The Right Fight

Circa 1996, many of the nation's intellectuals could be found chattering about the famous "Sokal hoax." Remember that? It all began when New York University physicist Alan Sokal submitted an article to the left-wing academic journal Social Text that basically amounted to gibberish. It essentially argued that physical reality does not exist:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical "reality,'' no less than social "reality,'' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge," far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities … .

The article had a giveaway title: "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Coming from a physicist, this should have raised serious red flags. Nevertheless, Social Text was stupid enough to publish the thing, and then Sokal exposed the hoax in Lingua Franca magazine.

On the one hand, this was a pretty mean trick to pull on poor Social Text. On the other, editors unable to distinguish real physics from spoof physics probably shouldn't be publishing articles arguing against physical reality.

At any rate, Sokal claimed his objectives were thoroughly constructive. He wanted, he said, to shake the academic left out of its postmodern torpor and force its leading intellectuals to recognize that jargony articles and a general tone of relativism and subjectivism weren't helping anybody -- certainly not the oppressed people of the world. "For most of the past two centuries," Sokal wrote, "the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism … . Theorizing about 'the social construction of reality' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics, and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity."

The Sokal hoax hit liberal academia like a thunderclap and prompted many a gloat from scientists. It went hand in hand with books like Higher Superstition, an all-out attack on the perceived anti-science obscurantism of the academic left. For many pro-science liberals as well as many anti-campus conservatives, the notion slowly took hold that there were a lot of out-of-touch left-wing academics, nestled in secluded universities, who were conducting a campaign against scientific knowledge in obscure journals through excessive quotation of Foucault and Derrida.

Even at the time, however, the quest to root out anti-science tendencies in academia seemed a strange deployment of resources. After all, the Gingrich Republicans had just taken over Congress, set out to radically slash science budgets, and preached denial about global warming. If there was a war on science afoot, university professors probably weren't the leading culprits. Certainly they weren't the most powerful ones.

Indeed, despite some undeniable academic excesses, the "science wars" were always somewhat overblown. The sociological, historical, philosophical, and cultural study of science is a very worthwhile endeavor. If scholars engaged in such research sometimes take a stance of agnosticism toward the truth claims of science, perhaps that's simply their way of remaining detached from the subject they're studying. But it doesn't necessarily follow that these scholars are absolute relativists, to the extent of thinking that concepts like gravity are a mere matter of opinion. Social Text founding Editor Stanley Aronowitz has himself written that "[t]he critical theories of science do not refute the results of scientific discoveries since, say, the Copernican revolution or since Galileo's development of the telescope."

When it comes to the field of science studies, meanwhile, much scholarly work in the area lends itself not to left-wing attacks on science but rather to defenses of science from forms of abuse prevalent on the political right. To cite just one example, leading science-studies scholar Sheila Jasanoff's 1991 book, The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers, presents a potent critique of demands for unreasonable levels of scientific certainty before political decisions can be made, especially when it comes to protecting public health and the environment.

So perhaps it's no surprise that the science wars of the 1990s have almost entirely subsided, and, as the scientific community has increasingly become embroiled with the Bush administration across a wide range of issues (from evolution to climate science), a very new zeitgeist has emerged. The summer issue of The American Scholar, a leading read among academic humanists and the literary set, provides a case in point. "Science matters," blazons the cover. Inside, Editor Robert Wilson explains to readers that although "the attack on science has always been our game … the enemy of our enemy is most definitely not our friend." The right's attack on science, Wilson continues, "is an attack on reason, and it cannot be ignored, or excused, or allowed to go uncontested."

With those words, I think it's safe to say that peace has officially been made in the science wars of the 1990s. And not a moment too soon. The evolution deniers (and other reality deniers) are gathering momentum. On matters like this, the university community -- composed of scientists and scholars alike -- really ought to be on the same page.

Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a columnist for The American Prospect Online. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement