Forget science vs. postmodernism; give me pushback against the status quo

September 1, 2010

Michel Foucault

The science wars were a big thing back in the 90s. Postmodernists and science geeks butted heads over whether scientific knowledge was True or just truthy; and everyone had a big laugh/sigh when physicist Alan Sokal got a nonsense paper published in the journal Social Text. The war wounds must remain, because lately I’ve noticed that some of my science journo colleagues still find it either amusing or necessary to bash on “deconstruction” and “postmodernism.”

As someone who has largely traded his Science hat for his Postmodernism hat, I have felt a vague need to respond, but what to say? Finally Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks tweeted this essay poking fun at postmodernism, by Pascal Boyer of the Culture and Cognition group blog, and I knew I had to say something.

Boyer is concerned with “academic ideologues” who “are attractive because they seem to violate some of our common assumptions.”

Madness is not brain dysfunction! Manhood has nothing to do with being a fellow! One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman!

But on closer inspection, it generally turns out that the initial, amazing, challenging statements in fact disguised crashingly banal assumptions. Suppose you point out to your academic ideologue that, for instance, if maleness and manhood really are completely unrelated… then it is puzzling that an extraordinarily vast number of [socially constructed] “men” happen to be [chromosomal] “males”, and that such a coincidence is spooky. You will probably be told that you did not quite understand the original statement. What it meant was that the meaning of maleness could not be derived from possession of the Y chromosome… Or if you point out that some forms of insanity occur in many cultures at the same rates, that they trigger highly similar behaviors, are associated with the same genetic predispositions and correlate with similar neuro-functional features, you will be told that you did not understand. What was meant was that the cultural construal of madness was not derived directly from brain dysfunction…

At which point, you might be forgiven to think something like “so that was what all the fuss was about?” and you would be right of course. When push comes to shove, the flamboyant, earth-shattering, romantic, swash-and-buckle assault on our entrenched certainties seems to be, well, a bit of a damp squib.

Ok, let’s get serious here. The Boyers of the world have a point. In a CBC radio interview, Evelyn Fox Keller, a leader in the field of science and technology studies (STS), said that some of her fellow scholars needed to wake up and smell the climate change. Science might be a social construction, but it’s a social construction that produces objective knowledge about the world — knowledge that is sometimes vitally important. Bruno Latour, another STS big shot, has made similar remarks.

In my own turn toward postmodernism, I’ve come down hard on the side of culture over biology in the case of sex differences, in particular, and honestly, I am not in full enough command of the empirical details to be making a lot of pronouncements in that area. So why do I do it? Well, partly it’s me wanting to bypass all the hard work that goes into being qualified to have an opinion. But it’s more than that.

What science folks don’t always seem to recognize is, they hold the cultural power. Just try telling a lay person you work in a science lab or as a science writer. Instant respect. That’s why creationists cast their arguments in terms of science, and why climate deniers argue down to the tiniest point of the science, as opposed to coming clean about their unwillingness to give a shit about other people. Because if you have science on your side, you win.

If you don’t believe me, here’s Matt Nisbet commenting on a 2009 Pew survey (emphasis his):

In the U.S., scientists and their organizations enjoy almost unrivaled respect, admiration, and cultural authority. Americans overwhelmingly trust scientists, support scientific funding, and believe in the promise of research and technology. Among institutions, only the military enjoys greater admiration and deference.

Consider that according to the Pew survey, 84% of Americans agree that science is having a mostly positive effect on society, and that this belief holds strong across every major demographic category, including 88% of Republicans and 83% of Evangelicals.

When asked to evaluate various professions, roughly 70% of Americans answer that scientists “contribute a lot” to society compared to 38% for journalists, 23% for lawyers, 40% for clergy, and 21% for business executives. Only members of the military (84%) and teachers (77%) rate higher in public admiration and esteem.

More Americans rate advances related to science, medicine, and technology as the country’s greatest achievement over the past 50 years than any other topic. Specifically, 27% named science, technology and medicine compared to 17% for advances related to civil and equal rights, and 7% for advances relative to war and peace.

Scientists have cultural power, ok? And that power has not always been used in the most enlightened way. I would guess that many lay persons, to the extent they have any beliefs about genetics at all, are genetic determinists. I.e, they think one’s “type” is set at birth by one’s genes. An informal sampling of my family supports this assertion. Who is to blame for this view? The short list has to include scientists, the media and probably high school textbook authors. Re: the first two of these, read Brandon Keim on Nicholas Wade’s endless parade of schizophrenia gene stories.

Maybe science geeks would want to argue that lay people who subscribe to genetic determinism have fallen victim to bad science writing. Well, fine. But by the same token, acknowledge that there is good and bad postmodernism. Indeed, postmoderns sometimes critique one another! Feminist philosopher Nancy Hartsock’s critique of Foucault is an example. I don’t understand Foucault very well, but I get Hartsock’s gist when she says stuff like this, from Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classical Readings:

Why is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic? Just when we are forming our own theories about the world, uncertainty emerges about whether the world can be theorized. Just when we are talking about the changes we want, ideas of progress and the possibility of systematically and rationally organizing human society become dubious and suspect. Why is it only now that critiques are made of the will to power inherent in the effort to create theory? (549)

In other words, you aggrieved science types, Hartsock feels your pain about that much-maligned objective reality. She just has other goals in mind.

As I see it, science and postmodernism are not fundamentally at odds, because postmodernism is not fundamentally about casting doubt on knowledge per se. It’s much more about giving voice to marginalized groups so that a better, more inclusive society can emerge. Which means umasking ways that certain groups are silenced, marginalized and oppressed.

The real postmodern point about men and women, for example, is that our culture hates women (hence homophobia) and uses quasi-scientific ideas about what is “natural” to obfuscate that fact. Again, if you ask the lay person, she might well tell you that men are men because of testosterone and women are women because of estrogen. It’s scientific. If she knows a little more, she might spin you a yarn about how men invest so much less in reproduction than women that it’s only natural the sexes would have evolved contrasting behavioral tendencies.

Maybe so, maybe not. See Sharon Begley on rape genes, for a dose of “not.” And even if there are legitimate sex differences, it’s a little odd for someone like John Tierney to make a conscious choice to focus on those differences, as if he doesn’t know he’s setting up Man as the standard against which Woman is to be judged and found wanting. After all, men don’t care if women have better verbal skills, because expressing oneself is a feminine (read: devalued) activity. Rational thought is masculine, so men sure as hell care that they’re (allegedly) better at math. It puts them on the winning team.

Now, for me, there’s a further wrinkle in this postmodernism thing. Once I acknowledge that our culture devalues women and the non-White (to take two salient examples), and that this culture is on the cusp of subjecting itself to climate-induced misery, it’s hard for me to not want to change things. In fact, as a member of the privileged class, it’s my obligation to do my part to change things.

As journalist Robert Jensen writes in The Heart of Whiteness:

If we care about racial justice–as well as justice on other issues–we should be, individually and collectively, moved to oppose both the government that carries out those policies and the economic structures in which they are rooted. Yet, for the most part, the class that has the time, energy, and money to be effective politically–the white middle class[...]–remains passively complicit in, or actively supportive of, these policies. (63)

But I’m not racist, you might say.

It is possible to not be racist (in the individual sense of not perpetrating overtly racist acts) and yet at the same time fail to be antiracist (in the political sense of resisting a racist system). Being not-racist is not enough. To be a fully moral person, one must find some way to be antiracist as well. Because white people benefit from living in a white-supremacist society, there is an added obligation for us to struggle against the injustice of the system. (80)

In short, we all need to be activists. And until I find my way of being a race activist and a gender activist, I’m going to look at a lot of science and find it wanting. I’m going to see speculation about the evolutionary origin of this or that behavior as nothing but an exercise for privileged people. I don’t care what what human nature is. I want to know what human nature might be. I want to know about business as unusual. I want to hear from Vandana Shiva and Tyrone Hayes and others whose names I don’t know. I want the discourse to change.

That’s what postmodernism has done for me that science couldn’t. And that’s why I want science geeks to give postmodernism a break.

Update [9/2/10]: Eric Michael Johnson knows what I’m talking about.

22 Responses to “Forget science vs. postmodernism; give me pushback against the status quo”


  1. “we all need to be activists”

    Depending on how I interpret this statement, it seems either trivial or bizarre, so I’m clearly missing something.

    Are you suggesting that everyone needs to be trying to change the world in some way that they happen to think is a good idea?

    Or are you suggesting that everyone needs to be trying to change the world in some way that agrees with your own vision?

    Or are you assuming that everyone’s “activism” would be in the same general direction as you envision “activists” to be trying to go, some “universally good activism?”

    I see people talking about “activism” to mean radically different things, so that last suggestion, while it would make more sense of your exhortation for me, doesn’t seem plausible at first.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Hi Todd,

    What I mean is, it’s an objective fact that White folks and men benefit from the existing social order. As a White man who believes in upholding justice, I feel an obligation to speak out and act against the forms of power that benefit me at the expense of others. Does that help clarify?

    If it makes any difference to you, I’m much better at talking about this than living it, but recognizing my obligation is the first step.


  3. Ok, I think I get it, thanks for clarifying.

    I feel as if there are probably some exemplary cases where reasoning is shaped by gender and race and other tacit background stories and where deconstructing key concepts has helped make arguments for new ideas.

    I’m thinking for example of the shift in biological thinking from focusing extremely heavily on external environmental shaping of inherited mutations in a population, to instead increasingly considering all sorts of things that happen within and between organisms as part of evolution. This was a big deal in retrospect that probably required some sort of deconstruction of prevailing concepts in order to loosen their hold on the field at least a little, so evidence could be interpreted in new ways.

    Similarly the role played by molecular messengers in human life, once consigned to the interior of the skull but eventually became better understood as an informational network throughout the body.

    There were gender stories and political stories underlying these shift in perspective, and so I think the case can be made that “activism” of the sort you are talking about played a role in the acceptance of legitimate new theories. To me the role of activism and deconstruction was mainly to make it clear that a different perspective was possible, and once willing to look at evidence in a new way, the deconstruction was no longer interesting or useful to theorizing.

    So to me deconstruction is not a particularly good general principle, it is a limited analytical tool that helps loosen up overly constrained ways of looking at things, but also carries with it the seeds of its own undoing.

    Postmodernism traditionally takes on the role of showing how even our best logic fails us because it is not self-contained, it relies on a broad background that is continually shifting.

    That said, Postmodernism is of course not immune to its own deconstruction, a problem that logicians view as evidence of a fatal flaw in postmodernism and postmodernists are loathe to take seriously because it just isn’t on their radar screen of concerns.

    Just my own thoughts, for what it’s worth. I’m fascinated by the difference in the way we think about the same things.

  4. Eric Says:

    Thanks for this. Beautiful argument that I tried my best to understand and ended with one of my favorite points. We all must be activists. I feel these obligations and though I similarly am not the best at living them, do my best to spread them as much as possible. I’ve always held science in the highest regard, however poorly it is used (or how it is used to manipulate). Being an atheist I’ve found it hard to label, or rather cluster my morals together under some umbrella of commonality. If I’ve understood your piece as well as I think I have, postmodernism may be a good direction/outlet for me. If you could suggest some further reading along these lines I’d be very grateful.

  5. JR Minkel Says:

    Hi Eric, thanks for the comment. It sounds like you’re seeking to be inspired. I tend to be inspired by weird things — see my post on six books that politicized me. Of that group, for you I would recommend Clifford Conner’s A People’s History of Science and Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop. And give George Lakoff a try. I just read his book, Whose Freedom? and liked it, even if it wasn’t as radical as I might have liked. I’m told The Political Mind is good, too. If you think you’d be into gender issues, you might try The Trouble with Normal by Michael Warner. Let me know if any of these seem like what you had in mind.

  6. William Says:

    The article flowed along beautifully. I kept nodding “yup, yup, yup” to myself until I got to the end.

    The end … is what we should do in society every day. But it’s not science. What you prescribe … is … wrong for science.

    Marx was a beautiful descriptionist, but a bad prescriptionist. (In my view; but take this as simply exemplary)

    The role of science is simply to describe. Describe it through multiple lenses to get the view if you must … but describe.

    I end up feeling (and I apologize) as if you are a really really good man and someone who doesn’t understand science. (And, I know I will end up being the patriarchal whatever … but the comment was honestly and sincerely and heart-fully intended).

  7. JR Minkel Says:

    Hi William, don’t worry, you are not the patriarchal whatever! You seem like a very thoughtful person. In truth, I struggled a lot with the ending. There’s no particular reason why my desire to be antiracist and antisexist should conflict with my appreciation of science as an intellectual endeavor, but in my head they do conflict. I understand that scientists have to be free to discover the truth, but they still have the choice over which truths they set out to discover. I can’t help but feel that if scientists were all activists in the sense I’ve outlined, then science would be a different activity. Maybe all I want is equality of opportunity in the sciences, i.e., for women and non-White folks to be fully represented. Would science as usual survive such a transformation? That’s the question. I don’t know the answer.

  8. William Says:

    > I understand that scientists have to be free to discover the truth, but they still have the choice over which truths they set out to discover.

    Over time, as the science “process” (which is simply “mental hygeine” for the fact that our brains are twisted and not very good at facts) works — I don’t know if this is true. It certainly is true that we can choose the metaphors we use to describe and communicate the phenomena being modeled.

    > I can’t help but feel that if scientists were all activists in the sense I’ve outlined, then science would be a different activity.

    I don’t know. I’m seeing a major uptick in females with advanced degrees. Outstripping males by the raw numbers — and the women are getting there. Maybe not in ungraduate CS; but in post-graduate biology (for example), I think females may over-represent fairly soon now.

    > Maybe all I want is equality of opportunity in the sciences, i.e., for women and non-White folks to be fully represented. Would science as usual survive such a transformation?

    Agreed. We all want that — I hope! I think we’ll get to see soon. And speaking as someone who has spent time in R&D labs in Asia — I’d argue that it already is or even *has* survived.

    I should note that I’m speaking of the so-called hard sciences. I’m guessing that women are pretty well represented in the others already. (Could we wrong!)


  9. > I understand that scientists have to be free to discover the truth, but they still have the choice over which truths they set out to discover.<

    I don't remember exactly where I heard the phrase (I think it was Ian Hacking?) but someone once said that certain words were "elevator words." They automatically tend to raise the abstraction of loftiness of the discussion by their use, and that isn't always a good thing. "Truth" is like that I think. It takes us out of the realm of real examples and into an abstraction that sounds so important but really has a precise meaning only in logics. The phrase above I think is accurate, but perhaps goes up two floors too high I think.


  10. William, to me this is a beautiful turn of phrase, I admire it very much.

    I’m thinking that in retrospect, perhaps “paradigm shift” was a micron too strong, but I think it makes a lot of sense to remember that research programs do ask specific kinds of questions and take the answers to others for granted, and this shapes the way evidence is applied to theoretical concepts.

    In my mind, in the metaphor that applies more closely from my experience, we don’t undo and redo “truths” most of the time so much as we turn over the diamond to see different facets from different angles. Some are hidden behind others.

    What a wonderful discussion!


    • Oh sorry, William, I was talking about the “mental hygiene” phrase being beautiful.

      • William Says:

        TIS–

        I *think* the phrase “mental hygiene” came from a book by Alan Cromer called “Uncommon Sense” on how unlikely the development and precarious the propagation of the scientific method was for many years because it is not native to the way our brains process the world. Hence, even most scientists “don’t get it”. (His claim, not mine)

        Or I might be wrong. It’s been a long long time…


      • William: Thanks! I’ve put it on my wish list.

        From my perspective, a mind capable of accumulating specialized expertise is something more akin to a pattern engine than a logic engine. So the mind has certain natural defaults that are not strictly logical. We tend to see patterns from our previous experience and generalize from them, a powerful problem solving strategy that isn’t always what is wanted in science when direct empirical observation is needed.

        Then intelligence has its own traps, since we tend to use it for explanation and it often easier to explain away a mistake as to correct it.

        Then intelligence and expertise do not really compensate for each others’ traps.

        So even very smart, very expert people need “mental hygiene” to help keep some kinds of processes going where we want them to go.

        I suspect it is really a much bigger idea than just hygiene, maybe something to do with a separate kind of learn-able intelligence, but I don’t think we make much use of it in most cases. So maybe mental hygiene is a more realistic way to envision it at this point.

  11. JR Minkel Says:

    @everybody: Did I say something about human nature as it might be?

  12. JR Minkel Says:

    @Todd and William: I disagree with the notion that the scientific process is “not native to the way our brains process the world.” Read the first few chapters of A People’s History of Science. Medical botany, agriculture, navigation, stonework, metallurgy. Humans have been doing science a long, long time.


  13. I haven’t read Cromer, but I seriously doubt that he meant “scientific process” in the same way as you are using it, JR.

    You are using it to mean something akin to applied common sense in observing nature and drawing generalizations from it. I tend to agree with you that such thinking is in some loose sense “native” to the human mind. We have always had to think about cause and effect regarding natural things, just as other primates do as well, in an arguably different manner. Several recent books on “the scientist in the crib” and so on discuss this idea in developmental terms. I think the idea has merit.

    On the other hand, the extreme opposite argument that “scientific process” is a relatively recent cultural invention (that is, an “Age of Science” invention) takes the perspective that what we are talking about is a cultural endeavor requiring people to communicate, reproduce, and review each others’ ideas and even observations. That is, with the idea of weeding out the “idols of the mind” that bias individuals who inevitably reinforce their own perspective. That “scientific process” happens to only a trivial degree with ancient “scientists,” who were still arguably very successful in some ways just as ancient Roman “engineers” were remarkably successful without going to engineering school. But they didn’t use “mental hygiene” very much, so we have good empirical theories alongside ones that withstand only the most superficial empirical scrutiny but are attractive for other reasons.

    One could certainly argue over what value the larger cultural process provided us in terms of basic capacity for scientific insights, but not really over its existence. David Hull’s “Science as a Process” is as good as anything else I’ve seen on describing the ways in which scientific thinking in modern times is an evolutionary socio-cultural process rather than just applied commonsense.

    We would need specifics to say more about what is really “natural” to the mind or not about science. There is plenty of definitional wiggle room to legitimately make it nearly as cultural or native as we might want to.


  14. It was indeed Hacking who coined “elevator words.” His book, “The Social Construction of What” is a delightful non-combatants guide to deconstructionism and culture warfare in general. That’s where I remembered the phrase from.

    Some excerpts are online at:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=XkCR1p2YMRwC&lpg=PA22&ots=ND16U6Yjg2&dq=elevator%20words%20hacking&pg=PP9#v=onepage&q=elevator%20words%20hacking&f=false


  15. [...] an excellent essay on taking the science vs post-modernism debate beyond extremism over at Fistful of [...]

  16. cavall de quer Says:

    Delighted to find this article (through Mind Hacks. Indeed, we all should be activists and, I would venture to add, we can and should include species-ism in the list of causes to be active about.

  17. Wonks Anonymous Says:

    If you don’t care for Pinker, Chris at the late Mixing Memory blog had some blistering critiques of Lakoff.

  18. JR Minkel Says:

    @cavall: Hi, glad you enjoyed it. I would agree that ignoring other species is symptomatic of a larger problem.

  19. JM Inc. Says:

    Hi, JR. First time reader here, but I really had to comment on this.

    I come from what might be thought of as a hybrid position on the “science/postmodernism” issue, so-called, though I must say I consider that issue to be rather a tired derangement of sense on important questions facing our society. As with so much public discourse on so many subjects, the so-called science wars are merely intellectual flak expectorated to perpetuate academic and disciplinary turfdom and pettiness to the benefit incumbent power and to the detriment of balanced and civic-minded communitarian discourse.

    In the way that climate deniers endlessly hyperventilate and fulminate on the alleged almost always illusory misdeeds of handfuls of climate scientists to distract from their own stilted and vaulting arguments from positions of spectacular ignorance, their endlessly touted so-called scepticism, when merely in actuality their posturing is only the spectacular distraction from and derangement of the reality of the obscenity of global pollution and environmental pillaging for profit by and for a few to the detriment of the incomparably many; so the supposed science wars over so-called postmodernism, whatever that is meant to be, is merely a distraction and derangement from actually vital, actually useful and productive interdisciplinary and cross-campus, cross-cultural dialogue and exchange.

    It is always so telling when scientists remove their science hats in the name of science to defend it from thinkers they haven’t read, whose insights they don’t understand, whose language they readily admit to finding quite impenetrable, working in disciplines they have no interest in exploring or participating seriously in, part of a so-called movement they’re confident they can adequately characterise, whose participants and practitioners they self-congratulatorily ridicule when corrected on their bumptious misconceptions. You’d better believe it hasn’t the first or last thing to do with any form of science of any apt definition.


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