The Intersection

I just gave a speech at George Mason, to a much more scholarly and academically oriented crowd than I’m used to addressing. The event, after all, was entitled “Who Owns Knowledge” and was sponsored by the cultural studies Ph.D. program. There was a time when these sorts of scholars, who study science in its social context, were at absolute loggerheads with members of the scientific community over the extent to which scientific knowledge is a) socially constructed; and b) profitably deconstructed.

I want to argue that those days have at least begun to be eclipsed, thanks to a clear and present crisis over political attacks on science that should bring the scientific community and the cultural/science studies set into strong allegiance. My evidence? Well, there’s a really interesting recommended reading that accompanies this conference which, I think, says it all. It’s a piece by none other than Bruno Latour, published in Critical Inquiry. And in it, Latour flagellates himself over the extent to which some of his famous critiques of science are now being misused in the hands of extremists and ideologues. After citing the cynical Luntz memo which tells Republicans to exaggerate uncertainty about climate science, Latour writes:

Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent sometimes in the past trying to show the “lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument-or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from a prematurely naturalized objectified fact. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact-as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past-but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we have now to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?

It was not wrong to participate in the invention of the field of science studies–but it is wrong to take the insights of science studies to such extremes as to deny the current crisis over science and politics, or to deny the basic relevance of good scientific information to public policy, or to deny that at least on some level, science provides a pretty good tool for accessing so-called “reality” as best we can (human shortcomings nothwithstanding). In short, Latour should stop feeling guilty, and start experimenting with how to use some of the intellectual tools he’s created to fight back against the current war on science. And he should call upon his colleagues to do the same.

It’s very valuable to study science in its social context. Many insights can be gleaned in this way. But they are not, I would submit, insights that lead to a position of absolute relativism about the value of science to society. So when science is under attack, it’s time for all who care about it to mount a strong defense. Let’s stop fighting amongst ourselves, and start targeting the actual source of the problem…


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    April 18, 2006

    I’m very cynical about the whole matter. The term “social construction” has become one of those terms that pushes my buttons– no matter what the context, when I hear that term I bristle, my heart rate goes up, and I can feel myself getting annoyed.

    When people on the Left look and see that the Right has discovered that the tools of “social construction” are extremely useful to argue against inconvenient science — well, wake up! Surprise! Duh! When you have a lot of mumbo-jumbo, dressed-in-fancy-words academic stuff that sounds like Intelligent People talking about how science is BS, don’t act all surprised when somebody else uses that for their own anti-science ends.

    If anything, the republican war on science may be the slap in the face that the “science is a social construction” people need, to realize that they could have been allying themselves with the willfully ignorant all along. I’ve long thought the left-right axis was a false axis; David Brin has written some great arguments on that. The left-wing academic “science is social construction” types and the right-wing religious “science is subject to the primacy of Biblical truth” types could have been natural allies in tearing down the tremendous progress our species has made in understanding nature through the process of science.

    And, yeah, perhaps the “culture of science” types were trying to be cautionary, and weren’t trying to destroy science altogether, but it sure as heck didn’t feel like it much of the time. And, the Sokal affair only served to feed the extreme cycnicism of people like myself.

    -Rob the grouch

  2. #2 Mark Paris
    April 18, 2006

    Science has operated for many years on the assumption that open warfare between ideas would be fought honestly. Now scientists and science in general find themselves under attack by an unscrupulous enemy that uses any method, honest or blatantly dishonest, to attack. It’s no wonder that some informed criticism is picked up by the forces of ignorance.

    But I think Latour engages in omphaloskepsis. His statement goes too far: “… facts are made up, … there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, … we are always the prisoner of language, … we always speak from one standpoint, and so on …”

    I understand his point, but there is natural, unmediated, unbiased access to certain truths that rely not on a natural, spoken language, but on mathematics. I would argue that mathematics can provide certain absolute truths, however limited they might be in number or scope. The objective reality of global warming is not necessarily one of them, but may prove to be so. While there might continue to be uncertainty in aspects of global wrming, if global warming be defined as a long-term increase in the global mean temperature, that can be determined objectively. The key is to use mathematics, the only language that has any possibility of reducing uncertainty that stems from language itself.

  3. #3 Rob Knop
    April 18, 2006

    I understand his point, but there is natural, unmediated, unbiased access to certain truths that rely not on a natural, spoken language, but on mathematics.

    There’s fact beyond what can be expressed in mathematics.

    Take gravity: when I drop my keys, they go down. You can sit around and play deconstructionist all day about what I mean by “drop” and what I mean by “down”, but it doesn’t change the very simple, repeatable, testable, predictable observation.

    And you can sit around all day and talk abou thow the fact that when we write the 1/r^2 law in the format we do, we’re enforcing a western oppresionist viewpoint and standpoint by having the superscripted 2 where it is, or by writing our equations in such a patriarical Judeo-Christian influenced manner, but it does’t change the fact that those equations, however expressed, succesfully predict the orbits of satellites and planets every time, and that that is a fact and it works.

    The need to naval-gaze and deconstruct everything and question every bit of reality makes me nuts. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes, there are facts.


  4. #4 laurence jewett
    April 18, 2006

    I think a large part of the problem is that scientists have let others answer the questions that they themselves are in the best position to answer: about the role played by uncertainty in science and the ultimate limitations of science.

    I’d say that — with a few notable exceptions (eg, Niels Bohr) — most natural scientists have neither the time nor the inclination to read (to say nothing of critique) what every social scientist is saying about them and their discipline.

    This is undoubtedly how ideas like “scientific relativism”** gain a foothold with the general public.

    **PS, For any not familiar with science: I’m NOT referring to “Einstein’s Relativity Theory” here.

    Hardly. I’m talking about the nonsnsical idea that “One is perfectly free to pick and choose which scientific theories one likes — and adopts — because, as everyone knows, ‘they are all JUST THEORIES’ and even the best-tested ‘theories’ have uncertainty associated with them.” ( “Hey, who CARES if they are accurate out to the 15th decimal place, right? There is STILL UNCERTAINTY and that’s the critical thing. Uncertain is uncertain is uncertain.”)

  5. #5 Unstable Isotope
    April 18, 2006


    We scientists (social, physical and biological) need to come together to fight those who are trying to exploit science for their own ends. Science has always been easy to exploit, because scientists have trouble saying “always” and “never.” The state of science education in this country is very poor, most people don’t understand what the scientific method is or how it works.

    I was very troubled during the whole ID discussion that they didn’t talk to scientists, really only religious figures. They treated it like religion vs. science, instead of people trying to go around the scientific method to get their ideas into textbooks.

    Thank you Chris, for doing what you’re doing. I think your book is becoming very influential. I’ve even seen it cited in a letter to the editor to Chemical & Engineering News (magazine of the American Chemical Society).

  6. #6 radar
    April 19, 2006

    Part of the problem with the whole ID discussion is that anyone brings non-scientists into the discussion. There are plenty of scientists who are ID proponents on scientific grounds. That is where the discussion belongs when discussing what should be taught in schools. If only ideology was separate from science! Religion and science would both be better served!

    Alas, it is not so. Idealogues so often win the day.

  7. #7 Aaron
    April 19, 2006

    I think this discussion is too narrowly focused on the political exploition of uncertainty in the scientific community. I think the real question is the accurate representation of knowledge and uncertainty in an expert community. The obvious case is the Bush Administration’s cherrypicking of intelligence in the build up to the invasion of Iraq. Intelligence analysts in the Department of Energy repeatedly disputed the claim that the aluminum tubes “were only really suited for nuclear programs” and the members of a secret fact-finding mission to Iraq unanimously concluded that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Despite these doubts, the Bush Administration repeatedly made claims of absolute certainty in its public statements. The problem is not that these special interest exploit uncertainty but that they will exploit any weakness in the general public’s capability for rational thought (secrecy, innumeracy, perception management, etc.).

  8. #8 laurence jewett
    April 19, 2006

    Radar Posted: “There are plenty of scientists who are ID proponents on scientific grounds.”

    I am affraid that this statement is simply not supported by fact.

    ID is NOT a “scientific theory” — for many reasons, not least of these being that IT IS NOT FALSIFIABLE. There is no test that can be performed that will show that one or more of ID’s predictions is false (because ID MAKES no predictions about how nature behaves) — so there is no way of disproving the theory.

    If it does not meet the minimum standard of “scientific theory”, why would any scientist support it “on scientific grounds”?

    Note that I am NOT saying here that “There are no scientists who support ID.” There may be scientists who support ID, but they are certainly not doing it based on its value as a “scientific theory” — because it HAS none (At least the “World on the back of a giant tortoise” theory WAS testable).

  9. #9
    April 19, 2006

    Your last paragraph is very confusing, Chris. Where does Latour suggest an ‘absolute relativism’ about the place of science in society? His Parliament of Things is anything but ‘absolute relativism.’ Frankly, if bad theory or (or good but misread theory) is used to justify bad policy, I think it’s pointless to blame the theory.

  10. #10 Sylvia
    April 19, 2006

    Rob the Grouch – (re: “The term “social construction” has become one of those terms that pushes my buttons… …And, the Sokal affair only served to feed the extreme cycnicism of people like myself.”}

    Are you also going to argue that no papers have made it into the “hard” science journals that weren’t total and utter crap? I could name one that was a cover story in Nature… (had blogs been around in 1997 there would probably be more awareness of it than among those paying attention to ecology and economics.) Or that the hard sciences have not been similarly abused? (e.g., social Darwinism, Nazi science….) It kind of pushes my buttons when I hear scientists who were always too good to ever take a course in policy or in any of the humanities become authorities on social issues they know nothing about. Oh, and then when they have funding for a project that is suppose to include “human dimensions” they bring in a social scientist but think it means doing their public relations, and, by the way, answering their telephone. I really don’t want to go on ranting about that. And I wouldn’t call myself a post-modernist, but I have read a fair amount of Latour and others in human geography, and have found it very useful for gaining a deeper understanding of the values embedded in scientific methodologies and of why science and policy is stuck between a rock and a hard place – and rethinking the whole approach. I have no idea if anyone ever really made the argument you hold up as an example or whether you made it up as a caricature of post-modernism (“…when we write the 1/r^2 law in the format we do, we’re enforcing a western oppresionist viewpoint and standpoint by having the superscripted 2 where it is, or by writing our equations in such a patriarical Judeo-Christian influenced manner…” But anyone who argues that or anything else so deeply embedded in culture, in the political arena, is choosing the wrong battle and is an idiot. Now, if we could all just stop pushing each other’s buttons and work together to constructively reframe…

  11. #11 gerald spezio
    April 19, 2006

    HIGHER SUPERSTITION by two scholarly and very witty scientists, Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, delivers a delightful knockout punch to the linguistic subterfuges of many literary lights. Bruno Latour and Stanley Aronowitz are just two shining examples of the bewildering fog produced by the social construction of reality scam.
    Don’t forget our smiling champion of science, Alan Sokal, hoisting Latour and Aronowitz along with many other academic poseurs right in their assinine science studies doubletalk. HIGHER SUPERSTITION IS A MUST READ. As Ian Hacking has pointedly asked, “Social construction of what?”

  12. #12 SkookumPlanet
    April 22, 2006

    These academic arguments I know only vaguely, by hearsay. I’ll note an obvious win-win option that remains unmentioned, though hinted at. The PoMo social constructivists, whatever they’re called, should aim their searchlights to illuminate the 40-year rise of the radical right. My impression is little has been done. Perhaps unplowed academic ground?

    Note: That is, do so while they’re able. The far right has plans for them, and all faculty, including goodby tenure, hello political control. How long until this win-win option is pursued?

    I’m per mark, aaron, sylvia, unstable, and others probably.

    40 years in the making. They won’t stop because a few academics wake up. It will take much effort to stop and then reverse trends. We best start now.

    Rob can counteract navel gazing by focusing his energy on the far greater threat. Physics is impotent against the right. And facts?! Constructivists have the right skills set, so why not put them to work?

  13. #13 Matthew Nisbet
    April 22, 2006

    Like most fields, there is really good research in the social studies of science; and really bad research. Higher Superstition tends to mischaracterize the field; highlighting the bad stuff, or distorting the good stuff. Meanwhile, the whole Sokal Affair essentially proves nothing. As the Korean stem cell scandal indicates, simply because referees and editors can be fooled, doesn’t mean the field is bunk. While this whole “Science Wars” debate was going on in the academe, social scientists and scientists were completely overlooking the challenge to science from conservatives, catalyzed by the Gingrich revolution. If you want the best critique of why this whole thing missed the mark, see Dorothy Nelkin’s chapter in _Science Wars_ edited by Andrew Ross.

  14. #14 gerald spezio
    April 22, 2006

    Comes now Professor Nisbet asserting that “the whole Sokal affair proved nothing” and recommending Andrew Ross for enlightenment and continuing brain damage. Do the experiment and try SCIENCE WARS along with HIGHER SUPERSTITION. You’ll know. This flapdoodle is “worse than wrong.”
    THE FLIGHT FROM SCIENCE AND REASON (1996) edited by biologist, Paul Gross, is another delight for science lovers.

  15. #15 gerald spezio
    April 23, 2006

    Yesterday I submitted a short post responding to Matthew Nisbet’s two assertions (above) that 1. “the whole Sokal affair essentially proves nothing;” and 2. “If you want the best critique of why this whole thing missed the mark, see Dorothy Nelkin’s chapter in SCIENCE WARS edited by Andrew Ross.” I suggested in my post that a comparison between HIGHER SUPERSTITION and SCIENCE WARS would be a no-brainer for the scientifically literate. My post has not appeared.

  16. #16 Chris Mooney
    April 23, 2006

    Just busy, nothing nefarious….

  17. #17 gerald spezio
    April 24, 2006

    Skookum, you surely made an end-run around suffering Latour’s rhetorical non-confessional. If Bruno’s wordy lit-crit crowd of poseurs has a searchlight, they must be hiding it. Although you state that you know these academic arguments only vaguely, you claim that “Constructivists have the right skills set.” Bruno’s piece speaks for itself. Skilled about what? He could be a terrific typist. He be a credentialed sociologist, too.

    Le Professeur of social critique wails that his deep Gallic discourses (le Discourse) on the power perplex have been captured and cornholed by dastardly spin-shysters such as Luntz. With typical pretentious self-importance Le Professeur de farce even posits that les intellectuals Francais were seminal social constructors of the really deep mental fog of modern peeyar. Along with millions of others, Dante agonized about deception, deceit, and fraud; but Dante’s analysis only touched the surface. and completely missed – “the real prejudices hidden behind the appearances.”

    Have the agonizing toils of true genius (“we spent years…”); myself, Baudrillard, et Foucault, been totally plaigerized and despoiled? Have profiteering peeyar yuppies, like Luntz, disdained and distorted our brilliant creations? Is the CRITICALLAND scam played out? The agony of it all…

    We was framed! Merde!

  18. #18
    April 25, 2006

    What. Dr. Nisbet very elegantly said.

    May cool heads prevail, and may the natural science and constructivst collaborations continue.

  19. #19 SkookumPlanet
    April 26, 2006

    The skill set I, perhaps wrongly, referred to is textual deconstruction. As my “science war” knowledge is second hand I made two assumptions.

    First, cultural studies has deep roots in literary text analysis, something I’m familiar with, and the right is writing an ongoing, 35-year-long-and-counting novel. Here at SciBlogs I’ve compared it’s operation to a long-running TV series. The right’s core strategy is to use words to create fiction, a vicarious reality, in people’s heads. This is my academic background. An incipient example is the War on Christianity, which has no basis in reality. Yet to millions of Americans it will become as real as any social phenomenon. The falsification will be done mostly through text.

    Second, if the far right’s attack on science uses science studies’ language, ideas, and falsely so, the “constructors” of science studies are likely most familiar with such techniques, their use/abuse by the right, tripping up such activity, and likely most able to divert opponents’ energy by “deconstructing” the right’s psychomarketing machinations.

    The validity of cultural studies’ methodology aside, electoral politics is nearly all perception. Whatever one’s opinion of a trenchmate’s marksmanship, more bullets flying at the enemy is more bullets the enemy must dodge.

    Good catch on my making recommendation from ignorance. A compromise is that my intuition says cultural studies’ verbosity and whatever skills will be profitably turned rightward versus simply bemoaning in that direction. [Agreed “searchlight” was weak, but the lure of metaphor strong and the hour late.] The point is similar to my advice to Rob. Confession/vitriol may salve the soul/ego, but perhaps our plight dictates a more expansive p.o.v.

    Action often suffices for, can even be preferable to, apology, especially corrective action. Effective, corrective action from our side in the “political war” remains scant. Who knows? Shared combat has created strange bedfellows before, and new understandings that persist with survivors beyond demobilizations.

    I’d use “penance” but doing so would oversell my grasp of back-story. Thus I’ll not say penance, nor contrition, nor atonement.

    I too was indignant about peeyar for years until understanding no functional alternative existed. I faced a similar choice as above — bemoan or strike back. Naturally proactive, not passive, my energy turned to analysis, comprehension, synthesis, and countering, here manifest as teaching. The world hasn’t changed, but I’m much happier in it while more cognizant.

  20. #20 Joanna Bryson
    May 1, 2006

    With respect to post-modernism and science, you may want to read Meera Nanda’s “Dharma and The Bomb: Reactionary Modernism and Postmodern Critiques of Science” which I think originally came out in Foreign Affairs, although it is about India not the US. She seems to have a book now: “Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India” In India apparently some Hindus argue they were given the bomb to fight against the Muslims, and as such want to build temples on (radioactive) test sites. Nanda’s claim is that Indian academia has been so busy embracing the post modern claims that the dominance of northern, western academics is just the dominance of a narrative rather than actually good work or veracity that they can no longer council their country against doing blatently stupid things.

    With respect to an older theme I commented on about the war on science in the US just being a small part of the general effort of the executive to take control, you may want to see this article, originally in the Boston Globe, reprinted in the IHT:

  21. #21 gerald spezio
    May 1, 2006

    Grazi, grazi, Amica Amoni Joanna. Les farceurs, Dr. Strangelove, and all of us meet the devil in the wordsmithing – up close and ugly. So many poseurs. So little time.
    Ayyup, it is very probable that many of us will be singing with Martha and the Vandellas; “No place to run to, Baby; No place to hide.”
    Social Sciences as Sorcery by sainted social scientist Stanislav Andreski written in 1972 still makes me smile and nod.

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