Science and Antiscience

ermadog at ermadog at
Wed Dec 5 19:01:04 MST 2001

Here is my response to the Levins article. As expected, I have no qualms
with his discussion of bourgeois science. It isn't anything I haven't
heard before.

BTW you can drop the sniping at Sokal. I haven't read a word the man has
written; and your continuous ad homina against him are getting on my

   All knowledge comes from experience and reflection on that
   experience in the light of previous knowledge. Science is not uniquely
   different from other modes of learning in this regard.

Good. He states up front that there is only one way of knowing. There are
many ways of learning; but there is only one way of verifying.
Conclusions, hunches, intuitions, wishfull thinking - all must be verified
by experience.

L: What is special about our science is that it is a particular moment in
   the division of labor in which resources, people, and institutions are
   set aside in a specific way to organize experience for the purpose of
   discovery. In this tradition a self-conscious effort has been made to
   identify sources and kinds of errors and to correct for capricious
   biases. It has often been successful.

J: I would add that reason is a refinement of reflection.

L: We have learned to be alert to the possible roles of confounding
   factors and to the need for controlled comparison; we have learned that
   correlation does not mean  causation and that the expectations of the
   experimenter can affect the experiment; we have also learned how to
   wash laboratory glassware to avoid contaminants and how to extract
   trends and distinctions from numbers. Our self-consciousness reduces
   certain kinds of errors but in no way eliminates them, nor does it
   protect the scientific enterprise as a whole from the shared biases of
   its practitioners.

J: Through centuries of scientific practice, we have developed, tested,
and verified a number of principles which, taken collectively, are called
scientific method. These are not all equally applicable in all
circumstances. Thus, geology once had very little predictive power.
However, once the principles of plate tectonics were discovered, it became
possible for paleontologists to predict where they would find older
fossils - i.e.  where the oldest parts of the Earth's crust are. The
social sciences have a huge problem with testability - it is unethical to
experiment on humans, and also very difficult to impose rigid controls on
large populations. Cutting edge sciences have problems with insufficient
data and is often difficult to distinguish from pseudoscience. The whole
process must show the systematic application of consistent rules of logic.

The peer review process is designed to correct bias in individuals; but,
the problem of group bias can only be corrected with time. As fads come
and go, eventually the truth will out.

L: On the other hand, so-called traditional knowledge is not static or

J: I maintain that it can be demonstrated that there is a
qualitative difference between the kind of guesswork we find in
traditional thinking and the kind of educated guesswork we find in
scientific thinking.

L: Africans (probably mostly women) brought as slaves to the Americas
   quickly developed an Afro-American herbal medicine. It was put together
   partly from remembered knowledge of plants found both in Africa and in
   America, partly from borrowed Native American plant lore, and partly
   from experimenting on the basis of African rules about what medicinal
   plants should be like.

J: I have examined a lot of herbals in my time and I've never seen one
that organizes its material in a logically consistent way. The rules that
govern these eclectic compendiums of lore are often groundless
speculation, wishfull thinking or intuitive guesses. The arrangement of
the data to fit the rules is forced. I have seen no logical reason, for
instance, to divide plants into "cooling" and "healing" agents as in
Chinese medicine. In tribal societies, the herbs are often associated with
the clan totem which tends to serve as an organizing principle for social
lore in that it acts as a mnemonic device. This is associative magic, not

How can Levins characterize this practice as "experimenting"? Where are
the controls? What are the variables being measured? How can we measure
the dosage when the plant itself varies from season to season, from field
to field?  Where are the meticulous records? If you will refer to the
material I posted some months ago on the reliability of oral tradition,
and revisit a point made by Crossan, I think you will find that oral
tradition is unsufficiently reliable for the purposes of science. In the
absence of an absolute standard - text - memory is not absolute. How,
then, can ideas be checked against themselves?

L: The teaching of traditional medicine always involves experimenting,
   even when it is presented as the transmission of preexisting knowledge.

J: This is an untestable proposition. We have no idea how rigourously
herbalists applied their tradition of self-testing. We can guess that in
many cases the full weight of the dead hand of tradition intruded into the

I have seen a few reports of scientific studies of systems of traditional
medicine. The results are varied. This reveals flaws in the underlying
principles of the systems by which these compendiums were originally

L: Finally, the criteria for prescribing various herbal therapies in
   non-European/North American medicine are probably better grounded than
   those that guide decisions about cesarean sections, pacemaker implants,
   or radical mastectomies in U.S. scientific medical practice.

J: Medicine is an empiric practice, not a science.

   Even what is described as intuitive (as against intellectual) knowldge
   comes from experience: our nervous/endocrine system is a marvelous
   integrator of our rich, complex histories into a holistic grasp that is
   unaware of its origins or constituents. Scientific and intuitive
   knowledge are not fundamentally different epistemologically; they
   differ instead in the social processes of their production and are not
   mutually exclusive.

J: Levins starts out by stating unequivocably that there is only one kind
of knowledge. Now he says there are two. The fact is that both scientific
conclusions and intuitive guesses must both be tested for truth value
before we can say they are truly known.

L: In stressing the culture-boundedness of science, these analyses ignore
   the common features of Babylonian, Mayan, Chinese, and British
   astronomies and their calendars. Each comes from a different cultural
   context but looks at (more or less) the same sky. They recognize years
   * the same length, notice the same moon and planets, and calculate tne
   same astronomical events by very different means.

J: Wonderfull accomplishments, but not science. Rather, applied technology
based on intuition and empiric observation. In pre-industrial societies,
higher learning was a luxury of the ruling classes, not serious science.

L: Social determinists also ignore the parallel uses of medicinal plants
   in Brazil and Vietnam, the namings of plants and animals that roughly
   correspond to what we label as distinct species. All peoples seek
   healing plants and tend to discover similar uses for similar herbs.

J: I'd like to see his data on this. The herbals I've seen show different
tribes using the same plants for different purposes.

L: Therefore, the task of the analyst of science is to trace the interac-
   ions and interpenetrations of intellectual labor and the objects that
   labor under different conditions of labor and under different  social
   arrangements. The art of research is the sensitivity to decide when a
   useful and necessary simplification has become an obfuscating

   (6) Modern European/North American science is a product of the
   capitalist revolution. It shares with modern capitalism the liberal
   progressivist ideology that informs its practice and that it helped to
   mold. Like bourgeois liberalism in general it is both liberated and
   dehumanized. It proclaimed universal ideals that it did not quite mean,
   violated them in practice, and sometimes revealed those ideals to be
   oppressive even in theory.

J: Spot on.

L: Their gut-level anti-intellectualism is often expressed in delight at
   the stupidities of scientists as against the wisdom of the "simple
   man," a delight that at first seems appealingly democratic. But this is
   not the assertion that everyone is capable of rigorous and disciplined
   thinking. Instead, it denies the importance of serious complex thinking
   altogether in favor of the  pontaneous smarts of uneducated
   certainties. They accept the dichotomy of knowledge versus values and
   opt for their particular values whenever there is conflict.

J: Precisely. And many middle-class activists get confused on this point
when they get all googley-eyed about other people's culture. This
contributes to the confusion between scientific socialism and primitive
communalism in popular culture. Which is why I posted the article on
communitarianism last week.

L: Because of the increasingly obvious blindnesses, narrowness, dogmatism,
   intolerance, and vested interest in official science, alternative
   movements have sprung up, especially in health and agriculture. They
   ought to be examined with the same tools that we use to look at
   "official" science: who owns them, where do they come from, what
   viewpoints do they express, how are they validated, what theoretical
   biases do they manifest?

J: Everbody dig into the archives and look up the posts on ecofascism.

L: Whether you are a modern taxonomist who recognizes that half the snakes
   in Darien are poisonous or a Choco who will tell you that all snakes
   are poisonous but only kill you half the time, the practical conclusion
   is similar: when walking in the forest, beware of snakes.

J: My dogs could tell you that you should beware of all strange animals
because they can all be dangerous even if they are smaller than you. Even
when you are the larger animal, the small one can injure you and hinder
your ability to hunt. My dogs can't reason this out; but, they don't take
chances, either.

L: The present right-wing attack on science is part of a more general
   assault on liberalism, now that the demise of a worldwide socialist
   challenge makes liberalism unnecessary and intensified competition
   during a period of long-term stagnation makes liberalism seem too
   costly. Although its opposition to liberalism is opposition to the
   liberating aspects of that doctrine, the reactionary attack on
   liberalism often emphasizes the oppressive or ineffectual sides of

J: Which is precisely my reason for opening up this discussion. I have a
personal stake in this as well. If this "two ways of knowing" nonsense
catches on, we women will be back in the kitchen making babies again. I'm
too old for that nonsense.

L: The best defense of science under reactionary attack is to insist on a
   science for the people.

Joan Cameron

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list