The So-Called Science Wars And Sociological Gravitas

For two decades, disparagement of science has been among the products of an emerging academic multidiscipline-"science studies," or "sci-tech-studies" (STS) as it's known in the United States. Only recently has serious notice been taken, by a few scientists and other scholars, of the phenomenon. The general agreements and normal academic food-fights within STS have received little outside attention. Not all STS participants, by any means, disparage science. Good work is being done in the socia

Apr 28, 1997
Paul Gross

For two decades, disparagement of science has been among the products of an emerging academic multidiscipline-"science studies," or "sci-tech-studies" (STS) as it's known in the United States. Only recently has serious notice been taken, by a few scientists and other scholars, of the phenomenon. The general agreements and normal academic food-fights within STS have received little outside attention. Not all STS participants, by any means, disparage science. Good work is being done in the social study of science. Still, there is a major strain of antiscience in STS, although it can come-as it has since the 17th century-from other, more worrisome, sources. In any case, some of the most influential STS practitioners do belittle science and scientists. Their program is to show that science is not all it's cracked up to be, that it has an ugly side, that science is just one more "social myth" (as philosopher Mary Hesse proposed) among the many. This is a part of the vogue, among the intelligentsia, for derogation of Western culture, despite the fact that science ceased long ago to be a uniquely "Western" activity.

Before the recent effort to examine and put into plain language what STS folks say-and teach-there was no public response to their well-advertised discoveries about how science "really" works and about its content of "truth." Nor has there been strong internal opposition to STS antiscience, prominent examples of which are short on scientific or philosophical content but long on political posturing. The claim, usually, is that they're defending "democracy," or "the rest of us" (as does Evelyn Fox Keller in Academe, September-October 1995, page 10) against scientistic privilege.

Although there are now Ph.D. programs in STS, most practitioners originally came from the humanities and social sciences-sociology, literature, history, political science, anthropology. A few were philosophers; some had scientific backgrounds. What distinguishes STS, however, from ordinary history, sociology, and philosophy of science (I dare not use the pejorative "traditional") is widespread devotion to one or another brand of relativism-the position that there is no such thing as truth, no unitary knowledge, no "laws of nature" that apply in all places and to all human communities. There are only incommensurable knowledges, each one "constructed" by a specific "culture" (thus "cultural constructivism"). Objectivity, especially the vaunted objectivity of science, is therefore a self-serving myth, or-especially among feminist epistemologists-redefined to mean proportional representation.

Common sense recognizes this as absurd, and in this case common sense is on target; but academic cachet is not necessarily a reward for common sense: I admit that common sense is sometimes nonsense. Thus science, which has had unusual public respect for the reliability of its products, is claimed confidently to deserve no particular deference. Within important precincts of STS, science is just another business; the STS job, as more than one admired practitioner has explained, is to put science in its place among other belief systems. It insists that science is just another narrative that is beholden to, constructed by and for white, European, capitalist patriarchy. Some iconic works of science studies are indifferent to, some ignorant of, the content of the science they treat. Yet those works are taught in thousands of schools and colleges; their authors hope for high positions in scientific policy-making. If this is new to you and you are a working scientist, then you have some important reading to do.

Among the best-known science critics are some well-known femininst philosophers, many of the new multiculturists, postmodernists, eco-radicals, and purveyors of identity politics. I stress again that this description applies to a subset of sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and philosophers of science, probably to a minority among them. Nevertheless, their views have risen to dominance. And within the last five years this has led to a few books and one conference in explicit opposition-a drop in the bucket by the frenetic standard of science studies, which is an international movement well-supported by universities, foundations, and government agencies such as the National Science Foundation. Most recently, a book Norman Levitt and I wrote entitled Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrel with Science (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994) called attention to the phenomenon and prompted "Sokal's Hoax."

That was the submission, blind acceptance, and publication in a trendy "cultural studies" journal, Social Text, of a turgid paper ostensibly on quantum gravity (Social Text, 46-47:217-52, 1996). The paper, submitted by New York University theoretical physicist Alan Sokal, was in fact a paean to the postmodern-political "reconceptualization" of science. In it, the physics and mathematics are transparent nonsense; but the politics and quasi-philosophy are cleverly assembled quotations from the STS literature, flattering to the journal's editors and contributors.

This caper got quite a lot of notice, and its discussion, including fulsome defenses of STS and passionate denunciations of Sokal, continues apace, even in the pages of Le Monde (Dec. 20, 1996, and following issues). You might imagine that with egg on their faces, cultural studies entrepreneurs would have repaired to the ladies' and gents', respectively, to wash up, resolving to do better or at least to attend henceforth to the content of the science they study. But no: Academic scholarship used to be like that; now it is not. Some parts of academic life are a political game-as the best players insist-like all other human activities. So the spokespersons for STS deal not with the arguments of the opposition but with its motives; and for those commentators of an even weakly Marxist tendency, motives must be economic. Thus the "Science Wars," an expression due to Andrew Ross, one of the editors of Social Text and the unfortunate issue (meant originally to discredit Higher Superstition) that contains Sokal's paper. Hence the STS explanation of the response of "scientists": They're worried about declining grant support and looking to blame somebody.

Stanley Fish, the celebrated Duke University professor of English, berated Sokal on the editorial page of the New York Times (May 21, 1996, page A23) for violating the "tradition" of scholarly trust. He argued that science studies isn't against science; it just shows what science is really about. The rules of science are conventions, "like the rules of baseball." When, then, STS characterizes "rationality" as cultural imperialism or oppression, presumably, or science as driven by a "rape metaphor," or scientific knowledge as shaped by the military-industrial complex, that is not hostility. It's just cultural analysis. It is democratizing science for the good of all the people.

A characteristic entry of this genre was an opinion piece featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 26, 1996, page A52). In it, sociologist Dorothy Nelkin "explained" the activities of the small anti-antiscience band that way. But such explanations are symptoms of the indifference to facts now acceptable in academic life. "A surprising number of scientists are attacking the work of social scientists and humanists," she began. You might imagine that "surprising" number to be hundreds, or thousands, given, say, the output of the STS professions. Actually the number, by my best estimate, is less than a dozen. What motivates this "surprising" number? Well, according to Nelkin and others, money. Scientists have lived high on the hog; now funding is constrained and shrinking. Therefore, Nelkin opined, critics of STS panic about a possible loss of government largess. But there no evidence for this. Those few respondents who have scientific research grants are quite secure; and most respondents (the nonscientists) don't. It is an old political trick: discredit the opposition as feeders at the public trough.

STS scholars insist that science has failed to regulate itself, and its ethical failures have been discovered by STS. But there is no evidence of widespread ethical lapses or of systemic failure of regulation. The sociological claim ignores the facts: (1) science regulates itself more rigorously than any other scholarly discipline, (2) intermittent media spectaculars on "scientific fraud" are based upon no frequency data, absolute or relative to other professions, and (3) regulatory failure is not in science, but in the humanities and social sciences, where theoretical trial balloons and faculty high-jinks are usually ignored. See the Chronicle of Higher Education for March 7, 1997 (C. Leatherman, page A12), where a feminist observes that a feminist professor cannot, by definition, be guilty of sexual harassment.

Erosion of public trust in science, some STS practitioners assert, is due to scientific misbehavior; scientists make sociologists the scapegoats without understanding the sociology. Such gravitas and condescension are evident in Thomas W. Durso's article in The Scientist (Feb. 3, 1997, page 1), where the interviewees seem all to agree with Sal Restivo, a professor of sociology and science studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, quoted in the article as saying: "To be crude, the scientists are wrong. They don't understand the sociology, and they don't understand the social nature of the world in a profound way." Of course Durso's piece is about money-that is, about jobs. Its sense is that there will be no long-term effect of the "Science Wars" on STS. This assumption is hardly profound but probably correct.

Paul R. Gross is University Professor of Life Science, emeritus, at the University of Virginia. He is online at
As the Sokal hoax and other recent explorations show, however, it is "sociologists" who are ignorant of the science. Moreover, they delegitimize it by a relentless focus on harmful technology; on a few highly publicized misconduct cases, some of which have been dismissed; on "case-studies" that turn out to be worst cases; and on science as politics by other means. Abuses of technology, which certainly exist, are attributed to science, suggesting that science is irresponsible and needs STS to set it straight. Again the facts are otherwise. Leading voices against abuse of science and technology have been those of scientists. Look at the rosters of the most effective organizations opposing arms races, nuclear proliferation, pollution, species impoverishment, medical and corporate malfeasance. Lawyers there are, to be sure; but the core arguments and usually the leadership have been provided by scientists.

Defenders of radical STS do not respond to substantive issues raised by those who dispute antiscience. Steven Shapin, a professor of history and sociology of science at the University of California, San Diego, dismissed those issues in the Durso article. "Virology has its lunatics," he said, "so I'm sure there are lunatics in our field." And that's supposed to end it. The critics of STS are then accused of dividing the academy at a time when it is threatened. Is it possible that these distinguished social analysts really don't know who has divided the academy since the 1960s? It is not scientists, most of whom stick doggedly and, alas, narrowly to their lasts, but the purveyors of high Theory. For decades they have accused universities (and their colleagues) of complicity in the crimes of the West. Academic food-fights (not wars) have been going on for at least 900 years. Most of them have been trivial; but some have not. Some have led to religious wars. Since the current argument is about reason and truth, not about perks, it could be one of the important ones. For the sake of my peaceful retirement, I hope not.

Competent social study of science is ever more important as the dependence of human society upon science grows. That dependence will not be reversed, the new Rousseauians notwithstanding. What we need is not so much scientists savvy about sociology as social analysts who understand science-and that there is a big difference between an idea and an ideology.