AN INTELLECTUAL ITINERARY
The ongoing "Science Wars" that pits the amalgam of sociologists and cultural critics of science known as "Science & Technology Studies" (STS) against scientists and their philosophical well-wishers was a verbal collision waiting to happen. At least, I was mentally prepared to join the fray when it publicly erupted. Indeed, some of my fellow STSers even suspect that I have promoted the conflict, much as a hard-line Marxist might wish the plight of the working class to worsen so as to force them to see the inevitability of The Revolution. Readers can judge for themselves the aptness of this analogy in what follows, which focuses on the history of STS through my involvement in the field and increasingly its troubled external affairs. While misunderstanding has been rampant on all sides of this dispute, especially as it has snowballed into the mass media, it cannot simply be reduced to that. A good way to characterize this comedy of errors is that, on the one hand, STS has developed sophisticated tools for analyzing the role of science and technology in society but it has singularly failed to apply those tools consistently to itself and so the field remains deaf to how its claims sound to the people they are talking about (i.e. scientists), while on the other, the scientific community still lacks a sophisticated understanding of its place in society but realizes that that place is under threat by the spread of STS-style analyses, if not STSers themselves.
This way of putting matters immediately suggests that we are faced with a version of what the British physicist-turned-novelist, C.P. Snow (1905-1980), originally called the "Two Cultures Problem" -- that is, a case in which the training of scientists and humanists prevents each group from appreciating the worldview of the other. Most scientists as well as the media have tended to frame the situation this way, but it is deeply misleading -- and not because Snow's 40-year old concerns lack relevance. On the contrary, they are very relevant, but few of the recent commentators are familiar with the historical trajectory that takes us from those concerns to the present ones. Once we confront this suppressed genealogy, we shall begin to understand some of the curious alignments that have transpired over the course of the Science Wars.
The Prehistory of the Science Wars
If we are indeed witnessing a clash of disciplinary worldviews, why have so few humanists and social scientists rushed to the side of their colleagues who make the natural sciences and technology their objects of study? Relatively soon after the Science Wars began in earnest, it collapsed into a debate over the "intellectual integrity" of STS, and much space was devoted to whether STSers were sufficiently "competent" to study science and technology. Predictably, STSers responded by pointing to the vast difference between their methodologies -- ethnographic, hermeneutic, discourse analytic -- and the ones more familiar to practicing scientists, which typically involve a much greater degree of control and quantification of the phenomena under study. Yet, strangely absent from this aspect of the dispute have been the voices of humanists and social scientists who have produced research exemplary of these more "qualitative" methods in domains outside science and technology. Where have been the leading anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and literary critics of the English-speaking world while STSers have been at the barricades? If the Science Wars are a Manichean struggle between "The Arts" and "The Sciences," then all humanists and social scientists should feel under threat. But they do not. In fact, in normal circumstances, they hardly register the existence of STS at all. For example, STS is often -- and not unreasonably -- portrayed as sociology-driven, yet the best-selling introductory sociology textbook in English lacks a chapter on the sociology of science, despite its self-consciously "global" coverage. Moreover, the book's author, Anthony Giddens, the most prolific and widely cited English-speaking sociologist, has never seriously engaged with the sociology of science, though his ruminations have wandered into just about every other branch of the discipline. What is going on here?
The surprising answer to this question is that the raison d'etre for STS was provided by natural, not social, scientists. In fact, part of the reason for inventing STS was to counteract the image of the natural sciences that social scientists had foisted on the European consciousness over the previous 150 years in the name of "modernity." Basically, a certain idealized view of the organization of authority in the natural sciences was generalized into a model for the rational governance of something called "society" that coincided with the nation-state. This occurred in the 19th century, a period that became disenchanted with religious bases for legitimacy, as clerics continued to justify royal privilege and other "traditional" social practices long after they had outlived their usefulness. The man who gave sociology its name, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), also coined the term "positivism," which he regarded as not merely a philosophical doctrine that stressed the value of logic and observation, but more importantly, a political program for constituting scientists as a managerial elite that assumed the functions of the Roman Catholic Church. Comte's influence continues to be felt insofar as most people today believe that if any forms of knowledge have a right to claim universality they are mathematics and the natural sciences. In sociology, this attitude expressed itself in a variety of ways that sheltered these disciplines from sociological investigation until the advent of STS. The founder of the sociology of knowledge, Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), explicitly excluded universal forms of knowledge from his inquiries, except insofar as the character of specific societies corrupted their development or tainted their application. Robert Merton (1910- ) founded a sociology of science based largely on the pronouncements of distinguished scientists and philosophers on the nature of science made. While no sociologist ever thought that cataloguing the opinions of clerics and theologians would have sufficed for a genuine sociology of religion, Merton proved remarkably influential for his ability to link the insider's account of science with norms and values that have been widely regarded as bulwarks against the excesses of totalitarian regimes. The proverbial Mertonian norms of science -- universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism -- constitute the self-conscious realization of liberal democracy. Not surprisingly, Merton first presented his sociology of science in 1942 to counter Soviet and Nazi claims that the character of science was determined by the class or race of the people practicing it, and hence scientific validity was directly tied to some form of cultural superiority.
An important reason that sociologists have traditionally wanted to promote the natural sciences as the paradigm of rational social order is that it indirectly lent legitimacy to their own activities, especially by enabling them to speak authoritatively to public issues while remaining autonomous from public control. This indirect sense of legitimacy rested on the attempt of social scientists to approximate natural scientific methods. As early as 1843, we find John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) justifying a comparative-historical methodology for the social sciences on the basis of its resemblance to the experimental method in the physical sciences. The more familiar "two cultures" style schism between humanists and scientists emerged only in the last quarter of the 19th century, once some social scientists -- especially mathematical economists and experimental psychologists -- began to argue that natural scientific methods could be directly applied to sociological problems. Until this eruption of scientism, the social sciences were best seen as having helped normalize the natural sciences in a world that was still unused to associating the sources of worldly power with the manual skills needed to do a laboratory experiment. The metaphor of "midwife" or "underlaborer" is thus not inappropriate to capture the relationship between the social and natural sciences well into the 20th century. For many social scientists, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) finally returned the compliment by showing that the defining features of science were ones that, at least in principle, the social and natural sciences could possess to the same extent. While Kuhn consistently disavowed this reading of his book, nevertheless it must be admitted that the conduct of "normal science" in a "paradigm" does not require the substantial financial and technological investments that provide the most obvious basis for distinguishing the natural and social sciences in today's world. Consequently, the critical impulse triggered by C. Wright Mills' (1916-1962) discussion of the "academic-military-industrial complex" at around the same time was largely quashed by the end of 1960s, as sociologists reconstituted themselves as a "multiple paradigm science."
In contrast, the roots of STS may be found in distinguished physical scientists early this century who objected to science becoming the secular religion of the modern nation-state. In their day they were typically on the losing side of major scientific disputes (e.g. most of them did not believe in the existence in atoms), but they often supplied telling conceptual objections to the reigning orthodoxy, Newtonian mechanics. Nowadays we tend to forget these scientific contributions -- though such scientific revolutionaries as Einstein and Heisenberg did not -- and focus instead on their seminal "critical-historical" discussions of the origins of the Scientific Revolution. Ernst Mach (1838-1916) and Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) exemplify the opposing ideological sources for this dissent within the scientific ranks. Mach was a liberal democrat who feared that science's original Enlightenment mission of enabling individuals to judge rationally for themselves the most efficient means to their chosen ends was being thwarted as science was encouraged to set uniform standards of technical competence for society at large. Duhem was a conservative Catholic who believed that science was inherently incapable of providing a unified understanding of reality and hence required supplementation by a spiritualist metaphysics grounded in an existential commitment. For both Mach and Duhem -- and for that matter, later historians who have found the expression meaningful -- the "Scientific Revolution" was a mixed blessing, in that as scientific inquiry became autonomous from societal values, the early successes of the mathematical and experimental sciences came to dominate the aims and methods of all fields of inquiry, thereby producing both "pseudo-sciences" of the human (i.e. the social sciences) and the "disenchanted" and "alienated" experience that many people today have of science. The prominence of this experience has increased with each of the 20th century's two world wars -- which historians sometimes respectively mark as "the chemists'" and "the physicists'" war. The school of philosophers founded by Karl Popper (1902-1994), especially Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994), have continued this sentiment into the present day.
The Cold War era marked the next stage in the development of STS. Here we need to return to C.P. Snow's Two Cultures Problem. When Snow first posed the problem in a 1959 lecture, he was read as arguing that the spiritual goals championed by humanists have been historically superseded by material needs that only science can satisfy. But Snow was really making the much more even-handed point that while scientific skills are singularly necessary for the survival of humanity, scientists lack the moral imagination, especially the facility with alternative futures and the values they represent, that is the strong point of humanistic training. Snow's ideal civil servant would thus be equipped with a humanist's sense of ends and a scientist's sense of means. Indeed, the difference in "cultures" that Snow had in mind was not between a bloodless technocrat and an elitist litterateur. Rather, it was between someone like John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), the X-Ray crystallographer and Marxist historian of science, and someone like George Orwell (1903-1950), the novelist and liberal pamphleteer.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, BBC Radio frequently held debates between scientists and humanists on the future of Western Civilization. The scientists tended to argue that the path charted by scientific materialism made it inevitable that political problems would be solved by technical means. This, in turn, would remove the volatility caused by the protracted public airing of social problems, the supposed root of Fascism's mass appeal. Voting itself may be atavistic in a rationally organized society, if -- as hindsight suggested -- only a democracy could have enabled the rise of Hitler. For their part, the humanists were born-again liberals, former Communists who could not tolerate the excesses of the Stalinist regime, even if they were committed in the name of the proletarian revolution. Orwell, in particular, was scandalized by the degree to which the scientists would bend over backwards to excuse the Soviets -- say, by reversing the meanings of common words to make "freedom" appear to be possible only in a collectivist regime. Orwell was convinced that the unmitigated attraction of scientists to Marxism reflected deep totalitarian tendencies in the scientific mind. He subsequently modelled 1984's leading ideologue, O'Brien, on Bernal's on-air pronouncements. As Snow saw it, his fellow scientists erred in trying to model political decisions on scientific problems, where it is normally assumed that nature dictates an exact solution. Marx's philosophy of history obviously facilitated this conflation of science and politics, which only served to promote a public image of science as anti-democratic. If the natural sciences held the keys to human emancipation, then clearly their representatives were projecting the wrong image by leaning so heavily on the idea of nature speaking in one overbearing voice.
Snow's efforts to humanize the scientific mind bore fruit once the British Labour Party came to power in 1963 on a platform fueled by what Labour leader Harold Wilson famously dubbed, "the white heat of technology." Soon thereafter Wilson established several interdisciplinary support teaching programs designed to remind scientists that values cannot be reduced to efficient outcomes but are rather invested in civic traditions that command public respect. The historically most important program has turned out to be the Science Studies Unit at Edinburgh University, which by 1970 had evolved into a full-fledged research unit. The teaching unit was made up primarily of trained scientists who, through acquaintance with the works of Kuhn and Bernal's arch-enemy, the philosophical chemist Michael Polanyi, came to realize that scientists had to be "socialized" and "acculturated" just as much as anyone else. These pioneers included David Edge (a radio astronomer who worked for the BBC and eventually founded the leading STS journal, Social Studies of Science), Barry Barnes (a chemist who did a postgraduate course in critical social theory at the newly established Essex University) and David Bloor (a psychologist and mathematician with philosophical proclivities). They constituted the core of the "Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge". However, before they became a recognizable research group, the Science Studies Unit registered pedagogical successes in persuading science students to shift their career orientations from basic to applied research, which was a sign that they succeeded in integrating scientific expertise into the larger culture. In retrospect, many of STS's public relations problems can be traced to the Edinburgh School's turn away from this initial success in science education to more autonomously defined (but to be sure, more academically prestigious) research pursuits. It almost seems that as soon as STS discovered the social conditions that enable the production of scientific knowledge, the field's main priority became to use that discovery as a formula for its own self-promotion.
STS's Induction into the "Academic Left" (and My Induction into STS)
I was drawn to STS as a history and philosophy of science graduate student in the early 1980s, first at Cambridge and then at Pittsburgh, not long after the publication of the seminal books in the field: Barnes' Scientific Knowledge & Sociological Theory (1974), Bloor's Knowledge & Social Imagery (1976), Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life (1979), and Karin Knorr-Cetina's The Manufacture of Knowledge (1980). Of these four, only the first two were ever formally assigned in seminars (in 1980-1) because of their explicit philosophical defense of relativism. However, the latter two have probably made the biggest impression on me -- and probably most others who entered STS in the 80s and 90s. Their use of a (mock?) "anthropological" method demonstrated to impressionable minds such as myself the difficulty of seeing the special qualities of science -- its rationality, objectivity, reliability, validity -- in the scientists' native habitats (laboratories) unless one enters already a believer in those qualities. But where I have always diverged from most STSers is in my belief that the founding texts of STS are not research exemplars to be reproduced ad nauseam. Rather, the appeal to anthropology was a rhetorical tour de force that subverted science by its own hallowed method of controlled empirical observation. In that respect, STS's stance toward science is aptly described as "ironic," in having adopted empiricism only because its subjects did, not because the field was intrinsically committed to an empiricist methodology.
In short, I regarded the original laboratory ethnographies as second moments in a dialectic whose first moment was defined by the empirically unrealistic normative views of science that have steadily gained in currency as Comte acquired more converts both in and out of the ranks of science. But how should society regard the natural sciences once stripped of the Comtean hype and explained in terms used to understand less exalted social practices? Simply continuing to describe "science in action" in ever more numerous settings -- STS's default trajectory -- fails to address the seriousness of this question, since most people have bought the Comtean hype without ever having witnessed a scientist at work. It is by no means clear that a well-publicized, sociologically "normalized" science would be worthy of the resources and significance currently lavished on it. In any case, defining the normative terms for conducting a post-STS science has been at the center of my own research program of social epistemology over the last ten years. Perhaps because their livelihoods depend on it, scientists are much better "spontaneous social epistemologists" than STSers. In any case, I have found the Science Wars a fertile ground for practicing social epistemology, much to the consternation of my STS colleagues who would wish for a more business-as-usual attitude.
I only gradually learned about the increasing dissatisfaction that scientists themselves had with their vocation, as it has become more intimately involved with the maintenance of the social order. We have already seen that STS owes its origins to scientists interested in checking the "anti-social," often authoritarian, tendencies spawned by the scientific mindset in its wanderings beyond the research site. In this vein, one should also include the physics graduates whose careers started with a stint in the armed forces during World War II. There they experienced first-hand the transformation from what one of their number, Derek de Solla Price (1922-1983), called "Little Science" to "Big Science." The list of Price's fellow recruits reads like a Who's Who of the prehistory of STS: Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Stephen Toulmin, and John Ziman. Each in their own way sooner or later moved in the direction of STS as an expression of their disenchantment with postwar physics' incorporation into the emerging academic-military-industrial complex. This tendency accelerated in the 1960s, as the peak of the Cold War brought an unprecedented number of students into advanced degree programs in the natural sciences, most of whom were destined for employment in research that contributed to the destruction of people and/or the environment.
My own attempt to conceptualize this emerging difference between social scientists who wished to piggyback on the authority of the natural sciences and natural scientists who wished to disown that claim to authority was triggered by the remarks of a Spanish graduate student, Juan Ilerbaig, who visited a few American STS departments in the early 1990s and picked up on this schism. In response, I drew a distinction between "High Church" and "Low Church" STS, with the High Churchers following the line of the Edinburgh School in cultivating the disciplinary identity of STS, whereas Low Churchers conceptualized STS primarily as a social movement designed to transform the relationship of scientific work to the rest of society. At the time I was working at Virginia Tech, home to the first doctoral level STS program in the United States. STS's professional identity was a very live issue for the increasing number of students attracted to the program. Also around this time, the National Science Foundation agreed to provide seed money for several graduate programs in the field. While it was clear that the NSF saw the promotion of STS as a means to a socio-politically more sophisticated science policy (i.e. beyond relying simply on what the most prestigious scientists think ought to be funded), STS programs tended to be run by people whose main concern was with promoting their vision of STS's academic agenda. This difference in goals has not made for a happy employment situation for those obtaining PhDs from American STS programs.
Nevertheless, my recognition of the problem enabled me to address the leading Low Church society in Washington, in January 1993. There I received, inadvertently, my first exposure to the Science Wars. While perusing the shelves of a local bookstore, I ran across the newly published Dreams of a Final Theory by the 1979 Nobel laureate in Physics, Steven Weinberg. The book is a high-minded but thinly veiled defense of the Superconducting Supercollider, which was increasingly under fire for overrunning Congressional spending limits. However, the book's truly distinctive feature is the inclusion of one of the first thorough critiques of STS aimed at the science popularization market. It was clear that Weinberg engaged in this exercise, not to give us free publicity but to immunize the reader against arguments that he regarded as spurious yet increasingly influential in science policy circles. After I alerted an electronic mailgroup about Weinberg's attack, David Edge asked me to write an essay for Social Studies of Science reviewing Weinberg's book and a British equivalent by the media-friendly, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Lewis Wolpert. The essay appeared in February 1994 as "Can Science Studies Be Spoken in a Civil Tongue?" It was probably the first -- though certainly not the last -- time that scientists' own opinions of their activities were subject to serious discussion in the pages of Social Studies of Science.
Weinberg and Wolpert present an interesting study in both contrasts and similarities in the tactics used to wage the Science Wars. The contrasts stand out most sharply. Whereas Weinberg is a theorist in particle physics, Wolpert is an experimental embryologist. Not surprisingly, each sees science as primarily driven by his specific research orientation. Thus, Weinberg speaks of science aiming for "beautiful theories" whose internal coherence resists all attempts at falsification, while Wolpert points to the falsification of fixed ideas as the only guarantee that one is actually doing science. The one has his theories tested on instruments (i.e. particle accelerators) that have little clear application outside the immediate research context, while the other does his experiments in a medical school where applications are in the forefront of the researcher's mind. Interestingly, Weinberg and Wolpert interpret the anthropological method of STS in quite opposed ways. Weinberg envisages the STSer as harboring a superiority complex in the manner of a 19th century anthropologist looking down at the natives, while Wolpert puts the STSer in the role of the 19th century primitive who disdains what she cannot understand -- namely, that scientific reasoning does not conform to commonsense. However, neither scientist recognizes the paradoxical politics of their situation: On the one hand, both claim that science establishes "universal" knowledge, yet their sense of universality does not admit of public accountability. It is science for the people but not by the people. At this point, it is worth recalling that science did not entail the existence of "scientists" until William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the term in the 1830s to signal that one needed to undergo a university curriculum before being deemed competent to pronounce on mechanical matters.
Despite these substantial differences, Weinberg and Wolpert turned out to be alike on several levels. Both confidently asserted that science is one of Europe's gifts to the world. Both identified the original donor as Thales (624-546 BC), the Greek normally credited with launching the Western philosophical tradition by attempting to explain nature in terms of one underlying principle (water). Significantly, both spoke of philosophers and sociologists in the same critical breath, even though the two groups have developed as natural antagonists. The reason is that these non-scientific disciplines would extend the public's eligibility to pass judgment on scientific matters, in the name of either "methodology" (philosophy) or "ethnography" (sociology), but typically at the expense of scientists' personal experience and "creativity." In the words of one recent physics Nobelist, the internecine disputes between philosophers and sociologists "can make a scientist feel like an Algonquin whose hunting grounds are being fought over by two colonial powers." Finally, Weinberg and Wolpert could not countenance a politics of science in which scientists "represent" our knowledge of reality in the same sense as a politician would represent her constituency. Interestingly, they engage in diametrically opposed strategies to protect scientists from this larger sense of social responsibility. On the one hand, Weinberg's book implies that scientists virtually own science, though every so often they catch trespassers who try to extract cultural implications without first having acquired a proper scientific training. (We shall see this strategy at work below in the Sokal Hoax.) On the other hand, Wolpert portrays scientists as modest toilers whose competence does not extend beyond the confines of the laboratory. Here one envisages scientists delivering a fully mapped human genome on the public's doorstep, but then quickly moving on to their next megaproject without involving themselves in the political implications of what they have done.
In early 1994, friends at the University of Virginia alerted me to a seminar being run by the retiring provost, the marine biologist Paul Gross, that systematically studied the writings of a variety of feminists, ecologists, AIDS activists, multiculturalists, as well as mainstream STSers. Soon thereafter a book appeared entirely devoted to critiques of these positions. Its final chapter suggested for the first time that, the field's pretensions to the contrary, STS might be poorly placed to contribute to a progressive politics, given its refusal to countenance a knowledge base independent of its social origins. If STSers believe that knowledge is no more than what those in authority claim, then how can it serve as a basis for liberating oppressed minorities? The implicit answer -- that those minorities constitute themselves as communities bound by traditions of local knowledge -- is unrealistic in a world whose local affairs are irretrievably entangled with global ones. Here Gross and his co-author, the mathematician Norman Levitt, leaned heavily on examples from medicine and ecology, where the failure to adopt a "scientific" perspective was held responsible for untold disasters. Of course, this line of critique was not new. In many ways, Gross and Levitt had simply reproduced the modernist response to postmodernism in the "Culture Wars" that have been sporadically fought in the humanistic end of American academia, once English translations of the French postmodernist (or, as they were originally known: "post-structuralist") theorists Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida started to become available in the 1970s. The novelty of Gross and Levitt lay in their being sufficiently conversant with these trends to assimilate STS to them. On its face, it may not seem such a significant accomplishment, but before Gross and Levitt hit the scene, there had been relatively little interaction between STSers and the postmodernists who, over the previous two decades, were instrumental in deconstructing attributions of "value" in literature and "validity" in literary criticism, using arguments similar to those now being used by STSers against science. The most obvious point of contact is the stress that both the postmodernists and STSers place on the "indeterminacy" or "uncertainty" of interpretation, what is sometimes called the "semiotic" dimension of social life. Nevertheless, STS's relationship with postmodernist cultural criticism remains an uneasy one, given that the latter (at least in the American context) more explcitly promotes a political agenda and challenges the canons of conventional scholarship. To distance themselves from these more radical tendencies, STSers have subsequently tended to stress the autonomy of their activities and the standards of scholarship appropriate to them. As we shall see, this has only made STS more vulnerable to attacks by scientists.
Here it may be worth dwelling on the sense in which STSers are naturally aligned with postmodernism -- namely, in their belief in the impossibility of providing a "grand" or "master" narrative for science. Accordingly, there are many stories of many sciences to be told, each partially overlapping with, but also partially contradicting, the others, with no overall discernible pattern. In this way, STSers remain open to alternative traditions of science that are usually suppressed by the grand narratives of progress. However, this postmodern turn is epistemologically and politically progressive only under two conditions: (i) the marginalized traditions are highlighted at the expense of the dominant ones and do not simply add to the level of babble in the academy; (ii) everyone, including the natural scientists, relinquish their claim to grand narratives. Unfortunately, neither condition seems likely to obtain. Talk of progress provides a succinct and convenient way of conveying the ends and norms of science in the soundbite culture of media commentary on science. Lacking alternative narratives, STS objections can easily come across publicly as the voice of the "village skeptic" who refuses to accept any responsibility for constituting the future of science. Of course, there are ways around this problem, but they involve thinking on a much larger scale and in a more explicitly rhetorical vein than STSers are inclined to do. I shall simply enumerate them here:
(2) Observe that the sequence of great scientists whose achievements would be typically mobilized in support of "progress" would not have agreed amongst themselves -- nor with us today -- about the ultimate goals of their inquiries in which their achievements would count as stages.
(3) Argue that the "universal value" of science resembles that of democracy, in that both must be actively preserved because of the ease with which it can be corrupted, often by becoming a victim of its own success (e.g. governments become so popular that they turn authoritarian, sciences become so committed to one line of inquiry that they cannot entertain dissent).
(4) Characterize STS as part of the "second phase" of secularization that began 400 years ago with the divestiture of state support for religion. STSers thus assume the role of the Protestant Reformers in relation to those who would follow the Comtean impulse to turn science into a new high priesthood. In that case, the grand narrative of progress is little more than a thinly disguised salvation story.
It turned out that as Gross and Levitt's critique was breaking on the US national scene, I was preparing to assume a professorial appointment in the United Kingdom, at Durham University. Relevant to the subsequent twists and turns in the Science Wars are subtle differences in academic culture between the US and UK. In particular, British academics have a clearer public identity than their American counterparts. Indeed, American academics tend to lack any public presence unless they are seen to represent a traditional "minority" interest, such as Blacks or women. Part of this is due to reasons that any democrat should appreciate, namely, the large number of professional academics in the US confers relatively low status on their work, unless they belong to a group disadvantaged in the society at large, in which case academia is a vehicle of upward social mobility. In contrast, the boundary separating academic and popular writing is more permeable in the UK, not least because its traditionally tighter academic job market has turned journalism into a dumping ground for the overeducated. Consequently, one witnesses differences in degrees between academic and popular writing, whereas in the US one would see differences in kind. The symbol of this point is the presence of the Times Higher Education Supplement in most kiosks in the UK. (To American readers: Imagine what The Chronicle of Higher Education would look like, if, like the THES, it were owned by Rupert Murdoch.) In addition, there is a more leveled playing field between the "arts" and the "sciences" in the UK than the US. Britain combines a tradition of self-made entrepreneurs and eccentric scientific geniuses with a (still) relatively strong commitment to state provision for the disadvantaged. This is not the ideal setting for the public support of Big Science, and hence scientists must actively campaign for it on a regular basis. If British scientists are rhetorically more skillful than their American counterparts (as their more frequent appearances in the media would suggest), then that is because their livelihoods depend on it. Finally, although the US contains the world's largest number of students enrolled in STS graduate programs, STSers probably occupy a higher proportion of sociology professorships in the UK than anywhere else. As a result, STS has a public visibility in the UK lacking in the US. Indeed, there is even a recognizable battleground, known as the "public understanding of science," over which scientists and STSers vie on a more-or-less equal footing.
Indicative of this last point is the threat that British scientists perceived from the publication of the first STS book explicitly aimed at a popular market: Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch's The Golem. The book consists of little more than some well-known STS case studies, shorn of their controversial philosophical implications, presented in the spirit of opening the door of the laboratory and letting the reader judge for herself what she sees. The effort was presented as a contribution to the public understanding of science. Scientists were advised that it is in their own interest to drop inflated talk of "rationality," "objectivity", and "truth," and to promote instead the more ordinary image of science as "craft" described in the case studies. In that way, the public would learn to have more reasonable expectations of science, and scientists would not feel a need to promise what they cannot deliver. Despite the authors' intent of providing friendly advice to scientists, their rhetoric seriously backfired, as became evident in Collins's abortive exchange with Lewis Wolpert at the 1994 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which garnered enormous publicity soon after my arrival in Britain. In retrospect, I would say that Collins had misgauged how the idea of science as craft would be taken by scientists. When scientists such as Michael Polanyi alluded to science as a craft, they were envisaging it as an artistocratic leisure activity comparable to a sport or game in that its value lay in its intrinsic pursuit, not in some specifiable consequences. What Polanyi most certainly did not intend was that science was like more proletarian forms of labor, such as auto mechanics, which seemed to be the level at which Collins was operating.
Upon learning of the Collins-Wolpert clash, I sent a letter to the THES supporting Collins, suggesting that STS would ironically demystify science much as science itself had demystified theology in the previous century. However, instead of publishing my letter, the THES phoned me, saying that so many people had written that they decided to do a feature story on the controversy between scientists and STSers. The idea for a large ecumenical conference then crossed my mind, but I did not act until the story actually appeared, so I could see whether the THES could be counted as relatively friendly to the STS cause. The story, which appeared on 30 September, included a wide range of opinions, from a dismissive Richard ("Selfish Gene") Dawkins to more appreciative assessments by physicist John Ziman and biologist Brian Goodwin. In addition, the THES's own editorial that week undercut a pseudo-serious criticism that Dawkins offered of the sociology of science. He argued that sociologists presupposed the validity of scientific knowledge every time they stepped on board an airplane en route to a conference. Be that as it may, the THES retorted, sociologists can probably flourish under a wider range of funding regimes than most scientists, and hence are not nearly as tied down to the fancies of a particular society as the scientists themselves are! After that, I counted the THES as an ally, but not all of my sociological colleagues shared my enthusiasm. Collins in particular was understandably concerned that the media had already polarized the issue beyond repair, and that the scientists were all too eager -- and perhaps too able! -- to assail the sociologists with a barrage of soundbites. Indicative of this polarization was that it would be well over two years before a successor to my conference would be staged, this time organized by physicists in the US. Of course, the interim was marked by a steady stream of gatherings organized by and for either scientists or STSers.
The Durham conference on "Science's Social Standing" took place on 2-4 December 1994, advertised as the first encounter between scientists and STSers with the explicit purpose of coming to terms with each other. Not surprisingly, the first day resembled the first moments of family therapy: pent-up frustrations giving way to periodic outbursts. However, a convivial dinner that night markedly improved the discourse situation the following day. Nevertheless, as a group, the scientists came off as more confident and coherent than the STSers. Regardless of what STSers think about the empirical ungroundedness of concepts like "truth," "rationality," and "objectivity," they remain rallying points around which scientists can show solidarity, despite the disparateness in their fields of study. This point is easily lost on STSers because of the great store we place on the supposed "disunity" of the sciences. Indeed, a big challenge for us is to understand how scientists can believe that science is both "one" and "many" -- in other words, that science strives for unity while pursuing distinct paths of inquiry. This belief has important practical consequences, which were in ample display during the conference. STSers and their apparent fellow-travelers were continually distancing themselves from one another, demonstrating their disunity with a vengeance: feminists castigated Strong Programmers, macro-sociologists and micro-sociologists crossed swords, and various schools of ethnomethodology interrogated each other's practices. (It is also worth noting that however much private sympathy there may have been for Collins, no one from "our" side -- other than his disciple Pinch -- ever defended him in print; indeed, some publicly criticized him.) In contrast, among the physicists, chemists, and biologists at the conference, whenever one of them made a claim, you can be sure that another would prop it up from his own distinct angle, sometimes "creatively reinterpreting" what the earlier scientist had said. Often this occurred as acts of collective remembering of the grand narrative of scientific progress.
Interestingly, the scientists were most receptive to STS-like reflections when they were seen to be coming out of the mouth of a scientific icon. The more one could find precedents for revisionist views of science in things said by one of their important predecessors, the more scientists were likely to entertain the idea that change has not always amounted to progress. Consider the incongruity between the formulaic character of most scientific training and the open-ended inquiries associated with scientific research at its best. Once historian Graeme Gooday recounted Thomas Henry Huxley's qualms about standardized lab training in physiology, the Professor of Physics at my university bemoaned the tendency for students in his courses to think that uniform methods must produce uniform results. It was only a short step from that concession to at least a partial acceptance of the idea that objectivity is not a natural outcome of inquiry but must be enforced, often at the expense of other scientific virtues such as creativity and critical judgment. If a history of science could be written that presented STS-style reflections as "always already" part of scientific thought, then practicing scientists might be happy to insert STS into their professional training programs.
The above incident illustrated an important lesson of the conference, namely, that STS's uncompromising sense of "otherness" -- our tendency to stress the autonomy of our pursuits from those of the scientists we study -- throws up the biggest barrier in any attempt to bridge the Two Cultures. Not surprsingly, then, the sessions that centered on STS's distinctive "case studies" sunk like lead balloons. Harry Collins originally suggested the idea, which sounded fine in principle: Take three episodes covered by STS and then ask a historian, philosopher, and practicing scientist to comment on them. The relevant STS texts would be circulated in advance, so that panel members could keep their remarks on point. Michael Lynch offered the additional twist of making Wolpert's account of the history of biology in The Unnatural Nature of Science one of the cases, to which an STSer (Lynch) would respond. Despite Lynch's own masterful diagnosis of the flaws in Wolpert's historical and philosophical reasoning, the weaknesses on our side came through in the sessions centering on the STS case studies. Specifically, what does one say to a scientist who dismisses a sociological account of recent particle physics on the grounds that quarks were eventually accepted by scientists who operated in contexts quite unlike the original one and that therefore the vividness of the STS case study trades on presenting an incomplete account of what happened? In short, case studies can always be accepted "on their own terms" but then ultimately dismissed as lacking clear implications for the grand narrative of scientific progress. Since the postmodernist scruples of most STSers inhibit the development of counter-narratives of the history of science, scientists have no problem rhetorically reducing case studies to carping from sidelines, deviations from the norm, or mere plot diversions.
The Sokal Hoax
A couple of months after the Durham conference, I was invited by Andrew Ross to contribute to a special issue of Social Text on what he had now started to call the "Science Wars." As the leading cultural studies journal in the US, Social Text was keen to adopt a leadership role in bridging the Two Cultures, specifically by demonstrating (leftist) ideological affinities among a wide range of humanists, scientists, and activists that transcended disciplinary differences. The idea was to prevent the controversy sparked by Gross and Levitt from playing into conservative critiques of "political correctness" in higher education that have been a staple of public intellectual life in the US since Allan Bloom's best-selling The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Their avowed leftist credentials notwithstanding, Gross and Levitt were among the keynote speakers at the 1994 annual conference of the National Association of Scholars, the leading society for conservative academics. Another conference ("The Flight from Reason") in May 1995 sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences and specifically based on their book was funded by Bloom's own benefactor, the John Olin Foundation. Social Text's strategy seemed an impeccable one -- or so it seemed, until it decided to include an unsolicited piece by Alan Sokal, an obscure theoretical physicist at Ross's own institution, New York University.
This piece, the basis of the notorious "Sokal Hoax," turned out to be the most heavily documented article in the special issue, though the editors of Social Text did not know quite what to make of it. The key indicator is that Sokal's article is stuck at the end of the issue and Ross made no reference to it in his otherwise synoptic introduction. On its face, Sokal was trying to derive politically progressive conclusions from the 20th century revolutions in mathematics and physics, mainly by a juxtaposition of quotes and commentary that showed that postmodern critics and major scientists reinforced each other's claims. The argument consisted mostly of analogies between the ideas of the scientists and the critics, as well as some rudimentary STS-style explanations that showed the alignment of certain social interests with certain scientific ideas. This style in itself was unexceptional in postmodernist circles and, indeed, was rather clearly presented by current standards. In his refashioning of Daniel Bell's original insights into post-industrial society as "postmodernism" for the French market in 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard had cited such developments as Einstein's theory of relativity, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Goedel's incompleteness theorem, and Mandelbrot's fractal geometry. However, Lyotard had not been as eager as Sokal to implicate a wide range of humanistic scholars in the emergent worldview. Why, then, did Sokal go through the trouble of trawling through the cultural studies and STS literatures, when he could have reached the same conclusions simply by sticking to the writings of his illustrious scientific predecessors? This was the question that occurred to me upon first reading the piece, which struck me -- and the editors -- as a somewhat ingratiating but good faith effort by a natural scientist to bridge the Two Cultures. Nevertheless, Sokal was a tenured professor of physics who declared (sincerely, so he still maintains) that he taught mathematics under the progressive Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Therefore, given Sokal's clear mastery of the relevant humanistic sources, both his mastery of the scientific sources and his political correctness were taken for granted. Unfortunately, while Sokal did not actually misstate any physical formulae, he managed to include characterizations of texts in his own fields of expertise that any fellow practitioner would have recognized as erroneous. The fact that Social Text's editors did not let a physicist or mathematician vet the article thus turned out to be the grounds on which Sokal declared that he had hoaxed the editors.
The media were more than usually eager to jump on the story. After all, both Sokal and Ross, himself already a media darling, were both in the twilight of their youth (aged 40), located at the same university (which happened to be in New York City), and hired by departments that had witnessed contrasting fortunes in recent years (physics was in decline, while cultural studies was ascendant). Sokal first declared his hoax in the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, a magazine whose place in college bookstores corresponds to that of the tabloids found at supermarket checkout counters. The story soon thereafter appeared as a front page story in The New York Times and a leading editorial in The Washington Post. Newspapers throughout the United States soon included the story, and the popular right-wing radio and television commentator, Rush Limbaugh, made much of it on his shows. Already something had gone awry. Sokal claimed that his hoax was primarily intended as a wake-up call to postmodernists who were rendering the left impotent by disavowing science. His means was to show that leftist humanists had become derelict in their intellectual responsibilities. Unfortunately, the public uptake of the hoax followed the example of Gross and Levitt's book in playing into the right's call for greater scrutiny of academic practices more generally, a conclusion that Sokal himself had not wished to draw, given that his own work is largely theoretical and hence unlikely to attract the large grants that increasingly pass for "relevance" in market-driven public accounting schemes. Much of Sokal's subsequent explanation of his hoax to the media has made this point, but largely to no avail.
In retrospect, it might be argued that Sokal's point would have come
across more clearly had he not tried to expose the scientific illiteracy
of STSers and stuck instead to a straight critique of STS's postmodernist
political pretensions. But in that case, all that would have been shown
is that a physicist can become good enough in science criticism to criticize
the critics by their own standards. Since such reflexive critiques are
routine in STS and cultural studies more generally, there would have been
little that was newsworthy in Sokal's achievement. Indeed, his standing
as a physicist might have enhanced STS's credibility as a field whose sense
of objectivity transcends disciplinary ideologies. Therefore, the rhetorical
power of Sokal's hoax depended on his blurring the boundary between the
controversial and the incompetent. The blurring was made
possible by Sokal's appeal to a vulgar realist epistemology which enabled
assumptions popularly associated with the conduct of the physical sciences
to constitute the standard for evaluating STS work. The result made STS-style
critiques of science appear based entirely on bad philosophy. In practice,
the strategy worked by providing highly tendentious glosses of what STSers
mean when they make certain counterintuitive claims about their work and
its relationship to science. The chart below illustrates some relevant
|When STSers say...||Scientists hear...|
|Science is socially constructed.||Science is whatever enough people think it is.|
|The validity of scientific claims must be judged from the claimant's perspective.||There is no distinction between reality and how people represent it.|
|STS is autonomous from science.||STS is disrespectful and willfully ignorant of science.|
|Science is only one of several possible ways of interpreting experience.||Science is merely an interpretation that distorts the true nature of experience.|
|Gravity is a concept scientists use to explain, say, why we fall down and not up. There are other ways of explaining the same phenomenon.||Gravity exists only in our minds and, if we thought otherwise, we could fall up not down.|
|A scientist's own account of her activities is not necessarily the best explanation for those activities.||A scientist's own account of her activities can be disregarded when explaining those activities.|
However, as my use of the words "vulgar" and "popularly" suggests, Sokal's own grasp of the philosophy of science is less than completely secure. In the first place, realism is -- and has always been -- a controversial position within philosophy. There continues to be much debate over whether there is a metaphysically significant distinction between reality and its representations, objects and our concepts of them, and so forth. The tendency to conflate epistemology and ontology is not an intellectual failure but a philosophical standpoint nowadays called "antirealism," the most famous species of which is "verificationism," the house philosophy of logical positivism. Indeed, most of the revolutions in mathematics and physics in the 20th century, which inspired the logical positivists and in whose lineage Sokal's own theoretical work stands, were born of a rejection of realism and an acceptance of the essentially conventional and instrumental nature of scientific inquiry that is not so far from STS's own philosophical starting point. Thus, it has been both striking and amusing to watch Sokal and his defenders carefully disentangle the postmodernist-sounding utterances of their great predecessors from the nuggets of "real science" that they encase. The best example is Steven Weinberg's highly publicized defense in The New York Review of Books, which features this gem: "Heisenberg was one of the great physicists of the twentieth century, but he could not always be counted to think carefully, as shown by his technical mistakes in the German nuclear weapons program." Not surprisingly, neither Sokal nor Weinberg has been treated kindly by the professional historians and philosophers of science who have bothered to comment on the hoax.
No analysis of the Sokal Hoax would be complete without a discussion of Sokal's own public account of his activity as an "experiment." Experimentation has always been a controversial method in the social sciences because of its necessarily deceptive character. Ethical standards for human subjects research have had to tread a fine line between the integrity of individuals and science's collective search for truth. One traditionally important criterion for determining the appropriateness of experimentation is that the knowledge could not have been gained by other means. Sokal's "experiment" on the editors of Social Text fails by that criterion, and thus constitutes an unethical use of experimentation. A good way to understand this point is in contrast with another famous experiment on the journal refereeing process. Interestingly, it dealt with the "peer-reviewed" journals that Sokal's experiment was meant to champion. Here journal editors unwittingly evaluated articles they had previously published, except this time the authors were listed as affiliated with much lower status universities than when their articles were first published. Few of the editors recognized that they had already published these pieces, but still more embarrassing was that many of the articles were now rejected, often with unanimous agreement among the referees. Since this experiment was conducted both by and on experimental psychologists, the experimenters were accused of trying to sabotage the discipline, if not science more generally. Nevertheless, the experimenters countered that it was impossible to determine the extent and character of bias in the peer review process without proceeding in such a deceptive manner. Despite the many anecdotes and suspicions about refereeing bias, until the experiment was conducted there had been little systematically gathered evidence on the matter.
In contrast, Sokal's "experiment" aimed to show something that was already amply on display, namely, that many humanists have derived larger cultural significance from contemporary physics without having an insider's knowledge of physics. Since no one had been especially trying to hide this fact, and its reasons were understood within the communities to which it was addressed, there was no scientific end to justify Sokal's deceptive means. Given that Social Text and other cultural studies journals had published articles like Sokal's before, was there any serious reason to doubt that they would do so in his case? Clearly, Sokal does not believe that political implications can or should be drawn from physics, but Sokal's "experiment" failed to illuminate this fundamental disagreement. At least the books cited earlier by Weinberg, Wolpert, and Gross and Levitt accorded their opponents enough respect to confront their claims directly, albeit less publicly. Finally, for someone who claims for himself a certain level of political awareness, it is hard to believe that Sokal did not anticipate that his hoax would abet the cause of right-wing academia-bashing, as had Gross and Levitt's work, which provided the inspiration (and even some of the quotes) for his article.
What Should Have Been Done? What Can Be Done?
Most of those who have followed the Sokal Hoax, regardless of their position in the Science Wars, have come to believe that the best response the Social Text editors could have made was simply to acknowledge that Sokal had outfoxed them at their own game and pledge that in the future they would call upon the relevant experts as referees when articles are submitted that include substantial discussions of specific technical developments in the natural sciences. I disagree. Given the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I would propose a more daring response, but one that would have been consistent with the very views that Sokal was trying to prove absurd. Accordingly, the first mistake the editors made was to grant Sokal the authority to speak on behalf of his text and thereby accept the verdict that they had indeed been hoaxed. Instead, they should have stuck to the postmodernist tenet of not privileging the author's intention when conferring meaning on a text. Since the author is only one of many possible voices that constrains how the text "speaks," ultimately the text's meaning is determined by the community of readers that the text attracts. It follows that postmodernism recommends a publication policy that simulates ideal market conditions: A journal would treat publication as a libertarian "opportunity" to be heard, an experiment to see if anyone resonates with what it says. If no one ever refers to the piece, then all that would have been lost is the cost of printing the article in the first place; if some do refer to it, then that will have justified its initial publication. Had the editors pursued this tack, then a fruitful discussion about the value of "peer-reviewed" academic publication might have ensued.
Indeed, the editors could have gone further. They could have argued that competence in physics is not necessary for competence in the cultural implications of physics. This is not because STSers lack standards but because the members of a culture need not fully grasp the technical content of scientific ideas that influence them. For an STSer it is more important to understand the metaphorical associations that non-scientists -- and often the scientists themselves -- derive from scientific ideas than to understand the logical structure of scientific theories. Scientists may wish to protest this methodological strategy, but then they court the charge of hypocrisy. After all, practicing physicists are only a fraction of those who contribute to what physics is. The other contributors include engineers, scientists in other disciplines (including the social sciences) who model their own fields on physics, science policymakers, physics popularizers (including those who see Buddha and the Tao in quantum mechanics) and their New Age readers -- not to mention professional physicists such as Steven Hawking and Paul Davies who are probably better known for their metaphysically oriented popular writings. From a physicist's standpoint, many of these people may have a deficient understanding of the science, but if the physics community were to disown them, then physics would quickly lose its social standing as a science. Why would democratic governments want to invest billions of dollars on activities from which only a few directly benefit? From a sociological standpoint, all of the misbegotten metaphors and half-understandings that Sokal and Weinberg decry in STS are in fact what enables a broad spectrum of people to relate their own experiences and traditions to the rather elite and alien world of physics research. A truly interesting experiment would be for Sokal and Weinberg to turn their efforts at remediation on admiring New Agers, policymakers, and social scientists whose misunderstandings of physics are often as egregious as those of the STS critics. One unintended consequence of their efforts, however, may be to persuade the admirers that their ardor was misplaced, in which case one might expect more physics research projects to meet the dismal fate of the Supercollider. e scienc hhe
In the past five years of the Science Wars, there has been a distinct contrast in the development of the two sides. On the one hand, a wider range of scientific voices have been heard, many of them sympathetic to STS concerns and findings. On the other hand, STS has tended to hide behind the image of an autonomous research community. The Sokal Hoax marked a pivotal transition. Before Sokal, STSers would routinely dismiss scientific criticism of their work as misrepresentations. After Sokal, it has become increasingly common for STSers whose intellectual roots go directly back to the Edinburgh School to dismiss as interlopers fellow-travelers in cultural studies and the postmodern humanities. This purification of the STS ranks revolves around the idea that particular case studies of "science in the making" constitute the core of the discipline. The field's characteristic philosophical positions, arguments, and subsequent influence are then claimed to be little more than abstractions (and, in some cases, diversions) from that core body of empirical knowledge. This is a desperate move that not only gets matters exactly backwards but also exposes STS to even more needless attacks. By downplaying its challenge to conventional norms of research, STS ironically renders itself most vulnerable. Specifically, the field invites the reanalysis of its cases in conventional terms, according to which a methodological innovation can all too easily be diagnosed as an epistemological error.
This point harkens back to the dialectical origins of the appeal to case studies in STS, namely, to falsify normative theories of science that took empiricism to be the decisive scientific methodology. Beyond that, there has been very little development of case study methodology within STS. A more useful way to understand the appeal to case studies is in terms of their various rhetorical functions. In addition to refuting normative accounts of science, case studies provide a pretext for the participation of multiple perspectives in an episode that might otherwise not be seen. In this respect, the case study may be seen as a vehicle for empowering the politically disadvantaged. Yet, at the same time, a case study creates an intellectual entitlement for the STSer, placing a burden on the potential critic to somehow repeat the work that went into the case study before been seen as lodging a legitimate criticism. This rather proprietary sensibility has been the source of endless friction between STSers and other social scientists. Finally, because case studies are typically evaluated in terms of their sheer descriptive adequacy (Does it tell a good story?), rather than any larger normative or theoretical context, they can be of potential use to a wide range of users, most notably those who do not share the STSer's personal commitments. In that respect, the case study is well-suited to the opportunism of the post-academic, contract-research culture in which most STS work is done today. In sum, the case study embodies the unresolved tensions implicit in the social role of the STSer: It constitutes the molten, not solid, core to the field.
What exactly would it mean to win the "Science Wars"?
Both scientists and STSers vary widely in their opinions on the matter.
Some scientists are mainly concerned with stamping out sloppy scholarship
in the academy, others with rescuing the left from postmodern decadence.
Some STSers are primarily interested in asserting the intellectual integrity
of their own pursuits, while others (myself included) wish to dispel the
mystifications that surround the pursuit of science. The goals identified
for each side are not entirely incompatible, but they do pull in different
directions. In many respects, the Sokal Hoax exemplifies the problem of
trying to address intellectual differences and political strategy simultaneously.
Sokal justified his parody as a wake-up call to the academic left, but
the subsequent debate has become hung up over intellectual standards, which,
in turn, has opened the door to much generalized bashing of higher education,
something no party to the dispute wishes to encourage. Because the debate
occurs as an interdisciplinary squabble (science v. STS), it is easily
subject to a "divide and conquer" strategy by policy- and public opinion
makers, whereby academics feel obliged to "clean up their own house," "close
ranks," and so forth. However, a more productive debate would realign the
parties so that scientists and STSers who wish to protect the academy from
the rest of society could stand on one side, while those who wish to use
the academy as a vehicle for reforming society could stand on the other
-- and then resume fighting. In other words, the debate would not reproduce
natural (disciplinary) divisions within the academy but would force academics
to seek constituencies outside academia for whom alternative conceptions
of the social role of academics could make a difference to their own activities.
In that way, the Science Wars, which seem destined to engulf most academics
in some way, may become a catalyst for a multiply registered discussion
of the production and distribution of knowledge, which is, after all, what
STS is supposed to be about.
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