Postmodernist Rhetoric Does Not Change Fundamental Scientific Facts

Scientific Facts Few natural scientists have heard of philosophers Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, or any of their followers in the modes of literary criticism, historical analysis, and social studies known collectively as "postmodernist criticism." These approaches-also given new names, such as deconstructionism, structuralism, and social constructionism-question the justifications for authoritative statements on meaning or significance of facts or concepts in the natural s

Jul 22, 1996
Irving Klotz

Scientific Facts Few natural scientists have heard of philosophers Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, or any of their followers in the modes of literary criticism, historical analysis, and social studies known collectively as "postmodernist criticism." These approaches-also given new names, such as deconstructionism, structuralism, and social constructionism-question the justifications for authoritative statements on meaning or significance of facts or concepts in the natural sciences. While such views may be fine for literary, historical, or social criticism, they should have little pertinence in theory or experimentation in the life sciences.

As a communal enterprise, science strives to formulate statements that are true and objective. By true, we mean that the statements correspond to our observations of natural phenomena over time with progressively increasing accuracy. By objective, we mean that the statements have been purged of any prejudices and predilections of individual participants in the enterprise.

Antithetically, postmodernists assert that scientific views of nature are "social constructions." They are neither true nor objective, since there are no such things as facts. On the contrary, postmodernists claim that science is relative and subjective, the product of political, cultural, social, and religious influences, no more valid than other mythic systems, or narratives.

Contemporary postmodernists chastise scientists for ignoring new critical insights, which some contend could facilitate scientific advances dramatically. Some, such as feminist philosopher Sandra Harding, argue that we need to develop new processes using the perspectives of underrepresented groups (Whose Science, Whose Knowledge?, Cornell University Press, 1991).

In her essay, "Claims of Truth" (Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 14[3]:533-58, 1989), political scientist Mary Ellen Hawkesworth points out that "a fact is a contestable component of a theoretically constituted order of things."

Perhaps the most trenchant presentation of postmodernist view is that of the poet and classicist Anne Carson, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, who in a television program opined that scientists operate under the "happy delusion that there are such things as facts" (R. Selzer, Chemical and Engineering News, 73[17]:52-3, 1995).

So what is it that practicing scientists are ignoring? Why is it that scientists acquainted with writings about science coming from postmodernists in the humanities and social sciences find them cartoonishly distorted presentations?

Some two months ago, a magnificent parody of postmodernist analysis was published by Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University. His article, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" (Social Text, 46-47:217-52, 1996), is full of postmodernist jargon and solecisms that are combined with nonsensical scientific and mathematical statements and concepts. The opening paragraph of the satire claims that scientists cling to dogma imposed during the Enlightenment, "that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual being and indeed of humanity as a whole." The article was extensively and meticulously footnoted in 10 pages of references.

Sokal later pointed out in the May/June 1996 issue of Lingua Franca (6[4]:62-4) that the parody was an "experiment." He wanted to discover if a journal of cultural studies would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions." In the same article, Sokal expressed his concern about postmodernist thinking and its denial of the existence of objective realities. "Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless)," he wrote. "There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; fact and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise?"

Fundamental scientific numbers are objective realities, not social constructs, as asserted in postmodernist theory. For example, consider the velocity of light: 299,792,458 meters per second. Scientists claim this is a "fact." Is there really another truth about the reality of 299,792,458 meters per second being the velocity of light? In what sense is this a "happy delusion," or a fictive, subjective element in the contestable order of the world?

In postmodernist writing, we find assertions that class, race, and gender all frame our understanding of the world. In her book, for example, Harding points out that "gender, race, and class interests shape laboratory life and the manufacture of scientific knowledge." Just how such cultural factors affect truths in science is unclear.

The numerical value cited for the velocity of light has been established by dead and living white male Europeans and Americans. Not one of the nine digits in that number would be changed if the velocity of light were approached from the perspective of American Indian, Asian, black, Hispanic, or Pacific Island geocultural groups; or from a feminist theory of knowledge.

Let us consider other facts: 2.01588 grams of hydrogen combine with 15.9994 grams of oxygen to produce 18.01528 grams of water. Another example: a molecule of hemoglobin has a mass 64,000 times that of an atom of hydrogen. These numbers were also primarily established by dead white males of European and American ancestry. In what way would cultural affiliation change these facts?

One observation from the life sciences may also be appropriate. The ingestion of one ten-thousandth of an ounce of saxitoxin, a substance that occurs naturally in certain Pacific mussels and clams, by a wealthy, capitalist, white Euro-American male results in death. Is it likely that the effect would be different in an impoverished, socialist, black Hutu female?

Perhaps, however, it is concepts, abstractions, or theories of modern science that would benefit by formulation or expression from an underrepresented perspective. Postmodernist rhetoric argues that the content of any science is social. As Harding claims in her book, "Social sciences can provide the best models for all scientific inquiry, including physics. . . . 'Physics' is a bad model for physics."

Let us explore these social-construction insights with an example from physics: Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

There can be little argument that Einstein was a "social construction." Every human being becomes one from the moment the fertilized ovum is embedded in the uterine wall and receives sustenance and chemical information from the mother's vascular networks. But in what sense did class, race, and gender shape Einstein's creation of the theory of relativity? In what way would the social sciences provide the best model for scientific inquiry in the theory of relativity? This is still an active area in theoretical physics, so there is plenty of opportunity for a social scientist to demonstrate-on scientific grounds-that the most critical of social sciences can provide the best models for all scientific inquiry. Would some social scientist, such as Harding, using critical, comprehensively context-seeking analysis from the social sciences, venture to extract E=mc2-an intrinsic feature of nature-from relativity theory?

Recently, another postmodern theorist, Bruno Latour, a professor of sociology at the prestigious Ecole des Mines in Paris, undertook a semiotic textual analysis of Einstein's theory of relativity with the aim of testing the claim that the context of any science is social (Social Studies of Science, 18:3, 1988). Semiotics is a discipline that analyzes the functioning of signs and symbols in languages of all types. In the current postmodernist critical milieu in social studies, semiotic theory and constructs have been directed toward the natural sciences.

Latour's effort is an example of such an approach. In his exposition, however, he ignores the primary, original text of 1905 entitled, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," and analyzes instead a popular exposition published in a thin book by Einstein about a dozen years later. In the latter, Einstein used images and metaphors familiar to the layperson-a train moving along an embankment, observers on the train and on the embankment, Trafalgar Square, and so forth-none of which appears in the 1905 paper. These images are then visualized by Latour in technical semiotic terms and operations: "shifting out and in," "actants," "centers of calculation." This approach of Latour's strikes one as comparable to the recent textual analysis of William Shakespeare's 37 plays (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 12, 1994, section 1, page 16) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company that can be deconstructed into a two-hour public performance.

Latour uses his semiotic perspective to generate various dilemmas, described with metaphors of common experience in social, political, and economic life. He asserts, "What [Einstein] proposes is a series of 'minor' innovations." He also claims, "[Einstein's] relativity reestablishes reality by giving up absolutism."

In actual fact, the theory of relativity is anchored in absolutism-in the concrete of Einstein's two postulates: The velocity of light is a universal constant and the laws of physics are constant. He described these postulates as principles of invariance. An insightful textual analysis of the introductory sections of the 1905 paper would have recognized that the two "postulates" specify unchanging principles that serve as the foundations of the theory. In fact, Einstein called his creation an "Invariententheorie," a theory of invariance. The name "theory of relativity" was coined later in a review by German physicist Max Planck. Einstein resisted that name for years, although he reluctantly bowed to peer pressure. The relativistic features of time and space that led to the term "theory of relativity" are derived from the principles of invariance.

Postmodernist writers are infatuated with pretentious neologisms, such as rhetorical space, entropy of meaning, and gender valence. In rhetorical space, words are superfluid; they can fill a vessel of any shape, even climb up and over the walls unobtrusively and vanish. Postmodernist literature abounds in generalities and assertions of cosmic breadth, often laced with metaphors, analogies, and plays on words. Reason is replaced with rhetoric, logical arguments by emotional appeals.

Postmodernist views applied to the natural sciences will lead us wildly astray. It behooves us to recall Mephistopheles' strategy for destroying Faust, the hero of the Johann W. von Goethe drama who is in search of true and objective knowledge: "If you will only despise reason and science, the greatest of human powers, and let yourself be empowered by the spirit of lies through deceit and sorcery-then I've already got you for sure."

Irving M. Klotz is Morrison Professor, Emeritus, in the departments of chemistry and of biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology at Northwestern University.