The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science

Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt

John Hopkins, Baltimore, 1998.

This is a key book in the current intellectual and academic struggles between certain strands of postmodernism and the deeply unfashionable view that the world exists independently of our perspectives, prejudices, ideologies and languages, and that science is the best way of finding out what the world consists of, and how its doings and workings may be patterned.

This is not merely an academic squabble, because of what is at stake for our self-understanding, our survival, and our hopes for the liberation of people across the planet from exploitation, famines, terror and the many daily horrors of so many lives.

The authors' arguments are directed at what they term the "academic left", by which they mean not academics with left-wing views, but a type of purportedly progressive critic of science who systematically mis-reads the nature of scientific work.

Navigating through such a thicket would be a taxing process were it not for the authors' wonderfully lucid and vigorous prose style. This example of it summarizes their viewpoint:

"The attempts to read scientific knowledge as the mere transcription of Western male capitalist social perspectives, or as the deformed handicraft of the prisonhouse of language, are hopelessly naive and reductionistic. They take no account of the specific logic of the sciences and they are far too coarse to deal with the conceptual texture of any category of important scientific thought." (p.40)

It is clear enough that science is a cultural construct in the sense that what kind of science is actually carried out tends to reflect economic interests, social beliefs and needs, and so on. The "strong" form of cultural constructivism goes much further: science is not "a body of knowledge and testable conjecture concerning the 'real' world", but a discourse, whose constitutive statements are only self-referentially interpretable by a given discursive community.

The nub of the matter is whether science is only a discourse. Gross and Levitt provide cogent reasons for concluding that it is not.

It appears that the most vocal and hostile critics of science who adopt the "strong" stance have not fully understood their target. This is perhaps a surprising and unlikely claim, but the reader of this book will soon see how bad things are in the jargon-ridden world of cultural constructivism.

Let's take chaos theory, a favourite of many postmodernist theorists, who see it as emblematic of contemporary culture. Systems studied in chaos theory are unpredictable, but they are deterministic. Thus the theory in no way undermines orthodox science. Neither is it especially important within mathematics, let alone beyond it:

"...chaos theory, for all its beauty and scientific relevance, is not the dominant theme in contemporary mathematics, for the simple reason that nothing is. Mathematics is stupendously vast and varied, and every year results appear in one specialty or another that are just as delightfully surprising and involve just as great intuitive leaps as those of chaos theory." (p.94)

Yet it is dragooned into postmodernism's empire-building in cases like N. Katherine Hayle:

"The cultural moment, she reasons, has brought forth chaos theory simultaneously with Derrida's Of Grammatology and de Man's Allegories of Reading, and hence, some unspecified mechanism of the zeitgeist must be responsible for both developments. This is a bizarre thesis. Why should the theory of dynamical systems be more clearly related to the gyrations of literary exegetes than it is to major league baseball or Jane Fonda's workout tapes?" (p.99)

Readers familiar with the psychology of superstition will recognize the cardboard contours of what I call hyper-associationism. The authors might better have said "crystal healing kits" than "Jane Fonda's workout tapes". Here I make associations myself, but the difference is that I would compare and classify, assigning given examples to categories of fallacy, such as post hoc, ergo propter hoc, and so on.

Part of the problem is the obsession with language:

"feminist science-critics... are governed by the impulse to take language very seriously, even when it is clearly metaphorical or simply whimsical... The tendency to construe colloquialisms as tokens of deep epistemological error has been a ceaseless element of feminist criticism, and one of the most fatuous." (p.123)

Objecting to the statement that "metaphor plays a central role in the construction of mathematics", they write:

"No! It does not. . . One of us [Levitt], speaking as a mathematician who has seen an awful lot of mathematics 'constructed' and has constructed some himself, can testify to the uselessness of metaphor in mathematical invention, although analogy - a rather different notion - can be of some help. Mathematical intuition is something much more mysterious than metaphor." (p.116)

Serious and difficult issues concern attempts by Afro-centrists to re-write the history of science. The authors discuss the Dogon "discovery" of Sirius B:

"Somehow, the condescending belief has taken hold that black children can persuaded to take an interest in science only if they are fed an educational diet of fairy tales." (p.208)

These pugnacious remarks might seem inspired by a sneering conservatism, but the charge would be very wide of the mark. Gross and Levitt do not just attack aspects of postmodernist theorizing - a job devastatingly done by Sokal and Bricmont in Intellectual Impostures. They go beyond this by trying to account for the phenomenon they are discussing, moving from criticism to critique:

"The central ambition of the cultural constructivist program - to explain the deepest and most enduring insights of science as a corollary of social assumptions and ideological agenda - is futile and perverse. The chances are excellent, howerever, that one can account for the intellectual phenomenon of cultural constructivism itself in precisely such terms." (p.69)



Paul Taylor 2001