Alan D. Sokal
Department of Physics
New York University
4 Washington Place
New York, NY 10003 USA
Telephone: (212) 998-7729
Fax: (212) 995-4016
April 8, 1997
To appear in
A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science,
edited by Noretta Koertge (Oxford University Press, 1997)
I did not write this work merely with the aim of setting the exegetical record straight. My larger target is those contemporaries who — in repeated acts of wish-fulfillment — have appropriated conclusions from the philosophy of science and put them to work in aid of a variety of social cum political causes for which those conclusions are ill adapted. Feminists, religious apologists (including ``creation scientists''), counterculturalists, neoconservatives, and a host of other curious fellow-travelers have claimed to find crucial grist for their mills in, for instance, the avowed incommensurability and underdetermination of scientific theories. The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is — second only to American political campaigns — the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.
— Larry Laudan, Science and Relativism
I confess to some embarrassment at being asked to contribute an introductory essay to this collection of critical studies in the history, sociology and philosophy of science. After all, I'm neither a historian nor a sociologist nor a philosopher; I'm merely a theoretical physicist with an amateur interest in the philosophy of science and perhaps some modest skill at thinking clearly. Social Text co-founder Stanley Aronowitz was, alas, absolutely right when he called me ``ill-read and half-educated.''
My own contribution to this field began, as the reader undoubtedly knows, with an unorthodox (and admittedly uncontrolled) experiment. I wrote a parody of postmodern science criticism, entitled ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity'', and submitted it to the cultural-studies journal Social Text (of course without telling the editors that it was a parody). They published it as a serious scholarly article in their spring 1996 special issue devoted to what they call the ``Science Wars''. Three weeks later I revealed the hoax in an article in Lingua Franca, and all hell broke loose.
In this essay I'd like to discuss briefly what I think the ``Social Text affair'' does and does not prove. But first, to fend off the accusation that I'm an arrogant physicist who rejects all sociological intrusion on our ``turf'', I'd like to lay out some positive things that I think social studies of science can accomplish. The following propositions are, I hope, noncontroversial:
1) Science is a human endeavor, and like any other human endeavor it merits being subjected to rigorous social analysis. Which research problems count as important; how research funds are distributed; who gets prestige and power; what role scientific expertise plays in public-policy debates; in what form scientific knowledge becomes embodied in technology, and for whose benefit — all these issues are strongly affected by political, economic and to some extent ideological considerations, as well as by the internal logic of scientific inquiry. They are thus fruitful subjects for empirical study by historians, sociologists, political scientists and economists.
2) At a more subtle level, even the content of scientific debate — what types of theories can be conceived and entertained, what criteria are to be used for deciding between competing theories — is constrained in part by the prevailing attitudes of mind, which in turn arise in part from deep-seated historical factors. It is the task of historians and sociologists of science to sort out, in each specific instance, the roles played by ``external'' and ``internal'' factors in determining the course of scientific development. Not surprisingly, scientists tend to stress the ``internal'' factors while sociologists tend to stress the ``external'', if only because each group tends to have a poor grasp on the other group's concepts. But these problems are perfectly amenable to rational debate.
3) There is nothing wrong with research informed by a political commitment, as long as that commitment does not blind the researcher to inconvenient facts. Thus, there is a long and honorable tradition of socio-political critique of science and feminist critiques of psychology and parts of medicine and biology. These critiques typically follow a standard pattern: First one shows, using conventional scientific arguments, why the research in question is flawed according to the ordinary canons of good science; then, and only then, one attempts to explain how the researchers' social prejudices (which may well have been unconscious) led them to violate these canons. Of course, each such critique has to stand or fall on its own merits; having good political intentions doesn't guarantee that one's analysis will constitute good science, good sociology or good history. But this general two-step approach is, I think, sound; and empirical studies of this kind, if conducted with due intellectual rigor, could shed useful light on the social conditions under which good science (defined normatively as the search for truths or at least approximate truths about the world) is fostered or hindered.
Now, I don't want to claim that these three points exhaust the field of fruitful inquiry for historians and sociologists of science, but they certainly do lay out a big and important area. And yet, some sociologists and literary intellectuals over the past two decades have gotten greedier: roughly speaking, they want to attack the normative conception of scientific inquiry as a search for truths or approximate truths about the world; they want to see science as just another social practice, which produces ``narrations'' and ``myths'' that are no more valid than those produced by other social practices; and some of them want to argue further that these social practices encode a bourgeois and/or Eurocentric and/or masculinist world-view. Of course, like all brief summaries this one is an oversimplification; and in any case there is no canonical doctrine in the ``new'' sociology of science, just a bewildering variety of individuals and schools. More importantly, the task of summarization is here made more difficult by the fact that this literature is often ambiguous in crucial ways about its most fundamental claims (as I'll illustrate later using the cases of Latour and Barnes-Bloor). Still, I think most scientists and philosophers of science would be astonished to learn that ``the natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge'', as prominent sociologist of science Harry Collins claims; or that ``reality is the consequence rather than the cause'' of the so-called ``social construction of facts'', as Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar assert.
With this preamble out of the way, I'd now like to consider what (if anything) the ``Social Text affair'' proves — and also what it does not prove, because some of my over-enthusiastic supporters have claimed too much. In this analysis, it's crucial to distinguish between what can be deduced from the fact of publication and what can be deduced from the content of the article.
From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn't prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science — much less sociology of science — is nonsense. Nor does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax. (This might be the case, but it would have to be established on other grounds.) It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty, by publishing an article on quantum physics that they admit they could not understand, without bothering to get an opinion from anyone knowledgeable in quantum physics, solely because it came from a ``conveniently credentialed ally'' (as Social Text co-editor Bruce Robbins later candidly admitted), flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions, and attacked their ``enemies''.
To which, one might justifiably respond: So what?
The answer comes from examining the content of the parody. In this regard, one important point has gotten lost in much of the discussion of my article: Yes, the article is screamingly funny — I'm not modest, I'm proud of my work — but the most hilarious parts of my article were not written by me. Rather, they're direct quotes from the postmodern Masters, whom I shower with mock praise. In fact, the article is structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics (and the philosophy of mathematics and physics) from some of the most prominent French and American intellectuals; my only contribution was to invent a nonsensical argument linking these quotations together and praising them. This involved, of course, advocating an incoherent mishmash of trendy ideas — deconstructive literary theory, New Age ecology, so-called ``feminist epistemology'', extreme social-constructivist philosophy of science, even Lacanian psychoanalysis — but that just made the parody all the more fun. Indeed, in some cases I took the liberty of parodying extreme or ambiguously stated versions of views that I myself hold in a more moderate and precisely stated form.
Now, what precisely do I mean by ``silliness''? Here's a very rough categorization: First of all, one has meaningless or absurd statements, name-dropping, and the display of false erudition. Secondly, one has sloppy thinking and poor philosophy, which come together notably (though not always) in the form of glib relativism.
The first of these categories wouldn't be so important, perhaps, if we were dealing with a few assistant professors of literature making fools of themselves holding forth on quantum mechanics or Gödel's theorem. It becomes more relevant because we're dealing with important intellectuals, at least as measured by shelf space in the cultural-studies section of university bookstores. Here, for instance, are Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari holding forth on chaos theory:
To slow down is to set a limit in chaos to which all speeds are subject, so that they form a variable determined as abscissa, at the same time as the limit forms a universal constant that cannot be gone beyond (for example, a maximum degree of contraction). The first functives are therefore the limit and the variable, and reference is a relationship between values of the variable or, more profoundly, the relationship of the variable, as abscissa of speeds, with the limit.And there's much more — Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray on differential topology, Jean-François Lyotard on cosmology, Michel Serres on nonlinear time — but let me not spoil the fun. (By the way, if you worry that I'm quoting out of context, just follow my footnotes, look up the originals, and decide for yourself. You'll find that these passages are even worse in context than out of context.)
Nor is all the nonsense of French origin. Connoisseurs of fashionable American work in the Cultural Studies of Science will, I think, find ample food for thought.
Fine, the Science Studies contingent might now object: maybe some of our friends in the English Department take Lacan or Deleuze seriously, but no one in our community does. True enough; but then take a look at Bruno Latour's semiotic analysis of the theory of relativity, published in Social Studies of Science, in which ``Einstein's text is read as a contribution to the sociology of delegation''. Why's that? Because Latour finds Einstein's popular book on relativity full of situations in which the author delegates one observer to stand on the platform and make certain measurements, and another observer to stand on the train and make certain measurements; and of course the results won't obey the Lorentz transformations unless the two observers do what they're told! You think I exaggerate? Latour emphasizes Einstein's
obsession with transporting information through transformations without deformation; his passion for the precise superimposition of readings; his panic at the idea that observers sent away might betray, might retain privileges, and send reports that could not be used to expand our knowledge; his desire to discipline the delegated observers and to turn them into dependent pieces of apparatus that do nothing but watch the coincidence of hands and notches ...Furthermore, because Latour doesn't understand what the term ``frame of reference'' means in physics — he confuses it with ``actor'' in semiotics — he claims that relativity cannot deal with the transformation laws between two frames of reference, but needs at least three:
If there are only one, or even two, frames of reference, no solution can be found ... Einstein's solution is to consider three actors: one in the train, one on the embankment and a third one, the author [enunciator] or one of its representants, who tries to superimpose the coded observations sent back by the two others.Finally, Latour somehow got the idea that relativity concerns the problems raised by the relative location (rather than the relative motion) of different observers. (Of course, even the word ``observer'' here is potentially misleading; it belongs to the pedagogy of relativity, not to the theory itself.) Here is Latour's summary of the meaning of relativity:
provided the two relativities [special and general] are accepted, more frames of reference with less privilege can be accessed, reduced, accumulated and combined, observers can be delegated to a few more places in the infinitely large (the cosmos) and the infinitely small (electrons), and the readings they send will be understandable. His [Einstein's] book could well be titled: ``New Instructions for Bringing Back Long-Distance Scientific Travellers''.I needn't pursue the point: Professor Huth's essay in this volume provides a sober and detailed exegesis of Latour's confusions about relativity. The upshot is that Latour has produced 40 pages of comical misunderstandings of a theory that is nowadays routinely taught to intelligent college freshmen, and Social Studies of Science found it a worthy scholarly contribution.
OK, enough for examples of nonsense (although a lot more are available). More interesting intellectually, I think, are the sloppy thinking and glib relativism that have become prevalent in many parts of Science Studies (albeit not, by and large, among serious philosophers of science). When one analyzes these writings, one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous, and which can be given two alternate readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true.
Let me start again with Latour, this time taken from his book Science in Action, in which he develops seven Rules of Method for the sociologist of science. Here is his Third Rule of Method:
Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome — Nature — to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.Note how Latour slips, without comment or argument, from ``Nature's representation'' in the first half of this sentence to ``Nature'' tout court in the second half. If we were to read ``Nature's representation'' in both halves, then we'd have the truism that scientists' representations of Nature (that is, their theories) are arrived at by a social process, and that the course and outcome of that social process can't be explained simply by its outcome. If, on the other hand, we take seriously ``Nature'' in the second half, linked as it is to the word ``outcome'', then we would have the claim that the external world is created by scientists' negotiations: a claim that is bizarre to say the least, given that the external world has been around for about 10 billion years longer than the human race. Finally, if we take seriously ``Nature'' in the second half but expunge the word ``outcome'' preceding it, then we would have either (a) the weak (and trivially true) claim that the course and outcome of a scientific controversy cannot be explained solely by the nature of the external world (obviously some social factors play a role, if only in determining which experiments are technologically feasible at a given time, not to mention other, more subtle social influences); or (b) the strong (and manifestly false) claim that the nature of the external world plays no role in constraining the course and outcome of a scientific controversy.
On the other hand, if we apply the First Rule of Interpretation of Postmodern Academic Writing — ``no sentence means what it says'' — we can perhaps make sense of Latour's dictum. Let's read it not as a philosophical principle, but rather as a methodological principle for a sociologist of science — more precisely, for a sociologist of science who does not have the scientific competence to make an independent assessment of whether the experimental/observational data do in fact warrant the conclusions the scientific community has drawn from them. (The principle applies with particular force when such a sociologist is studying contemporary science, because in this case there is no other scientific community besides the one under study who could provide such an independent assessment. By contrast, for studies of the distant past, one can always look at what subsequent scientists learned, including the results from experiments going beyond those originally performed.) In such a situation, the sociologist will be understandably reluctant to say that ``the scientific community under study came to conclusion X because X is the way the world really is'' — even if it is in fact the case that X is the way the world is and that is the reason the scientists came to believe it — because the sociologist has no independent grounds to believe that X is the way the world really is other than the fact that the scientific community under study came to believe it.
Of course, the sensible conclusion to draw from this cul de sac is that sociologists of science ought not to study scientific controversies on which they lack the competence to make an independent assessment of the facts, if there is no other (for example, historically later) scientific community on which they could justifiably rely for such an independent assessment. But it goes without saying that Latour and his colleagues would not enjoy this conclusion, because their goal, as Steve Fuller put it, is to ``employ methods that enable them to fathom both the `inner workings' and the `outer character' of science without having to be expert in the fields they study.''
It seems to me that much sloppy thinking in Science Studies, like that in Latour's Third Rule of Method, involves conflating concepts that need to be distinguished. Most frequently this conflation is accomplished by terminological fiat: the author intentionally uses an old word or phrase in a radically new sense, thereby undermining any attempt to distinguish between the two meanings. The clear goal here is to achieve by definition what one could not achieve by logic. For example, one often finds phrases like ``the social construction of facts'' that intentionally elide the distinction between facts and our knowledge of them. Or to take another example, philosophers usually understand the word ``knowledge'' to mean ``justified true belief'' or some similar concept; but Barry Barnes and David Bloor redefine ``knowledge'' to mean ``any collectively accepted system of belief''. Now, perhaps Barnes and Bloor are uninterested in inquiring whether a given belief is true or rationally justified; but if they think these properties of beliefs are irrelevant for their purposes, then they should say so and explain why, without confusing the issue by redefining words.
More generally, it seems to me that much sloppy thinking in Science Studies involves conflating two or more of the following levels of analysis:
These questions are obviously related — for example, if there are no objective truths about the world, then there isn't much point in asking how one can know those (nonexistent) truths — but they are conceptually distinct.
For example, Sandra Harding (citing the work of Paul Forman) points out that American research in the 1940s and 50s on quantum electronics was motivated in large part by potential military applications. True enough. Now, quantum mechanics made possible solid-state physics, which in turn made possible quantum electronics (e.g. the transistor), which made possible nearly all of modern technology (e.g. the computer). And the computer has had applications that are beneficial to society (e.g. in allowing the postmodern cultural critic to produce her articles more efficiently) as well as applications that are harmful (e.g. in allowing the U.S. military to kill human beings more efficiently). This raises a host of social and individual ethical questions: Ought society to forbid (or discourage) certain applications of computers? Forbid (or discourage) research on computers per se? Forbid (or discourage) research on quantum electronics? On solid-state physics? On quantum mechanics? And likewise for individual scientists and technologists. (Clearly, an affirmative answer to these questions becomes harder to justify as one goes down the list; but I do not want to declare any of these questions a priori illegitimate.) Likewise, sociological questions arise, for example: To what extent is our (true) knowledge of computer science, quantum electronics, solid-state physics and quantum mechanics — and our lack of knowledge about other scientific subjects, e.g. the global climate — a result of public-policy choices favoring militarism? To what extent have the erroneous theories (if any) in computer science, quantum electronics, solid-state physics and quantum mechanics been the result (in whole or in part) of social, economic, political, cultural and ideological factors, in particular the culture of militarism? These are all serious questions, which deserve careful investigation adhering to the highest standards of scientific and historical evidence. But they have no effect whatsoever on the underlying scientific questions: whether atoms (and silicon crystals, transistors and computers) really do behave according to the laws of quantum mechanics (and solid-state physics, quantum electronics and computer science). The militaristic orientation of American science has quite simply no bearing whatsoever on the ontological question, and only under a wildly implausible scenario could it have any bearing on the epistemological question. (E.g. if the worldwide community of solid-state physicists, following what they believe to be the conventional standards of scientific evidence, were to hastily accept an erroneous theory of semiconductor behavior because of their enthusiasm for the breakthrough in military technology that this theory would make possible.)
The extreme versions of social constructivism and relativism — such as the Edinburgh ``strong programme'' — are, I think, largely based on the same failure to distinguish clearly between ontology, epistemology, and the sociology of knowledge. Here is how Barnes and Bloor describe the form of relativism that they defend:
Our equivalence postulate is that all beliefs are on a par with one another with respect to the causes of their credibility. It is not that all beliefs are equally true or equally false, but that regardless of truth and falsity the fact of their credibility is to be seen as equally problematic. The position we shall defend is that the incidence of all beliefs without exception calls for empirical investigation and must be accounted for by finding the specific, local causes of this credibility. This means that regardless of whether the sociologist evaluates a belief as true or rational, or as false and irrational, he must search for the causes of its credibility. ... All these questions can, and should, be answered without regard to the status of the belief as it is judged and evaluated by the sociologist's own standards.It seems clear from this passage, as well as from the paragraph that precedes it, that Barnes and Bloor are not advocating an ontological relativism: they recognize that ``to say that all beliefs are equally true encounters the problem of how to handle beliefs which contradict one another'', and that ``to say that all beliefs are equally false poses the problem of the status of the relativist's own claims.'' They might be advocating an epistemological relativism — that all beliefs are equally credible, or equally rational — and indeed, their attack on the universal validity of even the simplest rules of deductive inference (such as modus ponens) lends some support to this interpretation. But more likely what they are advocating is some form of methodological relativism for sociologists of knowledge. The problem is, what form?
If the claim were merely that we should use the same principles of sociology and psychology to explain the causation of all beliefs irrespective of whether we evaluate them as true or false, rational or irrational, then I would have no particular objection (though one might have qualms about the hyper-scientistic attitude that human beliefs are always to be explained causally through social science). But if the claim is that only social causes can enter into such an explanation — that the way the world is cannot enter — then I cannot disagree more strenuously.
Let's take a concrete example: Why did the European scientific community become persuaded of the truth of Newtonian mechanics somewhere between 1700 and 1750? Undoubtedly a variety of historical, sociological, ideological and political factors must play a role in this explanation — one must explain, for example, why Newtonian mechanics was accepted quickly in England but more slowly in France — but certainly some part of the explanation (and a rather important part at that) must be that the planets and comets really do move (to a very high degree of approximation, though not exactly) as predicted by Newtonian mechanics. Or to take another example: Why did the majority view in the European and North American scientific communities shift from creationism to Darwinism over the course of the century? Again, numerous historical, sociological, ideological and political factors will play a role in this explanation; but can one plausibly explain this shift without any reference to the fossil record or to the Galápagos fauna?
In the unlikely event that the argument isn't already clear, here's a more homely example: Suppose we encounter a man running out of a lecture hall screaming at the top of his lungs that there's a stampeding herd of elephants in there. What we are to make of this assertion, and in particular how we are to evaluate its ``causes'', should, I think, depend heavily on whether or not there is in fact a stampeding herd of elephants in there — or, more precisely, since I admit that we have no direct, unmediated access to external reality — whether when I and other people peek (cautiously!) into the room we see or hear a stampeding herd of elephants (or the destruction that such a herd might recently have caused before themselves exiting the room). If we do see such evidence of elephants, then the most plausible explanation of this set of observations is that there is (or was) in fact a stampeding herd of elephants in the lecture hall, that the man saw and/or heard it, and that his subsequent fright (which we might well share under the circumstances) led him to exit the room in a hurry and to scream the assertion that we overheard. And our reaction would be to call the police and the zookeepers. If, on the other hand, our own observations reveal no evidence of elephants in the lecture hall, then the most plausible explanation is that there was not in fact a stampeding herd of elephants in the room, that the man imagined the elephants as a result of some psychosis (whether internally or chemically induced), and that this led him to exit the room in a hurry and to scream the assertion that we overheard. And we'd call the police and the psychiatrists. And I daresay that Barnes and Bloor, whatever they might write in journal articles for sociologists and philosophers, would do the same in real life.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that there is no fundamental ``metaphysical'' difference between the epistemology of science and the epistemology of everyday life. Historians, detectives and plumbers — indeed, all human beings — use the same basic methods of induction, deduction, and assessment of evidence as do physicists or biochemists. Modern science tries to carry out these operations in a more careful and systematic way — using controls and statistical tests, insisting on replication, and so forth — but nothing more. Any philosophy of science — or methodology for sociologists — that is so blatantly wrong when applied to the epistemology of everyday life must be severely flawed at its core.
In summary, it seems to me that the ``strong programme'', like Latour's Third Rule of Method, is ambiguous in its intent; and, depending on how one resolves the ambiguity, it becomes either a valid and mildly interesting corrective to the most naive psychological and sociological notions — reminding us that ``true beliefs have causes too'' — or else a gross and blatant error.
Professor Kitcher concludes his contribution to this volume by saying, ``I doubt that this essay will please anyone, for it attempts to occupy middle ground.'' In this he's certainly too pessimistic, for there's at least one counterexample: his essay pleases me. Indeed, I agree with nearly everything in it.
Now, perhaps this means only that I too — arrogant scientist though I may be — am one of those select few occupying the ``middle ground''. But I suspect that in fact more of us occupy the ``middle ground'' in this debate than might at first appear. The point, of course, isn't to embrace ``middle ground'' (whatever that may be) abstractly and for its own sake, without regard to its content: that would be a grave dereliction of intellectual duty. But here the middle ground as set forth in Kitcher's essay — based on a respect for both the ``realist-rationalist cluster'' and the ``socio-historical cluster'', even as we may debate their relative importance in specific cases — is so eminently sensible that nearly all scientists and philosophers of science would give their assent, as would most (though apparently not all) sociologists of science. And this fact might give us some cause for reflection about the so-called — and I think grossly misnamed — ``Science Wars''.
The term was apparently first coined by Social Text co-editor Andrew Ross, who explained that ``the Science Wars [are] a second front opened up by conservatives cheered by the successes of their legions in the holy Culture Wars. Seeking explanations for their loss of standing in the public eye and the decline in funding from the public purse, conservatives in science have joined the backlash against the (new) usual suspects — pinkos, feminists, and multiculturalists''. This theme was further elaborated in the now-famous special issue of Social Text. But, just as in the dreary ``culture wars'', the truth is rather more complicated than this Manichean portrayal would allow. The alleged one-to-one correspondence between epistemological and political views is a gross misrepresentation. So, too, is the idea that in this debate there are only two positions.
This conception of debate as combat is, in fact, probably the main reason why the Social Text editors fell for my parody. Acting not as intellectuals seeking the truth, but as self-appointed generals in the ``Science Wars'', they apparently leapt at the chance to get a ``real'' scientist on their ``side''. Now, ruing their blunder, they must surely feel a kinship with the Trojans.
But the military metaphor is a mistake; the Social Text editors are not my enemies. Ross has legitimate concerns about new technologies and about the increasingly unequal distribution of scientific expertise. Aronowitz raises important questions about technological unemployment and the possibility of a ``jobless future''. But, pace Ross, nothing is gained by denying the existence of objective scientific knowledge; it does exist, whether we like it or not. Political progressives should seek to have that knowledge distributed more democratically and to have it employed for socially useful ends. Indeed, the radical epistemological critique fatally undermines the needed political critique, by removing its factual basis. After all, the only reason why nuclear weapons are a danger to anyone is that the theories of nuclear physics on which their design is based are, at least to a very high degree of approximation, objectively true.
Science Studies' epistemological conceits are a diversion from the important matters that motivated Science Studies in the first place: namely, the social, economic and political roles of science and technology. To be sure, those conceits are not an accident; they have a history, which can be subjected to sociological study. But Science Studies practitioners are not obliged to persist in a misguided epistemology; they can give it up, and go on to the serious task of studying science. Perhaps, from the perspective of a few years from now, today's so-called ``Science Wars'' will turn out to have marked such a turning point.