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The Science Wars

The `science wars’ began in the early 1990s with attacks by natural scientists or ex-natural scientists who had assumed the role of spokespersons for science. The subject of the attacks was the analysis of science coming out of literary studies and the social sciences. In the USA the best known names are Paul Gross, Norman Levitt, and Alan Sokal. In Britain the most aggressive science warrior is biologist, Lewis Wolpert.

The best known science wars event is the publication of a hoax article by the physicist Alan Sokal in the journal Social Text. The editors failed to spot the hoax and published the article as a genuine contribution to their field. (In spite of what has been written about the hoax, Social Text was not a well known journal before this event. In spite of what has been written about hoaxes, they are to be found in physics journals.)

The analysis of science by non-scientists is not a new phenomenon. Philosophy of science and the sociology of science associated with the name Robert Merton have a long history. What has attracted the ire of the critics is the turn toward the social analysis of the content of science in addition to analysis of its social organisation. A new field, now known as `the sociology of scientific knowledge,’ or SSK, began in the 1970s. One of its principles was the tenet of `symmetry’ which means analysing the scientifically true and the scientifically false in the same way. When it is first encountered, scientists find this an uncomfortable perspective; in the way it ignores scientific truth, and the way it tries to set the conclusions of science in a social perspective, SSK can seem like an attack on those things that scientists hold most dear. Scientists sometimes say that SSK claims that science is `polluted’ by social factors.

None of this was never intended by those who practice SSK; indeed practitioners of SSK are very proud of their craft, some describing themselves as using the scientific method. The social context of science is not thought of as polluting since all human activity is social; for those who work in SSK, scientific truth remains the paradigm of truth in respect of the natural world.

There are many deep schisms among analysts of science. For example, many of those who practice SSK are impatient with the lack of an empirical basis for the semiotic approach imported from France. Many social analysts thought that the Sokal hoax was funny and that the editors of Social Text deserved to be caught out. They also think, however, that far too much has been read into it. Furthermore, the continuation of the science wars has made analysts of science more inclined to defend each other in public. This is because attacks by science warriors often take on the characteristics of a `witch hunt’ instead of an academic debate. For example, `relativism’ - a subtle philosophical idea with a number of meanings - is sometimes treated as synonymous with `anti-science.’ An accusation of relativism is taken as sufficient in itself to render further argument unnecessary. And the arguments and political tactics adopted by the science warriors seem less designed to convince their academic opponents of their errors than to convince an outside audience; the science warriors can rely on the outside audience not reading the original sources and materially misleading descriptions of the original studies are not rare!

Fortunately, not all critics of the social analysis of science adopt science warrior tactics, and some there are some interesting and informative debates. Among these I would count the debates between David Mermin and myself and my co-author Trevor Pinch which began in Physics Today and are discussed in the Afterword to the second edition of our book The Golem. This debate was mostly about the chapter in The Golem concerning the foundations of relativity. Both sides believe they have learned much from the interchange and even though they still disagree about some things, the grounds for disagreement have been clarified rather than obscured. Jay Labinger, a chemist from Caltech, and I have published a book of debates of this type, the contributors being a balance of scientists and social scientists. The book is called `The One Culture?: A Conversation about Science' and is published by University of Chicago Press in 2001.

My gravitational wave study is very much in the tradition of SSK and it embraces methodological relativism. The analyses found in the first five papers described above are, as a result, somewhat orthogonal to the concerns of scientists. But the idea in those papers is not to reproduce the world as scientists see it, but to see it in a new way. There is nothing doctrinaire about this approach, however. Thus the analyses in the last two papers parallel scientists’ concerns, while paper six has both orthogonal and parallel elements.

With one or two exceptions my work has not been much drawn into the science wars. One of my early (1981) statements about the importance of relativism has been much quoted, but usually without a careful analysis of its context and meaning. My current view is that the argument about relativism (methodological relativism aside), has ceased to be useful; were I to re-write my work from the perspective any of the available `philosophical’ positions it would remain unchanged except for a few words at the beginning and end. This is another reason for considering the relativism argument to be about symbols rather than substance - that is, a witch hunt.

The chapter on special and general relativitivity in The Golem has been much criticised, but, as I explain above, mostly this has led to useful academic debate rather than science wars-type rhetoric. Unfortunately, The Golem has been attacked in a less useful way by Lewis Wolpert and one or two others.

The reason for these less temperate attacks seems to be the, accurate, perception that books such as The Golem make science seem less infallible. But it seems to me that science endangers itself by promising too much. Science and technology (indistinguishable, I believe, both in theory and in the eyes of the public), are evidently fallible and its continual failures are always on display. To promise revelation is to risk disillusion and an anti-science reaction. The `COBE-discovered-the-face -of-God’ style of scientific reporting is very dangerous. Like any other skill or craft, science should be valued for the enormous virtuosity of its practitioners, not their closeness to the deity or their resemblance to priest-like caste. That is why books like The Golem series are intended to expose uncertainties and failures while still insisting that science is the best method we have for finding out about the natural (and social) world. The spokespersons for science often behave and argue as though the only salvation is for science to set itself up as such a pre-eminent form of knowledge as to leave no room for doubt; as a result they also find themselves attacking all other ways of having knowledge or describing science.

The work on gravity waves has been criticised only once, so far as I know. This was the criticism by Alan Franklin, mentioned above. Franklin’s critique appears to be well-meaning and born of a genuine puzzlement - though it is utterly misplaced as I try to explain in my response. Unfortunately, Franklin’s article has latterly been drawn into the science wars by being reprinted in the absence of any discussion of the response. This means it can now be more easily referred to as though it had not been answered and as though it really was a rebuttal of my gravity wave study. Thus can an external audience be led to the conclusion that the science warrior intends.

Of course, analysis of this kind of publication and citation strategy is the very stuff of the sociology of knowledge! The book called `The One Culture' which is listed in the section `Main Books' is a debate relevant to the science wars.