Insight @Guelph


"Part of the decline in the status of science
is due to a general change in our culture."
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution A Social Construction?, a new book by Prof. Michael Ruse, Philosophy and Zoology. Published by Harvard University Press, the book is an inquiry into the nature of science, using evolutionary theory as a case study.

"The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a centre. It is the very concept of variability - it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something - of a centre starting from which an observer could master the field - but the very concept of the game."

  In mathematical terms, Derrida's observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation Gmu= 8p MTmu under non-linear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold that are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group "acts transitively": this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way, the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the p of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centred, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

(Sokal 1996a, 221-222; quoting Derrida, above, 1970, 266)

  Very impressive stuff, especially if it comes dripping with footnotes as learned and as obscure as the text. But in the privacy of your own mind - with your guard down intellectually - have you really any idea what the above quotations mean? "The infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed?" Although I am not sure I would have been brave enough to be the first to say so publicly, to me it all reads like pure, unadulterated gobbledegook. And I very much hope that it does to you, too, because that is precisely what it is! Nonsense in polysyllables, pretending to be a serious contribution to knowledge.

  But the editors of a major journal, Social Text, in the trendy new academic discipline of "cultural studies" did not read it that way. They took the paper seriously and published it. At once, the author, a reputable physicist from New York University, revealed it for the hoax - the pseudo-article - that it is. Whereupon, failing to realize that there are times when the only sensible course of action is to maintain silence, as dignified as you can make it, one of the gurus of cultural studies penned a long and windy and essentially irrelevant opinion piece in The New York Times, defending the editors in their silly and (to be frank) slipshod actions.

  Academics love this sort of thing. Even normal people can crack a smile when seemingly arrogant, pompous, but essentially shallow and lazy people who talk in loud, bullying tones on subjects about which they know absolutely nothing and cloak their non-thoughts in ponderous imported jargon ("hegemony" - does anybody really know what that word means?), are shown to be the charlatans that they truly are. And if they are sufficiently conceited or naive to fight back, then so much the more fun.

  For academics, it is time to turn to the keyboard and add to the controversy. Historians can compare this with great hoaxes of the past. Philosophers can discuss the ethical implications and whether the perpetrator, who at once revealed his role, can strictly be considered to have committed a fraud. And scientists can tell all who will listen that the affair only shows that English departments, where cultural studies is usually located, deserve even less funding than they currently get. Why do they not stick to teaching people how to use the semicolon properly?

  But pull back for a moment. Stop the argument about whether the physicist author, Alan Sokal, deserves a medal or censure, or whether the cultural studies defendant, Stanley Fish, is a man of courageous integrity or foolhardy insensitivity. Let us put things in context and ask ourselves why this happened. Why would a serious scientist take time out to pen a hodgepodge of quasi-fragments about the nature of science, glued together by the worst excrescences of French philosophy, dolled up with all the apparatus of the scholarly article - quotations, footnotes, references - and send it off to a journal not in his field? And why, why would serious scholars in the humanities - and these people are very serious - be so eager to receive and accept such a piece that they would embrace it and legitimize it by putting it in their journal? Why, above all, would they be so self-confident that they would publish such a piece without first running it past at least one person who knew something about physics?

  Start with the scientists. In this century, they have had what one can with modesty describe as a good run for their money, although more precisely one might describe it as a good run for our money. For various reasons, this has been the century of science, of great science: relativity theory, quantum mechanics, the double helix, plate tectonics and much more. It has, moreover, been the century of the scientist, as governments, foundations, industry have poured vast sums of money into the enterprise, producing virtual factories of researchers, technicians, students, administrators and co-ordinators, all dedicated to turning out more and more empirical results, more and more theories and hypotheses, in more and more outlets: journals, books, bulletins, conference papers and various electronic forms.

  But now, again for various reasons, the funds are drying up and the prestige is wilting. Part of this is from a general revamping of the global economy, with Western governments and industries having to retrench, to spend more frugally, especially on things without prospects of immediate return - pure scientific research, for instance. Part of this is from the changes in the global power structure, with the collapse of the Soviet Communist system and the end of the Cold War. No longer is there the perceived need to spend large sums on defence-related science. Does anyone really think that trips to Mars are needed to save us from the Russians? And part of this decline in the status of science is due to a general change in our culture - an increasing willingness to ask difficult and hostile questions about the sacred icons of society and less willingness to rest content with obfuscating banalities in reply.

  Science is under attack from people of equal standing, often from people inhabiting the same institutions: that is, from scholars in the humanities, from many in the social sciences and even, in some few cases, from inside the scientific enterprise itself. Always jealous of science and its success, these critics now take the opportunity to attack the empirical investigation of nature and drag it through a mud of their own making.

  How can this be and how can it have come about? The manifesto of the doughty defenders - that which stimulated Sokal to action, not to mention the editors of Social Text in their search for science-debunking contributions - appeared a year or two back. Written jointly by a life-sciences administrator and a professional mathematician, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science has an explanation as simple as it is stark. The 1960s was the age of the flower children: sex, drugs, Eastern mysticism and, above all, a deep hatred of science, seen to be the essential engine of the military-induced complex, then engaged in a corrupting and evil, although highly profitable, conflict in Vietnam. Times have moved on, but not the thinking of these children - children no more, but powerful professors and administrators in the humanities and social science faculties of the universities of the West. Now they and their students can give full vent to their opposition to science, an opposition based on prejudice, fear and, above all, rank ignorance. Searching out allies and moulding opinion to their ends, these critics have no limits to their intentions and their arrogance. Little wonder, then, that the editors of Social Text seized happily on Sokal's submission - a piece rubbishing the pretensions of modern science and from a scientist himself! Exposing the piece to referees could only lead to criticism, and that is precisely what the editors did not want.

  To the outsider, this scenario sketched in Higher Superstition sounds like paranoia. Or self-interest. One's suspicions are hardly abated when one learns from Gross and Levitt that a good way to stop the rot would be to put the hiring of new faculty in the humanities in the hands of the nation's scientists. Not only would they be asked to judge the merits of applicants in high-energy physics, but also in Restoration comedy. One shudders at the thought. Goodby Social Text! Welcome Reader's Digest! Yet, as the saying goes, even paranoids have real enemies. Could it be that these people have a point, that there is indeed a conspiracy or (perhaps with less conscious design) a movement to tear down the status and achievement of science - a conspiracy or movement fuelled by ideology, in respects akin to that fingered by Gross and Levitt?

  One has to say that precisely this is suggested by the editors of Social Text in their arrogant response to Sokal's hoax. They speak insouciantly of "questioning, as we do, the scientific community's abuses of authority, its priestly organization and lack of accountability to the public." The chutzpah level is off the scale. Uncontrite, they trust that the kind of critique they level "will help us avoid disastrous scientific irresponsibility in the future."

  Stuff like this does not come from nowhere, even from members of English departments. The fact is that people like this are fortified by three or four decades of systematic deconstruction of science, its practitioners, its products, its promoters. Indeed, in respects, the literary criticism types are johnny-come-latelies, noteworthy more for the venom of their attacks than for the originality of their arguments. The materials for critique lie readily at hand. Take some of the real heroes of science. One by one, they have been paraded forth, clad only in their tattered underwear, with signs around their necks, rather like the victims of one of Mao Zedong's purges. In the eyes of their critics, a less credible, more sleazy bunch would be hard to imagine.