June 9, 1997
Nationally syndicated column published about "science studies" conference
"Science, Science Studies, and Their Critics" were the subjects of a well-attended conference at UCSC in mid-May. Organized by professor emeritus of physics Michael Nauenberg, the weekend meeting drew participants from across the country and an audience of more than 200 people. Among those present was Linda Seebach, editorial page editor of the Valley Times in Pleasanton and the San Ramon Valley Times in Danville. Seebach subsequently wrote an opinion column about the conference, which the New York Times News Service syndicated nationally.
Reprinted below, with the permission of the Valley Times, is the text of Seebach's column.
SCIENTIFIC TRUTHS A GOAL WORTH PURSUING
By Linda Seebach
c. 1997 New York Times News Service
Readers may write to Seebach in care of the Valley Times at P.O. Box 607, Pleasanton, CA 94566 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Natural scientists study the real world; at least, that's what they say they are doing. Not so, say some researchers in the social sciences, whose theories claim reality is scarcely more than a social convention among the human beings who experience it. Observing physicists and chemists in their natural habitat, these practitioners of SSK--the sociology of scientific knowledge--find a brutal competition for power instead of a search for truth.
Social scientists should act as though "the natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge," according to Harry Collins, coauthor with Trevor Pinch of a widely used textbook The Golem, which is modestly subtitled What Everyone Should Know About Science.
Two such different views generate a good deal of heat when mixed in the same lecture hall, as they were May 10-11 at a conference on science studies organized by physicist Michael Nauenberg at the University of California campus in Santa Cruz.
You may wonder why you should care if a bunch of professor-types want to spend a beautiful May weekend arguing about literary criticism and relativity theory.
You should, and panelist Catharine Gill explained why. She is principal of the G.B. Kirby Preparatory High School in Santa Cruz, and in her career has encountered many educators, administrators, and bureaucrats as well as teachers, whose exposure to science has been limited to a course or two on "What Everyone Should Know." They're the people, Gill notes, who organize conferences and design teacher in-service training and pick curriculums.
The administrators of the future are sitting in college classrooms now and if the only thing they remember about science is that it's all "just politics," they will be easy prey for one teaching fad after another.
The widely used math programs "MathLand" and "Math Their Way" exemplify one such fad, the curious notion that children have to reinvent mathematics to understand it, and that teachers must avoid tainting the process by explaining how it is supposed to go.
The focus on process, almost to the exclusion of outcome, has a familiar resemblance to the theories underlying SSK.
A year ago, physicist Alan Sokal of New York University brought the controversy over science studies to a wider audience by writing a parody of the jargon-laden and politically tendentious articles typical of the field and getting it published in a moderately respectable journal, Social Text.
He doesn't object to science studies, he said at the conference.
"Which research problems count as important; how research funds are distributed; who gets prestige and power; how scientific knowledge becomes embodied in technology; and for whose benefit," are all questions that demand serious study.
What he doesn't believe, however, is that the social and political factors are the only ones that determine what scientists come to believe. Facts have something to do with it.
Why did the European scientific community gradually accept Newtonian mechanics sometime between 1700 and 1750? "Certainly some part of the explanation (and a rather important part at that) must be that the planets and comets really do move (to a very high degree of approximation, though not exactly) as predicted by Newtonian mechanics."
The most remarkable thing about that statement is that someone needs to make it, because some quite influential people believe it to be false.
Sokal's paper is on the World Wide Web at http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/noretta.html if you would enjoy reading more about his dissections of the pretentious nonsense that abounds in postmodernist articles about science.
Bruno Latour, writing about a book of Einstein's relativity theory, describes Einstein's "panic at the idea that observers sent away might betray, might retain privileges"--40 pages, Sokal notes, "of comical misunderstandings of a theory that is now routinely taught to intelligent college freshmen."
The clarity of the scientists' presentations at the conference was notably absent from some of the nonscientific papers.
One hapless English professor from oh-so-trendy Duke University spent most of his effort on a famously nonsensical remark about relativity uttered by French intellectual Jacques Derrida, painfully trying to extract from it something Derrida could have meant that might be true.
Sokal suggests that a lot of the radical-sounding assertions in science studies are deliberately ambiguous; one meaning is interesting and grossly false, and the fall-back position is trivially true but boring.
In contrast, the physicists share a precise language. Walking to lunch on the Santa Cruz pier, Sokal and David Mermin, a physicist from Cornell, began talking about a double pendulum Mermin used in his talk. Their conversation was elliptical, even fragmentary, and there was a certain amount of hand-waving (a term of art in physics). But each knew exactly what the other meant, because their language is grounded in mathematical and scientific reality.
It's a language many of the SSK people don't understand, and maybe that's why they think it's not really important.
But they're wrong, and if their view prevails in our science classrooms the auspices are not favorable.
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