The One CultureJohn Haber
in New York City
Science and Social Text
It is now months since a physicist, Alan Sokal, sneaked his parody of academic double-talk past the editors of Social Text, and critics of Postmodernism are still chortling. If a magazine will publish this nonsense, all the other stuff no one can follow must be nonsense too. Science, the story continues, fortunately knows better, because it harkens back to the good old days when reality meant something.
I too take pride in the ability of science to probe the universe, and I too demand language precise enough to describe it. I shall argue, however, that the public's pride and demands are very much a part of what went wrong. Social Text's top editors sought the approval of science they could not grasp and did not care to verify, using language evocative enough to cover all of life. So do most people, and that is exactly why science is the proper domain of Social Text.
The big whimper
Like Sokal himself disclosing the hoax in the magazine Lingua Franca, many believe he managed to see through the trend called critical studies. Sometimes neoconservatives speak up for common sense and for shared principles of understanding (whatever those are), against a takeover of the social sciences by continental philosophers, radical feminists, and film buffs. They can make a start by cutting arts funding.
Others, like Steven Weinberg in The New York Review of Books, argue still more strongly, holding out a standard of scientific precision, a norm, they continue, that the humanities could never meet. Science is superior, they say, because it must be kept out of Social Text after all. In either case, criticism of the humanities might be deserved, at least until one is up for tenure, but it is suspiciously self-righteous.
If the jargon of the humanities substitutes political correctness for meaning, it should not need further jargon from the sciences to show it up. Moreover, if social theorists are tripped up by scientific language, Sokal can hardly gloat about not understanding academic clichés. He has to assume too much: either science works because its language means so much more, or he can follow rhetoric because he can mimic it. In the one case, his argument is circular. In the second case, he confuses acting with reality and language with thought. He may as well have endorsed the entire postmodern critical program. Sokal may be more like his enemies than he thinks.
He may be more like his friends than he wishes, too. As a parody, his piece may resemble not only critical theory, but also the writings of some highly respectable scientists. Everyone asks why Social Text could publish such a farce. One should ask instead why Social Text was so eager to have Sokal's essay, whatever it meant. Like most nonscientists, they accepted its opacity, but they enjoyed having physics verify their beliefs. For all the dismay at a supposed cultural relativism, they have no intention at all of deconstructing science. Why? The answer might begin with some top scientists who, I think, might be all too pleased to be included in the next issue.
Knowing the mind of God
Einstein once remarked that the details of life and the world were not what mattered to him; he wanted to know the mind of God. More than a few cosmologists today seem to think they do. And the public is buying it—literally. Science started pontificating about the humanities long ago. From the moment Galileo and others established scientific inquiry as a distinct calling, their survival meant coping with their bold challenge to religion. Now their boldness is a part of both science and religion.
In just a decade, the reflections of leading physicists became a commercial genre. In over a dozen books, theoreticians have been able to treat a huge audience to how they formulate basic laws, while they sketch their spectacular vision of the beginnings of the universe. Stephen W. Hawking's Brief History of Time, which made the genre look promising to the typical herd mentality of publishing houses, even turned into a documentary film and, later, a top-selling CD-ROM. It shows the staying power of awe in a video age.
If pop culture had merely let Hawking replace Lou Gehrig as the ultimate physical and spiritual survivor, it would be fine with me. If awe had turned to revulsion, dismantling more huge research projects in science than ever, I could allow the turn some merit. Government projects often channel funds away from bright scientists, toward the overdeveloped links between government, industry, and defense. What interests me is that God himself is coming to science so often for advice about how to run my life.
Consider again scientists on God. As I hinted at the start, they typically have one of three stories to tell. (I may be pardoned here if I do top researchers the favor of not citing them by name.)
The first story is an old one: the success of science threatens a loss of all values, for it cannot explain the spiritual mysteries of life. The second is the usual naturalist rejoinder: science is doing just fine, thank you, if only religious prejudices did not stand in its way. The third is the novel claim that science confirms those prejudices, or at least treats them as a first attempt at still better models of the physical universe: science has indeed explained away the old puzzles, but by confirming or disproving the old religious narratives.
The claimants here may violently disagree. They may even exhaust all the logical possibilities, but that does not make any of them sensible. The first two recount a much overrated modernist fable: science marches onward in cold objectivity to provide new foundations for all knowledge; the first adds only a little more emotional distress and the contradiction that science is supposed to be both conclusive and ineffective. The third claimant requires interpretations of scientific and religious metaphors that would drive even a hard-core positivist to take up cabala.
In fact, neither religion nor science lives up to its billing. In the case of religion, perhaps I should say "lives down." It is supposed to be hostile to science, formidable in its rage, and on its way to the margins of knowledge. Yet fundamentalism has always targeted a culture far broader than science, and increasingly it is moving from a political embarrassment to a terrible danger as well. More tellingly, religion has failed remarkably to wither away. Most people, including most scientists, continue to believe in more or less one God, and they manage to draw upon this belief to support any attitude toward science (and themselves) they might happen to have. Or like me, they may retreat into a secularism that takes pride in a religious heritage.
Meanwhile science, on its side, looks less objective all the time when it tries to interpret human behavior and human values, and not just because the scientists themselves turn out to have all sorts of crass motives and prejudices. Thankfully, every scientist is probably driven by such "spiritual" perceptions as the beauty of an individual leaf or an equation. Scientists may not quite see the universe in a grain of sand, but they are not likely to threaten those who do. As in the famous stories of Newton's apple and Einstein's elevator, they may think in bursts of intuition, metaphor, and imagery.
More seriously, however, all three claimants have in common a confidence not exactly in the efficacy of science, which no one should dispute, but rather in science as authority. Whether it ignores God, finds him out, or finds him, science is well on the way to a totality that reduces those bereft of it to silence. The fact that no one is supposed to have finished A Brief History of Time only confirms its authority as an imposing "read": this slim volume was handled more like the Bible than like a biography on the best-seller list.
Science above it all
What gives? For one thing, physics has earned its new-found popularity. A peculiar moment in science may have been reached, with the first full accounts of the universe and its history in three quarters of a century—since Einstein himself introduced his theory of gravitation. It has been time for reflection, as the theorists who once described the ultimate structure of matter reached the end of their careers. It has been a time of proud consolidation, as new ideas have failed to lead to the solutions that seemed imminent ten years ago. For my undergraduate thesis, I tried my hand at a cosmic-string theory myself, in five grandiose dimensions, and obviously the world is none the wiser for it.
Now that it takes a few years of grad school to study breakthroughs made even forty years ago, physics is no longer a young person's game. Now that it takes few billion dollars to replicate breakthroughs of the last decade, it is no longer a game for individuals. With libraries unable to afford enough journals and books, lesser-known teams, too, may not get to play. In short, science is an institution.
Think of the respectful reviews when an editor at Scientific American proclaims The End of Science. His book sounds preposterous at first. How far scientists still are from quantum gravity or curing cancer! How sadly mistaken Victorians were when they announced much the same thing! Science, after all, proceeds as much by dismantling its old consensus as by looking for bigger and bigger gaps in understanding to fill. Yet The End of Science has a chilling plausibility, because it accurately reflects the public's reception of science.
The book, like Scientific American as well, resembles a stockholder's report for a major institution. Buy science now, while the merger trend continues to look up. Arts institutions work much the same way.
Personalities go a long way toward becoming institutions too, and Hawking's arrogance and disability surely helped build his mass appeal. His seeming reduction to almost pure mind confirmed the romantic conception of genius. So did the ease and drama with which Richard P. Feynman dealt with NASA's bureaucrats over the Challenger disaster.
A shift in the cultural status of science says a lot about the status of culture, too. Surely science has retained, even sharply increased, its authority, exactly while technology has extended its presence from industry to the white-collar office and the novelist's desktop. At the same time, the public's distance from science and other powerful determinants of everyday life has grown, and so has public distrust of all that authority. Philosophers, such as Michel Foucault, can get pretty hostile, too. The result for science has been an increase in status and a loss of real power. The result for individuals has been increasing resignation faced with their own lack of empowerment, a divide between their opinions and the free expression essential to democracy.
Connections between science and religious authority are by no means new. For centuries, science as a matter of course drew its metaphors from religion, even as it confirmed or disproved their original value. This potential for conflict and confirmation underlies Galileo's infamous trial. It also explains such curiosities as Newton's superstitions and the etymology of energy or field in physics. Now, however, a scientist such as Feynman can be not a defendant but the prosecution, with a television audience the accepting jurors.
It may seem odd too to speak of science as having earned fresh authority rather than intense hostility. Once, with Sputnik, space science meant not personal visions but national hopes. Those days of Cape Canaveral and the New Math are long gone, without having done much for even the social and financial status of high-school nerds. When big science, like the superconducting supercollider, makes the news now, it is because funding was slashed to ribbons.
Yet technology is harder to escape than ever, and that is because it has lost its remoteness. Like a cliché myself, I began these words on my still-new, first home computer, and I concluded by distributing them online. The aura of science is a sign not that it has lost its place at the center, floating somehow above us. Rather people approach all institutions in a mood of pessimism and fear. And like any institution, science necessarily must give up warmth for authority.
It is not that science has failed to come through. It is that the individual is running far too scared either to escape the clutches of science or to learn more than school science requirements. It is safer to major in English or business, let the smart guys take care of the heavy machinery of God's handiwork, and pray for the best.
Science as a part of culture
I may seem to be lamenting the mutual misunderstanding of science and the humanities, like C. P. Snow. I may seem to agree with Sokal's allies, that science must be shielded from interpretation. Instead, I am denying the separateness of the two cultures, even while I wish to affirm their distinct identities.
It is time to study their interpenetration, just as many artists explore the intersection between art and science while disturbing both. If Social Text practiced what it preaches, a little academic nonsense might shake things up very nicely after all. The connections between scientific institutions and individual hopes matters. So practicing scientists have to stake their credibility on the irrelevance of those connections—on the failure of authority to govern human knowledge and experience? Fine, public credibility is the problem.
A less-unruffled mode of inquiry might reveal interesting undercurrents of the old fables. Scientific genius could be seen to have ties to the same old pioneer spirit associated with brutal westward expansion. One could start debunking the Romantic associations of genius—with madness or isolation, with the unconcerned naturalist or the blind careerist, with astronauts or a war of the worlds.
Instead of letting words like relativity and uncertainty, chaos and duality, become bad metaphors for living, writers should be disentangling the power of metaphors to shape and interpret both science and mass culture. If postmodern jargon sounds like a hoax, I can ask why art too threatens people enough to shout "fraud!" If metaphors matter so much, I can ask what kind of truth that leaves for art, aside from the science behind lenses and pigments—or even purported failures in Rembrandt's eyesight. I can ask what sense it makes even to talk about, much less criticize, Postmodernism.
Sokal insists on being the snoot heard round the academic world. He should have stuck to his principles instead. If science does not have the authority to praise cultural theory, it should modestly refuse the authority to dismiss it out of hand. The editors of Social Text should have stuck to theirs as well. If everything needs critical analysis in a context of its social roots, then so does the language of science. Science still tells the truth about the real world, but the relationship between that truth and human self-understanding get murkier by the day.
One may as well face it and learn to live with it: Jurassic Park is a symbol neither of public trust in genetics nor of artistic freedom. Rather, both science and culture must share the status of having let the genie out of the bottle. They should be courageous enough to see the achievement through—and to see through it.