Commentary Magazine


Who Rules in Science by James Robert Brown

Who Rules in Science: An Opinionated Guide to the Wars
by James Robert Brown
Harvard. 256 pp. $26.00

Few terms, when uttered in academic circles, are so instantly polarizing as the phrase “social construction.” Taken at face value, the notion is innocuous enough: some things that we come to know, like the rules of baseball and the letters of the alphabet, are not objective truths about the universe but products of social convention. The problem is that “constructivists,” whose ranks now include many—if not most—scholars of the humanities, are not content to stop there. From their point of view, all knowledge is subjective and all facts are arbitrary; in baseball, for example, we “construct” not only what counts as a strike, but also the trajectory of a pitch and the physiology of a batter’s swing.

For postmodern humanists, the constructivist enterprise is exciting and subversive, liberating them from the supposedly racist and sexist shackles of Western thought. For many scientists and philosophers, on the other hand, whose business it is to describe the world as it exists, the idea is confusing and absurd; in the words of the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson, it “menaces rational thought.” And not only that. To the extent that postmodernists have come to dominate the study of literature and the arts, their way of thinking has had a corrosive effect on the academy, giving rise to intellectual balkanization and a general decline of standards.

The latter are familiar themes in the so-called “culture wars,” along with debates over multiculturalism, moral relativism, and other left-wing social values that are often explicitly justified by appeals to postmodern thought. In these wars, the side of science and reason is usually identified with the political Right—not least because conservatives have been among the loudest and most prolific defenders of Enlightenment ideals.

Obscured in this larger conflict, however, is an equally intense intramural battle, sometimes called the “science wars,” that has been taking place on and within the political Left. With the rise of postmodernism, leftists who were pro-science took a back seat, no doubt out of fear of being branded as partisans of “Western” thought in general. Increasingly, however, many are beginning to worry that the Left’s social agenda, not to mention its credibility, has yoked itself to a highly dubious intellectual program. In 1995, when the physicist Alan Sokal published a piece of pseudoscientific gibberish in the journal Social Text—and then revealed his hoax, to the great embarrassment of postmodernists everywhere—his aim was not so much to defend science as to rescue the Left from idiotic thinking, which he saw as no way “to help the working class.” Likewise, Noam Chomsky has worried that postmodern critics of science advocate “a path that leads directly to disaster for people who need help.”

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The latest and perhaps most comprehensive attempt at rescuing the pro-science “hard” Left from the anti-science constructivist Left is James Robert Brown’s Who Rules In Science. Like Sokal, Chomsky, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and others, Brown believes that clear thinking is the Left’s best weapon, and that good science is a powerful engine of social justice. Thus, constructivism, which undermines the authority of science and reason, is not only wrong-headed but also socially irresponsible.

The subtitle of Brown’s book promises “An Opinionated Guide,” and on that it delivers. Brown makes no pretense of addressing readers who are not on the Left, and at some points even strains to prove his progressive credentials by ridiculing conservatives in an embarrassingly simple-minded way. According to Brown, for example, because the median income in high-tax Canada is higher than the median income in the United States, it follows that high taxation is beneficial; and because Canada spends a smaller percentage of its GDP than the United States on health care, it follows that socialized medicine is desirable. In neither case does he stop to take into account the vast differences between the two societies. Brown is surely entitled to his opinions on these matters, but readers who are not similarly opinionated may be excused if they fail to take him seriously.

Which is a shame, since Brown’s argument against constructivism is a good one, as far as it goes. It is also careful and nuanced, if a little repetitive. He begins with a brief tutorial in the modern philosophy of science, from the Viennese positivists to Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and more recent schools of thought; these philosophers, he shows, while mostly fans of science, paved the way for constructivism by adopting a critical approach to the study of how science is done. He then divides social constructivism into two camps: the “nihilist” wing, which includes postmodernists, cultural critics, and other unabashed foes of science, and the ostensibly pro-science “naturalist” wing.

For most critics, the nihilists have been an easy target. Much of the postmodern critique of science is based on frank misunderstandings of the relevant scientific literature, and some of it is merely unintelligible. Jacques Derrida, for example, has opined that the Einstein constant “is not the concept of a something—of a center starting from which an observer could master the field—but the very concept of the game.” This is the sort of bizarre statement that made it easy for Sokal to fool the editors of Social Text with an essay on “the transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.” Although Brown defends the nihilists (somewhat halfheartedly) against charges of obscurantism, he convincingly takes them to task for mischaracterizing the scientific enterprise.

Brown is more sympathetic to the naturalists, whose goal—in essence—is to study science scientifically. That is, naturalist constructivists try to understand the reasons that scientific theories are formulated and rejected. But rather than looking for rational explanations (e.g., quantum mechanics gained acceptance because it successfully explained a wide range of previously perplexing physical phenomena), they look for subjective social ones (e.g., quantum mechanics was adopted because it fit better with the mystical and anti-mechanistic Zeitgeist following World War I).

Such reasoning, while superficially friendly to science, in fact undermines it by denying its authority. It is also self-contradictory: if science itself is subjective, by what criterion can its subjectivity be judged objectively true? Yet without this assumption of objective truth, constructivism becomes an almost pointless exercise. Brown makes this argument well—although perhaps not as well as it was made by F. A. Hayek in The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952), a brilliant collection of essays that Brown unaccountably ignores. On Hayek’s analysis, naturalist constructivism is not so much scientific as “scientistic”: it “is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it.”

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What is not clear is whether the kind of science that Brown ultimately advocates is really much better. Even as he defends the scientific method from charges of social construction, Brown would have the aims of science bend to social pressures. Indeed, not only does he see science primarily as a means of helping the poor and bettering human society, but he would reject any kind of research not amenable to that goal as pseudoscience—a category that apparently includes such “socially pernicious” fields as sociobiology, psychometrics, and much of neoclassical economics. It is somewhat ironic that even as Brown carefully defends postmodernists against what he feels are unjustified attacks, he uncritically accepts (for example) Stephen Jay Gould’s sometimes viciously ad-hominem critique of IQ research.

In the end, Brown’s vision is not so much pro-science as it is technocratic. For him, the value of science lies less in the joy of understanding than in the degree to which it brings us closer to an egalitarian ideal. Brown even devotes a chapter to “The Democratization of Science,” in which he suggests—among other things—that research should be carried out by a more “democratically selected” (i.e., racially diverse) group of researchers, that scientists should be made to disclose their “social situation (especially economic),” and that the benefits of research should be shared “more equitably” (for instance, by weakening rights to intellectual property).

One almost wonders whether postmodernism is not preferable to this kind of politicization of research, with all the censorship and abuse of reason that it would entail. Brown is right that social constructivism is neither logically coherent nor, in the end, socially useful, but (as he himself too generously notes) it is usually not harmful to the pursuit of knowledge, and is “at worst merely ridiculous.” The same can definitely not be said of his own program—which is all the more reason to pay close attention to the future course of the science wars.

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About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.