Smoke and Mirrors in the Halls of Academe

A Review of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrel with Science

Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt

Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, 313 pages.

KEY TERMS: Paul Gross -- Norman Levitt -- postmodernism -- cultural constructivism -- fundamentalist feminism -- anti-science environmentalism -- indeterminacy -- evolutionary naturalism

by Pat Duffy Hutcheon

Gross and Levitt have courageously tackled a subject which many worried academics have avoided studiously in the vain hope that it would somehow quietly go away. The issue is the rising tide of hostility within universities to the disciplined scientific approach to knowing. As the authors demonstrate, this hostility has been gaining ground for almost three decades -- and in the very place where the ordinary, trusting citizen would least expect it. It appears that a major source of what now amounts to a virtual epidemic of relativism and irrationalism is the very institution that has been assigned the privileged role of bastion of reliable knowledge and instigator of informed and reasoned inquiry: the university system of the industrialized West. Readers unfamiliar with what has been happening may find some of what they encounter in this important and timely book so incredible that they will be inclined to discount it. But anyone concerned about the future of our universities -- and, indeed, of the society they serve -- would be well advised to read Higher Superstition carefully and to consider the implications of its message.

The book is organized into chapters which include the following: (1) a brief review of the history and politics relevant to the topic at hand; (2) a general overview of the defining features of the "cultural constructivist" attack on science; (3) an introduction to "postmodernism" -- identified as a sort of "catch-all" phrase for a specific cultural constructivist approach pioneered within literary theory and subsequently enveloping the general field of cultural studies; (4) a critique of fundamentalist feminism (a radical branch of the womens' movement which seems to have assumed all the "perspectivist" premises and postures of postmodernism); (5) a critique of anti-science environmentalism; and (6) a discussion of a number of versions of social activism that have become impatient and disillusioned with the fact that science cannot create immediate Utopias. The latter include some currents within the AIDS movement, the extremist proponents of "animal rights", and the Afro-centrism which has become so popular in American universities.

In spite of the subtitle, this is not a matter of left versus right as usually defined in the political arena of the larger society. Gross and Levitt make this point themselves, recognizing that any scholars seriously committed to solving social problems would seem to be deliberately crippling their own enterprise -- and betraying their deepest traditions -- if they forsake the scientific mode of inquiry for the New Age and "postmodern" doctrines now dominating the social sciences and humanities. They remind us that, throughout history, authoritative scientific inquiry -- far from being the enemy of social progress -- has invariably been the most powerful of weapons against exploitative authoritarianisms, whether social or intellectual. They also recognize that one of the two influential anti-science currents in the larger society today is led by the Creationists, who are right-wing in the traditional sense of the term.

As Gross and Levitt explain the issue, "We are using academic left to designate those people whose doctrinal ideosyncracies sustain the misreadings of science, its methods, and its conceptual foundations that have generated what nowadays passes for a politically progressive critique of it (p.9)". They suggest that the term "left-wing" is justified because many of these people are former Marxists who have sought a congenial ideological home within the modern university. "Marxism, as understood by the American Left," they say, "has mutated from a revolutionary program driven by a strong sense of economic forces, to a philosophical impulse that mixes with other strains -- feminist, deconstructionist, Foucaldian, Laconian, ecological, and so forth -- to create the eclectic view of postmodern radicalism (p.221)".

The authors caution that no designation of the proponents of today's anti-science current within academia can be hard and fast. "Each practitioner assembles his or her arsenal from favorite polemical bits and pieces -- a little Marxism to emphasize the twinship of science with economic exploitation, a little feminism to arraign the sexism of scientific practice, a little deconstruction to subvert the traditional reading of scientific theory, perhaps a bit of Afro-centrism to undermine the notion that scientific achievement is inevitably linked to European cultural values (p.11)." The movement is joined by one common purpose, however, as Gross and Levitt make clear time and again in the examples they bring to bear on the argument. It is to "demystify?" science, to undermine its authority and to assign priority to competing and incompatible modes of knowing. We are reminded that this is not a new theme. "The notion that science is poisoned knowledge, the fruit of a Faustian bargain, has been with us for a long time, and its cry has more often come from reactionaries than from progressives (p.219)."

The authors present a lucid summary of the history of the scientific method of inquiry, noting two major nineteenth century roots of today's "postmodernism". They trace the left-wing version of anti-science to the seductive Romantic exaltation of understanding over reason, as well as to Karl Marx's successful conscription of the prestige (minus the substance) of science to his own polemical ends. They look to more recent history to account for the prevalence, within modern departments of humanities and social/cultural studies, of academics with an anti-scientific mind set. A virtual "ball of exponential growth" in this direction was set rolling, they say, with the influx of doctrinaire militants during the late sixties, when North American universities were expanding rapidly. For anyone familiar with the power structure of the university, it is not difficult to accept the argument that, during the following twenty-five years, the entire process of recruitment into academic careers -- and that of "peer review" in academic journals, and the tenure and promotion tied to all this -- underwent alteration in a direction that selected and rewarded those with a vaguely mystical anti-scientific, holistic and "perspectivist" frame of reference.

This model which has gained such political success in the hothouse of academia is one that interprets the scientific world view as merely a product of the ideology controlling the society in which research is being conducted. Far from being a fruitful method of building reliable knowledge, science is, according to the postmodernists, "rather a parable, an allegory, that inscribes a set of social norms and encodes, however, subtly, a mythic structure justifying the dominance of one class, one race, one gender over another (p.46)." Scientific verification is a matter of political/social authority only. Most amazing of all, the authors say, postmodernists disregard the obvious fact that science works, and that the propositions flowing from their own garbled obfuscations have been shown time and time again to have "all the explanatory power of the Tooth-Fairy Hypothesis (p.47)."

To many scientists, perhaps the most amusing aspect of the posturing of postmodernists is their use of scientific concepts and authorities as grist for their ideological mills, even though they seem to lack elementary understanding of the premises, theories and bodies of knowledge involved. As an example of this, Gross and Levitt refer to the mountains of relativistic nonsense that have been written about Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle." They note wistfully that all this might have been avoided if Heisenberg had chosen a less emotive term. I would suggest that the same can be said about "chaos" theory. Nietzsche is (rightly) cited as an earlier prototype of the type of dangerously muddled, solipsistic and magical thinking that we find in today's postmodernism. The authors point out that Godel (another postmodernist saint) turns out -- on closer scrutiny -- to be an unadulterated Platonist, apparently believing that "an eternal 'not" was laid up in heaven where virtuous logicians hope to meet it hereafter (p.102)."

The last section of the book raises a number of important questions. For example: What about the responsibility of scientists to ensure that university courses labeled as sciences are, in fact, teaching legitimate empirical methodology and reliable facts? What about the responsibility of all academics to be vigilant about the standards of excellence, and of evidence, applied throughout the university in the performance of its cultural function of providing intellectual and moral leadership? And finally, is it possible that the situation has now regressed so far that the only solution will be a schism within the system, with colleges of science providing their own courses in the humanities and the social/cultural studies?

This book will be sad reading for theorists and researchers in the exact sciences. For scientifically oriented social scientists like myself, however, it is much worse. It amounts to a tragic confirmation of personal experience. Gross and Levitt speak of attempting to recover lost territory for the scientific approach -- of physical scientists standing up for those of their colleagues in the social disciplines who are fighting the battle against relativism and irrationality. It is true that, for some time now, the struggle of a minority of social scientists to maintain scientific integrity within their professional communities has been a lonely one. It has been especially lonely for those, like myself, who have been attempting to define and justify an alternative approach to that of postmodernism. In my 1996 book, Leaving the Cave, I have proposed the scientific model of evolutionary naturalism -- built upon reliable knowledge from the life sciences and insights from the soundest work available in the social sciences, and incorporating the open-ended, self-correcting method of disciplined scientific inquiry.

I believe it is necessary to demonstrate that what the various versions of cultural constructivism offer is merely a grotesque metaphor for the real thing: scientific cultural studies capable of producing compelling evidence about the causes and consequences of human behavior. It is the absence of reliable knowledge that makes our social problems appear so intractable that "Cargo Cult" delusions can be peddled to gullible students as attractive options. The popularity of postmodernism today is, more than anything, a measure of the failure of the social sciences during the twentieth century.