Biologist Paul R. Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt’s 1994 Higher Superstition gives an alarming picture of the takeover of Social Science and Literature Departments in American universities by highly politicised and intellectually dubious scholarship. Such is the forcefulness with which the authors give their diagnosis that it drove New York University’s mathematical physicist Alan Sokal to put the authors’ claims to the test. And of course that particular episode has had some importance of its own.
Back to Higher Superstition though. At the sight of the book’s subtitle “The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science“, the reader who–unlike me–would be unfamiliar with the target of the book might imagine a very political essay motivated by right-of-centre sentiments. That would be a mistake as the book is rather an attempt to show how political sentiments (here, left-of-centre) often get in the way of serious thinking. It is a stellar book, and its first one hundred or so pages made my Transatlantic flight back from Canada quite fun.
The first chapter in this book is almost eponymous to the subtitle: “The Academic Left and Science”. It is a good summary of the content of the book, and features a particularly memorable passage also noticed by whomever wrote the Wikipedia page on the Sokal affair: after mentioning the “recent” (in 1994) attack by the “academic left” on science’s methods and insights, in which they correctly argue that such an attack could only be worth one’s time if it was formulated by people who do know something about science, Gross and Levitt notice that
It would seem to follow, then, that the last eight or ten years should have seen of flock or earnest humanists and social critics crowding into science and mathematics lecture rooms, the better to arm themselves for the fateful confrontation. This has not happened. A curious fact about the recent left-critique of science is the degree to which its instigators have overcome their former timidity, or indifference towards the subject, not by studying it in detail, but rather by creating a repertoire of rationalizations for avoiding such study. Buoyed by a “stance” on science, they feel justified in bypassing the grubby necessities of actual scientific knowledge. […] The assumption that makes specific knowledge of science dispensable is that certain new-forged intellectual tools […] and, above all, the moral authority with which the academic left emphatically credits itself are in themselves sufficient to guarantee the validity of the critique.
This is one of the central theses of the book, and it is argued for in the following chapters, Not quite in the second chapter though, which is more of an appeal to history. Gross and Levitt argue–and it is not too hard–that the political causes espoused by the academic left can be linked straightforwardly to reactionary, anti-Enlightenment thought of the previous centuries–and even decades. A passage that I think worthy of quotation reads
The dethronement of Western modes of knowledge and their claims to objectivity is said to be justified on a number of grounds. To some, it is the inherent instability and cloudiness of language that does the job. Others appeal to fairly traditional Marxist notions of class consciousness. Feminists champion “women’s ways of knowing”, while Afrocentrists have their own version of the blood-and-soil myth. The important point, however, is that each faction thinks the job is complete and that Western paradigms have been effectively demolished.
Among academics, such attitudes are nowadays extremely common. They are conjoined, however, with other habits of thought characteristic of intellectuals as a class. There is, for instance, an abiding cabalistic faith that excursions into theory, if pursued at great enough length with sufficient intensity, will tease forth all the deepest truths of human experience. This adds considerably to the impression, common outside of academic-left circles, that the “critical theory” in which academic leftists take such delight is a swamp of jargon, name dropping, logic chopping, and massive attempts to obliterate the obvious. The irony is that this faith in the omnicompetence of theory runs particularly strong in those who claim to abhor “totalizing” theories.
Chapters three to seven are what I would call the “bulk chapters”. They detail the case that Gross and Levitt have built against some schools of thought. Chapter three, “The Cultural Construction of Cultural Constructivism”, has a self-explanatory title. Gross and Levitt first distinguish between weak constructivism–which is really simply history or serious sociology–and strong constructivism–which holds science as a social convention like any other. They then focus on the strong form, that of Barry Barnes–who is not mentioned in this book–and David Bloor–who is. The most notable targets of Gross and Levitt’s arguments are Stanley Aronowitz and Bruno Latour. Aronowitz, who was at the time of the book an editor of Social Text, the journal which was to feature Alan Sokal’s hoax article, seems to deserve special treatment in the eyes of Gross and Levitt, who grace the heading of this third chapter with an epigraph of his–”The point is that neither logic nor mathematics escapes the contamination of the social”–and make no mystery of what they think of his book Science As Power:
Aronowitz’s major work is a turgid and opaque tract entitled Science As Power. It constitutes a major attempt to justify the cultural (or social) constructivist viewpoint and is clearly motivated by the belief that since science and technology are key elements in the substructure of modern capitalism, it is one of the duties of the oppositional social critic to demystify science and topple it from its position of reliability and objectivity. The major premise from which this work of demystification proceeds is that science is “situated” knowledge, conditioned by the historical circumstances that engender it and reflective of the ideological patterns of dominance and authority that prevail in the society.
Ambition, however, is one thing and achievement quite another. Aronowitz’s book is notably clumsy in its approach to argument. Its chief method seems to be to invoke from the philosophy of science as many names as possible, in as small a space as possible, and to present their views, as paraphrased by Aronowitz himself, briefly and cryptically, cementing the whole business together, finally, with a wash of the author’s pontifications.
Latour, on the other hand, is shown to be self-contradictory, in his principles as well as in his deeds, as well as more interested in words and concepts than sociological facts.
The book’s fourth chapter “The Realm of Idle Phrases: Postmodernism, Literary Theory, and Cultural Criticism” takes on exactly those three–essentially equivalent–juggernauts which, in turn, are closely related to cultural constructivism. While reading the book, I was even rather surprised that Gross and Levitt did not group cultural constructivism with postmodernism and the other two schools of thought. If I understood correctly, the main distinction is one of the academic Department to which the “academic leftist” belongs: Sociology Departments are the harbour for cultural constructivism, a rather more formal idea which sees science as sustained by political and economic power, while Literature Departments are the general quarters of postmodernism, a more ill-defined notion where the focus is shifted on “language games”. That emphasis on language is beautifully summed up by the following passage, found early in the chapter:
The idea that close attention to the words, tropes, and rhetorical postures of a culture gives one transmutative power over that culture finds acceptance for a number of reasons. First of all, it shifts the game of politics to the home turf of those who by inclination and training are clever with words, disposed to read texts with minute attention and to attend to the higher-order resonances of language. At the same time, it allows scholars of a certain stamp to construe the pursuit of their most arcane interests as a defiantly political act against the repressive structures of society. This is exhilarating: it is radicalism without risk. It does not endanger careers but rather advances them. […]
One startling aspect of postmodernist thought is its belief in its own omnicompetence. It pronounces with supreme confidence on all aspects of human history, politics and culture. […] Postmodernism is, among other things, a device for amplifying the special insights of a narrow area of literary criticism or rhetorical analysis into a methodology for making judgments of the entire cultural spectrum.
Necessarily, this entails intellectual coarseness. The confidence of the postmodern cultural critic is the confidence of a generalizer who excuses himself from many of the usual obligations of erudition. Under this dispensation, a wide variety of disciplines may be addressed and pronounced upon without requiring a detailed familiarity with the facts and logic around which they are organized. A recent article by Heather MacDonald wryly analyzes this phenomenon, which, in its most impudent form, generates scholarly essays that seem to have as their subject everything in general and nothing in particular […].
The rest of the chapter is chiefly devoted to how postmodernists, to different extents, try to make science a language game, a mere metaphor. The interplay with cultural constructivism is apparent throughout, and especially in passages where the authors examine such writings as those of Andrew Ross, who apparently has lamented the relegation of New Age and the “paranormal” to pseudoscience, arguing that this hierarchy is a social construct. And of course, no full-length work on postmodernism and science would be complete without a refutation of the nonsense that has been written on chaos theory. Higher Superstition is no exception, and takes to task Steven Best and N. Katherine Hayles for the frivolity and incompetence with which they wrote about chaos when trying to claim it–a recurring trope–as the best example of “postmodern science”.
I am still impressed that the book’s longest chapter, its fifth one, is the one about feminism. “Auspicating Gender” is a whopping forty-two pages long. With a look at how an authoritarian, ultra-ideological brand of feminism has reached hegemonic status in many humanities Departments–not to say university campuses altogether–in North America (more about that in my next post), one can only praise Gross and Levitt’s visibly large concern as visionary. The immense relevance of their discussion of feminism in 2015, though, seems more due to the fact that feminism’s power grab was already well under way in 1994, rather than to any special foresight on the part of the authors. Gross and Levitt open the chapter with the sentence “American universities have adopted feminism” and spend most of the remainder of the chapter to provide examples for this claim. Their diagnosis of how academic feminism picks a new target–mathematics education is an example they give, a more recent one with which I am familiar is militant secularism in the US–, complains that it is inherently biased and sexist, and proceed to demand that it be made to conform with the dogmas of feminism, is eerily adequate to describe recent events. Write Gross and Levitt:
Metaphor mongering is the principal strategy of much feminist criticism of science. It is invoked to accomplish what analysis of actual ideas will not. “Toward a Feminist Algebra” is a particularly childish example of this […]. The worst thing about this paper […] lies […] in the fact that that the ultimate aim of the authors is not really to advocate devices for improving the mathematical education of women and other disempowered classes. Rather, one finally discovers, the purpose is to justify the use of mathematics classrooms as chapels of feminist orthodoxy. The purpose of the carefully tailored feminist language and imagery is not primarily to build the self-confidence of woman students, but rather to convert problems and examples into parables of feminist rectitude. […] Campbell and Campbell-Wright really want mathematics instructors to act as missionaries for a narrow, self-righteous feminism.
The authors then go on to examine several of many attacks made by academic feminism on the insights of biology. These themes were further explored–among others, by Paul R. Gross himself–in A House Built On Sand.
Chapter six, “The Gates of Eden”, deals with a topic with which I was much less familiar, that of radical ecology. Gross and Levitt expose not only the notorious antiscientific tendencies rife within ecological movements, but also the rather “liberal” approach that is often taken with respect to facts, events and data. Seen from 2015, Gross and Levitt’s insistence that some scientific issues around Earth’s climate change were not settled in 1994 sound a little quaint, but they still make much more sense than any excerpt they reproduce from “deep ecologist” writings. And in the end, their sensible vision is beautifully summed up in the penultimate paragraph of the chapter:
To us, it is self-evident that a 1 percent improvement in the efficiency of photo-voltaic cells, say, is, in environmental terms, worth substantially more than all the utopian eco-babble ever published. In this sense, we are unabashed technocrats, unashamed of the instrumentalism behind such assertions. An accomplishment of this kind will almost certainly not come from the ranks of the ecoradicals, most of whom would, no doubt, denounce it with scorn as a “techno-fix”. Yet technology and the scientific thinking that stands behind it are, for all their vexed history, indispensable tools for providing humankind with a stable environment in which it can live on honorable terms with itself and with nature. The attempts to replace them with phantom visions of global consciousness change or cultural paradigm shift are wrong-headed […].
The last “bulk chapter”–as I’ve called them– is chapter seven, “The Schools of Indictment”. Unlike the previous four chapters, it deals with several, clearly different ideologies. The three main points of focus are AIDS activism, animal rights activism and Afrocentrism. They are rather minor targets when compared to, say, feminism. What makes them interesting is that their relevance is more local, either in time–for AIDS activism, as the epidemic is now largely under control in the West–or in space–for Afrocentrism, which is really only a factor in the US. To see how postmodernist cultural critics pounced on AIDS to make sweeping judgments about the whole of American or even world society is jaw-dropping to say the least. Meanwhile, AIDS activists outside the academia were accusing the US administration of committing a genocide by its supposedly purposeful failure to stop the spread of the virus. As Gross and Levitt point out: “It is painful to call attention to the absurdities of people whose suffering is undeniable”. But the citations they reproduce leave no doubt that many absurdities have been uttered. The space devoted to animal rights is smaller, but still eyebrow-raising sentences abound here. Gross and Levitt know enough about the issue to separate the sound and sane arguments of a Peter Singer–who can here be seen to argue for generalised veganism and clearly comes out as the best debater in the room–from the shrill and hysterical activism seen in some corners of the academic left. The authors argue forcefully for a responsible use of animals in experimental biology, for medical purposes. And insist that the choice is between just that and accepting “life on Earth as it was before science”. Apart from the third choice that they give–experimenting on humans, rather than on animals, for which they do their best to (presumably, coin, and) present some brief arguments–I indeed do not see what else could be done. The topic is then shifted to Afrocentrism, which they argue, using extensive research by anthropologist Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, is as dangerous as it is wrong. Afrocentrism is not content with setting the historical record straight and denouncing the injustice of colonialism, it purports to offer–ideologically driven–new insights in research and education. It goes much further than quaint but well-meaning–if ill-advised and naively pseudotribalistic, or, as Gross and Levitt put it, “mechanistic and unnecessary”– notions that black students might like to know about the–visibly modest–mathematical “achievements” of various African peoples. Rather, it asserts that much of Greek civilisation–and thus, by transitivity, European civilisation–was derived from African civilisations, especially the Egyptian one (incidentally, Afrocentrism seems very insistent on asserting that ancient Egyptians were ethnically similar to today’s citizens of Senegal or Togo, a controversial claim to say the least). Even more egregious claims follow, and a compendium would be an overkill here, but let’s just mention Hunter Adams’ affirmation that the Egyptians commonly used gliders. Near the end of the chapter, Gross and Levitt regret that
All this strongly suggests that even if the universities of this country eventually succeed in developing effective antidotes to the myths of fervent Afrocentrism (and failure to do so will leave many black students in an intellectual ghetto), they will do so without much help from most of the campus left; more than likely, they will have to proceed in the face of its indignant opposition. This may seem an unkind characterization, but the direct evidence, sadly and shamefully, supports it. The experience of Bernard Ortiz de Montellano provides an example. […]
When Ortiz de Montellano and some of his colleagues […] attempted to present a critique of Afrocentric pseudoethnography at a recent meeting of the American Anthropological Association, their proposal was rejected. The tone and manner of this rejection suggest strongly the heavy hand of a new orthodoxy among cultural anthropologists, one that pretends to atone for the putative sins of ethnography during the era of Western imperialism and colonialism by abandoning the “Western” prerogative to judge the narratives of “non-Western” peoples in the light of objective knowledge and scientific methodology.
The penultimate chapter, “Why Do the People Imagine a Vain Thing?”, is a sort of a pre-conclusion. I’ve noted several striking passages, and will focus on one that I find especially important. Here Gross and Levitt note that for all the supposed value-freedom of cultural constructivism and postmodernism, and the supposed empirical or epistemological merits of feminism or Afrocentrism, these worldviews are strongly normative and just about exclusively political:
The natural view–that science gives power to those who understand and underwrite it precisely because it sees accurately into the workings of nature–is, of course correct; but it sorts ill with the temperament of the would-be exorcist. Thus the drive, fragmented and incoherent but energetic, to impeach science not merely as amoral handmaiden of the wickedly powerful but as flawed at its conceptual roots. The moralistic imagination always demands such an iconographic degradation of that from which it wishes to turn away. Science cannot be seen merely as dangerous; it must also be revealed as false in some essential way.
It is actually this moralism, rather than any solid philosophical commonality, that unites the various critiques we have examined. Moralism has the bad intellectual habit of excusing itself, on its own grounds, for weak and shoddy arguments.
In the final chapter, “Does It Matter?”, Gross and Levitt diagnose the low intellectual level of public discourse and the shoddy standards of science education. But, less conventionally, they also reflect on the future (from a 1994 point of view) of academia. They regret the way a fashionably radical posture can help one breeze through one’s career steps and, less conventionally still and more controversially, they go so far as to ask the question of whether science Departments should secede–or look to have humanities Departments do just that–from universities. They might go an inch too far when they suggest that scientists could, if given the time, teach history and philosophy with good competence–I know many who maybe would, and many who probably wouldn’t-but, in the face of the barrage of nonsense that has been coming from actual university professors in the humanities, one can still see their point: a naive and incomplete curriculum would be much better than the feeding of propaganda to students that has been going on in some lecture halls. This question is largely an exercise in fiction–if not fantasy–of course, but when we read that
We know of mathematics departments where the most straightforward pedagogic housekeeping task–that of giving placement exams to insure that students are assigned courses commensurate with their background and ability–is complicated by the insufferable intervention of ideologues, who insist that such tests are inherently “culturally biased” or “gender biased”, an intervention whose probable consequence is to make life miserable for the poor undergraduates who are shoehorned, courtesy of their would-be benefactors, into courses they aren’t ready to handle.
one is ready to reexamine the issue at some length.
Despite its twenty years of age, Higher Superstition is an urgently relevant book today. Rather than receding and hiding in a scholarly corner, the academic left has kept increasing its influence on campuses throughout the United States and its sister country Canada. Dogmatic feminism seems now to be the default ideology not only of university professors and their students in Women’s Studies Departments, but also of universities’ administrative bodies. I intend to get back to this topic in my following post. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, there is more and more evidence that university campuses have become a platform and a recruiting place for islamists and jihadists. And the academic left, embodied by the National Union of Students, refused to condemn the Islamic State for fear to appear islamophobic.