About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Could it be? Science critics calls for a truce

Sometimes you open Nature magazine and are surprised by the latest discovery in quantum mechanics or molecular biology. Browsing through the March 5, 2009 issue I was stunned by an article penned by sociologist Harry Collins, entitled “We cannot live by scepticism alone.” (The Brits call it “scepticism,” not “skepticism.”) In it, Collins criticized the extreme fringe of a field called “science studies” which has “unfortunately led some ... to conclude that science is just a form of faith or politics. They have become overly cynical of science.”

The reason this is surprising is because Collins himself is a prominent member of that “wave” of “post-modernism” that has made itself ridiculous by arguing that, say, evolution and creationism are both “cultural traditions.” While Collins himself did not write about the evolution-creation wars, as far as I know, he is infamous for having been on record saying that “the natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge,” a phrase that would certainly surprise the astronomers who accepted the Copernican system, or the physicists who empirically tested Einstein’s ideas at the beginning of the 20th century.

Collins, it must be admitted, has never been one of the worst offenders in the post-modernist movement. I actually enjoyed reading his book, The Golem: What You Should Know About Science, a cautionary tale about how sociological and psychological factors do play an undeniable role in the scientific enterprise, and how, for instance, there is no such thing as a “crucial experiment” in science. Rather, the process of scientific verification is much more messy and imprecise (but often successful) than most scientists would like to admit, or that one would gather from reading the sanitized versions found in textbooks and even scholarly papers.

No, the worst offenders in the post-modernist group are people like, for instance, Bruno LaTour, the French sociologist who wrote a critique of Einstein’s theory of relativity based on a comical misunderstanding of a book Einstein wrote for the general public, and in particular of the metaphor of two observers and their reference frame that Einstein uses to make the point that there is no privileged (in the sense of universally fixed, as in the Newtonian system) system of coordinates in physics. Here is LaTour psychoanalyzing the famous physicist: “[Einstein’s] obsession with transporting information through transformation without deformation; his passion for the precise superimposition of readings; his panic at the idea that observers sent away might betray, might retain privileges, and send reports that could not be used to expand our knowledge; his desire to discipline the delegated observers and to turn them into dependent pieces of apparatus that do nothing but watch the coincidence of hands and notches.” If you get the impression that this is nonsense on stilts, that’s because it is.

Collins, however, redeems himself to a large degree with the Nature article, which strikes a much more balanced and especially constructive, tone. He writes that he wonders “if science warriors [his term for scientists who took on post-modernists] have been right to be worried about the (unintended) consequences of what social constructivists [another term for post-modernists, in this context, though there are subtle differences] were doing.” Except, of course, that those consequences — i.e., a diminution of the status of science in society — were not at all unintended. Here is philosopher Paul Feyerabend, one of the precursors and inspirations of the post-modernist/deconstructionist movement, at his best (or worst, depending on your taste):

According to Feyerabend, Galileo prevailed “because of his style and his clever techniques of persuasion, because he writes in Italian rather than in Latin, and because he appeals to people who are temperamentally opposed to the old ideas and the standards of learning connected with them.” An idiotic statement that sounds very much like Collins’ own quoted above about the irrelevance of data to the scientific enterprise.

Or how about this: “About a year ago I was short of funds. So I accepted an invitation to contribute to a book dealing with the relation between science and religion. To make the book sell I thought I should make my contribution a provocative one and the most provocative statement one can make about the relation between science and religion is that science is a religion. Having made that statement the core of my article, I discovered that lots of reasons, lots of excellent reasons, could be found for it. I enumerated the reasons, finished my article, and got paid.” Cynical, but at least he was honest about his priorities.

And there is more: “Consider the role science now plays in education. Scientific 'facts' are taught at a very early stage and in the very same manner as religious 'facts' were taught only a century ago. ... In society at large the judgment of the scientist is received with the same reverence as the judgments of bishops and cardinals were accepted not too long ago. ... The situation is not as hopeless as it was only a decade ago. ... We have learned that there are phenomena such as telepathy and telekinesis which are obliterated by a scientific approach and which could be used to do research in an entirely novel way. ... And then – is it not the case that the Church saved souls while science often does the very opposite? ... Three cheers to the fundamentalists in California who succeeded in having a dogmatic formulation of the theory of evolution removed from the textbooks and an account of Genesis included.” [That fundamentalist success was short-lived, fortunately.]

That is why “science warriors” (i.e., scientists) got worried about post-modernism. And Collins, in the Nature essay, admits to such excesses, stating that “post-modernists have become comfortable in their cocoon of cynicism” and that “the prospect of a society that entirely rejects the values of science is too awful to contemplate.” I guess eight years of a Republican war on science have taught a lesson even to post-modernist sociologists. Better late than never.

But Collins is right that scientists are at fault as well: “Whenever a scientist, acting in the name of science, cheats, cynically manipulates, claims to speak with the voice of capitalism, the voice of god, or even the voice of a doctrinaire atheist [notice the punch to Dawkins], it diminishes not only science but the whole of our society.” And that is exactly correct. That is why, contrary to many of my colleagues, I see much value in an intercourse between science, philosophy and science criticism — the latter being the salvageable part of the post-modernist program. Collins is absolutely correct that scientists “must think of themselves as moral leaders ... they must teach fallibility, not absolute truth ... Science can provide us with a set of values for how to run our social and political lives. But it can do it only if we accept that assessing scientific findings is a far more difficult task than was once believed, and that those findings do not lead straight to political conclusions.”

Indeed, a brighter future lies in the possibility of a cross-disciplinary cooperation among scientists and their critics in the humanities. Think of it as a balance of powers, where the activities and findings of science itself are subject to serious scrutiny, not in terms of the actual methods and findings, but in terms of the psychological, social, and political factors that may have entered into shaping research priorities and their presentation to the public. At the same time, humanists will need to respect science as the most powerful enterprise capable of yielding knowledge about the world as it really is, and therefore — as Francis Bacon would have put it — the power to change that reality to the benefit of humanity. Now, there is a compromise between the two cultures I can heartily embrace.


  1. As much as I hate Feyerabend, I must say that he was right about Galileo, but not by the reasons he thought.

    He prevailed because of his rhetoric and style, but only because the "rules" back then where different.

    Aristotle mechanics and cosmology were protected from "scientific evidence" by the church, which was free to burn those who point out the anomalies in the paradigm.

    While it was easy to convince people that actually wanted to solve problems that the tool was more useful, the other barriers weren't so easy to jump, so a little of charm was needed.
    But the time of Galileo was an abnormal time for science, for the “free market of ideas” wasn't free at all. The “protectionism” in those times was so strong that an already obsolete paradigm in the Greeks days was able to survive for another thousand years. Feyarabend mistake ( and I think even Kuhns) was to think that science is like that all the time.

    By the way, even Latour is giving up , mostly thanks to global warming. He said in 2004: "dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant?"

    Maybe its time for the science wars to come to an end after all...

  2. Ansu, do you have a reference I can look up for the Latour quote?

  3. Massimo has heard from me about this before, but Feyerabend is a particularly weird case -- for one thing, he *wasn't* a "social constructivist" nor a "post-modernist." He was certainly wrong about a lot of things, and said some incredibly stupid things (the quote about creationism is one of those -- though the next line, which is something like "though I have no doubt that they (creationists) would be just as dogmatic and close-minded if given the chance" points towards what he was trying to do -- still, it was an incredibly stupid thing to write). But for all that, he was a realist, and believed that much of what science taught us was in fact correct -- the truth, corresponding to reality as it really was.

    What he argued for -- and what makes him so weird -- was that there is no such thing as the "scientific method" and that individual scientists as well as scientific traditions basically stumble upon reality in all kinds of crazy ways and only later are able to do something like a rational reconstruction of how that part of reality was discovered and proven.

    So his concern with the way that science was being taught was not that he thought that science was all a social construction and that everything was as good as anything else, but rather his concern was that by become more ordered, more formalized, more "rational," science was becoming *less* likely to make the kinds of discoveries that move forward our understanding of the way the world actually works; further, he suggested that by pretending that there *was* a method that did just that, it was inhibiting the very freedom that made real progress possible.

    Now, he was, considering all the evidence, *wrong* about those claims. The progress of science has not been slowed by the increasing orderliness of some scientific domains, nor has science proven to be as monolithic an enterprise as he thought it was becoming. But that doesn't change the fact that he did *not* believe that any bit of claimed knowledge was equally constructed -- he thought there were facts, facts that corresponded to reality, and that part of what made us able to succeed was getting those facts right.

    The Golem as you note is an interesting book -- some have read it as social contructivist in intent, but I can't find anything in the book to suggest that that reading is to be preferred. Rather, it seems to me, as Massimo noted, a series of cautionary tales about how experiments are conducted, interpreted, and used to support particular views "in real time" and only later come to be seen as "decisive." Pasteur was right, Pouchet was wrong, but, if Collins and Pinch have their history right, there wasn't anything in their experiments that really showed this -- and we simply got *lucky* that Pasteur won the day.

    BTW: the Collins quote is in fact out of context -- what the surrounding text makes clear is that Collins is writing not about the progress of science, but about the best methodological approach to understanding the history of science. You might disagree with this approach -- there are good reasons to! -- but it isn't the same as saying that the natural world doesn't constrain science. Rather, it suggests that our account of the acquisition & spread of beliefs should not depend upon the truth of those beliefs. False beliefs and true beliefs need to be explained using the same *kinds* of accounts... So Collins recommends, as a methodological tool, a kind of radical skepticism -- *pretend* that we've no idea what the world is like, and *then* try to explain why particular historical episodes in science came out they way they did. Unfortunately, he gets carried away in his rhetoric, and sometimes sounds like he is just being crazy. Sloppiness sucks.

    One last point -- to blame the social constructivists for the Bush admin. abuse of science is probably unfair. The anti-intellectualism of the Bush admin. was *not* the same as the scepticism of the post-modernists or the social constructivists. That anti-intellectualism grew out of a very different world-view, and didn't appeal to same kinds of claims. It is cynical -- not skeptical -- and simply unconcerned about truth, intellectual honesty, or rational discourse. Rather, it appeals to "faith" "gut feelings" and personal self-interest dressed up as emotional connection. Had the post-modernists never written about science, had the so-called 'strong' school of the sociology of knowledge never been formed, I very much doubt it would have change *anything* about the way that the Bush administration misused science.

    OK, that's enough for now!

  4. Jonathan,

    thanks for your thoughtful post, as usual. Well, you may have noticed that I was careful enough to state that Feyerabend was not a postmodernist, but I think it is reasonable to say that he provided much inspiration to that ilk (so did Kuhn, for different reasons, and much less culpably).

    As for the Bush administration, your distinction between philosophical skepticism and political cynicism is well taken, but I've even heard creationists (as you know, a large part of the political base of Bush & co.) refer to postmodernism in their arguments. Interestingly, they use it in two contradictory ways: on the one hand to "show" that science is just another social activity; on the other hand to warn against the mortal dangers of moral relativism...

  5. Jonathan,

    hmm, I went back to Collins' phrase in the original 1981 article. I disagree with your analysis. Here is the full quotation:

    "Many contributors to this new model intend only to make philosophy of science compatible with history while maintaining an epistemological demarcation between science and other intellectual enterprises. One school, however, inspired in particular by Wit-
    tgenstein and more lately by the phenomenologists and ethno-methodologists, embraces an explicit relativism in which the natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge."

    And he goes on to say that the special issue of which his article is the introduction takes the relativist perspective because of its "substantive" contributions...

  6. Thanks for a really excellent and well-balanced post. As a materialist and a skeptic who works in the humanities, I always feel like I'm caught in the middle of a pointless and ridiculous battle.

    There's a lot that can be learned from social construction, especially with concepts like race theory. So, I find it sad that the term has become one of derision in a lot of scientific circles. Like you, I think that postmodern scholars with extreme and provocative positions bear a lot of the blame, but I also think that many skeptics have been too ready and willing to paint all postmodern thinkers with the same brush, and even dismiss the -post-linguistic-turn humanities as a whole.

    I think it's important to note the differing functions of disciplines like Philosophy and Lit Crit as opposed to sciences (of all stripes). I think philosophers can get away with (and even advance general knowledge through) some fairly extreme takes on subjects like epistemology. I do believe that there are certain disciplines that serve a purpose merely by provoking. Not every field can or should use the scientific method.

    I'm a historian, and I think my field should fall on the empiricist side of things. But, I think historical knowledge and practice has benefited in the past from postmodernist ideas like "social construction."

    As for the anti-intellectual use of postmodern science (ie, in the Bush Admin), it's pretty cynical and opportunistic. Obviously, they were only moral relativists when it was convenient. I don't know if scholars should be held responsible for the misappropriation of challenging and interesting ideas.

    I guess my point is, yes postmodernism can go to extremes, but I don't think science should throw out the baby with the postmodern bathwater.

  7. Massimo,

    its difficult to respond to such a long polemic, but I will try to touch the important issues. The mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg, in a series of brilliant articles, shamed the ill-conceived and venomous attack on post-modernism on the part of Weinberg, Nagel, Sokal, others. He not only pointed out the ridiculous arguments and shallow misunderstanding of these authors, he challenged even their very understanding of some aspects of mathematics, the system of knowledge that underwrites their professional work.

    In closing, Stolzenberg makes a wonderful point: postmodernists (and I am not one), at their most radical, challenge one of the "long-established institutions" (that's from your blog description) of power (modern establishment science). Stolzenberg writes:

    How to Read a Book (1940: 14), [...] the author, Mortimer Adler, writes, "When [men and women] are in love and are reading a love letter, they read for all they are worth. They read every word three ways; they read between the lines and in the margins; they grow sensitive to context and ambiguity...Then, if never before or after, they read."

    I fully endorse Stolzenberg's recommendation on how to read postmodernism. Why? Because contrary to the hysteria of Sokal and Co, and as Stanley Fish correctly pointed out at the time, a few sociologists and literary theorists in a small number of universities cannot and do not threaten all knowledge, truth, or all those other things that Weinberg, Gross, et al are so comically crusading for.

    The same holds for Feyerabend, who is mostly correct in his claims (for e.g: the sections you quote on how science is taught in schools), and intentionally polemical, to counter the scientism and worship during his time, and dishes it out equally to both sides (he called Derrida an "obscurantist").

  8. Ravi,

    I'm afraid we need to agree to disagree. How much political influence postmodernists have had or will have remains to be seen, but it is hard for me to find anything redeeming in most of their writings.

    I find Stanley to be falsely modest and disingenuous in his writings.

    Mathematics, by the way, is arguably *not* the foundation of all science, but simply a good tool that works well in some cases and much less so in others.

    As for Feyerabend, I know he was a complex figure, but when he cheers for the creationists he loses whatever credibility he may have had as a serious intellectual.

  9. Massimo, let's agree to disagree then (w.r.t Fish, I suspect you may be right about his personality, but I think he was right in questioning the exaggerating fears of pomo critics)! As for PKF, he would much rather be thought of as an unserious intellectual, I suspect!


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