In recent months important and stimulating articles by David Mermin  and Sam Schweber have appeared in Physics Today relating to the cluster of issues broadly termed the "science wars." Although Alan Sokal's spoof may have brought the issue to the surface for many scientists and led them to speak out, it has been simmering for a very long time.
Both Mermin's and Schweber's essays can be read as a plea for tolerance, moderation, and lack of defensiveness on the part of scientists in general, and physicists in particular, who are well known to others in the academic community for their "ex cathedra sneering" (to quote Mermin's lovely phrase) and general all purpose "arrogance." Schweber says: "I worry when we turn against our colleagues in other disciplines and breach their trust." And Mermin states: "Fronts are opening in the science wars on which some scientists are misrepresenting and oversimplifying as egregiously as those at whom they direct their fire."
I believe that these pleas for better behavior will be ignored – or the outward behavior may improve with the mind and heart unchanged -- unless specific examples, good reasons, and new ways of thinking about the issue can be offered to the community of scientists. This is the intent of the present brief essay.
Mermin contributes to the new attitude by a careful and sympathetic reading of Bruno Latour's essay on relativity , especially in his discussions of Einstein's operational approach to the seemingly primitive notions of space and time.
Schweber argues that a change of attitude away from the "extreme nature/culture dichotomy," which he attributes to many particle physicists, such as Steven Weinberg, is already under way and can even be justified by recent developments within physics, especially the weakening of the belief in reductionism and unification as ultimate goals. This, he argues , has been generated by theoretical work in recent decades on the theory of broken symmetry, the renormalization-group, and effective field theory methods.
For Schweber the issue is a very broad and critical one: " . the current science wars and culture wars will make support for the humanities and the social sciences more difficult, and will result in giving ever greater control over academic matters to university administrators and boards of trustees. . . At stake is thus the future of the university as a unique agency of culture, . . " He calls for us " . . . to learn from one another what scientific knowledge is, what culture is and how one goes about trying to understand these matters."
For me the foundation for a change in attitudes can be based on the
following observations :
1. Although we are usually trained to believe that fundamental scientific laws are impersonal and describe the world independent of human beings, it is significant to appreciate that science is a human activity -- like history, anthropology, sociology, or the arts and literature. It is we who are curious about the world and pose the questions, the puzzles and problems to be studied. And it is we who formulate answers to these questions and decide when the answers -- the explanations and understanding, the solutions to our puzzles -- are satisfactory. Surely, our questions and answers depend in some ways on being human -- our perceptual and cognitive neurobiology, as well as our culture and history.
2. Each area of human study or activity has its own unique questions, aims, and procedures -- and its own standards for success or satisfaction. To take an extreme example, a poet is generally not trying to solve a puzzle, to resolve or simplify or understand something. Rather the goal -- if that word can be applied to an art so varied and idiosyncratic -- is often to use the craft of language to stir us to see (with all of our senses) and feel deeply.
3. I am not arguing that scientific knowledge is the same as all other knowledge, or that all beliefs have equal truth claims.It is not easy to state a complete characterization of "science." I would include in my definition: the attempt to achieve the maximal objectivity possible (but see point 4. below) and something about science's validation by its efficacy in manipulating nature. What also distinguishes good science -- besides the unique nature of its questions, methods, and answers -- is the requirement of consensus achieved by rigorous rational discussion among the community of skilled practitioners.
4. I do not believe it is correct to view science as "objective" and all other culture based studies, including the arts, as "subjective." Rather, it seems clear that, like all creative activities, science -- though it seeks the greatest objectivity possible -- results from, and is created at, the intersection of the perceived "outside" external world, with the "inside" world of the individual. (D. W. Winnicott, the great British sychoanalyst, referred to this region as the "transitional" or "potential" space.
5. Finally, let us agree with David Mermin and not let our seriousness
become a liability. Of course we have a responsibility, when it is appropriate,
to point out blatant scientific errors, misrepresentations, and faulty
reasoning. But let's not forget (as Winnicott also reminds us  ) that
it is the quality of playfulness that connects us to the source of much
of our creativity and to the pleasure and meaning we find in our lives.[8,
References & Footnotes
1. N. D. Mermin, Physics Today 50, 11 (October 1997).
2. S. S. Schweber, Physics Today 50, 73 (March 1997).
3. A. Sokal, Social Text 46/47, 217 (1996); LinguaFranca 6(4), 62 (May/June 1996). These and other related articles can be obtained at Sokal's website: www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/
4. B. Latour, Social Studies of Science 18, 3 (1988). 5. S. S. Schweber, Physics Today 46, 34 (November 1993).
6. Of course the following is merely an outline, which needs much elaboration and discussion.
7. See, for example, D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (Routledge, London & New York, 1982), pages 95-110.
8. I am grateful to Kathleen Brownback, Val Dusek, Steve Heims, Hildred Krill, and Don Murray for helpful comments on the manuscript.
9. A greatly abbreviated version of this essay appears in the Letters section of Physics Today (February 1998).
Department of Physics
University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH 03824-3568