The Science Wars
I’ve been following the lively (are there ever any other sort?) debate on John Quiggin’s blog about the Science Wars. What strikes me is that not only have the scientists apparantly won the war with the culturalists, but that the straw figure of the “left-wing relativist” with their nonsensical pomo theories is no longer even questioned. Even the esteemed professor refers to “leftwing relativism and pseudoscience”.
The trigger for Quiggin’s post was an article in the LA Times, co-authored by Alan Sokal—a name that has quite a resonance in these circles:
Some self-described leftist academics did seem determined to reduce the real world to mere “discourse.” No worldview, they insisted, could be considered objectively more valid or factual than any other. Even the findings of science were described as reflecting societal conditions and struggles for power and dominance rather than something true about the nature of the world.
Right across the board, whether they are talking about funding grants or primary school curricula, letter-writers, columnists, shock-jocks and federal politicians continue to use the parody of the “postmodernist” as shorthand for anyone with an opposing view. The advantage of this is that no one knows what a “postmodernist” is, because nobody knows what “postmodernism” means (QV John Frow’s What was Postmodernism?, Sydney: Local Consumption Publications, 1991.) We do however know a little about the postmodernist: they are a relativist who doesn’t believe anything; for whom even the clearest scientific fact is mere convention (and probably a fascist plot to boot); and who, because of their relativism, is a moral and ethical vacuum.
Does this sound like anyone you know? No, me either.
Admittedly, in the full flush of enthusiasm for what turned out to be some pretty obscure (and possibly mistranslated) French theory, many people went a bit too far, and some of the theorists pushed these ideas to a logical, but ridiculous, conclusion (Baudrillard, I’m looking at you!) But in all the undergraduate and postgraduate courses I took during this period, and in almost none of the reading, have I come across someone who hasn’t said, “Of course there is an objective physical reality that underlies the practices and discourses of culture”. What is contested isn’t the empirical facts of scientific exploration, but that these facts are invariably answers to questions. And what these questions are, and who gets to ask them, are definitely matters for cultural consideration.
The question always, at least in part, determines the answer, and until the weight of evidence eventually forced a Kuhnian paradigm shift: physicists were quite happy working in a Newtonian, mechanistic universe, looking for and finding “facts” that supported their worldview. That was until the combined theories of people like Kurt Godel, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein made it clear that the answers weren’t wrong (NASA still uses Newtonian physics to calculate spacecraft trajectories): the questions were.
I don’t really consider myself a postmodernist (at least, not any more), but it’s disappointing that much like “political correctness” the term has been misused to such an extent, that it no longer resembles the thing it was trying to describe. And as any postmodernist will tell you, once you change the name of something, changing its meaning is very simple.