Taner Edis

Bashing the Science-Bashers

Review of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1994. 328 pp. Hardcover, $24.95.

by Taner Edis and Amy Sue Bix

Sociologists describing science as merely culturally constructed, with no more explanatory power than any myth. Postmodernists deconstructing the texts of science and revealing their illegitimate bases. Feminist critics of science exposing it as patriarchally corrupt to the core. Environmentalists denouncing science as destruction, plus AIDS activists, animal rights advocates, Afrocentrists. . . Gross and Levitt perceive a high degree of anti-scientific thought having taken root in large sectors of academia outside of science and engineering, and contend that these attitudes are intellectually baseless, yet pervasive and ultimately pernicious.

Many scientists and skeptics have become increasingly aware of negative views of science percolating through the wider intellectual culture: where a cognitive relativism predominates which makes Atlantis as well supported as Rome, and the knowledge products of science are tainted by the misuse of its applications and the injustices of the social order it serves. Examination too often reveals that the critics are only superficially acquainted with science, and that they regularly resort to incoherent logic—points that Gross and Levitt emphasize.

While Higher Superstition is a welcome contribution presenting a positive view of science, it is significant for its failings as well as for the many instances in which its defense of science is entirely on the mark. It may seem an unsympathetic review that dwells on the shortcomings rather than the strengths of its thesis, but this book exemplifies certain excesses to which cultural defenders of science are given. Smoothing these out is essential in order to maintain a debate that amounts to more than a clash of incompatible attitudes.

Specific flaws of the book range from the relatively minor (endorsement of vacuous pseudo-deterministic quantum interpretation in an extensive footnote) to the more serious (repeating an out-of-context attack on philosopher Sandra Harding’s provocative “[Newton’s] rape manual” comment, which obscures some more valid criticisms contained about her feminist analyses of science). The overall problem, however, is one of emphasizing the sensational. Gross and Levitt present a rogues’ gallery of inadequate thinkers who are parading assertions that are either patently ridiculous or mere political posturing. The result is that they have to resort to tendentious cultural or psychological accounts in explaining why such figures are taken seriously, even lionized. There is a certain satisfaction in turning handwaving cultural “analysis” against itself, but such an exercise does not lead to understanding. Alongside the more ludicrous attacks, there are more worthy challenges to science that are deserving of attention. Though more comprehensive anti-science claims will not pass muster, advocates of science should be able to learn something from engaging in constructive dialogue with the more reasonable critics, while correcting some of their misconceptions in turn.

The chapters on cultural constructivism and the haphazard collection of attitudes called postmodernism are illuminating enough, for the reader encountering these ideas for the first time. However, Gross and Levitt do not offer a detailed analysis, and do not include any references to the incisive critiques of cognitive relativism in social science by Ernest Gellner, or deconstruction by John Ellis, to name just two. While the authors make an adequate case that the high status of the Derrida and Foucault crowd is shameful, stopping there makes the argument all too facile. Readers would have been better served with more than just a hint about some more interesting (and ambivalent about science) philosophical positions on the postmodern periphery, such as those resulting from Richard Rorty’s influence. The authors would also have done well to briefly describe recent work in the history of science and technology that probes the complex interaction between science and society without becoming mired in the conceptual poverty of an extreme cultural constructivism. Deploring postmodern brain-death has its uses, but a book of this sort should attempt to provide a broader perspective as well.

With “scientific” assertions of female inferiority replacing mythical ones, feminist concern about science is understandable. However, as Gross and Levitt’s chapter “Auspicating Gender” notes, feminist criticism of science can get entangled in an analysis of metaphors and in clashing, ill-defined notions of “feminist science.” Attempts to radically reconstitute science from a feminist standpoint can indeed lead to wretched philosophical excess. However, Gross and Levitt focus on misguided epistemological projects, and ignore more substantial claims such as those relating to historically pervasive gender (and racial) bias in certain areas of biology, and how these flaws produced a pattern of bad science (by usual standards). Some feminist thought raises the worthwhile question: what does it mean if it took forces external to science, specifically, political movements like feminism, to force the recognition of unsatisfactory practice? These are real issues, but Gross and Levitt dismiss them out of hand, preferring to caricaturize critiques like Anne Fausto-Sterling’s, and to ignore important historical considerations. The science-feminism relationship is more complicated than presented in this book, involving questions resolvable by real empirical and historical work, not just polemic on either side. Contrary to Gross and Levitt’s position that the influence of feminism on science has been negligible, occasions like the recent conference on “Evolutionary Biology and Feminism” at the University of Georgia demonstrate that such fruitful approaches exist.

In discussing radical environmentalism, the authors point out how the scientific uncertainties in issues such as global warming get ignored in the political process. The complexity of real environmental science makes its use in support of simplistic moral positions problematic. In this chapter, Gross and Levitt adopt a more charitable approach, acknowledging something of the ambiguities and range of serious opinions involved, while quite correctly targeting bizarre environmental claims from those like Jeremy Rifkin. Yet it is dismaying to discover in a footnote a favorable reference to Dixie Lee Ray, known for her hysterical (to use the kind of label Gross and Levitt favor) anti-environmentalist pseudoscience.

With “The Schools of Indictment,” the book moves on to the sorrier aspects of AIDS activism (including conspiracy theories featuring scientists or Jewish doctors), animal rights and Afrocentrism. Some of the nonsensical rhetoric generated about AIDS is infuriating in the face of real tragedy—inhabiting a postmodern world of pure verbiage becomes truly perverse in this case. However, Gross and Levitt do not show that this postmodern weirdness was all that significant in relation to AIDS; it appears to be more of an academic side show. Neither is it clear that some activists’ attitudes towards conventional medical practices grew out of an overall anti-science posture, rather than a tendency to explore any alternative, however misguided, in a terrible situation. The pages on Afrocentrism closely depend on the work of Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, and present a strong case that advocates of honesty in science and history should be concerned about the popularity of unfounded assertions about Egyptian history and African paranormal powers. Still, this appears to be primarily a case of classic pseudoscience, with a veneer of cultural criticism of science that links it to the theme of the book.

Gross and Levitt conclude with some intriguing speculation about
the roots of strange science criticism, and proposals for remedies. However, these are flawed by the authors’ animosity towards the humanities. Faculty are more ideologically diverse than portrayed; furthermore, moderate institutional criticisms of science have been both more common and more successful than the radical ones on which the book focuses. Such work has aimed to open up the practice of science and to address the social complications of scientific advance. Even many of the more radical critics, mistaken though they may be, are not driven by an anti-science grudge, but a democratic view of the social possibilities of science. Most importantly, nonscientists too are capable of distinguishing popular rhetoric from scholarship. While the authors berate others for their ignorance of natural science (not acknowledging the substantial scientific backgrounds of many within disciplines such as the history of science), they in turn underestimate the expertise necessary for scholarship in other fields. Particularly where complex issues of science and society are concerned, scientific expertise alone does not provide the requisite perspective and breadth of knowledge. The uneven track record of scientific institutions in confronting their failings (e.g. the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and the Dalkon Shield, to name just two medical examples) indicates that scientists might be too hasty if they follow Gross and Levitt in attacking other fields.

Gross and Levitt consistently adopt a uncharitable approach, and their statements to the contrary ring false. Scientists and skeptics have good reason to be concerned about hostile perceptions of science, but indiscriminate attacks on criticism based on the worst examples available may well backfire. In defending science as a cultural entity, as well as an instrument for producing (usually) reliable knowledge, we are better off not drawing battle lines between black and white and adopting a crusade mentality. Among all the nonsense, if not as visible, there is much that is valuable in current analyses of science—ignoring this leaves defenders of science open to the charge that they are propagating their own brand of mythology about science. Scientists and skeptics should be productively engaged in these debates about science and society, where there is a real opportunity to contribute to the resolution of some tough questions. Claims about the impossibility of knowledge, or the evils of science, are extravagant, and Higher Superstition succeeds against these extremes. However, this should not obscure our need for critical thought about science as a social activity.

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