Sunday, February 11, 2007

S & M

Alan Sokal (of Sokal Incident fame) and science journalist and blogger Chris Mooney (hereinafter S & M (heh heh)) have a new op-ed out, and as usual, I'm late to the party. Things happen so quickly in Blogistan; people have hashed it out and moved on before I've even got my socks on (darn these webbed feet). Here's what they say:
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.
I read those jeremiads when they came out. Let's not run these people together. Himmelfarb and Kimball are conservative, well-read non-philosophers worried about what they see as nihilism, while D'Souza is a hack (q.v. his recent book). Himmelfarb seems more concerned with resuscitating "Victorian morality" (which she defends as much more subtle than the farcical prudery and hypocrisy we currently tend to associate with that term) than with science and objectivity, but Kimball's salvos (e.g. Tenured Radicals, but also Experiments Against Reality) are well-described as "much exaggerated" but "contain[ing] a grain of truth."

But what exactly is this grain of truth? I'll skip over the thumbnail description of what "some self-described leftist academics" do, and the famous Sokal Incident and its moral, save to note that the issue as described is not specifically one about empirical science, but instead a properly philosophical question: what does "objectivity" mean for discursive creatures like ourselves? If it turned out that several squabbling cousins were traveling sub rosa under that name on the same passport, might it not be important to sort them out, on pain of undetected conceptual confusion? (Yes, I used quotation marks there; but they're mention quotes, not "scare" quotes (or, as the Brits say, "shudder" quotes). Calm down.) For now let us simply resolve to distinguish the outrage to common sense provoked by answering this question in a radically nihilistic way, on the one hand, with that provoked by asking it at all, on the other.

In describing the motivation for Sokal's hoax, S & M reveal their main concern, and the subject of their message for us today (okay, last week):
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 [...] 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.
Here's one grain of truth, then. Whatever we say about objectivity had better leave enough of our justificatory practices in place for us to be able to see them as valid, i.e., as worth continuing, even if they do need to be modified in some way (which they may not). This follows from the distinction between scientific practice and philosophical reflection. Science (the relevant example, but of course it's not the only one) can't tell us about its own relation to the objective world qua objective, as this is a philosophical issue – although naturally there is a continuum between metaphysics/epistemology through philosophy of science to theoretically minded scientists.

On the other hand (subject to the same caveat), philosophy can't tell science how to run its own shop. That is, it can't dictate the proper practices of its object discipline, nor invalidate current ones; only practitioners themselves can do that. We may borrow a distinction from ethics here: philosophy's demands on scientific practice, if it even makes any at all, are not categorical ("you must do this on pain of incoherence"), but hypothetical ("if you want to do that, as you say you do, then you must do either this, or this, or something else if you can think of anything, in order to overcome this problem. Or you can just be stubborn, but don't be surprised if people start rolling their eyes when you start talking like that again, even if they do still buy from you."). So Sokal is right to demand that "a rigorous, evidence-based standard for assessing claims of purported fact" be retained. That just is scientific practice. Rejecting it on grounds of philosophical concerns would be to kill the patient.

But now some more caveats (they may go down easier if I space them out a bit). First, not every (utterance or inscription of an) indicative sentence is an assertion; not every assertion is a "claim of purported fact"; not every such claim is appropriately investigated scientifically; and not everything worth calling "scientific" is transparently recognizable as such in alien contexts of inquiry. More significantly, though, that particular scientific claims or procedures are "rigorous" and even "evidence-based" are judgments internal to scientific practice, and not an a priori reason to prefer its deliverances to those of other practices, which have their own conceptions of such things, as appropriate to their own concerns. Naturally [*sigh*] to say anything like this will sound to the likes of Sokal as relativism, but all that shows is that he needs to get out more. Of course you can try to generalize (that's why it makes sense to speak of different "conceptions" of rigor in the first place, i.e., rather than something else entirely), but only on irretrievably metaphysical-realist assumptions will a free-floating endorsement of "rigor" amount to more than a platitudinous reminder to, um, "be careful and don't just make stuff up" (rather than the seemingly intended "be more scientific").

But it turns out that that platitude is what S & M are actually endorsing. The op-ed is a collaborative effort, but as with other collaborations, each brings his own concerns to the table. From Sokal's 1990's-era concern with attacks on science from the postmodern left, we turn to Mooney's contemporary thesis of the "war on science" (q.v. his recent book). Here (in the op-ed) we read that:
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.
[Update: formatting error corrected]

The rest of the op-ed gives S & M's answer to the resulting question: "How and why did the science wars move out of academia and reemerge in Washington, with political poles reversed?" That answer, in brief, is that since the 1990's, on the one hand, Republicans took power, making them prey to their own worst impulses (power corrupts, you know), as enabled by the weakening of science's prestige among the public due in part to the attacks of postmodernists. At the same time,
the focus on the academic left's undermining of science following the Sokal hoax was generating worthwhile debates and even real soul-searching ... [with the result that] pronouncements of extreme relativism have subsided significantly in recent years, [which] frees up defenders of science to combat the enemy on our other flank.
Even if one has not read The Republican War on Science, the details of Mooney's charge are familiar: unscrupulous business interests and moralistic religious dogmatists ignore, distort, suppress, or actively subvert properly disinterested scientific inquiry into how things are. We thus need Congressional oversight, whistle-blower protection, and, more generally, a return (or a start) to demanding careful critical analysis instead of "a lazy 'on the one hand, on the other hand' approach." The authors end by urging that we "take steps now to restore reality-based government."

In general, this attitude is perfectly congenial. I also prefer scruple to venality and skulduggery, and (as we have already determined) careful is indeed better than lazy; and I assume Mooney would be careful enough himself to agree that that an ideologue or PR rep or wild-eyed crank believes something does not entail its falsity. But this is not my concern today, which is the premise that science, as the cultural manifestation of mere sanity, is engaged in a struggle ("science wars") with the forces of unreason, a continuous battle which has recently taken on a new shape, the difference being that it is the "extreme right" rather than the "extreme left" leading the dark horde. S & M allow that the new face of the enemy is much more dangerous, having real-world implications as it does, than the old, which was merely a bunch of academic hot air. But the differences are more important than that, and the authors' assimilation of the two into the forces of "anti-science" shifts attention away from what it is which they actually assume about the good guys.

Who are the "good guys" in this fight with "anti-science" forces? "Science," I guess. But who and what is that? So far we have only platitudes. One common suggestion is that the good guys are the "reality-based community." Well, I'm tired of hearing about the "reality-based community." It sounds good at first (our opponents are fantasists), but it turns out to be just another platitude (albeit standing in for something much more contentious about scientific modernism as a worldview). The original reference was a New York Times Magazine article in which a Bush administration spokesman dismisses punditocratic criticism (i.e., as "reality-based") by saying something like "we create our own reality" – to which the natural response is that this is the same kind of anti-scientific metaphysical hooey that new-agers aver, the idea apparently being that if we close our eyes to global warming (or the dangers of smoking, or whatever) and tap our heels three times, it will go away; and of course if we want to go to war we can just make stuff up. But while the locutions are unfortunate, in context the point makes (at least a little) more sense. Imagine the situation reversed. Hillary becomes president and embarks on an ambitious domestic agenda (health care, etc.). The wingnuts go bananas, but since Congress remains in Democratic hands (remember, this is a thought experiment), they can't do anything but carp; and of course they've got no ideas themselves, just "it'll hurt corporate profits" and "that's [*gasp*] socialism!". Surely the administration response could very well be a peeved/smug version of "we're in charge now, and we act as we see fit, getting things done, but all you guys can do is passively react to what we've already accomplished." So while it was funny for a while – as well as, of course, a pointed criticism of administration attitudes toward criticism – to tie these attitudes, via that unfortunate crack about the r-b. c., to an irresponsible attitude toward how things actually stand, it's getting tiresome as rhetoric, especially when standing in for actual argument. (Much like "proud member of the Immoral Minority," if you remember that one.) End of mini-rant.

But let's get back to the supposed "anti-science" coalition. As I've already mentioned, S & M grant the difference between the "extreme left" and the "extreme right" (that's why it's a coalition). But the connection between them is obscure, and seems to me to amount to little more than different expressions of the idea that one should not believe something just because the person who said it has a lab coat on. Even the "extreme right" itself strikes me as a fairly diverse lot. Religious fundamentalists fear that modernism will erode moral authority, while oilmen fear that global warming will result in what they, in an apparent attempt at redundancy, call "unnecessary regulation" (as opposed, that is, to ocean-front property in Kentucky). Both of these groups have resorted to unscrupulous obfuscation and sowing of doubt, as well as self-serving appeals to diversity ("teach the controversy" being only the most blatant), which they (perhaps rightly) see as a liberal sacred cow. (David Horowitz comes to mind here as well, as a particularly transparent example of appropriating the rhetoric of diversity for perverse ends.)

Apart from using similar rhetoric when it suits them, neither of these regrettable trends has anything to do with the "extreme left" suggestion that the very idea of objectivity is something from which we (or at least the working class) needs to be liberated (or whatever). After all, the problem with relativism (postmodern or not) is that with the very idea of objectivity goes the very idea of unscrupulous deception, which is precisely what S & M accuse the "extreme right" of doing. That is, the latter are not denying objective reality, they're misrepresenting it – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. Even when creationists sound like relativists, demanding that we "teach the controversy," this doesn't betray a relativist attitude, but instead, as they themselves put it, the thin end of a "Wedge". They don't actually believe that when people disagree, we should teach all points of view. If they were in charge, they would teach what they see as the truth, and only that. Just like we do now, and rightly so.

This has nothing to do with liberating the oppressed from patriarchal chains of "logic" and "rationality." This is a common conflation, encouraged by irresponsible rhetoric about the "reality-based community." In fact, here the ("non-extreme"?) left sounds a lot like the right (Kimball et. al.). Just as the latter claimed that 9/11 proved postmodernism wrong and restored "moral clarity" (i.e., that moral realism is correct), the former trot out the purported lies of the Bush administration to demonstrate "the importance of truth" (i.e., that metaphysical realism is correct).

But (and here's my main point, which I imagine must seem to be at some distance from the political concerns of S & M – but they're the ones who demand that we be careful in our claims) you don't have to be a postmodern relativist to reject both moral and (especially) metaphysical realism; and (partly because) you don't have to be a realist to preserve important senses of objectivity and truth. I'll defer talk about the Sokal hoax and what it shows; but a few lines from the op-ed deserve comment. Here's something we've already seen:
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.
Except for "reduce," "mere," and "rather than," this sounds to me like pure common sense. Naturally it depends on what you mean by "worldview" (and of course "objective," which I have already claimed to have several distinct senses). But neither am I a "leftist academic," self-described or otherwise.

About the hoax:
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. [snarky comment in brackets in original]
The same goes for what Sokal (or at least the implied author of his article) asserted: not what I would say (why "at bottom"?), but at least it's not realism. The dreaded "scare quotes" (ooh, self-reference!) seem natural here, as it is indeed the term "reality" which we are discussing (together with its referent). But it's fine to leave them off too. As for what he averred, I couldn't say. At best, the connection would be indirect – perhaps removing an obstacle to understanding, rather than actually providing evidence. I've already discussed this point. If I don't even want to hear it about the philosophical problem of "free will" from quantum physicists (i.e., over and above the actual science), which I do not, then why should I listen to them about other non-scientific things (especially if I don't even care about them in the first place)?

The bottom line:
In truth, there was nothing wrong with inventing science studies; the error was to leap from the valid observation that science arises in a social context to the extreme conclusion that it is nothing more than politics in disguise.
Oh, thanks so much. Here's my reply: in truth, there's nothing wrong with pointing out that platitudes are true; the error is to leap from this valid observation to the extreme conclusion that (typical) philosophical realism is even defensible, let alone true (let alone obviously so).

Naturally I have more to say about this, but I'll let you go for now. And of course they have more to say too. Mooney is blameless here, if a bit too eager to reach for the eye-catching headline ("science wars make strange bedfellows!"), but since the hoax Sokal has shown an eager willingness to dig himself deeper. The most serious attempt at defending (not his conduct, but) his views you may read here (but check out the rest of his papers on his excellent website, here). This is a paper credited to Sokal and his collaborator Jean Bricmont, authors of Impostures Intellectuelles / Fashionable Nonsense, defending realism in philosophy. Bricmont is a philosopher, which accounts for the apparent familiarity displayed here with some of the philosophical literature, but the substance is nothing more than a purified version of the same tiresome, thick-headed, realist boilerplate already familiar (seriously, it could have been written twenty-five years ago; imagine Richard Boyd ca. 1980). In fact the philosophical context makes it worse, as in other, more informal fora Sokal generally comes off as very open to dialogue, if a bit slow on the uptake (no offense: I'm not so clear on Riccati-Bessel functions myself – or on Derridean jouissance either, for that matter).

I might also make a few excuses for Bricmont while I'm at it. Apparently analytic philosophers in France feel a bit beleaguered, what with all the post-structuralism and whatnot; so the apparent philosophical rigor (there's that word again) of science and logic look more like a lifeline than they do to those of us who grew up on the stuff. So naturally people like him (others include Jacques Bouveresse and Pascal Engel) are a bit sensitive. And of course not everything they say is false. I just got a book (more like a pamphlet really; 79 small pages of big print – what a rip!) with a back-and-forth between Engel and Rorty, in which they talk past each other for, well, not that long really, but the whole book at least. Yet out of context, a lot of Engel's sentences wouldn't be out of place in my own criticism of Rorty. But read the linked paper by B/S (oh, stop it); the title, if the direct link doesn't work, is "Defense of a modest scientific realism." More on which later, I imagine.


Anonymous said...

"""""""""a purified version of the same tiresome, thick-headed, realist boilerplate""""""""""

Ghastly! Doc Bricmont's hemline reaches below his knees. A few pages of Bricmont are worth a lifetime of Rorty's or PoMo wanks.

Anonymous said...

And pardon me for interrupting the blog traffic (delete me if you want, please), but there is this persistent weirdness about the "realism" chat. Empirical, scientific realism does not equal metaphysical or Platonic realism, as I am sure you are aware, tho' some postmodernists seem to suggest something like that-- that even a field biologist researching Giant Sequoias somehow commits to some metaphysical view. BS. There are a few passages in Locke I believe where he sort of addresses the problems of this sort of Cartesian or Platonic realism, and its relation to doubts about the external world. Locke makes it quite clear dreaming about being in say a fire, or even seeing the fire, is nothing like actually sitting in house burning down. How obvious. Yet there seems to be this persistent strain in philosophy (is it realism, or Kantianism, Berkeleyan idealism, postmod., or just Spookism) that suggests that even as Locke burns up in his house his ideas derived from the sensation of burning (a sort of high degree of acquaintance as Russell termed it, I believe), or pain itself, have no connection to the actual fire. BS. The inference is permitted, even if not necessary in an axiomatic sense (Hume himself also guilty of this denial of external realism to some degree, but I believe he grants that the regularity of appearances does create some sound idea of external reality). Indeed it's an essential type of inference, whether for common sense, science or economics, etc.

What is a much stranger inference (yet it still seems current) is that Locke's screams have no relation to the actual blazes he is wrapped in, or that the sequoias that the biologist examines only have "mental" or ideal existence. And while Marx occasionally seems to suggest a sort of phenomenalism, he doesn't doubt that the objects which are being perceived via sensations (and indeed being used to construct our minds and concepts) have an objective, non-mental existence--he's far closer to Locke's external realist position than to Kantian or Cartesian ghostism, methinx. And however quotidian, Bricmont also follows that Lockean tradition (whereas some philosophers of science--like Popper were a bit closer to Hume, right)