Fun_People Archive
24 May
Higher Superstition

Content-Type: text/plain
Mime-Version: 1.0 (NeXT Mail 3.3 v118.2)
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 24 May 96 13:55:52 -0700
To: Fun_People
Subject: Higher Superstition

Forwarded-by: Keith Bostic <>
From: "Rob Pike" <>

        Higher Superstition:
                The Academic Left and its
                Quarrels with Science
        by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt
        Johns Hopkins University Press

reviewed by Rob Pike for 'Skeptical Eye', the newsletter of the
National Capital Area Skeptics

A few years ago there was a fight at Stanford University over the
humanities curriculum.  The core of the disagreement was (putting it
politely) whether the longstanding `western civilization' curriculum
represented an overly narrow view of philosophy, literature, and art.
The Stanford debate became a reference point for people on all sides
of the argument about political correctness and was thereby blown out
of proportion.  Underlying the fracas, though, was an intellectual
phenomenon worth investigating.

Over the last twenty years or so, a body of thought has developed and
spread widely through the humanities departments at many universities.
Reduced and simplified dramatically, the essence of the thinking is
that culture is a relative thing:  what works for me might not work
for you; what is a classic in my culture might be unknown or
meaningless in yours.  Once this viewpoint began to dominate the
discourse at universities, it was bound to influence the curriculum,
as the students and faculty at Stanford learned.  The influence could
be good or bad, depending on your perspective:  on the one hand,
greater inclusiveness looks like a good thing; on the other hand, few
intellectuals are prepared to abandon all notions of merit.  By any
standard, precious few people have written as well as Shakespeare.

What does all this have to do with science?  The answer should be,
nothing.  The purpose of science is to analyze and understand the
objective structure underlying reality.  It has succeeded:  the modern
world is full of the fruits of scientific progress and the physical
laws as we now know them are literally universal.  Shakespeare was a
genius, no doubt about it, but his `truths' are arguably part of our
culture and may not apply in foreign cultures, let alone a distant
galaxy.  Science's laws do, though.  They are just not up for debate.

At least, we would hope they're not.  These relativist theories'
proponents - called the `Academic Left' by Gross and Levitt -
fortified by their successes throughout the humanities, have begun to
take on science.  Consider the cultural constructivists, a tribe of
academics who examine all thinking from the context of the culture in
which it derives.  They argue that western civilization begat science,
so science and its results must be branded by some of western
civilization's viewpoints.  This view may contain a nugget of truth:
Linnaeus, for example, classified plants in his famous hierarchy using
the male sex organs to define class, female sex organs to define
order, and so on down.  Male mattered more to Linnaeus than female,
and it shows.  Today, though, Linnaeus's hierarchy is long gone except
as a label we apply to the modern taxonomy; science's inherent
self-correction erased Linnaeus's mistake and moved toward the
fundamental truths about the organization of life.  This is not to say
that scientists all agree about every interpretation or theory;
nonetheless, they accept that there is an underlying reality to be
discerned.  The cultural constructivists, however, know too little
about science to understand its processes; they have no interest in
science qua science, only in its cultural origins.  But science
without its results is nothing at all.  In their attacks upon science,
the cultural constructivists ignore the understanding of objective
reality it has given us, so they not only miss the opportunity to find
the few interesting examples, they make fools of themselves.

Stanley Aronowitz is a leading sociological theorist who has written,
for example, about quantum mechanics, a subject he apparently doesn't
understand at all.  Consider Aronowitz's version of the history of
science after the First World War:  Europe was in a deep spiritual
malaise after the travails of the war and its citizens sought a way
out of determinism and causality.  The hero Heisenberg, recognizing
the need, came up with the uncertainty principle and the public demand
was met.  Of course, this is egregiously, hilariously, spectacularly
wrong.  But that doesn't stop Aronowitz from pressing on, citing names
and physics jargon in a mad rush to show how the uncertainty principle
demonstrates that quantum mechanics, being fuzzy, is invalid.  He
ignores the fact that quantum mechanics, fuzzy or not (it's not), has
given us just about everything modern in the modern world:  radios,
televisions, computers, CDs; the list goes on.  Despite its name, the
uncertainty principle is a fanatically precise idea with hard
predictive power.  It states categorically what can and cannot be
done, and it is utterly right, an objective truth.  It has nothing
whatever to do with culture and, despite Aronowitz, it stands as a
testament to the predictive power of science.  Aronowitz just doesn't
get it.

Neither, it seems, do most of the other members of the Academic Left.
This laughable example is just one of hundreds in `Higher
Superstition', almost all perpetrated by leaders of the new wave in
the humanities.  The fundamental point they miss is that their
techniques for analyzing cultural phenomena may be relevant to
scientists but not to science.  Einstein may be dead, white, and male,
but his science is right.  His culture has nothing to do with the
physical laws he discovered.

If `Higher Superstition' were not so well annotated the story it tells
would be literally unbelievable.  The deconstructionists dissect the
scientific texts to extract their true meanings from the text rather
than the science being reported.  To the postmodernists, science
becomes a `narrative' to be studied as an equal with any other
`narrative'; it has no more intrinsic merit than astrology or
phrenology.  The feminists quarrel with science because, being a
patriarchy, its actions are the male ones of attacking, plundering,
and raping the feminine Nature - Mother Nature, one assumes.  The
Africanists argue that ..., oh, never mind.

Gross and Levitt gleefully go about their business of presenting and
explaining (if that is the word) what these people are trying to do.
Did you know that logic is a product of western society?  There is a
tribe in Africa with a bizarre form of numeracy and logic that,
because it is alternate, is as valid as `our' logic.  Of course, one
mustn't point out to the purveyors of this analysis that their own
reasoning is based on the logic they're attacking.  Such
inconsistencies abound in the thinking of the Left; consider
deconstructionism, which reduces all text to meaninglessness - all
text, that is, except the deconstructionists' own writings.

One of the techniques Gross and Levitt expose is the absorption of
jargon without understanding what it means.  Aronowitz's lesson about
the uncertainty principle illustrates this, but not as well as
Derrida's statement that ``The discourses of philosophy, linguistics,
and sociology must be supplemented by a truly psychoanalytic account
of AIDS by concepts drawn from the discourse of mathematics,
principally post-Euclidean geometry, which provides for topological
mappings based on a non-Euclidean concept of space.''  Gross and
Levitt explain that Derrida is laboring under an etymological mistake:
he believes that topology, the mathematical study of form, is related
to topos, a literary term that describes a rhetorical or narrative
theme.  In other words, Derrida thinks topology is the study of
rhetorical devices.  As for non-Euclidean, to a scientist that is a
long-winded way of saying non-linear, and in trendy culture and
idiomatic speech these days, linear thinking is bad, lateral thinking
good.  Derrida is mixing metaphors and math and making a muddle.

How can anyone be taken in by such poppycock?  And does it matter?
Near the end of the book, Gross and Levitt address these points and
reflect the analysis back on the culture of the Left.  Briefly, since
science is the foundation of western society, what better place to
start the attack if your goal is society's overthrow?  Gross and
Levitt place this position in the context of the development of 20th
century critical thinking, right up to the recent fad of political
correctness.  The PC debate is not the subject of the book, however:
the authors are, rightly, more concerned about the attitudes of the
leading thinkers in the universities than in student fads.  If the
current generation is being taught by people with so little
understanding of or even respect for science, how can we guarantee
science will not be affected?  There are already courses being taught
in `feminist science' and the trend is sure to continue.

Gross and Levitt admit they have no solutions to offer, but their book
is educational, funny, and delightful reading, at least after the
slow, overwritten introduction.  It does offer some arguments to toss
back at the muddleheadedness around us.  For example, I've never known
the right response to make when confronted by someone espousing
Chinese medicine as a replacement for my own doctor.  ``Western
medicine doesn't know everything.''  Well, neither does Chinese, but
that's not the point, as the authors make clear:  what is important is
that the alternative is presented not because of what it is, but
because of what it is not.

The next time someone complains to me about science and modern
society, I will ask the complainer to turn off his word processor,
throw away all his pens and pencils, and burn all his printed
textbooks and xeroxed articles.  Then, in solidarity with the
long-dead white male Francis Bacon, I will ask him to take off his
eyeglasses when he attacks my culture and its incontrovertible

prev [=] prev © 1996 Peter Langston []