Commentary Magazine

Higher Superstition, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt

Science in the Crosshairs

Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science.
by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt.
Johns Hopkins University Press. 328 pp. $25.95.

Science has brought us penicillin, the polio vaccine, the green revolution in agriculture, men on the moon, and Tang. But according to an assortment of radical feminists, Afrocentrists, deconstructionists, deep ecologists, and cultural constructivists, it has also brought us white, male, Eurocentric oppression and a despoiled earth. These people, some of whom even call themselves scientists (though most are drawn from the social sciences and the humanities), say we need a new, postmodern science, taking its bearings from the oppressed and from those cultures living closest to mother earth.

It would be easy to dismiss this foolishness, if it did not claim such a large following in universities. The interesting question is, why does it? In Higher Superstition, Paul R. Gross (a biologist) and Norman Levitt (a mathematician) offer some answers. For one thing, they write, science, along with the idea of natural rights, is the core of the Western project. Its methods and discoveries are one of the grandest accomplishments of the Enlightenment. “Thus science becomes,” according to Gross and Levitt, “an irresistible target for those Western intellectuals whose sense of their own heritage has become an intolerable moral burden.”

There is also another reason why, in the authors’ opinion, radicals in college humanities and social-science departments have turned their attention to science: fact envy. Ever since social scientists embraced the distinction between facts and values, which entailed ceding the realm of fact to natural science, their discipline began to lose prestige. Now, “the more theoretical the social sciences are, the less respect they get.” As for the humanities, they are seen as “subjective beyond hope of redemption.” This has led humanists and social scientists to seek redress either by demonstrating the superiority of their new analytical tools (deconstruction et al.) or by undercutting the natural sciences’ claim to truth, or both.

Still, it is only recently that the academic Left has put science in the crosshairs. Why the delay? Science is hard going; in order to prove that it has been deformed by white, male, capitalist greed, one first has to learn some of it. At least in principle, one needs to understand Newton’s Principia Mathematica before one sets out, as the feminist Sandra Harding does, to demonstrate that it is a “rape manual.”

What is more, the fact that scientific theories are susceptible of empirical proof makes it difficult to dispute them with the decontructionist’s bag of tricks—more difficult, say, than disputing theories of Shakespeare’s intentions. It is just not convincing to argue that modern biology is a fraud because it is dominated by male metaphors when the findings of biology do such a miraculous job of healing the sick.

True, even ignorance sometimes poses no obstacle to the academic Left. As Gross and Levitt write, “the moral authority with which the academic Left emphatically credits itself” often seems, in itself, “sufficient to guarantee the validity of the critique.” Thus, Andrew Ross, professor of English at Princeton, dedicates his Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits, a work aimed at the overthrow of Western science, to “all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.” This is apparently literally true since, Gross and Levitt tell us, Ross knows “virtually nothing” about science.

Even when it is not proudly traveling under the banner of ignorance, however, the attack on science often consists of nonsense. One well-known critic, Steven Best, writes seriously about a “postmodern” physics, influenced by thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory. Yet, Gross and Levitt show, Best’s understanding of these concepts is ridiculously flawed. Similarly, Evelyn Fox Keller, a feminist critic and scientist, claims to have discovered a major sexist failing in modern biology: the idea of DNA as the “master molecule” that dominates and orders the organism. But “master molecule,” as Gross and Leavitt point out, is not a literal concept, it is “shorthand for ‘initial information source,’” and implies nothing whatsoever about control. And so forth.



How much damage has the “higher superstition” done? Although Gross and Levitt believe science can withstand inept attacks, they are alarmed by the extent to which “these intellectual misadventures are so well received in nonscientific academic circles.” Ultimately, they believe, this could lead to a further breach between the natural and social sciences, and could turn promising students away from serious careers in science.

Meanwhile, outside the university, the attack on science has also had a growing impact, especially on the environmental movement. The modern era, goes the indictment, has been characterized by a relentless assault on the earth’s ecosystems, and the fault lies at the feet of the usual suspects: industrialization, capitalism, white-male-European dominance. Clearly science has played a major role in our ecological crisis, for it has handed us the implements used to kill the earth.

For the authors, all this is epitomized in the work of the environmental scientist Jeremy Rifkin, whom they consider an utterly dishonest scaremonger. To cite one example, Rifkin blames the so-called “agricultural crisis of the 1980’s” on every conceivable man-made ecological intrusion, including acid rain, the buildup of greenhouse gases, air pollution, the loss of bio-diversity, and ozone depletion. Yet there was no agricultural crisis in the 1980’s, and even if there had been, none of the named factors could have played a role in it.

As Gross and Levitt see it, Rifkin and others mentioned in this book are given a respectful hearing in part because the scientific community has adopted a relaxed attitude toward the misuse of science in the service of public policies which the community happens to support. Thus, although Rifkin has been eviscerated by the biologist Stephen J. Gould, scientists in general have “tended to be vaguely receptive to the political right-thinking to which the critics lay claim,” with the consequence that they fail to notice what is really under attack—namely, the “underlying conceptual basis” of science itself. This is no doubt one reason why Afro-centrist science has received so little criticism—along with the fear that exposing its “New Age boobery” (as the authors call it) can open one to charges of racism.

At the beginning of Higher Superstition, the authors strike an almost ambivalent note, as if unsure how much alarm is really called for in the face of the postmodern critique of science. By book’s end, however, they have come to a hard-nosed defense of rationality and of a rigorous scientific education. Almost alone among their colleagues, they recognize that deconstruction, environmentalism, feminism, Afrocentrism, and other such movements represent nothing less than the potential triumph of another and even more sinister “ism,” namely, nihilism.

Unlike those they criticize, Gross and Levitt thank their science teachers. We should thank them for this book and for having had the courage to write it.

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