from authors such as Alan Sokal, Belgian theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont, American Nobel laureate in Physics Steven Weinberg, and historian Steven Shapin.

Also in 2001, Oxford University professor Bent Flyvbjerg in his book ‘Making Social Science Matter’ identified a way out of the Science Wars by arguing that (1) social science is ‘phronesis’ (practical wisdom), whereas natural science is ‘episteme’ (knowledge or science); (2) phronesis is well suited for the reflexive analysis and discussion of values and interests, which any society needs to thrive, whereas episteme is good for the development of predictive theory, and; (3) a well-functioning society needs both phronesis and episteme in balance, and one cannot substitute for the other.

Other important publications related to the science wars include ‘Fashionable Nonsense’ by Sokal and Jean Bricmont (1998), ‘The Social Construction of What?’ by Ian Hacking (1999), and ‘Who Rules in Science’ by James Robert Brown. For some scholars, the ‘Bogdanov Affair’ (a disputed series of theoretical physics papers written by French twins Igor and Grichka Bogdanov) in 2002 served as the bookend to the Sokal controversy. The review, acceptance, and publication of papers, later alleged to be nonsense, in peer-reviewed physics journals. Postmodernists might point out that this occurrence only served to demonstrate what they have always claimed: at the outer reaches of knowledge, where new claims are evaluated and disseminated, no one can be expected to know for certain what is true and what is not. However, others such as Cornell physics professor Paul Ginsparg have argued that the cases are not at all similar and that the fact some journals and scientific institutions have low or variable standards is ‘hardly a revelation.’

Interest in the science wars has waned considerably in recent years. Though the events of the science wars are still occasionally mentioned in mainstream press, they have had little effect on either the scientific community or the community of critical theorists. Both sides continue to maintain that the other does not understand their theories, or misunderstands what are meant to be constructive criticisms or simple scholarly investigations as attacks. As French anthropologist Bruno Latour recently put it, ‘Scientists always stomp around meetings talking about ‘bridging the two-culture gap,’ but when scores of people from outside the sciences begin to build just that bridge, they recoil in horror and want to impose the strangest of all gags on free speech since Socrates: only scientists should speak about science!’ Subsequently, Latour has suggested a re-evaluation of sociology’s epistemology based on lessons learnt from the Science Wars: ‘…scientists made us realize that there was not the slightest chance that the type of social forces we use as a cause could have objective facts as their effects.’

However, more recently some of the leading critical theorists have recognized that their critiques have at times been counter-productive, and are providing intellectual ammunition for reactionary interests. Writing about these developments in the context of global warming, Bruno Latour noted that ‘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?’ Some have suggested that this paper represented Latour’s recanting his earlier claims, but others say that the paper’s attack on ‘social construction’ is consistent with positions he has taken since the second edition of his book ‘Laboratory Life’ was published in 1979.

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