Postmodernism’s Troubled Relationship with Science

It might be a bit of an understatement to say that the election of Donald J. Trump has caused a lot of anxiety in the US science communityThere is concern that the President-elect might decide to defund entire programs in areas such as climate science. There is also concern that he will fail to push for regulation that is “scientifically necessary.” Anti-science beliefs have been labeled as the root cause of this trend, which is regarded as a threat to democracy.[1]

Historically — and even today — postmodernism has been associated with an anti-science mindset. In the “Science Wars” in the 1990s, the postmodern science critics faced science realists; in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (1994),[2] realists charged postmodernists with anti-intellectualism, rejecting their faulty relativist theories. So, postmodernism would seem to be responsible for the current crisis in trust in science and the prevailing anti-science beliefs. But is this an accurate characterization of postmodernism’s influence on science? The relation between the two, although troublesome, is more complicated.[3]

Postmodern criticism of modern science was not without merit. Where science was granted grotesquely inflated and unconditional power, postmodernists pointed to its limits. Where science was used as a guise for value judgments, they pulled the veil off and exposed the hypocrisy. One of postmodernism’s great masters, Friedrich Nietzsche, questioned the role of both science and religion as purveyors of absolute truth, and emphasized the dominance of the “will to power” as the driving force in human affairs.

Another leader of the postmodern movement, Michel Foucault examined how science-based psychiatric institutions were abused to eliminate non-conforming elements from society. He identified the tendency of government to use science and other information to intrude and micro-manage our personal lives. No wonder the great postmodern thinkers had a highly ambiguous attitude towards modern science — as Foucault put it, “reason – both as despotism and as light.”

Insofar as postmodernists argued against “scientism,” the belief that empirical science guided by the scientific method provides a superior account of the world and human affairs to the exclusion of other perspectives,[4] they had a point. To say that some action or policy is “scientifically necessary” conflates facts and value judgments.[5] Science can provide facts relevant to human action, but it cannot dictate any action. In and of itself, this was an important and necessary contribution to the debate about science’s role as a social institution. As of today, science, scientific policy advice, and policy debates often suffer from insufficient separation of facts and values, of objective and subjective statements.

The postmodern perspective on science was shaped further by the theory of Thomas Kuhn. He rejected concepts of science as a disinterested search for objective knowledge, or as an independent, non-partisan exploration of truth governed by a specific ethos. Instead, he asserted that normal science progresses through “development-by-accumulation” of accepted facts and theories, interrupted by revolutionary “paradigm shifts;” truth has much less to do with this process than vested interests.

Adding to the deconstruction of science as the production of objective knowledge, Paul Feyerabend, the “epistemological anarchist,” argued that there is no uniform methodology governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge.[6] If this is true, what makes science “science”?

Rejecting the “fact-value” and “reality-perception” distinctions, postmodernism reached two devastating conclusions about modern science:

  • First, science is unable to produce any objective or truthful statements about the physical reality, and therefore cannot claim universal applicability.
  • Second, scientific enquiry is not a value- or interest-free pursuit of truth that is independent of local cultural constraints; rather, it is driven or inspired by hidden ideological or moral motivations.[7]

There is more to the postmodern vision of science, however, than the analysis I presented thus far suggests. Ever since Friedrich Engels used the term “scientific socialism,”[8] the scientific basis of political thought and action has intrigued scientists and politicians alike. As Marx suggested, the scientists have only interpreted the world in various ways; “the point is to change it.”[9] While science’s traditional purpose was the impartial pursuit of truth, in Marxist thought, science should not only describe, but also improve the world.

Marxist ideology thus suggested a competing vision on science as part of policy.[10] It is not a problem that a scientific study changes the subject matter it studies; to the contrary, what counts is the result. Emancipation of the worse off requires that science works for them: science of the people, by the people, and for the people. If science in the service of policy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is all the better.[11]

Unavoidably, the idea that “science is power” (scientia potentia est[12]) attracts political interest in science as a tool. Like any knowledge, scientific knowledge reflects specific interests and serves as an instrument for domination; “power produces knowledge” and “knowledge constitute[s] power.”[13] To those under the spell of Marxist thought, postmodern ways of understanding the world opened the door to science as “will to power,” and legitimized explicitly ‘politicized’ science. The claim that what authorities claim as “scientific knowledge” is really just a means of social control, shed an entirely different light on the scientific enterprise. It issued an invitation to resort to science to all those who want to either apply or fight social control.

In short, postmodern thought not only emphasized the limits of science, it also alerted us to the possibility of abuse of science for purposes unrelated to finding truth. It raised the specter of science as means of exercising social control and political power.

Social Sciences’ Problem

Initially, postmodernism gained influence in the social sciences and humanities, which produced it to begin with. The new social sciences had an explicit social progress agenda.[14] In itself, this might not be objectionable, although it brought politics (or at least policy) directly into science. More importantly, it created two main risks: the specter of academic activism disguised as science, and the risk of spill-over to the natural and biological sciences. Through disciplines such as cultural anthropology, the social sciences have pushed self-refuting concepts such as cognitive relativism and moral relativism.[15] If these claims were true, science would have no special status, or even no point at all.

In 1996, the “Sokal Affair” exposed the extent to which some areas of academic study had deteriorated. The physicist Alan Sokal succeeded in securing publication of a cunningly worded satirical pseudo-scientific article in a leading postmodern journal.[16] Once he had revealed the hoax and explained how the article played on postmodern sentiment and bias, post-modernism, as a scientific discipline, suffered a serious blow. (This debunking of postmodernism had a more limited impact in Europe’s academic circles, where postmodernism had already gained greater prominence,[17] which may have allowed this thinking to spill back into the US later.) Subsequently, Bricmont and Sokal have explained in great detail why the arguments about science used by leading post-modern theorists “are absurd, or, in many cases, simply meaningless,” and how famous postmodernists have abused scientific concepts and terminology.[18]

Also from the perspective of identity politics, postmodern thought manifested itself in implausible claims about the nature of science. Criticism was launched at science from perspectives such as feminist studies, black studies, and gender studies. Statements like “the scientific method is a way of asserting patriarchy over women,” and “science is racist because it marginalizes people of color (or LGBTQ people),” were not up for rational debate; the aim was emancipation and liberation. Recently, South-African students rejected the entire body of science, arguing that witchcraft is no less valid than Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity.[19]

Another branch of postmodern thought, textuality involved a belief that spoken and written language determines the fate of the world (“as if there were nothing but texts”).[20] An important implication of textualism is that words can both hurt and do good. The proposition that words can hurt, however, comes dangerously close to the idea that knowledge can hurt; it would seem to be a small step from hurtful knowledge to “forbidden knowledge,” i.e. “knowledge considered too sensitive, dangerous, or taboo to produce.”[21]

Academic identity politics clutched onto textualism, and provided an additional manner to vent suspicion against the scientific establishment. Given that language was deemed to define the world, research in areas such as gender or racial differences, and the effects of variations in human genetic make-up on traits such as intelligence and propensity to commit crime, was regarded as suspect, because it could be used to discriminate against minorities. At the same time, new social theories prejudged scientific questions – in gender studies, a well-known scholar held that gender is merely a series of actions that human beings perform, without biological underpinnings.[22] Arguing against these positions implied arguing against emancipation and liberation, and for discrimination. Skepticism and critique, thus, were stigmatized.

Although most of these propositions did not become part of the mainstream, they did have the effect of undermining the authority of science as a privileged social institution, and opened the door for new forms of “science” that could claim equal validity. Indeed, the suggestion that the urgency of a social agenda, which itself is in part prompted by science, determines a need for supporting science became an acceptable vision.[23]

Needless to say, these developments had a profound impact on the social sciences. This has not gone unnoticed. It has been argued that the social sciences today are still governed by “superstition and fear fueled by ignorance.” To escape from these new Dark Ages, social sciences should therefore endorse the rational, rigorous, and empirical scientific method.[24] Specifically, to address persistent issues of bias and methodological deficiencies, the sociologist “should put himself in the same state of mind as the physicist, chemist, or physiologist when he probes into a still unexplored region of the scientific domain.”[25] The question has been raised whether social science has a future as science, if it does not endorse the empirical method.

Spill-Over to the Natural Sciences

Organized skepticism and openness to criticism came under serious pressure due to postmodern thinking that promotes “deconstruction,” “relativism,” and understands science as means of social control. As a result, the guiding principle that truth is to be found not by appeal to authority but by experimental tests and evidence,[26] no longer was a self-evident truth. To the contrary, the “will to power” began to define the scientific enterprise.

As noted, social sciences could openly pursue an activist agenda. Once the seeds for new activist science were sown, it became clear that there was no barrier to prevent its expanse to the biological and natural sciences. The postmodern way of thinking about the world created a risk of infecting all of science: if science is power, why shouldn’t it be used as a powerful tool for the right ends? “Noble cause” or ideological bias became a serious risk.

The postmodern vision of science, of course, met with strong resistance from objectivists in the natural sciences. The objectivist opposition, however, was deemed to be weak where science is uncertain. Where scientists have to admit that their findings are based on assumptions, their assumptions can be questioned, and different assumptions produce different outcomes. Where they admit that findings may well be incorrect, other outcomes become realistic possibilities. In response to the question whether science is able to exclude any possible risk, the rational scientist can reply only negatively. Uncertainty, once acknowledged, undermines the authority of science, and creates an opening for injecting values, or replacing the dominant values of scientists. This realization provided the entry of postmodern power-oriented thought into the natural sciences.

A novel focus on uncertainty prompted the adoption of the precautionary principle, also known as the precautionary approach, or, jointly, the precautionary vision. This vision caused a dramatic shift in science, because it put science in the service of a new social project: protection against possible risks.[27] Where science is uncertain, precaution can serve as protection against risks, the risks of industrialization and of all other social activities and phenomena. Because uncertainty in science is ubiquitous, the potential scope of the project was broad.

It was a welcome feature that uncertainty increases when science moves away from the reductionist approach to embrace a holistic perspective, and when it is employed for the study of complex or chaotic systems, rather than simple or linear systems. Science started investigating ever smaller, more remote, more uncertain, and more “long tail” possible hazards or risks associated with industrialization and technology. These changes in the scientific approach and study object further bolstered the potential for shaping science through the injection of precautionary values.

Another piece of social theory helped to solidify the precautionary vision of science. A German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, developed a political theory about modern society that gave this new conception of science a central place. In Beck’s risk society, precaution is one of building blocks of a new structure of society.[28] In risk society, science, guided by the precautionary principle, is mindful of the side effects of industrialization and pursues a “new ecological morality.”[29] According to Beck, industrial society has resolved the problem of scarcity of resources, but at enormous costs: environmental pollution, serious accidents, adverse health effects, and a decline in well-being.

In risk society, politicians saw themselves increasingly faced with risk issues. Genetically modified organisms, chemicals, electromagnetic waves and greenhouse gas emissions were hot issues. Politicians were careful not to “shoot from the hip: on these highly complex and politically explosive issues. With reference to the precautionary principle, which had been laid down in international treaties and legislation,[30] they passed on these “hot potatoes” to science. The result was that science became involved with matters that are only in part scientific, and also involve a series of subjective choices, values, and social norms.[31] A new “science of the objectively unknowable” was born: a science that addresses often remote, possible hazards or risks in highly complex systems, and in value-laden, ambiguous and epistemically and politically uncertain contexts. This new science, which uses the same formal language, including quantification, as traditional science, leaves ample leeway for subjective and political preferences to shape the outcomes.[32]

In risk society, the business of politics is not only decision-making about the acceptability of risk, but also about the distribution of risk. Risk society, as distinguished from modern industrial society, is a risk management society concerned with the identification and distribution of risks arising from industrialization. To manage actual and perceived risks, which for political purposes are one and the same, society is guided by a new science and a precautionary anti-industrial environmental and safety ethic. As risk society involves self-interested activism in risk management decision-making, it also “naturally” produces politicization of science.[33]

Again, climate science is a case in point. The enormous body of scientific knowledge that has been produced over the last several decades can be interpreted to support both a conclusion that no risk has been demonstrated, and a conclusion that climate change might cause catastrophe. It becomes a matter of personal preference as to whether one or the other finding is emphasized. Viewed from this angle, it is hard to label either of these opinions as unscientific or anti-science. Rather, it is the definition of “science” itself that divides the political antagonists.

Conclusions

While postmodernism played a useful role in exposing the limits and abuse of science, it also caused science to be viewed as an instrument for social control. The idea that science can serve as a powerful political tool came naturally to the activist social scientists. To break into the natural sciences, a crowbar was necessary; it came in the form of the precautionary vision of risk society.

Under the influence of postmodern social science and the precautionary principle, the role of science in society has been redefined. In many areas of public policy-making, politicians know they need science on their side. In some cases, it is in and through battles in science that political battles are played out. If one side to a debate has the science on its side, it is often not difficult for opponents to identify and attack the weaknesses and holes in the overextended, value-laden science. For example, when Trump says that climate doom is a “hoax,” he is able to build a coherent, science-based argument supporting this position.[34]

Postmodernism is part of the explanation, but not the entire explanation for what we are currently witnessing in science.

Notes

[1] Shawn Otto, A Plan to Defend against the War on Science, Scientific American, October 9, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-plan-to-defend-against-the-war-on-science/?WT.mc_id=SA_DD_20161011

[2] Gross, Paul R. and Levitt, Norman, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994.

[3] Silvio Oscar Funtowicz and Andrea Saltelli, Science wars in the age of Donald Trump, Science Nordic, November 17, 2016, http://sciencenordic.com/science-wars-age-donald-trump

[4] Friedrich von Hayek, The Counter Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason, Liberty Fund, 1952.

[5] See for a discussion L. Bergkamp & J.C. Hanekamp, Climate Change Litigation Against States: The Perils of Court-Made Climate Policies’, European Energy and Environmental Law Review, 2015, vol. 24, nr. 5, p. 102-114.

[6] Paul Feyerabend. Against Method. Fourth edition, New York, New York: Verso Books, 2010.

[7] Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 38. For a lengthy discussion, see Lucas Bergkamp, The Intellectual Origins of Precautionary Risk Governance (work in progress).

[8] Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880).

[9] Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach (1845). Marx referred to the “philosophers,” but it is consistent with his thought to substitute this term with “scientists.”

[10] Marx once wrote that “Darwin’s [Origin of Species] is very important and provides me with the basis in natural science for the class struggle in history.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1942), 125.

[11] According to Lenin, “the principle of relativism, the relativity of our knowledge (…) is taking a firm hold upon the physicists, and (…) is bound to lead to idealism.” Vladimir Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy (1909).

[12] “Knowledge itself is power” (ipsa scientia potestas est). Francis Bacon, Meditationes Sacrae (1597).

[13] Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977, p. 27. Much of Foucault’s work focuses on the relationship between power and knowledge, and how knowledge is used to control and exercise power. See also Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, Translated by Graham Burchell (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[14] See, e.g., ASCN, How social sciences can contribute to changing a society (undated).

[15] Emrys Westacott, Moral Relativism, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/moral-re/

[16] Alan Sokal, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, Social Text 46/47, pp. 217–252 (Spring/Summer 1996). (the original “parody” article). See also Alan Sokal, “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies”, Lingua Franca, May/June 1996, pp. 62–64 (the article in which the parody is revealed).

[17] This was the case in particular in France, but even in the UK post-modernism gained a foothold; for instance, Cambridge University decided to award a honorary degree to Derrida, despite the opposition of a group of leading philosophers, who argued that Derrida’s work “does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour,” “is little more than an object of ridicule,” and “stretches the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition.” “Above all – as every reader can very easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do) – his works employ a written style that defies comprehension. (…) When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, where coherent assertions are being made at all, these are either false or trivial. Academic status based on what seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university.” Barry Smith et al., Professor Barry Smith and others, Letter to the Editor, The Times (London). Saturday, May 9, 1992, available at http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/varia/Derrida_Letter.htm.

[18] In a review of the book, Dawkins notes that “intellectual impostors with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life,” would adopt “not a lucid” literary style, “for clarity would expose (…) lack of content.” Richard Dawkins, Postmodernism disrobed, book review of “Intellectual Impostures,” Nature, 1998, pp. 141-143.

[19] Robby Soave, Watch Leftist Students Say Science Is Racist and Should Be Abolished: University of Cape Town movement says witchcraft is no less valid than Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, Reason, Oct. 14, 2016, http://reason.com/blog/2016/10/14/watch-leftist-students-say-science-is-ra

[20] Saul Cornell, Splitting The Difference: Textualism, Contextualism, and Post-Modern History, American Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1: Spring 1995, pp. 57-80.

[21] Joanna Kempner, Jon F. Merz, and Charles L. Bosk, Forbidden Knowledge: Public Controversy and the Production of Nonknowledge, Sociological Forum, Vol. 26, No. 3, September 2011 (arguing that the “social processes that create forbidden knowledge are embedded in the everyday practices of working scientists”).

[22] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge Classics, 1st Edition, 2006.

[23] Nancy Cartwright and Julian Reiss, Social Science Needs to Benefit Society, and Now, January 14, 2015, available at http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2015/01/social-science-needs-to-benefit-society-and-now/   Michael A. Toman, CONNECTING SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AGENDAS TO SOCIAL NEEDS: SOME REFLECTIONS, Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, 1998, pp. 4-8.

[24]Lee McIntyre. Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior. London: The MIT Press, 2006.

[25] Emile Durkheim. Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings. Cambridge University Press, 1972, p. 60.

[26] Robert M. May, Science as organized skepticism, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 369, 2011, pp. 4685-4689.

[27] Cf. Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear Revisited: The Morality of Low Expectations. London: Cassell, 2006.

[28] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Translated by Mark Ritter (Risikogesellschaft: Auf dem weg eine andere Modern. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986), London: Sage, 1992.

[29] Beck posits a generic change in the default rule: “risk is assumed, safety must be proven.”

[30] Lucas Bergkamp, Understanding the Precautionary Principle, Parts I and II, Environmental Liability, 2002, pp. 18-30 and pp. 67-82.

[31] Exaggerated claims about the ‘power of science’ have begun to threaten its legitimacy; it has even been suggested that science can determine human values and all of morality can be founded on a scientific basis. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Free Press, 2011.

[32] Lucas Bergkamp, The Concept of Risk Society as a Model for Risk Regulation – Its Hidden and Not So Hidden Ambitions, Side Effects, and Risks, Journal of Risk Research 2016, pp. 1-17.

[33] Lucas Bergkamp, The Concept of Risk Society as a Model for Risk Regulation – Its Hidden and Not So Hidden Ambitions, Side Effects, and Risks, Journal of Risk Research 2016, pp. 1-17.

[34] Cf. Judith Curry, Trumping the Climate, Nov. 13, 2016, https://judithcurry.com/2016/11/13/trumping-the-climate/

Lucas Bergkamp

Lucas Bergkamp, PhD, is a partner at Hunton & Williams, Brussels, and is emeritus Professor of Environmental Liability Law at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
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Lucas Bergkamp

Lucas Bergkamp, PhD, is a partner at Hunton & Williams, Brussels, and is emeritus Professor of Environmental Liability Law at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

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