Phony Science Wars?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Nov 12 08:48:20 MST 1999



Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1999

Phony Science Wars, A review of Ian Hacking's "The Social Construction of
What?"

by Richard Rorty

OCCASIONALLY we read about a war that is supposed to be going on among
philosophers. The war, we are told, is between those who believe in truth
and rationality and those who do not. The latter -- the bad guys -- are
sometimes called postmodernists, sometimes irrationalists and relativists,
and sometimes social constructionists. The good guys believe that science
tells us the way things really are; they take the paradigm of rationality
to be scientific inquiry, just as the paradigm of truth is the result of
that inquiry.

Good guys such as E. O. Wilson and Paul Gross ask us to see natural science
as a model for other human activities. They are deeply suspicious of
philosophers of science (including Bruno Latour and the late Thomas Kuhn)
who describe conflicts between scientific theories in the same terms they
use to describe conflicts between moral or political opinions. Wilson and
Gross see a big difference between finding and making -- between efforts to
learn how things really are and efforts to cobble together artificial
entities such as commercial credit and constitutional democracy. Their
insistence that natural science enjoys a special relationship to reality
has been even more vociferous since the "Sokal hoax," a few years ago, when
a scientist named Alan Sokal made fools of some postmodernist nonscientists
by getting them to take a rubbishy bit of pseudo-science seriously.

Members of a third group find themselves caught in the middle, agreeing
that we might be better off without the term "objective reality" but
thinking, too, that we could do without "social construction." They believe
neither that science has a special relationship to reality nor that its
pretensions need to be unmasked. The community of natural scientists is,
they think, a model of intellectual rectitude, and yet its virtues --
willingness to hear the other side, to think through the issues, to examine
the evidence -- have nothing to do with the fact that the objects natural
scientists investigate are found rather than made. The same virtues, after
all, are found among judges and classical philologists, who investigate
objects that are made rather than found.

These philosophers can agree with the social constructionists that notions
like "the homosexual" and "the Negro" and "the female" are best seen not as
inevitable classifications of human beings but rather as inventions that
have done more harm than good. But they are not sure that "X is a social
construction" adds much to "talking about X is not inevitable, and there
are probably better ways of talking." They see the point of Foucault's
famous observation that in the nineteenth century homosexuality was
"transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny,
a hermaphroditism of the soul." Foucault went on to say, "The sodomite had
been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species." They agree
that we would have been better off with the commonsensical thought that
some men prefer to have sex with other men than with the sophisticated
attempt to ground this preference in a deep, dark psychopathology. But they
think that the energy Foucault's disciples have put into arguing that
something is a social construction would be better put into proposing some
alternative social construction: a more effective and less damaging way of
talking about what is going on. All our controversial ways of talking are,
to be sure, choices that society has made about how to classify things. In
that sense these classifications are of course socially constructed. But
the interesting question is whether anybody can suggest a better
classification.

IAN Hacking -- the most intellectually curious and imaginative philosopher
of science now writing -- is a member of the third group. In this spirited
and eminently readable book he suggests that the combatants climb down from
the level of abstraction on which they debate such topics as the nature of
truth, the nature of science, and the nature of rationality, and focus
instead on three questions: Are the best scientific theories of our day the
inevitable results of serious inquiry, or might science have taken a
different turn and still had equal success in building bombs, say, or
curing diseases? Do these theories tell us about the intrinsic structure of
reality, or are they simply the best tools available for predicting and
controlling nature? Are the longest-lasting and most frequently relied upon
theories stable because they match a stable reality, or because scientists
get together to keep them stable, as politicians get together to keep
existing political arrangements intact? Philosophers like Latour and Kuhn,
wary of the idea that reality has an intrinsic nature that scientific
inquiry is destined to reveal, are inclined to say that science might have
done as good a job if it had never come up with either quarks or genes. As
they see it, scientific progress is like biological evolution: no
particular life-form is destined to emerge, and lots of different ones
might have turned out to be equally good at survival. In this view,
scientific theories are tools that do a job. They do it well, but some
other tools might perhaps have done the same job equally well.

As Hacking says, many scientists find this view absurd. He himself is
dubious about it, but he is inclined to be even more dubious about the idea
that reality has an intrinsic structure that science accurately describes.
These latter doubts are aroused by the notorious, persistent, seemingly
insoluble perplexities to which the notion of "intrinsic" gives rise. The
most familiar of these is the question How can we ever hope to compare
reality as it is in itself, naked and undescribed, with our descriptions of
it? Many philosophers have given up on the notions of "intrinsic" and "in
itself," as a result of their failure to answer that question.

The stalemate that Hacking brilliantly describes but does not try to break
is between many scientists' intuition of the inevitability of quarks and
many philosophers' suspicion that the claim of inevitability makes sense
only if the idea of the intrinsic structure of reality makes sense. This
teeter-totter between conflicting intuitions is, Hacking rightly says, a
genuine intellectual problem. Which answer one gives to his third question
-- about the source of the stability of the most reliable bits of science
-- is likely to be a matter of which side of the seesaw has most recently
descended.

These alternating intuitions have been in play ever since Protagoras said
"Man is the measure of all things" and Plato rejoined that the measure must
instead be something nonhuman, unchanging, and capitalized -- something
like The Good, or The Will of God, or The Intrinsic Nature of Physical
Reality. Scientists who, like Steven Weinberg, have no doubt that reality
has an eternal, unchanging, intrinsic structure which natural science will
eventually discover are the heirs of Plato. Philosophers like Kuhn, Latour,
and Hacking think that Protagoras had a point, and that the argument is not
yet over.

The most vocal and inflamed participants in the so-called science wars are
treating the latest version of this fine old philosophical controversy as a
big deal. In the very long run, perhaps, it will prove to be one. Maybe
someday the idea of human beings answering to an independent authority
called How Things Are in Themselves will be obsolete. In a thoroughly
de-Platonized, fully Protagorean culture the only answerability human
beings would recognize would be to one another. It would never occur to
them that "the objective" could mean more than "the agreed-upon upshot of
argument." In such a culture we would have as little use for the idea of
the intrinsic structure of physical reality as for that of the will of God.
We would view both as unfortunate and obsolete social constructions.

BUT there is no hurry, no urgent need to bring this perpetual seesaw to
rest. Scientists who agree with Kuhn are not about to do anything very
different from what their colleagues who agree with Weinberg do. Their
disagreements come up only in after-hours chat, not during the daily grind
in the lab. Analogously, politicians who think that human rights are
somehow built into the ahistorical structure of the human soul usually
propose the same policies as those who think that human rights are an
admirable recent invention. In the short term, philosophical differences
just do not matter that much. In neither science nor politics is
philosophical correctness, any more than theological correctness, a
requirement for useful work.

Hacking's book will help its readers understand why they need not worry
that civilization will collapse if Nietzsche and Foucault continue to be
taken seriously, and also why those who describe themselves as postmodern
(by now a somewhat musty adjective) are not as radical, original, or
relevant to moral and political deliberation as they sometimes think. The
science wars are in part a product of deep and long-lasting clashes of
intuition, but mostly they are just media hype -- journalists inciting
intellectuals to diabolize one another. Diabolization may be helpful in
keeping intellectuals aroused and active, but it need not be taken very
seriously.

Hacking's book is an admirable example of both useful debunking and
thoughtful and original philosophizing -- an unusual combination of good
sense and technical sophistication. After he has said his say about the
science wars, Hacking concludes with fascinating essays on, among other
things, fashions in mental disease, the possible genesis of dolomitic rock
from the activity of nanobacteria, government financing of weapons
research, and the much-discussed question of whether the Hawaiians thought
Captain Cook was a god. In each he makes clear the contingency of the
questions scientists find themselves asking, and the endless complexity of
the considerations that lead them to ask one question rather than another.
The result helps the reader see how little light is shed on actual
scientific controversies by either traditionalist triumphalists or
postmodernist unmaskers.

Richard Rorty is a professor of comparative literature at Stanford
University. His most recent book is Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought
in Twentieth-Century America (1998).

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. The
Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; Phony Science Wars - 99.11; Volume 284,
No. 5; page 120-122.


Louis Proyect

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