Postmodernism and Anti-Science Movements

It is not surprising that in our age anti-science movements are growing strong. These may be put under four broad categories which sometimes overlap.

First there are the technology based anti-science movements. Here, the provocation is quite legitimate in many instances. Even with all the positive things that modern technology has brought to human societies—from clean drinking water and vaccines to telephones and airplanes—technology has also had countless negative impacts, ranging from pollution and deforestation to invasion of privacy and potential for nuclear holocaust. One may argue that many of these have resulted from human decisions to apply scientific knowledge, and are not the fault of knowledge itself, but such arguments are moot for most people. Besides, there are fields like genetically modified food and biotechnology which are wrought with grave dangers. So, already in the 1970s a number of critics of technology, like Jacques Ellul and Theodore Roszac instigated anti-technology activism and the related anti-science movements. Though some of their more extreme expressions do more harm than good, by and large these reactions have been helpful to the cause of civilization and social justice, for they rein in the irresponsible and greedy elements that often fuel rampant technology.

Next there are philosophical reasons for the anti-science movements, formulated by thinkers who bring their full logical prowess to show that a framework based on logic alone is untenable. They explore the flaws in the foundations of scientific thinking, and question science's claim to hold monopoly for a correct interpretation of the natural world. These are interesting perspectives in the academic arena, but when they spill over to the general public and uproot the public's respect for science, they can cause serious damage to the framework of reason and rationality in which science operates in its interpretation of the world. When reason and rationality are devalued or are equated with unreason in our pursuit to explain the world, superstition and mindless magic can take over with serious adverse impacts on society. Societies which are persuaded that rationality can be dispensed with can do immense harm to their peoples. In this sense philosophical anti-science is perhaps the most dangerous of all.

The third source of anti-scientism comes from traditional religionists who are quite upset that science has shaken the foundations of religions, uprooting culture, traditional morality, and faith in God. Fully convinced that that they have a moral obligation to defend these from the onslaught of materialism and atheism which seem to ensue naturally from crass scientism, they too have written and preached against science. There are representatives of such anti-science thinkers in practically every major religion in the world. Such reactions are understandable in so far as religions (in the best sense) are important for the spiritual well being of people. When science is insensitive to this need and it attacks every aspect of living religions, movements against it are inevitable.

Finally, there are the vestiges of ancient pseudo-sciences which also play a large role in the anti-science air that pervades the world. To this class belongs the purveyors of astrology, numerology, tarot cards, New Age cults, Ufology, and other mystery-mongers. They have been there in all cultures all through history, but they too have gained much from post-modernism which is generously welcoming to one and all in the arena of truth and knowledge. Up to a point pseudo-sciences may be amusing, and they provide a comic relief to the more serious pursuits of everyday life; but here again, when taken to extremes they can be more hurtful than entertaining.

Needless to say, many scientists and scholars are genuinely concerned with the postmodernist push for anti-science movements all over the world, if only because, as Gerald Holton reminded us (Science and Anti-Science), "it is prudent to regard the committed and politically ambitious parts of the anti-science phenomenon as a reminder of the Beast that slumbers below. When it awakens, as it has again and again over the past few centuries, and as it undoubtedly will again some day, it will make its true power known."

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