Reaction of Working Scientists to Postmodernist Criticisms

A number of philosophers of science have reacted to postmodernism in forceful ways. Most of these are people who have spent some time doing serious science. Just as the religious practitioner reacts with some anger when people who have had no religious experience whatever speak and write about religion as if it is some sort of a mental quirk, people who have known science first hand are  more irritated than amused when sociologists and philosophers pontificate on what science is all about. Mario Bunge probably echoed the feelings of a good many scientists when he wrote (In Praise of Intolerance to Charlatanism in Academia):

Over the last three decades or so very many universities have been infiltrated, though not yet seized, by the enemies of learning, rigor, and empirical evidence: those who proclaim that there is no objective truth whence “anything goes,” those who pass off political opinion as science and engage in bogus scholarship. These are not unorthodox original thinkers; they ignore or even scorn rigorous thinking and experimenting altogether. Nor are they misunderstood Galileos punished by the powers that be for proposing daring new truths or methods...They have mounted a Trojan horse inside the academic citadel with the intention of destroying higher culture from within.

Likewise, Paul Gross and Noman Levitt comment in their book, Higher Superstition, "The attempts to read scientific knowledge as the mere transcription of Western male capitalist social perspectives, or as the deformed handicraft of the prison house of language, are hopelessly naÔve and reductionistic. They take no account of the specific logic of the sciences and they are far too coarse to deal with the conceptual texture of any category of importantscientific thought."

Ridiculing the thesis of some postmodernist writers who regard science as just another literary narrative, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote (Fashionable Nonsense): "But scientific theories are not like novels; in a scientific context these words have specific meanings, which differ in subtle but crucial ways from their everyday meanings, and which can only be understood within a complex web of theory and experiment. If one uses them as metaphors, one is easily led to nonsensical conclusions."

Such arguments are not likely to convince postmodernists, because, on final analysis, postmodernism is another religion in that it has its tenets, doctrines, gurus, sectarian manifestations, and worldviews. Any attack on these, whether reasoned or not, is unlikely to result in a change of heart or mind on the faithful. Rather, it will produce counter-arguments and apologetic defenses.

As to the reaction of professional scientists to the postmodernist critics of science, some of them take philosophical criticisms of reductionism, scientific objectivity, scientific impasse in explaining consciousness, etc. quite seriously, and try to answer them in different ways. But the vast majority of working scientists are either ignorant of, or indifferent to, all these debates and discussions in the context of their own work. In the first half of the eighteenth century Bishop George Berkeley wrote a treatise with the impressive title: The analyst: or, a discourse addressed to the infidel mathematician, Wherein it is examined whether the objects, principles, and inferences of the modern analysis are more distinctly conceived, or more evidently deduced, than religious mysteries and points of faith. This was a masterly thesis, reasoned in its presentation, insightful in its detection of logical loopholes in the foundations of the calculus, sound in its criticisms of the developing field. It has been said that the treatise was prompted by one of the Bishop's friends who had been persuaded to atheism as a result of the astronomer Halley's arguments against Christian theology. Fortunately for humanity, the mathematicians of the time either took inspiration from it to inject greater rigor in the foundations of their subject, or simply ignored it, and progress of mathematics wasn't hindered in any significant way by the Berkeley book.

Science is in a similar situation now. Postmodernist critiques are to science what Berkeley's Analyst was to eighteenth century calculus, only on a much grander scale.  Some of the criticisms against science may be valid up to a point at the philosophical level. Many scientists also feel that their status in society has been adversely affected by postmodernism. Thus T. Theocharis and M. Psimopoulos wrote in Nature (329, 0ctober 1987):  "Having lost their monopoly in the production of knowledge, scientists have also lost their privileged status in society. Thus the rewards to the creators of science's now ephemeral and disposable theories are currently being reduced to accord with their downgraded and devalued work, and with science's diminished ambitions."

It is not clear who else is producing new knowledge. In anything, serious and significant scientific work at the Salk Institute or in any of the countless laboratories and research centers in the world has not been affected in any way by the publication of Latour's book. Productive work in physics has been going one even after Feyerabend's diatribe against method. Calls for returning to Vedic science and astrology notwithstanding, modern scientific research institutions devoted to high energy physics, radio astronomy, neuroscience, information technology and virtually every branch of modern investigation are flourishing in India. Even while decrying Western hegemony, American imperialism, and Western culture, Iranian physicists are taking fission cross sections, calcium channels, and quantum mechanics quite seriously.

Most working scientists ignore philosophical vituperations against science, against its lack of universality, its inadequacy in claims of objectivity, etc.  They regard these as the work of modern scholastics who write books and present papers at conferences, utilizing every contrivance generated by the science which postmodernism does not tire of castigating in all conceivable ways. To borrow a phrase from show business, they say, "the science must go on!" So each and every day, thousands of practicing scientists work in laboratories and research centers all over the world, exploring further the secrets of matter and energy and the universe at large, searching for new planets in distant star systems, measuring temperature variations all over the world, searching for the causes intractable diseases, looking deeper into how neurons fire and why, experimenting at extremely low temperatures, figuring out how gravity can be unified with the three other fundamental fields, constructing thinking machines, and doing a thousand other exciting and impacting things in the face of which all scholarly postmodern declamations against science seem like mere noises.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!