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Science and Superstition

(A review of Gross and Levitt’s 1994 Higher Superstition)

Academic war

The Arts have declared war on the Sciences — a war for the soul of modern man. If this sounds too apocalyptic, anyone inclined to dismiss it should first study the evidence presented in a new and important book.

Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science is a sober description of the anti-science campaign of numerous U.S. ‘humanists’ in numerous arts departments today. Waged on a number of fronts (philosophical, literary, environmental, feminist, and other) its headstrong irrationality is what leads the authors to regard it as Higher Superstition—for Higher Education it plainly is not.

Superstition consists of irrational and unreasoning belief, founded on fear and ignorance. In the old days the uncomprehending ignorance of science by arts men was either a minor worry or a joke. But there’s nothing funny about it in an era which has seen whole departments constituted as bureaus of anti-scientific disinformation, a tidal wave of books and periodicals, and university appointments which permit and encourage the expression of hostile ignorance at the highest levels. An arrogantly obscurantist attack is being mounted in which, in the authors’ words, “the proliferation of distortions and exaggerations about science, of tall tales and imprecations, threatens to poison the intellectual cohesion necessary for a university to work”.

Paul R. Gross is University Professor of Life Sciences and director of the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia. Norman Levitt is Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University. Both are men of distinction in their fields. They agree—and who doesn’t?—that some kind of monitoring of science is necessary.

But it’s just as necessary that the monitors know what they’re talking about. Gross and Levitt tell of books pontificating about the intellectual crisis of contemporary physics, whose authors have never troubled themselves with a simple problem in statics; essays that make knowing reference to chaos theory, from writers who could not recognize, much less solve, a first-order linear differential equation; tirades about the semiotic tyranny of DNA and molecular biology, from scholars who have never been inside a real laboratory, or asked how the drug they take lowers their blood pressure.

The catechism of good and evil now taught in many arts departments gives even the most ignorant, malicious and irresponsible lecturer the moral authority to indict physics and chemistry worldwide—indeed, the greater his ignorance the more confident the indictment. This blind “animus toward science”, write Gross and Levitt, is symptomatic “of a certain intellectual debility afflicting the contemporary university: one that will ultimately threaten it”.

The fate of universities and university science teaching is their main concern. But the matters discussed in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science are every bit as important for people in the humanities to digest. What the authors undertake is a lucid discussion of the present academic attack on our culture generally, from Cultural Construction and Postmodernism to Radical Feminism and Deep Ecology, from the paranoid tales being told about AIDS as a wicked invention of capitalistic medicine to the sort of absurdity which discovers “experiments in aeronautical engineering” in African wood-carvings of birds.

But isn’t this sort of thing so nonsensical that it stands automatically self-condemned? How could the teaching of eco-radicalism, for example, possibly displace chemistry, or even put it under the least pressure? And even if this happens in America surely it can’t happen here?

Not immediately perhaps. But three things should be noted. Firstly, this is a war of attrition involving successive campaigns. Initially this has meant spreading alarm and confusion among non-scientists to poison the social and political environment of science. Next, in a climate of mounting criticism and hostility, young people will be discouraged from embracing scientific careers. Finally it is hoped that the more wicked sciences will be starved of funds and gradually wound down. No doubt this is some way off, but the incessant ignorant agitation about “chemicals”, for example, indicates that the first stage is well under way.

Secondly, it’s a big mistake to underestimate the determination of the ‘academic left’ to overturn existing curricula. In large areas of the arts this has already happened. Thirdly, although Higher Superstition has evidently gone a good deal further in America than in Australia, experience shows that it’s only a matter of time before what happens in the US is faithfully copied here.

The value of Gross and Levitt’s book for Australian readers is that it enables us to learn in advance about the anti-science superstitions which have such a grip on US arts departments, and the seriousness of the war now being waged.

Cultural constructions inc

But first one has to master the funny phrases the barmy army in the arts employs. For example, I once heard an anthropology professor say something was “culturally constructed” three times in two consecutive sentences. What did the poor man mean? Well, this is largely a variation of the old Marxist dogma that collective forces — History, Culture, Ideology, Economics — always tell us far more than the personal gifts and achievements of individual men and women. In keeping with collectivistic dogma C.C. Inc. constantly seeks to deny the contribution, and intellectual and moral responsibility, of individuals and individuality.

Several writers even claim that the theory of relativity was “culturally constructed”, arguing that Einstein’s part was relatively minor, and that his ideas were little more than an intellectual reflection of social trends. Just a sort of accidental effect, really. If you believe Stanley Aronowitz, author of Science as Power, Einstein hardly knew what he was saying: he was just an unconscious actor in the “cultural discourse” of late 19th-century European capitalism and imperialism. This thesis is “staggeringly silly” according to Gross and Levitt, and made all the sillier by Aronowitz’s obvious ignorance of physics. But no member of C.C. Inc. would worry about that.

While denying that the truth-seeking activity of men like Einstein is part of the game, the main ambition of C.C. Inc. is more malignant: it is to deny the concept of scientific truth itself. For cultural constructivists the notion of truth is replaced by arbitrary conventions, rules or decisions: truth, we are told, is no more than what it is expedient to believe. In this way the unmistakable and enduring truth-seeking character of science itself is assimilated to collectivist dogma — something illustrated in the writings of Bruno Latour.

Cute, paradoxical, rhetorically ingenious, the author of Science in Action sees laboratory life as a war of all against all. According to Latour each researcher is trying to dominate the rest and compel them to adopt his view — the facts of the case have nothing to do with it. He seizes on an Obvious and healthy aspect of laboratory life—that men and women compete in their research—and then caricatures the whole enterprise as nothing more than a power struggle, and its results as nothing more than expedient beliefs.

It follows from Latour’s “theory” that if five people agree with the statement “it is raining”, this is not because it’s actually raining, or because of the verdict of meteorological science—it’s because by bullying and intimidation a baseless opinion has been imposed as the collective agreement of the group. In this reductionist parody, scientific research is “just” a power game, while truth is “just” the outcome of power.

“The central ambition of the cultural constructivist program—”, write Gross and Levitt, “to explain the deepest and most enduring insights of science as a corollary of social assumptions and ideological agenda—is futile and perverse”. Yet in the humanities the facetious mendacities of a Bruno Latour are widely admired. For the benefit of a larger public his book was both translated and distributed by the Open University in the UK. How can this be?

The realm of idle phrases

Wordy people of the kind found in arts departments have a high opinion of words. This is understandable. The trouble is that some of them become “intoxicated with their own verbosity”, are then seized by delusions of verbal grandeur, and may even come to imagine that reality itself is all words and stories—and nothing else. “Words Rule. OK!” is the slogan on their banderole.

A belief in the infinite power of the merely verbal, a conviction that he who masters the word masters the world is central to that realm of idle phrases known as “post-modernism” (hereafter PM) an utterly misleading term which means exactly the opposite of what it says. The entire thrust of postmodernism is premodern, prescientific, and both pre and anti-maths. That much of the world can be described by mathematics very much better than by words—a basic assumption of modern science—is to such people as false as it is wicked.

As with C.C. Inc. we’re told that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, and certainly no such thing as scientific truth. Once again knowledge is reduced to expedient beliefs—but this time beliefs embodied in the stories people tell. Every­thing in this world of “narratives” is relative: tales told by idiots, tales told by politicians, and tales told by physicists about atomic particles—according to PM they’re all just stories and their truth status is the same.

Who but literary intellectuals, one wonders, could possibly believe such stuff? But they do—and there’s a paranoid twist where things get nasty. The capitalist ruling classes tell stories which reinforce their domination, holding entire populations permanently in thrall. These stories are called discourses of power, and it’s a lucky student in a modern arts department who can avoid being asked to write about them. True enlightenment consists of recognizing that discourses of power lurk everywhere (in McDonald’s advertising, in weather reports, in relativity theory), and postmodern literary intellectuals who have experienced this blinding revelation feel qualified to sit in judgment on everything.

The results are hilarious. Literary folk are more at home with figures of speech than with figures. As George Steiner ruefully noted, “Having no mathematics, or very little, the common reader is excluded (from science). If he tries to penetrate the meaning of a scientific argument, he will probably get it muddled, or misconstrue metaphor to signify the actual process”. Yet mathematical illiteracy hasn’t stopped a whole range of highly-paid and prominently-appointed American professors in the humanities—Andrew Ross, Steven Best, and Katherine Hayles are those discussed by Gross and Levitt—from “vaporously pontificating” on such matters as “linearity” (moralized as a Bad Thing), or carrying on with a “megalomaniac pretentiousness” about chaos theory (moralised as a Good Thing).

In a recent 640-page compendium, ZONE 6—Incorporations, several leading postmodern gurus can be seen amateurishly trying “to pass off mere verbal tinsel as mathematical knowledge”. Here and elsewhere the effect of their misunderstandings is at best to sow confusion, and at worst to demean or deny the true significance of everything they touch.

Postmodernism, Gross and Levitt conclude, is “prophetic and hortatory rather than analytic”, elevates wishful thinking over intractable fact, is systematically hostile to science, and contains whole shiploads of arrant nonsense. So why worry? What is worrying about PM’s collection of “intellectual misadventures” is that they “are so well received in non-scientific academic circles, especially on the left, [providing] the route to publication, tenure, reputation, and academic authority for a growing body of would-be scholars”.

Feminist augury

In the kind of superstition rife in radical feminism it is taken for granted that science is just a “male way of knowing”. Science wrongly values reason over emotion, objectivity over subjectivity, mechanism over organism—all of them things that a new and caring feminine science will reverse.

Taking a cue from PM’s literary analysts, who spend their lives fussing over the meanings of words, the feminist critique of science minutely examines the writings and thoughts of scientists for sinister metaphors, or omens of the writer’s intent, or psychological clues of the kind which so hideously [they say] deform the work of Francis Bacon. Four hundred years ago Bacon had rashly described his experimental method as a way of “forcing nature to give up her secrets”.

Well we all know about force don’t we? Especially when a ‘her’ is involved. Force means violence. Violence means rape. And when (say the augurers) the father of Western science, Francis Bacon, writes of scientific experiments designed to ‘force nature to yield her secrets’ only a fool could mistake his intention.

Believe it or not nothing more substantial than this allows Sandra Harding, for example, in her popular and widely used The Science Question in Feminism, to ask ‘why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s law as ‘Newton’s rape manual’ as it is to call them ‘Newton’s mechanics’?’

Margarita Levin’s calm and measured comments in The American Scholar, Winter 1988, say most of what needs to be said on this strange matter. Author Harding had been comparing different figures of speech. “Harding is unaware”, writes Levin. “that she has already answered her own rhetorical questions. The machine metaphor is fruitful; the rape metaphor is not… That is why rape metaphors are irrelevant to any analysis of extant scientific concepts, and why no one today speaks of Newton’s rape manual.”

But fantastic extrapolations from figures of speech are central to feminist science critique. Metaphor-mongering is endemic. It is of paramount interest to the authors of “The Importance of Feminist Critique for Contemporary Cell Biology” that in scientific accounts of fertilization “the fertilizing sperm is a hero who survives while others perish…Whereas the ovum is a passive victim, a whore, and finally, a proper lady whose fulfilment is attained.” Again, “Metaphor plays a central role in the construction of mathematics,” write the authors of a 1993 paper. Toward a Feminist Algebra, concerned with politically correcting high-school algebra problems.

“No! It does not,” Levitt retorts with feeling. “Speaking as a mathematician who has seen an awful lot of mathematics ‘constructed’ and has constructed some himself, [I] can testify to the uselessness of metaphor in mathematical invention, though analogy—a rather different notion—can be of some help.”

Along with the supposed evils of “linearity” Isaac Newton’s ideas are regularly denounced as male-chauvinist. But as Margarita Levin notes, one can play “the gendered metaphor” game with any scientific discovery. “You could argue that Einstein’s theory of relativity is more masculine than Newton’s classical mechanics because relativity uses non-Euclidean geometry … Or you could argue that Einstein’s theory is more feminine than Newton’s because it offers no absolute reference frame …” It is a game which can be played forever, and makes absolutely no difference to reality: “Masculine or feminine, the solar system is the way it is.”

The gates of Eden

Nowhere does the gale of superstitious anti-scientific rhetoric blow more strongly than on ecology’s wilder shores. This is to be expected: extreme environmentalism is synonymous with romantic primitivism—with the pre-modern intellect­ual milieu in which sorcerers and witches flourished.

As Gross and Levitt observe, the forests of eco-radicalism are so thick with superstition that the “fixed demonology” of the movement has made rational policy discussion nearly impossible. The “greenhouse effect”, or “carbon”, or “nuclear power”, or “hydro-electric dams” now have the sort of diabolical status which “completely exclude the careful, unemotional weighing of costs and benefits, of relative risks and relative certainties that is a necessary part of making pragmatic judgments”.

Relative risk? What’s that? As Michael Fumento writes in his 1993 book Science under Siege “Alarmists and people subjugating science to political ends don’t want you to consider relative risk.” Indeed, “many of them haven’t the slightest idea what relative risk is … They want to be able to present you with a simple model that says that since this or that has been alleged to be harmful, it must be banned or at least heavily regulated.” As with those who in medieval times wanted prompt action taken against witches, such people feel that the more alarming the rumours and allegations—the more purely emotional they can make the public response to words like ‘chemicals’ or “nuclear waste” or “dams”—the better.

Yet the science-hating primitivism of eco-radicals is not without inconsistency. For global warming (if it’s a fact) was not discovered by Amazonian Indians. Nor was the ozone hole (if it’s a fact) first apprehended by some spirit-worshipping herdsman in Tibet. It was Western science itself, in the course of its inquiries, which discovered the very things which inflame the radical mind. And only Western science can tell us what to do about them.

Some of us might see a contradiction here—how can a mortal enemy be also the source of one’s own enlightenment?

Not a problem! A stuffy concern with “contradictions” (we are told) is typical of those unable to break with Baconian science and logical positivism—i.e., with science and logic. Such people fail to see that since all knowledge is partisan, partial, and “culturally constructed”, it is both natural and appropriate to exploit whatever scientific reports serve one’s purposes and to ignore the rest. All’s fair in love, war, and ecology.

It is instructive to study Gross and Levitt’s rebuttal of Jeremy Rifkin’s arguments in his 1992 Beyond Beef, a book they characterize as “a blend of hyperbole, misinformation” and flagrantly selective favourable sources. It takes them almost two-and-a-half pages, drawing on a wide range of disciplines, to deal with the fallacies and distortions in only five lines of the original text.

The time and effort involved explain much about the steady progress of the superstitionists, and suggest that it might pay scientists to establish an organization, along with an appropriate war chest, specifically to combat the enemy. Not, be it emphasized, for “public relations”, but for full-time self-defence.

Does it matter?

Aids, animal rights, and Afrocentric delusions of grandeur complete Higher Superstition’s survey of modern irrationalism. Each of these topics is replete with absurdity. But of just as much interest is why the doctrines involved should so strongly appeal to members of the academic left.

Gross and Levitt make a number of suggestions. There is first the frustration of having finally to abandon revolutionary politics—a frustration which has led to an obsessive preoccupation with social theories.

Also involved may be an envious academic “settling of old scores” between the sciences and the arts. Perhaps most important is a perception of science as something so challenging as a source of intellectual interest, a source of power, and a meritocratic source of social hierarchy, that the literary left is impelled—willy nilly, and however desperate and implausible their arguments may be—to denounce science and seek its overthrow,

Does it matter? Modern irrationalism is already having a devastating effect on science education: “Many students in lower-level science courses are not only ignorant of science but are ignorant as well of the fundamental frame of mind, the attitudes, the intellectual rhythms needed if one is to acquire useful knowledge.

Is it all a storm in a conservative teacup? But responsible figures on the left are also concerned with what is happening in the universities. A true-believing socialist like Bogdan Denitch warns in After the Flood of “a broad, generational, post modernist current of irrationalism … which is at its core elitist and antidemocratic … [which] includes the rejection of science … [and] is permeated by utter contempt for the warp and woof of genuine democracy, for discussion, give and take, compromise, and elected representative bodies”.

While leftish philosopher-of-science Alan Chalmers at Sydney University is reported as “viewing social trends in the contemporary world with dismay and alarm …”, but also of believing that the urgent problems which face us are not “helped by construals of science as a capitalist male conspiracy or as indistinguishable from black magic or voodoo”. As for the looming prospect of having courses which seek to impose a romanticized vision of voodoo on American science students, right-of-centre sociologist Lewis Feuer predicts:

“If multiculturalists succeed in acquiring control of the curriculum and if they then institute a kind of force-conditioning of students with the “literatures” and ideological apologia for backward peoples, the consequences for the universities will be quite other than they foresee.

Science students, their essential preparatory studies growing all the time, will finally rebel against the humanities requirements, and for all practical purposes, the colleges of science will secede from their traditional association with the liberal arts college … The free marketplace of students and professors will, unless politically intimidated, decide for those institutions loyal to scientific values.”

Will it come to this? Maybe not. But if it does, the publication of Gross and Levitt’s invaluable book means that no-one can say they weren’t warned.

[A version of this review appeared in both the I.P.A. Review and the Weekend Australian. A booklet edition was published by The Escutcheon Press in November 1996. Higher Superstition, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1994.]

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