In the 1990s there broke out something we now call the “Science Wars.” Basically it pitted the bleeding edge of “Post-Modernism” against traditional scientific scholars, who were generally adherents of a naive sort of positivism. By the latter, I’m not saying that these were necessarily people steeped in Carnap, Popper or Lakatos. Very few scientists know anything about philosophy of science except for a few nods to Karl Popper, and more dimly, Francis Bacon. By “naive positivism” I’m just alluding to the reality most scientists think there’s a world out there, and the scientific method is the best way to get at that world in terms of regularities.
Probably the best reflection of this period and the arguments that were happening can be seen in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Both the authors came at the topic from the political Left, like most scientists, and part of their project was due to worry that Post-Modernism might actually undermine the project of the Left.
By the 2000s these arguments seemed stale and tired. The arguments were over, and a sort of return to rationality seems to have fallen over the landscape. In the middle of the 2000s, one of the authors of Higher Superstition coauthored Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. The academic Left’s critique of science was giving way to Creationism 2.0, Intelligent Design (as I have noted before, Intelligent Design did draw from the toolkit of Critical Theory).
But life is a circle. In 2019 skepticism of evolution is really not an issue, in large part due to the demographic marginalization of the Religious Right. Now the “academic Left” is on the march again. Though somewhat differently, and arguably more potently. The Left is self-consciously “science-based” and “reality-based.” Instead of the grand assertion that science is just another superstition, the bleeding edge of the academic Left now argues that science needs to be perfected and purged of oppression, white supremacy, etc. Who after all would favor oppression and white supremacy?
The problem is that to eat away at the oppressive structures the acid of critique has to be thrown at the pretention of objectivity of scientists and science as it is today, and as it has come to be, over the past few hundred years.
Of course, the idea that science is objective is somewhat a pretense. As a human enterprise, it has an element of bias and subjectivity because of the nature of the practitioners of science. But pretense is the tribute that bias pays to objectivity.
Consider the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan. The biography is well known, so I won’t rehash it. Ramanujan came from nearly nothing and became a glittering intellectual. It is notable that his period of activity was in the 1910s, arguably during the great plateau of white racial supremacist ideologies that flourished in the late 19th-century into the first decades of the 20th-century. Ramanujan was from a modest background at best (though from a Brahmin family, so he did have more resources than most Indians, though he was not of the upper-middle or upper class). He had no polish and pedigree. And he did experience some racism as a dark-skinned Indian in Britain, and one who was devoutly Hindu at that.
But math is math. G. H. Hardy reached out to Ramanujan because of the common language they shared, the truth of inferences from propositions. Though Hardy met with resistance, his entreaties to his colleagues to recognize Ramanujan’s brilliance were eventually accepted. The math spoke far louder than the man.
Despite the accusation that science was a tool for power, that it entrenched power, arguably science historically has been particularly open to outsiders. European Jews were very well represented, despite pervasive anti-Semitism in the broader culture. Poor and marginal individuals, such as Ramanujan or Michael Faraday, earned themselves a a place in the profession. Yes, it was harder for them, but at the end of the day, brilliance gave them a chance.
What protected Ramanujan from the full force of prejudice and the caprice of power was objectivity. The idea of objectivity. Ramanujan was marginal. He was weak. And objectivity did not care. Objectivity does not care for power, it cares for truth.
Subjectivity is different. Subjectivity is a tool for power. Over the long-term, the arc of the subjective bends to the preponderance of feeling. In a world dictated and shaped by subjectivity, grasp power. Use it. Truth is irrelevant when you create your own truth. Truth is just a word, a label, nothing real.
Science, as we understand it today, is the outcome of intellectual currents that came together in early modern Europe. Today it is a profession, a culture. Most scientists find the skeptics of science’s objectivity silly. Bizarre even. But I see few standing up to speak for science in the way that Norman Leavitt and Paul Gross did in the 1990s. The reason is simple: anyone of similar stature that spoke for science’s special objectivity would be accused of racism, sexism, classism, etc. And such accusations, especially against white males, stick. Who wants to go through that? Better to keep conducting research and let the cultural currents exhaust themselves.
When science becomes just politics, it won’t be science as we know it. The institutions and cultures that are made can be unmade. Most societies have not had a major scientific scholarly contingent (science happens, but not a full-blown culture). There is nothing eternal or inevitable about science.
This post is not an appeal. Or a warning. History marches on. I believe the time of wolves is at hand. Science will become magic. Prepare yourself. Who has the power? Shelter with them.