What’s in the bottle?

Donald MacKenzie

  • The One Culture? A Conversation about Science edited by Jay Labinger and Harry Collins
    Chicago, 329 pp, £41.00, August 2001, ISBN 0 226 46722 8

For nearly a decade, heated debates about science have split academia and sometimes spilled onto the pages of newspapers. Although the ‘science wars’ were well underway by 1996, they came to wider attention in that year when Alan Sokal succeeded in publishing his brilliant pastiche in Social Text. Sokal’s hoax implicitly condemned – and a fair number of further books and articles raged against, often, alas, without Sokal’s wit – views of science akin to the following: modern science ‘resembles much more a stock-market speculation than a search for the truth about nature’; scientists ‘do not find order in nature, they put it there’; ‘the picture of the scientist as a man with an open mind, someone who weighs the evidence for and against, is a lot of baloney’; ‘modern physics is based on some intrinsic acts of faith’; ‘at any historical moment, what pass as acceptable scientific explanations have both social determinants and social functions.’

To assert things like this about science, Sokal and his fellow ‘science warriors’ argued, traduced its nature as objective knowledge, the result of careful experiment and painstaking analysis, and the source of techniques of great power and predictions of extraordinary accuracy. Even – perhaps especially – when put forward by those who considered themselves on the political Left, such assertions opened the door to creationism, astrology, the occult and all the other forms of present-day anti-rationalism.

The statements I have just quoted, however, do not come from sociologists of science, post-structuralist literary critics, feminist theorists, French philosophers or any of the other varied targets of ‘science wars’ criticism. They actually come from scientists: Erwin Chargaff, Jacob Bronowski, Gunther Stent, Brian Petley, and the trio of Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin. In a modest ‘anti-Sokal’ hoax, one of the contributors to The One Culture?, Steven Shapin, leads the reader initially to assume that the quotations come from critics of science in the arts and humanities wing of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures.

That scientists themselves, often eminent ones, sometimes say such things shows that the ‘science wars’ are more complicated than a simple clash between anti-scientific irrationalists and science’s rationalist proponents. Nor, of course, are they really ‘wars’. As Ian Hacking has pointed out, to call them that is to trivialise the horrors of real war. The ‘science wars’ attracted that name because in many ways they are a specialised version of the wider, but equally misnamed ‘culture wars’ of academia (particularly American academia). Splits within the humanities have been as evident as those between science and arts: many of science’s defenders have been philosophers of traditional (decidedly non-French) sympathies rather than natural scientists. Just as feminism has been a central pole of the ‘culture wars’, so feminist writing about science seems to have attracted particular opprobrium.

Michael Lynch, another contributor to The One Culture?, suggests that the debates about science should be seen not as a ‘war’ but rather as an adversarial legal dispute. It is a closer analogy, but not an entirely reassuring one. The rhetorical resources of the unscrupulous courtroom attorney have been deployed all too frequently: ad hominem attack, selective quotation, scorn, sarcasm, ridicule, accusations of incompetence, charlatanry and intellectual dishonesty, denial of the right of reply. Dismayingly, these have been the tools predominantly of reason’s defenders rather than of its supposed opponents. Minor and reluctant participants in the science wars, such as myself, have not been able to rid ourselves of the feeling that academics and intellectuals just shouldn’t behave like that, even if we often do.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in