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Taking the spin out of science

February 04, 2007|Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal | CHRIS MOONEY is the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and the author of "The Republican War on Science." ALAN SOKAL is a professor of physics at New York University and the coauthor of "Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science."

By beginning to investigate the Bush administration's interference with scientists' work on global warming, the Democratic Congress has embarked on a key task: restoring respect for science -- and more generally, for evidence and reason -- in the federal government.

That we need such reform, and from Democrats, is a historic irony, because it's the Republicans who have often tried to paint themselves as defenders of "sound science" against ideologically motivated attacks.

In the 1990s, conservatives such as Dinesh D'Souza, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Roger Kimball wrote best-selling jeremiads attacking postmodernist academics who, they insisted, were taking over American universities and subverting the standards of scholarship. Although much exaggerated, this contained a grain of truth. Some self-described leftist academics did seem determined to reduce the real world to mere "discourse." No worldview, they insisted, could be considered objectively more valid or factual than any other. Even the findings of science were described as reflecting societal conditions and struggles for power and dominance rather than something true about the nature of the world.

One of us -- Sokal -- was sufficiently disturbed by these trends to try an unorthodox experiment: write a parody of postmodern science criticism to see whether a trendy academic journal would accept it as a serious scholarly article. Asserting up front that "physical 'reality' [note the scare quotes] ... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct," Sokal averred that the latest conceptions of quantum gravity support deconstructive literary theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, "postmodernist epistemology" and, of course, progressive politics. The cultural-studies journal Social Text ate it up.

After Sokal revealed his hoax in the magazine Lingua Franca, a debate exploded about the nature of science and rationality, popularly known as the "science wars." It pitted scientists and their staunch defenders within and outside of the academic community -- spanning the political spectrum from left to right -- against a band of intellectuals from the humanities, virtually all of them situated on the left.

Sokal took on his postmodernist colleagues because he feared that the rejection of a rigorous, evidence-based standard for assessing claims of purported fact would disarm us not only in the face of quack medical remedies or alleged paranormal occurrences, but also when confronted by distortions of scientific information having major public-policy implications. A classic example is the tobacco industry's well-documented campaign to sow doubts about the health risks of smoking. Another is the interminable push by religious fundamentalists to undermine the teaching of evolution in American schools.

As these cases suggest, attacks on science by ideologues and special interests have a long history in this country. A stance of postmodernist relativism -- or, on the part of the media, of giving "equal time" to unequally substantiated viewpoints -- weakens us in the face of such strategic campaigns to undercut well-established knowledge.

But the abuse of science has lately materialized in an even more disturbing form, this time within the corridors of our own government. Driven by the Bush administration and its congressional allies, the new American "science wars" have reached an alarming stage.

HOW AND WHY did the science wars move out of academia and reemerge in Washington, with political poles reversed? During the Clinton years, many of the worst science abusers -- such as anti-evolution fundamentalists -- remained politically out in the cold, at least at the federal level. That began to change in 1994, as the Gingrich Republicans, highly sympathetic to the party's emerging socially conservative "base" and to the interests of private industry, laid claim to Congress.

They proceeded to attack evidence demonstrating a human role in climate change, all as well as in the depletion of the ozone layer as part of a sweeping attempt to undermine environmental regulation. Simultaneously, they dismantled Congress' world-renowned scientific advisory body, the Office of Technology Assessment, which had provided our elected representatives with reliable scientific counsel for more than two decades.

Meanwhile, the focus on the academic left's undermining of science following the Sokal hoax was generating worthwhile debates and even real soul-searching. For instance, the prominent French sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, has wondered whether his earlier work questioning the objectivity of scientific knowledge went too far: "Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant?"

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