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Reflections on the Science Wars

Norman Levitt

I admit to facetiousness. I also allow that facetiousness is the rhetoric of despair—in this case, despair over the dreadful pickle into which the academic community in the US—and I suppose elsewhere—has gotten itself over the last two decades or so. STS—at least in the most flamboyant and—to use a dreadful phrase—pathbreaking versions—is to me both example and symbol of the university’s growing inability to carry through one of its major intellectual functions, to wit, the filtering of new ideas and the winnowing out of those—most of them—that have small or ephemeral value. Why this function has atrophied to such a drastic degree is an interesting question—far more interesting than the interrogatives put to standard science by its would-be analysts in the STS community. "Politics"—political attitudinizing, that is, and the kind of magical thinking that accompanies it—is one obvious reason. There are doubtless deeper sociological reasons as well, possibly correlated with socio-economic factors that I personally can’t begin to analyze. Suffice it, however, that intellectual celebrity in much of the humanities/social sciences wing of academia, has in large measure ceased to be correlated with precise thinking, or command of evidence, or even fundamental intellectual honesty. What remains? A certain glibness, together with an effectual strategy for presenting onesself as in passionate solidarity with the wretched of the earth, in various guises. To find a flock of examples native to STS, merely consult the bibliography of Sokal’s gag paper. Or, to take a fresher example uncontaminated by jocular intent, look at David Mermin’s paper in the current "Social Studies of Science." I call attention to this because Mermin (a very good physicist, by the way), for reasons that I infer to involve personal connections at least as much as philosophical stance, is determined to take a concilliatory tack, and to meet the STS community halfway, as it were. Nontheless, his analysis is as fully damning as anything I have seen written by an out-and-out "science warrior" on this side of the fence. One is left with the inescapable sense that some of the senior sages of STS are so philosophically naive, silly, and self-deluded that it’s plainly as pointless to think in terms of "dialog" with them as with a UFO cultist. The only difference—and who knows how long that will last?--is that the vagaries of academic fashion in the last few decades have endowed the former with university positions and professorial titles. As the Wizard says, who needs a brain when you have a diploma?

STS has very little of significance to say about how science and technology come to pass in society. You’d be much better off reading "Scientific American," "American Scientist," and "Business Week" if that’s what you’re interested in learning. STS has blown it completely, for the transient satisfactions of being transgressive, or whatever the favored phrase now may be. Gresham’s Law has had its vengeful way with the field, pretty much. On the intellectual level, if not the institutional one, the "science wars" were over shortly after the first shots were fired, and it is curiousity, rather than passionate concern about the outcome, that leads me to keep an eye on all the rather pointless scurrying.

Still, I brood about the larger fate of the university. The reason for my current disquiet may be found in the new book by Kors and Silverglate, "The Shadow University," which is a sort of catalogue raisonne of recent "PC" horror stories. They are all well-documented, and all very, very true and, in sum, a depiction of ghastly moral cowardice and the appalling eagaerness of the shallow and mediocre to assume, or, worse, to abet, inquisitorial pretensions.

The connection with STS? Somehow, I can’t escape the conclusion that the same intellectual atmosphere that turned the administrators of many major and minor universities into shamefully gutless and puerile apparatchiks had something to do with the pattern of seemingly inexplicable indulgence and preferment granted to the fatuous dogmatics of "orthodox" STS—and its expositors. (Latour at IAS? You can make a better case for Jerry Springer.) Of course, a the contamination extends to a spectrum of other fields—but I won’t go into that now.

N. Levitt

Books by Norman Levitt
A Higher SuperstitionThe Flight from Science and Reason
Paul R. Gross (Editor), et al / Paperback / Published 1997
Higher Superstition : The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science
Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt (Contributor) / Hardcover / Published 1994
Higher Superstition : The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science
Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt (Contributor) / Paperback / Published 1997
The Flight from Science and Reason (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, V. 775)
Paul R. Gross (Editor), et al / Paperback / Published 1996
Grassmannians and Gauss Maps in Piecewise-Linear Topology (Lecture Notes in Mathematics, Vol. 1366)
Norman Levitt / Paperback / Published 1989

Alan Sokal

Professor of Physics, New York University [ sokal@nyu.edu ]

Papers by Alan Sokal

"Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"
This is the original "parody" article, published in Social Text #46/47, pp. 217-252 (spring/summer 1996).

Available in three formats:

"A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies"
This is the article in which I reveal the parody, published in Lingua Franca, May/June 1996, pp. 62-64.

Available in three formats:

Also available in German and in Finnish.

"Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword"
Here I explain in more detail why I wrote the parody. This article was submitted to Social Text but rejected by them on the grounds that it did not meet their intellectual standards. It has now appeared in Dissent 43(4), pp. 93-99 (Fall 1996) and, in slightly different form, in Philosophy and Literature 20(2), pp. 338-346 (October 1996).

Available in two formats:

"A Plea for Reason, Evidence and Logic"
Transcript of a talk presented at a forum at New York University on October 30, 1996. It was reprinted in New Politics 6(2), pp. 126-129 (Winter 1997). A slightly expanded version of this talk was presented at the Socialist Scholars Conference (New York, March 30, 1997) and was published under the title "Truth, Reason, Objectivity and the Left" in the Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay), April 18, 1998, pp. 913-914.
"Les mystifications philosophiques du professeur Latour"
"Professor Latour's Philosophical Mystifications"
Reply to an article by Bruno Latour. Published in Le Monde, 31 January 1997, page 15.
"What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove"
Published in A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science, edited by Noretta Koertge (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 9-22. Reprinted, in slightly different form, in Critical Quarterly 40(2), pp. 3-18 (Summer 1998).

"Impostures Intellectuelles" (by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont)
Book published in French by Éditions Odile Jacob, October 1997 (ISBN 2-7381-0503-3). Click here for a brief summary, and here for the first chapter, both in French. The book can be ordered on-line (from anywhere in the world) from amazon.com. In New York City it is available at Posman Books (University Place between Waverly Place and 8 St., telephone 212-533-2665) and at the NYU Bookstore (18 Washington Place, telephone 212-998-4667).

The English edition was published in the UK in July 1998 by Profile Books under the title Intellectual Impostures; it can be ordered on-line from Internet Bookshop. Lecturers in the UK, Europe and British Commonwealth who are considering the book for potential student use may obtain an academic inspection copy. The book will be published in the US in November 1998 by Picador USA, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, under the title Fashionable Nonsense; it can be ordered on-line from Barnes and Noble or amazon.com.

Translations into Catalan, Chinese (Taiwan), Dutch, German, Greek, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese (Brazil), Portuguese (Portugal) and Spanish are in the works. I will post more information as it becomes available.

"The Furor over Impostures Intellectuelles"
"Les réactions face à la parution d'Impostures Intellectuelles"
"Réponse à Vincent Fleury et Yun Sun Limet"
Article, by Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, published in the Times Literary Supplement (London), 17 October 1997, p. 17 and, in slightly modified form, in Libération (Paris), 18-19 October 1997, p. 5. Also available in Hungarian and Spanish.
"Du bon usage des métaphores"
Reply to an article by Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond. Published in La Recherche, November 1997, page 8.
"Les critiques de Derrida et de Dorra ratent leur cible"
Reply, by Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, to articles by Jacques Derrida and Max Dorra. Published in Le Monde, 12 December 1997, page 23.


Commentary by other people


Reviews of Impostures Intellectuelles

Some books of interest

Other useful Web sites on the "Social Text Affair"


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