I cannot too-strongly recommend that you all read... and carefully re-read... an op-ed piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times a while back. Can Washington get smart about science? by Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal, cogently speaks up for the scientific/modernist “reality-based community” against a recent wave of know-nothing depredations by barbarians of both the far left and the far right.
Calling for re-establishment to neutral advisor agencies like the Office of Technology Assessment (also near the top of my own list of suggestions to the new Congress), Mooney and Sokal issue a challenge for both extremes to stop trying to bully society and objective reality to suit their own subjective notions about the world.
While Mooney is well known for his recent book THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE, Sokal would seem to offer (at first sight ) the perfect balance, since he is best known for having skewered blatant hypocrisy and inanity of the postmodernist/deconstructionalist movement, with his famous satirical essay that used deliberate gobbledygook-jargon to “prove” that physical so-called “laws” are nothing more than linguistic constructs created by western white males in order to perpetuate hegemony and oppression.
Sokal’s later revelation that his highly-touted article was a hoax and a trap set off what became known as the “science wars,” during which he became known as almost an archetype of calm reason, a rock against which the postmodernists dashed themselves furiously, before lapsing, spent and forever (one can hope) weakened.
Having taken on shibboleths (and their neo-mystical wielders) of the left, one might have expected Sokal remain focused in that direction. But “directionality” is, in itself, a trait of the romantic mind set and not of moderate, reasonable people, who can recognize similar nasty habits, wherever they arise. Indeed, Both Mooney and Sokal know - as would any reasonable person by now - that the silly postmodernists of the campus left are not one-thousandth as threatening to Western Civilization as their cousins, the neocon subjectivists who have been attacking western civilization from the barbarian right.
In this piece, it is easy to note the clear prose of Sokal, who has a rare gift - well-tested - of being able to disarm shrill adversaries with a single, rhetorical flick of the wrist. Take the following short paragraph:
“In truth, there was nothing wrong with inventing science studies; the error was to leap from the valid observation that science arises in a social context to the extreme conclusion that it is nothing more than politics in disguise.”
In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to keep subjecting science to reasonable scrutiny (or citokate) by appraising the myriad ways that fallible and all-too human individual scientists inevitably let cultural and subjective biases color their work. Nearly all honest scientists will acknowledge this tendency in themselves (at least in abstract mea culpas). Indeed, the obstinate flaw in human nature called self-delusion is the very thing that science was invented to help overcome!
(Once again, the over-arching theme of reciprocal accountability.)
And yet, as Sokal says far more efficiently than I do, here, it is quite another thing to claim that the only truly honest human truth-discovering process is inherently delusional! If the scientific process of perpetual re-examination and testing against reality cannot incrementally improve our models of the world, then why has scientific civilization learned so vastly more than all others combined?
We have discussed elsewhere the likely psychological reason for lefty postmodernists to have pursued this silly rant -- in what basically amounted to a jealous snit, attempting to drag down rival sages who have found much better -- titanically better -- methods of enquiry and truth discovery than the discredited incantatory paths of Plato. And yet, what has become clear in recent years is just what a service Sokal and his colleagues have done, by engaging the post-modernist movement in strenuous debate, rather than simply dismissing it as a pack of loonies.
Evidence for surprising, unexpected progress can be found int the chagrin expressed, lately, by some of the better and more aware postmodernists, over their role in having helped to tear down society’s greatest bulwark against other forms of mystical fanaticism. Others who are fully engaged in tearing down the entire Enlightenment Experiment.
Mooney and Sokal rightfully point to the all-out assaults upon science waged by an unholy alliance of Big Capital and reactionary Theocrats -- a coalition that has control over the Bush Administration, despite the fact that countless more-reasonable members of big business and the communities of faith want nothing to do with this vile cabal.
(Mooney and Sokal leave out a third group in the controlling triumvirate, one that has waned considerably, in recent years, ever since it instigated our “sicilian” quagmire in Iraq, but the very one that juxtaposes in eery ways against the campus post-modernists. That third group consists primarily of the Straussian Neoconservatives of the Heritage Foundation and Enterprise Institute etc, whose devotion to platonist incantation and the triumph of pure “will” bears worrisome similarities not only to the philosophy department lefties they claim to despise, but also to such reactionary and tyrannical movements as Nazism and Leninism.)
But I am quibbling. As I have said -- e.g. in my review of Mooney’s book THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE -- these two authors are bona fide heroes of the fight to restore American modernism. At the near-term, pragmatic level, they share with me a strong desire to see restored the independent Congressional scientific advisory boards that the New GOP so cynically and hypocritically dismantled.
What has become clear is that this fight will not be won by reason and science and moderation alone. It must be a militant moderation. One that - while promoting tolerance and diversity and openness and accountability and negotiation and science and fair-competition and pragmatism and other nice/liberal ideas - is also capable of recognizing genuine enemies. Foes who deeply despise all of the traits that I just listed and countless others... who indeed despise us for holding to them and attempting to build a decent civilization around such “wishy washy” and secularly “tepid” principles.
And that is where their short-term advantage of passion has let them steal a march on us, seizing control over what has been (so far) a benighted and moronic 21st Century. For while they attack, it is not our reflex of natural inclination to think in terms of enemies! Like merchants and tradesmen and craftsmen and chemists, standing at the city gate, trying to bargain and reason with barbarians, we blink in dismay as they use swords to chop away the underpinnings of our city. And then we try reasoning some more.
Enemies? That is not the way that we who invented markets and democracy and science and the arts of practical compromise generally want to think. But make no mistake. Those who would take advantage of our good natures in order to destroy this way of life will attack from every angle and every dogma. Because fundamentally it is a matter of personality, not ideology. And we moderate-pragmatist-progressive-problemsolving modernists are gradually learning that the personality of rage can only be dealt-with from a position and an attitude of strength.