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April 21, 1997

UCSC to host conference on "Science, Science Studies, and Their Critics"

Author of famous 1996 hoax in journal Social Text is part of a distinguished group that will debate recent social and historical interpretations of science May 10-11

By Robert Irion

Leading researchers from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities soon will convene at UC Santa Cruz for a weekend conference on one of the hottest topics in higher education today: Is science just another cultural and political construct?

The conference, "Science, Science Studies, and Their Critics," runs from 8:50 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 10, and from 9 a.m. to noon on Sunday, May 11, in Classroom Unit 2 on the UCSC campus. Although primarily intended for the university community, the conference will be open to the public if space permits. Admission is free.

Co-organizers Michael Nauenberg, a physicist at UCSC, and Theodore Porter, a historian at UCLA, hope to foster reasoned debate among researchers on both sides of what has become a profound--and very public--intellectual divide. In one camp are scientists defending the objectivity of their work and nature's absolute truths. In the other are those who claim that critical investigations of science and technology, and the role society plays in shaping scientific pursuits, reveal that science and culture are inextricably linked.

"It is our goal," Nauenberg and Porter state, "to bring together scientists and those who write about the history and sociology of science to build the groundwork for intellectually productive discussion around issues of current interest."

Vitriolic exchanges in the press and at meetings last year built no such foundation. The catalyst was a now-famous hoax published in the postmodern journal Social Text by New York University physicist Alan Sokal, who will speak at the conference. The article, titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," was (in the words of an article in New Republic) a "random assortment of arcane, jargon-infested abstractions . . . devoid of both evidence and reasoned argument." Indeed, Sokal says that any knowledgeable physicist would have dismissed the manuscript summarily had the editors of Social Text bothered to seek such a review.

"What does it say about the state of academic life that leading scholars were unable to distinguish serious argument from utter nonsense?" asked Peter Berkowitz in his New Republic story.

In recent months, the debate has become more circumspect. An editorial in the leading journal Nature called for "respect and rigour" and urged its readers not to reject "science studies" out of hand. Newsweek devoted four pages of its April 21 issue to the topic, concluding that recognizing and neutralizing biases in science is a "war worth fighting."

"We need to bridge the gap between these sharply opposed points of view," said Nauenberg. "These issues all touch on sensitive territories, but it's the very nature of the university that we should debate them in the open."

Three sessions are scheduled for the conference: "Perspectives on Science and its Sociology," "Postmodernism, Cultural Studies, and the Philosophy of Science," and "Cultural History and History of Science." Each session will feature two speakers and a panel of five or six researchers for discussion. There will be time for the audience to participate as well. (Roster of panelists and complete schedule.)

Sponsors of the conference are UCSC's Natural Sciences Division, Social Sciences Division, and Office of Research; the UC Humanities Research Institute; and the Center for Cultural Studies of Science, Technology, and Medicine at UCLA.

For more information, call the UCSC Physics Department at (408) 459-2329.

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