Scientists See Broad Attack Against Research And Reason

A rising tide of "irrationalism" in the United States and Europe is helping to fuel dangerous anti-science sentiments, according to a number of researchers and academics. Proof, they say, can be seen in the increased prominence given to postmodernist science studies in the universities, creationism, and alternative medicine. They claim that the spread of these and other untestable belief systems in society may destabilize science by skewing science education and diminishing public support for

Jul 10, 1995
Franklin Hoke
A rising tide of "irrationalism" in the United States and Europe is helping to fuel dangerous anti-science sentiments, according to a number of researchers and academics. Proof, they say, can be seen in the increased prominence given to postmodernist science studies in the universities, creationism, and alternative medicine.

They claim that the spread of these and other untestable belief systems in society may destabilize science by skewing science education and diminishing public support for experimental research.

"There is a widespread, powerful, corrosive hostility toward science," declares Paul R. Gross, University Professor of Life Sciences and director of the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia. "It's really toward scientists, by the way, but the confusion is universally made between scientists as persons and the body of knowledge that survives called science."

Postmodernist members of those disciplines engaged in science studies--sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, for example--counter that their critiques are, for the most part, friendly efforts to understand and not to undermine science and scientists. And some alternative medicine proponents say they welcome the role science plays in evaluating therapies.

Last month in New York, about 200 scientists and scholars concerned about the perceived growth in anti-science thinking met to hear speakers describe the problem and map out tactics to counter it. Several attendees from the groups being criticized at the meeting took issue with what they felt was the vitriolic tone of many of the speakers.

With mathematician Norman Levitt from Rutgers University, Gross cochaired the May 31-June 2 conference, sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences and called "The Flight From Science And Reason." Gross and Levitt are coauthors of the book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), which has become one of the clarion calls for those worried about anti- science.

The meeting's primary critical focus was postmodernism, a powerful intellectual shift in many humanities disciplines over the past few decades. Postmodernism has many facets--social constructivism and poststructuralism among them--but one of its central notions is that humans cannot perceive the natural world directly. Instead, perceptions must pass through such filters as language and culture, which define our understanding of the world.

It is this idea that angers some experimental scientists, who maintain that science is distinguished by its reliance on empirical data, by the fact that others can replicate its experiments, and by its predictive capability.

"All scientists have a fundamental faith--and it is a faith--that there is a real world out there that has rules that can be understood by rational means," explains David L. Goodstein, vice provost and a professor of physics and applied physics at the California Institute of Technology. "That's what science is all about, and all scientists must believe that. Those who say science is socially constructed, it's not written in nature, it's whatever the scientists and their masters want it to be--that's crackpot. That's where I draw the line."

Individuals pursuing constructivist lines of thinking suggest that differing worldviews serve different purposes for social and natural scientists.

"If I, as an anthropologist, just pull back from my insistence that we can only know the external world through our language, our culture, I can get along fine with the natural scientist who believes that he's finding out what is truly the case in the natural world," says Emily Martin, a Princeton University anthropology professor. Martin does ethnographic studies with immunologists and is married to a biophysics professor. "In order for natural scientists to carry on their work, to do what they do on a daily basis, to carry out experiments, and so on, they have to believe that they are finding out about the natural world. The only effect it would have on them if they shifted their worldview would be that they couldn't carry out their science anymore.

"It's part of the worldview of a natural scientist that the real world actually exists and they are actually finding out about it. Part of the worldview of an anthropologist is that the real world exists, but I can only know about it through my own language, my own culture, so I never can get at it except through these veils, these lenses, these gauzy filters. If they took away my worldview, I couldn't do my ethnography, either."

Gerald Holton, a professor of physics and the history of science at Harvard University, maintains that irrationality of the type described at the conference and espoused by researchers such as Martin is cyclical, having arisen periodically in modern times at least since the Romantic rebellion at the turn of the 19th century. Holton is the author of Science and Anti-Science (Harvard University Press, 1993).

"William Blake and Johann Wolfgang Goethe were outraged by contemporary science," Holton notes. "They called Newton the Satan, because he wanted a science which is consensual--what is right, what is fact, is only what can be agreed on by many people--whereas they felt what is important is the individual, the experience of yourself, by yourself, not the collectivized view of science that imposes a vision that has to be shared by many."

A number of speakers contended that research funding cuts proposed in Congress and religious fundamentalists' inroads into science education are far more serious threats than the internecine academic conflict with postmodernists. Fundamentalists were not represented among the participants at the meeting.

"It's not [the postmodernists'] fault that they're going to be cutting the funds for science, coming with a cleaver at us all," Bogdan Denitch, a City University of New York professor of sociology, told the meeting attendees. "That happens to be people entirely different who don't even know what postmodernism is, nor care about it. That comes from far more powerful forces, ranging from the Christian majority to the good folks who pass laws enforcing creationism as a logical and equal alternative to paleoscience and evolution. Those are the folks, in my opinion, who are at the cutting edge of the assault on rationality and reason in politics."

Some researchers from the disciplines being criticized at the conference found themselves in substantial agreement with the speakers over the role fundamentalists are playing in controlling research funding and educational priorities.

"The things that are endangering science are also endangering the social sciences as well, so that we're all in danger of having National Science Foundation and other funding sources cut back," says Rena Lederman, a professor of anthropology at Princeton and daughter of Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman. "And that's not good for any of us if we're interested in basic research."

Paul Kurtz, a professor, emeritus, of philosophy at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and founder of the Amherst, N.Y.-based Academy of Humanism, drew the meeting participants' attention to a recently released statement from 180 religious leaders opposed to patents on human genes and genetically engineered animals and plants. In published accounts, the reason given by several of the leaders was that humans and animals are creations of God and, as such, should not be patented as inventions.

"It may be that [gene] patenting ought to be overturned," Kurtz said, "but the reasons that are given are what I question."

Kurtz joined others at the meeting in declaring the rising popularity of alternative medicine as another indication of irrational thought, on a par with the growing number of reported UFO encounters, out-of-body experiences, and relationships with guardian angels. Belief in alternative medicine, however, might have direct human costs, Kurtz warned.

"It's clear that in the area of health there's a major assault on the scientific approach," he stated. "There is a clear and present danger. It's a danger to public health. The National Institutes of Health, for example, has a new section on alternative medicine, which is, perhaps, symptomatic [of this assault]."

While acknowledging that the four-year-old NIH Office of Alternative Medicine (F. Hoke, The Scientist, March 7, 1994, page 1) is likely performing serious, empirical studies of alternative therapies, Paul Gross contends that the money would be better spent on conventional possible treatments: "Most of the claims of miraculous cures from most of the varieties of alternative medicine--not all, but most--are patent nonsense on their face. Studies of placebos are worth doing, but those would be studies of placebos and not a comprehensive, worldwide study of acupuncture, for example, which in my view would be a waste of time." James Gordon is chairman of the Office of Alternative Medicine's advisory council and a clinical professor of psychiatry and community and family medicine at Georgetown University Medical School. Gordon, who did not attend the New York meeting, is also director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. He uses acupuncture with many of his patients, and declares that there are a number of "very good laboratory science and good clinical studies" in peer- reviewed journals supporting the efficacy of acupuncture. "What I'm struck by," he notes, "is that most of the people who are most vociferous in their attacks don't have a very solid foundation in the area which they're attacking."

Although proponents of alternative medicine were not represented among the speakers, one self-described past-lives psychotherapist rose to challenge the meeting as one-sided at one point and was summarily denounced.

Indeed, some academics from fields that were attacked at the meeting were dismayed at what they felt was a polarizing vehemence on the part of many speakers. Several cited as an example the talk given by Mario Bunge, a professor of philosophy and head of the Foundations and Philosophy of Science Unit at McGill University in Montreal.

"Walk a few steps away from the faculties of science, engineering, and medicine," Bunge suggested. "Walk towards the faculty of arts. Here, you will meet another world, one where falsities and lies are manufactured in industrial quantities. Here, some professors are hired, promoted, or given power for teaching that reason is worthless, empirical evidence unnecessary, objective truth nonexistent, basic science a tool of either capitalists or male domination, and the like. Here, we find people who reject all the knowledge painstakingly acquired over the past 5 million years.

"This fraud has got to be stopped, in the name of intellectual honesty. Let them do whatever they please, but not in schools, because schools are supposed to be places of learning. We should expel these charlatans from the university."

Barry Gross, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, made similar assertions: "The sole remedy at our disposal is to quarantine the anti-science brigades and inoculate the rest of the population against them. Scientists will have to devote some of their energy to systematic confrontation with the enemies of science."

Some of the intended targets of such broadsides who attended the meeting say that they see themselves as critics, certainly, but not as the "enemies of science." They suggest that a dialogue between the admittedly different perspectives might be more useful in bridging the gap.

"None of us agrees with everything published in the name of science studies," says Rena Lederman. "There's a lot of internal critique. I don't mean to deny that the academic students of science aren't frequently critical of aspects of science, but I don't take that to be a locus of dangerous anti-science. They're trying to understand how scientists do what they do, how scientists communicate their results, how science ideas are used by laypeople. They are engaged in a detailed analysis of the place of science in American and European culture, an important contribution to knowledge. It's certainly not a sign of some kind of anti-intellectual, purely political, ideological, know-nothing Luddite attack."

"It's a shame, almost a tragedy, that [the meeting speakers'] reaction has taken such an extreme and virulent form, almost hate-mongering, because they do have important things to say," observes Emily Martin.

Several social scientists in the audience complained that, while suffering withering criticism at the hands of several speakers, they were not given a voice at the lectern to respond.

Meeting organizers countered that it was their views that had been excluded from debate in recent years. The burgeoning numbers of postmodern academics who interpret the world as no more than a social construction, they said, have dominated discussion.

"The strong constructivists have been in charge, in control of departments of sociology, anthropology, and, to a very significant extent, history of science nationwide [in the U.S.] and in Western Europe for 15 years," says Paul Gross. "We are the oppressed. We have to find a voice, and so this meeting is our voice."

(The Scientist, Vol:9, #14, pg.1 , July 10, 1995)
(Copyright, The Scientist, Inc.)