The intellectual Luddites are at it again. Anyone who has followed the orgy of fatuousness that has swept through American colleges and universities since the 1960s knows that this corrosive frivolity has lately expanded beyond the humanities and social sciences to attack mathematics and the natural sciences as well. The multiculturalists, post-structuralists, eco-feminists, Afrocentrists, and New Historicists—not to mention many old-time Marxists and up-to-date connoisseurs of "Queer Theory"—have established a new front in their assault on rationality and tradition. No longer are they content to deconstruct Henry James and castigate the Western humanistic legacy as a white, patriarchal, imperialist conspiracy designed to corroborate class privilege and "compulsory hetrosexuality." Their befuddling glare now seeks also to challenge the essential cogency of scientific method and mathematical reasoning. Hence the plethora of disquisitions by celebrated academics on "feminist algebra," the ways in which Newton's Principia is really a "rape manual," and the happy thought that early African writings "indicate a possible understanding of quantum physics and gravitational theory."
Note well: such unlovely nonsense put forward obscure cranks scribbling pencil on lined pape" public libraries but by highly-paid tenured professors at premier institutions. These are the men women we dower lavish professorships great deal leisure they may share fruits their study reflection young students. In short, we entrusted them with transmitting intellectual and moral riches of our civilization. It is a trust many brutally betrayed. Recently, some commentators have suggested conservatives ought celebrate rather than criticize hermeticism fashionable academic discourse, reasoning its very opacity and muddle-headedness will naturally limit influence underlying ideas. Would this were so. Unfortuneately, absurdity has never been an impediment influence. We could justly ignore— or applaud— what is happening in the academy were prepared to write off a generation of students only if we believed that what happens in our educational institutions did not matter.
But of course it does matter. Which is why most right-thinking observers continue, correctly, to be appalled by the débâcle that has shaken our universities. Regarding the assault on science by the academic left, the biologist Paul R. Gross and the mathematician Norman Levitt delivered a devastating fusillade in 1994 when they published their book Higher Superstition. In all essentials, Higher Superstition provided an unanswerable dissection of the ideological nonsense that masquerades under the name of "science studies." Messrs. Gross and Levitt took on the social constructionists, the feminists, the Afrocentrists, the neo-Marxists, the environmentalists, the post-structuralists one by one. They were fair but firm. They did not hesitate to expose ignorance and pretension for what they were or to ridicule what was ridiculous. They proceeded with the analytic clarity of Euclid and the rhetorical zest of Gilbert and Sullivan. It was a brilliant performance, invigorating in its Swiftean pugnacity. When they finished with their opponents, their opponents were finished.
Or so one would have thought. Alas, as we had occasion to observe last February in our report on the 1994 convention of the Modern Language Association, the entrenched ideologues of the academic left continue unfazed in their bleatings about the "gendering" of scientific discourse, the malevolence of the ideal of objectivity, and the instability of truth. It is hardly surprising that Higher Superstition and its authors were prime objects of obloquy at the MLA. Nor, we suppose, was it surprising that neither Mr. Gross nor Mr. Levitt had been invited to participate in the "discussion"—that is, the attempted assassination of their work: academic "critics" of science may be pernicious, but they are not suicidal. In content, the attacks on Higher Superstition were little more than so many exercises in ritual exorcism. The charges brought by Messrs. Gross and Levitt were not answered but merely abused.
The problem is that this strategy of substituting exorcism for argument is spreading. Witness Andrew Ross, the high-profile academic Marxist who teaches literature at New York University (having been lured away from Princeton) and who recently told New York magazine that he had more or less given up reading books in favor of television and pop culture. Professor Ross's book Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits—a model of ideological animus dressed up as criticism— was a prime target of Higher Superstition. As we reported, at the MLA Professor Ross was full of sound and fury, denouncing Higher Superstition, its authors, and sundry other critics of the academy, including the editors of The New Criterion.
Now Professor Ross is back. In the October 2 issue of The Nation, he reports on a conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences last June called "The Flight from Science and Reason." Although it included some critics of the scientific establishment, the guiding themes of the conference were set by Messrs. Gross and Levitt and their book. Professor Ross begins with some familiar left-wing throat-clearing: he conjures up "the pit-bull moralizing of the Buchanans, Doles, and Gramms," derides E. O. Wilson's sociobiology as "a classic product of the mentality of militarist science," and vaporizes about evils of "corporate capitalism." But his main point is that Western science with its ideals of disinterestedness and objectivity must be overturned in favor of a vision of science that is more amenable to progressive politics. Accordingly, he celebrates "scholars" such as Donna Haraway and Evelyn Fox Keller "who uncover the gender-laden and racist assumptions built into the Euro-American scientific method."
Some readers may be wondering what in heaven's name the "Euro-American" scientific method might be—isn't the scientific method as valid in the Third World as in the First or Second? Indeed, isn't it just such universality that makes it ... scientific? But wait, there are also such seers as "Sandra Harding, who favor pro-democracy approaches to objectivity." Unlike, you understand, an anti-democratic approach to objectivity, which would be ... what? Never mind: Professor Ross looks forward to "new scientific methods rooted in the social needs of communities and accountable to interests other than those of managerial elites in business, government, and the military." What about the old scientific method that was accountable to reality? Professor Ross doesn't mention this because, like the Sixties radicals he imitates, he prefers talking about "proletarianization of scientific labor." He demands "science for the people" and a "Third World movement for indigenous technoscience that is sustainable and appropriate, rooted in local knowledge and local resources." He acknowledges that technical expertise may be a nice thing but asks: "how much do you need to know technically about nuclear fission to conclude that nuclear energy is a socially destructive idea?" (Answer: a lot more than Professor Ross.)
And on it goes: driveling neo-Marxist pablum surrounded by a bit of fancy lit-crit watercress. In short, Professor Ross, like the other denizens of "science studies" he mentions, doesn't know what he is talking about. Less sophomoric, but just as wrong-headed was the opinion piece by Daniel Lee Kleinman in the September 29 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. It, too, took off from the conference on "The Flight from Science and Reason." Professor Kleinman, who teaches sociology at the University of Georgia, has three basic points. In the first place, he charges that Messrs. Gross and Levitt and their like-minded colleagues "deploy exactly the same kind of overblown rhetoric of which they are so critical in others." They use, he says, "half-truths and caricature rather than reason and logic." Well. Higher Superstition certainly contains some delicious caricature—but half-truths or misrepresentations? Professor Kleinman does not make his case. And on the question of rhetoric: what Messrs. Gross and Levitt contest in others is not overblown rhetoric but ignorance. They can be brutal, it is true; but entrenched intellectual posturing cannot be dispelled by polite sallies: it must be uprooted by a combination of unsparing analysis and ridicule. Messrs. Gross and Levitt provide ample quantities of both.
Professor Kleinman's second point is that the assault on science by the academic left has been "quite effective" in undermining the "idealized image" of science. But has it? Professor Kleinman, like Andrew Ross, seems to have trouble distinguishing between what scientists do qua scientists and as actors in the mundane world of institutional life. No one would deny that politics, ambition, and parti-pris can shape the institutional structure of scientific research— determining, for example, what and who gets funding. That is a simple truism. But Professor Kleinman, again like Andrew Ross, goes much further. He wants sociology to illuminate not only the institutional structure but also the content, the truth value, of scientific research. In one hectic moment, he even assures us that "experiments are rarely decisive in settling scientific controversies." Really? Tell that to Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pasteur, or Einstein.
Professor Kleinman shares a disease common among academic humanists today: a reflexive commitment to relativism that blinds him to the claims of truth. In one revealing passage, he notes that, "unlike God, we cannot see everything at once. If we look at something from one place, we cannot see it from others. And perspective matters. Thus we cannot, by definition, be objective." But in fact, it was precisely through a meditation on perspective, in the Renaissance, that the ideal of objectivity as such was first articulated. Recognition of the limits of perspective was the catalyst for moving beyond those limits. Not that any human being can achieve perfect objectivity. But the ideal of objectivity remains, guiding science and allowing us to distinguish between descriptions of reality that are better and worse, more or less objective. Professor Kleinman's third point concerns status and prestige. "Scientists," he says, "must realize that they are not automatically entitled to a social status that places them beyond oversight and reproach." He is certainly correct about this. But what scientist believes otherwise? Certainly not Messrs. Gross or Levitt. Indeed, in the last chapter of Higher Superstition they endorse a "serious investigation of the interplay of cultural and social factors with the workings of scientific research." They note, however, that the success of any such endeavor requires "patience, subtlety, erudition, and a knowledge of human nature." "Above all," they conclude, "it requires an intimate appreciation of the science in question." Professor Kleinman overlooks this requirement; Andrew Ross and his ilk hold it in contempt. But that is one reason their criticism has forfeited any claim to legitimacy.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 3, on page 1
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