"Pomo Science"

by Phillip E. Johnson

Review of "Science Wars": a special issue of Social Text (Vol. 14, Nos. 1-2, 1996); and John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (Helix Books/Addison-Wesley, 308 pages, $24). This review contrasts the rationalist and relativist approaches to science -- and to Biblical studies.

[Published in Books and Culture Nov/Dec 1996]

A New York University physicist named Alan Sokal played a cruel practical joke this year on the editors of the postmodernist journalSocial Text. "Pomos," as the postmodernists are not-so-affectionately called by other academics, are noted for leftism in politics, relativism in epistemology, and murkiness in expression. Pomo writing is radically skeptical about the objectivity of knowledge, including scientific knowledge. This has led mainstream scientists to denounce the Pomos as enemies of science, far more dangerous than the despised creationists because they hold influential positions in universities.

Alan Sokal is himself a leftist, proud of his stint teaching under the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but he is a rationalist -- much like the sociologist Todd Gitlin (whose book I reviewed in the last issue of this journal). To demonstrate that the Pomos are pretentious phonies who give the Left a bad name among sensible people, Sokal stitched together an incoherent article which combined quotations from Pomo authors (including some of the editors of Social Text) with nonsensical scientific analogies. Then he ponderously titled it "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," signed his name and title, and sent the monstrosity off. The editors, pleased to be taken seriously by a real scientist, published the article in a special issue titled "The Science Wars," which had been meant to rebut their rationalist critics. Sokal then turned the Pomo counterattack into a debacle by gleefully revealing his hoax to the press in the May/June 1996 issue of the journal Lingua Franca.

The fun begins with Sokal's preposterous title and continues throughout his brilliant parody, but in the endnotes, he really lets rip. You can almost hear him cackling as he crafted these notes, with their superb mimicry of Pomo pieties, their interweaving of genuine references and fabricated sources, and their inside jokes (many of which will doubtless be accessible only to a handful of readers), all conducing to a delicious absurdity. (The very first item in the reference list is the infamous piece by Hunter Haveline Adams III from the African- American Baseline Essays, which Sokal cites with a straight face.) Here is a sample of Sokal's endnote style:
54. Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimum agenda of legal and social equality for women and "pro-choice," so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work with the hegemonic Zernelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented by the axiom of choice. But this framework is grossly insufficient for a liberatory mathematics, as was proven long ago by Cohen, 1966.

Not since Nabokov's Pale Fire have the notes to a text so richly rewarded close attention. (The full text of Sokal's parody is available on his Web page at http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/physics/faculty/sokal/index.html.)

Commentators from the left and right of the spectrum jumped at the opportunity to ridicule the embarrassed Pomos. The editors made themselves look still worse by their response, saying among other foolish things that the article's "status as a parody does not alter substantially our interest in the piece itself as a symptomatic document." That confirmed Sokal's point that a parody of Pomo science-talk is hard to distinguish from the real thing. The notoriously nihilistic Stanley Fish -- who is executive director of the Duke University Press, which publishes Social Text -- added to the fun by piously warning that Sokal's resort to deception would damage the relationship of trust that presently prevails in academic affairs.

Sokal's prank gave a black eye to an interdisciplinary movement called "Science Studies." Science Studies is something like anthropology, focusing on the cultural and political aspects of the scientific profession. It includes everything from mainstream social scientists to literary theorists looking for texts to deconstruct. Some resentful scientists dismiss the whole field as a pack of English majors who couldn't pass freshman calculus, but who presume to treat the scientific community as if it were a primitive tribe with a colorful mythology. Evelyn Fox Keller, one of the more respectable feminist theorists in Science Studies, complains that her scientific colleagues "readily confuse the analysis of social influence on science with radical subjectivism, mistaking challenges to the autonomy of science with the 'dogma' that there exists no external world."

More discriminating scientists concede that the culture of the scientific community is a legitimate subject of study, and that scientific priorities are sometimes skewed by social factors like money and politics. But they also insist that science continually tests its theories against external reality by experiment, so that, unlike literary studies or philosophy, science produces a continually growing body of reliable, transcultural knowledge. As the physicist Steven Weinberg expressed it (in a fine essay on the Sokal hoax in the New York Review of Books [Aug. 8, 1996, pp. 11-15]), "if we ever discover intelligent creatures on some distant planet and translate their scientific works, we will find that we and they have discovered the same laws." Scientists may have their prejudices, but these are relatively unimportant if they do not prevent science from progressing steadily towards a truth that is the same for everybody.

Biblical studies provides an analogy. The writers of the four gospels have differing viewpoints and interests, and this is an interesting subject for scholars. But for believers such matters are insignificant compared with the fact to which the gospels all testify, the Resurrection of Jesus. If the Resurrection is a fact, then what that fact implies is far more important than the cultural setting of the reporters. When a naturalistic age reinterprets the Resurrection as a myth, however, the mythmakers and their audiences become the main story. For the critics Jesus himself -- the so-called historical Jesus -- then becomes something like King Lear. A man by that name may have existed, and perhaps he even had trouble with his daughters, but the Lear we know is the creation of Shakespeare and his culture.

John Horgan's fascinating collection of interviews with leading scientists provides a very different model of how literary intellectuals might write about scientists. Horgan was an English major who abandoned literary criticism as pointless because it generates nothing but an endless variety of conflicting interpretations. He gravitated towards science as an activity that addresses questions which actually can be answered, and became a highly regarded writer for Scientific American. Far from challenging the objectivity of science, Horgan thinks its very success in discovering universal truth jeopardizes its future. The time is coming, he says, when the big questions that can be answered will have been answered. What will remain is details -- filling in the pieces -- and speculative theories invoking mathematical entities like superstrings whose physical existence may never be empirically testable.

It is best not to take too literally this "end of science" thesis, which Horgan used as a conversation opener to give his interviews a common focus. Horgan understands that science still has major puzzles to solve, including the origin of life, the nature of consciousness and the composition of cold dark matter. His claim is primarily that those puzzles will be solved within the boundaries of present theories, without the need for revolutionary new discoveries. In curiously religious language, Horgan explains that
My guess is that this narrative [the standard scientific materialist understanding of cosmic and biological evolution] that scientists have woven from their knowledge, this modern myth of creation, will be as viable 100 or even 1000 years from now as it is today. Why? Because it is true. Moreover, given how far science has already come, and given the physical, social, and cognitive limits constraining further research, science is unlikely to make any significant additions to the knowledge it has already generated. There will be no great revelations in the future comparable to those bestowed upon us by Darwin or Einstein or Watson and Crick.

Again, Christian theology provides a rough analogy. With the Incarnation, God has spoken definitively. The Holy Spirit still has a lot to do, but Christians expect no comparable future revelation and we certainly do not expect revealed truth to be replaced by something substantially different. Both science and theology thus agree that there is a fundamental reality behind the changing patterns of language and culture, and that true knowledge of that reality endures even though various interpretations are culture-bound. Horgan's prime example of a permanent truth is the Darwinian theory of evolution; I predict that Jesus Christ will be a living reality long after Darwinism has been relegated to the history curriculum.

There is a lot of middle ground between the "end of science" thesis and the "science is just another tribal belief system" thesis. Of course science can transcend cultural differences to generate objective knowledge on some subjects. Rationalists like to point out that not even Pomos want to fly in an airplane designed by a committee picked for its multicultural diversity. Such examples can be misleading if applied too broadly, however. Science is determined to explain all aspects of reality, and that ambition sometimes tempts scientists to theorize extravagantly from part of the evidence, while ignoring or explaining away the facts that don't fit the theory. When scientists do that, they really are culture-bound producers of texts. Our children can look forward to finding out whether the major components of the modern myth of creation are as permanent as Horgan thinks, or whether the twenty-first century will experience not the end of science, but the transformation of science.