Deconstructed science

“Science and Society” classes mislead students who haven’t learned about the complexity of the scientific method in high school or college, writes Phil Mole (great name!) in Skeptical Inquirer. He took a graduate class called “Behavioral Sciences and Public Health” that promised to help students “become sufficiently confused about the complexities of professional life.” And it did!

The course was not a balanced, critically informed discussion of the merits and limitations of science. It was a lopsided diatribe against the arrogance of science and its suppression of other, allegedly valid “ways of knowing.”

We read articles claiming the language, assumptions, and methodologies of science to be inherently sexist and imperialistic, and fundamentally opposed to the role of intuition and the expression of femininity. An article by Ruth Hubbard maintained that scientists construct fact claims in order to justify their own economic positions and prevent the social mobility of women and ethnic minorities (Hubbard 1990). We perused the writings of Sandra Harding and Luce Irigaray and read more testimony that science represents the ideologies of white males seeking to disenfranchise, deflower, and discredit femininity at every opportunity. These authors discussed “alternate epistemologies,” suppressed by chauvinist scientists, and considered conventional science inherently inauthentic.

Many graduate students take “science and society” classes without having taken core science classes in college, Mole writes. If they have taken science, they’ve been taught the end results but not the process of scientific inquiry.

Not surprisingly, students are most appreciative of those descriptions of science that best satisfy their own longings for justice and equality. After learning that science is much more contentious than their high- school and college courses led them to believe, these students crave emotional solace. They want the kind of certainty that only relativism can provide, in which indifference to the very idea of authority erases all real doubts. “Science and society” classes address this need and fill the intellectual void partially created by the incompleteness of the students’ earlier science courses. As a result, postmodernism erases the helpful doubt that stimulates real thinkers to rigorously challenge their own preconceived notions and pursue the difficult pleasure of objective truth.

I took very little science in high school and even less in college, but I did read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in my Science for Non-Science Majors class, which I took to fulfill the math-science requirement. We actually learned about science in the class, not politics. But, then, I’m pre-postmodern.

About Joanne


  1. Steve LaBonne says:

    Not so fast. Kuhn’s vastly overrated book is the very fons et origo of postmodern claptrap about science. His antirational ideas about “paradigm incommensurability” and scientists “living in a different world” after a “paradigm shift” have been mother’s milk to the pomo frauds the suberranean Phil was forced to read.

  2. I’d suggest that any professor who expresses a desire to teach something like this should be immediately dropped into the wilderness without any of the the “inauthentic” devices and comforts provided by science. Just a stone knife and bare skin…

  3. Steve LaBonne says:

    Or as Alan Sokal wrote, “Anyone who believes the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment (I live on the twenty-first floor).”

  4. Richard Nieporent says:

    There is an excellent book that addresses this subject, called Prometheus Bedeviled. It is written by a math professor from Rutgers University who you probably never heard of. His name is Norman Levitt.

  5. The same Norman Levitt of Rutgers that was brought to our attention yesterday a bit down in this same page?

  6. Richard Nieporent says:

    The very same one!

  7. Richard ,

    Until I heard the author’s name I presumed you were leading us to a well-written critique, math not being a particularly relative subject. Now I’m not so sure. Which way does he argue?

  8. I took a history of science class in college where we read Kuhn’s book (along with a great many books containing actual information). One thing that is really interesting to me is how often people with goofy ideas (but which have the ring of verisimilitude) about technical subjects are people that started studying these subjects but didn’t get far enough to actually understand them. Sure, quantum mechanics is different than classical mechanics, but in the course of the “paradigm shift” you actually have to show how all of the previously known facts are consistent with the new point of view before you can get anyone to buy into it. Too bad this part of the process was left out of the book, since that step would have stopped deconstructionists in their tracks…

  9. Long ago, C P Snow wrote a book called “The Two Cultures,” in which he worried that society was dividing into two separate and non-communicating groups: (A) the people who know what the Second Law of Thermodynamics is, and (B) the people who are familiar with the plays of Shakespeare.

    We’ve fixed that. We are now graduating large numbers of people who are familiar with *neither* Shakespeare *nor* with the Second Law.

  10. Richard Nieporent says:


    He is a defender of science against its liberal art critics.

    Here is a critic of his book.

  11. Mad Scientist says:

    markm: I say let these enlightened individuals figure out how to make the stone knife. After they have been lobotomized to the point of not knowing what a knife is.

  12. Agreed, Snow’s Two Cultures is well worth the read. What would he say today?

    I too read Kuhn in a history of science class (Prof. Knoespel), and thought his concept of the increasingly desperate props before the paradigm shift (e.g., epicycles) made some sense. How much of the current distaste is due to the use of ‘paradigm shift’ by every Dogbertesque consultant?

  13. In Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full,” the “hero” (a self-made real estate developer) grows tired of his CFO’s constant use of the word “paradigm” and muses that “all it ever seems to do is shift.”

    On a more serious note, all students should learn something about science at a hands-on level. Metatheory like Kuhn is interesting, but it is no substitute for rolling balls down an inclined plane.

  14. Mark Odell says:

    It was a lopsided diatribe against the arrogance of science and its suppression of other, allegedly valid “ways of knowing.”

    As opposed to, say, a lopsided diatribe in favor of these things?

  15. As previous commenters have noted, “After learning that science is much more contentious than their high- school and college courses led them to believe, these students crave emotional solace. They want the kind of certainty that only relativism can provide, in which indifference to the very idea of authority erases all real doubts” could almost be used to describe Kuhn. He has some valid points, but to understand it, you should see it as the postmodern critique of Popper…

  16. Walter E. Wallis says:

    This is like driver’s education that fails to teach keep to the right. Time for some malpractice suits against professors.

  17. Dan G…where did that quote come from? It sounds interesting, but I couldn’t find it in any of the earlier quotes.

  18. David,
    See JJ’s original post, second quoted block.

  19. Richard Brandshaft says:

    C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” is the one that is most often quoted on this subject. At least as important is Snow’s “Science And Government.” It’s more a booklet than a book; everyone can spare the time to read it.

    The main point is the Britain was more prepared for WW II under Chamberlain than it would have been under Churchill. Chamberlain’s science advisor believed in radar; Churchill’s though it would never work and would divert effort needed elsewhere. Thus the most important decision of pre-WW II Britain was a technical decision made in secret, not the publicly discussed politics.

    On post-modernism: part of the reason for the disagreement was a personal animosity between Churchill’s advisor and the head of the radar project. Had history went a little differently, substituting politics for objective truth could have sank Britain.

  20. Actually, Richard, Churchill was keen on the development of radar. His concern was that, once radar located enemy planes, England had no way of shooting them down. He wanted to develop weapons to use with radar, not in place of it.

  21. Heck, I know both the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the plays of Shakespeare. In addition, I’ve even read all of Dickens’ novels and have a published physics paper.

    Do I get a prize or something?

    Back to seriousness – some of the most cultured people on my campus were the math and physics faculty. Many played music, and one often caught them at plays and symphonies. Oddly, one never saw the humanities faculty showing up for the physics seminars. Likewise, the humanities majors generally had to take a couple of semesters of freshman-level math or science. The science majors had to take a couple of semesters of junior-level humanities courses, in addition to the couple of semesters of freshman-level humanities courses all were required to take. I often cried foul on this, but no one cared. Everybody knew that the science degrees “counted more” because they were harder to get. No reason to try to bring the humanities types up to our level, I guess — their degrees were already being discounted in the market.

    Takes all kinds, I suppose.

  22. Michael…from what I’ve read, Lindemann (Churchill’s scientific advisor) wasn’t necessarily anti-radar, but preferred other location methods, specifically infrared and, if left to his own devices, would have greatly reduced the priority put on radar. Meep…yeah, you do get a prize. As I recall, Snow did point out that the physics major is much more likely to know Shakespeare than the humanities major is to know the Second Law (or even to known Newton’s laws).

    I think one of the problems that we have in the humanities now is that many people are trying to be “theoretical” when they have no real training in how to develop, test, or use theories. A concrete mind trying to use abstractions can be a frightening thing…..

  23. It’s encouraging to know that at least some angry, republican haters are willing to defend the sientific method from radical, leftist, cultural relativists.

  24. There are “better ways of knowing” than science?

    Would these people consider Biblical Creation, as opposed to the Theory of Evolution, a “better way of knowing?”

    Doubtful, since I’m pretty sure these folks hate Judeo-Christian belief with far, far greater intensity than they hate science. But if I ever meet one of these folks, I’ll ask them, just to see how far their tolerance of other viewpoints really goes.

  25. To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the minds of men to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous furtune, or to get out of a game you can’t win or break even at…

  26. Richard Brandshaft says:

    David Foster,
    1) My recollection of Snow is flawed (I’m traveling; I’ll re-read the book when I get home), or
    2) Other accounts of the radar project controversy reach different conclusions than Snow’s.

    If (2), I would like to read up on the point. Do you have any references?

    Steve LaBonne,
    and others,

    The right claims idiocy about the nature of science and objective truth is mainly particular to the left. Not true. As Jetstorm just reminded us, the Bible is the oldest and most popular “other way of knowing.”

    Except for the Bible, there is a difference between the right and left approach: the left presents us with a philosophy of science that is ridiculous on its face. The right just lies.

    It is important to understand the relationship between facts and social policy. Logically they are separate, put in practice they are closely related. For example, a compilation of accounts of firearms accidents and statistics about how they happen would be facts. “Handle every gun as if it were empty until you accidentally kill someone with that particular gun” would be a social policy. But one would suspect anyone who advocates it of distorting some facts. Which brings us to genetically modified foods, which are to be considered safe until proven otherwise. Here the distortion of fact is a denial of ignorance.

    But, says the right, the consensus of the scientists who study the subject (and are paid by the genetically modified seed companies) is that the foods are safe. The consensus of scientists who have studied the matter is that global warming is a real threat and human activity is a factor. In this case, the consensus of scientists is insufficient. According to the right, all the consensus is political correctness and the dissenters are “objective” truth.

    Then there was refusing to let “Plan B” be obtained more easily; the administration’s “other way of knowing” overruled the scientists. That have been other accusations of the administration sex police interfering with health and safety information; perhaps someone with a better memory than mine can fill in specifics.

    Then there are those who “know” using allowing people to use guns in self-defense would cause more harm that psychos, criminals, and even terrorists. I used to consider that a defining characteristic of liberals. Then the Bush administration stonewalled on arming airline pilots.

    All “other ways of knowing.” Not all leftist.

  27. In defense of Kuhn, paradigms really do matter in what you pay attention to, what you see as problems, what you think solutions might look like. The models and methods of a branch of science at some particular point in time exist because they make it easier to think about and solve some problems, but harder (though not impossible) to think about them in other terms. And personalities, politics, and economics all influence what scientists work on, what gets play, and which research directions are advanced.

    Kuhn was right in pointing these things out, in contrast to the straw-man alternative of the process of science as being impersonal and objective.

    But the process of science and the state of knowledge at a given point in time can have all of these properties, while still being subject to the uncompromising constraints the universe imposes. This is where Popper was coming from, and it is what makes science useful and progressive rather than arbitrary and successive–a kind of discipline that in the long run keeps science as a displine, if not always scientists as individuals, on track. Since there is nothing fundamentally like this in the humanities, you have to understand what science really is to rectify Kuhn and Popper. This is where pomo falls short.

    Here’s a quote I like from a book I like, Ghiselin, M.T. (1989). Intellectual compromise: The bottom line. New York: Paragon House.

    “These days a fair number of biologists are telling the world that a new revolution is at hand, and that the synthetic theory is dead, soon to be overthrown by a “new evolutionary paradigm.” Perhaps there will be such a revolution, but the particular persons who are making such claims are not those who are apt to bring about the change in question. They try to sell us a new product without providing evidence that they can deliver something better. Their so-called “crisis of Darwinism” is a media event. What they have proclaimed as alternatives to the existing theory turn out to be minor improvements at best, or perhaps rediscoveries of truths and errors alike that are old hat to anybody who has mastered the literature. Their attacks on the synthetic theory turn out to be directed at textbook travesties, and not at the body of knowledge available to the scholarly community. If major improvements are to be made, they will be made by those who have in fact understood the present paradigm, who really know what its strengths and weaknesses are, and who exercise some real creativity. At least this will be so if the examples of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein mean anything; and those of Vesalius, Harvey, and Darwin.”

  28. Richard B….I’ve got a book or two on radar history somewhere (a strange taste, I know)…I’ll see what I can dig up. My sense is that Snow was a Tizard partisan and may have overstated the case against Lindemann…but basically, Lindemann *was* a malign influence on radar development.

  29. Mark Odell says:

    Steve LaBonne wrote: Not so fast. Kuhn’s vastly overrated book is the very fons et origo of postmodern claptrap about science. His antirational ideas about “paradigm incommensurability” and scientists “living in a different world” after a “paradigm shift” have been mother’s milk to the pomo frauds the suberranean Phil was forced to read.

    Bzzzzzzzzt! Sorry, Straw Man fallacy, but thanks for playing. (Whether or not the pomos’ arguments are valid is irrelevant to the question of the validity of Kuhn’s actual work.)

    Since you dislike his ideas, what other ideas do you prefer?

    Bob M, great post.

  30. Steve LaBonne says:

    Mark, I’d like to start you off with a witty, nontechnical dialog by the distinghuished philosopher of science Larry Laudan entitled _Science and Relativism_, which neatly exposes the fatal weaknesses of Kuhn’s and other related ideas.

    “What other ideas do you prefer”? I prefer the ideas of scientists about science to those of any philospher. So should anyone who actually wishes to learn something about science. But if you want to read a recent, competent exposition of a very workable epistemology try Susan Haack, _Evidence and Inquiry_.

  31. David, I need to read more about Lindemann, but Churchill was quite happy to give the “go” to every scientist who had an idea he thought might be useful. His reputation as a maverick was one of the reasons that Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar, came to see him in 1936 to get help when the Air Ministry seemed to be dragging its feet in testing radar. Churchill helped, although there was a limit to his ability to do so, given that he was out of government at the time. By 1939, a few days after he was made First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill wrote that “The fitting of RDF [as radar was then known] to HM ships, especially those engaged in the U-boat fighting, is of high urgency….”

    Richard, you might take a look at Martin Gilbert’s multi-volume biography of Churchill, especially volume five.

  32. Global warming is an excellent example of when “consensus” science goes awry.
    You know, global warming is still in its infancy as a theory. The models are atrocious in patterning actual physical climate behavior. Perhaps because they leave out highly pertinent data involving sunlight variation, solar magnetic influence on cosmic ray inflow, earth orbital dynamics, and other more esoteric factors which probably have more influence on earth’s climate than human produced C02 levels. So there’s a good reason to disrespect the current iterations of climate models/projections.

  33. Mad Scientist says:

    Ann, I could nto agree with you more about CO2 levels. It’s beyond reason.

    I am seriously thinking about writing a paper that explodes this myth once and for all.

  34. I thought the whole Kuhn-bashing thing was over.

    Just as well people are are still rattling on about that – I’d hate to live in a world where people eager to seem like free thinkers had decided to start claiming that no child ever actually enjoyed a Dr. Suess book.

  35. Steve LaBonne says:

    If it’s “over” that’s because for years now interest in Kuhn has largely been relegated to the intellectual (and politicized) slums of the social sciences and humanities. You won’t find serious philosophers of science bothering with the Kuhns and Feyerabends of the world, having long since refuted them and moved on.

  36. Mad Scientist says:


    I hope you are aware that back in the day, scientists were not called scientists, but “natural philosophers”. Only unlike pure philosophers, they somehow felt it necessary to hypothesize, experiment, observe, and re-hypothesize. This is the basis of the scientific method.

    Too bad people have stopped applying Langmuir’s definitaion of “Pathological Science”. If people would use this “smell test” more often, we would get scads less of this intellectually barren claptrap that blissfully disregards facts, logic and reason.

  37. “If people would use this ‘smell test’ more often, we would get scads less of this intellectually barren claptrap that blissfully disregards facts, logic and reason.”

    Unfortunately, while I’d like to think that that’s true, I tend to doubt it. For most people, holding on to myths, conventional wisdom and “consensus” appears to be more comfortable for their egos than having to take a serious and critical look at reality.

  38. Steve LaBonne says:

    Of course I’m aware of that. I think perhaps some _philosophers_ need to be reminded of it. 😉