Science Wars:

toward a Critique of Scientific Rationality.

Andrew Ross


I find these days that what terrorizes my graduate students is not the prospect of taking on thinkers like Hegel, Husserl or Heiddegger, which is what used to terrify me when I was a graduate student. But, rather, what terrifies them most, and engages them at the same time, is the job of meeting the challenge of scientific rationality and all of its imposing institutional fortifications. This is a task which I think they feel more responsive to than have previous generations of cultural critics. Why do they feel more responsible for meeting the critical challenges of science? Well, cynical commentators might say that it is all part of the colonising will of cultural studies to penetrate every last sanctum of the field of knowledge. It is the sort of tired complaint that we hear much of these days from self-proclaimed outsiders, which is no more productive, in my view, than attempts to police cultural studies from within, which I see as quite futile.

The conservative response, which is both more familiar and proving more effective, speaks of a contagion of nihilism and irrationalism that is even now spreading from the humanities and the social sciences to the natural sciences and its core beliefs. My own impression is that these students are not acquiescent agents of disciplinary colonialism, or of intellectual contagion. To my mind, they are responding in a more active fashion to conditions largely created in the last two decades, in which technoscience has played a conclusive and unavoidable role in reshaping the economic and cultural composition of most people's productive lives, especially those involving intellectual and knowledge workers.

Even 25 years ago it was naive, but still tenable, to ignore the crucial contribution of universities to the emergent forms of post industrialism. Which, in retrospect, was a socio-economic revolution, driven by the commercial potential of scientific research and development, managed by a technocratic cadre mass produced by higher education, maintained by third world labour pools and resources and facilitated by global economic restructuring. After all, the student movements of the 1960s were in part prompted by a generational aversion to the prospect of being apprenticed en mass to occupy semi-professional niches in the new technostructure of the corporate state, and even what, at that time, was the burgeoning trans-national meta-state.

That was 25 years ago. Today, you would need to have your head buried very deep in the sand to ignore the occupying presence of technoscience in all of the institutional spaces that house our intellectual work. I am not just referring to the computerisation of the workplace, and of the professional culture of academic work in general: the demand for productivity at reduced wages, the erosion of benefits and job stability, the geographical dislocation of economic life, the maintenance of a post-industrial reserve army of labour, widespread technological disemployment and downsizing, the privatization of public work environments and the routinization of sacrifice at the budgetary alter, all of these are conditions which are characteristic of the post industrial economy as a whole -- and I hardly need to remind people here [Goldsmiths' College, London], that they have taken a sizeable toll on the workplaces of higher education. The crisis is no less in the US as it is here. The difference is that there has been a de facto erosion of tenure in the academic job economy in the US. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher abolished tenure de jure with a wave of her parliamentary wand. In the US, what has been happening is a de facto erosion of tenure, since up to 50% of the jobs in the academy now are non-teunurable, part-time, temporary, don't carry benefits and generally a low-wage limbo.

While the ever eccentric rituals and traditions of academic life are still serving to distribute, unevenly, the full impact of technological change across our campuses, even the most cloistered humanist would not have to walk very far from her or his office to confirm the thesis that universities resemble commercial laboratories these days more than they resemble ivory towers. This state of affairs is a consequence of the contractual agreements forged during the Reagan/Thatcher years that bound the academy to the industrial marketplace, redefined universities as public institutions doing private business -- for instance, patenting genetic material today as ruthlessly as any pharmaceutical giant, or else handing the patents over to the commercial sponsor as contractually required. Industrial sponsorship of the academic scientific community is now the basis for corporate competitiveness in which access to basic science is the driving force. Access to basic science is what Marxists used to call the commanding heights of the economy.

Now there are still more than a few within the scientific community who still believe in the old distinction between science and technology. The idea that science is a disinterested pursuit of public knowledge which is made internationally available at no cost, and that technology alone is the name given to the commercial application of that scientific knowledge. They are either a) naive, b) dishonest, or c) making a lot of money on the side, as it seems to me that there is virtually no distinction between science and technology these days. Today it is the golden rule of patent protection that decides when public sharing of scientific knowledge ends, and when product development and monopoly control over profits takes over -- very quickly in most cases. The Human Genome Project has been the exemplary model instance of this rule, aimed almost inevitably at the private ownership of life-processes, even as it proceeds under the benign rubric of public enlightenment. The section on trade related intellectual property rights in the GATT agreement has most recently guaranteed a future of bio-piracy for the gene hunters of the North unmatched since the days of botanical imperialism.

But, to cut a long story short, we live and work in environments that demand a critique of science as a matter of course. As part of some commonplace response to daily life, scepticism about technoscience is an exercise of minimal citizenship. It forms the basis for massive public anxiety about the safety of everything, from the processed food we consume, to the biologically engineered future in preparation. Knowledge about the risks surrounding us is unevenly shared of course, but I would argue that it is still a part of everybody's daily experience of modernity. Raymond Williams used to say that culture is ordinary, nothing very special, something that people did every day. I think we can say the same thing about a critique of science. It is ordinary, it is exercised a hundred little ways on a daily basis. Is that technophobia? Well I suppose it is, but simply because it is an ordinary activity exercised almost without prolonged reflection does not make it a mindless reaction, because invariably it involves a complex sequence of risk-perception and risk assessment on people's parts.

If the critique of technoscience has come to be normalised, almost like the air we breath, in reaction in many ways to the air that we breath, if it is ordinary, the same cannot be said of science itself. Science is not ordinary. It is a highly rarefied, exclusive activity practiced by experts. In addition, the question of who is qualified to critique science leads to no ordinary conclusion. At the very least it requires some recognition of the priestly order that obtains within the scientific community, wielding a power that is further concentrated and sanctified as technical knowledge attains more and more importance in society. It also requires some recognition of the lay status which is automatically accorded all non professionals not directly involved in the networks of prestige that determine scientific decision making. And this is a status as readily accepted by most of us, as it is exploited by those who seek to use science for their political purposes.

Let me just give you one succinct example of the latter. The end of the season of the Bell Curve appears to be in sight. And I hesitate to add yet again to the antediluvian commentary that it has already called into being, at least in the US. I will just confine myself to citing one comment from a review by Stephen J Gould in the New Yorker where he noted that reviewer after reviewer of the Bell Curve in the public media confessed that she or he was not a scientist or an expert in any of the empirical fields represented in Marrion Herstein's book and that they therefore did not feel qualified to judge fully the words of the books arguments. Gould concludes from this that the Bell Curve succeeds, if it succeeds, as a rhetorical masterpiece of scientism, largely because it benefits from the particular kind of fear that numbers impose upon non-professional commentators. Gould then proceeds to tear apart the numbers in his own incisive way. I think he's going a little far to bestow the status of masterpiece even of scientism on such a book, but Gould's observation leads us to see how a smelly piece of racist welfare bashing can succeed in cowing ordinarily feisty opinion makers into silence simply by wheeling in some heavily statistical artillery and festooning its pages with reference to science that has been fully discredited for decades.

Of course, the Bell Curve was not written to generate debate among experts, it was designed to feed intravenously into public policy. Few people are therefore likely to take a stand over its scientific validity, although some have. But this has not prevented its numerous critics being tarred with the science bashing brush that is broadly applied these days to all who question the social exemptions claimed by scientific community, structured in large part to protect its own privileged access to resources. In the post-war period, as part of a compact struck between science and the state, these privileges consisted in securing public funding while preserving political autonomy. Science in other words would be conscientiously self-regulating in return for state support, most of it funnelled through military budgets. No one would ask too many questions about whether military science was coterminous with the public good.

After the interregnum of the 60s and 70s, when groups like Science for the People called for greater democratic involvement in the business of science and when research in alternative technologies burgeoned, the Reagan/Bush years in the US at least reinstated the Department of Defense cash flow and forced basic science on to the international marketplace in the name of competitiveness in war and in trade. So critics who are willing to follow the money can hardly go wrong with this history that I have very briefly mapped out. After all they are dealing with the fundamental role of science in the permanent war economy that has dictated power relations in the postwar period, and even now seems to be prolonging its grip with the potential emergence of a Military Industrial Environmental complex. Alternately, there is a school of criticism which is focussed upon the social environment in which science is pursued. There is substantial tradition to draw upon, dating back, at least in its modern phase, to the Science and Society movement of the 1930s. More recently the Edinburgh school of the 1970. The moral force of both of these schools can more or less be summarized thus: a call for science to be more democratically organized, more ethically responsible, less beholden to power and money and dedicated to sharing knowledge about sicuence, to bring about a critique of the social and cultural prejudices inscribed in the very epistemology of scientific inquiry with its alleged universality of method and rationality. The outcome of these critiques has been a less absolutist view of materialism in which science, at least science as it has been shaped historically in the West, is seen as a form of Reason, but not the only form of reason. Not surprisingly it is those views that have attracted the most controversy, and the most bitter counter-attacks from defenders of the faith. They are basically at the root of the science wars which have more or less erupted in the last year or so, after 30 years of the scientific community more or less ignoring social critical science study.

The right-wing academic organisation in the US called the National Association of Scholars, which more or less coordinated the culture wars in the media, recently convened their second annual conference which was called "Objectivity and Truth in the Natural Sciences, the Social Sciences and the Humanities." It was convened in order to combat what it sees as the growing denigration of science, and I quote from the flyer of this conference, which has become an infamous document in its own right, "hitherto confined to quarters outside of the academy this denigration increasingly now comes from within. It has to be stopped because it undermines public confidence it alters directions of research, it effects funding and it subverts the standards of reason and truth."

There is another large conference at the New York Academy of Science, which is planned for May (1995) by the same people, specifically designed to divide the left on this issue. Stories in the press about the science wars are gradually working their way up the media food chain, they are currently at the level of glossy weeklies, and they are moving up toward the Dailies. So, fans of the Culture Wars welcome to the sequel, the Science Wars, coming soon to an editorial page near you featuring wacky stunts and skits by tenured radicals even more ridiculous than the original PC crew. Thrill to the manifestos for a feminist algebra, a queer quantum physics, an afro-centric molecular biology. Don't be fooled that these people haven't been inside a laboratory in their whole lives, they are battering rams, no less, behind which the barbarian flood of counter enlightenment irrationalism and pseudo-science lies higing in wait to claim the Citadel. I am paraphrasing, of course, but this is not untypical of the tone.

The warning alarm for this new round of backlashing was sounded in a book last year called Higher Superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science, written by a biologist and a mathematician, Paul Gross[?] and Norman Levitt since been nicknamed "love it or leave it", it was a leaden footed, pig-headed attack in the right wing cultural warrior tradition. A whole string of folks like: Bennett, Bloom, Kramer, Kimble, deSouza, Bernstein, and Harold Bloom. All of the usual suspect PC ideas are in the book, I won't bore you with them, but just to conclude let me draw attention briefly to one of the weapons deployed in the Science Wars, which is the charge of technical ignorance, which has become a big issue. In other words, if you have not solved a first order linear differential equation, then you have no business recording your opinion on any of the pressing business that Science does in society. Now, given the arcane authority of credentialism in the kind of technocracy that we live in, this kind of argument will suffice to silence many. On the contrary, I would say that we have to see it as the kind of argument that actually exposes the way in which technical elites protect their privileges. The use of educational expertise as a criterion to intimidate, to exclude and to disenfranchise is a primary exercise of power in the knowledge society which we increasingly inhabit. Of course, you will never know enough to make your voice heard in the world of legitimate science. To do that you have to be head of a lab with a fistful of funding and with a good deal of clout in high places. But how much do we really need to know about nuclear fission to know that nuclear reactors are an insane idea? And, on the other hand, we live in times when corporations have their eyes fixed on the patent prize, consequently there's a lot more at stake in these science wars than simply the self-interested status of scientists. Given the potential rewards, critique from the non-professional public or from non-credentialed professionals is a very costly risk. And so what we see is that the principle of the disinterested autonomy of scientific inquiry, which in the past has been cited as a protection against state interference in the business of science, is now being used as a serviceable hedge against criticism. More often than not it is now a smoke screen at a time when scientific knowledge is systematically whisked out of the orbit of education and instantly converted into private capital. So, the question who is qualified to critique science, which is something that increasingly we have to answer, or address, or confront, already carries set answers in a culture of expertise. Our job it seems to me is to turn the question around, rather than ask who is qualified to critique science? We need to say, how can technoscience qualify us to make best use of its critical knowledge of nature?

It seems to me that this is the kind of question we need to consider if we want to respond in some honest and informed way to a concept like green militarism, where environmental science and military science are made to see eye to eye under conditions not of their own making. It might be a messy situation but, in other words, its the sort of situation that cultural studies has made it its business to intervene in.

Andrew Ross is Director of the Graduate Programme in American Studies at New York University. His books include No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits, and The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature's Debt to Society.