Craving for Crisis - Science and Militant Anti-Liberalism

SUBJECT: Social Criticism

L. Kurt Engelhart


Introduction Higher Superstition The Crusade
Incoherent Postmodern Intellectualism Conclusion References
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Abstract

This paper describes a militant anti-liberal atmosphere, reflected in specific reactionary behavior within the scientific community, as contributing to a rising level of tension between that community and the society at large. I suggest the rising tension is due to the scientific community being surrounded and threatened by challenges to their authority. The challenges stem from unresolved anomalies between what scientists say they do and what the society observes them to be doing. I describe this phenomenon as a craving for crisis because both the scientists and their critics seem determined to escalate the conflict to a showdown. Part I addressed specifically the actions of the so-called Unabomber, as evidence of such tension building in US culture. This paper, Part II, addresses the crisis from an alternative perspective, a reaction to postmodern Angst as criticism of science, from within the scientific community. Part III will present discussion and overall conclusions.

Introduction

This paper will address the reaction of some established members of the scientific community to their postmodern critics. My source is the text, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Gross & Levitt, 1994). Here, two well established (white, heterosexual?) university professors give their impressions of and reactions to the phenomenon of postmodern Angst in the academic community. I will argue that this phenomenon is symptomatic of a much broader phenomenon occurring in our society at large that constitutes a craving for crisis. I interpret this condition as indicating an immanent change in the way we perceive ourselves as individuals and as a collective. If this is an accurate interpretation, a model that explains this change systemically could be valuable in mediating, or arbitrating, what might be inevitable conflict.

Higher Superstition

Assuming it is not a hoax, Higher Superstition is surely the most provocative text I have read since The Secret Life of Plants (Tompkins & Bird, 1973). Anyone who has read the latter will probably recognize the irony in my words. Both texts are very well written (Higher Superstition has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 15.22), well referenced, and impressively organized. It is as if two world powers had brought out their heaviest artillery and fired off reciprocal volleys. Secret Life promotes the possibility "that a belief in the incongruous, despite lack of what science would regard as sufficient evidence," could be a potent social force" (Watson, 1987). Higher Superstition, on the other hand, promotes the absurdity of believing in any kind of knowing but the scientific kind, despite the "evidence."

The Crusade

Muddleheadedness has always been the sovereign force in human affairs a force far more potent than malevolence or nobility. It lubricates our hurtful impulses and ties our best intentions in knots. It blunts our wisdom, misdirects our compassion, clouds whatever insights into the human condition we manage to acquire. It is the chief artisan of the unintended consequences that constitute human history. To crusade against muddleheadedness, therefore, may be the most futile, and hence the most muddleheaded, quest of all. (Gross & Levitt, p. 1)

These authors' purpose for writing this text is to consolidate and organize the forces of reason into an effective defense against the forces of confusion. The enemy, the "academic left" dislikes science; it dislikes some of the uses to which science is put by the political and economic forces controlling our society, especially in such areas as military hardware, surveillance of dissidents, destructive and environmentally unsound industrial processes, and the manipulation of mass consciousness through the technologies of popular culture.

[H]ostility extends to the social structures through which science is institutionalized, to the system of education by which professional scientists are produced, and to a mentality that is taken, rightly or wrongly, as characteristic of scientists. [T]here is open hostility toward the actual content of scientific knowledge and toward the assumption that scientific knowledge is reasonably reliable and rests on a sound methodology. (p. 2) This category [the academic left] is comprised, in the main, of humanists and social scientists; rarely do working natural scientists show up within its ranks. (p. 3)

Something is obviously involved here beyond simple disagreement. The authors, having identified the enemy, describe the specific threat the enemy poses in each element of its criticism. They isolate the major argument for each element from which the threat emanates, and neutralize it. The intended effect of their rationale is to bind powerful sympathetic forces into a vector for reaction. Finally, they outline the strategies designed to eliminate this corruption from the world.

First, a more thorough description of the threat:

We are using academic left to designate those people whose doctrinal idiosyncracies sustain the misreadings of science, its methods, and its conceptual foundations that have generated what nowadays passes for a politically progressive critique of it. (p. 9) The saddest part of the situation is that professorial types who are, by any standard, well-meaning have developed a fatal facility for making enemies much faster than they make allies. One need look no further for evidence of this than the declining public respect for them. (p. 10)

[Their criticism] is more a matter of rhetorical style than of logical articulation. [Their purpose] is to demystify science, to undermine its epistemic authority, and to valorize "ways of knowing" incompatible with it. The strongest and most aggressive versions of these theories view science as a wholly social product, a mere set of conventions generated by social practice. (p. 11) Modern science is seen to be both a powerful instrument of the reigning order and an ideological guarantor of its legitimacy. The recent critiques of science incarnate attempts to regain the high ground, to assert that the methods of social theory and literary analysis are equal in epistemic power to those of science. (p. 12)

To the extent that the academic left's critique becomes the dominant mode of thinking about science on the part of nonscientists, that thinking will be distorted and dangerously irrelevant. (p. 4) Short of an utter collapse of our civilization on a global scale, the opportunity to reinvent science will not arise. (p. 20)

Thus, the stage is set to reveal specific instances of "muddleheadedness."

Incoherent Postmodern Intellectualism

Please note that I am only including a small portion of the invective offered, and none of the logic supporting it. As the authors themselves have observed above, clear thinking is not the issue here.

This is their historical perspective on the postmodern academy:

[O]ver the last twenty-five years the entire process of recruitment into academic careers, especially outside the exact sciences, has been altered in a way that lures people with left-wing sympathies and hopes for radical social change into scholarly careers. The glamorization of high powered careers in business, finance, and corporate law has something to do with it. [T]he greater the density of campus leftists, the more quickly that density grows. (p. 35)

Each [leftist] faction thinks the job is complete and that Western paradigms have been effectively demolished. (p. 38) [T]he "critical theory" in which academic leftists take such delight is a swamp of jargon, name dropping, logic chopping, and massive attempts to obliterate the obvious. The irony is that this faith in the omnicompetence of theory runs strong in those who claim to abhor "totalizing" theories. (p. 39)

Perspectivism on the left is the true legacy of the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, a time when it was assumed that the oppressed are endowed with uniquely privileged insights, and that the intellectual, as well as moral authority of victims, is beyond challenge. When it comes to the core of scientific substance, however, and the deep methodological and epistemological questions above all, the incredibly difficult ontological questions that arise in scientific contexts, perspectivism can make at best a trivial contribution. (p. 40)

From this we can conclude that the authors are not going to present a scientific rebuttal. They are going to conquer the enemy on its own ground: rhetoric. Their weapons will be negative hyperbole, ad hominem attack, and selective recognition of evidence. Of course, this is not generally accepted "scientific" behavior, but who cares, this is all out war!

The terrain breaks into four theaters of battle: social constructivism, postmodern philosophy, feminism, and deep ecology. This is their reaction to constructivism:

[Respect by natural scientists] has been the traditional attitude, however, that is changing to one of skepticism and even revulsion in the face of what scientists have come to see as a growing tendency among a particular breed of historians and sociologists of science to spin perverse theories. These seem often to escape mere inaccuracy and rush hell-for-leather toward unalloyed twaddle. (p. 43) It is difficult for radical intellectuals to accord an exceptional status to science, leaving it exempt from what they regard as the omnivorous tendencies of capitalism. They are highly unwilling to view science as an activity of the autonomous and unfettered intellect. Matters of scientific truth are "always and everywhere matters of social authority." (p. 47)

The [academic leftist] case is brought into being by an intellectual process that implicitly accepts the same methodological paradigm as the empirical sciences it presumes to analyze! (p. 48) If they are to demonstrate that their arguments are anything but sheer bluff, then clearly they must play on the scientists' court. (p. 49) [Otherwise, it is nothing but] critique of science with a view to extending their general indictment of Western capitalistic social structure. (p. 50)

[For example,] the uncertainty principle is a basic tenet of physics. It is not some brooding metaphysical dictum about the Knower versus the Known. It is an objective truth about the world. (p. 51-52) It is clear that a rather light-footed style is needed to get away with such stuff, which drives more earnest and responsible philosophers of science into paroxysms of disgust when confronted with it. Scientists themselves, less oppressed by a professional obligation to grapple with every piece of gaudy nonsense that comes down the highway, simply go about their business. (p. 58)

This is their reaction to postmodern philosophy:

We examine postmodernism with a view to understand its appeal to the politically discontented. The particularly quixotic view of the antagonism between "representation" and "reality" that is so thematic in postmodern thought vouchsafes its practitioners an eerie absolution from having to measure their theories against the unyielding matrix of social fact. In the cold light of day, such a creed seems pathetic as well as futile, a desperate amalgam of solipsism and magical thinking. It is radicalism without risk, since its calls to arms generally result in nothing more menacing than aphorisms lodged in obscure periodicals. (p. 73-74) A wide variety of disciplines may be addressed and pronounced upon without requiring the detailed familiarity with the facts and logic around which they are organized. American postmodernism is often accused, with considerable justice, of being little more than mimicry of a few European thinkers, mostly French. (p. 75)

The verbal means by which we seek to represent the world are incapable, it is said, of doing any such thing. (p. 76) [We have] panic stricken deconstructionists [running] headlong from the implications of their own doctrine. (p. 77) We see the rebirth of the philosopher as comprehensive sage. [Their] skepticism is expressed in the form of doubts about the human importance of scientific truth. (p. 78) Physicists, we can say with confidence, are not likely to be impressed with such verbiage, and are hardly apt to revise their thinking. Rather it is probable they will develop a certain disdain for scholars, however eminent, who talk this way, and a corresponding disdain for other scholars who propose to take such stuff seriously. Scientists who are genuinely familiar with the terminology invoked by declarations of this sort have no choice but to regard the whole business as a species of con game. (p. 79)

It is not hard to find other examples of postmodern thinkers whose urge to pontificate on science far outruns their competence to do so. (p. 80) Despite sweeping postmodernist claims of "paradigm shifts" and radical breaks in the reigning episteme, scientific practice in the more rigorous disciplines goes on as usual. It's a heady time for them and a scary time for science. My own interpretation is that lazy minds are happiest with the mere voicing of opinion, or with the easy task of dressing this up to make it look plausible. (p. 81) Science, with its objectivity remains the one international language capable of providing objective knowledge of the world. And it is a language that all can use and share and learn. The wretched of the earth want science and the benefits of science. To deny them this is another kind of racism. (p. 82)

Hermeneutics has now become the key to a full comprehension of the profoundest matters of truth and meaning. (p. 84) Postmodernism, in its skepticism about everything save itself, [drains everything] it touches of value, authority, validity, and even the right to stand for what it has always stood for and to be understood as it has always been understood. The narrative of science holds no privileges over the narratives of superstition. That the ignorance of science is a canny political act is accepted as an article of faith, no matter how much it seems to elevate wishful thinking over hard social fact. (p. 85) That the Napoleonic Code is ethically inferior to Anglo-Saxon common law collapses into meaninglessness [and] is understood as an example of "emotive" utterance, to which truth-value cannot properly be ascribed. (p. 87)

Virtually all of [these theories] claim to discern important intellectual themes and political motifs that are quite invisible to the scientists themselves. We probably don't need to fear for the safety or intellectual freedom of the sciences on the basis of these bizarre lucubrations: but that is not the issue. What does concern us is that these intellectual misadventures are so well received in nonscientific academic circles, especially on the left, and that they provide the route to publication, tenure, reputation, and academic authority for a growing body of would-be scholars. (p. 106)

Despite the authors' statement to the contrary, my sense is that fear is exactly the motivating factor in this text. The authors fear loss of power to which they have become accustomed and to which they believe they have established their rights beyond question. They fear a rising power which is not explained by their view of the world, and which they believe is illegitimate. This is, indeed, a scary situation.

Although the focus of this paper is the anti-liberal perspective, I believe present text deserves credit for fairly presenting the perspective of the "academic leftists" whom they oppose. A brief resume of that perspective may be helpful at this point. Whatever its foundations, the anti-science movement makes these propositions:

1. The applications of science are predominantly unethical and immoral.

2. The epistemological bases of science have been adequately demonstrated to be invalid.

3. The social power that has accrued to science is unwarranted and abused.

What I address here is the reaction to these propositions from the "scientific" community. This may, I think, be summed up in one (inflammatory) statement: the anti-science movement is a self-serving, irrational attack by disgruntled inferiors against the superhumans who are the creators and saviors of the modern world.

Before I move to my conclusions, this is the anti-leftist position on feminists:

[Feminism] has resurrected the work and built the reputations of some women artists and thinkers whom history and male indifference had discounted. (p. 107) [Their] criticism is far more sweeping; it claims to go to the heart of the methodological, conceptual, and epistemological foundations of science. The best known critics are accepted as legitimate historians and philosophers of science, in circles far wider than their feminist peers. (p. 108) Feminist insight and practice must, by definition, improve the range and depth of scientific theory. Many feminist tracts accept and defend the notion that there is no "objective" science, merely a variety of "perspectives." The earlier, less controversial, goal of uncovering past and present discrimination, of bringing to light neglected contributions of female scientists, has been subsumed under this enormously more ambitious project: to refashion the epistemology of science from the roots up. (p. 109) "Women's studies" has almost everywhere a sacrosanct status, an unprecedented immunity to the scrutiny and skepticism that are standard for other fields of inquiry.

Obvious discrimination today is against white males. (p. 110) The overwhelming majority of active scientists neither practice nor condone discrimination. (p. 111) We would have to be shown that there are palpable defects, due to the inadequacies of male perspective, in heretofore solid-looking science and that the flawed theories can be repaired or replaced by feminist insights. (p. 112) "We become what biology tells us is the truth about life. Therefore, feminist critique of biology is not only good for biology but for our society as well." Wishful thinking is the customary name for this such "analysis." (p. 122)

It is commonplace among relativists of all kinds to ignore or dismiss the self-correction process by which good science survives and bad science that which is not verifiable by others of different tastes and tendencies vanishes in due course. (p. 123) "Can biased metaphors be eliminated from science?" The implication is that until now nobody had heard of metaphor, or of the distinction between metaphor and the underlying facts of science. (p. 125) Let us not pretend, though, that masculinism prevails any longer in the metaphors, let alone in the substance of science. That substance, we are forced to report, seems stubbornly resistant to spin applied in either direction. [Feminist] success in establishing a reputation as a major thinker on science and epistemology would be incomprehensible in an age less determined to celebrate difference at all costs. To "difference" we might have added "heterodoxy," except that it is our own views that are now unorthodox, at least to those outside of science. (p. 126)

There is supposed to be a regnant worldview, with physics as its paradigm. Thus to speak of physics as a "paradigm" is to vulgarize the situation. (p. 127) Not many persons with real experience of contemporary science, taking the time to examine such arguments as this, are likely to adopt them. (p. 130) How can [a feminist] insist on "the socially constructed and politically contested nature of facts, theory, practices, and power" and at the same time be engaged in exploding social constructivism? (p. 133) For this "discourse" on what is, after all, a quite fundamental question of scientific epistemology, we have been able to find only one signifier: "delusions of adequacy." (p. 134)

This is not the way one communicates with one's peers. No, for the authors, feminists are not peers, and they have displayed the reason they are not peers in their misguided propositions. The authors believe they are speaking from an unassailable position of power, which belief they confirm in their own statements.

Only one more battle remains to be won, against deep-ecology. This is the authors' position on the environmental movement:

As usual ideological syncretism is the prevalent note. All doctrinal variants are simultaneously endorsed to some degree; differences are submerged in a broad tide of indignation over environmental outrages, the list of which is continuously lengthened by selection of appropriate results from scientific journals (and by ignoring the inconvenient ones). (p. 151) Ecological science in particular is "a socially constructed science whose basic assumptions and conclusions change in accordance with social priorities and socially accepted metaphors." (p. 165) There is a serious downside to the strategy of talking apparent science while actually doing politics. (p. 168) It is the substitution of moonbeams and fairy-dust for thought, a frequent human practice, but one that has taught grim lessons in the course of history. (p. 176)

The relation of the animal rights movement to the academic left is a question of some complexity. It is a tricky thing to champion hunter-gatherer cultures as paragons of ecological wisdom without allowing that hunting may be a justifiable activity. (p. 198) It endows a mythical community, the supposedly "sentient" animals, with a status parallel to other communities of oppressed, exploited, voiceless beings. The indulgent relativism that declares all cultures, all narratives, to be equally valid, is stretched to accommodate entities capable of neither culture nor narrative. With science reduced, on this view, to a "truth-game" played by a narrow community under self-referential rules, it becomes easy to dismiss, without close argument or factual investigation, the claims of science to produce results essential to human well-being. (p. 199) The facts and arguments of the case are available for any fair-minded inquirer to assess. (p. 203)

Well, that is enough of that. What are we to make of this diatribe? Is there a systemic explanation for what is happening here, or is a significant contingent of contemporary thinking really "muddleheaded?"

Conclusion

It is not enough for these authors to excoriate their enemy. They must also intimidate it. This fact gives some clue of the growing power of which the authors are afraid.

Practical measures for making discussion of scientific issues effectively more democratic by what should be the straight forward process of extending scientific literacy are continually subverted by the intrusion of "identity politics" into the pedagogy of science. [Those] who try to embark on scientific vocations with the explicit aim of reconstituting science are on a course leading to frustration and disillusion. Science does not work the way the critics say it works. But if they attempt to hold fast to the most emphatic tenets of [this] dogma, they will quickly find themselves excluded from serious scientific work. (p. 251) They argue that free-market capitalism is an obstacle to changes we should make in our uses of technology if we are to develop sound environmental practices. Scientists, and the scientifically well informed, will simply not accept any form of "socialism" whose agenda include the subversion of legitimate science. (p. 252)

We are not calling for a purge of the institutions of higher learning in this country. [But] science courses must teach science. It's as simple as that. Science and science educators must, on their professional honor, be prepared to resist the insertion into the science curriculum of courses whose content is tailored to the demands of any ideological faction. (p. 253) Unthinking sentimentality is the great enemy of genuine compassion. One can't assume, in these matters, that possession of an advanced degree or a professorship equates to intellectual legitimacy. In today's academy noise is no longer taken, as it used to be, as evidence of an unfortunate class origin. (p. 254-255) Academic leftists tend to be unfocused bores, and a certain deliberate, cheerful simple-mindedness is needed to hear them out sufficiently to catch the drift of the arguments and to formulate an apposite response. (p. 255)

If scientists perceive that a spate of nonsense has been coming out of the mouths of their colleagues, then they have the right to raise questions about the mechanisms that give fair wind to such shaky scholarship. It will be argued immediately that this is an asymmetric, and therefore inequitable, proposition. The fallacy here is that the asymmetry originates from the pretensions, legitimate or otherwise, to qualification on scientific questions. "Hard" scientists should find some way of supporting those of their colleagues in these areas who are willing to honor the principle that the right to make knowledge claims, in a university, has to be earned by the methodologically sound sweat of one's brow. (p. 256)

Thus the scientific community has been informed of the strategy needed to address this threat, and the enemy has been given due notice of the consequences if their undesirable behavior continues.

I am prepared at this point to propose an explanation of the authors' behavior. My proposition is based on a specific view of the world, displayed by the authors in this text, which takes this form:

1. The scientific community is a supersociety and scientists are supermen.

2. Science is completely self-contained, having no need for and no interest in nonscience.

3. Science is impenetrable by nonscience, both intellectually and by virtue of accomplishments.

4. The epistemic and social status of science is ultimately beyond question.

If this form is an accurate portrayal, I will proclaim that the "scientific community" as described in this text is fascist.

The full development of this proposition will be taken up in the final paper in this series, Craving for Crisis. However, a George Will column (Will, 1996, 31 May) describes an interesting hoax played on the liberal academic journal Social Text. Apparently Alan Sokal, a physicist, tricked this journal into publishing "an essay that was a tissue of pseudoscientific solecisms and gaseous philosophical rhetoric." (Will's words) Upon learning of this, the liberal academic community's response was that "communal efforts [to productive discussion] may be more difficult because there may be a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion' in the offices of learned journals." In Will's opinion this would be all for the better. In my opinion, escalation of this conflict will continue until arbitrated by a higher level of authority than science. At this moment it is not clear what that authority might be. This question will be addressed in the final paper.

References

Anonymous. (1995). The unabomber manifesto. [On-line]. Internet.

Aronowitz, S. (1988). Science as power: discourse and ideology in modern society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cohen, C. (1972). Communism fascism and democracy: the theoretical foundations. New York: Random House.

Gabler, N. (1995, August 13). Outrageous leaps of illogic. Los Angeles Times. Printed in The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), p. G1.

Gross, P.R.& Levitt, N. (1994). Higher superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kuhn, T.S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tompkins, P. & Bird, C. (1973). The secret life of plants. New York: Harper and Row.

Watson, L. (1987). The dreams of dragons: riddles of natural history. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Will, G. (1996, 31 May). A hoax on liberal academics. The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), p. B4.


Part III: Alternatives to Totalitarianism

Index of Essays

Please e-mail your impressions to: kengelhart@igc.org