Academe Today: This Week's Chronicle

The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 28, 1996.

Section: Scholarship, Page: A8



Scholars Who Study the Lab Say Their Work Has Been Distorted

By Liz McMillen

By tricking the journal Social Text into publishing a nonsensical essay applying postmodern thought to quantum physics, Alan Sokal showed that the cultural study of science was intellectually suspect and ignorant of the science it purports to study.

Or did he?

Many who work under the broad rubric of "science studies" maintain that Mr. Sokal got it wrong: He misunderstood and unjustifiably caricatured a diverse and intellectually rigorous field with a generation of work behind it. His hoax, they say, has polarized scholars into two camps in a way that has little to do with reality: scientists in favor of truth and rationality, and humanists who are anti-science.

Viewing Mr. Sokal's parody as a valid critique of science studies, says Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor of medical science at Brown University, "is like judging all of physics by cold fusion."

"What upsets me the most is the sheer degree of misinformation," says Emily Martin, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, who is on leave this year with the Humanities Research Institute at the University of California at Irvine. "None of us recognize ourselves in these diatribes. What did we ever write that gave Alan Sokal the impression that you could jump out of the 21st story and not have anything happen?" (Mr. Sokal had gleefully invited anyone who believed that the laws of physics were mere social conventions to jump out of his apartment window on the 21st floor.)

Sharon Traweek, an associate professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, says the affair has prompted a sort of loyalty test. "I've been asked things like, 'Do you believe in gravity?' 'Do you believe in Maxwell's equations?' It's almost as if we're back to the Inquisition." "Mr. Sokal's hoax has thrown a discomfiting spotlight on the field of science studies, raising questions about the need for scientific expertise in such work and about the nature of scholarly language. Mr. Sokal, a physicist at New York University, says much of cultural theory is a dangerous attack on rationality, an argument that has won him many sympathizers. Scientists and others who are disenchanted with the theoretical drift of the humanities have taken up his parody with gusto.

Because it struck a nerve, his effort is likely to prompt a wave of publishing and conference activity. Social Text plans to publish three pieces on the topic in its next issue, and editors are deciding whether to devote another issue to science studies. Lingua Franca, which ran a piece by Mr. Sokal about the prank, will run replies in a forthcoming issue. Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist who has written several books on scientific knowledge, plans a conference this fall at the City University of New York on the "science wars."

At Irvine's humanities institute, a group met this month to talk about putting together an anthology of writings in response. "The last thing we want to do is fan the flames of this wildly overblown exercise in testosterone," says Ms. Martin. "But we do want to make it known that there is work going on that doesn't fit Sokal's description."

Mr. Sokal is not the first to criticize science studies, but he has complicated and, in some cases, deepened the mistrust between scientists and scholars in the humanities. A few years ago, Bruno Latour, a prominent figure in the sociology of science, seemed to be on the verge of a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study, a position that must be approved by all of the faculty members. But after scientists and mathematicians there learned more about his work -- he has studied laboratories by approaching scientists as if they were a primitive tribe -- they became outraged. He withdrew before a vote could be taken.

Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, made many of the same points Mr. Sokal did, in a polemic that is intensely disliked by some scholars. "To put it bluntly, the academic left dislikes science," the two authors wrote, proceeding to skewer the work of Mr. Latour, Katherine Hayles, Sandra Harding, and Steven Shapin for their alleged attacks on objectivity and rationality.

Mr. Gross and Mr. Levitt also helped organize a conference last year, sponsored by the New Yrk Academy of Science, that aired scientists' complaints. It was called "The Flight From Science and Reason."

Many scholars believe that recent conflicts such as these have grown out of a turf war, one with money and authority at stake. Lately, scientists have taken some hits: the death of the Superconducting Supercollider, criticism of other "big science" projects, and a decline in the job market rivaling that of the humanities. "A big defunding process is going on in the sciences, and, with a few exceptions, they have lost cachet," says Mr. Aronowitz. "On top of that, upstarts began to comment on science. That's a transgression that is seen as hurting the community."

Mr. Sokal's hoax "also gives aid and comfort to those who think cultural studies is a form of barbarism," Mr. Aronowitz says. "I think this is a marriage of convenience, with people uniting on the epistemological questions."

As for Mr. Sokal's complaint about the humanities, there is also the local context at New York University to consider, where both Mr. Sokal and Andrew Ross, the editor of Social Text's "Science Wars" issue, teach. They are part of two very different worlds, however.

Mr. Ross, who directs a new, high-profile program in American studies, has been covered by glossy magazines. Mr. Sokal is a member of a department that, is by contrast, less visible. It is ranked 53rd among 147 doctoral programs in physics, according to the National Research Council.

Mr. Sokal insists that his article was not aimed specifically at Mr. Ross. And he concedes that not all of science studies is "nonsense."

For example, he says he "rather liked" Ms. Traweek's book, Beamtimes and Lifetimes (Harvard University Press, 1988). But the studies cited in his parody -- by scholars such as Mr. Latour, Mr. Aronowitz, Ms. Haraway, and Ms. Harding -- are severely flawed, he says, by "bad philosophy, sloppy thinking, utter misunderstanding of the science they're purporting to study, or all of the above."

While there are some radical threads in science studies, many scholars feel that critics such as Mr. Gross, Mr. Levitt, and now Mr. Sokal have misinterpreted most of the work in the field.

A starting point for science studies is the premise that scientific ideas are socially and culturally shaped -- that is, they are developed by particular people in particular places in particular times. Rather than viewing science as a pure kind of knowledge, they view science as a human activity affected by values and preferences.

One often-cited example of how science can be affected by cultural notions -- in this case, ideas about male and female behavior -- is the model of human conception. For years, scientists believed that the sperm actively sought out the female egg, which was thought to play a passive role. But in recent years, scientists have said the egg actually sends out signals to guide the sperm.

Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was an important challenge to the idea of a neutral science. Mr. Kuhn, who died last week, examined how scientific knowledge is produced through changes in world views, or "paradigm shifts." Work done in the 1970s at the University of Edinburgh on the sociology of knowledge also was an early influence.

Besides sociology, scholars who work in this field come out of anthropology, history of science, philosophy, feminist studies, and, more recently, cultural studies. They are interested not only in the impact of science and technology on society, but also in how the scientific enterprise is conducted: how facts are arrived at, the relationships between funding agencies and scientific communities, the "culture" of a laboratory.

Anthropology has been a particularly rich source of work, spawning ethnographies and laboratory studies. U.C.L.A.'s Ms. Traweek has applied the participant-observer approach to high- energy physics, comparing the development of the field in the United States with that in Japan.

In Making PCR (University of Chicago Press, 1995), Paul Rabinow, of the University of California at Berkeley, analyzed the development of the polymerase-chain reaction in the 1980s and how it emerged from the Cetus Corporation, a setting distinct from university research in its values and operation.

"No matter what opinions they hold, scholars in science studies agree that questions about what counts as knowledge need to be examined in terms of practice, institutions, people, funding, and language," says Donna Haraway, a professor in the history-of-consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of several books, including Primate Visions and the forthcoming Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan.(c)Meets_OncoMouse(tm ) (both Routledge).

Much of what many scholars in the humanities take for granted, such as the analysis of discourse, causes alarm among scientists. To many people, science studies seems to fall in the category of postmodernism, where, as George Levine noted in Social Text, "a lot of kooky, anti-intellectual, politically correct, and subversive types have been thought to hang out."

In interviews, Mr. Sokal has declared that some scholars do not believe in the laws of nature. But important differences exist between saying that scientific knowledge is socially constructed and saying that there are no scientific facts, Ms. Haraway and others point out.

"What Sokal doesn't know is that there is a whole literature on metaphors and how nature took on legal language and property metaphors," she says. "No one doesn't believe in laws of nature."

"Many people think that those of us who say that language mediates our experience of the world are denying the existence of the world," says Mr. Aronowitz.

For the record, he adds, "I do believe the world exists. But you can't separate what the world means from the language used to describe it. To use a simple phrase, reality does not yield its secrets. It has to be interpreted."

Others have raised questions about how much expertise is necessary for science studies. Mr. Gross, a professor of life sciences at the University of Virginia, and Mr. Levitt, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, maintain that to think critically about science requires years of labor. Mr. Sokal says the fact that he can pass off nonsense as the real thing shows just how little the editors of Social Text really understand science.

Yet scholars in the field point out that some know the science involved very well; some are also trained in the discipline they are studying. "If you don't learn the science or enough science, then I don't think you're a serious scholar," says Berkeley's Mr. Rabinow. In working on Making PCR, he learned enough molecular biology to follow lab meetings and read journal articles.

He regularly shows his writings to the subjects of his studies. "That doesn't mean they can censor it, but it's a productive and ethical stance," he says. "I almost always learn something."

"You have to have a careful understanding of scientific methodology," agrees Dorothy Nelkin, a professor at N.Y.U. who teaches in the sociology department and the law school. "I could not go into a lab and do a scientific experiment, but I can listen to scientists. One has to be not scared of science."

Until recently, scientists have ignored much of the work in science studies, she says. "The interesting question is, Why has a small number of humanists with no real influence provoked a response? There is no corporate backup, like there is in science. It's not about postmodern obfuscation; that's not a reason to mobilize. My feeling is that scientists used to have great autonomy and no accountability. That contract has broken down."



Copyright (c) 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.


Title: Scholars Who Study the Lab Say Their Work Has Been Distorted

Published: 96/06/28

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