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.