This post in the thirteenth in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post in the series is here, and the next one is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.
Nobody is a social constructionist at 10,000 feet. –Richard Dawkins
In order to ridicule the claims of humanist upstarts, Sokal and his allies… must reject the physical theories of some of the founders of their own fields. –Val Dusek
In 1996, a physicist named Alan Sokal decided he had had enough of sociology, relativism, postmodernism, and science studies in general. It had been about 30 years since Thomas Kuhn had opened the floodgates, and at times the criticism had become quite intense—often to the point, Sokal thought, of absurdity. Science is useful and it gets things right. By comparison, what is postmodernism good for? No sensible person will try to explain away the useful in terms of the useless. To paraphrase: “If you don’t believe that gravity is socially constructed, try walking off a tall building. Otherwise, shut up.”
In order to make his point, Sokal wrote an article called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutic of Quantum Gravity,” which he submitted to a literary journal called Social Text. The article was long on postmodernist jargon and abysmal misunderstandings of science, but deliberately short on coherent and meaningful content. It was, as the positivists liked to say, “cognitively empty.” Social Text published the article (apparently without reading it, or at any rate, understanding it), and shortly after, Sokal revealed the hoax. “Look at these idiots,” his critique went. “They’ll publish anything.” Defenders of science cheered. Critics seethed. The public laughed. The “Science Wars” had begun.
The realist defense of science is often expressed in terms of morality. Science is, by this account, the characteristic and most valuable product of the Enlightenment. Its explanatory success fully vindicates its position as the preeminent intellectual activity of our time, and provides an example of rationality that every person can aspire to. Science keeps us honest when we feel tempted to cheat; that’s why its critics don’t like it. To understand it as anything other than the rational and correct approach to nature, or to regard its products as descriptive of anything other than objective facts, is foolish at best, dishonest at worst. It corrodes the foundations of civilization.
The postmodernist attack, too, is often expressed in moral terms: Far from being the characteristic blessing of the Enlightenment, science is its characteristic problem. Science has long been associated with sexism, racism, imperialism, and in general, with the domination of the weak by the strong. Its universal aspirations to explain, and ultimately control, all phenomena, amounts to a war of mankind against nature. Its characteristic attitude is both unnatural and foolish. We are meant to live with nature and with each other in some kind of harmony. To spend all this effort to classify, homogenize, and denature everything human and spontaneous is wrong. Beneath Science’s awesome display of methodical precision lurks the sinister and all-too-human lust for power—not to do anything with, but only for its own sake.
Postmodernists have generally located scientific realism on the right of the political spectrum, and themselves on the left. During the Vietnam era, when it was taking shape, this may have been accurate. However, since the ’60s, the pendulum has swung. Today it is not liberals, but conservatives, who are feeling the heat. Science is now firmly on the side of gender and race equality, while global warming and evolution threaten traditional conservative goals like keeping taxes and regulations low, and maintaining a religious basis for morals and education. The criticisms of Science that were once heard from the left—that it is a front for sinister interests, that the peer-review process is broken, that scientists privilege ideology over evidence, etc.—are now increasingly the property of the right.
The editors of Social Text, writing from the older leftist position, seem to have fallen out of step with the times. The affair is, indeed, best seen as an intra-liberal conflict. Sokal, like Chomsky and (an older) Latour, felt that postmodernism impaired the ability of liberals to mount a rational defense of their values, and paved the way for conservatives to mount an irrational defense of theirs. The time had come, in other words, for leftists to rehabilitate science and deploy it in the struggle against conservatives. That, in turn, meant attacking postmodernism, which had traditionally worked to undermine confidence in science.
Under blistering criticism from scientists and the public alike (scholars in the humanities were unimpressed by the hoax), the editors of Social Text justified their decision to publish Sokal’s nonsense article on several grounds. First, it was not their business to censor other scholars. When a scholar publishes an article, he or she puts their credibility on the line. If they want to make a fool of themselves, that’s their decision. Second, they were not physicists, and could not reasonably be expected to understand how postmodernism should apply to an obscure and difficult (even for physicists) theory like quantum gravity. It was not their job to understand physics—it was Sokal’s. Third, by deceiving them, he damaged his own credibility and that of his colleagues. Mistakes can be overlooked, but bad faith cannot. His article and later comments made it clear that he knew about as much about postmodernism as they did about physics. If it spoke poorly of the editors that they published Sokal’s article, what did it say about Sokal that he wrote it? They might have been dupes, but he was a liar.
Spending some time with the Science Wars offers the advantage of seeing the political and moral dimensions of the subject on full display. However, it does so at the risk of caricaturing thoughtful and serious positions. As I’ve tried to show throughout the series, there are a tremendous variety of perspectives on science; we do not have to choose between simplistic, reductionist narratives. Sokal’s hoax certainly embarrassed the editors of Social Text, but it was not a serious criticism of Science, Technology, and Society Studies. Similarly, postmodernism is not a theory about society or science, but about literature. While the “Science Wars” were fought largely on the terrain of STS, the debate was not about STS as such, but rather about morality and reason in science. It does demonstrate, however, how central science is to our society, and how thinking about the nature of science can help us better understand our world.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.