The Long View: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science

The kind of thing that John Reilly laments in this book review is alive and well. If you want a taste of it, check out New Real Peer Review on Twitter, which simply reprints abstracts of actual, peer-reviewed articles. A favorite genre is the autoethnography. Go look for yourself, no summary can do it justice.

I will disagree with John about one thing: race and sex matter a lot for many medical treatments. For example, the drug marketed under the trade name Ambien, generically called zolpidem, has much worse side effects in women than in men, and it takes women longer to metabolize it.

This effect was memorably referred to as Ambien Walrus. I find this pretty funny, but I delight in the sufferings of others.

You can't ignore this stuff if you want to do medicine right. The reasons for doing so vary, but you'll get a better result if you don't.

Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science
by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994
314 pp, $25.95
ISBN 0-8018-4766-4


The Enemies You Deserve


If you are looking for an expose' of how political correctness in recent years has undermined medical research, corrupted the teaching of mathematics and generally blackened the name of science in America, this book will give you all the horror stories you might possibly want. There have been rather a lot of indictments of the academic left, of course, but this is one of the better ones. However, the book is most interesting for reasons other than those its co-authors intended. To use the same degree of bluntness that they use against the "science studies" being carried on by today's literary critics, what we have here is an expression of bewilderment by a pair of secular fundamentalists who find themselves faced with an intellectual crisis for which their philosophy provides no solution.

Paul Gross is a biologist, now at the University of Virginia but formerly director of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. They repeatedly insist, no doubt truthfully, that they have no particular interest in politics and that they are not programmatic conservatives. What does worry them is the increasing number of faculty colleagues in the liberal arts who take it as an article of faith that the results of empirical scientific research are biased in favor of patriarchy or capitalism or white people. The people who have this sort of opinion they call "the academic left," a catchall category that includes deconstructionists, feminists, multiculturalists and radical environmentalists.

The authors have a good ear for invective, such as this happy formula: "...academic left refers to a stratum of the residual intelligentsia surviving the recession of its demotic base." There has always been something rather futile about the radicalization of the academy, and in some ways the movement is already in retreat. The ideas of the academic left are based in large part on Marxist notions that were originally designed for purposes of revolutionary agitation. Revolutionary socialist politics has not proven to have the popular appeal one might have hoped, however. Marxism has therefore been largely replaced among intellectuals by that protean phenomenon, postmodernism. Although postmodernism incorporates large helpings of Freudianism and the more credulous kind of cultural anthropology, it remains a fundamentally "left" phenomenon, in the sense of maintaining an implacable hostility to market economics and traditional social structures. However, postmodernists have perforce lowered their goal from storming the Winter Palace to inculcating the "hermeneutics of suspicion" in undergraduates. The results of these efforts were sufficiently annoying to incite Gross and Levitt to write this book.

Postmodernists presume that reality is inaccessible, or at least incommunicable, because of the inherent unreliability of language. Science to postmodernists is only one of any number of possible "discourses," no one of which is fundamentally truer than any other. This is because there are no foundations to thought, which is everywhere radically determined by the interests and history of the thinker. Those who claim to establish truth by experiment are either lying or self-deluded. The slogan "scientific truth is a matter of social authority" has become dogma to many academic interest groups, who have been exerting themselves to substitute their authority for that of the practicing scientists.

The French philosophical school known as deconstructionism provided the first taste of postmodern skepticism in the American academy during the 1970s. It still provides much of its vocabulary. However, self-described deconstructionists are getting rare. Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger, two of the school's progenitors, were shown in recent years to have been fascists without qualification at certain points in their careers, thus tainting the whole school. On the other hand, while deconstruction has perhaps seen better days, feminism is as strong as ever. Thus, undergraduates in women's studies courses are routinely introduced to the notion that, for instance, Newton's "Principia" is a rape manual. Even odder is the movement to create a feminist mathematics. The authors discuss at length an article along these lines entitled "Towards a Feminist Algebra." The authors of that piece don't seem much concerned with algebra per se; what exercises them is the use of sexist word problems in algebra texts, particularly those that seem to promote heterosexuality. The single greatest practical damage done by feminists so far, however, is in medical research, where human test groups for new treatments must now often be "inclusive" of men and women (and also for certain racial minorities). To get statistically significant results for a test group, you can't just mirror the population in the sample, you have to have a sample above a mathematically determined size for each group that interests you. In reality, experience has shown that race and gender rarely make a difference in tests of new medical treatments, but politically correct regulations threaten to increase the size of medical studies by a factor of five or ten.

Environmentalism has become a species of apocalyptic for people on the academic left. It is not really clear what environmentalism is doing in the postmodern stew at all, since environmentalists tend to look on nature as the source of the kind of fundamental values which postmodernism says do not exist. The answer, perhaps, is that the vision of ecological catastrophe provides a way for the mighty to be cast down from their thrones in a historical situation where social revolution appears to be vastly improbable. Environmentalists seem to be actually disappointed if some preliminary research results suggesting an environmental danger turn out to be wrong. This happens often enough, notably in cancer research, where suspected carcinogens routinely turn out to be innocuous. However, on the environmental circuit, good news is unreportable. The current world is damned, the environmentalists claim, and nothing but the overthrow of capitalism, or patriarchy, or humanism (meaning in this case the invidious bias in favor of humans over other animals) can bring relief. Only catastrophe can bring about this overthrow, and environmentalists who are not scientists look for it eagerly.

The basic notion behind the postmodern treatment of science is social constructivism, the notion that our knowledge of the world is just as much a social product as our music or our myths, and is similarly open to criticism. The authors have no problem with the fact that cultural conditions can affect what kind of questions scientists will seek to address or what kind of explanation will seem plausible to a researcher. What they object to is the "strong form" of social constructivism, which holds that our knowledge is simply a representation of nature. The "truth" of this representation cannot be ascertained by reference to the natural world, since any experimental result will also be a representation. Constructivists therefore say that we can understand the elements of a scientific theory only by reference to the social condition and personal histories of the scientists involved. This, as the authors correctly note, is batty.

The lengths to which the principle of constructivism has been extended are nearly unbelievable. Take AIDS, for instance, which has itself almost become a postmodernist subspecialty. The tone in the postmodernist literature dealing with the disease echoes the dictum of AIDS activist Larry Kramer: "...I think a good case can also be made that the AIDS pandemic is the fault of the heterosexual white majority." Some people, particularly in black studies departments, take "constructed" quite literally, in the sense that the AIDS virus was created in a laboratory as an instrument of genocide. Kramer's notion is more modest: he suggests that the extreme homosexual promiscuity which did so much to spread the disease in the New York and San Francisco of the late 1960s and early 1970s was forced upon the gay community by its ghettoization. This is an odd argument, but not so odd as the assumption that you can talk about the origins of an epidemic without discussing the infectious agent that causes it. The upshot is that AIDS is considered to be a product of "semiological discourse," a system of social conventions. It can be defeated, not through standard medical research, but through the creation of a new language, one that does not stigmatize certain groups and behaviors. (Dr. Peter Duesberg's purely behavioral explanation of AIDS, though it has the attractions of scientific heresy, gets only a cautious reception because of its implied criticism of homosexual sex.) The postmodern academy actually seems to have a certain investment in a cure for AIDS not being found, since the apparent helplessness of science in this area is taken as a license to give equal authority to "other ways of knowing" and other ways of healing, particularly of the New Age variety.

The postmodernist critics of science usually ply their trade by studiously ignoring what scientists themselves actually think about. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, for instance, has made a name for himself by subjecting scientists to the kind of observation usually reserved for members of primitive tribes. Once he was commissioned by the French government to do a post-mortem on their Aramis project. This was to be a radically new, computerized subway system in which small trams would travel on a vastly complicated track-and-switch system along routes improvised for the passengers of each car. The idea was that passengers would type their proposed destination into a computer terminal when they entered a subway station. They would then be assigned a car with other people going to compatible destinations. The project turned into a ten year boondoggle and was eventually cancelled. The French government hired Latour to find out what went wrong. Now, the basic conceptual problem with the system is obvious: the French engineers had to come up with a way to handle the "traveling salesman" problem, the classic problem of finding the shortest way to connect a set of points. This seemingly simple question has no neat solution, and the search for approximate answers keeps the designers of telephone switching systems and railroad traffic managers awake nights. Latour did not even mention it. He did, however, do a subtle semiological analysis of the aesthetic design of the tram cars.

Postmodernists regard themselves as omniscient and omnicompetent, fully qualified to put any intellectual discipline in the world in its place. They have this confidence because of the mistaken belief that science has refuted itself, thus leaving the field clear for other ways of understanding the world. They love chaos theory, for instance, having absorbed the hazy notion that it makes the universe unpredictable. Chaos theory in fact is simply a partial solution to the problem of describing turbulence. Indeed, chaos theory is something of a victory for mathematical platonism, since it shows that some very exotic mathematical objects have great descriptive power. The implications of chaos theory are rather the opposite of chaos in the popular sense, but this idea shows little sign of penetrating the nation's literature departments. The same goes for features of quantum mechanics, notably the uncertainty principle. Quantum mechanics actually makes the world a far more manageable place. Among other things, it is the basis of electronics. To read the postmodernists, however, you would think that it makes physicists flutter about their laboratories in an agony of ontological confusion because quantum theory phrases the answers to some questions probabilistically.

On a more esoteric level, we have the strange cult of Kurt Goedel's incompleteness theorem, first propounded in the 1930s. Now Goedel's Theorem is one of the great treasures of 20th century mathematics. There are several ways to put it, one of which is that logical systems beyond a certain level of complexity can generate correctly expressed statements whose truth value cannot be determined. Some versions of the "Liar Paradox" illustrate this quality of undecidability. It is easy to get the point slightly wrong. (Even the authors' statement of it is a tad misleading. According to them, the theorem "says that no finite system of axioms can completely characterize even a seemingly 'natural' mathematical object..." It should be made clear that some logical systems, notably Euclid's geometry, are quite complete, so that every properly expressed Euclidean theorem is either true or false.) Simply false, however, is the postmodernist conviction that Goedel's Theorem proved that all language is fundamentally self-contradictory and inconsistent. Postmodernists find the idea attractive, however, because they believe that it frees them from the chains of logic, and undermines the claims of scientists to have reached conclusions dictated by logic.

Postmodernism, say the authors, is the deliberate negation of the Enlightenment project, which they hold to be the construction of a sound body of knowledge about the world. The academic left generally believes that the reality of the Enlightenment has been the construction of a thought-world designed to oppress women and people of color in the interests of white patriarchal capitalism. Or possibly capitalist patriarchy. Anyhow, fashion has it that the Enlightenment was a bad idea. Now that modernity is about to end, say the postmodernists, the idea is being refuted on every hand. Actually, it seems to many people of various ideological persuasions that the end of modernity is indeed probably not too far off: no era lasts forever, after all. However, it is also reasonably clear that postmodernism is not on the far side of the modern era. Postmodernism is simply late modernity. Whatever follows modernity is very unlikely to have much to do with the sentiments of today's academic left.

Granted that the radical academy does not have much of a future, still the authors cannot find a really satisfying explanation for why the natural sciences have been subject to special reprobation and outrage in recent years. In the charmingly titled penultimate chapter, "Why Do the People Imagine a Vain Thing?", they run through the obvious explanations. It does not take much imagination to see that today's academic leftist is often a refugee from the 1960s. Political correctness is in large part the whimsical antinomianism of the Counterculture translated into humorourless middle age. Then, of course, there is the revenge factor. In the heyday of Logical Positivism from the end of World War II to the middle 1960s, physical scientists tended to look down on the liberal arts. In the eyes of that austere philosophy, any statement which was not based either on observation or induction was literally "nonsense," a category that therefore covered every non-science department from theology to accounting. The patronizing attitude of scientists was not made more bearable by the unquestioning generosity of the subsidies provided by government to science in those years. The resentment caused by this state of affairs still rankled when the current crop of academic leftists were graduates and undergraduates. Now they see the chance to cut science down to size.

While there is something to this assessment, the fact is that the academic left has a point. Logical Positivism and postmodernism are both essentially forms of linguistic skepticism. Both alike are products of the rejection of metaphysics, the key theme in Western philosophy since Kant. The hope of the logical positivist philosophers of the 1920s and 30s was to save just enough of the machinery of abstract thought so that scientists could work. Science is not skeptical in the sense that Nietzsche was skeptical, or the later Sophists. It takes quite a lot of faith in the world and the power of the mind to do science. And in fact, the authors note that Logical Positivism, with a little help from the philosophy of Karl Popper, remains the philosophical framework of working scientists to this day. The problem, however, is that Logical Positivism leaves science as a little bubble of coherence in a sea of "nonsense," of thoughts and ideas that cannot be directly related to measurable physical events.

Logical Positivism has many inherent problems as a philosophy (the chief of which being that its propositions cannot themselves be derived from sense experience), but one ability that even its strongest adherents cannot claim for it is the capacity to answer a consistent skepticism. In their defense of science, the authors are reduced to pounding the table (or, after the fashion of Dr. Johnson's refutation of Berkeley's Idealist philosophy, kicking the stone.) Thus, it is a "brutal" fact that science makes reliable predictions about physical events, that antibiotics cure infections while New Age crystals will not, that the advisability of nuclear power is a question of engineering and not of moral rectitude. Well, sure. But why? "Because" is not an answer. Without some way to relate the reliability of science to the rest of reality, the scientific community will be living in an acid bath skepticism and superstition.

The authors tell us that the scientific methodology of the 17th century "almost unwittingly set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries...[that] Newton or Leibnitz affirm some version of this divine almost beside the point...Open-endedness is the vital principle at stake here...Unless we are unlucky, this will always be the case." In reality, of course, it surpasses the wit of any thinker to set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries, or even entirely of his own generation. The scientists of the early Enlightenment did indeed scrap a great deal of Aristotle's physics. Metaphysically, however, they were fundamentally conservative: they settled on one strand of the philosophical heritage of the West and resisted discussing the matter further.

As Alfred Whitehead realized early in this century, science is based on a stripped-down version of scholasticism, the kind that says (a) truth can be reached using reason but (b) only through reasoning about experience provided by the senses. This should not be surprising. Cultures have their insistences. Analogous ideas keep popping up in different forms throughout a civilization's history. When the Senate debates funding for parochial schools, it is carrying on the traditional conflict between church and state that has run through Western history since the Investiture Controversy in medieval Germany. In the same way, certain assumptions about the knowability and rationality of the world run right through Western history. The Enlightenment was not unique in remembering these things. Its uniqueness lay in what it was willing to forget.

It would be folly to dismiss so great a pulse of human history as the Enlightenment with a single characterization, either for good or ill. Everything good and everything bad that we know about either appeared in that wave or was transformed by it. Its force is not yet wholly spent. However, one important thing about the Enlightenment is that it has always been a movement of critique. It is an opposition to the powers that be, whether the crown, or the ancient intellectual authorities, or God. The authors of "Higher Superstition" tell us that the academic left hopes to overthrow the Enlightenment, while the authors cast themselves as the Enlightenment's defenders. The authors are correct in seeing the academic left as silly people, who do not know what they are about. The authors are mistaken too, however. The fact is that the academic left are as truly the children of the Enlightenment as ever the scientists are. Science was once an indispensable ally in the leveling of ancient hierarchies of thought and society, but today it presents itself to postmodern academics simply as the only target left standing. Is it any wonder that these heirs of the Enlightenment should hope to bring down the last Bastille?

This article originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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