Sunday, March 04, 2007

Fatuity is a feminist issue

In the seventeenth century, Sandra Harding informs us, soberly,

"presumably" the gender metaphor, in which nature is understood as a woman waiting to be ravished, was fruitful for science as well [as the machine metaphor]... so why not refer to Newton's laws as "Newton's rape manual" instead of "Newton's mechanics"?
If you think that's understating the case, you're in good company. She fleshed it out, if that isn't an insensitive way to put it, as follows:
Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica is a 'rape manual' because 'science is a male rape of female nature'.
Good company because Harding is one of America's leading intellectual postmodernists,
a professor of Social Sciences and Comparative Education at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and the Director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. Harding previously taught at the University of Delaware for many years. She earned her PhD from New York University (NYU).
The good news, as I learned this evening from Butterflies and Wheels, is that she has a new book out with the snappy: that is to say pithy (even painfully brief) title - Science and Social Inequality: Feminist and Postcolonial Issues (Race and Gender in Science). Amazon gives us a tantalising glimpse into the book with a quote of the first sentence:
It has been tempting to ask "Is science racist?" when noticing the complicity of modern Western scientific assumptions and practices with their cultures' racist projects.
Tempting indeed. Luckily, while you wait for Amazon to deliver, there are a couple of reviews on the web to whet even further your appetite. The publisher's website tells us:
In Science and Social Inequality, Sandra Harding makes the provocative argument that the philosophy and practices of today's Western science, contrary to its enlightenment mission, work to insure that more science will only worsen existing gaps between the best and worst off around the world.
The idea that the enlightenment mission of science is to reduce inequality is an unusually fatuous one, even for a feminist postmodernist. While some people in the world live in stone age, iron age and developing world environments, any successful science undertaken anywhere else in the world can only increase global inequality.

But any claims to intellectual respectability that postmodernist critiques of science might have had collapsed in 1996, with the Sokal Affair. Now, a decade later, although Humanities departments plough on with their verbose and stern "critiques", the air around them is full of the sound of laughter - even if that laughter gets a little strained when we realise we are paying for our amusement though our taxes.

In 1994, a book called Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science was published. This was an open attack on postmodernism. Two years later, a magazine called Social Text (a postmodernist journal of "critical theory") announced it was putting together a special issue called Science Wars. Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University wrote a deliberate hoax article and submitted it to the magazine. The piece was titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. He described it as follows:
Like the genre it is meant to satirize -- myriad exemplars of which can be found in my reference list -- my article is a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever. (Sadly, there are only a handful of the latter: I tried hard to produce them, but I found that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn't have the knack.) I also employed some other strategies that are well-established (albeit sometimes inadvertently) in the genre: appeals to authority in lieu of logic; speculative theories passed off as established science; strained and even absurd analogies; rhetoric that sounds good but whose meaning is ambiguous; and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words.2 (N.B. All works cited in my article are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented.)
After he revealed it as a hoax, the editors of the magazine responded in a way that said a great deal more about themselves than they perhaps intended. They were self-exculpatory:
From the first, we considered Sokal's unsolicited article to be a little hokey.
Patronising:
Sokal's article would have been regarded as sophomoric and/or outdated [but not - you will note - incoherent] (and therefore unnacceptable to the editors) if it had come from a humanist or social scientist
And, of course, took refuge in the ad hominem attack:
In the view of our editors, Alan Sokal was now revealed to be either a) a leftist whose self-loathing has been activated by conservative caricatures of the cultural left, or b) a leftist whose genuine sense of commitment led him to a questionable manner of expressing his political point. In either respect, his actions smacked of a temper often attributed to "unreconstructed male leftists." More to the point, the boy stunt pulled by Sokal seemed typical of the professional culture of science education.
In other words: bullseye.

2 comments:

David Gillies said...

Both Gross and Levitt's Higher Superstition and Fashionable Nonsense (Sokal and Bricmont's devastating critique of post-modernism) have pride of place on my bookshelf. Anyone wishing to examine the animating spirit of the po-mo academic world should read both as soon as possible.

Faustina said...

I would say that the Sokal case is grossly overstated. So you have a bunch of magazine editors who got caught in making fools of themselves. That does NOT mean the end of postmodernism.
In fact I see "reverse Sokal" cases every day. An example: Scientists prove that the brains of men and women function entirely different. The proof? They had a bunch of men and women cooking an egg, ironing a shirt and do the dishes. The women did this quicker than the men. Now, I would love to have somebody to jump up and shout: "it's a hoax! You were fooled!". The problem is that everybody; the scientists responsible for the study, the magazine editors, the journalists publishing the story, actually believe that this is good science!
Ben Goldacre did a very funny piece on the “pink affair”, but this reverse Sokal didn’t seem to reverberate through the scientific community with the kind of force it deserved (in my opinion, that is).
I took a course in university in feminist epistemology. Epistemology can roughly be translated to “how we know that we know something, and how we go about to get knowledge”. Sandra Harding was one of the scholars represented in the curriculum. Maybe we only got to read the sane bits, but her texts seemed very reasonable to me. She and the other scholars did not promote some kind of new science. The issue was more of a science critique. Are we as scientists neutral, value-free (in the Weberian sense), without prejudices etc? The good thing with “hard” sciences like physics is that these things do not really matter. You will get the same results if you are a gay, Jewish, African American priestess, or if you are a middle aged, heterosexual ,white, male. But sometimes the scientist is well capable of “contaminating” his or her data. Ben Goldacre’s blog is all about pseudoscience and bad science. Cases where presumably hard science is twisted and tampered with to get the results you want. You need to deconstruct the science qua science in order to detect these flaws (that is, when the method itself is flawed). That we are able to do this is actually a result of postmodernist critique.
Postmodernism does not suspend natural science; it is not a substitute. It is a critique of the blind spots that make some scientists believe they are neutral and value-free when they are in fact looking through a colored lens, so to speak. I am sure there are lots of crackpots who call themselves postmodernists, but they do not define postmodernists. Or rather, you should not let them define it. Now, can we “Sokal” these idiots who claim to have proved that men are adulterous based on cockroach research? Please?