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"Authorizing Knowledge"

by Joan Fujimura

Review by Joe Donohue


What are the "Science Wars?" Some of the combatants would describe them in tones reminiscent of the Wars of Religion in 16th Century Europe: the enemy is the personification of all evil, the Antichrist himself is joining the fray, and the church must be burned in order to be saved. While some prepare for the frontal assaults against an implacable foe, others prefer subterfuge and deceit to dupe their opponents. Everyone, it seems, wants to paper the world with propaganda. Everyone without exception employs his stratagems towards one and only one goal: the total defeat of the opposing side.

I picked out one article to demonstrate the war of words that rages between the natural scientists and their lackeys on one side and the social scientists and the humanities ilk on the other. The article by Dr. Joan Fujimura of Stanford compares the Sokal Affair in 1996 to non-Euclidean geometry in the 19th Century. She argues Dr. Sokal intended to use the affair and the ridicule it generated to silence critics of science. C. P. Snow in 1959 described the gulf between two cultures "not only in an intellectual but also in an anthropological sense." The two have not grown fonder since.

In 1994, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt wrote a book Higher Superstition, which lambasted the critics of modern science — the "Academic Left" — for their smug ignorance of science. (Gross and Levitt also wrote that many of the science critics did not deserve the degrees the critics have received, because the critics did not know how to think logically. This did not endear Gross and Levitt to their critics.)

In that same year Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge wrote Professing Feminism, and Christina Hoff Sommers wrote Who Stole Feminism? to decry lack of intellectual rigor in current feminism. Patai and Koertge felt that feminism has evolved into a Stalinesque dogma that stultifies creativity, snuffs out individuality, and will deter college women from learning about the sciences and hamper them in their careers. Sommers felt that the "other ways of knowing" doctrine of many feminists is merely an excuse for not doing proper research and a cover for disguising opinions as facts. Sommers also felt that women were short-changed by the malarkey being sold as "knowledges" in college.

Afrocentrism was not neglected in these battles. Martin Bernal, Cheikh Anta Diop, and George G. M. James have written books stating, in effect, that Greek culture is the stolen property of ancient Egypt. Assuming that one could "steal" another culture, Mary Lefkowitz in Not Out of Africa argues that the Greeks did not "steal" Egyptian culture. Greek religion, architecture, and philosophy show little Egyptian influence. (Ironically, Dr. Lefkowitz points out, Bernal and others rely on Greek sources for their assertions.) That the Greeks never bothered to learn the Egyptian language made them prey to the practical jokes of Egyptians. Until the Rosetta Stone, we had only their word on the subject. Today we know better.

No war would be complete without a sneak attack, and 1996 was the year of the Sokal Affair. Dr. Alan Sokal, physics professor at New York University, wrote the article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," for the Social Text, a journal for left-leaning social scientists and humanities majors. The editors were planning a special issue on the "Science Wars" and they were quite baffled by the only entry from a real scientist. The text of the article was as opaque as the title, and the editors did not know what to make of it. Although Dr. Sokal was in the same city as they, the editors did not meet with him for an explanation. They asked Sokal to change his wording once, but he opposed, and editors gave up. The editors clearly did not understand the article, but they did not bring the article to an expert for review. The editors published it anyway.

Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

Dr. Sokal asked this in Lingua Franca when he decided to reveal his hoax. The answer was apparently yes. The Social Text then went on the counteroffensive: they defended their decision to publish the article and attacked Dr. Sokal for tricking them. Their defense made them the butt of many unflattering editorials. Their fellow editors had little pity for them: an editor’s job is, after all, to weed out bogus information and check sources. Since the Social Text did neither, the Social Text deserved all the ridicule it got according to the mores of the publishing industry. Here’s an example from the Times of London:

What Ross and Co. should have said, it seems to me, is that Social Text is a political magazine in a deeper and more radical sense: under appropriate circumstances, it is prepared to let agreement with its ideological orientation trump every other criterion for publication, including something as basic as sheer intelligibility. The prospect of being able to display in their pages a natural scientist — a physicist, no less — throwing the full weight of his authority behind their cause was compelling enough for them to overlook the fact that they didn’t have much of a clue exactly what sort of support they were being offered.

What is the purpose of ridicule? Is it a means to improve the performance of the editors by making them look silly in the eyes of the public as Molière had written? Or is it means of censorship to silence alternative viewpoints by belittling them? Dr. Joan Fujimura believes it is the latter. Further, she believes that Sokal’s Trojan Horse was itself flawed and deserving the same ridicule he has heaped on the Social Text. Also she believes that the scientists are suppressing new ideas, because the ideas differ from their prejudices, just as the medieval church sought to protect dogma by persecuting Galileo. The men in white coats are standing in the way of the truth, because the truth hurts.

The crux of Dr. Fujimura’s argument stems from a controversy in the 19th Century. Euclidean geometry is a logical construct based on a series of assumptions called axioms or postulates. Postulate #5 states that all the angles of a triangle add up to 180° of arc, and on a flat surface they do. (Neither Euclid nor anyone else could prove this point; thus he made it a postulate.) The Greeks also noticed that the proportion between a circle’s circumference and its diameter was constant that they called pi (p ). The rest of Euclidean geometry is based on these assumptions.

In 1816 Carl Friedrich Gauss, a 19th Century mathematician and part-time surveyor, conducted a geodesic survey of Bavaria. Since the world is round, the actual distance between two points can vary greatly from the straight line of Euclid. (Gauss used averages of the terrain to correct the straight-line measurements his team made.) Gauss wondered what would happen if the triangle was placed on a curved surface instead of a flat one. He found that sum of the angles of triangle no longer equaled 180° and also that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter was no longer a constant. Non-Euclidean geometry was born.

Gauss did not share this discovery with anybody. Dr. Fujimura quotes Harold E. Wolfe, author of Introduction to non-Euclidean Geometry, who theorized that Gauss feared that he would be ridiculed if he published his results. Gauss’s letters, found after his death, indicate that he had low opinion of fellow mathematicians and thought that they would not understand his discovery. Dr. Fujimura concludes that Gauss could not face his critics even though he was right. He would have lost status with his colleagues; so, he self-censored his work. Yet another good idea killed by peer-pressure.

I could not find Wolfe’s book in the UConn library system, but I did find Bernstein’s Against the Gods, a book about probability and risk. Bernstein describes an altogether different Gauss. Gauss loved Göttingen and hated to travel. He rarely published his work and published his results rather than his methods when he did publish. Other mathematicians had to either re-prove his theorems or rediscover them on their own. "Mathematics might have been fifty years further along if Gauss had been more forthcoming," writes Bernstein. Gauss admired Isaac Newton but had nothing but disdain for rest of humanity —mathematicians included. The Gauss that Bernstein describes cared little what others thought of him.

Dr. Fujimura was certainly right that the followers of Gauss faced skepticism when they tried to present their findings of the new geometry, but that is true of all new ideas. Most new ideas turn out to be bad, and scientists tend to be conservative because of it. Even Einstein could not accept quantum mechanics in spite of the evidence presented. Dr. Fujimura is wrong, though, about her target. For instance, p is still a constant although it is not the ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle on a curved plane. (Mathematicians changed the definition because of non-Euclidean geometry.) The constant p is also found in many fields of study which have little connection to Euclidean geometry; thus, it is indispensable.

Geometry is peculiar subject for Dr. Fujimura to use as an example of science bias since, in many ways, it is not a science. Geometry is built upon assumptions called postulates or axioms. Geometry is a system that functions within its own logical rules. If one changes any one of the rules, one gets an entirely different system. Science, by contrast, is built upon repeatable experiment. No matter how logical the reasoning, experimentation is the only proof of a hypothesis in science. While geometry is complete unto itself, science must be rooted in the real world. The real world of science is where the controversy rises.

Dr. Fujimura has two more accusations against the scientists: one, that Gross, Levitt, and Sokal lump together disparate critics when they use the labels "postmodern" and "academic left;" and two, the scientific community use appeals to authority to judge the critics of modern science. The scientists have taken the moral high ground in preparation to attack.

Nobody who has spent a lifetime carving out an academic niche likes being lumped together with other people from other niches. This applies equally to the scientists and the anti-scientists. The real question is whether the point that Gross, Levitt, and Sokal make is accurate. Gross and Levitt admit in their book that the term "academic left" is vague, but it was the only term that would cover the entire spectrum of critics. These critics shared many characteristics and had a sense of fellowship. The common strains between them were skepticism of the claims of modern science, work in academia, and leftist politics; hence the name. Moreover, Gross and Levitt aimed their attacks towards the practices of the anti-scientists and not their persons. If the serious critics of science will not raise objections to the wilder assertions of their colleagues, then the serious critics are no position to whine about being painted with a broad brush.

Here I must separate the anthropological issues from the scientific ones. This is not as easy as it sounds because of the bad faith, ill will, name-calling, and mudslinging between the two sides. Perhaps it was inevitable that inter-department rivalries would develop in universities, because prestige and resources are unevenly distributed. Dr. Fujimura, the anthropologist, is at her best when she defines and describes constructivism – scientists create representations in the course of their work and treat them as real. As far as it goes, this description is true: after all, theories and models are man-made. Few would pretend that the models are the objects they represent (an old medical school saying states that a chart is not the patient). Scientists do indeed engage in rituals that appear odd to observers – especially precautions against things we cannot see – and scientists are creatures of habit, just like the rest of us. Theories can have the most unfortunate consequences (e.g. the theory of eugenics led to the Holocaust and other misfortunes). The study of how theories are produced and distributed could give us new insights that could improve science itself.

But we should not treat constructivism as a substitute for science. There is a real world out there, and no amount of "construction" can change that. Many scientists have fallen in love with their theories only to be discredited when those theories were disproven. (The tragic story of William Reich comes to mind.) If scientists have pretensions to omniscience, the real world is an adequate antidote to such hubris. Science-studies students should remember always that real scientists use theories as tools and not as ends unto themselves.

Dr. Fujimura has four reasons why Sokal used ridicule on The Social Text:

    1. Sokal does not understand the works of science studies.
    2. He constitutes science studies as the "Other" – a tired cliché if ever there was one.
    3. He wants to be the arbiter of the truth.
    4. He wants to distribute his misunderstandings to his fellow scientists to incite them.

In the end, I remain unconvinced. Dr. Sokal may not know all the details of science-studies, but he fooled The Social Text into publishing nonsense and not the other way around. Dr. Sokal may not know all the details of mathematics, but he knew that p is still a constant. Dr. Sokal may be parodying the crudest proponents of science-studies, but these critics bring ridicule upon themselves. Criticism is the method for weeding out bad ideas. It is the duty of academics to scrutinize whatever is produced in their field for errors, omissions, and fraud. If outsiders find them first, the insiders can only expect a lower social standing for it.

There is no doubt that this article will spur a nasty rebuttal. So long as the Science Wars arouse deep passions, spectators cannot expect much civility from the participants. In the Science Wars, the rule is to keep your mud wet and your powder dry.


References and additional reading:

Anonymous, "You can’t follow the science wars without a battle map," The Economist, Dec. 13, 1997

Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, (October 1996) John Wiley & Sons

Paul A. Boghossian, the Times Literary Supplement, Commentary. December 13, 1996, pp.14-15.

[Note: Paul Boghossian is, like Alan Sokal, also a professor at NYU.]

Joan Fujimura, "Authorizing Knowledge in Science & Anthropology: Comparison with 19th Century Debate on Euclid," American Anthropologist, June 1998, vol. 100, No. 2

Michael Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation, (May 1995) Routledge

Paul R. Gross & Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science, (October 1997) Johns Hopkins University Press

Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt & Martin W. Lewis (Editors), The Flight from Science and Reason, (April 1997) Johns Hopkins University Press

Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History, (August 1996) HarperCollins

Daphne Patai & Noretta Koertge, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women’s Studies, (August 1994) Basic Books

Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, "Response by Social Text editors Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross" (Lingua Franca, July/August 1996)

Jeffrey Shallit, "LEFTIST SCIENCE & SKEPTICAL RHETORIC: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science," Skeptic vol. 3, no. 1, 1994, pp. 98-100

C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, (September 1993) Cambridge University Press

Alan Sokal, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", This is the original "parody" article, published in Social Text #46/47, pp. 217-252 (spring/summer 1996).
Alan Sokal, "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies", This is the article in which Sokal reveals the parody, published in Lingua Franca, May/June 1996, pp. 62-64.

Alan Sokal, "Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword"

Here Sokal explains in more detail why he wrote the parody. This article was submitted to Social Text but rejected by them on the grounds that it did not meet their intellectual standards. It appeared in Dissent 43(4), pp. 93-99 (Fall 1996) and, in slightly different form, in Philosophy and Literature 20(2), pp. 338-346 (October 1996).

Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? : How Women Have Betrayed Women, (May 1994) Simon & Schuster

Harold E. Wolfe, Introduction to non-Euclidean Geometry, (1945), [I could not find this book. I add it because Fujimura quotes from it.]

Dr. Alan Sokal’s homepage, which contains much of the material here:

Finally, the Science Wars homepage:

Simply the sine non qua of the debate.