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an annotated bibliography of nonsense

independent on sunday, 28 june 1998

Science is in trouble. When Prince Charles recently declared that scientists should stop meddling with nature and leave such work to God, he was echoing a sentiment felt by many. There is today a widespread distrust and suspicion of science and its consequences and of scientists and their motives.

The irony of science and technology today is that the more that science advances, the more distrustful people are of it. In the seventeenth century the philosopher Francis Bacon, welcoming a new scientific spirit in Europe claimed that 'Knowledge is Power'. Forty years ago, the historian Robert Jungk, reflecting on the impact of the atomic bomb, observed that Bacon's aphorism had come to be translated in the public mind into the idea that 'Knowledge is Unfortunately Power'. How much more true this seems today. Everything from Chernobyl to BSE to Dolly the sheep to genetically modified tomatoes seem to evoke fear and unease about the advance of scientific knowledge.

It is against this background that we need to understand the debate about the Sokal hoax. In a thoughtful article published in the same issue of Social Text as Sokal's parody, the sociologist Dorothy Nelkin suggests that the reason why natural scientists have responded so fiercely to the criticisms of historians and sociologists is because they are feeling the backlash of public unease about science. The postwar compact between science and government is now breaking down. With public funding for science projects being cut, and politicians becoming more skeptical of the promise of science, so scientists are more sensitive to public unease and to wider scrutiny of their work.

There is considerable truth to these observations. Much of postwar science was conducted in the shadow of the Cold War. Both America and the Soviet Union viewed science as a weapon in their ideological struggle. The American government poured millions of dollars into high-profile, high-prestige research projects often with military applications. This relationship had consequences both for scientists and the perception of science. Scientists were insulated from unease about science. The military link made the public suspect motives and consequences. The end of the Cold War unstitched the relationship between scientists and the politicians and made both more vulnerable to the public fear of science.

To tell the tale like this, however, is only to tell half the story. The unease about science is in reality an expression of a wider unease with social progress. Two world wars, the Depression, fascism, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Cold War: the story of the past century has been a barbaric one. The cumulative impact of all these events has fostered a deep anxiety about the future. In the interwar years the contrast between the spectacular advance of science and the moral turpitude of a Western world in thrall to fascism and mass unemployment, led many people to place science on a pedestal. Science, it seemed, was untouched by the mire of society. Scientists, too, began to believe this myth and their work became increasingly isolated from wider social developments.

After the Second World War, however, public perceptions of science began to shift. Partly as a result of the Bomb, people began to view science not as a contrast to social misery but increasingly as a cause of them. Such ideas were given credence by the close relationship between scientific and military projects and by scientists' unwillingness to step off their own pedestal.

The result was that science increasingly became the scapegoat for social ills, and the notion of scientific objectivity derided as the cause of the modern condition. By 1992 the Czech president Vaclav Havel could claim that, 'The fall of communism can be regarded as a sign that modern thought -based on the premise that the world is objectively knowable and that the knowledge so obtained can be absolutely generalised - has come to the final crisis.' He added that Communism revealed humanity's problem as the way that 'Modern rationalism and modern science' seeks 'systematically to deny, degrade, defame and colonise' nature. In the topsy-turvy world of the nineties, a leading intellectual could claim that the fall of the oppressive, undemocratic, irrational regimes of Eastern Europe revealed the failure of reason.

Whereas once science stood as a metaphor for human advancement, today it stands more as a metaphor for human debasement. That is why with every technological advance - from cloning to genetically modified food - there is a tendency for people to stress the problems it may cause rather than the promise that it holds. Fear of science has become the vehicle through which wider social insecurities are given vent.

It is this vision of science that also finds expression within academic science studies. Much of contemporary science studies distills the public disquiet about science into an academic language. But it has also added a new twist: academic critics not only question the impact of science upon society, but they also question the very idea of scientific rationality. What characterises today's generation of historians, sociologists and philosophers of science is a relentlessly relativist outlook. Scientists' claim to objectivity, they believe, is mere ideology. They deny the idea that science is in any way universal and argue instead scientific knowledge is relative to the societies or cultures that produce them. Echoing Vaclav Havel's equation of rationality and oppression, the orthodoxy within science studies is that the claim to objectivity and rationality is a 'Eurocentric' viewpoint.

These arguments are, I believe, both irrational and counterproductive. This is why Sokal is right in much of his criticisms of science studies. The relativist arguments erase the distinction between science and superstition, between reason and unreason, and make it much more difficult to have an informed debate about science and society. To understand why, I want to look at two of the key ideas that relativists propose: that science is a 'social construction' and that scientific knowledge is not universal but is shaped by particular social and cultural circumstances.

At the heart of the relativist argument is the claim that science is a 'social construction'. In the past many scientists and historians viewed science as a special activity separate from any other social activity. In this view scientific knowledge was produced by men of genius - a Galileo or Newton - who worked alone and through their brilliance were able to hold a mirror to nature.

Over the past half century historians and sociologists have transformed such an understanding. They have come to realise that science, far from being isolated from the rest of society, is an intensely social activity. Scientific knowledge is deeply influenced by social and political concerns, and, in turn, scientific theories help shape the wider intellectual climate. Virtually no-one today - scientist or non-scientist - would contest this view of the relationship between science and society. After all, science is made by human beings, and in that sense a scientific theory is as much a social creation as a Hollywood film or a Jeffrey Archer novel.

But the understanding of science as social has led to a new question: what does the social nature of science means for the notion of scientific objectivity? It is here that realists such as Sokal (and myself) disagree with relativists. Realists hold that the existence of an objective reality constrains the degree to which science can be socially constructed; relativists seem to disagree.

For realists there is a fundamental difference between the social nature of a novel or film and that of a scientific theory. A novel is constrained only by the cultural tastes of a society and the limits of the human imagination (or the lack of it in the case of Jeffrey Archer). Scientific theories, on the other hand, are constrained by an external reality. Science cannot simply produce any old representation of nature, but one that has to conform (to some degree at least) to what really exists. What we know is shaped by the kind of society in which we live. But it is even more powerfully shaped by external reality. Science is a social means of understanding objective nature.

In the course of the Sokal debate natural scientists have consistently taunted relativists with the claim that they deny the existence of an external reality. Sokal himself suggested that if sociologists really believed the laws of gravity to be a social construction, he was happy for them to jump out of his window on the 23rd floor. Relativists, rightly, object to such caricature. Yet in their arguments about the nature of science, relativists often write as if there was no external reality to constrain scientific theory.

Steven Shapin is one of the most astute contemporary historians of science. His recent book on The Scientific Revolution was showered with praise. One of his earlier books, Leviathan and the Air-pump, written together with Simon Schaffer, describes the debate between the English philosophers Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes. The book concludes that: 'As we come to recognise the conventional and artificial status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realise that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know.' For Shapin, then, reality constrains knowledge in no way at all. The only limits are 'ourselves'. Science is the 'artificial' result of social rules and conventions. Shapin might accept the existence of an external reality but seems to regard it as irrelevant in shaping scientific knowledge. Reality might as well not exist.

This debate between realists and relativists is of more than just philosophical or academic concern. To understand why I want to look at the difference between two distinct theories of evolution: Darwinism and Lysenkoism, which for many years was the official dogma of the Soviet Union.

In recent years much fine historical research has revealed the extent to which the social and political ethos of the Victorian era is reflected in the work of Charles Darwin. We now know, for instance, that Darwin's reading of Thomas Malthus' Essay on Population - with its vision of a competitive struggle for limited food stocks - was crucial in helping him develop the idea of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution. It is plausible to infer from this that the social conditions and intellectual climate of Victorian England provided the substrate in which modern evolutionary theory could develop. But however much ideology helped shape Darwinian theory, we also have to acknowledge that it provides the most objective account of the biological history of the Earth. Darwinism might have been ideologically inspired, but it also happens to be true.

Contrast this with Lysenkoism. Lysenkoism was the official Soviet science policy governing the work of geneticists from about 1940 to 1960. Stalin had decided for ideological reasons that Darwinian theory and Mendelian genetics were false because they suggested that the characteristics of living things were innate. This belief was promoted by the agriculturalist Trofim Lysenko who dismissed all the advances made in classical genetics, denied the existence of genes and held that the variability of organisms were produced solely by environmental changes - a return to the discredited Lamarckian idea that characteristics acquired during the lifetime of an organism could be inherited. Lysenko tried to reorganise the Soviet Union's plant breeding programme on these lines, with predictably disastrous effects.

A view of science that sees it as an entirely artificial construction would find it difficult to distinguish between ideology masquerading as science (as in Lysenkoism) and scientific theories that have objective validity, but have nevertheless been shaped by wider ideological and social currents - such as Darwinism. Without the notion of objectivity and an external reality, the distinction between ideology and science soon disappears.

The next step many relativists take is to argue that, since science is a social construction, so scientific knowledge will vary from society to society. Scientific knowledge cannot be universal but relative to the needs and aspirations of particular society. The philosopher Sandra Harding, for instance, argues that scientific knowledge is 'multicultural' because 'sciences are historically relative to different cultures' projects - to cultures' questions about natural and social orders'. Different societies ask different questions about the world and so come up with different kinds of answers.

This, as Sokal has pointed out, could mean several things. At a trivial level the idea that different societies or groups have different questions about the natural world is bound to be true. People living in the Arctic are likely to be interested in the properties of snow, whereas people living the Amazon may not be. Azhkenazy Jews have a vested interest in the study of Tay-Sachs disease whereas West Africans and their descendants have a vested interest in the study of sickle cell anaemia. But the fact that different groups ask different questions does not mean that scientific knowledge is not universal. The physics of snowfalls is likely to be the same in Anchorage or the Amazon while the laws of genetics underlying inherited diseases are the same in downtown Lagos as in Manhattan's East Side.

Harding, however, is making a more profound point. 'Different questions', she writes, 'produce different answers containing distinct, often conflicting, representations, of nature.' What Harding is suggesting is that different societies might come up with different answers to the same scientific question, and that both answers may be valid. This, Sokal observes, is 'false, just as a point of logic.'

To understand Sokal's point we need to return to the question of the difference between a scientific theory and a Jeffrey Archer novel. Millions of people buy Archer's novels. Presumably they like them. I once read Cain and Abel and found it excruciating. But I am happy to accept that both views, though mutually incompatible, are equally valid.

The same is not true of scientific theories. Scientific theories have an external reference point - objective reality - against which the validity of any theory can be gauged. However much social needs influence the making of scientific knowledge, reality always intervenes.

We can see this in the remarkable similarities between the way that, say, Australian Aborigines classify the living word and the Linnaean system used by modern biology. Aborigines recognise the concept of species, generally recognise the same species as modern biologists and classify them in a hierarchical system similar to that of biologists. As hunter-gatherers, Aborigines were driven to establishing a sophisticated biological taxonomy. Western biology, on the other hand, grew out of attempts to systematise knowledge that would be of economic value in the commercial system. Very different activities required similar knowledge about the world and hence produced similar forms of classification. What this suggests is that relativists often exaggerate the degree to which different social groups perceive the world in different ways. The fact that we live in a common physical world often forces very different groups, with very different needs, to adopt similar views of the world.

There is one sense, however, in which science is relative. It is the fate of virtually all scientific knowledge to be proved wrong (at least in some respect) because as science progresses, so our understanding of the external world becomes more nuanced and less imperfect. All scientific knowledge is therefore relative in the sense that it is provisional.

But today's relativists cannot accept this notion of scientific relativism - the only one that makes sense - because they are uncomfortable with the idea of scientific progress. Scientific change, they argue, results in a different view of nature, not necessarily a better one.

It is difficult to know, however, how one cannot accept the notion of scientific progress. When Darwin suggested natural selection as a mechanism for evolution, this was not simply a different theory to Creationism, but an objectively better one. The fact that in the fifteenth century people believed that witches could fly to the moon, whereas today men have actually walked on the Sea of Tranquility demonstrates that we live in a scientifically more advanced society. In deriding the notion of scientific progress, relativists fly in the face of reason.

Once all knowledge becomes equally valid, and scientific progress is denied, then the difference between science and superstition is erased. In her new book, Is Science Multicultural? Sandra Harding objects to the contrast made between modern science and 'earlier European and non-European cultures' magic, witchcraft, prelogical thought, superstitions and pseudosciences'. Such a contrast she writes 'restricts the meanings and references of "science" in ways that are intellectually costly.' For Harding, 'any systematic attempt to produce knowledge about the natural world' is 'science'.

It is almost beyond belief that, in an age in which irrational beliefs, from religious fundamentalism to New Age mysticism, are on the rise, a leading feminist academic should think it intellectually costly to insist on the difference between science and witchcraft. Nothing could illustrate more both the irrationalism and the political dangers of contemporary science studies.

Ironically, there has probably never been a greater need for the development of 'science studies'. The changing relationship between science and society, the widespread sense of dread and unease about scientific knowledge, and the astonishing rate at which science continues to advance, all illustrate the necessity for philosophers, historians, sociologists and others to analyse and understand the relationship between science and society. The problem with contemporary science studies is not that it is too intrusive upon science, but that it lacks the intellectual tools to perform its task. It claims to demystify science. Its real consequence is to mystify unease about science.

As an illustration of the philistinism of much of science studies, consider the following from Andrew Ross, one of the editors of Social Text. In the Acknowledgement to his book Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits, Ross has this to say about his knowledge of science: 'This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.' When a prominent practitioner of science studies feels happy to boast about his lack of scientific education, you know that the discipline is in trouble.

One final point. It is all too easy to see the Sokal debate as a clash of the 'two cultures': On the one side natural scientists deriding social scientists for accepting nonsense as good academic coin; on the other humanities scholars accusing scientists of creating myths about science. As should be clear now, the picture is more complex. Many scientists, including Sokal himself, welcome the attention paid to science by philosophers, historians and sociologists. Equally, many scholars in science studies, including myself, applaud Sokal for perpetrating his hoax. I am currently writing a book that examines the social influences on scientific theories of human nature. Yet I agree with much of Sokal's criticisms of social studies of science. Why? Because, as I hope I have shown, what passes for science studies today is often bad history, bad philosophy, bad sociology – and bad science. If there are two cultures involved in the Sokal affair they are shoddy scholarship on the one side and an attempt at rational thought on the other.