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The science wars were a series of intellectual battles in the 1990s between "realists" and "postmodernists" (though neither party would likely use the terms to describe themselves) about the nature of scientific theories. In brief, the postmodernists questioned the objectivity of science and encompassed a huge variety of critiques on scientific knowledge and method within cultural studies, cultural anthropology, feminist studies, comparative literature, media studies, and science and technology studies. The realists countered that there is such a thing as objective scientific knowledge and accused the postmodernists of having practically no understanding of the subject they were criticising.


Historical background

Until the mid-20th century, the philosophy of science had concentrated on the viability of scientific method and knowledge, proposing justifications for the truth of scientific theories and observations and attempting to discover on a philosophical level why science worked. Already Karl Popper had begun to attack this view. He denied outright that justification existed for such concepts as truth, probability or even belief in scientific theories, thereby laying fertile foundations for the growth of postmodernist attitudes.[1] During this time there had also been a number of less orthodox philosophers who believed that logical models of pure science did not apply to actual scientific practice. It was the publication of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, however, which fully opened the study of science to new disciplines by suggesting that the evolution of science was in part sociologically determined and that it did not operate under the simple logical laws put forward by the logical positivist school of philosophy. Kuhn described the development of scientific knowledge not as linear increase in truth and understanding, but as series of periodic revolutions which overturned old scientific order and replaced it with new orders (what he called "paradigms"). Kuhn attributed much of this process to the interactions and strategies of the human participants in science rather than its own innate logical structure. (See sociology of scientific knowledge and Theories and sociology of the history of science).

Some interpreted Kuhn's ideas to mean that scientific theories were, either wholly or in part, social constructs, which many interpreted as diminishing the claim of science to representing objective reality (though many social constructivists do not put forward this claim), and that reality had a lesser or potentially irrelevant role in the formation of scientific theories. In 1971, Jerome Ravetz published Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, a book describing the role that the scientific community, as a social construct, plays in accepting or rejecting so-called "objective" scientific knowledge.[2] A number of different philosophical and historical schools, often lumped together as "postmodernism", began reinterpreting scientific achievements of the past through the lens of the practitioners, often assigning political and economic conditions as formative a role in theory development as scientific observations. Rather than being held up as heroes of knowledge, many scientists of the past were scrutinized for their connection to issues of gender, sexual orientation, race, and class. Some more radical philosophers, such as Paul Feyerabend, argued that scientific theories were themselves incoherent and that other forms of knowledge production (such as those used in religion) served the material and spiritual needs of their practitioners with as equal validity as did scientific explanations.

Somewhat of a middle view between the "postmodernist" and "realist" camps is that put forward by thinkers such as Imre Lakatos. For Lakatos, scientific knowledge is progressive, however, it progresses not by a strict linear path where every new element builds upon and incorporates every other, but by an approach where a "core" of a "research program" is established by auxiliary theories which can themselves be falsified or replaced without compromising the core. Social conditions and attitudes affect how strongly one attempts to resist falsification for the core of a program, but the program has an objective status, notwithstanding, based on its relative explanatory power. Resisting falsification only becomes ad-hoc and damaging to knowledge when an alternate program with greater explanatory power is rejected in favor of another with less. But because it is changing a theoretical core, which has broad ramifications for other areas of study, accepting a new program is also revolutionary as well as progressive. Thus, for Lakatos the character of science is that of being both revolutionary and progressive; both socially informed and objectively justified.

The science wars

This apparent attack on the validity of science from the humanities and social sciences worried many people in the scientific community, especially as the language of social construction was appropriated by groups which claimed to be proffering alternate scientific paradigms, but which were actually, according to the view of many scientists, attempting to assert political control over the use of science in society (as with creation science, intelligent design and the ongoing creation-evolution controversy). In 1994, scientists Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt published Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science, an open attack on the postmodernists. According to supporters, the book brought the shortcomings of relativism into sharp focus, claiming that the postmodernists knew little about the scientific theories they discussed and pursued sloppy scholarship for political reasons. According to scholars in science studies (the postmodernists under attack), the book brought the authors' failure to understand the theoretical approaches they criticize into sharp focus, and relied more on "caricature, misreading, and condescension than argument."[3] The book received a moderate amount of mainstream attention and became a flashpoint for the science wars.

Higher Superstition also served as the inspiration for a conference hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences called "The Flight from Science and Reason" and organized by Gross, Levitt and Gerald Holton.[4] While some participants were critical of the polemical approach of Gross and Levitt, overall the conference was highly critical of the ways non-scientist intellectuals dealt with science.[5]


Science wars in Social Text

In 1996, Social Text, a journal of critical theory, compiled a special issue entitled "Science Wars", with brief contributions from many of those in the social sciences and humanities labeled as "postmodernists." A number of articles placed the science wars in the context of the changing role of science in culture, as further evidence of the roles social and political factors play in science. In the introduction, Andrew Ross suggested that the backlash against science studies was a conservative reaction to reduced science funding; he characterized the "Flight from Science and Reason" conference as an attempt at "linking together a host of dangerous threats: scientific creationism, New Age alternatives and cults, astrology, UFO-ism, the radical science movement, postmodernism, and critical science studies, alongside the ready-made historical specters of Aryan-Nazi science and the Soviet error of Lysenkoism" that "degenerated into name calling."[6] Historian Dorothy Nelkin characterized the vigorous response of scientists to Gross & Levitt's call to arms—in contrast to the historical tendency of scientists to avoid involvement in perceived political threats to science such as creation science, the animal rights movement, and attempts by anti-abortionists to end fetal research—as a reaction to the failed marriage between science and the state. With the Cold War over, military funding of science continued to decline while funding agencies were demanding increased accountability for grants and research was increasingly directed by private interests; Nelkin claimed that postmodernist critics were "convenient scapegoats" that diverted attention from problems within science.[7]

Physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the issue in which he purported to argue that quantum physics supports postmodernist criticisms of the objectivity of science. It was published in the journal, and later Sokal revealed it to be a hoax and an experiment to see if the journal editors would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions".[8] Its publication, known as the Sokal affair, was simultaneously revealed as a parody in the literary magazine Lingua Franca; this caused an uproar that brought the science wars to the attention of a wide audience of scientists and humanist scholars, and even into the mainstream media.[9]

Continued conflict

Since the "Science Wars" edition of Social Text, the seriousness and volume of discussion increased significantly, much of it focused on reconciling the "warring" camps of postmodernists and scientists. One significant event was the "Science and Its Critics" conference in early 1997; it brought together scientists and scholars who study science and featured Alan Sokal and Steve Fuller as keynote speakers. The conference generated the final wave of substantial press coverage (in both news media and scientific journals), though by no means resolved the fundamental issues of social construction and objectivity in science.[10]

Other attempts have been made to reconcile the two camps. Mike Nauenberg, a physicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, organized a small conference in May 1997 that was attended by scientists and sociologists of science alike, among them Alan Sokal, N. David Mermin and Harry Collins. In the same year, Collins organized the Southampton Peace Workshop, which again brought together a broad range of scientists and sociologists. The Peace Workshop gave rise to the idea of a book that intended to map out some of the arguments between the disputing parties. The One Culture, edited by physicist Jay A. Labinger and sociologist Harry Collins, was eventually published in 2001. The book, whose title is an obvious reference to C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, contains contributions from authors such as Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont, Steven Weinberg and Steven Shapin.[11] Also in 2001, Bent Flyvbjerg in his book Making Social Science Matter identified a way out of the Science Wars by arguing that (1) social science is phronesis, whereas natural science is episteme, in the classical Greek meaning of the terms; (2) phronesis is well suited for the reflexive analysis and discussion of values and interests, which any society needs to thrive, whereas episteme is good for the development of predictive theory, and; (3) a well-functioning society needs both phronesis and episteme in balance, and one cannot substitute for the other.[12]

Other important publications related to the science wars include Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Jean Bricmont (1998), The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking (1999) and Who Rules in Science by James Robert Brown.

For some scholars, the Bogdanov Affair in 2002[13] served as the bookend to the Sokal controversy: the review, acceptance, and publication of papers, later alleged to be nonsense, in peer-reviewed physics journals. Postmodernists might point out that this occurrence only served to demonstrate what they have always claimed: at the outer reaches of knowledge, where new claims are evaluated and disseminated, no one can be expected to know for certain what is true and what is not. However, others such as Cornell physics professor Paul Ginsparg have argued that the cases are not at all similar and that the fact some journals and scientific institutions have low or variable standards is "hardly a revelation."[14]

Though the events of the science wars are still occasionally mentioned in mainstream press, they have had little effect on either the scientific community or the community of critical theorists. Both sides continue to maintain that the other does not understand their theories, or misunderstands what are meant to be constructive criticisms or simple scholarly investigations as attacks. As Bruno Latour recently put it, "Scientists always stomp around meetings talking about 'bridging the two-culture gap', but when scores of people from outside the sciences begin to build just that bridge, they recoil in horror and want to impose the strangest of all gags on free speech since Socrates: only scientists should speak about science!"[15] Subsequently, Latour has suggested a re-evaluation of sociology's epistemology based on lessons learnt from the Science Wars: "...scientists made us realize that there was not the slightest chance that the type of social forces we use as a cause could have objective facts as their effects." [16]

However, more recently some of the leading critical theorists have recognized that their critiques have at times been counter-productive, and are providing intellectual ammunition for reactionary interests. Writing about these developments in the context of global warming, Bruno Latour noted that "dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant?"[17]

See also


  1. ^ David Charles Stove, Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists, (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1982).
  2. ^ Ravetz, Jerome R. (1979). Scientific knowledge and its social problems. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0195197216.  
  3. ^ Flower, Michael J. "Review of Higher Superstition," Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1995, pp 113-114. Similarly dismissive reviews appeared in Isis (Vol. 87, No. 2, 1996), American Anthropologist (Vol. 98, No. 2, 1996), Social Studies of Science (Vol. 26, No. 1, 1996), and other social science and humanities journals, and even the almost purely descriptive review in The Journal of Higher Education (Vol. 66, No. 5, 1995) took a snide tone, suggesting in the final sentence that the book itself is further proof that politics and the epistemology and philosophy are science are inter-related.
  4. ^ Gross, Levitt and another participant later published a book with the same title, based partly on the conference proceedings: Gross, Paul R., Norman Levitt, and Martin W. Lewis. The Flight from Science and Reason. New York: New York Academy of Science, 1997.
  5. ^ Kramer, Jennifer. "Who's Flying - And In What Direction (Coverage of the NYAS Flight from Science and Reason conference)." Accessed May 15, 2006.
  6. ^ Ross, Andrew. "Introduction" Social Text 46/47, Vol. 14, Nos. 1 & 2, 1996), pp 1-13. p 7.
  7. ^ Nelkin, Dorothy. "The Science Wars: Responses to a Marriage Failed." Social Text 46/47, Vol. 14, Nos. 1 & 2, 1996), pp 93-100. p 95.
  8. ^ Sokal, Alan. "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" Social Text 46/47, Vol. 14, Nos. 1 & 2, 1996), pp 217-252.
  9. ^ Sokal, Alan. "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies," Lingua Franca, May/June 1996, pp 62-64.
  10. ^ Baringer, Philip S. "Introduction: 'the science wars'", from After the Science Wars, eds. Keith M. Ashman and Philip S. Baringer. New York: Routlege, 2001. p. 2.
  11. ^ Labinger, Jay A. and Harry Collins "Preface", in: The One Culture? A Conversation about Science, eds. Labinger, Jay A and Harry Collins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. p. ix-xi.
  12. ^ Bent Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  13. ^ Monastersky, Richard (November 2, 2002). "French TV Stars Rock the World of Theoretical Physics". Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2008-03-20.  
  14. ^ Ginsparg, Paul. "'Is It Art?' Is Not a Question for Physics". New York Times (12 November 2002), section A, p. 26.
  15. ^ Latour, B. (1999), Pandora's Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Harvard University Press, USA.
  16. ^ Latour, B. (2005), Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press, USA, p. 100.
  17. ^ Latour, B. (2004), Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Inquiry 30, p. 225-248.


  • Ashman, Keith M. and Barringer, Philip S. (ed.) (2001). After the science wars, Routledge, London, UK. ISBN 0-415-21209-X
  • Gross, Paul R. and Levitt, Norman (1994). Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, USA. ISBN 0-8018-4766-4
  • Sokal, Alan D. (1996). Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, Social Text 46/47, 217-252.
  • Callon, Michel (1999). Whose Impostures? Physicists at War with the Third Person, Social Studies of Science 29(2), 261-86.
  • Parsons, Keith (ed.) (2003). The Science Wars: Debating Scientific Knowledge and Technology, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY USA. ISBN 1-57392-994-8
  • Labinger, Jay A. and Collins, Harry (eds.) (2001). The One Culture? A Conversation About Science, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-46723-6
  • Brown, James R. (2001). Who Rules in Science? An Opinionated Guide to the Wars, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA USA.

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