Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels With Science
By Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt
Johns Hopkins University Press 314 pages, $25.95
William F. Buckley entitled a recent episode of Firing Line “Why Political Correctness is a Menace and a Bore.” It is a sad commentary on the state of higher education that this diagnosis is so accurate, for stories of left-wing nonsense have, by virtue of their prevalence, become tiresome. Postmodernism and related varieties of nihilism have so entrenched themselves in the humanities and social sciences that one can look forward to decades of celebration of the worst that has been thought and said. The question now arises: have these maladies infected the hard sciences as well? Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt (a biologist and a mathematician, respectively) perceive such a growing threat, and Higher Superstition is intended to raise the alarm.
Much of their well-written and sardonic account should be familiar to observers of the academy by now. Feminists complain about the supposedly passive role assigned the egg in fertilization; Afrocentrists distort history to promote self-esteem; cultural constructivists question the validity of bourgeois science; and postmodernists prattle on endlessly about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. While the rest of us thought that an understanding of AIDS would come from biomedical laboratories, the postmodernists tell us that in fact what is needed are “concepts drawn from the discourse of mathematics, principally post-Euclidean geometry, which provides for topological mappings, based on a non-Euclidean concept of space.” Quantum mechanics, traditionally viewed as an astounding advance in our comprehension of the universe, becomes the product not of great minds but of the uncertainty and social upheaval arising from World War I. Similar silly examples may be plucked at random from virtually every page.
This book, however, is more than a catalog of idiocy. The authors also conscientiously attempt to dissect the reasoning (or lack thereof) of leftist critics. Perhaps the harshest rebukes are aimed at the feminists, who offer up the standard boilerplate about the patriarchal paradigm of Western science. Gross and Levitt call their bluff: “Feminist cultural analysis has not yet identified any heretofore undetected flaws in the logic, or predictive powers, or the applicability of mathematics, physics, chemistry, or-much complaining to the contrary notwithstanding-biology.” Anyone who has spent time recently on American campuses can attest to the feminist tendency to overgeneralize and reduce nearly all phenomena to supposed manifestations of sexism. Again, the authors will not stand for facile explanations: “It is possible-though tendentious-to impute sexist intent to a simple algebra problem in which ‘Peter is meeting his girlfriend Melissa at the airport.’ It’s a rather more difficult trick to find sexism if a problem reads: ‘Prove that a 1-connected closed 3-manifold is homeomorphic to S3.’“ Gross and Levitt, sympathetic to the feminists’ claims for equality, readily admit that there are, to be sure, inequities; but it is white males who constitute a remaining official object of discrimination in the sciences. Nor do the authors buy the “role-model” justification for affirmative action: “Generations of Jewish kids have done quite well at these [word] problems, despite having to concern themselves with Johnny’s Christmas money, rather than Menachem’s Chanukah gelt.”
Left-wing attacks on science may be divided into two categories: criticism of the very process and idea of science in general or criticism of the results of science in particular. The claims of radical environmentalism straddle this divide. When inflated predictions of doom are found wanting, the eco-warriors resort to worshiping some long-dead primal earth, unadulterated by man’s hubris. The only way out is to jettison science and its reliance upon rational analysis and artificial experimentation. In reality, however, native peoples have not always treated the land wisely. This mode of thinking, the authors correctly point out, presents a very real threat to a sound environmental policy, for only science can properly assess the risks and evaluate the advantages of the technologies it creates. Modifying the well-known phrase, Gross and Levitt argue that “myths have consequences.”
Included in the assault against science are the complaints of the professional AIDS activists. Despite the protestations of Larry Kramer et al., these groups must know that their only hope is modern biomedicine. Without it, they are doomed. Against this backdrop, ascribing the “epidemic” to an uncaring scientific-governmental-industrial triad is only the violent, irrational lashing out of a desperate, self-alienated interest group. To their credit, the authors do not allow any feelings of “compassion” to stand in the way of an appropriate rebuttal. Kramer’s ravings are shown to be just that, and nothing more. These activists are perpetrating above all an attack on decency; science is but an unfortunate casualty.
The distortions of Afrocentrism, another pet theory of our chattering classes, should be viewed in the same light. the attempts to regain some lost, glorious scientific achievements from Africa’s ancient past constitute, again, not an attack on the process of science per se, but rather upon the discipline of history. In this case, however, the harm done to science is minor compared to the affront against blacks, who are being used-yet again-to service a left-wing political agenda. No serious person doubts that individuals of all races can contribute to our understanding and manipulation of the natural world. But the left is uninterested in such bourgeois pursuits. One is reminded of Arthur Schlesinger’s comment that if a Klansman were to endeavor to retard the progress of blacks, he could do no better than promote an Afrocentric curriculum.
So why has the left now turned its guns upon science? Gross and Levitt believe the assault was inevitable, for despite its denunciations of traditional disciplines, postmodernism is itself a “totalizing” ideology compelled to bring all areas of study under its sway. (The authors go so far as to compare this impulse to fascism.) Having severed the link between fact and value, left-wing theorists are now committed to bringing “indeterminacy” to the hard sciences. Longing for the prestige now bestowed upon the masters of technology, those in the humanities and social sciences suffer “physics envy.” The postmodern brotherhood resents the confidence with which scientists draw conclusions from hard-won evidence. But they resent it not because historians, say, cannot do the same, but because they have decided that doing so would admit the existence of Truth and reality.
Ironically, this “physics envy” could be cured if the academic left returned to traditional methods of scholarship. Recently, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her collection of essays On Looking into the Abyss, has shown how the postmodernists have abandoned the rigorous process whereby historians once drew firm conclusions on the basis of verifiable evidence. In the past, the difference between the humanities and the hard sciences in this respect was only one of degree, albeit a sometimes significant one. With the advent of postmodernism, however, the difference has become one of kind. The academic left, having dispensed with any notions of Truth, has deemed it necessary to deny the legitimacy of evidence once used toward this end. Thus, Evelyn Fox Keller, a leading feminist critic of science, can claim with a (presumably) straight face that “even the actual data of the natural sciences are not written in nature” but “are subject to the play of social forces.”
Gross and Levitt also identify more subtle, personal factors driving the postmodern juggernaut. Writing and “theorizing” about the implications of “chaos” is a means of professional advancement. But it is also a means of spiritual redemption, an escape from the modern capitalist world, a world indebted to Western science. In this sense, the left’s attack on science is no different from its attack on the West in general. Self-righteousness is no longer to be avoided, for the validity of an argument today is determined by the intensity of the feelings behind it. But just as tenured radicals sit in chairs endowed by oil magnates, so is the relationship between the postmodernist and his nemesis marked by irony: Moralism has the bad intellectual habit of excusing itself, on its own grounds, for weak and shoddy arguments. Moralism of this kind is, for instance, untroubled by the fact that its denunciations of Western scientific epistemology are composed on word processors whose very existence derives from a subtle understanding of the universe encoded in quantum mechanics. . . . It lives very comfortably with all such contradictions.
Unfortunately, Gross and Levitt’s discussion of this ideology is marked by a tone that is all too familiar when liberals criticize their own. Feminists, they insist, are sincere, just misguided. The reader is assured that most scientists share feminist concerns. Moreover, the authors accuse academics of endangering the careers of budding female scientists and of engaging in a type of religious fanaticism. In the book’s most memorable one-liner, feminism and the other schools of thought named here are referred to as “our academic inner city.” Unfortunately, despite both their critical analysis and brilliant polemics, the authors’ desire to distance themselves from conservatives emerges throughout and taints an otherwise worthy book. One gets the feeling that the authors would hate to cede anything to conservatives, who are, in fact, their most natural allies.
Thus when Gross and Levitt criticize the academic left’s shenanigans they are in their own eyes wholly justified, but conservatives who do the same are suspected of mere political partisanship. The readers of the American Spectator and National Review are tarred as mean-spirited ideologues. There is concern about being perceived as “stalking-horses for social conservatism” and acknowledgment that, yes, indeed, the capitalist enterprise (fueled in no small part by science) has yet to cure every social ill. The authors fret, “For the first time in modern American history, right-wing theorists seem on the point of establishing themselves upon the philosophical and ethical high ground, thanks to postmodern contortions of the left.” Gross and Levitt would seem to be under the impression that for years now the humanities have been a bastion of anticommunism-or perhaps they do not recognize this position as the moral high ground at all. In any case, this whole approach is disappointing, especially since the authors appear to be for the greater part open-minded and fair, drawing upon the works of conservatives such as Michael Fumento and Jonathan Adler. If people are truly convinced of the rightness of their position, then they should not care in whose company it places them.
In any case, the authors, self-avowed technocrats and staunch defenders of Reason, blame an anti-Enlightenment ideology for the modern left’s irrational behavior. But they fail to recognize that one important legacy of the Enlightenment is intellectuals unconstrained by any sense of humility. As Burke remarked, “In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.” Only a phenomenal arrogance could lead someone to toy with processes too complicated for his understanding, with results more consistent with political zealotry than with reasoned argument. How else to explain why one critic would dedicate his jeremiad to “all the science teachers I never had”? Others babble endlessly about “nonlinearity” without ever demonstrating any knowledge of the concept. (Linearity is taken by the postmodernist to signify, in the words of Gross and Levitt, “relentless sequentiality, unbending purposefulness, singlemindedness,” while nonlinearity connotes “multiculturalism, diversity . . . and the effacement of boundaries.”) The uncertainty principle is the shining jewel in the postmodern crown, but, as the authors point out, it is actually a beautiful scientific truth, and anyone who has taken undergraduate quantum mechanics can derive the result. (A friend of mine at a prestigious undergraduate institution claims the uncertainty principle has helped him through many a philosophy paper.) In their characteristically humorous manner, Gross and Levitt comment: “This is not the kind of history of quantum mechanics where the intriguing role of noncommuting self-adjoint operators on complex Hilbert space gets much of an airing.” “Rational” economic planners and seemingly irrational critics of science are more similar than different: they share an unbounded faith in themselves.
This is all very depressing in and of itself, but one wonders about the ultimate consequences. The authors admit that critiques from the left are not likely to affect polymer chemistry. in the end, they have only examined one aspect of a larger phenomenon, the decline of the humanities. For it is the humanities that will suffer the most from a crusade against science. Indeed, the authors warn of a widening rift between the humanistic disciplines and the hard sciences that will eventually erode public trust in the former. One can only hope that in time students will come to recognize that arguing for the unknowability of reality is not a very valuable way to spend their college years.
One real threat, for Gross and Levitt, resides in the effect on the layman’s comprehension of complex scientific issues related to public policy questions. But Americans were sufficiently confused about these matters before the birth of postmodernism. The average citizen’s understanding of genetic engineering will most likely not be altered by the “feminist-critique-of-science mafia” or the Afrocentric distortions of history. On the other hand, the authors believe that the extent to which a society rejects such nonsense is a mark of its vitality. By this standard, American culture is currently experiencing the intellectual equivalent of muscular atrophy.
Unfortunately, the countermeasures suggested in Higher Superstition are mere palliatives that will at most have a small impact. Scientists, besides rebutting fanatical speakers and teaching young students to keep their guard up, can, sadly, do very little. The cause of the disease lies outside the scientist’s province, and so does its cure. Since the pseudo-scientific theories of the charlatans are part of a larger agenda to discredit bourgeois society, only a reclaiming of the humanities from them will bring relief. In the meantime, when their word processors fail, our modern-day Luddites will not entreat the aid of the Literary Studies chair, but will pick up the phone and call Microsoft. Maybe that is a cause for hope.
Jon F. Fielder is in the M.D./Ph.D. Program at Baylor College of Medicine.