as a Social Construct
R. E. Wyllys
This lesson discusses
some of the ideas associated with the question of whether science
may be viewed as a social construct, or may even be, in fact, merely
a social construct. Since some of the other lessons in LIS 386.13
tend to take the point of view that science is largely a social
construct, this lesson concentrates on arguments against that point
of view. I trust that most of you will immediately grasp an implication
of the previous sentenceviz., that it is quite possible to
argue both for that point of view and against it. Further, I trust
that you will realize that an additional implication is that conclusive
evidenceevidence that would definitely settle the argument
one way or the otheris lacking.
Still another implication,
which is not necessarily obvious, is that you should always bring
a skeptical attitude to what you read. I do not mean "skeptical"
in the sense of denying anything and everything. That is not skepticism
but cynicism, or even nihilism. I mean "skeptical" in
the sense of questioning, of asking yourself what the author is
trying to say, what reasons the author may have for saying it, and
what point of view the author may be espousing. In short, think
carefully, critically, and evaluatively about what you read, instead
of blindly accepting other people's ideas and arguments.
C. P. Snow and "The
A bit of history dealing
with society's view of science may help illuminate the question
of whether science may be viewed as a social construct.
Before the 19th century,
science—such as it was at the time—was generally regarded
as one of the areas of knowledge, along with history, philosophy,
and the arts, with which any well educated person was expected to
be familiar. (Unfortunately, it needs to be noted that in those
days, with but rare exceptions, the only well educated persons were
men, because of the then prevailing attitude that women needed no
education beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic—and perhaps
for women of the upper classes, a foreign language.)
During the 19th century
scientific and technical knowledge became to develop at a notable,
and ever faster, rate. One consequence was that it became increasingly
difficult for a well educated person to acquire and maintain an
acquaintance with these areas, where new knowledge was being added
much faster than in the arts and humanities. Inevitably, people
were forced into choosing between being educated in scientific and
technical areas, and being educated in the more traditional areas.
By the 20th century,
this trend had produced the social divide to which Sir
Charles Percy Snow (1905-1980) gave the name "The Two Cultures,"
the schism in interests and knowledge between scientists and non-scientists.
Not only, argued Snow, had this schism arisen between persons professionally
engaged in the sciences vs. persons engaged in other pursuits, but
it had split well educated persons, in general, into two camps:
those who had an interest in science and those who disdained science.
This schism Snow chose as his subject when he was selected to deliver,
in 1959, the celebrated annual Rede Lecture at Cambridge University.
Already knighted, and to be raised to the peerage in 1964, he was
in 1959 a successful and well regarded novelist (writing as C. P.
Snow) who had been a research physicist in the 1930s, and in World
War II a high administrator in British scientific research efforts.
In short, he was undeniably a respectable member of both camps,
scientists and non-scientists, and hence an ideal person to call
attention to the division between the camps, a division he regarded
as a dangerous schism in modern society, worst perhaps in Britain
but also a problem in other countries. In opening his Rede Lecture,
he said (Snow, 1993):
I believe the intellectual
life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split
into two polar groups. When I say the intellectual life, I mean
to include also a large part of our practical life, because I
should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest
level be distinguished. . . . Two polar camps: at one pole we
have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one
was looking took to referring to themselves as 'intellectuals'
as though there were no others. I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking
to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930's: 'Have you noticed
how the word "intellectual" is used nowadays? There
seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn't include Rutherford
or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It does seem rather odd,
don't y' know.' [Endnote 1]
at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most representative,
the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes
(particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most
of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image
of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on
the level of emotion, they can't find much common ground. Non-scientists
tend to think of scientists as brash and boastful. They hear Mr
T. S. Eliot, who just for these illustrations we can take as an
archetypal figure, saying about his attempts to revive verse-drama
that we can hope for very little, but that he would feel content
if he and his co-workers could prepare the ground for a new Kyd
or a new Greene. That is the tone, restricted and constrained,
with which literary intellectuals are at home: it is the subdued
voice of their culture. Then they hear a much louder voice, that
of another archetypal figure, Rutherford, trumpeting: `This is
the heroic age of science! This is the Elizabethan age!' Many
of us heard that, and a good many other statements beside which
that was mild; and we weren't left in any doubt whom Rutherford
was casting for the role of Shakespeare. What is hard for the
literary intellectuals to understand, imaginatively or intellectually,
is that he was absolutely right. . . .
have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic,
unaware of man's condition. On the other hand, the scientists
believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in
foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a
deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and
thought to the existential moment. And so on. Anyone with a mild
talent for invective could produce plenty of this kind of subterranean
back-chat. On each side there is some of it which is not entirely
baseless. It is all destructive. Much of it rests on misinterpretations
which are dangerous. . . .
At one pole, the scientific
culture really is a culture, not only in an intellectual but also
in an anthropological sense. That is, its members need not, and
of course often do not, always completely understand each other;
biologists more often than not will have a pretty hazy) idea of
contemporary physics; but there are common attitudes, common standards
and patterns of behaviour, common approaches and assumptions.
This goes surprisingly wide and deep. It cuts across other mental
patterns, such as those of religion or politics or class. . .
At the other pole,
the spread of attitudes is wider. It is obvious that between the
two, as one moves through intellectual society from the physicists
literary intellectuals, there are all kinds of tones of feeling
on the way. But I believe the pole of total incomprehension of
science radiates its influence on all the rest. That total incomprehension
gives, much more pervasively than we realise, living in it, an
unscientific flavour to the whole `traditional' culture, and that
unscientific flavour is often, much more than we admit, on the
point of turning anti-scientific. The feelings of one pole become
the anti-feelings of the other. If the scientists have the future
in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing
the future did not exist. It is the traditional culture, to an
extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific
one, which manages the western world.
is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society.
It is at the same time practical and intellectual and creative
loss, and I repeat that it is false to imagine that those three
considerations are clearly separable. . . . The
degree of incomprehension on both sides is the kind of joke which
has gone sour. . . .
As one would expect,
some of the very best scientists had and have plenty of energy
and interest to spare, and [in talking to many scientists, I and
some colleagues] came across several who had read everything that
literary people talk about. But that's very rare. Most of the
rest, when one tried to probe for what books they had read, would
modestly confess, `Well, 'I've tried a bit of Dickens', rather
as though Dickens were an extraordinarily esoteric, tangled and
dubiously rewarding writer, something like Rainer Maria Rilke.
In fact that is exactly how they do regard him: we thought that
discovery, that Dickens had been transformed into the type-specimen
of literary incomprehensibility, was one of the oddest results
of the whole exercise.
But of course, in
reading him, in reading almost any writer whom we should value,
they are just touching their caps to the traditional culture.
They have their own culture, intensive, rigorous, and constantly
in action. This culture contains a great deal of argument, usually
much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level,
than literary persons' arguments—even though the scientists
do cheerfully use words in senses which literary persons don't
recognise, the senses are exact ones, and when they talk about
`subjective', `objective', `philosophy' or 'progressive', they
know what they mean, even though it isn't what one is accustomed
to expect. . . .
But what about the
other side? They are impoverished too—perhaps more seriously,
because they are vainer about it. They still like to pretend that
the traditional culture is the whole of `culture', as though the
natural order didn't exist. As though the exploration of the natural
order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences.
As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not,
in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most
beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man. Yet
most non-scientists have no conception of that edifice at all.
Even if they want to have it, they can't. It is rather as though,
over an immense range of intellectual experience, a whole group
was tone-deaf. Except that this tone-deafness doesn't come by
nature, but by training, or rather the absence of training.
As with the tone-deaf,
they don't know what they miss. They give a pitying chuckle at
the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English
literature. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists. Yet their
own ignorance and their own specialisation is just as startling.
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people
who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought
highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing
their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice
I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them
could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response
was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which
is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work
I now believe that
if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, What do
you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent
of saying, Can you read?—not more than one in ten
of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the
same language. So the great edifice of modem physics goes up,
and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world
have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors
would have had.
The foregoing quotation
is somewhat lengthy, but I think that the length is justified by
the importance of what Snow was saying. At the very least, you should
now be able to appreciate why "The Two Cultures" aroused
ire within both camps, and why it has been cited thousands of times
in the over four decades since it was published.
A further historical note is offered by Stefan Collini [Endnote
2] in the substantial essay that constitutes his introduction, to
and review of, the controversy ignited by Snow's 1959 lecture and
by the essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," which
Snow published in 1963. Reinforcing Snow's comments about the narrowing
of the meaning of the word "intellectual," Collini (in
Snow, 1993) writes:
including the meta-activity of reflection on the forms of knowledge,
is, of course, shaped by different national traditions and anchored
in a range of social practices. One can trace a specifically British
genealogy for the `two cultures' anxiety, arising out of a distinctive
development of the social institutions within which education
and research were carried on. This distinctiveness was reflected
in the linguistic peculiarity by which the term `science' came
to be used in a narrowed sense to refer just to the `physical'
or `natural' sciences. This appears to have become common in English
only in the middle of the nineteenth century. The compilers of
the Oxford English Dictionary, setting to work in the late-nineteenth
century, recognised that this was a relatively recent development;
the dictionary gives no example of this sense before the 1860s,
and it is revealing that its first illustrative quotation implicitly
points to the way English usage had started to diverge from other
European languages: `We shall . . . use the word "science"
in the sense which Englishmen so commonly give to it; as expressing
physical and experimental science, to the exclusion of theological
and metaphysical.' Similarly, the coinage `scientist' and its
restriction to those practising the natural sciences is no older
than the 1830s and 1840s. . . . [T]he term first appeared in an
article of 1834 reporting on how the lack of a single term to
describe `students of the knowledge of the material world' had
bothered meetings of the British Association for the Advancement
of Science in the early 1830s, at one of which `some ingenious
gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they
might form scientist', though the same report records
that `this was not generally palatable'. Its subsequent currency
reflected the growth of a self-conscious sense of professional
identity among those who studied the natural world, an essential
social precondition for later concerns about the divide between
In short, in a social
phenomenon that began in the middle of the 19th century and had
become widespread by the middle of the 20th century, well educated
people—especially in the Anglophone countries—could
be fairly said to have divided themselves into two somewhat hostile
camps, separated according to whether they liked or disdained science.
Needless to say, people in each camp possessed a view of what constituted
"science" that was different from the view of "science"
held by those in the opposite camp.
The Two Cultures Today:
Science Under Fire, and Sokal's Hoax
What is the situation
with respect to the two cultures today? Unfortunately, the schism
celebrated by C. P. Snow seems to be stronger than ever. One example
is an incident related by Edward W. Kolb in his book, Blind
Watchers of the Skies (1996). Just prior to the passage quoted
below, Kolb has been discussing the many uses in astronomy of the
fact that each chemical element, when suitably energized (e.g.,
heated), displays in the spectrum of visible light a distinctive
set of lines–a set of lines different from those of any other
element. This phenomenon was discovered in the 19th century by Gustav
Kirchoff, Joseph von Fraunhofer, and others. Kolb then comments:
By 1859 Kirchoff knew
enough about the spectra of gases from laboratory studies to identify
the chemical elements in the Sun responsible for the dark lines
in the solar spectrum. Thus, on the basis of experiments done
on Earth, he could discern that the Sun is not made of any heavenly
substance like quintessence [as hypothesized by Aristotle] but
of everyday earthly elements. The accomplishment is remarkable
in many ways. About twenty-five years previously the French philosopher
Auguste Comte, founder of Positivism, had confidently stated about
the Sun and the stars that "we can never by any means investigate
their chemical composition…."
I often wonder why
history doesn't take more notice of Kirchoff's accomplishment.
The idea that we learned what the Sun and the stars are made of
would have astonished the ancients–it still astonishes me.
Some philosophers and historians are so alienated from science
that the significance of the discovery is hardly mentioned. This
was made painfully clear to me one spring day in 1989, when, during
a banquet at a physics conference in Rome, I found myself sitting
next to a physicist's spouse who happened to be a historian at
the University of Rome. Although astronomy is a highly specialized
profession, I am always amazed by the degree of specialization
in other fields. She was an expert on European history of the
year 1859 (presumably the university has one hundred nineteenth-century
European historians). In a clumsy attempt at polite dinner conversation,
I asked why she happened to concentrate on that year. With a "surely
you must know" tone, she replied that it was a very significant
year because of the development of a remarkable idea. I made the
mistake of asking if she was referring to Kirchoff's discovery
of the chemical composition of the Sun. She stared at me so long,
with such a curious expression on her face, that I thought surely
I must have linguini stuck to my chin. But no, she was simply
amazed by the naïveté of my question. Finally, she
informed me that the significant event of the year 1859 was the
publication of A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl
Marx. I further compounded my errors by asking how a mere economic
theory could be compared to the discovery of the composition of
the stars. I suppose that a biologist might ask why she considered
Marx's book more important than another book published in 1859,
On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. After another
long stare, with a sigh of exasperation she turned to the person
sitting on her other side, presumably searching for more enlightened
conversation. I am embarrassed to admit that in the intervening
years I still haven't understood why the development of a (since
discredited) economic theory is of more lasting importance than
learning the stuff of which the stars are made. Perhaps one day
I also wonder why
the significance of scientific discoveries is so often dismissed
by historians in favor of political, military, or economic developments.
As noted by Arthur Koestler, in Somervell's abridged version (if
more than six hundred pages can be considered abridged) of Toynbee's
A Study of History, the names of Copernicus, Galileo,
Descartes, and Newton do not appear. (Kolb, 1996, 162-163)
decades, whole schools of philosophy and sociology have concerned
themselves with attacking science on various grounds: for example,
charging that science neglects human values, that it has produced
terrifying weapons of war, even that it is merely an elaborate structure
based on nothing more solid that frail and suspect human perceptions
of the world and the universe that fail to deal with an underlying
reality that is unknowable to human beings; and that the whole structure
is, therefore, an artifact, an illusion constructed by people who
call themselves "scientists." Such, at least, are the most
extreme views of science as a mere "social construct," views
held by some postmodernists and deconstructionists.
A concise description
of these views was provided by Napoleon
A. Chagnon (1995) in an editorial entitled "The Academic
Left and Threats to Scientific Anthropology":
There have been increasing
concerns in many academic disciplines, especially the social sciences,
about the threat posed to scientific inquiry by a collection of
intellectual ideas and academic movements termed "the academic
left" by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their 1994 book,
Higher Superstitions: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with
Science. Most of us recognize some of these ideas by names
like "postmodernism," "deconstructionism,"
and "political correctness." . . .
The origins of these
ideas are complex, but the field of literary theory has played
a major role in developing some of the most influential of them
and exporting them to other disciplines—ideas from [Jacques]
Derrida and [Michel] Foucault in particular. Joseph Carroll's
recent (1994) book, Evolution and Literary Theory, provides
us with an excellent overview of the development and applications
of these ideas, and he attacks them from within literary ranks.
He argues eloquently for a view of human nature derived from research
inspired by Darwinian theory. He suggests that literature makes
more sense once an accurate, informed view of human nature is
defined, and argues that the most accurate and informed view can
only come from understanding the evolution of humans.
Space does not permit
an overview of how the current antipathetic views of science from
the academic left have affected specific disciplines (and there
is considerable variation). In general, this view of science proposes
that there is no such thing as an objective observation, facts are
political constructs, and science is an instrument of oppression
and therefore must itself be oppressed and silenced (cf. Gross &
Levitt, 1994) The natural sciences are less affected than the social
sciences, and the humanities are the most affected. Gross and Levitt's
book is a good general source on the topic, and the quarterly journal
of the National Association of Scholars, Academic Questions,
deals with and contests assaults on academic freedom from all varieties
of the academic left.
An even harsher view of
the critics of science comes from a distinguished astronomer, Arthur
Upgren, who sees some of the criticism as stemming from groups
that would prefer that science be suppressed, at least wherever scientific
findings clash with the cherished beliefs of those groups. Upgren
(2002) writes that:
In the last few years,
it has become fashionable to disparage science from the academic
left. Charges have been leveled such as the one that categorized
the central figures in the rise of science and, to a lesser extent,
European civilization in general as DWEMs (Dead White European
Males) and therefore no longer worthy of study or applicable in
this postmodernist society.
Whereas almost every
civilization has made contributions to our sum of knowledge, they
did not do so equally. To ignore one of them in favor of another
is to misunderstand both. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates
of Human Societies, the recent bestseller by Jared Diamond
[Endnote 3], presents a much more balanced and benign view of the
reasons for the early dominance of Europe (along with eastern Asia).
No assertion is made that those who lived there were smarter than
those who did not. For the most part their predominance was an accident
In a grand send-up
of the postmodernist point of view, Alan Sokal wrote, submitted,
and published an article to a fashionable American cultural studies
journal [Social Text] in 1996. The satirical essay was
entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative
Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." It is a parody of the type
of work, common in the last few years, that expounds on what has
become known as the postmodernist point of view. Among its absurdities
is the contention that such physical staples as the ratio, π,
and Newton's gravitational constant, G, are no longer to be thought
of as constant and enduring, relevant, or part of an external world,
independent of humanity. Summarizing the parody in their book Fashionable
Nonsense, Sokal and Jean Bricmont  show that this and
other critiques of science go beyond attacks of its worst aspects
(militarism, sexism, etc.) by others, into a condemnation of science
as an "intellectual endeavor aimed at a rational understanding
of the world" by those who do not themselves comprehend science.
Godel's theorem, Heisenberg's
uncertainty principle and quantum physics in general, Mandelbrot
sets and fractals, chaos theory, the big bang, the double helix,
and the special and general relativity theories of Einstein are
all among current scientific esoterica. Some by their very nature
are recondite matters at best, but this is no argument against their
validity. They are often used and thoroughly misunderstood by those
who detail the argument against rational thought of the post-Renaissance
enlightenment. In these entanglements is the postmodern left so
far from the know-nothing attitude of the far right? Many of the
latter cling to their moribund beliefs in the Bermuda Triangle,
astrology, Atlantis as a midocean continent bearing an advanced
civilization, the Full Moon effect, the Shroud of Turin as clothing
worn by Christ, along with creationism and religious intolerance,
which all go to fulfill a more traditional distrust of science.
. . .
Science is getting squeezed
between the postmodernism of the left and the more serious mumpsimus
(complete with a choir of angels) from the right. We see Kansas
and other states pass laws favoring creationism over evolution in
the classroom (the Kansas statute itself has fortunately been repealed).
We see books such as John Horgan's The End of Science [Endnote
4] pick up the theme pronounced but then shrugged off
by physicists a century ago, right after the discovery of relativity
and quantum physics, that the big questions in the physical sciences
have all been answered as much as they can be answered. Horgan quotes
reputable scientists as being discouraged about their field of research,
but his sensational account misses the point. After a time in which
the science enterprise has seen a period of unparalleled growth,
the discouragement is not with the research field per se, but with
the dwindling support for funding of science by society through
government, along with the fallout of science through the dumbing
of America, particularly in our schools. Not by chance does the
fitness craze demand "scientific breakthroughs" each day
on the televised news programs with little or no corroboration.
Sokal and Jean Bricmont have to say about the origin of "Sokal's
Hoax" (Endnote 5), as the former's satirical article in Social
Text has come to be known, is just too rich to resist quoting
here (Sokal and Bricmont, 1998):
The story of this book
begins with a hoax. For some years, we have been surprised and distressed
by the intellectual trends in certain precincts of American academia.
Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have
adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term,
"postmodernism": an intellectual current characterized
by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition
of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from
any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that
regards science as nothing more than a "narration", a
"myth" or a social construction among many others.
To respond to this
phenomenon, one of us (Sokal) decided to try an unorthodox (and
admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: submit to a fashionable American
cultural-studies journal, Social Text, a parody of the
type of work that has proliferated in recent years, to see whether
they would publish it. The article, entitled "Transgressing
the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum
Gravity", is chock-full of absurdities and blatant non-sequiturs.
In addition, it asserts an extreme form of cognitive relativism:
after mocking the old-fashioned "dogma" that "there
exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any
individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole",
it proclaims categorically that "physical 'reality', no less
than social 'reality', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct".
By a series of stunning leaps of logic, it arrives at the conclusion
that "the π 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-centered,
disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that
can no longer be defined by geometry alone". The rest is in
the same vein.
And yet, the article
was accepted and published. Worse, it was published in a special
issue of Social Text devoted to rebutting the criticisms
levelled against postmodernism and social constructivism by several
distinguished scientists. For the editors of Social Text,
it was hard to imagine a more radical way of shooting themselves
in the foot.
A powerful critic of the
view of science as a social construct has been Steven
Weinberg (Endnote 6). He recently published a collection of essays,
Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries, that includes
three sharp critiques of postmodernism and deconstructionism: "The
Methods of Science . . . [sic] and Those by Which We Live," "Sokal's
Hoax," and "Science and Sokal's Hoax: An Exchange."
Here are some excerpts
from the first two of these essays (Weinberg, 2001):
I would also
like to point out that, at least within the area of physics, which
is what I mostly know about, and within this century, whenever [the
physics community became universally convinced of something], it has
never been simply wrong. To be sure, sometimes the truth turns out
to be more complicated than what had been thought. For example, before
1956 there had been a consensus that there is an exact symmetry between
right and left, and then we learned that the symmetry is not exact.
But it is a good approximation in certain important contexts. The
thirty years of theoretical physics research that relied on that symmetry
to understand nuclear and atomic problems was not wrong; there were
just small corrections that physicists didn't know about. No consensus
in the physics community has ever been simply a mistake, in the way
that in earlier centuries you might say, for example, that the theory
of caloric or phlogiston was a mistake.
of this is of course a social phenomenon. The reaching of consensus
takes place in a worldwide society of physicists. This fact has led
to a second fallacy: that, because the process is a social one, the
end product is in whole or in part a social construct.
the social milieu of physics research is well described by postmodern
commentators. It is far less oppressive and hegemonic than many would
imagine. In many cases the great breakthroughs are made by youngsters
like 't Hooft, of whom no one has heard before, while the famous graybeards
who have senior positions in the leading universities often get left
behind. Werner Heisenberg and (to a lesser extent) Paul Dirac were
left behind by the physics community after 1945, as were Einstein
and Louis de Broglie after 1925. Heisenberg and de Broglie rather
discreditably tried to force their views on the physics communities
in Germany and France. Einstein and Dirac, gentler souls, simply went
their own ways. But even Heisenberg and de Broglie were not able to
damage German or French physics for very long. The exact sciences
show a remarkable measure of resilience and resistance to any kind
of hegemonic influence, perhaps more than any other human enterprise.
philosophy of most scientists is that there is an objective reality
and that, despite many social influences, the dominant influence in
the history of science is the approach to that objective reality.
. . .
I think we
scientists need make no apologies. It seems to me that our science
is a good model for intellectual activity. We believe in an objective
truth that can be known, and at the same time we are always willing
to reconsider, as we may be forced to, what we have previously accepted.
This would not be a bad ideal for intellectual life of all sorts.
. . .
other scientists, I was amused when I heard about the prank played
by the NYU mathematical physicist Alan Sokal, who late in 1994 submitted
a sham article [Sokal, 1996a] to the cultural studies journal Social
Text. In the article Sokal reviewed various current topics in
physics and mathematics, and, tongue in cheek, drew various cultural,
philosophical, and political morals that he felt would appeal to fashionable
academic commentators who question the claims of science to objectivity.
The editors of Social
Text did not detect that Sokal's article was a hoax, and they
published it in the journal's Spring/Summer 1996 issue. The hoax was
revealed by Sokal himself in an article [Sokal, 1996b] for another
journal, Lingua Franca, in which he explained that his Social
Text article had been "liberally salted with nonsense,"
and in his opinion was accepted only because "(a) it sounded
good and (b ) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."
Newspapers and newsmagazines throughout the US and Britain carried
the story, and Sokal's hoax appeared likely to join the small company
of legendary academic hoaxes, along with the pseudofossils of Piltdown
man planted by Charles Dawson and the pseudo-Celtic epic Ossian
written by James Macpherson. The difference is that Sokal's hoax served
a public purpose, to attract attention to what Sokal saw as a decline
of standards of rigor in the academic community, and for that reason
it was disclosed immediately by the author himself.
The targets of Sokal's
satire occupy a broad intellectual range. There are those "postmoderns"
in the humanities who like to surf through avant-garde fields like
quantum mechanics or chaos theory to dress up their own arguments
about the fragmentary and random nature of experience. There are those
sociologists, historians, and philosophers who see the laws of nature
as social constructions. There are cultural critics who find the taint
of sexism, racism, colonialism, militarism, or capitalism not only
in the practice of scientific research but even in its conclusions.
Sokal did not satirize creationists or other religious enthusiasts
who in many parts of the world are the most dangerous adversaries
of science, but his targets were spread widely enough, and he was
attacked or praised from all sides. . . .
I thought at first that
Sokal's article in Social Text was intended to be an imitation
of academic babble, which any editor should have recognized as such.
But in reading the article I found that this is not the case. . .
. In fact I got the impression that Sokal finds it difficult to write
Where the article does
degenerate into babble it is not in what Sokal himself has written
but in the writings of the genuine postmodern cultural critics he
quotes. Here, for instance, is a quote that he takes from the oracle
of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida:
The Einsteinian constant
is not a constant, is not a center. 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 center starting from which
an observer could master the field—but the very concept of
I have no idea what this
is intended to mean.
I suppose that it might
be argued that articles in physics journals are also incomprehensible
to the uninitiated. But physicists are forced to use a technical language,
the language of mathematics. Within this limitation, we try to be
clear, and when we fail we do not expect our readers to confuse obscurity
with profundity. It never was true that only a dozen people could
understand Einstein's papers on general relativity, but if it had
been true, it would have been a failure of Einstein's, not a mark
of his brilliance. The papers of Edward Witten of the Institute for
Advanced Study at Princeton, which are today consistently among the
most significant in the promising field of string theory, are notably
easier for a physicist to read than most other work in string theory.
In contrast, Derrida and other postmoderns do not seem to be saying
anything that requires a special technical language, and they do not
seem to be trying very hard to be clear. But those who admire such
writings presumably would not have been embarrassed by Sokal's quotations
from them. . . .
Maybe . . . Sokal was
naughty in letting the editors rely on his sincerity, but the article
would not have been very different if Sokal's account of physics and
mathematics had been entirely accurate. What is more revealing is
the variety of physics and mathematics bloopers in remarks by others
that Sokal slyly quotes with mock approval. Here is the philosopher
Bruno Latour on special relativity:
How can one decide whether
an observation made in a train about the behavior of a falling stone
can be made to coincide with the observation of the same falling
stone from the embankment? If there are only one, or even two, frames
of reference, no solution can be found. . . Einstein's solution
is to consider three actors. . . .
This is wrong; in relativity
theory there is no difficulty in comparing the results of two, three,
or any number of observers. In other quotations cited by Sokal, Stanley
Aronowitz misuses the term "unified field theory." The feminist
theorist Luce Irigaray deplores mathematicians' neglect of spaces
with boundaries, though there is a huge literature on the subject.
The English professor Robert Markley calls quantum theory nonlinear,
though it is the only known example of a precisely linear theory.
And both the philosopher Michael Serres (a member of the Académie
Française) and archpostmodernist Jean-François Lyotard
grossly misrepresent the view of time in modern physics. Such errors
suggest a problem not just in the editing practices of Social
Text, but in the standards of a larger intellectual community.
. . .
After Sokal exposed his
hoax, one of the editors of Social Text even speculated that
"Sokal's parody was nothing of the sort, and that his admission
represented a change of heart, or a folding of his intellectual resolve."
I am reminded of the case of the American spiritualist Margaret Fox.
When she confessed in 1888 that her career of séances and spirit
rappings had all been a hoax, other spiritualists claimed that it
was her confession that was dishonest. . . .
I have to admit at this
point that physicists share responsibility for the widespread confusion
about such matters. Sokal quotes some dreadful examples of Werner
Heisenberg's philosophical wanderings, as for instance: "Science
no longer confronts nature as an objective observer, but sees itself
as an actor in this interplay between man [sic] and nature."
(Heisenberg was one of the great physicists of the twentieth century,
but he could not always be counted on to think carefully, as shown
by his technical mistakes in the German nuclear weapons program. )
More recently scientists like Ilya Prigogine [Endnote 7] have claimed
a deep philosophical significance for work on nonlinear dynamics,
a subject that is interesting enough without the hype.
So much for the cultural
implications of discoveries in science. What of the implications for
science of its cultural and social context? Here scientists like Sokal
find themselves in opposition to many sociologists, historians, and
philosophers as well as postmodern literary theorists. In this debate,
the two sides often seem to be talking past each other. For instance,
the sociologists and historians sometimes write as if scientists had
not learned anything about the scientific method since the days of
Francis Bacon, while of course we know very well how complicated the
relation is between theory and experiment, and how much the work of
science depends on an appropriate social and economic setting. . .
[Sokal's] targets often
take positions that seem to me (and I gather to Sokal) to make no
sense if there is an objective reality. To put it simply, if scientists
are talking about something real, then what they say is either true
or false. If it is true, then how can it depend on the social environment
of the scientist? If it is false, how can it help to liberate us?
The choice of scientific question and the method of approach may depend
on all sorts of extrascientific influences, but the correct answer
when we find it is what it is because that is the way the world is.
. . .
I have come to think that
the laws of physics are real because my experience with the laws of
physics does not seem to me to be very different in any fundamental
way from my experience with rocks. For those who have not lived with
the laws of physics, I can offer the obvious argument that the laws
of physics as we know them work, and there is no other known way of
looking at nature that works in anything like the same sense. Sarah
Franklin (in an article in the same issue of Social Text
as Sokal's hoax) challenges an argument of Richard Dawkins that in
relying on the working of airplanes we show our acceptance of the
working of the laws of nature, remarking that some airlines show prayer
films during takeoff to invoke the aid of Allah to remain safely airborne.
Does Franklin think that Dawkins's argument does not apply to her?
If so, would she be willing to give up the use of the laws of physics
in designing aircraft, and rely on prayers instead? . . . .
Sokal was not the first
to address these issues, but he has done a great service in raising
them so dramatically. They are not entirely academic issues, in any
sense of the word "academic." If we think that scientific
laws are flexible enough to be affected by the social setting of their
discovery, then some may be tempted to press scientists to discover
laws that are more proletarian or feminine or American or religious
or Aryan or whatever else it is they want. This is a dangerous path,
and more is at stake in the controversy over it than just the health
of science. As I mentioned earlier, our civilization has been powerfully
affected by the discovery that nature is strictly governed by impersonal
laws. As an example I like to quote the remark of Hugh Trevor-Roper
that one of the early effects of this discovery was to reduce the
enthusiasm for burning witches. We will need to confirm and strengthen
the vision of a rationally understandable world if we are to protect
ourselves from the irrational tendencies that still beset humanity.
What Can One Conclude about Science as a Social Construct?
In conclusion, we can
again ask the question of whether science may be viewed as a social
construct, or may even be, in fact, merely a social construct. You
have just seen some strong arguments against that view, but you
have also been made aware that there are some well respected people
who support that view. I trust that my own opinion about whether
science is a mere social construct is obvious. But you are welcome
me reiterate what I said at the beginning of this lesson: You should
always bring a skeptical attitude—one of healthy questioning—to
what you read, and you should continually think carefully, critically,
and evaluatively about what you read. In short, become informed,
so that you can then decide for yourself where you stand, whatever
Chagnon, Napoleon A.
(1995). The View From The President's Window: The Academic Left
and Threats to Scientific Anthropology. Human Behavior and Evolution
Society Newsletter, 4(1). Retrieved 2002 August 31 from http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/faculty/chagnon/chagnon1995.html
[Chagnon is Professor Emeritus of Sociobiology at the University
of California, Santa Barbara.]
Kolb, Edward W. (Rocky).
(1996). Blind Watchers of the Skies. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
[Kolb earned his Ph.D. in physics from UT-Austin in 1978 and is
now both a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University
of Chicago and a research leader at the Fermi National Accelerator
Laboratory. His writings and lectures are full of humor, of which
an introductory idea can be gleaned from his Webpage on the Top
Ten Questions about the Universe.]
Snow, C. P. (1993).
The Two Cultures: with Introduction by Stefan Collini.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. [Besides the introduction
by Collini, this volume includes Snow's further essay, "The
Two Cultures: A Second Look," published in 1963.]
Sokal, Alan D. (1996a).
Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformational Hermeneutics
of Quantum Gravity. Social Text (Spring/Summer 1996). [Sokal
is a Professor of Physics at New York University.]
Sokal, Alan D. (1996b).
A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca
Sokal, Alan, and Bricmont,
Jean. (1998). Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals'
Abuse of Science. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. [Bricmont
is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Université catholique
de Louvain, Belgium.]
Upgren, Arthur. (2002).
The Turtle and the Stars: Observations of an Earthbound Astronomer.
New York, NY: Henry Holt. [Upgren is the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor
of Astronomy, Wesleyan University, and Senior Research Scientist
in the Department of Astronomy, Yale University.]
Weinberg, Steven. (2001).
Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press. [The two essays from which quotations
were drawn were initially published as follows: The Methods of Science
. . . and Those by Which We Live. Academic Questions (8),
1995; Sokal's Hoax. The New York Review of Books, August
Rutherford received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908; Paul
Adrien Maurice Dirac, the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1932; and
Douglas Adrian, the Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1932. Sir
Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) was a distinguished British astronomer
and astrophysicist. G.
H. Hardy (1877-1947), who held professorships (successively)
at both Oxford and Cambridge, was one of the leading mathematicians
of his time.
2. Stefan Collini is
Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature, University
of Cambridge, U.K.
is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (often called
a "Genius Award") and has been since 1966 a Professor
of Physiology in the School of Medicine, University of California,
Los Angeles. The book to which Upgren refers is: Diamond, Jared.
(1997). Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
New York, NY: Norton.
The book to which
Upgren here refers is: Horgan, John. (1997). The End of Science:
Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific
Age. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. [Currently a freelance
writer, Horgan was formerly a Senior Writer at Scientific American
5. The full text of
"Sokal's Hoax" is available online at: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/weinberg.html
Steven Weinberg is one of the most eminent members of the UT-Austin
faculty. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, he holds the
Jack S. Josey-Welch Foundation Chair in Science, is a Regental Professor,
and directs the Theory
Group in the Department of Physics. He spoke eloquently concerning
his regard for, and concerns about, the University of Texas at Austin
when he delivered the University's 2001
Prigogine, another very eminent member of the UT-Austin faculty,
is the other Nobel Laureate (Chemistry, 1977) who is currently at
UT-Austin. He is a Regental Professor and holds the Ashbel Smith
Professorship in the Department of Physics.