Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Science of War [ Enable Video ]


The attack upon the validity of science from the Humanities and the social sciences worried many in the scientific community, especially when the language of social construction was appropriated by groups who claimed to proffer alternative scientific paradigms. Many scientists perceived that as attempted political control of science in society, e.g. so-called ‘creation science,’ ‘intelligent design,’ and the continuing creation-evolution controversy. In Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (1994), the scientists Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt attacked the anti-intellectual postmodernists, presented the shortcomings of relativism, proposed that postmodernist critics knew little about the scientific theories they criticized, and practiced poor scholarship for political reasons.

The postmodernist science studies critics were identified as “misunderstanding” the theoretical approaches they criticized given their “caricature, misreading, and condescension, [rather] than argument.” In the event, the book proved a spark for the Science Wars. Moreover, Higher Superstition then inspired a New York Academy of Sciences conference titled The Flight from Science and Reason, organised by Gross, Levitt, and Gerald Holton. The conferees were critical of the polemical approach of Gross and Levitt, yet agreed upon the intellectual inconsistency of how laymen, non-scientist, social studies intellectuals dealt with science.

Science wars in Social Text

In 1996, Social Text, a non-peer-reviewed academic journal of postmodern critical theory at Duke University, compiled a “Science Wars” issue containing brief articles, by postmodernist academics in the social sciences and the Humanities, that emphasised the roles of society and politics in science. In the issue introduction, the Social Text editor, Andrew Ross, said that the attack upon science studies was a conservative reaction to reduced funding for scientific research, characterising the Flight from Science and Reason conference as an attempted “linking together a host of dangerous threats: scientific creationism, New Age alternatives and cults, astrology, UFO-ism, the radical science movement, postmodernism, and critical science studies, alongside the ready-made historical specters of Aryan-Nazi science and the Soviet error of Lysenkoism” that “degenerated into name-calling.”

The historian Dorothy Nelkin characterised Gross and Leavitt’s vigorous response as a call to arms in response to the failed marriage of Science and the State — in contrast to the scientists’ historical tendency to avoid participating in perceived political threats, such as creation science, the animal rights movement, and anti-abortionists’ attempts to curb fetal research. At the end of the Soviet–American Cold War (1945–91), military funding of science declined, whilst funding agencies demanded accountability, and research became directed by private interests. Nelkin reported that postmodernist critics were “convenient scapegoats” who diverted attention from problems in science.

Physicist Alan Sokal had submitted an article to Social Text titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which proposed that quantum gravity is a linguistic and social construct and that quantum physics supports postmodernist criticisms of scientific objectivity. After holding the article back from earlier issues due to Sokal's refusal to consider revisions, the staff published it in the "Science Wars" issue as a relevant contribution. Later, in the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, in the article “A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies”, Prof. Sokal exposed his parody-article, “Transgressing the Boundaries” as an experiment testing the intellectual rigor of an academic journal that would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if

(a) it sounded good and
(b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.

The matter became known as the “Sokal Affair”, and proved to be the intellectual fraud that thrust the academic world’s in-house scientific objectivity wars into the public eye.

Continued conflict

In the first few years after the ‘Science Wars’ edition of Social Text, the seriousness and volume of discussion increased significantly, much of it focused on reconciling the ‘warring’ camps of postmodernists and scientists. One significant event was the ‘Science and Its Critics’ conference in early 1997; it brought together scientists and scholars who study science and featured Alan Sokal and Steve Fuller as keynote speakers. The conference generated the final wave of substantial press coverage (in both news media and scientific journals), though by no means resolved the fundamental issues of social construction and objectivity in science.

Other attempts have been made to reconcile the two camps. Mike Nauenberg, a physicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, organized a small conference in May 1997 that was attended by scientists and sociologists of science alike, among them Alan Sokal, N. David Mermin and Harry Collins. In the same year, Collins organized the Southampton Peace Workshop, which again brought together a broad range of scientists and sociologists. The Peace Workshop gave rise to the idea of a book that intended to map out some of the arguments between the disputing parties. The One Culture, edited by physicist Jay A. Labinger and sociologist Harry Collins, was eventually published in 2001. The book, whose title is a reference to C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, contains contributions from authors such as Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont, Steven Weinberg and Steven Shapin. Also in 2001, Oxford University professor Bent Flyvbjerg in his book Making Social Science Matter identified a way out of the Science Wars by arguing that:

(1) social science is phronesis, whereas natural science is episteme, in the classical Greek meaning of the terms;

(2) phronesis is well suited for the reflexive analysis and discussion of values and interests, which any society needs to thrive, whereas episteme is good for the development of predictive theory, and;

(3) a well-functioning society needs both phronesis and episteme in balance, and one cannot substitute for the other.

Other important publications related to the science wars include Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Jean Bricmont (1998), The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking (1999) and Who Rules in Science by James Robert Brown.

For some scholars, the Bogdanov Affair in 2002[16] served as the bookend to the Sokal controversy: the review, acceptance, and publication of papers, later alleged to be nonsense, in peer-reviewed physics journals. Postmodernists might point out that this occurrence only served to demonstrate what they have always claimed: at the outer reaches of knowledge, where new claims are evaluated and disseminated, no one can be expected to know for certain what is true and what is not.[citation needed] However, others such as Cornell physics professor Paul Ginsparg have argued that the cases are not at all similar and that the fact some journals and scientific institutions have low or variable standards is “hardly a revelation.”

Interest in the science wars has waned considerably in recent years. Though the events of the science wars are still occasionally mentioned in mainstream press, they have had little effect on either the scientific community or the community of critical theorists.[citation needed] Both sides continue to maintain that the other does not understand their theories, or misunderstands what are meant to be constructive criticisms or simple scholarly investigations as attacks. As Bruno Latour recently put it, “Scientists always stomp around meetings talking about ‘bridging the two-culture gap’, but when scores of people from outside the sciences begin to build just that bridge, they recoil in horror and want to impose the strangest of all gags on free speech since Socrates: only scientists should speak about science!” Subsequently, Latour has suggested a re-evaluation of sociology's epistemology based on lessons learnt from the Science Wars: “…scientists made us realize that there was not the slightest chance that the type of social forces we use as a cause could have objective facts as their effects.”

However, more recently some of the leading critical theorists have recognized that their critiques have at times been counter-productive, and are providing intellectual ammunition for reactionary interests. Writing about these developments in the context of global warming, Bruno Latour noted that “dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant?” Some have suggested that this paper represented Latour’s recanting his earlier claims, but others say that the paper’s attack on “social construction” is consistent with positions he has taken since the second edition of his book Laboratory Life was published in 1979; see Bruno Latour.

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