[Paleopsych] The American Prospect: The Right Fight

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The Right Fight

    It took the Bush administration to bring a truce between the
    postmodern left and the scientific community.

    By [2]Chris Mooney
    Web Exclusive: 08.15.05

    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 [5]article
    to the left-wing academic journal Social Text that basically amounted
    to gibberish. It essentially argued that physical reality does not

      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
    [6]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
    [7]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

    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

    Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for [8]Seed Magazine and
    a columnist for The American Prospect Online. His first book, [9]The
    Republican War on Science, will be published in September. His daily
    blog and other writings can be found at [10]www.chriscmooney.com.


    2. http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?name=View+Author&section=root&id=174
    3. http://www.prospect.org/web/printfriendly-view.ww?id=10140
    4. http://www.prospect.org/web/start-email.ww?id=10140
    8. http://www.seedmediagroup.com/
   10. http://chriscmooney.com/

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